Click image to order
Never miss a post
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields
Correct invalid entries


« Rob Casper Presents a Poem by Yona Harvey | Main | The Road is Rougher »

August 02, 2009


wonderful post, katha. i am a poet who tries very hard not to write about writing -- it's like talking to your analyst about being in therapy -- but like most poets i end up there from time to time anyway.

according to ellen bass, my poetic mentor, it is more difficult to write poetry now than it was in the past because we are writing in a "late-stage" language and it's much more difficult to conjure fresh imagery than it was back in the day when "my love is like a red red rose" had never been heard, back before shakespeare invented all those "cliches", as one gradeschooler characterized his work.

i look forward to reading more of your posts!

Hi Jackie, thanks for writing. Aren't you supposed to talk to yr analyst about being in therapy? In my experience that's what they most love to talk about! themselves, in other words.

Thank you, Katha. If one measure of a post's success is the reader's pleasure as association follows association, this post would get five (shooting) stars, like Dorothy Wordsworth's wild eyes in "Tintern Abbey," and this serpentine sentence of mine would be a Byronic travesty of lit-crit talk except no crit of lit talks this way. I say -- First you put me in mind of Yeats, and "the fascination of what's difficult," and how close are complaints to the spirit of poetry (and love). Then I wondered what you make of Marianne Moore's "Poetry," and which version of the poem do you favor? Hurrah for Stevie Smith! and the reminder that she wrote other wonderful poems besides "Not Waving but Drowning." (I love her poem about the "Person from Porlock.") The poem as stand-in for the lover? I guess so. Better than the other way around, though. John Hollander says all poems are about poetry in addition to being about anything else. And so glad you include Brenda Shaughnessy: Mark Bibbins is conducting a poetry forum with her on Tuesday Sept 8 in the New School (room 510 of 66 W 12 St at 6:30) in which she will read for a half hour, then take questions from moderator and audience. And it's free!

Hi David, thanks for writing! I hesitate to set this down, because I may have to eat my words someday, but I do not love Marianne Moore as much as I wish I did. Everybody loves the opening of "Poetry," "I too dislike it," because it is both so shocking and echoes what so many feel: that poetry is "all this fiddle." That is one of my favorite poems of hers also. I'm up in the country and my books are in NYC so I can't discuss the different versions in detail, except that I know she kept making it shorter and shorter until in the end only the opening was left. I guess that's one way to cut out the fiddling. But I think I like the longer version, the 1961 one in the Complete Poems:

I, too, prefer the full-length version. What amazes me is how many students, when shown the two side-by-side, the original and the one pared down to three lines, vote for the latter.

Yet isn't it part of our fun as teachers to act like real toads in imaginary classrooms and show not tell them how and why the original version might be more interesting?

Dear Katha: I have a prejudice not only against poems "in which the poet complains about the difficulty of writing poetry," but against pretty much all poems that refer to themselves or to poetry in general. A great can of worms to open---thank you.

Off the subject, but I'm so glad to know someone else who appreciates Stevie Smith!
She is a favorite of mine from way back, and I sometimes feel like founding a Society of Stevie Smithites where people can sit around and quote the poems to each other.

I appreciate your revealing your anxiety over reading a suitable-to-the-hearers poem at the dinner party, Katha. Reading in front of one's close peers can undo the Greatest. It can feel something like submitting a photo of your mom to a wet t-shirt contest. [unfortunately I can't recall the New Poetry listmember's name who made that comparison]

Your last sentence, the last half, intrigues me: "So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire, has the poem itself become the elusive, resistant love object, the modern Phyllis or Clorinda?"

But I don't understand the meaning in the first half of your sentence: "So if nobody writes or wishes to who is one with their desire..."

If you'll help me out with it, I'd love to kick off some ideas about "the poem itself" vis a vis The Muse and other such notions we poets baggage ourselves with.



