For the next few weeks I'll be exploring the connection between physical fitness and writing. Long obsessed with both, I'm hoping to examine the relationship between the body and the pursuit of writing from many angles - why are so many of the most exciting poets I know also obsessive runners? Why are so many of the poets I know former hardcore athletes, some of them even flirting with professional status? Alternately, why do some writers slyly criticize the pursuit of physical fitness? Is fitness an addiction like anything else, and we poets are somehow more prone to be seduced by its high?
And, as with any work, I'm excited to see what answers come to questions I've long had about myself and my own dogged pursuit of fitness, often at the sacrifice of sitting down to write. I look forward to posting here and to hearing your thoughts on the matter, all you poet-athletes out there.
For my first post, a little background on my time as a yoga teacher. Happy reading and happy weekend.
I can always tell when my students have crossed what I think of as “the yoga line.” They go from doggedly pursuing the postures - breathing raggedly, eyes darting about the room to see if they can imitate other students, flopping into child’s pose in mock defeat - to total acceptance. I can tell by the way their faces go blank, by the symmetry of their inhales and exhales. I can tell when they’ve let something go they didn’t even realize they were holding on to.
This boundary is significant not because these students can suddenly put their ankles behind their necks or hold handstand in the middle of the room, but rather that they are practicing. Truly, mindfully practicing. Just as someone can be taught to write a technically perfect sonnet but not how to breathe life into it, I can teach my yoga students where their bodies are supposed to go in a given posture (right foot here, left elbow there), but teaching them how to practice is an entirely different pursuit.
Despite its significant presence in my life, I’ve always found yoga to be a difficult thing to write about. How to say what emptiness feels like? An emptiness that need not be filled? As if you are now complete because you are empty?
Yoga feels uncool to discuss, too soft and frilly for a serious writer. I’ve never quite known how to explain what it means to me without sounding didactic or egomaniacal. I came to teaching, I think, because it was the best way to talk about yoga, to be grateful for it, without actually having to talk about it. But if I’ve learned anything from yoga, as with writing, I know you have to sit with the things that make you the most uncomfortable. You have to push into them with both hands and risk sounding uncool, soft, frilly, whatever. As long as you’re trying, then you’re practicing.
A quick overview for my non-yogi readers: what we often think of as yoga in the western world is actually one limb of an eight-limbed pursuit. The postures and physical exertions are a means to an end - the end being (fingers crossed) enlightenment. Every bend, twist, flip, and breath is in the service of creating a generative energy in the body. Or, as a great teacher of mine put it, “Yoga does not transform you but restores you to your natural state.” It sounds obscenely new age, I realize, but this is the truth of yoga.
Yoga and writing, for me, achieve the same outcome, which is ultimately harmful to my work. When I have completed a satisfying practice, as with a full day of writing or a great poem draft, I feel empty. I don’t feel compelled to write or read or even speak to anyone. Sometimes, when I’ve had a particularly intense practice, I even have a hard time eating for a while, as if my body is still settling into itself and I am an outsider. I wouldn’t want to disturb the process.
But, just as with writing, not all practices are satisfying. Sometimes I have the wind at my back and others I wonder how I ever got into yoga in the first place. I feel like a failure, a fraud, a drinker who pretends she’s a yogini but is really just a drinker. No matter what, though, I always feel done after the fact. Even with a stiff, breathless, difficult, hungover practice - I walk away powerwashed. This is problematic, of course, because I need something in me, some dirt in the wound, some itch I can’t reach, to write.
This is not to say I think of writing as therapeutic. In fact, I wholly reject that idea and think it does a disservice to the discipline required to put pen to paper day after day. Whenever I have students or friends ask me if I work through trauma with my poetry or if writing makes me “feel better,” I am at a loss. Yes, of course writing makes me “feel better,” but that’s not what I’m doing here. That’s not the point. I think of this logic the same way I think of yoga logic: yes, I like having a better butt and being more bendy, but that’s not what I’m doing here.
It’s not that I’m offended. I find it nearly impossible to be offended by a question, by someone else wanting to understand me better, but I am uncomfortable finding a suitable answer. What I can say is that I am excessively human. I am weak and needy and riddled with anxiety. I have a hard time sharing the truth of myself with others because I have a hard time knowing what it is. For years, I wrote to overcome the constant sense of loss I felt. This is not uncommon. When I came to yoga, it was the first time anything else made me feel as relieved as writing. It satisfied the little disciplinarian in me, it took an axe to the frozen sea inside, it reordered the sensible, it left me feeling intact - a feeling I’m grateful for, of course, and suspicious of, still.
It’s an extremely gratifying moment when I watch my students cross the “yoga line” I described. I understand, then, that they understand. That they feel the emptiness. It is akin to the silence that makes a poem a poem and not just a set of broken sentences. As Robert Bly put it in his essay A Wrong Turning in American Poetry, “A human body, just dead, is very like a living body except that it no longer contains something that was invisible anyway. In a poem, as in a human body, what is invisible makes all the difference.”
Originally from Georgia, Jess Smith now lives and works in New York City. Her work can be found in Sixth Finch, Phantom Limb, Ghost Town, The Best American Poetry Blog, Lumina, and other journals. She received her MFA from The New School in 2013.
I am a sucker for those baseball stadium marriage proposals. The private moment gloriously public. The fan cam. The mock-embarrassment. The roar of the crowd. So, I thought I'd give it a try here, on the Best American Poetry Blog.
Last night, I spoke on the phone with a man I'd never met, D. M. Spitzer. He had submitted his manuscript, "A Heaven Wrought of Iron" to Etruscan for consideration. It's a long poem that is also a poetic reading of The Odyssey. Not criticism, or commentary, or pastiche. A companion, perhaps. A new rendering, in the mode of Alice Oswald's Memorial and Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey and Chris Logue's War Music. I loved it. It felt immediate, yet arrived from a far place--maybe an ancient blog excavated near Hisarlik, Anatonia.
I told Mr. Spitzer that Etruscan was very interested, and that I'd be in touch again very soon with a decision.
Mr. Spitzer said that he hadn't published sections of the manuscript in periodicals, because the work depended on the accretion of the voice, the lapping rhythms of an idiom that seem familiar yet strange, like dream echoes. So I'll refrain from quoting passages here. Bad marketing, perhaps, but this is my first public proposal.
Still, I make my plea before the assembled audience of BAP from the box seats of the blogosphere, in the knowledge that I will have departed the field before a response can be registered, and that the stadium will have to hold its breath until the publication date in the Spring of 2016, though of course they can check updates at www.etruscanpress.org.
D.M. Spitzer, will you accept my proposal of publication of "A Heaven Wrought of Iron"? I promise to take good care of it. Please call or write at your earliest convenience.
Later this morning....
D.M. Spitzer has accepted my proposal. I'm thrilled. The crowd roars. Here's a cutting from "A Heaven Wrought of Iron" forthcoming from Etruscan in 2016.
odyssey i: turning
What is man but turning
out of himself towards
a beyond of difference,
into the region where risk swarms
in the wreckage and buries
the vast reflectivity of air
down into dust?
Who but a god might sing
this flotsam and jetsam creature,
the turning already into otherness,
the othering itself?
“What I will say is bent and wanders
because it knows its course”
“You are the child of suffering.
Upon your face, in your eyes
for an instant, then
it takes you with it.
Remember all those beautiful ones
who once stormed and raised the dust
in their lengthening shadows?
They ran with your father
and they have gone beyond the sea.
You are the same.”
Now muster the only
son of pain,
filled with the clear breath
“I do not know myself.”
At the end of speech
a grey shimmer
shakes the air
and is already gone.
Behind you and above
in the thin square of light
and red painted tiles,
the heavy, dark wing-beat
of the goddess
pulses the air
and her figure is a
drawn on a cave wall,
a vulture’s penetrating
shadow with the sharp eyes
of an owl in the dark.
Beneath the heavy cloak of darkness
let a foot
where you cannot see.
A god has cleared the way.
whole night through
veiled and alone
(Ed note: When we received the sad news that Mark Strand had died, we invited readers to post their memories of him. You will find them below. I've also included an excerpt of David Lehman's review of Mark's Dark Harbor (1993, Knopf), which ran in the Chicago Tribune. sdh)
From Mark Strand's Farewells: Celebrating A Book-length Poem Of `Sustained Literary Grace' by David Lehman (Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1993)
In "Dark Harbor" we catch glimpses of the poet celebrating "how good life/ Has been and how it has culminated in this instant," lunching with his editor at Lutece, then striding along the pavement, well-fed, lanky, in his "new dark blue double-breasted suit." A poet of glamor for whom light is "the mascara of Eden," he also is a poet of romance who speaks of the ". . . feel of kisses blown out of heaven,/ Melting the moment they land."
As the nation's fourth poet laureate Strand took part in a number of panel discussions devoted to the problems of contemporary poetry. At one such, somebody raised German philosopher Theodor Adorno's famous question: "How can one write poems after Auschwitz?" Strand retorted: "How can one eat lunch after Auschwitz?"
Strand's point is that poetry may be as necessary as lunch, and that one "cannot" yet one does enjoy one's pleasures, despite the knowledge we have of the horrors that the human race has committed. Are poems about Orpheus or angels-Strand writes about both, as did Rilke-necessarily evasions of death and evil? And if they are, should that damn them? Poetry does have a moral dimension, but it is not a moral instrument exclusively. Nor is what Auschwitz represents the whole of our morality.
Strand's poetry is a vehicle of the moral imagination simply because it amply accommodates the world of material things as well as the impulses of the spirit. Like one of the resuscitated poets described on the last page of "Dark Harbor," Strand is now "ready to say the words (he) had been unable to say-/ Words whose absence had been the silence of love."
Mortality as a fact and as the name of our chief fear is the base condition of his new work. Continuous is the need to say farewell to the things that require, and requite, a poet's attention. Death is the mother of beauty; poetry is a valediction forbidding mourning.
