Saturday, January 28, 2017

Because Our President Turns Away Those Seeking Shelter...



"When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Leviticus 19:33-34)

We are—all of us—better than this president. We have to be.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading Robert Kroetsch: New Essays on His Work!



Rejoice! There's a new collection of essays just now out on that great Canadian poet, novelist, and raconteur Robert Kroetsch.  A founder of boundary 2, a disruptor of established forms, a godfather to a literary movement in the Canadian west—he's a figure you'd love to get to know, and Nicole Markotic's book is a good way to get to know him.  I've contributed a little something, and not just because Kroetsch and I tipped a glass or two together in my student days.  Here's a bit of what I had to say:

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There’s another reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodern poet, rather than a modern one, a reason having to do with tone.  While the generalization I’m about to make has the flaw of all generalizations (i.e., that it is full of holes and therefore untrue), I’m still making it: modernism is more serious and less funny than postmodernism.  I grant all your objections regarding specific texts, and yet I return to the generalization.  Wry as he can be, T.S. Eliot is more grave and less funny than Frank O’Hara.  While he’s not above jokes, Ezra Pound is more often dead serious than is John Ashbery.  And when Robert Kroetsch is meditating on the perspectival nature of truth, he’s less sublime, and funnier, than Wallace Stevens when Stevens does something similar.  I’m sure the model for Kroetsch’s “Sketches of a Lemon” is Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but the tone is entirely different.  Here’s Stevens’ opening stanza:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Is the eye of a blackbird. (58)

This is straight-up Kantian sublimity: the little living eye comprehends the huge, rugged world that so exceeds it in scale and in grandeur that it renders the bird’s eye insignificant—except for the fact that the little eye comprehends the vastness.  Here, by contrast, is the opening of Kroetsch’s series of lemon sketches:

A lemon is almost round.
Some lemons are almost round.
A lemon is not round.

So much for that. (76)

There’s a skepticism about our ability to intellectually frame the world here—it’s The Stone Hammer Poems again, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge—but there’s also a kind of philosophical pratfall.  The poem is full of this sort of thing: it's a self-deflating comic text that also has something serious to say about how intellectual frames fail, or about how narratives and descriptions end up mutating into something other than what they were initially meant to be.  Something like that happens in the following passage (“Smaro” is the name of the poet’s wife):

Sketches, I reminded myself,
not of a pear,
nor of an apple,
nor of a peach,
nor of a banana
(though the colour
raises questions)
nor of a nectarine,
nor, for that matter,
of a pomegranate,
nor of three cherries,
their stems joined,
nor of a plum,
nor of an apricot,
nor of the usual
bunch of grapes,
fresh from the vine,
just harvested,
glistening with dew—

Smaro, I called,
I’m hungry. (76)

What began as a kind of attempt at negative definition, doomed to a seemingly infinite series of specifications, suddenly warps, and we see that all along, without our knowledge, the list or catalog had been functioning in ways we hadn’t suspected, inciting the appetites rather than providing definition.  A hidden subordinate function unexpectedly becomes the dominant function of the list, and the sentence lurches jarringly in a new direction.  I remember reading this poem to the woman who would become my wife, and how much she liked it.  But it wasn’t her favorite section of the poem.  This was:

poem for a child who has just bit into
a halved lemon that has just been squeezed

see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you,
see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you

One could, of course, go on. (80)


If straight-up sublimity lies a bit beyond Kroetsch’s range, something like this lies a bit beyond Wallace Stevens, and I think the difference is generational, the modern vs. the postmodern poet.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hey Trump: We'll See You In Court



So Trump is now in the White House—what are we going to do about it? For starters, we can realize that he comes in as a weak and unpopular president, with an approval rating marginally lower that what Paul Blart, Mall Cop gets on the Rotten Tomatoes site.

The best reports put Trump's inaugural crowd (which he baselessly claimed was "a million, a million and a half") at 160,000—about 1/3 of the size of the Women's March, and a fraction of the size of Obama's inaugural.

He's weak. We're strong. And it all makes one thing of those lines Shelley wrote in another time of despised tyrants:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

But as good as it was to get out in the streets and show the world that America is better than its leader, resistance needs to be a long game. There are many ways to keep up the fight.  I like this one—the ACLU's plan to drag Trump to court and hold his feet to the fire.  You can be a part of it.


Friday, January 06, 2017

What's Your Poem Worth?



