“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.

The Rubrish of Poetry: Taming the Beast; or, Crossing the Rubric-con

There were reasons the rubicund-faced nuns ruddled our papers with red ink, for the rubric is all over red, and poetry full of rubricalities. Consider the Shakespearean sonnet: the rubric calls for 14 lines of iambic pentameter divided into three quatrains with a rhyming scheme of abab, cdcd, and efef, ending in a couplet rhymed gg. Poetry is rubric, and rubric tames the beast of language.

If language is a beast to be tamed, the poetry rubric is the whip and chair, and rubrics go deeper under the skin of poetry than the rules of any sonnet. In his 1961 introduction to Contemporary American Poetry, Donald Hall said, “For thirty years an orthodoxy ruled American poetry. It derived from the authority of T. S. Eliot and the new critics; it exerted itself through the literary quarterlies and the universities. It asked for a poetry of symmetry, intellect, irony, and wit. The last few years have broken the control of this orthodoxy.” But Hall makes it clear that he does not want to line up the old poets and blindfold them in front of a firing squad: “We do not want merely to substitute one orthodoxy for another.” Is it quaint now to read the avant-garde of the early sixties? Is poetry ruled by reigns reduced to rubrics, as Marxist thought is reduced to slogans?

Hall said that “the colloquial side of American literature – the side which valued ‘experience’ more than ‘civilization’ – was neglected by the younger poets. Melville said that the whaleboats of the Pacific had been his Harvard and his Yale College.” In the sixties, the state colleges, commuter schools filled with students who plumbed, waited, and painted moonlighting were the whaleboats of the Pacific – well, dinghies, anyway. But the 60’s overcame the fears of the 50’s. Hall drops the F bomb, suggesting a rubric of fear and secrecy: “Sometimes it seems that the influence of Senator McCarthy was stronger than that of Jung.” Then, toward a new rubric, written by William Carlos Williams: vernacular, empirical, physical. But then Hall disses the Beats. One wonders what the fear and secrecy is now, for the rubric often still seems to call for poems that Hall said “existed to prevent meaning.”

We cross the rubric to, as Wallace Stevens says in “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” “Throw away the lights, the definitions, / And say of what you see in the dark…Throw the lights away. Nothing must stand / Between you and the shapes you take / When the crust of shape has been destroyed.” The crust of shape is rubric, and the rubric stands between the writer and an untamed language, between the writer and what might be discovered without rubric: “You as you are? You are yourself. / The blue guitar surprises you.” The rubric fades away, sheds its skin for a “new skin for the old ceremony,” as Leonard Cohen said, a new rubric for the old ideas, for the rubric is to tame the beast, written, of course, in red. The rubric is a con; the beast gets the tamer in the end, every time. But at least the tamer got into the ring with it. And that is poetry, the rubric of the ring.

Not the Rubric Itself, but Ideas about the Rubric

HTMLGIANT recently posted an interesting poetry rubric, evaluative criteria for students writing poems. One would think forcing a student to write a poem would be punishment enough, but grading the effort seems a bit excessive. In fairness to the teacher, maybe the rubric made more sense to the students in the class, or it might have been some sort of administrative mandate.

I was reminded of an old grading illustration. Here’s the scenario: art class – draw a picture of your house. Little Mary, who loves art, digs in with the crayons, drawing a tiny house below an enormous, blistering red-orange sun in a pink sky. The teacher walks by and asks “What’s that?,” pointing to the sun. “The sun,” Mary replies hopefully. “Oh, but is the sun really that big?” teacher asks, and slaps a C minus bigger than Mary’s house onto her work of art. The scenario is repeated the following art class when Mary downsizes her sun and upgrades her house. Teacher’s response: “Much better, Mary, but that sun is still too big.” The teacher draws a small B minus in the center of Mary’s sun. Mary’s next effort conforms to the teacher’s expectations: a tiny yellow dot in the sky just above the roof of a house that reaches to the top edge of the paper. Grade: A minus.

Thus Mary learns not art, but that to succeed in school means conforming to the teacher’s notion of reality, a notion that is at odds with Mary’s empirical knowledge, for the sun is, of course, bigger than any house. But in fairness to this teacher, maybe the lesson was perspective. But must every perspective be a fixed point of view?

Buckminster Fuller describes the effects of the art class scenario in “Education Automation: Freeing the Scholar to Return to His Studies”: “I am quite confident that humanity is born with its total intellectual capability already on inventory and that human beings do not add anything to any other human being in the way of faculties and capacities. What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed, so that by the time that most people are mature they have lost use of many of their innate capabilities. My long-time hope is that we may soon begin to realize what we are doing and may alter the ‘education’ process in such a way as only to help the new life to demonstrate some of its very powerful innate capabilities.”