The book's penultimate poem is a remarkable example of a "moralized landscape," in which the sea and the mountains embody different aspects of the human condition. The noise of the breaking waves had once frightened him, writes Strand, "But in those days what did I know of the pleasures of loss,/ Of the edge of the abyss coming close with its hisses/ And storms, a great watery animal breaking itself on the rocks./ Sending up stars of salt, loud clouds of spume." (Read the full review here.)
Kateri Lanthier said...
He was a brilliant and inspiring poet and a generous, kind man. I met him years ago in Toronto, when he came to read at IFOA: International Festival of Authors. We chatted afterwards (we talked about Elizabeth Bishop and the Maritimes), he signed his book and I asked if I could send him some of my poetry. He gave me his address. I summoned the courage to send him some work. In reply, he sent me the kindest letter I've ever received. I cherished it for years, although I stopped writing poetry for over a decade. When my first collection, Reporting from Night, was finally being published in 2011, I realized that the poems I'd sent to him were in the manuscript and wondered if he would permit me to use an excerpt from his letter as a blurb. I sent an e-mail to him at Columbia and got a reply back within an hour! He said yes. This is what he had written about my poems: "Their intensity and limpidity, their invention--all wonderful. And their narrative arc--always implicit--gives them a lovely delicacy." I will always be extremely grateful to him.
When I was in the NJ Governor's School for the Arts program, one of our instructors shared this with the group. We were the combination of awkward and unruly you'd expect of seventeen-year-olds who'd worked themselves into a program that involved going to class for a month during their last summer of high school. "Keeping Things Whole" was put in front of us, and as we all read and reread the poem, our usual smart remarks and clumsy attempts at scholarship failed us; our breathing slowed, we sat quietly for a long time, looking up to each other, then back at the page. Even now that poem puts me in a place of feeling both great and small that few other things can, and I owe Mark Strand a true debt for such a gift--one he didn't even know he gave.
(Ed note: Scribner has launched a new on-line magazine and its first issue features a conversation between Best American Poetry Series Editor David Lehman and 2014 Guest Editor Terrance Hayes. Follow this link to read an excerpt. The full interview is reproduced below. Click on the cover image above to purchase The Best American Poetry 2014. -- sdh)
(Image left: John Ashbery & David Lehman (c) Star Black. R: Terrance Hayes)
DL: Terrance, when you look back over the year you surveyed for The Best American Poetry 2014, what surprised you the most?
TH: One of the many surprises was just how many literary journals are out there. It's hard to believe — no, I can't believe poetry isn't thriving when so many editors are dedicating time and energy to so many publications. Here are some of the amazing journals I was unaware of before my editorship: Make Literary Magazine, Little Patuxent Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Spillway, The Normal School, ABZ Poetry Magazine, Willow Springs! One of the vital fringe benefits of The Best American Poetry is discovering these publications. I hope they get a few new subscribers because of it.
DL: I hope so, too. I never tire of saying that lit mag editors are among the unsung heroes of American poetry. You know who I think is an underrated poet? Nabokov. I take it you admire him from your decision to cast your introduction in the form of a fake q-and-a with Charles Kinbote of Pale Fire fame.
TH: Nabokov is an early and enduring guide -- muse, really -- for me as a writer. Lolita was my first love. When I read it for the first time at 20 years old or so, it prompted something I'd never experienced as a reader: something like ecstasy by way of the language and horror by way of the implications. (I feel similarly reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor.) In any event, Pale Fire prompts similar complex feelings because of the ways it combines poetry, fiction and criticism. I love that it implies that "close reading" requires, or maybe prompts, a sort of delusion. Looking at poems, little constructions of suggestion and innuendo, requires, or maybe prompts, a little craziness. Who better than Charles Kinbote, then, to help us into an anthology of contemporary poetry: contemporary songs, illusions, and shadows?
DL: Lover of wordplay that you are, do you think verse forms, traditional or ad hoc, are making a comeback? You and I both do variants of the "golden shovel." Sometimes I suggest that aspiring poets take an Auden sonnet, retain the end words, omit the rest and fill in the blanks.
TH: No, I don't think traditional forms are making a comeback, but that's only because I don't think they've ever really gone away. We all need something to push against or outgrow or reinvent, and I believe all the old fashioned forms are where we start and sometimes return to... I suspect if we look under Gertrude Stein's bed we'll fine a sonnet or two.
DL: My old mentor, Kenneth Koch, has a poem ("Fresh Air") in which a mythic personage called "the Strangler" targets bad poets, such as "the maker of comparisons between football and life." To my knowledge no such strictures exist regarding comparisons between basketball and poetry. So I ask you, the dude who guarded Ray Allen in high school, what is the equivalent of a fast break in a poem?
TH: Oh, that's a great question! My answer is syntax--- the way a sentence adjusts its rhythm and angles as it moves across line breaks is surely akin to the way a body or bodies adjust speed and direction in a fast break... Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem "Carrion Comfort" comes to mind. Not in its subject necessarily, but in its verbal grace and athletic syntactical contortions.
Maybe there isn’t room for the whole poem, but behold the linguistic equivalent to a Lebron James fast break:
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
DL: That Hopkins sonnet has one of the all-time great last lines. I sometimes write a poem and notice only afterward that it is in 14 lines with a break around the 8th or 9th line. Do you fall back on the sonnet as a kind of default form? Our anthology opens with one -- albeit an unconventional one -- by Sherman Alexie.
TH: There have been sonnets in all of my books. It's the form I return to most often. It's a centuries old box always waiting to be reshaped, adapted, filled with new words. I love to see what new things poets do with the form. Hence my attraction to the very smart Alexie poem. Alexie also has an on-going interest in poetic form, I think. I can recall a short story of his which utilized the sestina form.
DL: Oh, I love the idea of hiding a sestina within a prose paragraph. Edmund White does that in one of his early novels ("Nocturnes for the King of Naples"). With so much to like in modern and contemporary poetry, does it drive you crazy to see reviews that treat the poet as if he or she were a criminal on the dock? I wonder when the snark arrived – the little imp that instructed magazine editors to commission articles on the “most overrated poet” or the like? I'm not asking reviewers to be cheerleaders, but there is something a little cheap, even cynical, in the excessively nasty pieces that turn up regularly in well-funded magazines.
TH: On one hand, I think the constant assessments (and self-assessments) of poetry (or any cultural phenomena) are ages old. Whether the reviews and lists and critiques are good or bad, outrageous, misguided, I see them as an avenue for people with an interest in poetry. I suppose the feeling of despair comes when the writing seems to be more about the reviewer/critic/list-maker than the actual poetry... It reminds me of the feeling I used to get watching the young Geraldo Rivera. It was as if he needed to situate himself at the cinematic center of whatever drama or tragedy he was covering. It seemed being first was more important than being right. A lot of the online articles on poets and poetry often seem driven by the same quality of self-importance. The more “followers” and potential followers, the worse it is. I guess people just want to be “viral.” (How did “viral” become a good word?) I'm glad to read any provocative or new news about poets and poetry, but these days I trust blogs like Structure and Style or your own Best American Poetry blog where the odor of ego is not a distraction.
DL: Thanks for the plug. I hope you will agree to be a guest blogger on the BAP blog. It is a pity that ego should get in the way of poetry, which seems to require egolessness (also known as "negative capability"). But if most critics are failed poets, that's also true for most poets, alas. As a teacher, do you have a shit list of instantly poetical words you hate to see students use in a poem? Like "cicadas," or like "cupped" as a verb? And a second question: do you think a proliferation of bad poems, stimulated by contests or creative writing classes or whatever, is bad for the art (inasmuch as it lowers the cultural denominator) or good (inasmuch as it is a sign of vitality)? Please answer either -- or both.
TH: Years ago Michael Harper told me "nice," "cute," and "amazing" are three words that never belong in poems. I've been trying to work them into a poem ever since. No luck yet, but I haven't given up. My attitude-- that what's bad might be made good--maybe shows in my response to your second question...
I think the challenges of what makes a poem good or bad have always been with us. Maybe the scale is more evident, more prolific because there are more publication venues these days. It makes the hunt for what anyone considers good or bad more intense, but not impossible.
DL: Every year when The Best American Poetry is published, I ask my students to write two poems, “one that is better than the best poem in the book and one that is worse than the worst poem.” It’s liberating for them to know they’re entitled to dislike one of the “best” poems. But the real surprise is that in writing a deliberately bad poem, they may happen onto something pretty good.
To pursue the basketball analogy a little further: which poet from the previous generation would you single out as the most difficult to guard?
TH: That's a very tricky question. "Guard" implies a poet to be stopped or maybe overthrown... Uhhh, I don't even think I can say who's the Poet-Jordan of the 90s or the Magic-poet of Magic's era... Certain poets who maybe are not "franchise poets" like Ashbery are still distinct for an inimitable style of play: Allen Grossman, Harryette Mullen, Rae Armantrout, Ed Robeson-- I'm thinking of poets hovering in the avant garde domain, I guess. Poets who write the sort of poems that prompt mutual pleasure and mystery... You can't guard what you can't touch!
DL: I sometimes think of the prose poem as the equivalent in poetry of the free throw in basketball. Something that should go in, if you’re a professional, and yet Shaq missed a lot of them. Any comment?
TH: I hadn't thought of it before, but yes, maybe the prose poem is akin to the free throw in that both appear very easy--free of line breaks "should" mean easier, but, no sir. These days I love to go to the gym and do little more than shoot free throws for a few hours. It becomes a meditative act. So I'd probably have associated it with something more formal, something less surreal than the prose poem. But forget that: the prose poem is a smarter parallel.
DL: In your introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, you say that the 1990 volume, edited by Jorie Graham, was the first book of poems you ever purchased – and that you own all the books in the series. Which are your favorites?
