Friday, June 16, 2006


Since Archie’s most recent illness, our Italian greyhound has been given carte blanche by the vet to eat people food—as long as it is bland. Consequently, this week, my dogs and I have had markedly similar diets—excepting the caffeine of course.

Three days ago, my wife sent me off to the supermarket to stock up on fresh produce that we’ll probably never use and a variety of bland foods like bread, hamburger, cottage cheese, and chicken, which was purportedly for the dogs. When I first entered the supermarket, I found myself deeply perplexed. Even though I went to the closest store in a particular chain, the arrangement of the aisles was the opposite of what expected. The cheeses were to the right and the produce was to the left—quite unlike the layout to which I’m accustomed. Strange how quickly we become creatures of habit.

Anyhow, the first section I noticed when I entered the store was the book and magazine section. For a supermarket, this particular store has quite an impressive selection of reading materials. Of course, there wasn’t any poetry, but only a fool would expect that. More, there wasn’t much in the way of “mainstream” literary fiction. Instead, shelves and shelves of dark cherry-stained wood were lined with genre fiction: crime fiction, romances, westerns, science-fiction, horror, and African-American literature.

Why—other than those tacky Hallmark volumes whose covers heedlessly abuse floral prints and the occasional Maya Angelou collection or Garrison Keillor anthology—isn’t poetry so easily marketable? Sure, there’s “cowboy poetry,” which any CEO of any print and media conglomerate can understand, but aside from a few examples here and there, why is the development so different?

What happened?

I think, sometimes, that poetry would be much more widely read, and perhaps, much more enjoyable if we gave into those escapist impulses that give us westerns and spy thrillers. Clearly, the reading public has reasons for selecting such fare. There is, like it or not, a reason why Danielle Steel’s novels always end up being filmed.

Imagine what such poetry would look like. Imagine a poem with villains in black cowboy hats. Imagine a poem encrusted with ill-begotten diamonds and pearls. Imagine a poem that journeys to the edge of the universe against the logic of physics.


Yesterday, on the way back from procuring coffee from the supermarket whose layout is my flawed mental map of that particular chain, I heard an interview with Donald Hall—the new poet laureate. Of course, he had an opportunity to read several poems, the most striking of which was, to me, “Weeds and Peonies.” I adore that last line. Yet, in the interview, our new poet laureate said a few words about the composition of that poem that, quite frankly, disturbed me. By Mr. Hall’s own admission, the “you” is his late wife, Jane Kenyon. More, Mr. Hall claimed that he wrote the poem merely for therapeutic reasons.

I don’t know why this bothers me so much—after all, the poem is marvelous. I can’t deny that. But, nevertheless, I remain flabbergasted by the continued prevalence of that confessional mode.


Obviously, I’m missing something. And if you look at Hall’s poem, you’ll see what it is. Perhaps, you’ll see why so many people (and there are many) love poetry. Perhaps you’ll feel the marvelous kinesthesia of your mouth working to find meaning if you speak the poem aloud. Perhaps, like me, you’ll simply be delighted by peonies.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Why I Write Poetry

I have been up all night doing contract work. Despite everything I may say here, it was a brutal reminder that not everyone can write, regardless of hours upon hours of instruction. This is a good thing. Even after taking the majority of a year off, a writer still has bourgeois skills for which businesses will pay.

Outside a chorus of songbirds practices complex counterpoint as the night sky suffuses with the subtle shifts of light that signal dawn. Dixie, my beloved Jack Russell, is asleep on the crimson comforter in a corner of my office. My wife and Archie, the sickly one, are upstairs sleeping through the constant hum of the window-mounted air conditioner. Soon, I will shuffle into the living room where I can plunge into the thick cushions of a sofa and sleep an hour before my wife wakes. Soon, the seeming travails of the night will be nothing more than memory.

Right now, I can feel my eyes drooping more and more with each syllable I struggle to find. Right now, I can feel the joints in my fingers thicken with fatigue. Right now, I am convinced that this is the best of all possible worlds. Right now, I am convinced that my experience tonight is nothing near unique. I contain entire continents in the vestiges of my imagination. Just like everyone else. Just like everyone else.

Shantih shantih shantih

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Slants on Process

My writing life has grown stagnant as an algae-covered pond. The undulating snakes and teeming fish of my imagination have been smothered by a thick coat of reality. Of course, I’m being melodramatic. But the last few days, due to circumstances just beyond my control, have been less productive than I would prefer.

I haven’t made my word count in my top-secret novel since Thursday, and I wonder if I’ll a chance before this Thursday. More, since then, I’ve only managed to work on one poem: a pantoum of all things. Like the villanelle, a pantoum uses repetition of lines in conjunction with a fairly simple rhyme scheme. More, like the villanelle, it is a circular form that, essentially, ends with the lines that began the poem. At the moment, I quite like the little beastie. Of course, in time, that love will fade and I’ll be able to recognize it for the date to the prom with a bucktoothed, pigeon-toed, alcoholic cousin who smells of turpentine that it actually is. In the meantime, I’ll take some solace from my lack of productivity in the fact that I’ve been able to write a villanelle and a pantoum in the space of two weeks.

Although I’ve worked for most of my writing life to be a fairly adept formal poet, I’m still surprised by the recent flurry of poems written in form. Sure I’ve had a plan for about three years to write this form and that form for a particular project of verse, but as the fact that I’m over thirty and less than 100 pages into a first draft of a first novel should indicate, I’ve never been adept at following through on those grand schemes that come to mind. Once, during my second tour of life in Dallas, I planned to launch a webzine, not unlike the New Yorker, focused on the arts and nightlife of my hometown. And even though, I was making such plans at a time when people still believed that the Internet could make you rich, the notion never left the planning phase. Now, as I approach middle age, I’m becoming more and more convinced that one of the myriad secrets to success in literature (aside from knowing Oprah Winfrey personally) is simply having the wherewithal to follow through with your dumb ideas.

