Sestina’s Radio

My left speaker falsifies me,
crackles, hisses, clichéd toad.
I turn my right speaker to you.
Surf wax fills the air,
wave tubes squeezed tight.
An unreal bird sings,

pierces my ear with a ring,
and to my radio welds me,
night’s station holding tight,
while in the surf singing toads
fill the ringing air
with songs of greyouts.

I try to explain these sounds to you:
above my left ear a toad sings,
caught in my curly bird hair,
a secret word brings to me,
from KJOB, sings this DJ Toad:
“Silence is noise for you tonight.”

My ears grow frightened,
and I look for sounds to you,
the coming of the toads,
the interventions of Sestina’s sting,
for alone she sings to me.
My ear receives whispers of air,

a clogged blogging air,
seashelled, wax watertight.
The toads begin to mew
in the alleys of my ears joyously,
a clear and concise ring,
the singing of the toads,

about nothing much to do.
No sound fills the air.
Nothing outside this radio sings,
its channel fixed tight
to sing only to you,

Only in my left ear sings this toad,
for me a secret aria,
while fades like light your voice.

See more Sestinas.

Trick Photography and Trees

There are, some argue, two forms of life on our planet: animal and plant. It’s generally conceived that only animals have consciousness, but not all of them. When Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am,” he may have ruined possibilities for a lot of potential ams.

“The unconscious passes into the object and returns,” Robert Bly says (213), discussing Francis Ponge’s prose poem, “Trees Lose Parts of Themselves Inside a Circle of Fog” (217).

Yet Joyce (XXXIII) says:

A rogue in red and yellow dress
Is knocking, knocking at the tree;
And all around our loneliness
The wind is whistling merrily.
The leaves – they do not sigh at all
When the year takes them in the fall.

The “rogue” is nature, nature falling, falling kicking, yet the wind “merrily” whistles, anticipating the irony of winter’s undressing summer, when the leaves can no longer feel. Bly would argue that the leaves do sigh, and that we can hear them sigh, if we learn to listen. But earlier, Joyce had already (XV) said:

From dewy dreams, my soul, arise,
From love’s deep slumber and from death,
For lo! the treees are full of sighs
Whose leaves the morn admonisheth.

The tree of the avenue, particularly at night, dressed in dappling neon or enamored moonlight, suggests another kind of consciousness for Joyce’s (II) trees:

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

For in the catechism of Episode 17, “Ithaca,” in Joyce’s Ulysses, Bloom and Stephen are apparently discussing the ability of trees, or leaves, to turn toward or away from light (paraheliotropism, or tropism):

“Was there one point on which their views were equal and negative?
The influence of gaslight or electric light on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees.”

The ideal photograph captures not necessarily the object, though the object must at least be attracted, or the light, which the photo must also catch, but the perfect photo snaps Bly’s passing and returning “into the object,” the epiphanic journey. This is the trick of photography, the lure.

Bly says Ponge doesn’t “exploit things [objects], either as symbols or as beings of a lower class.” Yet the desert creeps closer and closer. “The union of the object with the psyche moves slowly, and the poem may take four of five years to write,” Bly says.

Pieter Hoff, talking to Burkhard Bilger in “The Great Oasis” (New Yorker, Dec. 19 & 26, 2011), says, “A seed can afford to wait. Encased in dung from a passing bird or other animal, it can survive for months without rain. If the soil is dry, it can put all its energy into sending a single taproot in search of groundwater…It can worm itself into the tiniest crack, then expand a few cells at a time, generating pressures of up to seven hundred and twenty-five pounds per square inch – enough to split paving stones or punch holes through brick walls” (114).

The desert of the human imagination also creeps, reasoning against its very nature that it is the only perspective that matters, that is aware of itself. Bly says: “Descartes’ ideas act so as to withdraw consciousness from the non-human area, isolating the human being in his house, until, seen from the window, rocks, sky, trees, crows seem empty of energy, but especially empty of divine energy” (4).

