November 21, 2006

Why ask Why?

Filed under: criticism, literature, poetry — ted @ 12:43 pm

English poets have long felt the need to defend or explain the importance of poetry. The first major example of this is The Defence of Poesy by Sir Philip Sidney in 1583, and the best known is Percy Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which Shelley makes the famous assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Modern poets feel this strain particularly, for our age is one in which poetry is not frequently read and poets are cast to the sidelines of culture. (Whether or not this is the usual state of affairs for a poet — in any age — is up for debate).

A great example of the genre is an essay by Adrienne Rich from this past weekend’s Guardian. She begins by breaking free of a few of the traditional vagaries used to defend poetry, insisting that poetry “is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal Poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming, intertwining histories to which they belong.”

After summarizing and dismissing the argument that the power of poetry has been diminished in a post-Holocaust era, Rich attempts to stake out some ground for poetry, after recognizing the particularly contemporary difficulties it faces:

Poetry has been written-off on other counts: it’s not a mass-market “product”, it doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles; it’s too “difficult” for the average mind; it’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s; it is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free-market critique of poetry.

There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas: poetry is either inadequate, even immoral, in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together – and more.

Critical discourse about poetry has said little about the daily conditions of our material existence, past and present: how they imprint the life of the feelings, of involuntary human responses – how we glimpse a blur of smoke in the air, look at a pair of shoes in a shop window, or a group of men on a street-corner, how we hear rain on the roof or music on the radio upstairs, how we meet or avoid the eyes of a neighbour or a stranger. That pressure bends our angle of vision whether we recognise it or not. A great many well-wrought, banal poems, like a great many essays on poetry and poetics, are written as if such pressures didn’t exist. But this only reveals their existence.

But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, “There is no alternative”.

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What’s pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images – is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism – a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom – that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the “free” market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

You’d do well to read the whole essay. After that, if you’re interested in reading some of Rich’s own poetry, I would recommend Diving into the Wreck.

(The painting pictured above is “The Cremation of Shelley”, by Louis-Edward Fournier.)


November 1, 2006

Sylvia Plath’s “Ennui”

Filed under: literature, poetry — ted @ 5:41 pm

A newly discovered poem by Sylvia Plath, “Ennui,” is now available on the literary journal Blackbird.

The poem was discovered Anna Journey, a graduate creative writing student at Virginia Commonwealth University, and was written while Plath was in college, contemplating themes from The Great Gatsby.

I wish I could tell you that the poem is totally awesome, a precious gem which the world would be lost without. But it’s just another Sylvia Plath poem, and not one of her better ones…

August 8, 2006

Stepping Out

Filed under: music, poetry — ted @ 2:30 pm

First of all:

The pope has awesome shoes and — from what it looks like here — he’s taking every opportunity to demonstrate this to the world.


  • Check out this informative and rather handsome artice from the Wall Street Journal on the business of literary translations. I’m pretty fired up about mentioned-in-passing new translation of Camus.
  • We all know how important it is to punctuate correctly, but this is a most extreme example: a rogue comma in a contract written by the Canadian company Rogers Communications Inc. is going to cost them 2.13 million dollars.
  • Amid lots of misfires, there are a few absolute gems in Nerve’s The Hollywood Guide to Infidelity. Their leading example: “Rule #14: It’s possible to be married and faithful, just not in a Woody Allen film.”

Do you like nerdcore? Never heard of it? Check out MC Plus+‘s rhymes about writing code and surfing MySpace. For example, here’s a tight hook:

I’m a gangster nerd, strapping USB
I’m a gangster nerd, you can’t code like me
I’m a chip hop nerd, writing code in C
I’m a chip hop nerd, a rapping Ph.D

My favorite tracks include “Chip Hop Nerd,” “My Space Pimpin'” and “The Empty Sets.” It’s all worthy of a download.

And finally, a bit of Cruise-Zen:

(more here)

March 23, 2006

Selection from Rilke’s “[Straining so hard against the strength of the night]”

Filed under: poetry — ted @ 10:30 am

Perhaps the angels’ power is slightly lessened
when the sky with all its stars bends down to us
and hangs us here, in our cloudy fate.
In vain. For who has noticed it? And even
if someone has: who dares to lean his forehead
against the night as on a bedroom window?
Who has not disavowed it? Who has not
dragged into this pure inborn element
nights shammed and counterfeited, tinsel-nights,
and been content (how easily) with those?
We ignore the gods and fill our minds with trash.
For gods do not entice. They have their being,
and nothing else: an overflow of being.
Not scent or gesture. Nothing is so mute
as a god’s mouth. As lovely as a swan
on its eternity of unfathomed surface,
the god slides by, plunges, and spares his whiteness.

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