What's your poetry worth? And who's to say?

Ernest Hilbert is a good guy to ask when it comes to these questions. Not only is he a poet of distinction, he's also been running America's premiere rare book establishment for years. He talks about it in "The Muse and the Auctioneer’s Gavel: Learning About Poetry from First Editions," the latest installment in the "Essays and Comments" section I edit for Plume magazine. Here's how Hilbert's essay begins:
For a decade and a half I have worked more or less contentedly as a rare book dealer, roughly half the number of years I’ve devoted to being a poet, an equally eccentric pursuit. In that time I’ve had the pleasure of placing quite a number of extraordinary first editions of poetry into my clients’ collections. I am often asked what precisely makes a book “rare.” Why, for instance will one volume of poetry sell for $5 (a used copy of a recent title, something I would buy for myself), $50 (a first edition of Diane Wakoski’s 1966 Discrepencies and Apparitions signed by her along with a drawing in her hand), $500 (poet and translator Richmond Lattimore’s copy of the 1955 first edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s second book Poems: North & South and A Cold Spring), $5,000 (an inscribed 1926 first edition of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues), while another might sell for $50,000 (a 1633 first edition of John Donne’s Poems by J.D. with Elegies on the Author’s Death), and yet another for well over $500,000 (Edgar Allan Poe’s impossibly rare 1827 first book of poetry, Tamerlane, authored by “A Bostonian,” which hammered at $662,500 at a 2009 Christie’s sale, a tattered and rather stained copy at that, but one of only 12 thought to remain from a print run of 50). While no easy answer concerning this sort of marketplace value will fully suffice, there are a few measures upon which one may fairly rely.
The rest is online here. Check it out!

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Find Your Protest



Remember that guy in the big London scene in Wordsworth’s Prelude—the battered old veteran begging on the streets, holding a sign that tells his story? His image haunted Wordsworth for many years, mostly because unlike us (and oh, this speaks terribly of what we have become) he didn’t see this sort of thing all the time.  It shocked Wordsworth to see that, among all those people, there was so little community that no one knew this man’s name, let alone his journey, his struggle, and his pain. It shocked him that the man couldn’t count on the community to know him—in the ever-growing metropolis, the man who needed his story told was reduced to holding it on a sheet before him, hoping someone would pause.

I thought of that guy when, some years ago, I stood at a train platform outside Chicago. An older man walked by, wearing that mix of odd bits of cammo and discarded workout clothing that we’ve come to associate with homeless veterans.  His war would have been Vietnam, and he walked back and forth in an exaggeratedly slow pace, looking at the ground, speaking to himself. Or, rather, not to himself, but to—well, I was the only other one around. But it wasn’t an address to me, either—it was something I was meant to overhear.  He spoke in an affected voice, as if he were trying to sound like a voice-over announcer in a documentary, commenting on footage.  And the footage was of a protest rally of some kind.  “Students and veterans alike gathered,” he said, to some imagined television audience, “and when the man on the platform said how the president lied the crowd shouted I actually understand this” he continued, “it was in Carbondale, a cold fall day…” he continued this way, and I began to see that here, in a dirty army cap, was Wordsworth’s veteran—telling the story he needed to tell, but at such a terrible distance, so far from being able to connect. One sensed he had been alone a long time. One sensed he had been sent to war young, and that he had never really come back.

I mention this today because I have known many veterans of that war. I’ve worked with them, or lived near them, or found them in my family.  These are the lucky ones, the ones who came home. And I don’t know a single one of them who hadn’t, like the man at the train station, left some part of himself back there.  And today we find out, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Richard Nixon, after he’d won the election but before he took office, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the peace talks between north and south Vietnam.  He didn’t want the Democrats to take credit for peace. And so the war continued for years. One could look up the dates and count the number of people who died for Nixon’s vanity, but those numbers always lie. Those numbers always leave out the dead or half-dead who came home and walked like ghosts in the streets. 


But this isn’t about Nixon, for whose sake one wishes Dante’s Hell were real. This is about the danger of having a president so mad with the thirst for adulation that nothing will be enough, not even the presidency itself. This is about any reckless and fragile president who talks tough, encourages violence, and cares nothing about breaking the lives of others on the anvil of his own vanity. This is about where we are now, and what we’re going to do about it.

There are inauguration day protests scheduled throughout the country.  Find yours.