I’m not sure what corner of my brain triggered this sudden burst of formalism, although I am fairly certain that it wasn’t the scent of vanilla. I am, however, also certain that such work is not yet another of my dumb ideas. Perhaps the collection for which the poem is intended may one day seem like another point on that timeline of dumb ideas, but working on a formal poem—even one that may never see the light of day—will help me further develop my ear and, ironically, should help hone the skills for crafting a competent poem in “free verse.”

You see, for me, writing in any kind of form is deeply different from my normal writing process. I do not follow the runaway train of my thoughts. I do not focus on the “poemness” of the object when revising—focusing on alliteration, assonance, and consonance with tiny spices of rhyme to make sure that the lines are more than broken prose. I do not scan the piece in search of something like a meter, since a meter has been built into the first draft. I do not worry over the use of prepositions. I do not linger over entire stanzas, poised to strike the delete key in search of some essence of thought.

Although it is not as convoluted as the bizarre falsification as Edgar Allen Poe’s claim in the essay The Philosophy of Composition that we should begin each poem with its ending, I think that my particular way of composing a formal poem is a tad convoluted. First, I have to decide, as I have recently, that I want to write in a particular form. Then, since my memory is shot, I have to look up how to write that form (unless it’s a sonnet). Generally, I’ll use Lewis Turco’s New Book of Forms, which is a fantastic catalogue of forms in English—many of which seem never to have been used by anyone other than Lewis Turco, who peppers the book with examples written by “L.T.,” “anonymous,” “Wesli Court” (an anagram of Lewis Turco), and a variety of poems from earlier epochs that illustrate. Then, after I’ve refreshed my memory, I get down to the business of the poem, starting with a line—most likely in iambic pentameter—that seems vaguely related to whatever subject matter interests me at the moment. I find that, if a rhyme scheme is involved, the remainder of the initial draft is dictated largely by my effort to find rhymes that aren’t idiotic and will work with the content.

Now, it is late, and the dogs and my wife are sleeping well—I think. Archie has spent the entire day trying to remove the bandage covering the catheter in his front leg that the vet left in—just in case he needed more hydration. With my wife’s help, I removed it this evening and re-bandaged the tiny wound. Archie struggled against my embrace, snapping at me occasionally if the pain or the fear became too much.

Tomorrow, I suspect, he’ll spend much of the day trying to rip off his new bandage, and I’ll spend much of the day commanding him to leave his leg alone, until my wife returns home from work. Then, I’ll work for money, lamenting the lack of time for following the ideas that part of me—a part I’m learning to ignore—clamors on and on about it being a bad idea.

Monday, June 12, 2006


Morning came early today with the whimpering of Archie, who apparently is quite ill. Outside, Venus flickers above a bank of grey clouds as hooting of owls mingles with the trilling scales of some daytime, avian genius.

As for myself, I’m up again after three hours of sleep, waiting by our Italian Greyhound to clean up after him if need be and coddle him if he stirs with a groan. I’ll take him to the vet as soon as possible, although I’m still wavering whether or not to simply dash him off to the veterinary emergency room. For now, he is sleeping, curled behind me on a comforter that will need to be washed before the day is done. So, rather than disturb him with unfamiliar places and people prodding him, I’ll simply wait until he can see his usual vet. Archie certainly needs the rest. I do too; I’m already exhausted, but there’s no time for that.

None of this bodes well for the day’s writing, but I’ll keep on, hoping for an exquisitely long afternoon nap. After all, when I lived in San Francisco, there were a number of nights when I worked through the night as my wife slept a few feet away in our studio apartment. And given a real choice—bolstered by pecuniary stability—I would never have done that work. So, today, one would think, I can manage when the work is so very vital to me.


Now, as the day approaches its end, I realize that little writing has been done. My dog, however, had to be dropped off at the vet this morning so he could be given intravenous fluids and an antibiotic. I’ve spent the day wishing for sleep, but constantly driving to one corner of Cincinnati or another—all so that Archie could get treatment and food that won’t upset his belly so. I wonder if writing poetry isn’t a bit like that longed for sleep today. When I revise, at least, it is.

I spent today on the edge of sleep, just as a poem which I’ve worked on for a decent period of time spends days, perhaps even years, on the edge of completion. The goal of perfection, it seems to me, remains always on the horizon—always a mixed metaphor away from completion.


For me, poetry is a sequence of one abandonment after another. Each time I sit down with the goal of revising a poem, the end result is the same: I will walk away from my notebook or my computer—sometimes to continue with the business of life and sometimes to fall asleep on the sofa with the puppies—dissatisfied with the state of whatever poem had captured my attention for a few hours.

Later, I return, determined to make things right by the poem, but I realize this will never happen. Always, there is a phrase in a line that just doesn't sound quite right or there is a metaphor that reaches a tad too far in its comparison or there is a single detail marred by an imprecise word. Often enough, though I hesitate to admit it, I’ll stumble across an effect that doesn't seem to hinder the poem, but is beyond my understanding.


At this moment, I can, at long last find sleep. The puppies are tired after an exhausting day, and Michelle has just climbed the stairs to her bedroom. I could stay up, taking advantage of exhaustion’s peculiar knack for dredging up images and ideas that would otherwise be left unturned, but I’m satisfied with the day. After all, when my wife and I returned to the vet this evening to pick up Archie, his tail was wagging.