TH: Well, I've taught Rita Dove's 2000 edition more than any other-- partly because it was published around the time I began teaching poetry, partly because it covers such a wide array of styles. And I know, just about by heart, every poem in Graham's edition. Philip Levine's poem "Scouting" and Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It" are still among my very favorite poems. In fact, it's easier to recall favorite poems than favorite books and poets. Allen Grossman's "The Piano Player Plays Himself" from Ashbery's edition-- one of my very favorite poems in the world; Thom Gunn's "The Butcher's Son" from Louise Guck's 93 edition; Brigit Pegeen Kelly's poem, "Scouting the Famous Figures of the Grotto of Improbable Thought," from Ammon's 94 edition; Larry Levis' "Anastastia and Sandman" from Tate's 97 edition. My two favorite poems by Charles Bukowski appear in the series, I discovered the awesome prose poems of Phyllis Koestenbaum (whatever happened to her?) in this series. I first encountered Dean Young in the series-- he's regularly amazing. If I were to make a list of my top twenty contemporary poems, maybe 60-70 percent would come from the BAP series. I have lots of favorite poems from the last ten years as well, but it'll be another decade before I can say which poems stay with me.
DL: Great answer. Do you have a question for me?
TH: I've long wondered what an edition solely in your hands would look like. I doubt any of the past, present or future editors could do a better job than you alone. What sorts of qualities would you look for in your dream BAP anthology?
DL: I’m grateful for the compliment, but I’d have trepidations about taking on the task. If I did it, I think maybe I would get obsessive, try to read everything, and do little else, though that does not seem like a practical solution. I would hope to find someone like David Lehman to send me packets of poems at regular intervals, nudge and cajole me, and make sure I hadn’t overlooked something vital.
During your year reading for The Best American Poetry 2014, did you write much poetry of your own? If yes, is it because reading poems, especially good ones, acts as a spur?
TH: Yes, I wrote while I was hunting poems. Whenever and whatever I'm reading I often approach as a miner (looking for creative influences/resources), teacher (a teachable poem isn't the same as a poem that opens the roof) and fan (looking to have the roof torn off). I found lots of roof rippers and even poems that were both teachable and awe-inspiring, but I can't recall any one poem directly impacting a poem I wrote in the last year or so. Eventually, I'd love to try what Sherman Alexie does with the sonnet form and what Rosemary Griggs does with the "Script Poem." Subversions and appropriations of form are always of interest to me.
On the westernmost ledge of Europe near Slea Head in the Kingdom of Kerry, huts of corbelled stone cluster by the Atlantic. Clocháns, they are called, quarried from native rock and hefted into place a thousand years ago, though a thousand years means little to these sea-sprayed fields. If not for the hand-printed sign advertising, “Dunbeg Stone Fort—Beehive Huts Ahead,” I might have trundled past, having my hands full keeping my rental from careening into gorgeous oblivion. I unfold my Yankee length from the sedan and rattle the chain until a pensioner in burdocked overalls shambles down the path to unlock the gate and collect the two Euro admission. As we climb gorse hillocks he keeps up a hum of badinage about Skellig Michael and the Book of the Dun Cow; Kevin and Colmcille and the Blind O’Driscolls, as if raillery could coax them back to life.
“Where’s home?” he asks; then mulls “Ohio” knowingly, as if to seal the secret. At the crest of a mound, he stiffens a finger at the dense, silent city of beehive huts.
They are eight flint humps rising from packed clay. I circle them, then lean against the largest, patting its warty flank. Somehow, with no moldings or wood supports, the makers have executed a mousehole-shaped doorway. I peer into the thigh-high portal, then bend deeper to enter the dark. Inside, moss and clay close in. As my eyes adjust, flecks of daylight pierce the unmortared stone.
Re-emerging into light that now seems brilliant, I wonder who lived here. I don’t know much about 8th century architecture, but it’s clear that more commodious hovels could have been dug, even out of straw. And there was wood here once, before the forests were cleared.
“Twas the poets,” crows our host, with a look that seems to mock an age that mistakes height for stature.
As he expounds on the annals of this desolate place, rhapsodizing about bards who memorized thousands of lines and fili who encoded the esoteric ‘rosc’ poetry—“the like of which wasn’t heard again until that Joyce fella”—it dawns on me that these were early MFA’s. Our guide doesn’t know the exact requirements, but the curriculum, he says, took between twelve and twenty years to complete, depending on the degree. There were brehons, a class of poet-lawyers who could splice royal lineages as far back as Finn MacCumhal, and monks who cribbed a hunk of western civ on moldy vellum. Behind the monks lurked the specter of druids, whose secret examinations were so perilous that only one in three survived.
Well, between the ritual deaths and the frigid dorms, the registrar wouldn’t have been too busy.
It’s commonplace to say that MFA programs produce too many writers. Asked if writing programs didn’t wind up discouraging young writers, Flannery O’Connor famously replied, “not nearly enough.” But it seems an odd complaint. After all, what’s wrong with breeding talent? Ancient cultures set aside resources for artistic training; why shouldn’t we? And while we’re at it, why not pipe in some heat and cut a skylight?
Over the last half-century, MFA programs have allowed generations of students from diverse backgrounds to cultivate their gifts. Even if most of our graduates don’t wind up on Oprah, they will have experienced an apprenticeship in a mind-broadening field; they will have learned principles of form and nuance that translate into many occupations, and they will have plumbed their potential for self and world-awareness. At the very least, they will have become better readers.
Thus preaches my committee in Ohio and thus have we held during the long years shaping a new consortial MFA program: a cluster of four state universities, each encrusted with a bureaucracy as hermetic as these huts. Appealing for the benediction of the Board of Regents, we spaded proposals, chiseled curricula, and spread spread-sheets over roundtables like fresh straw. The campaign took as long as it once took to certify a bard.
One document we had no trouble composing was the Needs Statement. Having viewed the dizzy graphs, we knew that there’d be plenty of applicants. In Northeast Ohio, just as across the country, the workshops are filling up.
We had a bit more of a problem when it came to explaining what we thought all these students would do when they graduate. They could teach, of course; and we put that down right away. Numero Uno. But a glance at current classes—one prof for fifteen students—revealed that none but a few would achieve this august goal. PhD’s are in the same boat: they survive at about the same rate as wannabe druids. What fraction of our grads climbs on the tenure track? The graphs didn’t say.
Without certification they can’t teach in public high schools, but they might hook up with Poets in the Schools programs, or join the swelling army of adjuncts, or coach soccer at prep school. But even jury-rigged, the ark leaked. So we needed another plank. And we found one:
While the MFA is not a vocational degree, creative writing and publishing constitute a large enterprise that requires new talent…. Major companies in Northeast Ohio depend on a supply of skilled writers and editors. The internship collaboration with local communities, as well as the teaching experience available to MFA teaching assistants, will equip our graduates to enter new and expanding writing fields.
Fair enough. The world needs editors, technical writers, advertisers; and the MFA degree is an ideal preparation for all sorts of writing, just as the committee claims. But today, with the whitecaps mounting coastal granite and the wind stinging the wildness into a wet squint, it all seems awfully tame. I think of a tenth century poem scrawled in the margins of his calligraphy by a monk in a stone settlement just like this one.
The sea is wild tonight.
No need to fear
that Viking hoards will come
and terrify me.
Do I envy that ancient poet scanning the Atlantic through a chink in his beehive hut? He faced no committees, no boards. No need to justify his scarecrow muse. But I don’t yearn to take his place. I’d miss the food and company and light and warmth, and those Vikings sound more dangerous than a provost.
Yet today I could almost yield to the conceit that even in Ohio we live on the edge of a great ocean, peering into the mist, the way these ancient hut dwellers peered out. The sea is not the Atlantic with its terrifying ships, and our universities are far from beehive huts. They are capacious, starbucked, crackling with Wi-Fi. In fact, they seem more like great longships themselves, raiding coasts the Vikings never dreamt of.
And what, to stretch this metaphor, do they raid? Why do these splendid vessels terrify?
Drenched and stiff-limbed, I think with tenderness of the rolling seas of Ohio. I’m proud of the work that my colleagues and I did conceiving, planning and implementing the NEOMFA program. From four separate entities we made a web. We forged bonds among our faculties and paved the way for a program with a virtual campus encompassing hundreds of square miles. We fostered a community that crisscrosses the rust belt. We’ve even laughed about getting a school bus. Still, I feel uneasy. I can’t speak for my colleagues, but in all our meetings I never felt truly at home. I never wrote or spoke in my own language, never thought about the wayward accidents that had nourished my own writing life or how to bring them to bear on younger lives. Not that I want to calligraphy our proposal on parchment, or chant it in rosc, or storm the Regents, proclaiming like Cuchulain, “I give no more proof than the hawk gives that he’s no dove.” But as I recall our solid, serviceable, and successful proposal, with its headings and sub-headings and graphs and samples, I wish that somewhere in the margin I had doodled, “the sea is wild tonight/ No need to fear…”
What I feared then was abandonment. If we didn’t sell our program in terms administrators approved, we would not be allowed a seat on the great ship. What I fear now, after we’ve been ushered on board, is that in composing a plan shaped by the university’s priorities, we tainted something essential at the core of creativity. It might be something felt only in the dark, when even the chinks of light fade.
I fear, even more than slashed budgets and fainting enrollment, being absorbed by a culture that tolerates but does not sustain us. I fear that in defining ourselves in foreign terms like ‘accountability,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘utility,’ we forsake the place where we are most useful, accountable to the voices that speak through us from the past. I fear that in gaining a chair at the amply-set table, we lose our way back to a grave darkness that, once extinguished, may be beyond recovery.