Hi Judy, the first half of the sentence is the last two lines of the Stevie Smith poem, Mrs. Arbuthnot, which I quoted. Smith is saying that people write poetry and want to write it because they are in some way lacking, unhappy, incomplete. I was suggesting, in a playful way, that perhaps instead of writing poetry out of unrequited love or sexual frustration like, oh I dunno, Sir Philip Sidney ("with how sad steps O moon" etcetera) poets now wrote out of their frustrations with poetry itself. It was just a thought!

Thanks, Katha, for explaining Stevie Smith's intention.

Your first post packs much, and it's taken me 2 days and several readings, to peel the onion--much to my delight!

You suggest that Pip and others had The Muse to inspire them, so they complained about their uncooperative lovers, whereas we moderns, Museless, are left with The Poem as our independent-minded lovers.

I agree with you, and I think, as well, that Stevie Smith and Brenda Shaughnessy express self-loathing.

Pip Sidney similarly expressed self-loathing: "Fool, said my Muse, look within thyself and write" [last line, first stanza, Astrophel & Stella].

The difference between him and Smith and Shaughnessy is that Pip had his Muse; the two modern females are utterly alone, whether they felt they had ever had a Muse or not.

It's not The Poem or Poetry that dogs or damns them; it's the women who damn themselves.

I welcome any comments.

All best, Katha, and thanks for the opportunities!

A lot of trouble is in the word about. There are philosophers
who think art is always about, even if it's just about aboutness. But many I have loved from Meyer Schapiro back to John Dewey think poetry is an experience
and no more about something than love is about one thing. My marriage of 40 years is not about one thing, for example. Even one night would not be about one thing. Since I almost never agree with her, I want to say I utterly agreed with Helen V once when she said poets when they write about poetry aren't doing something strange or self-reflexive, because for them poetry is their
life. When Shakespeare is jealous, it's of another poet and he says it. When Stevens is dreaming of a certain aesthetic he calls it Notes toward a Supreme Fiction. When you look at Jasper Johns's diver you may think of dancing, charcoal,
Hart Crane diving, drowning, brushstrokes, pen mareks, melancholy. All the axes of the aesthetic. I don;t want everything to be ground down to an "about" anymore than a good analyst teaches you only one thing about yourself: Mommy Daddy the They and you. The 30 years of
analyses Ive had with three wise men and women --never about one thing. Is Proust "about"
jealousy, homosexuality, anti-semitism, snobbism, memory, Hindu wisdom--how to write a book--all those things at one time, like a wild honey.

Mark Van Doren says that Shakespeare is the poet who least idolizes poetry. This sounds humanist and fateful except that Prospero
and Hamlet are creative geniuses (and I won't even
mention Ariel, Puck and The Fools_. I have nothing against the making of Achilles shield or talking horses in The Iliad. Or the
poet who cries, Save me and I'll sing about you. Etc. Milton wrote about God and Satan, Wordsworth about himself, is there anything but awe in the way Mallarme writes about the swans of writing. Rather than even asking thew question, Should poetry be about itself, the answer is that in the whole 20th century, hundreds of dancers, artists, sculptors,
and poets have brooded about their art within their art. And this is not a radical break, since Dante too was brooding on the structure and form of his voyage with Virgil etc.

To sum up: we won't sum up, will we? Art of criticism is also an art that must be self-aware,
emotional, historical, filled with the sense of public/private, etc. But if one wants to have a Procrustean bed and call it poetry, it's possible. Think of reading ther Bible as
our fundamentalists do--for reasons of dogma, hate, and hysteria. The assassin critics of my day said that Koch was only funny, and AShbery only discontinuous and obscure, Frank O:Hara was called bitchy by many, Schuyler called himself Jim the Jerk. Each judgment was reductive and false.
Picasso loved to draw himself drawing a woman. Elaine deKooning shuttled between portraits and abstractions.Poetry about poetry: Sappho about her school and her beauties.Farewell, music, Mozart, "about" everything. Kandinsky thought Monet was
Nothing, but he liked the idea and went on..As a violinist, I was always dazed at the changes of mood in the same Mozart page
or bar. And soime poetry will function also as a (musical) critique of poetry, as in
Bolano's fiction/non in poets in his DETECTIVES> If you find one thing in Pr0ust, call me up. Alter recently sd Proust wasn't very Jewish as book. I have always wanted to write Proust The Jew. Both might be reductive.Our President referred toi himself as a hybrid. So is Rimbaud's prose.

