Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thus Far, Part 1 (or really, part 1b)

I want to put together some thoughts , over the next few posts, on the Workshop work that you've all been posting thus far. Some of this is reiteration of what I've been posting to the Workshop as replies, but I thought it might be good to pull some of it together.

By the way -- are you opening and reading all my replies to other student's posts? Essentially, those are becoming the ongoing lectures (Ihadn't intended it that way at the start; remember, this course is an experiment). So, try to get in the habit of reading my posts, because I'm directing my replies to everyone -- not everything is meant only as a comment on the particular poem or story I'm "replying" to.

For now, I'll stay with a discussion of poetic form; we've had some brief fiction work, but I'll get to that a little later.

One point I've made in several posts has to do with the poetic line. Other than breaking the line before the right margin, what makes a poem a poem?

The most noticeable thing is end rhyme, perhaps. But my observation in many comments has been that an end-rhyme isn't enough to create the integrity of the verse line (to put it in yet another phrasing). More important, I think, is whatI've called the cadence or meter of the line.

Many poets over the past century or so have written free-verse poetry, which doesn't mean "unrhymed" so much as unmetered. However, free verse poetry still, usually, has a cadence. What is that? I think of it as some way of creating a pattern of sounds that is pleasing and that guides the reader, beyond the sense of the words themselves -- through stress patterns that are not necessarily metrical, but also through grammar, rhetoric, or what can be referred to as "sound symbolism" or "phonetic symbolism," or some other way of drawing more attention to the language than we might expect in prose.

It's very hard to make a clear definition of "poetry" vs. "prose." There are prose poems, for example. So, which are they? Prose, of poetry? We often like things to fit neatly into categories, but often, they don't. Perhaps an artist, or a creative person generally, is someone who doesn't mind, or actually enjoys, confusions of identity, meaning, form, etc. Boundary zones are fruitful places.

So, I am attempting operative definitions here: not absolute ones.

But back to my point: when writing a line of poetry, rhymed or not, try to discover what qualities of language will give energy to the line; and how that will create a pattern, an integrity (something that earns its way, perhaps), a sense of wholeness or rightness.

Metered verse, in the English-language tradition, is "accentual-syllabic," primarily (but not exclusively). That means: verse in which the poet has created a line of a certain number of syllables (usually eight or ten) and a certain number and pattern of accents.  The most common pattern, traditionally, has been "iambic pentameter" -- something like this:

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang

Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:

(Shakespeare's Sonnet 28)

If I use capitals to point out the stress pattern, it looks like:

That TIME of YEAR thou MAY'ST in ME beHOLD
When YELow leaves, or NONE, or FEW do HANG
UpON those BOUGHS which SHAKE aGAINST the COLD...

You'll notice, by the way, that the pattern is not consistent. A poem that was perfectly metrical (da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH da DUH) would sound mechanical. So, the poet sets up a recognizable pattern, then avails himself of inversions, ellisions, additions, and truncations along the way -- often to draw attention to something connected to meaning in the poem. many sound effects are mimetic of meanings, or so people often feel. But other effects are far more subjective, and draw connection to meaning through context, or from a long-held association common among speakers of a language. "K" sounds sound hard; "s" sounds (sibilance) sound soft, or weak; "aye" and "ei" sounds are bright, "oooh" and "oh" sounds are dark, and so forth -- depending on context.

Anyway, an iamb is two syllables, unstressed followed by a stressed; pentameter means five pairs, making a ten-syllable line. Tetrameter would be four pairs. If you're interested in learning more about traditional prosody, Google "meter" or prosody"; here is the Wikipedia page:

It isn't necessary to write metered verse. But it is a good idea to practice it as a way of improving your ear and your command of a free-verse line, which still needs that "integrity" -- something that makes every syllable earn its way, something that justifies every sound and every word in the poem. And that is one operative definition, for me, of a poem: a text in which every mark, every sound, counts -- nothing unneeded is allowed in, and yet it might seem conversational or casual.

I encourage everyone to read a lot more poetry in the "Anthologies" post below. Reading a lot of poetry will greatly improve your ear, and your sense of what's possible.

I'll do more in another post on other issues, and say more about meter and cadence and other sound elements as well. For now, consider the above; and regarding rhyme, try leaving it out, and find the elements in the line itself that give your line its integrity; don't just work your way out to a rhyme with whatever words and sounds get you there. Also, consider other patterns of rhyme besides couplet rhyme. it's often to chiming, too close to allow some of the more pleasing effects of rhyme. Consider quatrain patterns (such as abab, abba, abcb, and so forth) as well as other patterns, and random rhyming.

More later...

Poetry Anthologies, and Various Reflections on Our Work Thus Far...