How would such a self-fulfilling proposal look? What would I change, after a pilgrimage to these ancestral MFA’s? It’s tempting to say I’d fling the doors open to artists and performers and visionaries and yes, even lawyers—if they were bold enough to enter a world without codicils. I’d ask students to choose an authentic art using the tools most native: sound, memory, insight, or vision. Writing is not the only way to find this place; it’s just a technology, and should not rule by fetishistic power. Of course we’d have no poetry majors, fiction majors, creative non-fiction majors, translation majors, or playwriting majors. Erase the boundaries. Instead of huddling them into genres, let specialties emerge and entwine out of immersion in all. Modern descendants of early MFA’s should know that they have more in common with the motley inhabitants of this silent city than with people who make advertisements or briefs or newspapers—or university proposals. Open the workshops. But close the craft & theory courses: veil the mysteries from all but initiates. For internships let’s have real ships. Require penniless travel and field work in pastures instead of offices. Teach work that pays the rent, engages hand and mind and frees us from selling genius to a market which twists talent to its own ends. Give credit to poems that bring rain—or in this climate, stop it. Credit for stories that sift into the underworld. Credit for not writing sequels. Graduation comes at the point of exhaustion or death or a re-entry into selfhood that bears the world inside. Yes, it’s tempting, in the slanting rain as I trudge back to my car from a hillock near Slea Head, to revise our MFA proposal. But I don’t want these changes, except in dreams where Ohio is a stormy coast. With my colleagues at home, I stand by the words we wrote.
But I want a larger space for such dreams. Or should I say—after squeezing into a beehive hut—a more intense space, so real and present that it might tint the fluorescent light of a committee room or throb in the engine of an old beater bearing a student across the whaleroad of Northeast Ohio. Let this small dark space remind us who we are, where we come from, and what, if we fail to dream, we might become.
(from By Heart: Reflections of a Rust Belt Bard University of Tennessee Press)
I’ve been happy these days, moment by moment, and the mind that once roiled with lust and rage is tranquil. The big questions have all been answered. How will I do? Whom will I love? What will I untimely suffer? What dread fire?
But that’s not all. I feel a presence. Not too close, not imminent. An impending shadow, out there in the zone of tinnitus or climate change. Age. I am on the verge of withering into truth.
Yet, at noon on Mondays and Fridays, I spread my leaves, grab my gym bag and trot to the rec center. I am playing basketball again.
It’s been so long since I suited up that I don’t know what to do with my bifocals or wedding ring. The shorts are bloomers, the jersey is an ad banner, and the clown-big sneakers swoosh. The nets are distant as Joyce’s God; the floor is hospital parquet. There’s even a three-point line (three is two in a game to eleven by ones).
But I’m back. Nothing has changed. And everything.
I don’t feel old. If I woke alone in a strange bed, I’d have no notion if I were thirty or sixty. Pull the blinds and my prana could lounge through any of ten thousand mornings, teaching or biking or bavading or banging the bodhran sans calendar. I’ve lost no bandwidth of memory, no inch of height. I was already bald. I have no children or corporate ladder to notch years. My job is stagnant, my town timeless as Brigadoon.
But change is coming. By fall or slide or decrepitude or aphasia, in some nearly foreseeable season it will come. Age. The vestibule of empty. I expect it, as I once anticipated manhood. And like manhood, it will arrive all at once.
But for now, I am ageless. Everywhere but here.
Of course, I’m not really playing, if playing means being in the game. Most basketball activities are no longer available to me. I can’t sprint, or box, or shoot. I have no hops. Good thing I’m lefty, since I can barely lift my right arm above my shoulder. My eyes seem ok, and from wrist to fingertip I’m unimpaired. And in this pick-up game I’m still tall. I can slouch my ass down to Bethlehem and post up.
Who are these lunchtime hoopsters? They are the quick. Neither moribund nor slow. For the quick, the future is a distant rim, the past a no-look turnover. What transpires here and now—on the court, on earth—is all that counts: How good? How long? Always? Anyone else?
For the quick I am not ageless. I am a portent.
I look the part. Bald helps, but I bring so much more: bypass scar, droop eye, liver spots, cabbage knees. I jog as if through swamp. I am my own slow-mo replay. My countenance bears witness to campaigns beneath rusted rims. I am six degrees from Dr. Naismith.
The quick take heed. They profer no trash. Both sides cheer my rare scores. A budding paramedic asks twice if I’m alright. Through whole sessions I am unjostled. Today, after yawning through my abbreviated up-fake and arthritic hook, my defender patted my ass. “Fundamentals, Old School,” he purred. “Sound.”
After lunch, I hobble back my desk, gulp Powerade and lour. After lunch, I am an editor. Poetry editors are not quick. We plod. We stall. We are in daily congress with the ageless. So what if quick verses flash by? Let them break unmetrically and enjamb on a dime. When stanzas drive head down, when they fade from three for two, when they won’t pass, I tap my comic-strip fedora and chomp my wraith cigar.
“Fundamentally unsound,” I growl.
I pat their ass and sit them on the bench. Then I roll out the x’s and o’s.
“Ok Speedsters, huddle up.”
They stroll through gentian and coltsfoot to the pond’s edge,
while last light silts the water. Dusk
and Monet believes again this is his masterwork; that’s why
he stays; to be inside the painting unscrews
“Stop there, Ace. Gentian? Coltfoot? You’re from Queens. They’re just botanical symbols to you. And the line breaks? Yes, I get it: torquing the syntax, that little stutter step. Yes, dusk at the margin is eerie and seems to swallow all six beats. But where to go from there? You’ve pushed the caesura to the brink, but haven’t laid down the dream cadence. You’re riffing off no pattern.
My fingernail screeches across the board.
“Past ‘Dusk’ the silence is so grave I’m shouldered out of the dream and I never reach Monet. It’s all one direction. Only one thing happens.”
I rap my knuckle on the three last words.
“Dusk. Why. Unscrews.
"They’re real and here and now. You think they enjamb, but for me they end stop. I can’t go back. I’m standing alone out of time.”
I swipe the board clean. “Next.”
There is a place in far north Canada…
To lurch, crooning in moonlight from the pub…
Broke in my mother’s country
where there are no woods…
“What do they do, these gambits? They live. Here in the blessed world. I get it. And why not say what happened, as Lowell asked. But Lowell first ran years of suicide sprints. His ‘what happened’ was a refuge; yours is an adventure.
“So stop. Look again. Why not say it awake: in sentences. When Pound said that poetry needed to be at least as well written as prose, he wasn’t talking about grammar. He meant—or I say he meant—that sentences will always be our first way of moving through the waking world. One on one on one. Forward. Capable of being seen. But they move in one direction. Lines have to offer something else, compassing return.
“Poetry isn’t a set of conventions any more than basketball is an industry. It’s a way of doubling, of being in and out. You play, and your mind sings, daydreams, makes love, or enters a dark forest. It happens once in sentences. But lines glide back and forth, above and below the rim. They are the present absence.”
It’s not their fault, I know. It’s me. I’ve lost my touch. I can’t play the quick. They are bright and earnest and freshly pixelated. But they are completely present. They press full court. They charge both ways at once.
And they can’t play me. To them, I am already bronzed.
Lunchtime is different. It doesn’t take place all at once. All the lunchtimes of the past close in. Because my legs are slow and my mind quick, one sneaker runs in the shade of once and the other paces alongside in the glare of now.
This poor forked animal trundling between tenses? Once it battled Mazembé under a Katanga moon; once it autographed “Rick Barry” for skinheads on a Dublin tram; once it played—really played—with spirit, sweat and nerve—on this very court at lunchtime eons back, when flesh and soul were ‘twined.
But it is only grappling with now that once achieves final form.
The quick sense this; in my rooted footwork and palsied dribbling they glimpse the form in which we all drift, quick and slow, toward agelessness, encompassing three decades and three hundred.
These I can play with: poems of the ages. From a far once they utter now—the ultimate three for two by ones. And whether once took place in Troy or Lubumbashi or at Monday’s lunchtime when a quick kid windmilled the winning score, without the ageless nothing can touch now.
So afternoons at my desk I play the ageless, who are still quick. In this game, everything still counts.
The semicolon in the last quatrain of “Easter 1916” still counts.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
Does Yeats mean it is enough to dream? That we should believe the dream because the heroes died for it? Is Yeats the last Romantic?
Or has he taken his talents to Team Modernism? Do we know only their dream: Do we know the dream only well enough to know that they did dream, distantly as the awakened know?
A comma tips it one way; a period the other. The semicolon keeps us waiting still, paused in the infinite fraction between “enough” and “to know.”
Richard Tottel, on the verge of scratching, “It was no dream, I lay broad waking” for “For it was not a dream, I lay awake” on the galleys of his Miscellany, still counts.
If he does it, the tabloids howl.
“The Knight kept it real,” the blogs claim. “Wyatt’s a genius. Tottel’s a bum.”
But what if the waking needs to be taken slow, as Ted Roethke tweets, so the body can glide ten thousand days at once. Maybe Tottel fears an untimely fracture.
As I still fear.
And Homer—nicknamed for some hobo ballplayer. Does he count? Somewhere between the quick success of his first book and the first draft of his second, with the banquets and tributes and guest appearances, he’s lost his game.
The Iliad opens in sync with his Olympian coach. “Begin dreaming here,” he commands.
Start at the point where Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
that king of men, quarrelled with noble Achilles.
By the time he pens the sequel, he’s lost touch.
So now, daughter of Zeus,
tell us his story, starting anywhere you wish.
“Please Muse,” he’s begging her, “Start dreaming anyplace. I don’t know where I am. Please keep me in. I’ll play with everything I have left.”
Far into overtime these contests are still in doubt.
And in my hip-sore gait, in my trash-muttering, in my spasmic bound—just maybe—the quick will sense that nothing happens at once, and that everything now continues to season, and that even the ageless yearn and fear to age.
And them, the ageless? At lunchtime Mondays and Fridays, if they lean forward from the cheap seats of the Garden’s blue heaven, they might still hear me gasp, “Keep me in. Play me the fundamental sound. Let me, for this one hour, count.”
I look forward to seeing these books from two of my favorite poets.They have something in common besides the images: Nin tells us why God is a woman, and Joseph explains why man is sumpin else.
