What the river says

Via Jayne Lynn Stahl @ Huffington Post:
It was the poet Shelley who wrote that "the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world." Not much has changed since he wrote those words nearly three hundred years ago.
But, after watching these most captivating minutes of video, one may certainly walk away with the sense of how poets change the world not merely by their words, but by their example.
Every War Has Two Losers is a documentary based on the journals of midwestern poet William Stafford who declared himself a conscientious objector to World War II and, from 1942 through 1946, was interned at the Civilian Public Service Camps as a pacifist. The film has already aired on selected PBS stations, and features some of this country's finest poets, W.S. Merwin, Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, reading from Stafford's work.

Travelling Through the Dark

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

Ask Me

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

William Stafford
from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems


The William Stafford Memorial
Friends of William Stafford
William Stafford Archives

Shapes Inside a Common Fire - Part II

Let me just get this little caveat out of the way: the charges against emotionalism, the personal, the confessional, all things School of Quietude, whatever you want to call it, are many, and I agree with a lot of what’s been said from the other side of the aisle though I'm likely to be categorized as an ass forever glued to my desk at SoQ. That’s not my beef here, nor are the poetry wars really my concern right now.

What I am investigating is what feels like a problem with the trajectory of the lyric poem right now. Specifically, I’m concerned with representation, and so long as this feels productive (thanks for all the comments with the last post) I will continue thinking out loud on this blog.

I’ve noticed a distrust of clarity and sentiment creeping into the work of friends and colleagues, and, at times, into my own work. One of the clearest demonstrations of this fear and frustration with clarity and sentiment is when a writer radically veers away from their subject matter and poetic approaches, and abandons, say, a large body of clear and straightforward poems that attempt to illuminate human experience, for, say, poems that are fragmented, that take on a kind of hip logic, scattered cultural allusions, ironic distance, etc. (See Stephen Burt's essay "The New Thing" in Boston Review)

Now, this is not to say these two modes are mutually exclusive, nor that one is better than the other. And, yes, the fragment/etc. can illuminate. No question about it. And this is certainly not to argue against stylistic changes or experimentation. Anyone who knows me knows I am an advocate and champion for poetry of all varieties from all schools. But I think the case may be that folks make the move because they are frustrated by the inability of the lyric to really combat the social/cultural industry forces that seek to absorb it, that they're frustrated by the lyric "I," frustrated by the lyric’s inability to matter. I write lyric poems, but this is more or less the predicament I feel I’m in. I’m struggling to find the ways in which the lyric poem can be a force of resistance or critique or social action.

I wrote in my last related entry about my concern at how I reacted to news of a childhood friend’s arrest for making pipe-bombs and planting them around the public park near where we grew up. At first, I didn’t recognize his face in the photo that accompanied the arrest story. I glanced at it, but the man I saw there looked like any other face in a mug shot. My looking looked through him, past him. Horrible. And once I did recognize him, my reaction was something like, “Hmm…gonna have to see how this fits into a poem.” This reaction to incorporate or “use” his arrest in a poem, to use him in a poem, concerns me deeply, and my entry was an attempt to sort out that anxiety and the implications of my reaction in relation to writing. (“Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967” comes to mind.)

As I’ve been thinking about my reaction over the last week, I’ve determined that its stems from a motivation similar to what prompts the changes friends and colleagues have made in their work. It’s not a problem of what is represented. It’s a problem of how to represent, and I think we typically go about discussing this how the wrong way.

The lyric’s problem--No. Our problem with the lyric--is not one of sympathy or empathy, of pathos. The problem is one of ethos. (Can you tell I’m back to teaching rhetoric this term? Also, this is somewhat informed by the Charles Altieri I'm reading for my specialized PhD exam.) The remarkable shift into experimentation (yes, I should probably define and contextualize this) is from a desire to locate a new rhetorical credibility following the SoQ which shot straightforward lyric all to hell. And my reaction is also a desire to locate a new ethos so that I can craft what I have to say as something more rhetorically credible and useful. (The most recent project with the hymns is part of this search. I’m sure of it.)

