Jim Behrle's good with slander & insults. He's a little Boston bully-boy.

It's mostly about ego, I guess. I'm not sure where the poetry part comes in.

I don't like bullies. I'm ashamed of the times I've engaged in it myself!

& I don't like crowd phenomena posing as poetry scenes. There are so many distractions from the real thing out there.
What a nice guy Jim Behrle is. He wakes up every morning and thinks, "who can I put down today?"

& what a nice group of friends he has, the gleeful crowd who cheer him on. It reminds me so much of the cliques in junior high. & what great people they were, too. Though most of them grew out of those cliques, eventually. Poets get a break, though - they're so charmingly childike, aren't they.


Logjam broke yesterday. Able to start writing again. Hope I'm not deluding myself.

The math magic works for me. It's like a computer, or abacus - or, even better, weaving. 1/0/1/0/1/0. Dominant/tonic/dominant. A/B/A. On expanding overlays. Theme & variations.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Hart Crane's death. And Teddy Roosevelt's emergence from the River of Doubt (now Rio Roosevelt).


First some reviews by William Logan, then the book of essays by D. Justice, have got me looking in new directions. Reading Geoffrey Hill now, another powerful writer I've passed over for a long time. Forces me to focus more closely on the issue of rhythm.

Justice has also got me reading Sherwood Anderson, too. I may be the only person in America who never read Winesburg, Ohio in high school. It's a treasure.


I should probably keep working on that little translation. What's hard to get, among other things, is the balance in both syntax (so different in Russian) & versification. But it may be too much for me. I sort of like it as is, though it has none of the original's delicate syncopation. Nor did I get the rhymes right.

& there's probably a vast field of tone & implication of which I am completely unaware. Fools rush in where Russians laugh to read.



In the uplifted forehead, a winged
suggestion. But the coat looks awkward.
There's a hideout of pure impulse
in closed eyes, an arm's repose.

Here is one who floats and chants -
his word become ductile flame
in order to overcome inborn
clumsiness with innate rhythm.

- Osip Mandelstam (1931).
(provisional trans. by yrs truly)

(M. wrote some variations on this, in a series of little poems addressed to a goldfinch - kind of a personal emblem.)
The new technology is very democratic. Blogs allow everyone to participate in American Celebrity culture - as mini-celebrities. What this has to do with poetry, I'm not sure.


Justice, in his essays, shows a curious specificity & exactitude. I mean the lit-historical events are there, to be pinpointed. Thus, in his essay on free verse, he notes not only the poet, but the specific poem, where it all began (in 20th cent. America, that is). The poet is Pound, the poem is from 1907:

Lips, words, and you snare them,
Dreams, words, and they are as jewels,
Strange spells of old deity,
Ravens, nights, allurement:
And they are not;
Having become the souls of song.

In his Stevens essay, he pinpoints particular lines which document the poet's careful & gradual opening-up of iambic blank verse; & how he does it (anapests...)

Not to be polemical, but I'm sort of tempted to turn my attention away from free verse for a while. It would make things both easier & more difficult. For one thing, I'd have to turn away from a lot of my own poetry. On the other hand it would allow me to block out a lot of sub-literary noise.
This unknown recommends Oblivion, a book of essays by Donald Justice (publ. in 1998). Should be a benchmark, lighthouse, guidebook.

In an essay on metrics, he debunks the notion that meters have some kind of organic basis (breathing, circadian rhythms, etc.). He offers a very persuasive (to me) interpretation of the paradoxical (subsidiary, understated) role they play, in the process of hammering together a memorious art work.

In a subtle essay on Baudelaire and "sincerity", written in 1957, he undermines the rationale for confessionalism - just a few years before that movement burst on the scene.

In an essay on Stevens' meters, he gives a sparkling mini-course on the "Imagist moment", followed by a discerning analysis of the pentameter background in Stevens, & what he did with it.

I'm loving this book.


Reading a long (book-length) interview : Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy (London: Between the Lines, 2001). Hoy is the most well-informed (about his subject) interlocutor I've ever read.

Justice is one of those poets that po-blog world would generally like to forget about. & he wouldn't think much of us, either.

I think a lot of him, though. & could learn a lot from him, if I had any self-discipline.


Let's talk about some (possibly literary) values :

understatement, impersonality, restraint, objectivity, historical sense.

Respect for the speech and discourses which are not poetry, respect for the experience which is not language. The stoniness which is not the word "stone", but inspired it, evoked its evocation.

Serious, not turgid; light, not facile; sweet, not saccharine; bitter, not sour; clear-sighted, not jaded; generous, not egotistical; fair, kind & true.