I do not take lightly the privilege of speaking within a community of writers committed to their craft, led by a distinguished and dedicated faculty, so let me reiterate my thanks to Bonnie Culver for the opportunity to join your work in this way. Her vision and her tireless labor have created an environment in which we all of us here may flourish as writers.
Wilkes University is an institution of higher learning, and the creative writing M.A. and M.F.A. programs are advanced degrees. To live up to such a context, I should offer you something august and effete, something profound and magisterial. Instead, the title of my talk is:
I Took My Writer’s Block Out Back and Shot That Sucker Dead
My argument, too, is simple: the very concept of “writer’s block” congeals out of a number of misconceptions, and correcting those misconceptions clears the way to eliminating the problem.
My methodology will be equally simple: I’ll identify two of the relevant misconceptions, propose alternative conceptions, and derive from those alternatives practical techniques that guarantee you need never give in to writer’s block. Then I’ll hint at other misconceptions and solutions we could pursue in a longer talk than this one will be.
Here’s a place to start. The field of psychology has a guidebook known by the acronym DSM, short for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that attempts to identify, describe, and classify mental disorders. Its aim is to guide professionals in their diagnosis and treatment of mental issues. But suppose a major entry, one often consulted, such as the entry on depression, were anachronistic and misleading. Suppose it described depression as the direct result of childhood sexual trauma, rather than as a symptom of particular variations in brain chemistry. The result would be a lot of unnecessary suffering by a lot of people. A lot of patients would spend a lot of hours talking out their sexual histories with a lot of bored therapists, while their serotonin levels just kept right on being low.
If there were a DSM for writers, a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Writing Disorders, surely Writer’s Block would be a frequently consulted entry. The DSM for writers I’m imagining here currently describes Writer’s Block as a debility that one suffers, and for which there is no cure except waiting it out: sitting passively at one’s desk, staring at the blank page or blank screen for as long as it takes, until something comes. But I say that’s as profound a misunderstanding as the notion that people who are depressed all have unresolved sexual issues from childhood, and need to talk them out.
The real DSM doesn’t make that mistake, though popular culture does: professional practice of treatment for mental disorders has predominantly to do with psychiatry; popular portrayals, with psychotherapy. And there are similar discrepancies in other fields. There is a popular image of the scientist, for instance, that one can see in films and in cartoons: the wild-eyed man (yes, it’s usually a man) with furious hair, wearing an ill-fitting lab coat, hunched over bubbling beakers and test tubes, concocting some potion. Fortunately, real scientists know better than to imitate that popular vision. They know that science almost always has to do with experimenting, and almost never with concocting. There is much more method than madness.
Something analogous holds, I suggest, in regard to writers. There is a popular image of the writer as a genius, who sits in a café wearing a beanie or who hunches in a shady dive sipping absinthe, scribbling the mysteries that flash across that racing mind, the way the rest of us might scribble our dreams upon waking. Real writers don’t often fall for that clumsy popular notion: I know a lot of writers, but none of them wear beanies, and if they’re sipping absinthe they haven’t been sharing any with me. Still, writer’s block is a way of falling prey to more subtle misconceptions.
So here is one example of a misconception about writing, and the cure for writer’s block implied by a more accurate conception. One popular conception assumes that writing happens in a flash of inspiration. This is a widely-held view among those who do not write, but it is also a tempting one for those of us who do. Remember the story Samuel Taylor Coleridge tells about the origin of his poem “Kubla Khan”? It’s a perfect example: I had taken — upon doctor’s orders, of course — “an anodyne” (laudanum, an opiate whose effects many leisured Brits of the nineteenth century much appreciated), so I was sleeping, and I had a vision. When I woke up, I wrote it down word for word, but while I was writing I was interrupted by a visitor, and when I returned the vision was gone, so I was left with just a fragment. Coleridge’s words offer the ultimate writer’s fantasy: “The Author” (Coleridge speaks of himself in third person, as “the Author,” capital A), the Author “continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort.”
Alas, however, Coleridge’s tale about the writing of “Kubla Khan” is to the reality of the writing process what Baywatch is to the reality of life in America: fine as escapist fantasy, perhaps, but neither accurate as a description nor sound as an ideal. And just as I might find myself unlucky in love if I took seriously the tv’s insinuation that only men with square jaws and women with round boobs are desirable, so I might find myself in writer’s block if I took seriously the insinuations in Coleridge’s poetic creation myth.
A more accurate conception of writing, though, wards away the danger. The misconception we call “inspiration” pretends that writing occurs in a single step. The inspired writer just writes the work, start to finish, first word to last. Again, think of film depictions of the inspired writer, rapidly scribbling brilliant words across the tablet, barely able to keep up with the rapid dictation of the muse. The truth is that writing is a two-step process: first, one gets something on the page, then one revises. On such a conception, writer’s block goes from inevitable to impossible. Suddenly what I call “the Stafford solution” is available to us. I call it that by appeal to the funny — and beautiful and wise — answer the poet William Stafford gave once in an interview, when asked what he did when he faced writer’s block. He replied, “I lower my standards.” The insight in Stafford’s reply is that the quality of the final work bears no relationship to the quality of what is first written down. If writing is a one-step process, then everything I write has to be brilliant. If writing is a two-step process, then the quality of what I put on the page in step one need bear no relationship to the quality of what will be on the page after step two. Because there is a step two, step one (“put something on the page”) can really mean “put something — anything — on the page.” What I first put on the page can be terrible, even stupid, and that implies nothing about what will be there after I’ve revised. If we make explicit what is implicit in Stafford’s reply, we take away its wit, but we make the point plain: I solve writer’s block by lowering my standards in step one of the writing process. If my writing doesn’t have to be brilliant at the start, if it can get brilliant along the way, then I’m unstuck.
While we’re on the subject of revision, it’s worth adjusting also a misconception that is about revision. It’s more subtle than the nonsense about inspiration, but it still enables writer’s block. The misconception is that revision is the process of steadily improving one’s work. Sounds nice, but actually it’s paralyzing. If it were true, it would mean that every change I make has to be a change for the better. And how could I make that the case if I didn’t know in advance what changes will work? That’s just as stifling as the one-step it’s-brilliant-from-the-first-moment fantasy of inspiration. Instead of everything I write having to be good, and my having to know it’s good when I write it, the requirement just gets shifted to revision: every revision has to be good, and I have to know that when I make it.
The adjusted conception I propose is that revision is an ongoing process of experiment. It may result ultimately in improvement, but things might get worse before they get better. This change is the sister of the one I just suggested, a recognition that revision in particular, like writing in general, occurs in two steps instead of one. Instead of thinking that in revising I am directly and immediately improving the draft in question, I would more aptly think that I am creating a comparator, an additional alternative, and then selecting between them. That sounds like a subtle difference, and maybe it is, but in relation to writer’s block the result is huge. If revision were improvement, then I’d have to understand what was wrong with the draft in question and know how to fix the problem before I could revise. The two-step revision process allows me to extend the Stafford solution to revision: I can continue to have low standards! The new draft that emerges from my revision can be worse than the old draft being revised: so what? If that turns out to be the case, then in step two, selection between the alternatives, I just choose the older draft. Then I run through the process again. I can produce as many bad drafts as I need to, and I just keep choosing the old draft until I finally happen on a new one that is better.
Notice the practical difference this makes. To make improvement steady, I would have to be smart: I would need to identify the problem with the current draft before starting in on the next one. But if I’m just creating a second item in order to choose between the two, then I don’t have to be smart at all, and I don’t have to have figured out what the problem is. I can make myself a list of variables, and mechanically apply rules that relate to them. One variable is length: I can add enough to this poem or paragraph to make it half again as long, or cut enough to make it half as long. Another variable is point of view: if the current version is in first person, I can change it to third. And so on through any number of variables. The ease and power of this is that the rule being applied doesn’t have to be rational. Regarding the variable of word choice, I once wrote a sequence of poems in which the step from one draft to the next was that I applied the rule that I had to take a word from the first poem and substitute it for a word in the second poem that had the same number of syllables, then take that word and put it into the third poem, and so on, all the way through the sequence. It’s a silly-sounding rule, but think of what it did for me. It’s important to avoid “flat” diction (predictable words in predictable places), but it’s also hard to identify which words are predictable. I didn’t have to find the predictable words: I just started substituting words one for another, and let the predictable ones get replaced. There’s always a rule to apply, and applying them is always safe, because I’m not at risk of making a false step: I’m just creating a second version so I can compare the two and choose whichever I prefer.
You get the idea. In relation to substance addiction, there’s a term, “enabling,” to refer to ways in which those associated with an addict can (without meaning to) “enable” the addict to fulfill the addiction. In relation to writer’s block, misconceptions about writing itself act as enablers. We could extend the list well beyond the two I’ve just described.
• The idea that writing is always self-expression leaves no options at moments when one has nothing to express; recognizing that writing can also be discovery is freeing.
• The idea that writing results primarily from introspection leaves no options at moments when I look inside and there’s nothing there; recognizing that writing can result from various forms of research frees me to go find things elsewhere.
• The idea that good writing is wholly original leaves me no options when nothing original is coming to mind; recognizing that writing, even the greatest writing, makes use of conventions, allows me draw on conventions also.
And so on. I’ll conclude by simply noting that this writing program emphasizes the point I’m making. The idea that writing is a solitary endeavor is also an enabler, one that is shut down by the recognition that writing occurs within community, and that one can find, in a community such as this one, help from others: writing teachers and writing friends. This beats writer’s block anyday.
Here it is—my first word of Blog. Wait, that was it. There. Now, no. Slithery little beggar, that first word. Well, I guess there is no word, and no here.
When I read blogs, I always thought the blogger was right there—typing away.
“Sunny day, scalp itches, kettle’s whistling.” That’s the point, no?
Web Log. Date stamped. Drafty. Provisional. The Blogger Is In— or as much as could be downloaded—which turns out, by fantastical coincidence, to be the same dosage found in non-blog writing.