The problem with subject matter is how to represent it. On one hand, representation can be concrete and precise and easily pliable for relating to the emotions of the writer and eliciting the emotions of the reader. Lots of SoQ poems would fall into this category, yes? The drawback, though, is the potential adverse consequence of dismissing or diminishing social forces and contexts that contribute to the very creation of the thing being represented, and so the thing is not represented accurately. On the other hand, as writers we are aware how subjectivity obliges a kind of deconstructive impulse and action from us so as to avoid generalizing and broad categories which diminish the actual thing represented. (There’s probably some Adorno to knock around here.) So, we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

As I mentioned in my last entry, I read Martha C. Nussbaum’s book Poetic Justice while in Kansas during the summer break. Nussbaum’s solution to the binary of the last paragraph is that the writer ought make work that creates a deeper sympathy in the reader and recognition of social and institutional forces, and she uses the character of Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son as an example of how the binary can be bridged.

At the end of the novel, Bigger waits to be executed, and comes to understand, as Nussbaum phrases it, “the deep similarity in human aims and insecurities that may exist on both sides of the racial barrier, though concealed from view by the social deformation of character and desire. At last, in a sudden epiphany, he becomes able to see this common humanity.” What the end of the novel does is confront the reader with a social tragedy, and positions the reader to act as judge over social and political inequality.

I like this, I do, but I guess my question is, “Well, yeah…and so?” If the reader acts after finishing the novel, and I mean if, does that action occur because the reader identifies with Bigger? Or because the reader feels confronted by the narrative and identifies the social reality as that which makes them uncomfortable? Either way, the choice is the same: it’s either a reductive concrete description, or a comfortable, safe generalization.

I don’t necessarily think that this is a problem that needs to be “solved” per se. I’m not sure it can be, no matter how strongly I’d like it to be solved. Perhaps our struggle to understand, our efforts and enacted desire, this seeking, is enough?

Ceci n'est pas un Everclear album cover
I’ve been reading the Bob Hicok collection Words For Empty and Words For Full as per Nancy Devine’s recommendation in the comments of the last post, and I’m putting some thoughts together on a poem there that, in my mind at least, relates to this post.

Some other poets that come to mind: Larry Levis, Mark Nowak, Muriel Rukeyser, Natasha Tretheway, C.K. Williams, Adrienne Rich. I’ll try to develop these ideas with some examples from poems soon.

Poems & Such

I have two old short poems ("Lightning Over Walgreens" and "In This Poem You Asked For, Love") up at the new issue of Rougarou. Other poets in the issue: Marilyn Kallet, Jessie Janeshek, Edward Byrne, Kristi Maxwell, and many others.

Did you know you can vote for your favorite author at the website for the Library of Congress's 2010 National Book Festival. Not surprising, I guess, there's not a single poet on the current results list.

Vote for a poet!

Who did you vote for?


from Ana Božičević's recent interview with 3:AM:
I also regard poetic traditions/styles as something that evolved along with the generations who wrote them – they all were and are vitally important in some way. I don’t see a point in attaching value judgment to form; I want to be free to open a book of Keats and a book of Stein and learn rhythm from both equally on the same afternoon. And, vis a vis the terminology of “traditional” versus “experimental” – I question the value of those words to poetry – I question the extent to which the linear language of some literary theories, its reiteration, gives justice to what poetry does and is, to the exclusion of other vocabularies. Of course, sometimes writing a cutting-edge flight manual is necessary; but sometimes it’s simpler just to be a bird.

The film version of Howl, that new period piece starring Daniel Desario, Don Draper, Nancy Botwin, Edward R. Murrow, and Jim Carey's friend in Dumb & Dumber, has a website. And they've posted the release dates for cities near you! To my surprise, Knoxville actually made the cut. Here's the trailer:


Dante's Internet:


Shapes Inside a Common Fire

representation of Aristotle
Most likely the core circumstances here are nothing new, are easy to identify with, and especially so if you, too, are a writer. Like me, you've long had the tendency to respond to tragedy or shocking news this way: some expression of your emotional reaction through art. Catharsis sometimes, sure. Process, too.

The first time I ever really responded to tragedy through poetry was in early college. A friend of mine, a tall blonde girl from the Upper Midwest who I'd secretly had a crush on since she enrolled in our citified California school, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. She was back in Michigan then,  and was walking through the cold morning to her college campus. Like that -- -- she was dead.

This happened a few days before Christmas. I was back in the Bay Area then. For three days, I wrote a poem. Wrote trying to understand how she could be gone, about that empty space, trying to find an image or a metaphor (was it a pear tree? a field we'd walked through once?) that could correspond to her absence. Certainly the poem was an elegy, though I didn't it know it then, and wouldn't become aware of the elegiac tradition for years. I've since lost track of the poem, though I like to think it's floating around in the world somewhere. I sealed the poem in an envelope and gave it to her brother at the wake.

