Thursday, January 29, 2009

An issue or two; a poem or two


This is for my follower(s) (there is the hope that one day, there will be more. While I'm at it, I'd like to note a problem with the terminology. If I'm going to have "followers," why not just call them "minions"? I mean, if we are going to make the first pedagogical-semantic choice, why not the second? If I have followers, does that make me a demagogue? If this were a composition blog, would that make me a pedagogue? Can't "followers" just be "readers"? Does it have to be cute or clever?) in the hope that I can get some help. In a recent interview published in American Poetry Review, Jack Gilbert made the most precise indictment of the MFA workshop system I've yet seen. His problem, or his main problem, is that the workshop generally focuses on making the poem more publishable than when it was submitted. To make the poem, essentially, more marketable. This involves concessions to fashion, and fails, as Gilbert points out, to address larger issues of whether the poem is actually good. We rarely say to a young poet, "What you are doing is wrong. The idea of it is wrong." I can't conceive of the number of times I've wanted to say to a workshop companion, in fiction or poetry, that I didn't think they way they chose to write was worth pursuing. And it has to do, as Gilbert points out later in the interview, with a general lack of emotion, either embedded in the poem, or ellicited from the reader. "If it's not emotional," he says, "what does it offer?" What can it offer? I am about to merge into traffic with another blog, so I'll just let you read that one. Anyway, I don't have the gravitas, couch credentials, or really anything else that Jack Gilbert has, but as Wilco says (at least with my poetry), "I'm trying to break your heart."

All of this as a long way of saying, if you have an issue with the bedrock of what I'm doing, of my approach to writing poetry, tell me that too. Unless you're a L=A=N...I can't even bring myself to do it. Unless you consider yourself a language poet (for God's sake, what other kind of poet is there, you pompous a-holes? Aren't we all using language? Didn't Stein and cummings already cover this ground?).


Breathing the Suffer

There is no river to see,
no burial mound, no shroud
on the yellow earth.
When you reach the mountain pass,
you see only a thin trail.
You change your name
to I don't know, and lose
every argument you've ever had.

This is the top of the world
and once, there were glaciers—
now, just stone.

The wander, the want—
this hollow life,
a shallow lake far below.
You have two choices—
follow the trail—after miles

there is a valley—food,
shelter, the long suffer
of your forever and ever—
follow the trail, or don't.

Shooting Light

Crouched cold. The sun won’t rise
for another hour. I imagine the shot—
smooth squeeze of trigger—

punctured heart or lung—
then the quartering—hard-won elk
steak, braised elk back-strap,
elk jerky and stew all winter.
But light does what it must.
The bare ridge I imagined
as I scaled down the mountain
in the dark is crowded
by the morning ghosts of tamaracks.
No shooting alleys, no elk
sky-lined on the ridge. No ridge.

Isn’t this love? still heart
ready to leap, but denied
once more by what
it always knew to be true.

For discussion:

There is an issue between the stanzas in the second poem that I am having a hard time resolving. I'm pretty sure something needs to go there, or something more needs to happen in the final stanza. But I can't figure out what. So, dear follower(s), what do I do?


  1. My thoughts: the first stanza should end with "elk jerky and stew all winter."

    The second stanza should begin "But light does what it must." I think, then, you will see a blanaced connection between the first and second stanza and that they will talk to each other better.

    Also, I think line 5 should be "then the quartering--", then the next lines could be: "hard-won elk steak, / braised elk back-strap, / elk jerky and stew all winter."

    The line break will remove some awkwardnesses. That is: line 5 will end stronger. I mean, I see what is happening by ending with "hard-won elk", but it is stronger to end on the action, and in turn it will have better image-resonance with "shot", as well as the other uncomfortable images that precede: a sun that won't rise and a punctured heart or lung. On top of that, then you can turn, on the line break, to the comfort of food--a whole list of foods. So the poem goes from unsettling imagery to comfort.


  2. First, in response to Tom's comment: I agree that line 5 needs a different break. But I might end it before the word elk, rather than after: "Then the quartering -- hard-won/ elk steak..." etc.

    As for the final stanza: The question is a bit startling. I don't get love from what's gone on before, and the "still heart" hearkens back to the "punctured heart or lung" earlier in the poem. So part of me is wondering if the heart is the elk's, not the speaker's. The "once more" in the penultimate line tells me there's something I don't know, and am not going to know. The poem is so concrete up until those last few lines. The final stanza is all introspection, or speculation, or something. I feels disconnected from its lack of cold or ridge or meat or something else sharp or earthy.

    So, I don't know what you do. But that's what I think. Now you figure out what to do.

  3. Well, well, Mr. Font-man. I'm more jarred by the change in font in the first poem than I am by a seeming awkwardness in the second.

    On a more serious note, I see the love, but maybe only because I've been on that ridge and know what it takes to get there and want to be there.