We don't have a text in this course -- because what I think works best is for writers to discover texts individually, and (as I am doing via the Internet) in relation to specific exercises, or challenges in form and craft.

These are related impulses, although they might sound contradictory. Every writer's path is unique, and yet there are patterns, and writers are a community: influencing, critiquing, competing, reading, envying, disparaging, supporting...dysfunctional at times, but a community.

What are you reading, besides the samples I'm providing? It is important for writers to read voraciously; that's how you discover possibilities -- or at least, it is the best way to discover them: to see what writers before you have already done. Usually, they've done there work in part by borrowing/stealing from writers before them.

If you read a lot, even pushing through on poems and stories that confuse or bother you, you will absorb much; after a while, you'll write as if regurgitating. It will lead you to write some things that are too much in the voice or style of other poets (try reading a lot of Walt Whitman, then try not to write in long anaphoric lines!), but it will also help you build a repertoire of your own: a series of gestures, sounds, patterns, etc. that are your own, but which connect you to the commuity of writers.

One of the things most often missing in the poems I''m seeing on the Workshop is a good sense of cadence or rhythm in the lines; or, an effort at working within a cohesive set of sounds, what is sometimes called "phonetic symbolism" -- vowel and consonant patterns that somehow fit together and create interesting textures that are as important to the poem as the meaning -- or more so.

If you read a lot, you'll have a better ear for cadence, and for the particular rhythms that are your own. But stop, everyone, aiming only for end-rhyme! That's not the be-all and end-all of a poem; it's not the one thing that makes verse verse. It's not bad, and in fact it can be very pleasing; but aim first for a strong line, with or without end-rhyme.

Also, rhyme can be more than couplet-rhyme: again, if you read a lot, you'll see that there are more patterns of rhyme, and often, a more distant relationship between rhyming words can be far more pleasing than the often too-close couplet rhyme.

Anyway, this post was to be about anthologies: I have found two good lists already on the Web. I recommend that you find a couple of these, and keep them around for a while: pick them up, browse, read, and if you really like a certain poet, then buy/borrow some of his/her full-length collections. Do you have a Houston Public or Harris County Public Library card? Also, HCCS campuses all have good libraries; also, if you go to an HCCS library and request a Texshare card, you can check books out at UH, TSU, and other area academic libraries. But those, along with Rice, will let you in; it's just that to check books out, you need the Texshare card (up to four books at a time; and Rice isn't part of Texshare -- it's for public institutions).

Also, besides Brazos Bookstore, Barnes & Noble, Borders, and other bookstores, thre are used bookstores -- Half Price is the dominant one these days, with several stores in the area.

Here is a list of anthologies at the site:

...and at the ever-useful Wikipedia site:

I'll do a post on fiction antholiogies next.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Poetry Reading

This is late notice, but if you're free tonight or tomorrow night, you might find these two poets worth hearing:

If not tonight (Thursday), the same poets are reading at HCC's Southeast College Friday night as well:

Literary Luminaries Poetry Series

Sep 25, 2009
7 p.m. - 9 p.m.
Features poets Dean Young and Matt Hart, plus student performers. Sponsored by HCC Southeast, English Studies Department and CAB. Contact: 713-718-7165 or 713-718-7159
Location: Learning Hub auditorium.

Robert MacBrearty: “First Day”