What might temper & strengthen & sweeten the "scene"? Those things that are outside it. When poets accept the challenge of the world of thought, language & experience which is beyond their local disputes, their fickle enthusiasms for themselves & each other.


...clearly, there are political poets whose dazzling personal intensity & fireworks of experience are far more exciting than the goodly little gray poet-figure I present... For these poets, life & politics & art are all one, fused in a demanding existential personal performance.

I go along with that. Everything, in my book, is infused with personality & personhood.

Yet I also like to think of Poetry itself - the communal endeavor, the "tradition" if you will - Poetry with a capital P - as the performance : & that we individual poets are the channels & the interpreters.

This has been a particular dialectic in American poetry, I think - between the scrawny, brave and inimitable voice of individual experience - and the Grand Communal Voice of Poetry. Quite a juggling act.
... & it sounds like a rather detached & mandarin approach to poetry, no? Indeed.

Math is only one possible element of composition, obviously. & another way to look at it is this : often the structure interacts dialectically or symbiotically with other elements.

When the language poets et al. - back in the 80s - were trying to infuse a political stance to their poetry by way of linguistic theory & philosophy, I was doing something simpler : I tried to apply old poetic forms to political themes. Thus I wrote a sestina about homelessness :


Downtown is gleaming, a nest of glass
Scant refuge for the homeless and the poor
Who trudge along under looming towers
Hungry, frazzled, begging small change
And subject to the better sort of people
Whose eyes reflect the glitter of the city

And so many circles animate the city
Captured in the high gloss of the glass
What's taken for the playground of the people
Erases every doorstep of the poor
In sprawling ellipses of loose change
Under the stolid mystery of these towers

Under the bright conundrum of these towers
These measuring rods allotting every city
Gyroscopes adjusting every change
By whirling speculation in the glass
The downward spirals of the ornery poor
Set stirring turbid shadows in the people

And shuttling promotions of the people
Forecast by divination in the towers
(Who's growing rich and who remaining poor)
Start dancing fevers in the chattering city
And snarl the artist in his broken glass
Frail craft undone by overmastering change

When fortune is the favored end of change
Suburbia the limbo of the people
And tender conscience faints before the glass
Rocketing skyward in pretentious towers
To serve the sleek imaginary city
Or swell the sullen rancor of the poor

Meanwhile the rhetoricians of the poor
In campus pockets rummaging for change
Inscribe the true authoritative city
And mint sterling mementos of the people
Studies wherein the mind serenely towers
Over safe specimens tacked up under glass

So let's raise a glass to the dizzy city -
A toast to towers, and all red-faced people!
And drink for a change among the homespun poor.

(Perhaps this poem only reveals how hopelessly mandarin & ivory-tower I am myself.)

(I came by a very roundabout way to "formalism" - via Mandelstam, to the Renaissance poets, to Villon, etc.)
Busy around here lately with family matters (my daughter is spending half the school year in Bangladesh).

Nothing much to report on the poetry frontier. Enjoying the fibs. Working out some math (I hope) for some extended projects. Am interested in how a math proportion can signify balances or equilibria between different dimensions of a piece. Looking at the rug in the living room for inspiration.

Say, for example, that 7 is the number of quatrains in a section of your poem. That gives you 7x4 or 28 lines. So say you have 4 parts with 7 sections each, giving you 28 sections to the whole poem.

You've thus established a very simple "ecology" or echo-system for the different particulars of your poem : each part reflects the whole (at least numerically, which is one way of starting). And it turns the individual lines of your poem into elements of a web or network.

This is a strange way to write, admittedly. Lends itself to various quandaries & mishaps. But it was one of the ways that Dante wrote. & he could write.


OK, I'm fibbing.

and then
the petals...
soon a sunflower
joins the fibonacci parade.


very ancient old henry poem:


The child knows clouds,
and lies in the green yards
as they fill the empty sky,
make it round, looming down,
shying away, or drifting off.

There are no mountains.
On the porch a sleeping cat
rolls over, into the sunlight.
Flies buzz. Around noon
he looks in a window,

a piano leans against a wall
of the blue-green room.
If I find time & energy, I'll write an essay on Donald Justice's poetry.

Yet one more example of my backward-looking, reactionary, anachronistic, out of touch, obsolete "poetics".

Justice : melancholy, nostalgia, aestheticism - almost fatalism. A very old issue - running back to ancient times - regarding the dangers, the seductive temptations, of aesthetic fatalism. The beauty is a crystallization, a register of stoic passivity, a... a... I'm forgetting the word I'm trying to think of.