At some point, though, I feel like something changed in my approach. This may be a natural shift that comes with education in the craft, or may come when one is more aware of one's own methods for writing: gathering materials for the poems, "keeping track," seeking out connections and correspondance rather than passively waiting for whatever-it-is to add up. The change, though, is this: instead of reacting to tragedy how I used to, I now tend to think (and almost always think this first!), "There's a poem in there somewhere," or "Hmmm...I can use this."

Am I wrong to feel that this is callous? Am I wrong to use the world and experience in this way? My heart doesn't feel exploitative, but I worry. Maybe it's my Protestant guilt. Maybe it's my obsession with poetry and the ethics of representation. Certainly, though, I'm not the only one, right?

When I was in Kansas during the summer and working on the manuscript, I read Martha C. Nussbaum's book Poetic Justice: Literary Imagination and Public Life. One phrase that comes to mind is “compassionate imagination”: the idea that society and culture refuse empathy, and have institutionalized such refusal. As a consequence, those that are exploited or drowned-out by the culture are devalued, if not purged, from the public sphere’s imagination.

Now, I don’t have my notes in front of me, so if I’m wrong here, misremembering or misapplying Nussbaum’s argument, please let me know. But I think the role of the compassionate imagination, then, is to record or even make the record. To put ourselves next to the awfulness of the world and put all the piss and shit on view. To show one thing in the institutional sphere as another. I don’t means to say we should show them as being the same, but to see everything as shapes inside a common fire.

Here’s my situation and my question:

Over the weekend, I came across a news report saying that a guy I grew up with, someone I went with to elementary school and junior high and saw around town periodically during high school, was arrested for making and attempting to set off several pipe bombs in the city where we grew up.
Tim Wilson -- my childhood friend
I didn’t realize it was him at first. I scrolled through the story online, and the photo of the man they arrested looked like any other criminal. How terrible. To say, “any other criminal.” How uncompassionate.

And now my question: is this uncompassionate saying/thinking “any other criminal” worse than, upon finally recognizing the man in the photo as my friend, almost immediately thinking, “There’s a poem in here somewhere”?

Does anyone else struggle with this?

Recently and over a decade later, my friend who died so suddenly made another appearance in a poem, though this time the "use" of her in the poem was drastically different. In this poem, she was not so much the subject matter of the poem as much as the story surrounding her death was used to create a scaffolding upon which to build a larger piece, to drive a narrative, to make connections between other things. Earlier I wrote the phrase, "to see everything as shapes inside a common fire." Interesting, then, that this poem in which my associations of her appear is largely connected to the other elements in the poem through images of fire and ash. But I digress...and must get ready for another departmental meeting.

Here's some of an Amichai poem that I read over and over again after my friend died. I originally encountered it in The New Republic, actually right before I got word she'd died. This would be, let's see, December 1999. Piecing the inner-workings of that out would be an entire essay in itself.

I don't have the full poem written down, and I don't have a collection of Amichai that has this poem, so I can't be sure I've got the poem right at all. What I am certain of is that this poem significantly influenced my writing, and my drafting of that primordial elegy.

from And Who Will Remember the Rememberers?


What is the correct way to stand at a memorial ceremony?
Erect of stooped, pulled taut as a tent or in the slumped posture
of mourning, head bowed like the guilty or held high
in a collective protest against death,
eyes gaping frozen like the eyes of the dead
or shut tight, to see stars inside?
And what is the best time for remembering? At noon
when shadows are hidden beneath our feet, or at twilight
when shadows lengthen like longings
that have no beginnings like God?

Yehuda Amichai
from The New Republic, 12/20/1999


Anyone know what it means when your dream is a rerun?

I woke up startled this morning after having the same dream I had the night before. In the dream I'm on a medical table, head and shoulders propped up on my elbows like you might do if you were on the beach and looking out at the ocean. But here there is no ocean. I'm looking down at a medical-masked surgeon who's flayed open my chest. He's pulling out, hand-over-hand, what looks like cottage-cheese-filled surgical tubing. Only it's not tubing. It's something organic that's been growing inside me. "Can you feel this?" he asks. "No," I say. Then he repeats the question, scratches his head, and tells me, "Well, it's only a matter of time."

So of course I woke up thinking about my manuscript, which I hope is only "a matter of time." I've received some helpful, positive feedback from some readers, and I feel good about it on the whole. Ready to start sending it out.

