Saturday, August 22, 2009

bread loaf, craft classes

This craft session consisted largely of Campion reading from an essay of the above title, a brief look at four poems followed by a writing exercise. In his talk, he spoke of editing according to diction as "minute, myopic," [like] "snipping and filing" [as in] "a poetic pedicure." Of course, as EBV pointed out, diction is a lens through which we can edit our own poems. Campion posited that "when we talk about image in a poem, we're almost always talking about diction." He reminded us of the piece by Ezra Pound: "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste." (Haven't read it? Go, now.) Campion spoke of melody and movement, of argument's tension between subject and style, and said he feels certainty ruins good poems. He said diction needed range and precision, inevitability and surprise--all at once. He told us, upon revision to see how the words "match the tones hanging in the air." We also learned the handy new vocabulary word catachresis, which he describes as using a logically "wrong" word where it might work, such as "the eggs fuddle in a pool." Perhaps the most helpful, and this, perhaps was simply the timing, was the time we had at the end of the class to write. He had us select five words at random from a prose passage we read (mine: remorseless, crouching, winter, shallow, polished) and write a poem using at least three of those words. And I wrote one of the bridge poems (whose working title is "Kitchen" and will change in time) for the grandparent collection. (Saturday, 15 August 2009)

I've been reading Avoiding the Muse on and off, so I am mildly familiar with C. Dale Young as a poetic figure (and remember his name being cited, along with WCW, in that connection of medicine and poetry). And straight off, he mentioned how, as an editor, he wished he did not see quite so very many poems in the present tense--he wanted to see poetry that goes "beyond the lyric moment of now." So how do the tenses work? "I was" gives us rumination, recounting. "I am" gives us immediacy, now (and, I would add, urgency). "I will be" is impending, a prophecy. He advised us a revision technique: try rewriting the poem in another tense entirely. This doesn't have to mean it is correct or there it will remain, but we might open up some possibility, some tension, or find some holes we might not have otherwise noticed. We took a look at WB Yeats' "The Wild Swans at Coole," and, after going through the tenses and shifts and tracking them, the conclusion: Yeats can get away with all the shifts in time because the scene remains the same--something needs to remain fixed (to keep the reader grounded). We took a look at Donald Justice's riff on the Vallejo poem, and one of the participants pointed out, while analyzing syntax, that the majority are lengthy, lines-long, with subordinate clauses and all else, and then there is that one simple sentence in both that "act as thesis statements." Also helpful: Young said, a "line has to oppose or support syntax." (Sunday, 16 August 2009)

- THE IRRATIONAL IN POETRY with James Allen Hall
I must preface this by saying: James Allen Hall is fabulous. He is charming and kind and attentive and smart and writes some pretty darn good poems. His first book, Now You're the Enemy does some awfully clever things, and I would recommend it. I also want to say this: I know a class is good when I walk away from the room, but the class does not leave me, its ghost trailing in my thoughts, especially, I've discovered, when those thoughts have opened up some serious things to consider in my own work (and, more often than not, involve me chastising myself: What the hell have you been doing all this time?). James, who is the John Ciardi Fellow and in EBV's workshop, started by telling us that he's a poet who "loves the dramatic situation and how the poem unfolds from there." He loves the metaphor, how "x has always had a y-ness about it, and y has always had an x-ness about it" and explained that metaphor is the reason why he is so fond of America's Next Top Model. James recommended Wallace Steven's "The Irrational Element in Poetry," which was originally an address at Harvard. James told us of how every poem has a subject pattern and a speaker who has a relationship to that element. He pointed us to Cate Marvin's "Teen Loves Horse Dick" and Tony Hoagland's "Jet" was also mentioned--the ways in which the irrational surface and function within individual poems, which is where James paused to give a few caveats to his discussion: the irrational points to the deep well of the imagination, the intellectual and emotional are vital to a poem, the intellect is mostly in the rational vector with emotion mostly in the irrational which creates tension, plot is not just the territory of prose, and that he recognizes poems as being read in different ways: moves across in line, moves down in progression (structure), and it circulates and moves back into itself and is a system in recollection. We took a look at Elizabeth Bishop's "At the Fishhouses," which has the narrative surprise of the seals, and the way she can get away with this is in her artful use of repetition and preparation (we took a look at the way the eye moves--all the ups and downs--and the point of view, among other elements); we took a look at Sylvia Plath's "Tulips" (such an amazing poem) and how the only thing that happens in the poem is a woman crying in her bed, but it is the metaphors that make the irrational work--James discussed the transitive property of images, which is the province of metaphor, and how the images are both precise and strange, and the use of the comma splice, which allows for things to become each other very quickly--we also tracked the colors (white, red, black) and how that repetition can build within the poem. James said, "The best poets always give us more than one pattern" and when something irrational happens in a poem, the poets prepare us for it, they make that build up a part of the fabric by using scaffolding and repetition. He ended by recommending two more books (Barbara Hamby's Delirium and Susan Mitchell's Rapture) and saying you must prepare your reader, that "you can't cold cock him." (Tuesday, 18 August 2009)