Here’s the “Period 9 Poetry Rubric”: “Title, 2 points; Stanza Breaks, 1 point; Line Breaks, 1 point; Concluding Lines, 3 points; So What? 3 points; Imagery, 3 points; Things not Ideas, 2 points.”

I was inspired to try my hand at a poem in response to the rubric. I made a few changes to the one I posted in comments at HTMLGIANT, so it’s a work in progress. Not sure that’s allowed under the rubric:

After the Title

After the title,

there’s not much more.

The stanzas break,

and lines fall apart

to the concluding

so what?

(“…the white chickens…

a red wheel barrow…”;

Not Ideas about the Thing

but the Thing Itself”)

The poem total

never enough.

Postscript, from Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue. “I’ll pay as much attention to your text / And rubric in such things as would a gnat.”

Bukowski for President! David Biespiel and Poets for Democracy

from New York Times article, September 3, 1917

Pablo Neruda is perhaps the greatest example of a people’s poet, and he gained popularity through both his poetry and his public service. In the US, Langston Hughes was a people’s poet, writing in a vernacular that spoke to, for, and of democratic values. From his poem “Democracy” (1949): “Democracy will not come / Today, this year / Nor ever / Through compromise and fear.” Hughes’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, in 1953, during the McCarthy era of harassment, certainly demonstrated this belief, and sealed his fate as poet and citizen, the kind of poet David Biespiel, in the May, 2010 issue of Poetry seems to be calling. Hughes was both poet and public figure, and the activities encouraged one another.

Biespiel’s call for poets to engage in the Democratic process of public discourse, service, and persuasion borrows its title from the Woody Guthrie song “This Land is Our Land.” Guthrie, like Hughes, spoke in a vernacular for and of his community. How many of the poets Biespiel addresses write in a vernacular that qualifies as a democratic language, in words that speak to, for, and of a community, in words that everyone understands? This would seem to be an important prerequisite for public discourse. Biespiel goes outside the US for his primary example, Vaclav Havel, whose “literary background…increase[ed] the moral authority he summoned in his civic and political life.” But Biespiel mentions Wendell Berry’s 1975 “The Specialization of Poetry,” reminding us of our favorite Buckminster Fuller theme: specialization leads to extinction. In short, today’s poets may be too narrow, not well-rounded enough in background, experience, or temperament to answer Biespiel’s calling, and they may be nearly extinct on the public discourse front.

In any case, one of Biespiel’s reasons for his claim that poets are best positioned to speak to democratic ideals, that “poets are uniquely qualified to speak openly in the public square among diverse or divisive communities,” is “poetry’s ancient predisposition for moral persuasion,” but we are not convinced that poets are any better equipped than the average citizen to persuade. But that is both the risk and the opportunity – and that being the case, poets had better say what’s on their minds, but not because they are any better equipped than the rest of us. “We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity,” Louis Menand said in the close to his The Metaphysical Club. “Democracy is an experiment,” Menand concludes, “and it is in the nature of experiments sometimes to fail.” It’s that possibility of failure that gives poets the best reason to come out of whatever literary closet they happen to be writing in and develop a truly public voice to accompany their poetic vision and voice.

Meantime, we were thinking of what an all-time administration of poets might look like, and we came up with this draft (not all positions have been filled): President, Charles Bukowski; Vice-president, Marianne Moore; Secretary of State, Langston Hughes; Secretary of Commerce, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; Secretary of Labor, Bob Dylan; Secretary of Homeland Security, e. e. cummings; Presidential speechwriter and press secretary, William Faulkner; Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Plath; Attorney General, Wallace Stevens…. You get the idea. It’s not exactly what Biespiel was talking about, but try it with the poets you know. Maybe we’ll provoke a response.

Plato, Pablo, and the Poetics of Health Care

Plato considered poets dangerous and banned them from his Republic, and Il Postino (1994) illustrates his point, yet also shows that we are all poets, all who use language – to love and berate, to tackle and persuade, to testify and exhort. The movie, from the book Burning Patience, by Antonio Skarmeta, a fiction set on an island of Pablo Neruda’s temporary exile, is about the democracy of language, how metaphor permeates our lives, and the consequences inherent in desiring more than our own voices can bear, even through poetry. 

