Saturday, January 30, 2010

Poetry x 12: A.R. Ammons

As part of Dana Guthrie Martin's Poetry x 12 challenge for January, I read A.R. Ammons' Uplands, published in 1970. My poetry knowledge is sparse, so comparing this book to those of its day and with what is being written today isn't something I can really do. I picked the book from the list on Wikipedia. Some heavy hitters were publishing that year: Ashbery, Brooks, Strand, Merwin, to name just a few that I recognized. Why Ammons then? Well, it was available at my library and I'd never read anything by him. And so I dug in:

Semicolons. Lots and lots of semicolons. Apparently, this was Ammons' signature piece of punctuation. They don't dominate every poem in this collection, but they play a strong role in giving the work a sense of continuous flow. My nature is to follow punctuation rules, as if my grade school teacher were looming over me with a ruler ready to swat my knuckles. It's always a pleasure then, to read a writer who has taken control of the punctuation and made it work for him. Prose so rarely lends itself to this kind of manipulation and so, again, another pleasure.

Nature is everywhere in these poems. Not a static description of it, but rather a dynamic view where change is inevitable.With a few exceptions, they felt very contemporary and I continually forgot that these were written 40 years ago. This is what I read on the Poetry Foundation's page on Ammons which perfectly sums up what I liked about his work:

"Ammons rehearses a marginal, a transitional experience[;] he is a literalist [sic] of the imagination because the shore, the beach, or the coastal creek is not a place but an event, a transaction where land and water create and destroy each other, where life and death are exchanged, where shape and chaos are won and lost." -Richard Howard.

Here are a few of my favorite lines, the final stanzas of "Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness"

for the inexcusable (the worthless abundant) the
merely tiresome, the obviously unimprovable,
to these and for these and for their undiminishment
the poets will yelp and hoot forever

rank as weeks themselves and just as abandoned:
nothing useful is of lasting value:
dry wind only is still talking among the oldest stones.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The sun is out in full force, pulling the first daphne from bud to bloom. I have a couple days of beach time under my belt. The state passed two important tax measures that should help keep us all afloat, clinging to our little soap-sliver of hope. Apparently the Abyss allows day trips to slightly brighter locales.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The abyss is lovely, come on in!

If ever I look back on the entries in this blog let it be known that January 2010 was when the last shred of hope I had for this country was torn in two. I still have a shred, but it's half the size. I barely even feel it there beneath my first rib.

First came the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. Every morning there were new pictures of the dead being lifted unceremoniously into dumptrucks, the desperate sleeping amongst the rubble. Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh exceeded my expectations for how hateful and cruel people could be while pretending to be concerned.

Then Ted Kennedy's senate seat went to a Republican who pretended to be "for the people" and talked a lot about his old truck. Slick as shit and stinky as shit too. The next day, Obama was talking about slowing down the push for health care. The stink wafted over and continues to linger.

This morning the Supreme Court ruled to allow corporations the ability to donate freely and widely to political campaigns. I can barely allow myself to think about this or I might scream.

Next Tuesday, Oregon votes on whether to raise the minimum corporate tax (so that companies like Portland General Electric pay more than their current $10) and raise income tax on individuals making more than $125,000. I fear disaster and my ratty shred of hope won't do much good when I go to sop up all my tears.

Damn. Bad week.

At least the sun came out today. I opened the front window a crack and sat squinting in the light as I wrote.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The imaginary poet thugs try to take me down.

I couldn't, for the life of me, get this photo to post in the correct direction. But maybe that's appropriate to what I want to say today. As part of my haphazard exploration of poetry, I've been listening to the Poetry Foundation's podcasts while I zone out and play mahjong online. It's true. This is what I do sometimes to wind down at the end of the day. That and have a glass of whiskey. I used to watch the evening news, maybe a little Simpsons, an occasional round of Jeapordy! but the TV is for DVDs only now. So instead I listen to things like Matthew Zapruder and producer Curtis Fox talk about John Ashbery's poem "How to Continue."

What I like about this short podcast is Zapruder's willingness to read a poem and sit in confusion afterwards, to dwell in feeling rather than thought. In fact he goes even further and says that after first reading the poem "I didn't know what I felt and that didn't bother me." He goes on to say that "you have to be ready to not know everything right away" and that you should resist the urge to think every poem is a metaphor. Thank you, Matthew Zapruder. That's just what I needed to hear.