Bly, Robert. News of the Universe: poems of twofold consciousness. [Chosen and introduced by Robert Bly] San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980.

Joyce, James. Collected Poems [Chamber Music]. New York: Viking Press, Compass Book Edition, 1957 [eighth printing, July 1967].

Photos in this post were taken this week in Mt. Tabor Park, in SE Portland, with a Canon PowerShot A560, set on Auto – no tricks, but the top photo was “enhanced” using iPhoto.

Beyond Yourself: Where the Poet Hides

Clive James argues that poets should know the rules before breaking them. “Technique’s Marginal Centrality” (Poetry, January 2012, pp. 326-335) is a very conservative argument, often repeated by those who do know the rules and have come to control the prescriptions, and we find the argument in the criticism of all the arts as well as in the professions. Few exceptions are acknowledged, and those must be geniuses. And yet what these same critics value is hiding the rules, dressing the technique in camouflage. But isn’t this what we call advertising?

Why James sees fit at the end of para 1 to dis the lovely Yoko Ono isn’t clear, but his value goes beyond technique. To prove something simple has lasting value, a simple but beautiful line of Picasso, for example, the critic must work hard at uncovering the camouflage, thus validating the artist’s “expect[ing] to charge you a fortune for it” (326). Whenever we see something simple or even “bland,” but good, James argues, we can be sure the poet has been to school and learned the trade first, before, as E. B. White prescribed, “omitting needless words.”

James uses as one of his proofs the musician, who must learn scales, for example, the rudiments of technique. One problem with the comparison of musicians to poets is that most musicians don’t learn technique to compose, but to play the work of others, who themselves might not be very good musicians, but very effective composers. And musicians need not know much theory to play pieces proficiently, for the theory is embedded in the piece and brought to life through the musician’s technique. Is technique an art? Itzhak Perlman practiced his violin technique while watching television.

James is not talking about the reading of poetry as much as the writing of poetry. He’s not talking to readers of poetry (an increasingly dwindling number), but to writers of poetry (an increasingly increasing number, and James would plainly like to see fewer poems written by fewer poets). James is trying to restore poetry’s value in linguistic skills, prescriptions that he argues are learned then disguised or ignored to create something new. But the new isn’t always pretty to James’s taste.

Consider the Coltrane example. “Ugly on Purpose,” an Open Letters Monthly review (2008), by John G. Rodwan, Jr., of Richard Palmer’s Such Deliberate Disguises: The Art of Philip Larkin, also addresses the issue of the apparent camouflage. Here, the subject is jazz, where musicians like John Coltrane blow dissonance and cacophony at their audience. They can also play otherwise, but their sound is deliberate, however unintelligible the average listener may find it. But here James doesn’t seem to approve of the disguise. Even average listeners require training, experience, or special upbringing to appreciate an art form, popular or other, lowbrow or highbrow, standard or anti-standard. Rodwan says that in his Cultural Amnesia, “Clive James complains of Coltrane ‘subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder’ and the ‘full, face-freezing, gut-churning hideosity’ of his playing, in which ‘shapelessness and incoherence are treated as ideals.'” But where James can read through to what’s concealed in poetry, he seems to have missed it in free-jazz. James’s conservative argument will never approve of free form improvisation.

These arguments, that the simple or incomprehensible work of art is rooted in learned, valued, talented apprenticeship, are by now classic responses to the popular criticism of “modern” art, that a monkey could have made it, or a child. Indeed, James barely disguises his acknowledgement of this argument in his opening paragraph, where he discusses the Japanese artist Hokusai, who made a painting, in part, by having chickens, their feet dipped in paint, walk across the paper. So much depends upon a critic justifying technique. I understand that James prefers Ben Webster over John Coltrane; what I don’t understand is why he thinks John Coltrane should sound like Ben Webster (another conservative argument). Should we criticize something for not being what it was not intended to be?