OK, David. Has Helen Vendler said anything else that you liked? I've quite forgotten anything I'd read that she said, and you seem far the best reader/writer--possibly because you're the nearest aetherly--to reacquaint me. Just be sure to stay on topic. [Yes, David, I'm kidding!]



I could take the Fifth. And I'm too tilted--she reviewed Ron P and my New York Poets and announced that we were cheerful Chaucerians. Pas mal.
She somewhere wrote, and I heard in a lecture, that Howard Nemerov, old friend and poor poet, was more philosophical than Frank O:Hara, who was a child
when he thought ("like Byron," one of the great wits
of his century.) Anyway, she thought my book To an Idea" about my mother's early death was just words connected to other words and forthrightly remarked that she had a hard time with comedy, satire, surrealism.
Koch said to me: What's left? Rational Tragedy? Cato by Addison?
I don't believe that Shakespeare's sonnets have the key words that she finds.
Paranomasia, yes, but no secret rules.
Yes, I do like a sentence in her long poems of Stevens where she says something like: the blackbirds are forms of language. And she's good on subjunctives.
Her contemporary taste is that of an amateur.
She has begun to talk of painters -- but like Harold B, whom I lured to the world of Greg Botts and other painters -- art music architecture and dance politics have not been interesting before, for her. I told my class once that if they simply turned every negative to a positive in her and vice versa they would come up with some interesting assertions.
Almost every poet she likes today is mediocre.She is best on Herbert and Keats.
A Wall is a poem of mine about her or around. She deposed Delmore S in a crank's way. And said his best poems were only one page long. She should stick to the one page Odes of Keats. She is a decent "reader" when the material is not so fresh as to be difficult or new (she doesn't seem to have the French tradition at her fingertips, unfortunately) or even revolutionary. She told me she was always liking Ashbery's poetry, but he himself
used to say to me how wonderful it was that she changed her mind. She also has no sense of Joyce, Lawrence, Hardy and the prose tradition.No sense of the Chinese, Russian, German or other traditions. Not a professional musician, she can't discriminate the "science of sound." She has discovered no one and she is not a great "scholar" in the line of Jakobson. I also believe there is no sense of the theater and the poetics of Shakespeare or
Chekhov or the Greeks. She IS enthusiastic about well-known poets and Jorie G and Heaney, a Nobel Prize winner, and honored poets. She may have a vivid politics, but I have heard nothing publicly about that. She is not a "public intellectual." Like the crank Logan, she is too proud of her style and opinions. She is, I would add, nothing but opinions and a smooth stylist of the old
school. No sense of social thickness, except in some early essays on A.Rich. Still hasn't written on Koch or any of the more radical poets. She does smooth out Ashbery and sees his topoi, but she probably doesn't read Roussel fluently or Rimbaud, great influences on John A. Imagine her thoughts on Merce Cunningham, or on John Cage!

David, this is a remarkable little essay, the more so as you seem to have dashed it off at a sitting. "She's good on subjunctives" is certainly a very precise compliment. And, "If [you] simply turned every negative to a positive . . . and vice versa, [you] would come up with some interesting assertions": that's a wonderfully funny sentence, but the extra irony is that the method thus described is beautifully applicable to many, n'est-ce pas?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)

click image to order your copy
That Ship Has Sailed
Click image to order
BAP ad
"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


  • StatCounter