Still waiting to hear back on a small handful of chapbook publishers that are considering various smaller manuscripts. News again that I'm a finalist at one of these publishers. We'll see. I'm not getting my hopes up, though it would be nice to get a grouping of my poems published together. I mean, I do believe in the poems, but after you've been designated a "finalist" several times, one feels a little leery of the term. But, then again, I'm still waiting to hear back from four places, and I'd be happy to place with any of them. Should hear back from one by the beginning of next week if they follow their pattern from previous years. One in September, one more by the end of the month, and one more who-knows-when.



Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

John Berryman
from The Dream Songs

Monday Tape

Top Five Unattributed Facebook Comments Responding to Anis Shivani's Huffingtonpost Column "The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary Writers"

5. "Sharon Olds & Louise Gluck? Are you f-ing kidding me????"

4. "Dear HuffPo: Do you notice how many of these writers *set* trends in voice, narrative, or style--especially from underrepresented communities. Sure, shit on the people who actually created something--especially as they age. I'm HufPo woulld do such a fucking better job."

3. "I find his point about the institutionalization of creative writing to be compelling. One of the frustrations that I've felt reading contemporary writers (like Foer or Franzen) is a sense of either homogeneity--like they've been sitting around the same tables reading the same texts to the same group of fellow students in classes taught by the same teachers--or all-too-knowing, all-too-hip "postmodern" zaniness (I'm looking at you, Danielewski). I think the literary world would do well to have a bit more intellectual diversity--a few more writers who dropped out of high school to work in factories or join the army rather than coming out of the same closed academic-critical circle."

2. "Is Anis Shivani actually a pseudonym for Michiko Kakutani? Because that would rule."

1. "I've not heard of most of these people."


If you haven't read Shivani's post, it's good for cocktail chatter and killing twenty minutes.

Billy Collins is one of the writers that Shivani skewers. Here is Shivani's description of Collins:

Billy Collins (Angels on Pins and Walking Across the Atlantic)

Exemplary Lines: "I woke up this morning, / as the blues singers like to boast, / and the first thing to enter my mind, / as the dog was licking my face, was Coventry Patmore."

Court jester to America's grief-stricken royal poets. Pioneered the poet as the stand-up comedian, to which concept many other poets have taken like ducks to water. America's best-selling poet (makes sense, doesn't it?), along with Mary Oliver--the clown and the "nature-lover," taking us hand in hand to oblivion. Part of his carefully nurtured persona is not to take himself too seriously (Louise Gluck, take note, if you want to sell more books), so he says he's not a "great poet." Has perfected, over twenty years, a brand of poetry candy--take a few variables about known facts, alter one of them, and see where that takes you. A one-trick pony who acts in every poem as if he's discovering the trick for the very first time. Typical questions posed: What would it be like to walk across the Atlantic? If the members of a creative writing class were to come back as citizens in a city, what roles would they play? Embodies yet another form of antihumanism, like all the writers on this list. His never-discarded mask of humility is how he shows off in his poetry--and outside it. Imagines he is a container for childlike wonder, but actually exemplifies childish incomprehension. Like the others, escapist denial of death is pervasive. His poems have lately become mostly about writing poems--in his pajamas, with a cup of coffee in hand. He's busy doing nothing--this Seinfeld of American poetry--while you thought poetry was all obscure and defeatist and negative.


You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine . . .
--Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.

Billy Collins
from Nine Horses

UTenn Poet

Marilyn Kallet, our Creative Writing Program Director at UTenn, has had a poem selected by Ted Kooser for his American Life in Poetry column. I've included the poem below, and you should also click here to read what Ted Kooser has to say about the poem. Enjoy!


In the dry summer field at nightfall,
fireflies rise like sparks.
Imagine the presence of ghosts
flickering, the ghosts of young friends,
your father nearest in the distance.
This time they carry no sorrow,
no remorse, their presence is so light.
Childhood comes to you,
memories of your street in lamplight,
holding those last moments before bed,
capturing lightning-bugs,
with a blossom of the hand
letting them go. Lightness returns,
an airy motion over the ground
you remember from Ring Around the Rosie.
If you stay, the fireflies become fireflies
again, not part of your stories,
as unaware of you as sleep, being
beautiful and quiet all around you.

Marilyn Kallet
from Packing Light: New and Selected Poems

Three more poems by Marilyn Kallet, from her Darwin series:
"Eating the New Species"
"My Dear Emma"