James has more to say, that poets often write too many poems, thus ruining whatever reputation, “name,” they might have earned with their few really good poems. There’s also an interesting discussion of technique suitable to message: “…the argument is the action”; and “…the reasoning is in command of the imagery” (332). But there have been so many successful informal poems, so many successful Duchamps and Rauschenbergs, that “…we must contemplate the possibility that there is such a thing as an informal technique,” but James rejects this notion, for to accept it would suggest that we can write poems while watching television.

James ends his short but full piece with an odd coda of sorts, about a copy of a book owned by Elizabeth Bishop (not one she wrote) in which she jotted notes for a poem, and the book recently was put up for sale, valued by virtue of its being owned and written in by Bishop. Says James, chances are this won’t happen to most poets (no kidding), “but that’s the chance that makes the whole deal more exciting than Grand Slam tennis. Unless you can get beyond yourself, you were never there.” From chickens with paint on their feet walking across an artist’s paper to Grand Slam tennis – I for one am certainly beyond myself at this point. But I don’t quite get James’s conclusion. He seems to be saying that fame is the exciting part, the chance that a poet might become so famous that readers would scrounge for her notes. But fame seems an odd place to want to hide.

Two Poems for Christmas and the Feast of the Epiphany


In the straw burrow farm mice.
Get a little closer and you’ll see
Nits in baby Jesus’s hair, lice,
And a house snake in the olive tree.

There’s beer on the breath of the three
Sage men sitting under the olive tree,
Playing games of cribbage,
Ushering in a new age.

The pieces are swaddled in wool.
Mary’s breast-feeding the baby Jesus.
Joseph takes out his tools
To build a bed before the night freezes.

Mary wipes Joseph’s brow,
The wise men questioning how,
Talking to Joseph about what he did,
And what in the end might be in the crib.

From an East Side Bus

The lurching bus crowds forward,
dogs away from the curb broken under
the plum tree overarching the shelter.

The bus thrashes on, wobbling
in a fit of leaf blowing, phlegmatic coughing.
The young, motley couple

(we see them every day lately),
their rusted stroller full
of plastic blankets,

empty bottles, and crushed cans,
sleeps on the bench in the bus shelter
covered with plums and damp purple leaves.

“Epiphany” appeared in Rocinante, Spring 2009, Vol. 8

On Poetry

Some days ago, Susan suggested a book I’ve finally opened, Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. “It is always quietly thrilling,” Bryson says in the introduction, “to find yourself looking at a world you know well but have never seen from such an angle before.” He’s discovered a rooftop vista accessible through a hidden door. The experience causes him to realize that he’s a stranger to his house, an English rectory built roughly 150 years ago. He’s had an epiphany, for he decides that “it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important, too. Looking around my house, I was startled and somewhat appalled to realize how little I knew about the domestic world around me.”

I’d just opened the book, and already I had a bit of an epiphany of my own, for I realized that Bryson’s “quietly thrilling” experience resulting from a new perspective on an old thing is a practical definition of poetry. At least, that is what successful poetry often accomplishes, an image of a familiar thing viewed in a new light, in such a way that we feel a stranger to the thing, as familiar as it might be, and we want to research its origins, its purpose, and to revalue its uses – now that we’ve a new realization of the thing’s importance, as revealed by our newly found perspective; we want to get to know the thing all over again. We want to save it, rescue the thing from the rummage sale, for in poetry we find our own hidden door. Perhaps this revaluing of things, of changing our minds about what we want, is what all successful art accomplishes, and also explains John Cage’s silence as a place to find hidden sounds.

The poet practices legerdemain; he’s a sleight of hand man, as described in Wallace Stevens’s “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”: “…So bluish clouds / Occurred above the empty house and the leaves / Of the rhododendrons raddled their gold, / As if someone lived there….”  And, as Ferlinghetti added, “…and all without mistaking / any thing / for what it may not be.” For, as Stevens goes on, “The wheel survives the myths.” And finally, “It may be,” concludes Stevens, “that the ignorant man, alone, / Has any chance to mate his life with life.”