Writing, says I, takes time. No, not takes: Consumes. Lays Waste to. It is to time as Kong is to a banana. And the worst is poetry.
In a poem the poet situates themselves. In a blog, the reader does so. You peruse this on a certain morning, (or 17.5 seconds of it—the average blog read) munching your cereal and banana, and I attest it was composed close to that day. We agree to breakfast contemporaneously, to the extent that our shared fruit deprives you and I of the same natural light.
But beyond that, no guarantees for the week. For all I know, what we are reading on Monday, December 8, 2014, may have been dunked in Styx, not Trix. But whenever it takes place, I'd like us to join a dialogue among genres.
In his introduction to The Other Sky, Stephen Dunn writes, "Aron Wiesenfeld’s paintings have a haunting clarity and odd beauty, and Bruce Bond is a gifted lyric poet. Between the two artists is a kind of call and response. The paintings invite speculation, and thus the lyric poet is driven to imagine and tell the stories that are behind them. In other words, Wiesenfeld activates in Bond the narrative poet. The result is a rare collaboration of sensibilities. Both artists seemingly hide nothing from us, one with a kind of photographic sureness, the other with syntactical precision. Both like to be clear about the mysterious."
Here is a paired image by Aron Weisenfeld and poem by Bruce Bond from The Other Sky.
If you are going there by foot, prepare to get wet.
You are not you anymore.
You are a girl standing in a pool
of clouds as they catch fire in the distance.
There are laws of heaven and those of place and those
who see the sky in the water,
angels in ashes that are the delta’s now.
They say if you sweep the trash from your house
after dark, you sweep away your luck. If you are
going by foot, bring a stick,
a third leg, and honor the great disorder,
the great broom of waterfowl and songbirds.
Prepare to voodoo your way, best you can, knowing there
is a little water in things
you take for granted, a little charity
and squalor for the smallest forms of life.
Voodoo was always mostly charity.
People forget. If you shake a tablecloth
outside at night, someone in your family dies.
There are laws we make thinking
it was us who made them. We are not us. We are a
floodplain by the Mississippi
that once poured slaves upriver to the fields.
We are a hurricane in the making.
We could use a magus who knows something about
suffering, who knows a delta’s needs.
We understand if you want a widow
to stay single, cut up her husband’s shoes.
He is not himself anyway and walks
barefoot across a landscape that has no north.
Only a ghost tree here and there, a frog,
a cricket, a bird. And if the fates are kind,
a girl with a stick, who is more at home, being homeless,
than you will ever be.
And for another dialogue among genres, here is a radio interview I did about the oral tradition and the small press world with Erika Funke of Wilkes-Barre NPR.
How ironic that, as intellectuals and aesthetes, those of us who live by words may underestimate the power of the words we speak or write. Just the other day I was in pleasant conversation with a talented versifier when he happened to mention the name "Lilith." Although he was referring to the radical feminist magazine that may or may not still exist, there is no doubt that the real Lilith still exists just as she has since the time of Adam. And to utter her name without quickly pretending to spit twice over one's right shoulder is asking for serious trouble.
Lilith (spit, spit!) as some of you may know, was Adam's first wife. When she affronted the Creator by insisting on "unorthodox" relations with her husband, she was banished from Eden and spent the next 500 years at the bottom of the ocean. Finally she surfaced, determined to wreak as much havoc as possible in human domestic affairs.
When Lilith hears a man mention her name, she surmises (quite correctly!) that a secret wish for her appearance exists in the speaker. Of course, as with any repressed wish, the poor fool may not be aware of his own desire. That's why Lilith always appears in disguise. The new temp at the office, the Fedex delivery girl, the grad student in need of help with her thesis -- any or all of these may be Lilith. But those potential incarnations are relatively easy to resist. Lilith is much more dangerous when she manifests as a man's own wife!
If a woman appears and sounds like his wife, a man -- and especially a poet, naive by nature -- may assume the woman is his wife indeed: "If it looks like a duck..." etc. He may also forget that he spoke the forbidden name that morning in Starbucks. Well, he's in for a surprise -- and the worst part is, Lilith is dangerously addictive. Not only is she erotically exciting but she's also an excellent conversationalist.
There are two solutions for this problem, both recommended by the ancient sages of the Talmud. First, don't speak the name in the first place! Just refer to the Bad Girl and any educated person will know who you're talking about. Second, create a secret code with your wife that only the two of you know -- an arbitrary phrase like "plate of shrimp" from the film Repo Man. If you sense anything unusual in your conjugal affairs, demand the password. If it's not forthcoming, fill a bucket with water and pour it on the demon woman. Lilith has hated water ever since her five hundred years in the ocean.
The images above are just two of Lilith's infintely various disguises. On top, of course, is Veronica from Archie Comics; below is a seemingly innocous dental hygenist. Poets! Choose Betty, not Veronica -- and floss daily!
With every book I read, a veritable film is created within. Pupils retract and widen; my fingers can’t move rapidly enough through pages as I see these words and somewhere inside me, images of this reality are created and the film reel of the book progresses. The most internal movie is being made as I imagine what these words really mean. Everything is there. I can see each character; I try to sense idiosyncrasies within them; I conjure up the places they live; there’s an attempt to see everything, and often, I’m imagining it. That’s ok. But what if I didn’t have to? A thirst for reading combined with a primal love for adventure and travel sparked a passion for going to those places I’ve read about in books and experiencing a tangible film reel--something I can touch and don’t have to dream up within my imagination.
The best place I’ve ever seen is Ireland. But I knew that before I visited. My father trekked through the country years ago; he brought back a bodhran, a necklace he’d been given by someone who picked him up while hitchhiking, and a map of the country. I’d traced the lines of the map hanging on my father’s wall so many times, but I’d also read Angela’s Ashes. Frank McCourt’s brutal accounts of poverty and hardship in 1930’s/1940’s Limerick didn’t necessarily stir in me a desire to glorify or relish in the grit of the city. It did, however, have me wondering what it might be like to retrace McCourt’s steps. For those not familiar with the book, Frank McCourt recounts his impoverished childhood as he moves from Brooklyn to Limerick and details all the trials that came with it.
I came to Limerick not needing to see McCourt’s Limerick necessarily, but to create my own, and to assimilate it into a more personal Angela’s Ashes. McCourt describes Leamy’s National School, for example, as a seemingly gray place where teachers doled out corporate punishment and students were warned not to cry. Today, the mid-sized brick building still stands, and it seems implausible that this--this spot where you lean and rest your back on the cool iron gates and finger the short stone columns that stand before the building--this is where Frank McCourt saw the things that made him who he was and subsequently earned him a Pulitzer. I stand where he stood.
Much of McCourt’s Limerick has been glorified so, and what was once poverty stricken have subsequently become museums, luxury hotels, and other signs of booming industry. There’s even an Angela’s Ashes walking tour. Not everything still stands, but some things do. South’s Pub does. It’s the pub that serves as a vehicle for McCourt’s father to drink up the family’s savings in the book. It’s also the place where McCourt’s uncle bought him his first pint. The brightly colored bar glass of the Tiffany lamps and lavishly upholstered furniture may not reflect the more bleakly narrated description of the bar in the novel, but that’s not the point. It’s there. I was there. And you can go there. We can all be somehow a part of rewriting our favorite novels in our own mind’s eye by seeing and touching and smelling what our authors did when those words were written. We can make our own reel, and then our favorite novels become something else. They become ours.
The entirety of the literary community and fans of his work are all grieving the loss of Mark Strand this week. The faulty area at school was abuzz with memories and stories of the iconic poet. Professor Deborah DeNicola, my colleague at Broward College, celebrates Strand in a poem she had published in Nimrod a few years ago.
Loving Mark Strand
It’s as if he knows how close he’s always been to Spirit.
As if your hand might pass through the numen of his voice
and a little shadow shiver on the auditorium wall.
If you asked I bet he’d glance away with a half smile and husky
whisper . . . Everything ages . . . We get old . . . Everyone disappears . . .
and this with a hissing sigh: . . . Love fades . . . But his eyes
would twinkle like wild dice and you’d know underneath
that haunting still lives a romantic, why else would he
strike us so humble, so droll? One could do worse
than scribble ethereal sighs while years slip by
as pages lifted by wind. Maybe he sees something
we can’t imagine beyond this earthly timeline. Always
his quavery moans purr like a couple of mongrels,
wounded but playful. Oh Strand! Oh handsome Strand!
Your towering gaze taught us tricks that held out mystery,
ships made of words, lifelines we almost grasp
as we read poems built of vowels, poems mocking
themselves, poems so pleased to be poems, bemused
at the range of their pain, consumed with their own toiling
well into twilight— elusive, mewing poems whose feet
never touch ground. And here in the pin-drop quiet,
ten deep in the standing-room-only of his vapory breath,
we’re almost splay-legged in rapture while there
at the podium, he’s merely mouthing the syllables
of light and air and glass in the perfectly stitched font
of The New Yorker. We could sail the rictus of cryptic
grin, its crescent aisle, while we cling to his piper’s cape
and flow from the building up a Bread Loaf embankment
where wind blows color out of the gloaming and the smoky
poems dissolve, deliquescent as rain beclouding
the synchronous rise of birds. And Strand,
with the bittersweet smile, glad to have touched our lives,
never giving a hoot who mimicked him . . . he just keeps moving,
holy over the fields, an Aquarian Orpheus, one with his head
intact, toes dangling over the edge of our good green planet
into the mythic skies of poetry history, taking his place beside
Homer, Virgil . . . Demosthenes’ stones under his tongue,
back to the first bicameral tribe, the blue mother cave where
he first dreamed in the silence the tender language of the born.
-Deborah DeNicola, published in Nimrod
The happenings in Ferguson have had us all reading articles, thinking a little deeper, and maybe looking for answers. I definitely was. In between feeling articled out and strung out on news sources, I kept coming back to On the Subway by Sharon Olds. Much of the chatter I’ve heard about race relations in that section of Missouri has been about the balance of power. The majority of the police force is white, which doesn’t reflect the bulk of Ferguson’s racial makeup. On the Subway is certainly topical, and it touches on a power we all give each other (earned or not) based solely on things that have nothing do with earning it.
