Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Extraordinarily useful post by Kasey Mohammed yesterday in which he tries to answer the question, "How would you explain what you do in your writing to someone with no prior knowledge of poetry?" Read all about it at lime tree. He writes about teaching poetry to two basic groups: those with few preconceived notions about poetry who have an expansive, "it's all good" approach, and those who have already formed a rather limited and calcified notion of what poetry is, and how tricky it is to navigate teaching both groups in the same class. This strikes me as helpful not just for my own future teaching but for being a constructive participant in the Monroe seminar, which is largely composed of undergraduates of this latter type. As Kasey does, I feel a greater responsibility for engaging them, however frustrating it might sometimes be, because they are all English majors who are passionate about poetry, and some of them will certainly go on to write and/or teach the stuff themselves someday. As Smokey the Bear has been heard to say, Only You Can Prevent Aesthetic Conservatism. And let me too endorse his final paragraph as describing pretty well the outlines of my answer to this perpetual and nagging question:
So what is it that I do exactly? If anyone is still reading this, I guess what I might have answered if I had been more prepared is that I write poems to see what kinds of new things I can do with words and ideas. I want to find different places that poetry can come from, and to put poetry in places it hasn't been before. It may not always work, but even when it doesn't, the process of doing it makes me think in interesting ways, and I hope the act of reading it does this for others too.

It's high time I put up some permanent links to Kasey's blog, and Silliman's, and a few others who I read regularly for their remarkable grasp of the essayistic possibilities of blogging, or their sense of humor, or their outrage, or all three. Which has me thinking about the links I've already got up there. I put the Constant Critic up in the first days because I wanted to support the idea of an online minimag devoted exclusively to reviewing new poetry books. I still support that, and I'm not going to take the link down—but I was disheartened by Ray McDaniel's "hysterical and mean" (his own words) attack on Cal Bedient's new book, The Violence of the Morning. Full disclosure: Cal is something of a mentor of mine. He's shown a generous interest in my own work and has provided a back-cover blurb for Selah. I owe him. But I was a reader of his work long before he took any special notice of mine, and the virulence of McDaniel's review is such that any lover of poetry might stand up at this point to defend Cal Bedient. McDaniel's lack of restraint suggests to me not so much the free play of critical intelligence as something more along the lines of a vendetta. Bedient is a reviewer himself, of course, and a tough one, and I know there are poets who have taken a drubbing from him and resented it. Turnabout is fair play, I imagine you saying, or else the perennial plea for us to all get along and not write negative reviews. To the first group I say that karma is all well and good, but the gleefully vindictive tone Mr. McDaniel takes does not suggest a Buddha nature. To the second group I want to say that negative reviews serve a function, aside from being opportunities for better prose writing than a diet of pure positivity can provide; they almost always get us outside the frame of close reading and springboard off into a larger discussion about poetics. A negative review invariably foregrounds the reviewer's poetics and the ways they are in conflict (or more rarely, in dissonant congruence) with those of the poet in question, and this broaden's the reader's awareness of the Larger Questions in Poetry Today.

It's an extremely worthwhile enterprise, and I support the Constant Critic, and I support the right to write bad reviews. But I do question McDaniel's motives; is he really as outraged as his tone suggests (the final line of his review: "[A]t fifty-five pages, it would have been a pity. At close to one hundred, it's a crime.")? I generally reserve that kind of outrage for faux naifs and Ministers of Culture. Maybe McDaniel thinks Bedient is both, but the "crimes" he accuses him of are too many and various. He's read too much (or rather he has "too ready an access to what [he] has read," which I find to be a puzzling statement) and alludes to what he's read. The book is too long (he devotes a whole paragraph to complaining about this). Mostly, McDaniel is upset because he thinks that Bedient has not taken the reader—that is, the reader Ray McDaniel—into account, though he universalizes this claim when he writes that readers are "possible creatures it is apparently beyond or beneath Mr. Bedient’s ability to countenance." He makes the book sound like inpenetrable, pretentious garbage, when it's actually funny, sometimes scatological, wild-haired poetry—not all that superficially different from the work of, say, Gabe Gudding, who McDaniel's first review treated affectionately if condescendingly. The most obvious difference I can think of is that Gabe Gudding has written no widely published negative reviews.

I'm not going to go into more detail refuting McDaniel, but I will post one of my favorite poems from The Violence of the Morning here. It deserves more and better readers:

Feather's Wives Are All Good-Looking

Flute, flute, this is a change.
The news? A tiny bit of flutter. Up
on the stalk the bleeding heart

utters out-of-beds; the whole garden
dips and behaves.

And should I pony to little bed?
HORSE me to the table, morning, like a winning cake.
has laps of breath for us,
legs for us,     morning (gate) has legs for us
who would not pony to little bed.

Why which, then, without difference when?
Why pearl without lily elaboration?

Cow lie down, horse be our baby blues,
horse be our column of wasps.

Flute, o
peculiar new kneeler on the air! Any
bottoming by breath's early light,
virile butte carved clear,
is feather weight to you

who would not pony to little bed. So:

feather my bench, feather the weather.
Feather. Feather. Feather. Feather.

Paths Jack Philosophy strews with jumbo jacks for us,
the little train of the mouth that stops and goes for us,
the vanilla of 7 A.M., the cinnamon of noon,
will get us there,
as the moon in the sky
is a blossom in the water.

Out the window of outside-phenomenon,
one leg out, one leg ahead,
would not pony to little bed.

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