THE BOSS SPAT. "Do you know how to work hard?" he asked. "I mean hard?"
"Not really," I said.
"I'll take a chance on you," he said. "The first thing you need to do is move that big thing over there."
"That big thing?"
"Hell yes, that big thing."
"It sure looks big," I said.
"You're goddamn right it's big. That is one big thing."
"Where do you want it?"
"Well, we sure as hell don't want it there, do we?"
"So where do we want it?"
"Where do you think we want it, Einstein?"
"Do we want it over there?" I asked, pointing.
"Hell no, we don't want it over there. What the hell would we want that big thing over there for?"
"I guess we don't."
"You're damn right we don't. Take it down to the goddamn warehouse, Edison."
"Where's the warehouse?"
"Where's the warehouse? You work here and you don't know where the goddamn warehouse is?" The boss spat. "Three blocks that way, and then turn that way and then turn that way. That's where the goddamn warehouse is, Balzac."
"Well, okay," I said. "I'll take that big thing down to the warehouse."
"They'll know what to do with that big thing there."
I got ahold of the big thing and tried to hoist it tip on my shoulders.
The boss ran up. His face was red. He spat. "What do you think you're doing? You don't lift those big things, Galileo. You roll them. -What did you do, go to college? You roll those goddamn big things. You don't lift them."
"Okay, okay," I said. "I'll roll it."
I got behind the big thing. I put my shoulder against it. I grunted. My heels came off the ground. The boss watched me. "How's it feel?" he asked.
"Big," I said.
"You're goddamn right," he said.
I dug my feet into the ground and pushed. It creaked and slid a couple of inches.
"Roll it straight, Da Vinci," the boss hollered. "Don't let that big thing get away from you."
It was getting easier. The big thing was starting to roll. The big thing bounced to the left, and the big thing dragged to the right, and I tried to move it from side to side. We rolled out the gate and on to the street. Cars started honking. People were yelling. A guy shouted out his window, "Get that big thing out of the street, you moron!"
I got the big thing up on the sidewalk. it started to pick up speed. It was really rolling now. I saw some people on the sidewalk. I tried to stop the big thing but it just pulled me along with it. "Hey look out," I called. "I can't slow this thing down."
"Watch it, watch it," a man cried. "He's out of control."
People dove out of the way. "Be careful with that big thing," a lady screamed. "You ought to be ashamed."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just trying to do my job."
I turned this way and I turned that way and then I turned that way, and I kept running behind the big thing calling, "Look out! Everybody look out!"
I saw a bunch of guys on the loading dock at the warehouse. They were hollering and waving their arms at me. The big thing rolled through the gate and headed right at them. They shouted and scattered out of the way as the big thing smashed into the dock. Wood splintered, some boxes fell, glass broke.
A man with a clipboard charged up to me. "What the hell are you trying to do with that big thing, kill somebody?" he screamed. Some guys with tattoos surrounded me and stood around spitting.
"My boss told me to take it down here," I said.
"Well, we sure as hell don't want that big thing here. Why the hell do you think we want that big thing down here?"
" I’m just trying to do my job," I said.
Somebody spat tobacco juice on my sneakers. The guy with the clipboard poked me in the chest. "You got a form?"
"No. Nobody said anything about a form."
"Well, I sure as hell can't take that thing without a form, can I? You're going to have to take that back and get a form."
"Okay," I said. "I'll get a form."
"And don't forget to bring me some avocados while you're at it."
“Okay. Sure."
They all hooted and whistled at me as I tried to get the big thing turned around.
"Crank it, crank the son of a bitch," somebody yelled.
"Where?" They all laughed like ruptured hyenas. "Crank it 'where'?"
They hooted, punched each other in the ribs, slapped hands.
I stood on the dock and shoved and the big thing moved an inch and rolled back. The dock vibrated.
"Get that big thing out of here!" the clipboard guy yelled.
"Okay, I will," I said. I put my feet on the edge of the dock and leaned my back up against the big thing and pushed. It lurched forward suddenly and I fell off the dock and scraped my hands and knees. The big thing wobbled forward on its own.
The gang couldn't take it anymore. They convulsed with laughter. They collapsed and lay down on the dock squirming with laughter. One guy drew himself to his knees and said, "If you don't get that big thing out of here now, I'm going to waste you. I'm going to blow you away. We don't take that kind of crap here. We don't take it."
“I'll get it out of here," I said. I caught up to the big thing. It was rolling now. After it was rolling, it wanted to roll. It loved to roll. it was born to roll. After it was rolling, it would roll.
I didn't want to take the big thing back out on the street. I saw an alleyway. I thought I might be able to go back that way. I leaned my shoulder against the big thing. It decided to go the way I wanted to go.
We zoomed down the alley. We knocked over some trashcans. We scared the hell out of a cat. "Look out, cat," I called. The cat stared after us. Its confidence was shot to hell.
We rolled out of the alley and into a park. When the big thing hit the grass, it really started to move. I couldn't keep up with it. The big thing raced ahead of me. I thought that I had lost the big thing for good, but it smashed into a tree. The tree shuddered. The big thing sat against the tree looking like it wanted to belch. I ran up to it. The big thing looked okay. I was glad the boss hadn't seen me roll the big thing into a tree.
I saw a water fountain and I thought I'd get a drink. I left the big thing by the tree and walked over to the fountain. When I turned around, I saw two jerks rolling the big thing down a grassy hill.
"Hey, that's my big thing," I shouted. I ran after them.
The two jerks saw me coming and they gave the big thing a push and took off running in opposite directions. The big thing gathered speed and rolled down the hill and into a muddy ditch.
I slid down the bank of the ditch and waded through the mud to the big thing. I pushed against it and tried to rock it from side to side, but it was really stuck in the mud. It was starting to sink. I was starting to sink too. I'd gotten my foot caught underneath the big thing and now we were sinking together. I was down to my hips. Then I was down to my chest. The mud was up to my neck. I was going down with the big thing. I felt depressed.
“What the hell are you doing down there with that big thing, Houdini?" the boss screamed from up above me. He got out of a jeep. He spat. His face looked red. A tow truck pulled up behind the jeep. Some guys with tattoos got out and looked down at the big thing and me. The mud was over my chin. They looked at each other and shook their heads and spat.
"I ran into a little trouble," I said. "I was trying to bring this big thing back."
"Why the hell were you trying to bring that big thing back, Galahad?" the boss shouted.
"They said I needed a form."
"You forgot the form? You didn't take the goddamn form?"
"Nobody said anything about a form."
"Nobody said anything? You don't think you just move one of those big things without a form, do you?"
"I guess not," I mumbled. I had mud in my mouth.
"Get a cable around that big thing, boys," the boss said.
The guys with tattoos slid down the bank and looped a cable around the big thing and started hoisting it out. I held on to the big thing and they dragged me out with it. I was covered in mud. I had mud in my eyes.
The boss looked at me and spat. He signaled to a guy who bad a toilet tattooed on his chest. "Joe, take this big thing down to the warehouse and tell them I'm sorry for sending Sappho. Tell them Sappho just didn't know what the hell he was doing."
Joe spat. "No problem, boss."
"They want some avocados too," I said.
"Are you out of your mind, Columbus?" the boss snapped. "You mean you forgot the avocados? You didn't even take the avocados?"
The boss looked stunned. "Jesus Christ," he said to the other guys. "Can you imagine what would happen if they didn't get their avocados?"
The boys whistled and shook their heads.
"How could anyone forget the avocados?" the boss asked in disbelief.
"Am I fired?" I asked.
"Fired? Don't be so goddamn sensitive, Geronimo. Don't you like working here?" The boss got back in his jeep. "If you weren't so muddy, I'd give you a lift."
“Don't worry about it," I said.
"Get some lunch, Tolstoy." The boss spat and drove away.
I walked back to work. I sat down with some guys in the grass. They were grinning at me. They offered me some chips and avocado dip.
"So how do you like those big things?" they asked.
"They're okay," I said.
"You'll get the hang of them."
"Is the boss always like that?" I asked.
They stopped grinning. "Like what?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Hey, the boss is a great guy," they said.
"He seems like it," I said.
"You're new. Just listen and learn. You're going to love it here."
They spat. So did I.