Nevertheless... I'm finding many other, different, things in this poetry. Don't want to ramble on about it here.

He's a wonderful craftsperson. Inspiring, exciting in that way. Manifold.

I'm drawn to the understatement. & the music, piano themes. (He started piano lessons when he was 5. I started about that age too.)

p.s. & I like the "balance" he achieves. These are very much "poem-song-artifacts", and yet, at the same time, they have a humane, documentary, down-to-earth quality - feeling, emotion, sensibility. Southern I guess. Wry, funny, mournful, sweet, bitter, etc.

There's always a person there : yet he avoided Confessionalism of any kind! A major victory for that time.


I suppose Donald Justice & his poetry slipped over my radar, while I was young and anti-academic & anti-MFA and anti-poetic, when I wasn't burrowing into long-poem theory & practice.

But I'm catching up now, & enjoying it.
someone could write a very good article on the affinity of Weldon Kees & Donald Justice, if it hasn't been done. Kees - Justice - Stevens form a sort of affinity constellation.


Beautiful day here today. I was home today.

Minor literary miracle : I discovered (with help) the poetry of Donald Justice.

Ignorance is a gift from God, as Nick de Cusa explained.

Like a door opening on my own life.

Justice.... Stevens, Rilke, Bishop, Crane.... Kees. Listen to the music.


....I added this contrary reading of the Bishop poem (quoted previously) to one of my comment boxes:

Another thing about the poem: it can be read (or heard) not as comedy, but something sadder. The "quarrel with oneself" that is poetry - the solipsistic quest to answer one's own questions - BECAUSE it's in the "same tone of voice" - turns into a sort of vortex.

Consider the final couplet, then : if we imagine that "a name" here implies a real name, of a real lover, perhaps - then the consequence of the poetic process is a reduction of the (absent) person to a mere name, a word, indistinguishable from all its other (verbal) connotations.

The poem wavers undecideably between two diametrically opposed implications.

(& maybe EB is singin' the blues here : testifying to the downside of "shyness" as a literary strategy. Being ironic about her own manner. Pure speculation on my part.)
For Pantaloons, it's a real class act.

Jack's is kind of a funnier version of the familiar Silliman line.

We live in a Darwin jungle, & there's no place for quietude unless you're rich & sleek.

Spend every day on the counter-culture merry-go-round, & be a happy horse.
Her low whispers frame the deserted dome.
Her light covers the circus floor.
There's been so much plog-flak about David Orr's Bishop review.

I think part of it comes from a misreading of Orr's argument (he is, after all, a lawyer during the day).

Here's Orr's opening paragraph:

"You are living in a world created by Elizabeth Bishop. Granted, our culture owes its shape to plenty of other forces — Hollywood, Microsoft, Rachael Ray — but nothing matches the impact of a great artist, and in the second half of the 20th century, no American artist in any medium was greater than Bishop (1911-79). That she worked in one of our country's least popular fields, poetry, doesn't matter. That she was a woman doesn't matter. That she was gay doesn't matter. That she was an alcoholic, an expatriate and essentially an orphan — none of this matters. What matters is that she left behind a body of work that teaches us, as Italo Calvino once said of literature generally, "a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever." The publication of "Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box," which gathers for the first time Bishop's unpublished material, isn't just a significant event in our poetry; it's part of a continuing alteration in the scale of American life."

These are indeed big claims. But note that Orr goes on to define this sea-change - which Bishop allegedly has produced - in Bishopian terms. In other words, the review (like a poem, or a good tractate) "does what it says". Bishop's changed our world? She's changed my world. I'll show you how - in the very way I write this essay.

Orr hedges & qualifies the claims of the first paragraph throughout the rest of the review. The change-of-scale engineered by Bishop is one toward modesty and exactitude. It may not be noticed, proclaimed, or even noticeable. It's hidden, refined, buried, shaped - like the poems themselves. Yet the egocentric circus-wizards of 20th-century poetic melodrama are no longer holding sway.

(Re-reading the review, I was struck by the prevalence of the crystallography analogy, which I've often noted in Mandelstam. "Poets, envy the crystallographers!" and "Poetry : beneath its modest exterior lies an interior of terrifying density.")

Jonathan quotes this poem as a kind of evidence for his frustration with Orr's "invisible sea-change" argument:


The tumult in the heart
keeps asking questions.
And then it stops and undertakes to answer
in the same tone of voice.
No one could tell the difference.