Good Grief, Robert Duncan

Good Grief, Robert Duncan

…tome views for the eye weary
this failure of sound is song lost
the sinking touch, just out of reach
“grandeurs”? you want to speak
of Hopkins?

“the world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil


Meantime, Word.docx
yr txt
my txt
evrybdys wrds.

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

We are stung by it, in Flannery O’Connor’s world, where grace is a holy bee attracted to the colors of the soul’s peacock-like feathers, or we are brushed by a mere grace singing like a wind, stirring Wallace Stevens’s “gold-feathered bird” in “The palm at the end of the mind”; its “fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” and we become grace when we are satisfied to merely be. In any case, we can not know if grace will, like Portia’s mercy, “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” or if grace, like Flannery’s wooden leg, will smack us between the eyes as we roll casually under a mellow blue wave.

So it seemed when we were close to rest last evening, checking our Gmail, and noticed, in the sidebar, links, to ads, whose words appeared pulled directly from our text. After a few clicks, we got to the bottom of this, for Google explains: “Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email in order to target advertisements or related information.” As if we should be comforted by the fact that no humans read our email; it’s not the humans we are worried about, we thought, and thought again of Richard Brautigan’s (1967) “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.” We are living with the machines now, their grace as palpable as bees whose dance would show us the way to an immortal light, which is to say a mere mortal light, but which might be enough to light us a new path to an old palm.

“this yr”

“this yr” is a poem published in chapbook format in December, 1976, by Stephen Jama. 100 copies were printed. The chapbook consists of three sheets, 6&3/4” by 6”, folded and hand-sewn with red thread. The cover is slightly thicker than the inside pages, the inside paper a bit heavier than standard typing paper.

Jama was a popular instructor at El Camino College. The “this yr” shown in this post was a 1976 Christmas gift to me from Michael Mahon, also a friend of Jama’s, and a professor at Dominguez Hills. Another example of a Jama poem, this one in a kind of broadside, or broadsheet, format, “each sounding’s its answer,” is on-line as part of Jama’s Kent State library donations.

Chapbooks and broadsides were popular self-publishing formats in the 1960s and 70s, and were also popular formats used by small press, or alternative press, publishing, a popularity in part perhaps inspired by and certainly fueled by the folk revival, which spread songs around the country by word of mouth, in small coffee houses in cities and around campuses, and in small concert venues, and which, along with the Beat writers and musicians, helped popularize and rescue poetry from the scholiastics.

James Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach is another kind of chapbook, published originally by Shakespeare & Co. (Paris) in 1927. It was published again in 1966 by Faber and Faber. Shown in this post is a Faber reprint published in 1971 that I purchased used for $1.00 some time ago. The penny each is at least literal, for Joyce, who understood the difficulties of publishing, self-publishing, and quick-scrapping, calls to mind street hawkers selling fruit from carts.

While broadsheets are usually only one page, chapbooks contain more pages, but by definition not very many pages. The Faber book is only 47 pages, and includes a “Publishers’ Note”: “In order to make this volume more substantial and to show a wider range of James Joyce’s verse, there have been added to Pomes Penyeach the following…,” and three additional poems are added, including “The Holy Office” and “Gas from a Burner,” which each run a few pages, including footnotes. The original Pomes Penyeach contained only 13 poems.

Opening the Patient in Open Access Week; or, the Great Research Hoax

At first glance, The Atlantic’s “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” by David H. Freedman (November, 2010), about the inaccuracies, contradictions, reversals, and errors in medical and pharmaceutical research, looks like something out of the National Enquirer: can this hoax be, to this extent, true? Alas, Dr. John Ioannidis’s 2005 article, published in JAMA, goes unchallenged – its conclusion: “Contradiction…[is] not unusual in highly cited research of clinical interventions and their outcomes.” What this means is that 90% of your doctor’s advice about what you should or should not be doing health-wise is probably based on faulty or biased research. The timing of The Atlantic article, arriving in mailboxes in the middle of the international Open Access week, couldn’t be better. “Though scientists and science journalists are constantly talking up the value of the peer-review process, researchers admit among themselves that biased, erroneous, and even blatantly fraudulent studies easily slip through it,” reports Freedman.