Alfred Corn: “Contemporary Culture and the Letter ‘K’”

First inroads were made in our 19-aughts
(Foreshadowed during the last century by nothing
More central than "Kubla Khan," Kipling, Greek
Letter societies, including the grotesque KKK –
Plus the kiwi, koala, and kookaburra from Down Under)
When certain women applied to their moist eyelids
A substance pronounced coal but spelled kohl,
Much of the effect captured on Kodak film
With results on and off camera now notorious.
They were followed and sometimes chased by a platoon
Of helmeted cutups styled the Keystone Kops, who'd
Freeze in the balletic pose of the letter itself,
Left arm on hip, leg pointed back at an angle,
Waiting under klieg lights next a worried kiosk
To put the kibosh on Knickerbocker misbehavior.
Long gone, they couldn't help when that hirsute royal
King Kong arrived to make a desperate last stand,
Clinging from the Empire State, swatting at biplanes,
Fay Wray fainting away in his leathern palm
As in the grip of African might. Next, marketing
Stepped up with menthol tobacco and the brand name
Kool, smoked presumably by models and archetypes
Superior in every way to Jukes and Kallikaks.
By then the race was on, if only because
Of German Kultur's increasing newsworthiness
On the international front. The nation that had canned
Its Kaiser went on to sponsor debuts for the hero
Of Mein Kampf, Wotan of his day, launching thunderbolts
And Stukas, along with a new social order astonishing
In its industrial efficiency. His annexing
Of Bohemia cannot have been spurred by reflecting
That after all Prague had sheltered the creator
And in some sense alter-ego of Josef K.,
Whose trial remained a local fact until the fall
Of the Empire of a Thousand Years, unheard of in 'Amerika"
Of the Jazz Age. But musicians Bix Beiderbecke and Duke
Ellington somehow always took care to include the token
Grapheme in their names, for which precaution fans
Of certain priceless '78’s can only be grateful.
They skipped and rippled through a long post-war glow
Still luminous in the memory of whoever recalls
Krazy Kat, Kleenex, Deborah Kerr, Korea, Kool-Aid,
And Jack Kennedy. Small wonder if New York had
A special feeling for the theme, considering radical
Innovations of De Kooning, Kline, and Rothko. This last
Can remind us that bearers of the letter often suffered
Bereavement and despair (cf. Chester Kallman) and even,
As with Weldon Kees, self-slaying. Impossible not to see
Symptoms of a malaise more widespread still in a culture
That collects kitsch and Krugerrands, with a just-kids lifestyle
Whose central shrine is the shopping mall - K-Mart, hail to thee!
To "Kuntry Kitchen," "Kanine Kennels," and a host of other
Kreative misspellings kreeping through the korpus
Of kontemporary lingo like an illness someone someday
(The trespass of metaphor) is going to spell "kancer.”