ON THE SUBWAY, BY SHARON OLDS
The young man and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of energy
rapidly moving through darkness. He has
or my white eye imagines he has
the casual cold look of a mugger,
alert under lowered eyelids. He is wearing
red, like the inside of the body
exposed. I am wearing old fur, the
whole skin of an animal taken
and used. I look at his unknown face,
he looks at my grandmother’s coat, and I don’t
know if I am in his power —
he could take my coat so easily, my
briefcase, my life —
or if he is in my power, the way I am
living off his life, eating the steak
he may not be eating, as if I am taking
the food from his mouth. And he is black
and I am white, and without meaning or
trying to I must profit from our history,
the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the
nation’s heart, as black cotton
absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. There is
no way to know how easy this
white skin makes my life, this
he could break so easily, the way I
think his own back is being broken, the
rod of his soul that at birth was dark and
fluid, rich as the heart of a seedling
ready to thrust up into any available light.
-Sharon Olds from The Gold Cell
I discovered Jenny Zhang about a year ago because her book had just been published by one of my favorite small independent presses, Octopus Books. That book, Dear Jenny, We Are All Find is like a fart joke camouflaged as a refreshing example of modern poetry. I’m not the first to say that some modern poetry is praised purely for being subversive. (flarf, anyone?) However, Zhang’s work is truly revolutionary, but not just for the sake of being so.
Zhang lets everything go in a way that made me feel like I was up to her ear and being fed secrets in the most deliciously impish way. She’s a poet’s poet and touches on everything from the kind of tangible jealousy we can almost taste in our mouths to a virtually comic-book style use of onomatopoeia.
The exaggerated line breaks and seemingly simplistic colloquial tone are without doubt characteristic of many modern poets and can be found here, in I Ate Marigolds.
I Ate Marigolds
I ate Marigolds for attention no one noticed
I was forced to go public people watching themselves as long-
er limbed creatures they have um no beauty
-By Jenny Zhang, from Dear Jenny, We Are All Find
Here’s another favorite:
your tinny hands are inside tins
I grow as I finish fourth
each de grade action is a great thing
I feel like a great thing
great things are called things and this thing is not inside time which is as tinny as
I wasted dishwater again
I feel feelings
this is touchable
Some kids died rollerblading
It’s very touchable
my mother spoons me and in kissing my lips she says she wants to stay
like this forever
me too and I also want to be my own mom
and kiss myself
-By Jenny Zhang, from Dear Jenny, We Are All Find
I work in an industry where everyone wants to be famous. Not only do they want to be famous, but success is measured by what degree of notoriety you have. I do two things. I host a show on local TV about books called Beyond the Book. For the show, I interview touring authors, talk about what’s happening in the local libraries, and (my favorite) visit and discuss local places that have been mentioned in books. More than almost anything, I’d really like the show to grow and be successful. I also teach College English, something I get equally enthusiastic and zealously passionate about. I have opportunities to read the beginnings of a could-be novel and at the same time, make sure students know their way around a comma splice. Geeky, right? It’s pretty awesome.
Working on Beyond the Book for the last few years has absolutely had me thinking about a next step. Could I bring the show to a larger network? Do I think it could ever be national? What would happen then? What would it be like to be famous? Fame. Walking down the street and someone recognizing your face. What would that be like?
Walking into school every day feels like someone just gave me a license to have meaningful input in what our next generation is learning. I can’t believe I get to be here, giving these people what was given to me in school and telling them things I wish I would have known a few years ago. In the classes I teach, I often require a paper, a script, a poem, or a short story, among other things. There have been a few times that a first draft has been so good-so inspiring and hopeful, that I read it and it’s hard to breathe. Teaching itself is beautiful, but anyone who teaches knows the politics that come with it. Working under a Dean, dealing with HR, and trying to work within or teetering between often pointless politics can suck the life out of you. Reading such a paper can jolt you back to life. It can make you want to reach through the lines of the page and hug the person who filled them with such untainted literary bricks of gold. It happened recently. A student handed me a poem that wasn’t perfect, but it had some perfect pieces, and it had heart. We sat down and I began to tell him how taken I was with what he wrote. Maybe the next step could be working towards publication. This student is in school studying graphic design, but my interest in his work sparked some excitement.
Ms. G, do you think I could get all my poems together and write a book of poetry? I also have some short stories. Maybe I could get them all published. I could do comical essays like David Sedaris. Did you know he was on Letterman? I could definitely imagine myself being famous. Why would a graphic designer ever be on Letterman?
Fame and celebrity have a pull that affects all of us, and I don’t pretend to understand why. I just have observations, and things that I make sure I tell myself when identifying why something is important to me. Success in the grandest of senses doesn’t always mean fame. What is celebrity anyway?
-- Rachel Fayne Gruskin
(Ed note: Brenda Shaughnessy wrote about Mark Strand on her facebook page. She kindly agreed to let me share her moving tribute here.Thank you, Brenda. sdh)
Like many others, I was very young when I first encountered Mark Strand's poems--and they seemed like they issued from some faraway, magical, impossible world where some exalted humans were deigned poets. These pieces of art were otherworldly. It made sense that the person who made them was this tall drink-of-water silver fox with an excess of charm (or so I saw in photos and heard in anecdote.) The chance to get to know him a little--enough to call him a friend, to love his wit, admire his generosity, and to appreciate his joyful embrace of younger generations of poets--made me feel like I was really part of poetry, past and present. He wasn't just his poems, of course. He was kind, full of vim, was devoted to poetry and cared about those who wrote it. I'm so sad that Mark Strand, the person, is now elsewhere forever. Here's one of my favorites:
A man has been standing
in front of my house
for days. I peek at him
from the living room
window and at night,
unable to sleep,
I shine my flashlight
down on the lawn.
He is always there.
After a while
I open the front door
just a crack and order
him out of my yard.
He narrows his eyes
and moans. I slam
the door and dash back
to the kitchen, then up
to the bedroom, then down.
I weep like a schoolgirl
and make obscene gestures
through the window. I
write large suicide notes
and place them so he
can read them easily.
I destroy the living
room furniture to prove
I own nothing of value.
When he seems unmoved
I decide to dig a tunnel
to a neighboring yard.
I seal the basement off
from the upstairs with
a brick wall. I dig hard
and in no time the tunnel
is done. Leaving my pick
and shovel below,
I come out in front of a house
and stand there too tired to
move or even speak, hoping
someone will help me.
I feel I’m being watched
and sometimes I hear
a man’s voice,
but nothing is done
and I have been waiting for days.
When I was very young, say, around seven or eight, I went in for cowboy flicks.I usually went with a pack of boys my own age; we paid our dime and watched a double feature. The National Anthem was played and sometimes there’d be a yo-yo contest.There were usually one or two cartoons, a serial of Superman or Captain Marvel and always Movietone Newsreels.I had no use for Tom Mix or Gene Autry or Roy Rogers.I liked Randolph Scott, I guess because I admired his perfectly chiseled features and the fact that he didn’t sing.But I’ll talk about the male stars of my past at another time.
Now I want to discuss the females that I had begun to want to watch, the many on whom I developed a crush.I was nine or ten when I thought Esther Williams [left] was hot. It was her swimming, naturally, that did it for me. In those days I liked women who evinced some athleticism. I never really thought of them as women, but as grown up girls. Esther Williams could swim. That was it for me. I thought her face a little broad, especially when she wore a swimming cap. The crush was short lived. I moved on. Athleticism ceased to be a necessity, since almost none of the female stars was athletic, at least not on screen. That is, with the exception of Ginger Rogers, whose dancing I considered a kind of athletic event. (As I grew older I ceased to think of it as merely that.) I should also mention Betty Grable [below right: the GIs' favorite pin-up girl in WW II], who does a terrific solo in “The Gay Divorcee.” But this and other Rogers/Astaire movies I saw sometimes as many as ten years after they first appeared. It wasn’t simply Rogers's athleticism that got to me, it was her energy, her perkiness. That’s it: she was perky, despite those eyes that could be a shade soulful, a little hurt.
Other Perky cuties I had a crush on were Janet Blair, Joan Leslie. I have not seen Janet Blair since I was ten years old, so I can’t say what effect she would have on me now, but I recently watched “Flying Down to Rio” and took a good hard look at the young Ginger Rogers [left] but was not overwhelmed. More overwhelming was the seemingly endless Carioca dance numbers with Fred and an ensemble of hundreds (it seemed). And most overwhelming was Dolores Del Rio [below] to whom I had paid no attention when I was a boy.
Ah Dolores! I ran into her once in an elevator in Mexico City back in 1953. I was with my father and he noticed her right away and practically fainted on the spot. She was then 48 and I was 19.She was still beautiful, but not the way she was in “Flying Down to Rio.” She was darkly glamorous, which is about all that I could be certain of in the few seconds we were on the elevator. In “Flying Down to Rio” you noticed the playful intensity of her eyes and her perfect features. But more about the true beauties next time.
-- Mark Strand
(This post originally appeared on August 31, 2009)
Hi Friends, it's a pleasure to be typing again on this spontaneous essay. I've posted about 11,000 words so far, and I haven't managed to get quite to where I hoped. It isn't that I've stumbled into topics more important than the ones I hoped to shed light on. If you're in the woods on a deer-hunting trip and you discover a dead body, obviously you should abandon your original purpose. In my case, it's as if I went on a deer-hunting trip, got coughed on, got sick, lost my party, wandered around, discovered a creek with a little falls, and just sat down next to it, and eventually put my feet in it....