Uninnocent, these conversations start,
and then engage the senses,
only half-meaning to.
And then there is no choice,
and then there is no sense;

until a name
and all its connotations are the same.

This is a poem about poetry. Note the overlapping rhyme scheme, as if the 2nd stanza were folded over the first : and the break in the rhyme in the 2nd stanza's 3rd line : & how this break echoes the logic of the line itself. That is, the "uninnocent" aesthetic echoing of an advancing poetic "conversation" has an inertial impetus of its own - the way conversations have an uncontrollable waywardness. And the poet partly resists this loss of control : "half-meaning to", she breaks the rhyme scheme.

As the 2nd stanza's rhyming inexorably advances, however, the poet (or lover, or lunatic) continues to lose control, to go toward chaos (no choice - no sense)... until, magically, a poem resolves itself : represented in this poem by the sudden turn of the final couplet, the "marriage" of the end-rhyme, and, additionally, the mirroring of that rhyme in its meaning. The name and all its others & otherness (its connotations) merge : "name" achieves "same" - union, coherence, synthesis (overturning the previous broken rhyme).

This is like a miniature plot reversal in a comedy.

Again, look at what the 1st stanza is saying : the hidden tumult in the heart begins to answer its own questions in the "same tone of voice", and "No one could tell the difference". This is exactly what the poem does, by moving to the 2nd stanza in an echoing rhyme scheme ("same tone of voice" - "no difference"). It's as if this hidden reflexivity - this mirroring process of art, which is interior, which no one notices - propels the poet toward a dramatic crisis, which only the counter-turn of the closing reversal can resolve.

All hidden, disguised, modest - a crystal hidden in a gray stone.

The poem opens with an echo of Yeats (the "tumult in the heart" : poetry as a quarrel with ourselves) and closes with an echo of Shakespeare (the resolution in the "name"):

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

(A Midsummer Night's Dream, 5.1.7-17.)

Addendum : Orr is not so much focusing on Bishop's effect on the shifting prestige rankings within poetry criticism, or within poetry subculture itself : he's talking, more radically, about an effect on the scale of culture-at-large.

That is, Bishop's style - of modesty, restraint, irony, precision - represents a foregrounding or magnification of certain qualities peculiar to poetry per se, as an art form amidst other arts and human activities. Her work embodies - crystallizes - these specific attributes.

And it is the subterranean, occulted impact of such "pure poetry" - as exemplified in the poem I just unpacked - which Orr is identifying and "magnifying" in turn.


Our local paper, the Providence Journal, published this poem (from Way Stations) on Sunday.

"Ocean State" is RI's official nickname; it's on the license plates. So every time you see a RI license plate, you'll be reminded.

Tom Chandler the (former?) official RI state poet, does a monthly column in the paper, which features a poem along with a little background on the author. A nice thing to do.


Here the waters gather along the shore.
They meet the land breathing in foam,
and roll the sleepy pebbles and shells
back into long sand waves as before.

Our moon, casting her antique spells.
A motionless iris in the whale’s eye
of the sea, her unspeakable name
sinks to the bottom of lonely wells.

Her low whispers frame the deserted dome.
Her light covers the circus floor.
And she lifts, with one nocturnal sigh,
the heaving swells in a silver comb.


Jack actually read the review.


Though I still feel the "blame the mainstream" game is zero-sum all the way. A game for losers (us'ns).

Orr points toward self-effacing precision (in Bishop) as opposed to personality (as in Lowell, Berryman), and I think he means it's that quality which she has instilled, in her self-effacing way, in the good poetry of later generations. This has nothing to do with who or who doesn't get into the New Yorker (& that's one of the more boring topics in our wee world of posies & poseurs).
....yet it behooves one to step cautiously around the mythologizers & psychologizers.

I find I can believe without understanding; nevertheless, I'd like to understand.

It's the original mystery story.
Curious how Anastasios & I sometimes seem to be thinking along parallel tracks. His current post is helpful to me. I obsess about this profound riddle & mystery (the one he describes).

This morning it occurred to me that the only way it makes sense (to me) is as something both 1) real - factual - in some unexplicable way, and 2) symbolic: a theatrical performance.

But Campbell, here, seems to help with the explication part. Myth as reality, in some fashion, anyway (in the Northrop Frye sense, maybe).

Religious or spiritual concepts & vocabulary, aided (in the face of doubt) by the "science" of art & storytelling.


I'm with the Bachelardette on this one. Bloggers seem to think poetry reviewing is somewhere between baseball ranking debates and the latest assault from the class-historical superstructure.