True, there have been recidivists in opposite
Direction (a falling away perhaps from the Platonic ideal
Of to kalon*) like "calisthenics" and Maria Callas,
Who seem to have preferred the less marblelike romance
Of traditional English. This and related factors make all
Supporters of the letter "k" in legitimate forms
And avatars cherish it with fiery intensity -
All the more when besieged by forces beyond
Anyone's control, at least, with social or medical
Remedies now available. Dr. Kaposi named it,
That sarcoma earmarking a mortal syndrome thus far
Incurable and spreading overland like acid rain.
A sense of helplessness is not in the repertory national
Of our national consciousness, we have no aptitude
For standing by as chill winds rise, the shadows gather,
And dray light glides into the room where a seated figure
Has taken up his post by the window, facing away from us,
No longer bothering to speak, his mind at one with whatever
Is beyond the ordinary spell of language, whatever dreams us
Into that placeless place, its nearest image a cloudless
Sky at dusk, just before the slow ascent of the moon.

* to kalon: Greek, "the beautiful"

Arthur Hugh Clough: “The Last Decalogue”

Thou shalt have one God only; -who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipped, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When 'tis so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet, but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

James Wright: "An Offering for Mr. Bluehart"

That was a place, when I was young,
Where two or three good friends and I
Tested the fruit against the tongue
Or threw the withered windfalls by.
The sparrows, angry in the sky,
Denounced us from a broken bough.
They limp along the wind and die.
The apples all are eaten now.

Behind the orchard, past one hill
The lean satanic owner lay
And threatened us with murder till

We stole his riches all away.
He caught us in the act one day
And damned us to the laughing bone,
And fired his gun across the gray
Autumn where now his life is done.

Sorry for him, or any man
Who lost his labored wealth to thieves,
Today I mourn him, as I can,
By leaving in their golden leaves
Some luscious apples overhead.
Now may my abstinence restore
Peace to the orchard and the dead.
We shall not nag them any more.

Craig Raine: "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home"

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings -

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside -
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone's pain has a different smell.

At night when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves -
in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Poetry & Poets in Film

One of your choices for the midterm Report is to watch and report on a film that features poetry or the life of a poet in some fashion. Here is a long (but not complete) list of choices, briefly annotated to indicate which poet is featured. Also see the resources:

The Anniversary Party – Matthew Arnold
Awakenings – Rainer Maria Rilke
Barfly – Charles Bukowsi
Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll
Barretts of Wimpole Street – Robert & Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Beautiful Dreamers – Walt Whitman
Before Sunrise – W. H. Auden
The Bridges of Madison County – Lord Byron
Bull Durham – Whitman, Thomas Gray
Crimes and Misdemeanors – Emily Dickinson
Dante’s Inferno – Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Dead Man – William Blake
Dead Poets Society – Several
The Disappearance of Garcia Lorca – Federico Garcia Lorca
Dr. Zhivago – various
The Edge of Love – Dylan Thomas
A Fine Madness – fictional
Forced March – Miklos Radnoti
Four Weddings and a Funeral – Auden
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Alexander Pope
Gothic – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley
Hannah and Her Sisters – ee. cummings
Haunted Summer – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley
Hedd Wyn – Welsh poet
Henry Fool – fictional
The Horse’s Mouth – various
The Hours – fictional
Il Postino – Pablo Neruda
In the Bedroom – William Blake, HW Longfellow
The Incredibly True Story of Two Girls in Love – Walt Whitman
In Custody – fictional
In Her Shoes – Elizabeth Bishop, e.e. cummings
The Ladykillers – Edgar Allan Poe
Love Jones – Sonia Sanchez
The Loved One – various
Memphis Belle – WB Yeats
Mindwalk – Kenneth Patchen, Pablo Neruda
Mirrors – fictional
Mrs. Parker & the Vicious Circle – Dorothy Parker
Out of Africa – Coleridge, A. E. Houseman
The Outsiders – Robert Frost
Pandaemonium – William Wordsworth, ST Coleridge
Patch Adams – Pablo Neruda
Pinero – Miguel Pinero
Poetic Justice – Maya Angelou
Possession – fictional
Prince of Tides – fictional
Quiz Show – various
The Reader – Charles Baudelaire
Reuben, Reuben – fictional
Rowing With the Wind – Lord Byron and Percy Shelley
Shakespeare in Love – Shakespeare
Slam – Saul Williams
Sophie’s Choice – Emily Dickinson
The Source – Allen Ginsburg
Sylvia – Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes
Smoke Signals – Sherman Alexie
Stevie – Stevie Smith
Till Human Voices Wakes Us – T. S. Eliot
Tom & Viv – T.S. Eliot
Total Eclipse – Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud
War Requiem – Wilfred Owen
The Weight of Water – various
Wildflowers – Robert Hass
Wit – John Donne
Women in Love – D. H. Lawrence