Sponsored by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, Open Access week seeks to raise awareness of Open Access initiatives worldwide. It’s possible that the Open Access movement will alleviate many of the pressures on researchers that have led to the problematic results described in The Atlantic article, primarily, as Freedman quotes Ioannidis, because “at every step in the process there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded.” But why? Why would researchers not want to discover what’s really going on? Because, Ioannidis says, “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.” It’s that conflict of interest that Open Access has the potential to cure.

Our friends the physicists have been both dipping into the infinite cookie jar of funding and publishing open access style for some time. It was at the FQXi Community site that we first became aware of Garrett Lisi’s paper “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.” But if Ioannidis is right, and as the number of papers on string theory might suggest, most research probably reduces to simply that most everything is wrong. But, no worries, for Ioannidis concludes, at the end of Freedman’s piece in The Atlantic, that “Science is a noble endeavor, but it’s also a low-yield endeavor. I’m not sure that more than a very small percentage of medical research is ever likely to lead to major improvements in clinical outcomes and quality of life. We should be very comfortable with that fact.” Buckminster Fuller was very comfortable with that fact. Fuller thought it was necessary to pay for all the researchers on the bet that one of them would come up with a viable idea to pay for all the others and then some.

If science is a low-yield endeavor, what’s poetry? Still, Open Access holds the potential for improving the quality and honesty of research, publication, access, and discussion of scholarly papers in the sciences and the humanities. The irony of course is the cost associated with behind the pay wall journals coupled with the findings of Ioannidis. And why would the problem be any different in the Humanities? But will Open Access remedy the research problems discussed by Ioannidis? It’s possible, since the peer review process changes – with more eyes on the product, and the strength of closed and biased editorial voices of certain periodicals and coteries of peers is quieted down. What should we be reading? Open Access has the potential to open the walled cherry orchard to everyone with an appetite, for is 90% of our poetry critics’ advice about what we should be reading also based on faulty and biased research? Ioannidis and his meta-researchers have uncovered a hoax, one that’s been a long time in the making and continues to sicken the patient.

Skylark, have you anything to say to Billy Collins?

We are surprised to learn poetry ever makes the news. But over at the Poetry Foundation, we found, under “poetry news,” this, from a Billy Collins interview in the Wall Street Journal: ‘“Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,’ Billy Collins recently told The Wall Street Journal. ‘I assure them [his students] that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word.'” So, it’s an argument of definition: what is poetry, and, whatever it is, can it exist apart from its accompaniment? This is when Jack Benny folds his arms, brings his hand to his chin, looks over his right shoulder, and sighs, rolling his eyes upward, to the corners, and wide, “Well!,” for surely Billy Collins is as wrong as a jackhammer on a holiday, and we find ourselves agreeing with Kristen Hoggatt, over at The Smart Set: “…come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses….”

But whether he’s on a high horse or a low one, isn’t lyrical poetry what Billy Collins writes? But Collins isn’t the first critic who would close the sacred canon’s door to songs – Leslie Fiedler opened that door in Liberations (1971), his delayed thesis of “The Children’s Hour” the right trap for those waxing pedantically like Collins, but, alas, the door keeps banging open and shut, in spite of Fiedler’s attempt to nail it open: “…downright contradictory notions of what poetry is or ought to be…stated…by different spokesmen to different audiences, existing in mutual ignorance or contempt of each other.” And to what end? For what Fiedler values, which he makes clear at the end of his essay, is “…remembering…as if there were ever a time when, at the levels touched by song, we were any of us anything else [young].” For it’s the song that we remember, and the song allows for poetry.