That's a terrible analogy. Oh well....But earlier this year, I did sit down at the kitchen table with my mother on a trip back to Ohio. I had a pencil and a piece of paper, and with a few crude diagrams and about twenty minutes of talking, I managed to explain to her how American football was a symbolic re-enactment of the forceful, strategic, violent, and successful acquisition of the American continent from its native inhabitants by English speakers. And she understood it! Because, by grace, the ideas rolled succinctly and swiftly off the tongue. I will cling to that, and hopefully I can approximate it before I'm done here on BAP.
Trying to take that trip, though, or rather give that trip, in a more scenic, prosaic, and reputable way has proven a different and difficult undertaking. If anyone out there has found anything I've typed enjoyable or interesting at all to this point, I'm thankful, because in some ways I don't know if I've even found my way into the starting gate. Regardless, I'm going to pick up where I left off in the last post, which was in the late Roman empire. We're going to look at an idea that I call "The Gladiator Fallacy" and examine the similarities and differences between the Roman games and American football.
THE GLADIATOR FALLACY: When the fans, owners, players, and marketers of the NFL acknowledge their game as having an historical precedent, they point to the sporting tradtion of one place and time: the Ancient Republic of Rome. I don't know about you, but it makes me shiver a little as an American citizen, because the last thing we like thinking of ourselves as is the next Ancient Rome. But that's another topic altogether....
How does American football relate to the Roman gladiator tradtion? Besides the Roman numerals with which the NFL tallies its Super Bowls? Besides the fact that the NFL's logo is a war implement from a pre-gunpowder world? That's what I'm trying to figure out. "Football players are gladiators." This is something we've all heard said many times, and maybe have even said ourselves. Google managed to find this exact sentence 1,010 times in .59 seconds. And it's not only the way the players are understood from the outside by media and fans, it's the way that they understand themselves. Grappling to make sense of the suicide of retired linebacker Junior Seau, Bengals great Takeo Spikes invoked his Roman antecedents in the following way: “We are so prideful in the way people view us as modern-day gladiators, how tough we are, how we can fight through anything and keep it all inside.” There is even an AFL team called the Cleveland Gladiators.
Recently, there was a rather vivid example of the cultivation of the gladiator connection. If you are a fan of the NFL, it's likely that you saw it, as the image went fairly viral. September 11, 2014, Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, one of the most ferocious players in the league, without a shred of irony, donned a metal gladiator's helmet and entered M&T stadium in a wild display of smoke and drums. For this, Suggs was fined over $5,000 - more than what he paid for the mask on a trip to Italy. As for the fine and fines like it, I find them all ridiculous, but I'll save those opinions for another day. What deserves our real attention is the way that a contemporary American crowd was effortlessly able to comprehend and contextualize Suggs' gesture. They got it, and they cheered.
So what are the similarities? In both activities, paragons of male physicality are made a spectacle. Gladiators and football players, watched by the rowdy masses, compete with great intensity at high risk, violent activities that require armor of some sort. For this high risk competition, they train vigorously - physically, mentally, and spiritually. As for the tiered, billion dollar, mostly open-air structures in which today's armored, helmeted specimens of manhood collide, they actually still go by the same Latin word they did in Ancient Rome. Football is played in a stadium. Fans view the live action from sightlines thousands of years old in their viewing distance and angles, and there is, in that, a deep connection. There is a mutually altering, energetic, and ancient relationship between the men at the center of the stadium and the men that watch in the tiered seats, and Suggs tapped into it.
But to me, this is where the connections seem to end. There is a major difference between the gladiatorial games and a game like American football. When the action commences in an American football stadium, the men on the field do not participate in the war activities of the contemporary civilization in which the games take place. And that is actually a GIGANTIC value difference. Truthfully, I don't even know what it would look like if they did compete in contemporary war activities. What would they do? The closest thing that you see to an implement of contemporary war at a football stadium is the occasional pre-game flyover, and perhaps manned bombers aren't even contemporary in this new world of computerized drones....In the Roman games, though, gladiators used the gladius, the standard issue sword of the Roman army. They protected themselves with shields. They rode contemporary war chariots around in a loop and threw contemporary Austrian manganese steel-tipped spears at one another. American football players, however, do no such thing. Nor do they face off against the wildest beasts that trade might funnel towards the empire's urban center (lions, tigers, and bears); what sort of gladiatorial tradition are we witnessing then we watch it? The participants do not even go galloping towards one another on horse-back, wearing metal armor, carrying jousting poles, in honor of the English language (ha). But rather, as said before, the players attempt to possess a prolate spheroid leather ball (of which there is only one) forward toward a goal, and they do it all within a strict set of rules which developed here in America. Yes, they do tackle one another and block one another; very hard, in fact; often tragically, life-alteringly hard. But was there ever a war that was fought by literal blocking and tackling? None that I can think of. So how can football even be referred to as a "war game?"
The answer to that is actually easy. Football is a war game in the way that chess is a war game. Both are symbolic war games. The difference is that in the game of chess, we're abundantly aware that the game is symbolic; this is because chess is entirely symbolic. To play chess requires little to no physical strain and involves little to no physical coordination. When you take an opponent's "king," ending the game, all you're literally doing is placing a plastic or wooden figurine onto a square on a checkered board, and taking a different figurine up into your victorious hand. This is very different than a defensive end slamming a quarterback into the turf, or that deadly accurate specialist, the kicker, booting a ball through the uprights as time expires.
Now, this isn't to say that American football, as a symbolic war game played out by real men, doesn't play at physical activities and capacities that aren't useful in a real war situation. Players must have the ability to run; they must have physical strength, stamina, and the ability to focus on a task despite physical pain. They must have the ability to listen to intelligence, and translate what their ears hear all through their bodies; they must have discipline, and know how their role fits into the larger scheme; they must have the ability to understand an ever-shifting situation near instantly; they must have the ability to execute specific and specialized tasks toward a common goal; they must have the ability to remain calm and focused despite the distractions of noise and nerves; they must have no small amount of courage; they must enter a different, more intense, more violent head space, heart space, mind space to succeed....However, all this alone wouldn't make football an '"iconic" war-game. American football, like basketball, ice hockey, and modern lacrosse, the three sports that descend from Native America's great war game - is a symbolic war game played out by real men. And we'll get into some of the symbolism tomorrow.
Alright, I am going to stop here. My final post will be on Sunday night, though perhaps I might be granted another post or two to try to finish some of these ideas in this forum.
Hello Friends; I'm signing back in for the third installment of my five part spontaneous essay on American Football as an American War Game. I realize I'm on my last day of blogging, but I'm hopeful that Stacey will keep my account open so I can make the last could of posts.
REVELATION OF A CAT TOY: To begin to understand how the game of American football is a war game, and a uniquely American one at that, I think we must back up the wagon. Back it up out of the enormous frontal portions of the human brain entirely. Back it into those portions of the brain we share more intimately with our other mammalian friends....
Friends, do you have a cat? A dog? A rat? A ferret? If you do, if you have an animal living under your roof, or under the roof of a small, house-like structure in your back yard, chances are that at some point you've looked into the mirror of that animal's activities and seen something familiar. I don't mean just eating and defecating, those lowest of common denominators. I mean the loftier parts of our being: how we love, how we obey, how we rebel, even how we dream. I'll give you an example: recently, my fiance's cat Puck was sleeping on a kitchen chair. The windows were open; it was about 11 am. Outside, a neighborhood dog ttook up barking. Yip! Ip! Ip! Now Puck often hears this dog, and he pays it no mind. He's no genius; he's not going to invent clothing, or typography, or the wheel, or electricity, but he's smart enough to understand that the dog is outside, and that he is inside. On this occasion, though, the dog started barking, and Puck, without waking up, started howling that deep spooky frightening howl that cat's howl before a fight. After about five seconds, he woke himself up, leapt off the chair, and in a raging frightened puffed-up claws-out confusion bristled around for the next minute or so, still howling, looking for a dog that needed a slap. I just gaped; in the way a ringing alarm clock enters a human dream, and creates a dream where you are pressing every button on your dream alarm clock but still not turning it off, that dog had entered the dreams of a sleeping cat. The barking had entered Puck's giant ears, and the image of a dog had appeared in his little mind....Amazing.
At play, which is what I'm interested in this five part spontaneous essay, you can likewise observe that an animal's imagination functions a lot like ours do. I once co-owned an unusually playful grey tabby named Charlie; that cat was a great teacher; Charlie would slap around individually-wrapped life-savers, roll AA batteries across the floor, and run around with all manner of tiny stuffed things in his mouth. He'd drop them in the corners of the apartment, where they couldn't get away, and then slap them about in a frenzied glee. What you learn, watching a cat slap around a leaf is the following. It does not slap the leaf around because it is a leaf. It isn't thinking, "Leaf, I'm going to get you!" When a cat interacts with a leaf AS a leaf, it's typically by chewing your plants and then yakking indigestible fronds on your floor. At play, it's entirely different. The cat slaps the leaf because the leaf, once in motion, resembles something alive and antic. When the cat's imagination is added to the leaf, the leaf becomes more than itself. It becomes what it resembles in motion - a huge edible bug, a mouse with a tail. In reality, it has become something capable of preparing a cat to get an big edible bug or a mouse: a toy.
Toys are objects that require imagination. I think that counts as a true statement. When the imagination is added to an object, it becomes a toy. It become something else in the mind, something more than itself, something more real or more serious than itself...A microwave is a microwave to an adult. It's a serious enough object. It has its purpose and its place. You put your frozen dinner in there, and in just five minutes it rotates that lasagna to a creepy perfection. To a pair of children, though, playing on the floor of a kitchen, that microwave could be a cave, high on a cliff, in which an 8-inch action figure must make the decision to jump, ala Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, to reach safety (a mixing bowl full of water). The microwave becomes a toy. Rather, the "play world," which has flowed outwards from the designed toy - the action figure, the object that invites the child's imagination - has grown to include and transform the microwave into something more "serious" than a microwave. A cave high on a cliff that must be jumped out of is more serious than a microwave waiting to be turned on.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.