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Heinrich Böll: "The Laugher"

When someone asks me what business I am in, I am seized with embarrassment: I blush and stammer, I who am otherwise known as a man of poise. I envy people who can say: I am a bricklayer. I envy barbers, bookkeepers, and writers. All these professions speak for themselves. They need no lengthy explanation, while I am forced to reply to such questions: I am a laugher. Then I am always asked, "Is that how you make your living?" Truthfully I must say, "Yes." I actually do make a living at my laughing, and a good one, too. My laughing is - commercially speaking - much in demand. I am a good laugher, experienced. No one else laughs as well as I do. No one else has such command of the fine points of my art. For a long time, in order to avoid tiresome explanations, I called myself an actor. My talents in the field of mime and speech are small, so I felt this title to be too far from the truth. I love the truth, and the truth is: I am a laugher. I am neither a clown nor a comedian. I do not make people gay, I portray gaiety: I laugh like a Roman emperor, or like a sensitive schoolboy. I am as much at home in the laughter of the 17th century as in that of the 19th. When occasion demands, I laugh my way through all the centuries, all classes of society, all categories of age. It is simply a skill I have acquired, like the skill of being able to repair shoes. In my breast, I harbor the laughter of America, the laughter of Africa, white, red, yellow laughter. For the right fee, I let it peal out in accordance with the director's requirements.

I have become indispensable. I laugh on records. I laugh on tape. Television directors treat me with respect, I laugh mournfully, moderately, hysterically. I laugh like a streetcar conductor or like a clerk in the grocery; laughter in the morning, laughter in the evening, nighttime laughter, and the laughter of twilight. In short: Wherever and however laughter is required - I do it.
It need hardly be pointed out that a profession of this kind is tiring, especially as I have also -this is my specialty - mastered the art of infectious laughter. This has also made me indispensable to third - and fourth - rate comedians, who are scared - and with good reason - that their audiences will miss their punch lines. I spend most evenings in nightclubs. My job is to begin to laugh during the weaker parts of the program. It has to be carefully timed. My hearty, loud laughter must not come too soon, but neither must it come too late. It must come just at the right spot. At the pre-arranged moment, I burst out laughing. Then the whole audience roars with me, and the joke is saved. But as for me, I drag myself exhausted to the checkroom. I put on my overcoat, happy that I can go off duty at last. At home, I usually find telegrams waiting for me: "Urgently require your laughter. Recording Tuesday," and a few hours later I am sitting in an overheated express train bemoaning my fate.

I need scarcely say that when I am off I duty or on vacation I have little desire to laugh. The cowhand is glad when he can forget the cow. Carpenters usually have doors at home that don't work or drawers that are hard to open. Candy makers like sour pickles. Butchers like pastry, and the baker prefers sausage to breads. Bullfighters raise pigeons for a hobby. Boxers run pale when their children have nosebleeds: I find all this quite natural, for I never laugh off duty. I am a very solemn person, and people consider me - perhaps rightly so - a pessimist.

During the first years of our married life, my wife would often say to me: "Do laugh!" Since then, she has come to realize that I cannot grant her this wish. I am happy when I am free to relax my tense face muscles in a solemn expression. Indeed, even other people's laughter gets on my nerves. It reminds me too much of my profession. So our marriage is a quiet, peaceful one. Now my wife has also forgotten how to laugh. Now and again I catch her smiling, and I smile, too. We speak in low tones. I hate the noise of the nightclubs, the noise that sometimes fills the recording studios. People who do not know me think I am taciturn. Perhaps I am, because I have to open my mouth so often to laugh.

I go through life with a calm expression. From time to time, I permit myself a gentle smile. I often wonder whether I have ever laughed. I think not. My brothers and sisters have always known me for a serious boy.

So I laugh in many different ways, but my own laughter I have never heard.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Neruda on Film

Speaking of Neruda, have you seen il Postino? It's a good film about poetry, as well as about love, and a good fictionalized but historically rooted story of Neruda himself. Here's a clip:

Neruda's poetry is also featured in Patch Adams. Here's one clip; compare it to the funeral scene I posted earlier -- with the Auden poem:


We've had a few love poems in the Workshop; there are many good model poets to read, and I have mentioned a few in my comments on the Workshop. Here's one to study, partly because his point of view is very masculine, you might say -- and also vvery much informed by his somewhat surrealistic, "tropical" imagination.