Yet there’s more to song lyrics than what we hear in popular rock music. Does Billy Collins also think that Noel Coward “is not a poet in any sense of the word”? Or Hoagy Carmichael? Or Johnny Mercer? Woody Guthrie? And what of the libretto?

But to Billy’s point that “lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,” as Fiedler illustrated, almost embarrassingly, poetry began in song, so, yes, exactly so, as so much of today’s poetry is also separated from its music, from its musical source, and, where there is no music, it continues to be argued, there is no poetry. How can Billy remain so malinformed? For we’ve been canonizing non-literary systems for some time now, in literature and in art, and, increasingly, though not soon enough, in religion. Consider this, for example, from 1991, by Rakefet Sheffy (Tel-Aviv University) already nearly 20 years old, but right on: “The Case of the Modern American Popular Song and its Contact with Poetry”: “Once the artistry of songwriting was recognized in literary terms, a canon of popular song began to be reconstructed in various ways, for example by reconsidering antecedent non-literary texts, issuing lyrics in book form, writing the history of the popular song, exploring and documenting its forms and styles, and institutionalizing its own criticism. Consequently, a whole body of cultural elements, which up to that moment were considered trivial, worthless or subversive, came to be regarded as a legitimate repertory available also to avant-gardist songwriters, this time, however, regardless of their initial ideological background or their affiliations with the literary system.”

Come back to the raft, Billy, we got a song for ya. But you have to sing it – it’s a dose of orality.

See also prior post referencing Fiedler and the either/or poetry definition fallacy here.

“Skylark,” music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, has been covered by many artitists (e.g. K. D. Lang in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Poetry, Politics, and the Mail; or, Fishing Without a License

Why does anyone want to be a poet, and what events of chance make it possible? “It’s more original being a postman,” Pablo advises Mario.

There’s something wrong with Mario. He’s a fisherman allergic to boats and the sea. So he takes a public servant job; he becomes a postman. But not just any postman. He’s the personal postman to Pablo Neruda at the time of the Chilean statesman-poet’s exile.

Mario comes to poetry by accident, inspired not by poetic works but by desire for the women he hopes to attract and impress by simply being a poet. This is not so unusual; men do all sorts of silly things for the same reason, and Mario has seen that most of Pablo’s letters are from women and concludes they are amorous admirers of the poet.

“It began as a mistake,” Bukowski’s Chinaski explains of his becoming a postman in the first line of Post Office, his novel about his experiences working postal jobs in the waning of post-WWII Los Angeles. Chinaski begins enthusiastically, thinking, like Mario, there might be women in his future.

“This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes,” chirps Chinaski. Except that things don’t work out as expected. Just like Mario, Chinaski “didn’t even have a uniform, just a cap,” perhaps the first sign Chinaski would reject postal grace. He comes and goes in a kind of anti-route, and one imagines him chucking the letters, bills, and adverts and delivering instead poems like fish lures to casually selected homes.

Indeed, “poets can do a lot of damage to people,” the politician Di Cosimo cautions Mario. Yes, and it’s no accident. The local politicians have been promising water for the island residents with every new election, only to renege once elected. The poet promises water, too.

“Mail, over any length of time,” poet Charles Olson said in his The Post Office: A Memoir of His Father, “will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it.” We begin to see where Olson got his penchant for writing poetry. The postal bosses disliked Olson’s father for his strong work ethic and his union activity, and they tormented him until the route inspector finished him off, and he dies like a dead letter his son spends a lifetime searching for.

Of the three, the only one who gets free is Chinaski, who wakes up alive to write a novel.

The brick that’s pulled from Mario’s wall and explains his fall is his ability to read, unusual on the dry island, and explains the accident that follows: his winning poem prized by the communists who invite him to read at the political rally that erupts into a riot where he’s trampled and killed, a poet of the people, his paper dissipated under panicked feet, for every poem is a fish caught without a license.