Reading poems makes people feel stupid too often. I feel stupid much of the time even when I'm all alone reading a poem in bed. I want that to stop. Zapruder had a worthwhile technique that I think will work with at least some of my stumbling blocks. Simply read it again. And again. And again. Of course, the emotional tug has to be there first. Something has to grab me to want to spend that much time with a poem, but there's no need to abandon hope simply because I "don't get it."

If I never "get it" it still has to be okay to just like the sound of the words. Feel the thrum of joy or sadness without knowing why. Thrum without any kind of emotional label at all. Maybe this is basic stuff, but I think most people, if they ever think about poetry, think it's impenetrable. If you don't walk away enlightened then you're dumb and the pursuit of understanding is pointless. Avoid poetry at all costs.

I will admit that I have an irrationally strong fear of looking stupid. Even as I wrote the above paragraphs I thought how some poet friend is going to read this and say no, no, no...that's not how you go about reading poetry at all. Nice try, dumbass. Or they'll say, No shit Sherlock. I can't believe you're just figuring this out. (This is how the poet thugs talk in my brain) The imaginary poet thugs will then present a detailed and articulate argument for why I'm wrong. Such are my neuroses.

If I give in to this fear, however, no poetry will get read. So I'm going to buck up and read Ammons' book. One poem, "The Unifying Principle" that I was struggling with last night ends with the phrase "the small wraths of ease." Explain that to me if you'd like, but it doesn't matter. I'll like it regardless.

Monday, January 11, 2010

More poetry, more poetry. I've taken up the poetry x 12 challenge offered by Dana Guthrie Martin. This month the challenge is to read a collection that was published in the year you were born. I'm still waiting for my copy of A.R. Ammons' Uplands to come in at the library as well as Mona Van Duyn's To See, To Take.

I love the focus this kind of challenge offers, not too narrow, but a useful tool in beginning my navigation through some wide wide water. My further challenge will be to actually understand some of the work. I suspect a superficial yeah or nay may be all I'm capable of at first. What is the poem trying to do? I don't know. What is the poem about? I don't know. Do I like the words and rhythms? Yes, I hope so. Yes.

As an example, here's one by Ammons that I love for its language though I'm highly uncertain what it's about.

The City Limits

When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold
itself but pours its abundance without selection into every
nook and cranny not overhung or hidden; when you consider

that birds' bones make no awful noise against the light but
lie low in the light as in a high testimony; when you consider
the radiance, that it will look into the guiltiest

swervings of the weaving heart and bear itself upon them,
not flinching into disguise or darkening; when you consider
the abundance of such resource as illuminates the glow-blue

bodies and gold-skeined wings of flies swarming the dumped
guts of a natural slaughter or the coil of shit and in no
way winces from its storms of generosity; when you consider

that air or vacuum, snow or shale, squid or wolf, rose or lichen,
each is accepted into as much light as it will take, then
the heart moves roomier, the man stands and looks about, the

leaf does not increase itself above the grass, and the dark
work of the deepest cells is of a tune with May bushes
and fear lit by the breadth of such calmly turns to praise.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Writing in Bed.

For the last three years, the spare bedroom in my house has been my retreat as well as my office, workout space and closet. At the end of the year I had to deconstruct the space and recreate it in my own bedroom. Time for a new roommate.

New roommate is great. We love him. New office is strange. Sitting at the computer doesn't feel quite right yet. Looking at the wall or my own reflection in the mirror instead of the window and my neighbor's patio is a change, not good or bad. But I'm not drawn to the space yet.

Instead, I've discovered that I really like writing in bed. We keep the heat at around 60 degrees in our house during the winter. More than a few minutes at my desk and my hands are ice, my feet are chilled. I looked over my shoulder on one of my first days at my new desk space and there was the fake fur comforter, the electric blanket, the cat.

I grabbed the laptop, slipped beneath the covers and found that being warm does wonders for my creative flow. I'll be in good company too. Twain, Proust, Wharton, Percy, these are a few of the writers who propped up their pillows, blanketed their knees and broke out the pen and paper. I figure, if dreaming is as close as I can get to pure imagination, then why not settle in the spot where dreams happen and hope that a few of them cling to the covers and climb back into my brain.