Thomas Heise started his talk with confessing that these days, he is thinking less about craft and more about poetics. He's more interested in these questions: What informs my writing? What are the relationships between different forms (prose, etc.) and modes (discursive, etc.)? What are the relationships between reading and writing? Much of his talk was about how to utilize found poetry, and he brought in many examples of this--from Duchamp's urinal (taking an object out of context and into a new one) to William Carlos Williams' "This is Just to Say." Heise said that there is "new meaning caused by the destruction of sinews holding it together." The narrative logic is then replaced with an associative logic (a lens with which I will use to look at some of my fellow MFAers poetry whose form does not take on that column, that slender narrative). Ezra Pound's "In a Station at the Metro" (love) was once thirty lines, and Heise talked about the ghosts of those lines, how all of that lingers, informing associations. Think about the blackboard, take a look--that blackboard has a history of the written word, erased, some bits lingering, a palimpsest. This is where we took a photocopy from The Book of Knowledge (which Heist, who picked up an old copy of it in a used bookstore while in college, later discovered was John Ashberry's childhood encyclopedia) and this was our source text--we were to cross out words and create a poem from that. This then allowed a certain level of focus on the language of the text--the archaic vocabulary of Victorian children's encyclopedias, in this case. As Barthes discusses, it is a case of the reader activating the text. (Wednesday, 19 August 2009)

I discovered Paul Otremba was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota; I'll have to contact him at some point and ask him when he graduated--perhaps our paths crossed without our knowing it. This craft class was an impressive one, one that could have easily spilled over into another hour, and I would recommend working with Otremba if you get the chance--not only is he smart and aware, but he's also generous with his observations and willingness to share. He invoked various experts in the field to support his assertions--Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, James Longenbach. He spoke of the line as it relates to the breath--how Olson posited rhyme and meter might have been inaccurate to what we wish to convey in poetry. With the typewriter: "now we have a more accurate muscle." Otremba spoke of how he has files on his computer which he calls "notebooks," and this is where he collects bits of language and the plays with it, opening up multiple files and seeing the different ways a line can lie on the page. Denise Levertov says there is something in the line that indicates what we are to think and feel. And James Longenbach's Art of the Poetic Line was invoked (oh, Graywolf, the press you are getting!). We were prepared for looking closer at several poems: we were to look at the line as having its own semantic units. He gave us five "safe assumptions we can make about the poetic line when crafting our poems": "1.) The line--even in its absence--is fundamental to our understanding of what makes a poem a poem, 2.) The line is both a visual and an aural experience, 3.) The line has integrity of both sound and sense, 4.) The length of the poetic line doesn't carry innate qualities like making a poem fast or slow, or internal, social, or prophetic, and 5.) What gives the line its character is the relation between lines, diction, and the tension between line and syntax." He used recordings of the authors reading their poems, and recommended PennSound (see also, Robert Pinksy, The Sounds of Poetry), if we wanted to download our own. We started with "Directive," which I've posted below, and we took a look at the line endings; Otremba gave us renditions, trying it out in various meters or other methods of parsing the lines, telling us how Levertov calls the line an additional piece of punctuation. Take a look at how line breaks can increase or decrease momentum. One might think short lines gave us speed, but we looked at Robert Creeley's "The Langauage," which showed that lineation can rejuvenate what was once cliche, forcing the poet to take responsibility for the words using an lineation that disregards syntax. Additionally, in this particular example, the stanzas change the meaning--Otremba re-lineated the poem into more logical breath and the poem became sentimental and no longer worked. At this point in the class, we were running out of time, but we glanced at Rick Barot's "Elegy," which has end-stopped lines throughout, but doesn't lag and the fragments are still rhetorically complete (Otremba re-wrote using linking words and the poem became clunky); then we ended by looking at Ted Barrigan's "Sonnet XV," which is out of order and "Sonnet LIX," which is put together again, and a writing exercise: to look at William Meredith's "Crossing Over," to write a poem in response to that poem, and to try to separate lineations to see how meaning can change. If you are curious, you can check out Otremba's first book, or you could read this article in the Washington Post in what I believe is a section called "Poet's Choice." (Thursday, 20 August 2009)