Pablo Neruda: 100 Love Sonnets (Stephen Tapscott translation)

This is a Google Books preview only; look for the whole book in print!


There are hundreds of "ezines," or online literary publications; many are good, some are not -- but of course, to each his own!

Some of the online literary sites are companions to traditional print journals. Many of these have been around for decades; some are "establishment" publications, and others are more open to new and young writers.

For many print publications, you still need to snail-mail your submissions; but usually, they provide guidelines online for how to get through the door. Look for "Submission Guidelines" or "Submit" on the site.

Many, though, allow emailed submissions; there are still guidelines to follow -- carefully, to avoid going unread altogether. Some also have a Submissions Manager tool -- you upload a file and can track it through the Manager.

My recommendation is to do a lot of reading of these ezines (and print journals) before submitting any or your own work. It's all subjective: editors are not gods, but they sometimes act like they are. Check the guidelines regarding format, number of pieces, method of submission, aesthetic preferences, genre preferences, submission period, simultaneous submissions, and other matters.

Borders, Brazos Bookstore, Barnes & Noble carry some print journals. Also, the public library has some, but to see the greater number, go by the UH, TSU, or Rice libraries, and ask the librarian (or search the catalog) to find call numbers for most literary journals. Give yourself an afternoon to browse, and find ones you think are worthwhile -- for reading, perhaps subscribing, and eventually, for submitting.

Here is a site that lists a lot of lit mags:

...but google "ezines" or "literary journals" yourself, and you'll find specific sites as well as other directories that are worthwhile. None lists everything; so, search a few, at least.

And here are a few online mags worth browsing:

Born specializes in multimedia presentations;

...experimental work, for the most part;

..."establishment" writers -- the traditional Creative Writing world, online -- but you'll find some of the best living American writers here;

...young writers, heirs to the Establishment;

American Poetry Review -- the Establishment, and then some -- this is the main print publication for academic poetry;

...another key player in academic poetry, but a bit more open, perhaps;

Callaloo specializes in African American writing; of our local journals -- but of national reputation; run by the grad students, but professionally;

..."creative nonfiction" done concisely;

...the anti-establishment, but successful enough to have become Establishment Alternative; this is a clearinghouse site, so take time to explore;

...a wide range of academic and more freewheeling writers.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Derek Mahon's "Matthew 5 v. 29-30"

I'll post an exercise for this next week; but it's here as an example of hyperbole, or perhaps reductio ad absurdum:

Matthew 5 v. 29-30

Lord, mine eye offended, so I plucked it out.
Imagine my chagrin
when the offense continued.
So I plucked out
the other; but the offense continued.

In the dark now, and working by touch,
I shaved my head.
(The offense continued.)
Removed an ear,
another, dispatched the nose.

The offense continued.
Imagine my chagrin.

Next, in long strips, the skin--
razored the tongue, the toes,
the personal nitty gritty.
The offense continued.

But now, the thing finding its own momentum,
the more so since
the offense continued,
I entered upon a prolonged course
of lobotomy and vivisection,
reducing the self
to a rubble of organs, a wreckage of bones
in the midst of which, somewhere,
the offense continued.

Quicklime then, for the calcium, paraquat
for the unregenerate offal;
a spreading of topsoil,
a ploughing of this
and a sowing of it with barley.

Paraffin for the records of birth, flu
and abortive scholarship,
for the whimsical postcards, the checques
dancing like hail,
the surviving copies of poems published
and unpublished; a scalpel
for the casual turns of phrase engraved
on the minds of others;
an aerosol for the stray thoughts
hanging in air,
for the people who breathed them in.

Sadly, therefore, deletion of the many people
from their desks, beds, breakfasts,
buses and catamarans,
deletion of their machinery and architecture,
all evidence whatever
of civility and reflection,
of laughter and tears.

Destruction of all things on which
that reflection fed,
of vegetable and bird;
erosion of all rocks
from the holiest mountain
to the least stone;
evaporation of all seas,
the extinction of heavenly bodies--
until, at last, offense
was not to be found
in that silence without bound.

Only then was I fit for human society.

Derek Mahon

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Brown Reading Series

I will post messages over the next few days about resources for hearing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in Houston. Here's the first:

Margaret Root Brown Reading Series

This is the most notable literary-reading series in Houston, bringing nationally-renowned writers to read at the Alley theater downtown most often; check the details). The primary force behind this series is a nonprofit organization called Inprint, Inc; more about them in a later post.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Two Good Online Resources

Here are two useful sites, which I have already directed you to in the exercises thus far:

The Academy of American Poets:


The Annerberg Foundation: has audio, video, and numerous poems, essays, and other resources relating to poetry. is mainly an education site for all levels, but has many good video resources. In particular, you can find full-length episodes for the 13-part "Voices and Visions" series, which is about modern American poets such as langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whotman, and others. It is very well made, entertaining, and instructive about poetic craft.