Is contemporary poetry outside the margins of popular US culture? Maybe, but the creation of metaphor is still the heart of language and language the heart of culture. In the film, this is ironically dramatized by Aunt Rosa. During her hilarious visit to Pablo to complain of his contributing to the poetic delinquency of Beatrice, she lets loose with an invective that ably employs a fishnet of metaphors to describe Pablo’s bad influence on Mario and Mario’s hypnotizing effect on her niece. The blame falls on the poet for stirring the emotions of the tainted republic of the island. 

Poetry sleeps around, moving through Plato’s five regimes. Democracy gives way to tyranny; Plato should have banned lobbyists – then maybe the Republic, though awash in a bath of poetry, might at least have a decent health care system, not to mention an adequate water supply.

Leslie Fiedler and the Either/Or Fallacy of Poetic Criticism

Perhaps there are only two kinds of poetry, still only two kinds of poems. Dichotomy makes for easy argument by eliminating all other possible alternatives. We often hear there are two schools of thought, and any ambiguity is quickly brushed away. The one poetry might be represented by T. S. Eliot, and is characterized by recondite allusion, objects removed to libraries for safe keeping, the other poetry represented by William Carlos Williams, and characterized by everyday objects close at hand, the red wheelbarrow, the icebox. How quickly though this argument ignores the actual words, as we forget Eliot’s elusive but simple, figurative cat hidden in the fog of Prufrock’s meandering thoughts, and we forget too Williams’s “The Yachts,” a poem that discourages an easy swim.

Leslie Fiedler, in his essay for Liberations (1971), “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry,” argues that there are two kinds of poetry, or poetics, identified by the poems we sing and get by heart, and the poems we must read and read again to recall, for the latter can exist only on a page, poems that Fiedler says are “…dictated by typography…; for it is a truly post-Gutenberg poetry, a kind of verse not merely reproduced but in some sense produced by movable type” (150). These poems are contrasted with popular song lyrics, automatically memorized, that simply don’t work when typed on a page. To illustrate, one goes to a poetry reading, where the poet himself appears not to have his poems by heart, since he must read them from pages; or one goes to a Bob Dylan concert, where the wandering minstrel still has all the words by heart. But Dylan Thomas, reciting from memory, singing unaccompanied, disposes the either/or fallacy of the poetry reading/pop-concert argument.

Speaking of either/or, last night’s snow, still a surprise this morning, has us thinking of our south Santa Monica Bay home again, where we were surprised and nostalgically saddened on a visit to Hermosa some time ago to find the old Either/Or bookstore closed. But then again, not surprised, for the either/or fallacy often leaves too much unresolved, fails to reach the heart of any poem, fails to hear the coming of the end of one song, and the beginning of another. The bookstore was now a clothing store; apparently someone fell into the old either/or fallacy of either books or clothes, but not both.

Me epistle on “Moopetsi meepotsi”

Whenever challenged with words unknown we go first to the OED then to Finnegans Wake. We did so this morning looking for meep, following yet another Language Log thread. We found meep in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, on page 276, in footnote number 4:

“Parley vows the Askinwhose? I do, Ida. And how to call the cattle black. Moopetsi meepotsi.”

A meep, then, is a calf, and a moop, the calf’s mom.

The moral of me epistle can be found in today’s Boston Globe, where the principal barning the word learns who abuses meep, steps in moop, for the pot (principal), trying to silence the kettles (students) back, starts them whistling, creating a word stampede:

“That was the first joke of Willingdone, tic for tac. Hee, hee, hee! This is me Belchum in his twelvemile cowchooks, weet, tweet and stampforth foremost, footing the camp for the jinnies. Drink a sip, drankasup, for he’s as sooner buy a guinness than he’d stale store stout” (p. 9).

Let the peeps meep, for as Robert Frost said, “…there must something wrong / In wanting to silence any song” (“A Minor Bird”).

Written after a visit to Language Log

We look forward to our daily dose of Language Log. Language has undone so many. This morning there’s a post on the mateless orange, for she can’t be rhymed, yet she’s not alone. 

          The Mateless Orange

The shelves are bare of rhymes for orange.

Not only that, but my dish is empty of porridge.

You’ve heard that girl before, right?

Orange is popular, purple not,

not even for Steven Earle.

For it’s rindlessness that’s comic.

But let me ask you something:

What the heck is this all about?

If you stop and think about it,

your head is jam-packed

with oranges,

with the curious result

that there are those who will find this an insult:

a banana is not yellow,

and the mateless orange rinds,

for she can’t be rhymed,

yet she’s not alone.