ON REVISION with Tom Sleigh
He began with the question: So, we've all had about ten hours of workshop thus far, right? Tom Sleigh's craft class means to dismantle this workshop model of revision, or at least, complicate it: he said the idea of the workshop is that you have a poem and you want to make it a better poem, and the problem with that is there is a presumption of "mastery" that we will "use our instruments to embalm [the poems] accordingly." He cited the character Proteus, who is a god of the sea and a shape-shifter. Through this recounted allusion, Sleigh concluded that we need to look at revision as a collaborative process, not that one way street: collaborate with self, with language, with the subconscious. Sleigh referenced other poets: Allen Ginsberg, whose poems are a byproduct of meditative process, you can't control meditation, and Ginsberg was willing to "overthrow the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit"; Robert Duncan spoke of poetry as mapping the conscious and focuses on knowing when he as at the correct spiritual pitch; John Ashberry puts down a word and the feeling follows and knows ways in which registers of emotion disrupt one another; Elizabeth Bishop speaks of how poems dramatize the mind in motion as opposed to the mind at rest; Yeats would write an abstract prose precis before he would write his poem. Sleigh spoke of language poetry, which is not about expressing an emotion, but giving words autonomy over the lyric self's desire to "making meaning out of things."

So then we took a look at the packet. The fifty-page packet. Which I will make a small attempt to re-create here:
- Plath's "Blackberrying" and "Finisterre": these poems were written six days apart, Plath appears to be writing one poem in preparation for another, Sleigh points out that nothing is ever wasted in the writing process,
- Plath's "In Plaster" and "Tulips": written on the same day, keeps lineation similar, the way the conceit works its way through is also similar, similes show "this is how the world looks to me"--as opposed to metaphor, which makes more of a statement that says this is how the world is; Plath's best mode is quiet and in which she examines this second self
- William Carlos Williams "The Last Words of My English Grandmother": drafts of this poem are thirteen years apart, in the revision (there's a first draft version embedded in this essay, if you are curious for comparison), WCW removes the expository, removes the self, moves from meditative mode to dramatic (and this, I must add, dear reader, was when a great window-pane rattling thunderclap occurred in this rainy end of the conference, the perfect timing dropping my jaw), WCW has removed the value-laden adjectives and made the poem objective
- Robert Lowell has wrestled a prose piece into a poem, which we examined (NY Sun article)
- We took a look at a Frost poem: "In White," which became "Design," showing his imagist logic, the replacement of the abstract with detail, and putting the self into the poem--you can see both poems side-by-side
- As an example of bad revision, we read the versions A and B of John Crowe Ransom's "Here Lies a Lady" (which you can read, along with commentary on the Atlantic online)--A was full of rage, wringing the neck of eloquent language, and B had given up rage, grief, a sense of terror (and his notes on why the changes were made were particularly amusing) and within, Sleigh mentioned that "punctuation enacts vocal realities

Sleigh concluded: remember that the workshop might not have a very good ear, finding "faux sounds" and suggests compression as opposed to true language. In Sleigh's words, "the workshop may be bloody fucking wrong." He urged, "Don't let anybody sandpaper out your weirdnesses." Remember: "style is not decoration but quality of perception--how are you going to register your style?" (Friday, 21 August 2009)

1 comment:

Jessie Carty said...

some day i just have to get to breadloaf if nothing else for the line " "x has always had a y-ness about it, and y has always had an x-ness about it"