Flannery O'Connor's "Revelation": An Excerpt

THE doctor's waiting room, which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence. She stood looming at the head of the magazine table set in the center of it, a living demonstration that the room was inadequate and ridiculous. Her little bright black eyes took in all the patients as she sized up the seating situation. There was one vacant chair and a place on the sofa occupied by a blond child in a dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make room for the lady. He was five or six, but Mrs. Turpin saw at once that no one was going to tell him to move over. He was slumped down in the seat, his arms idle at his sides and his eyes idle in his head; his nose ran unchecked.
Mrs. Turpin put a firm hand on Claud's shoulder and said in a voice that included anyone who wanted to listen, "Claud, you sit in that chair there," and gave him a push down into the vacant one. Claud was florid and bald and sturdy, somewhat shorter than Mrs. Turpin, but he sat down as if he were accustomed to doing what she told him to.
Mrs. Turpin remained standing. The only man in the room be¬sides Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat. Her gaze settled agreeably on a well dressed gray haired lady whose eyes met hers and whose expression said: if that child belonged to me, he would have some manners and move over there's plenty of room there for you and him too.
Claud looked up with a sigh and made as if to rise.
"Sit down," Mrs. Turpin said. "You know you're not supposed to stand on that leg. He has an ulcer on his leg," she explained.
Claud lifted his foot onto the magazine table and rolled his trouser leg up to reveal a purple swelling on a plump marble white calf.
"My!" the pleasant lady said. "How did you do that?"
"A cow kicked him," Mrs. Turpin said.
"Goodness!" said the lady.
Claud rolled his trouser leg down.
"Maybe the little boy would move over," the lady suggested, but the child did not stir.
"Somebody will be leaving in a minute," Mrs. Turpin said. She could not understand why a doctor with as much money as they made charging five dollars a day to just stick their head in the hospital door and look at you couldn't afford a decent sized wait¬ing room. This one was hardly bigger than a garage. The table was cluttered with limp looking magazines and at one end of it there was a big green glass ash tray full of cigarette butts and cotton wads with little blood spots on them. If she had had anything to do with the running of the place, that would have been emptied every so often. There were no chairs against the wall at the head of the room. It had a rectangular shaped panel in it that permitted a view of the office where the nurse came and went and the secretary listened to the radio. A plastic fern in a gold pot sat in the opening and trailed its fronds down almost to the floor. The radio was softly playing gospel music.
just then the inner door opened and a nurse with the highest stack of yellow hair Mrs. Turpin had ever seen put her face in the crack and called for the next patient. The woman sitting beside Claud grasped the two arms of her chair and hoisted herself up; she pulled her dress free from her legs and lumbered through the door where the nurse had disappeared.
Mrs. Turpin eased into the vacant chair, which held her tight as a corset. "I wish I could reduce," she said, and rolled her eyes and gave a comic sigh.
"Oh, you aren't fat," the stylish lady said.
"Ooooo I am too," Mrs. Turpin said. "Claud he eats all he wants to and never weighs over one hundred and seventy five pounds, but me I just look at something good to eat and I gain some weight," and her stomach and shoulders shook with laughter. "You can eat all you want to, can't you, Claud?" she asked, turning to him.
Claud only grinned.
"Well, as long as you have such a good disposition," the stylish lady said, "I don't think it makes a bit of difference what size you are. You just can't beat a good disposition."
Next to her was a fat girl of eighteen or nineteen, scowling into a thick blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human De¬velopment. The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at Mrs. Turpin as if she did not like her looks. She appeared annoyed that anyone should speak while she tried to read. The poor girl's face was blue with acne and Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age. She gave the girl a friendly smile but the girl only scowled the harder. Mrs. Turpin herself was fat but she had always had good skin, and, though she was forty seven years old, there was not a wrinkle in her face except around her eyes from laughing too much.
Next to the ugly girl was the child, still in exactly the same posi¬tion, and next to him was a thin leathery old woman in a cotton print dress. She and Claud had three sacks of chicken feed in their pump house that was in the same print. She had seen from the first that the child belonged with the old woman. She could tell by the way they sat kind of vacant and white trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if nobody called and told them to get up. And at right angles but next to the well dressed pleasant lady was a lank faced woman who was certainly the child's mother. She had on a yellow sweat shirt and wine colored slacks, both gritty¬ looking, and the rims of her lips were stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little piece of red paper ribbon. Worse than niggers any day, Mrs. Turpin thought.
The gospel hymn playing was, "When I looked up and He looked down," and Mrs. Turpin, who knew it, supplied the last line men¬tally, "And wona these days I know I'll wear a crown."