Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Music--Wendell Berry

I employ the blind mandolin player
in the the tunnel of the Mètro. I pay him
a coin as hard as his notes,
and maybe he has employed me, and pays me
with his playing to hear him play.

Maybe we're necessary to each other,
and this vacant place has need of us both
––it's vacant, I mean, of dwellers,
is populated by passages and absences.

By some fate or knack he has chosen
to place his music in this cavity
where there's nothing to look at
and blindness costs him nothing.
Nothing was here before he came.

His music goes out among the sounds
of footsteps passing. The tunnel is the resonance
and meaning of what he plays.
It's his music, not the place, I go by.

In this light which is just a fact, like darkness
or the edge or end of what you may be
going toward, he turns his cap up on his knees
and leaves it there to ask and wait, and holds up
his mandolin, the lantern of his world;

his fingers make their pattern on the wires.
This is not the pursuing of rhythm
of a blind cane pecking in the sun,
but is a singing in a dark place.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Image and Line

As you polish poems for me, I promised to link you to the primer on the poetic line that I often use. One on imagery in is the works, though I think many of you got the embodied, sensuous particular quite well last week, as well as the notion of thinking through the logic of the image. Still, I will post it later. This means you need not necessarily send your polished poems this evening. Instead, you might send them by Wed. night. See you at the Art Institute.

Friday, September 19, 2008

In my ideal world, the home of everyone who loves art would come equipped with a painting by Giorgio Morandi, as a gymnasium for daily exercise of the eye, mind, and soul. I want the ad account: “Stay fit the Morandi way!”

--from The New Yorker and Peter Schjeldahl's review of a Morandi exhibit at the Met.

I mentioned Morandi briefly last year when I wrote about ekphrasis in the novel Falling Man by Don DeLIllo.

Complete Schedule

ENGW 444/Poetry, Poetics and the Arts
Fall 2008/D. Wright, Instructor

Complete Assignment Schedule
(still open to adjustments and additions)

Sept 23 AIC Trip / Two polished poems due via email

Sept. 30 Read Rusk,“Perils and Possibilities” / 2 AIC poems due (submit with digital images &
read one aloud in class) / Discuss Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon
Craft Element: Diction

Oct. 7 Introduce Manifesto / Artistic Process (guest artist)
Read Ratzlaff (all) / AIC Polished poem due in class
Craft Element: Voice

Oct. 14 Manifesto poem due / Finish Ratzlaff discussion / Deep context/Introduce Hymn Lyric Project
Craft Element: Figurative Language

Oct. 21 NO CLASSES—Fall Break / Project Proposal Due via Email by Oct. 25

Oct. 28 Hymn Writer John Bell on campus—Activities TBA

Nov. 4 Hymn draft due / Read Poetics Handout /Form Handout/ Other reading TBA
Craft Element: Form(s)

Nov. 11 Read Keane / Additional Blog Reading
Project Conferences

Nov. 18 Collaboration(s)—Working with artists and musicians
Schedule Peer Crit Sessions/Groups
Craft Element: Revision

Nov. 25 Poetics Draft Due for Peer Critique
Craft Element: Prose Poems

Dec. 2 Portion of Project Due for Peer Crit/Conferences
Optional Class on Ekphrasis and Midrash

Dec. 9 Final Party/Readings/Poetics and Project Due

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


With the new semester and a new batch of poets working hard, I am working to reorganize this blog, to give instructional materials in some kind of order, to arrange drafts, to highlight student work, etc. Check back next week.


Sunday, August 31, 2008


". . . the thesis of Daniel J. Levitin’s lively, ambitious and occasionally even persuasive new book, “The World in Six Songs.” Music, Levitin argues, is not just something to help pass the time on road trips anda swell facilitator for meeting girls: it is, he writes,“the soundtrack of civilization” — a force that shaped us as a species and prepared us for the higher-order task of sharing complex communications with one another."

from today's New York Times Book Review

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Another draft

after Chagall’s Temptation (1912)

My God, you know, how temptation sits
in the belly of the world, red fruit, round,
already bitten.

You know it is not all that matters. Small, hooved creatures,
tiny birds, Eve’s several glances, and the canopies
of red and blue leaves matter as well.

The real fall will be to believe in Pablo.
Apollinaire will love you, your round house and the herring brine
on your father's hands.

Bella loves you, even as you grieve for the Shtetl, for the pale Christ.

I understand, my brother, the desire to pare a body
into something that will serve beauty.

You understand, my brother, how the world
revolves around the edges of the world.

Let the others eat their fill of square pears on triangular tables,
suckle at the circles and the cones.

I want to eat, together, whatever we’ve been given.
The moon behind the garden will be green and will disappear quite soon.

I want, as well, to thank you for this: I woke today
and was surprised, like you, to see that I am still alive.

A couple of notes on process in regards to this poem.

1) Earlier this summer, I read Jonathan Wilson's biography of Marc Chagall. Wording of some lines, as well as some of the context of 1912 in Chagall's world have likely been stolen from this good work.

2) Apollinaire wrote these lines for Chagall: "your round house where a smoked herring swims in circles . . . a man in the sky / a calf peers out of his mother's belly" (See Wilson, p. 51).

3) "Let the others eat..." is an adaptation and extension of Chagall's own comment about Cubism: "Let them eat their fill of square pears and triangular tables." He also announced, later, that as Europe was going to war he thought: "Picasso, Cubism is done for!" Picasso often said disdainful things about Chagall, though the two were able to have a semblance of companionship at points in their lives.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A draft from yesterday in St. Louis

Anaphoric Confession, after  Mark Rothko’s, Red, Orange, Orange on Red

Baby, Monet rhymes with cliché but nothing,
nearly nothing sounds like Rothko—
blood or light, believed to be silent
pound in the temples.

I lied to you when I said I had been in the Rothko chapel.

I have not been surrounded by abstraction, by beauty.

I have not known Fra Angelico, or Signorelli, or Orvieto.

In Venice, for two days, I only loved the gelato.
We posed on the bridges for ourselves.

I live in the saturated, sentimental blood
of my own loud head—hard
amens and blunted blows.

Monet and his light. Degas and his dancers
have no real home here—nor the Germans expressing
themselves in the other room.

You have heard me cursing you when I should have stood silent.
You have heard my language resound in empty temples of bone.

Here I would like to bleed across the room—light, color—like Klee—I pray,
or come into you without a word,
like this Rothko—repeated, blessed,
parallel, and unrhymed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Viewing the view of the viewer

At the Saint Louis Art Museum today, I took a number of photos and started some new ekphrastic poems. My favorite two photos are here, one showing a view from behind Degas' dancer as she views a woman taking a photo of her daughter before the famous Monet water lily. And I am viewing it all as well. And so are you.

I am always reminded of the famous poem by Robert Hayden.

Splash cold water on your vocal cords

I have made a case, and continue to make the case, that music offers a unique way of knowing--of knowing experience, one another, God. It's a hot idea, apparently, one that Michael Linton would like us to question and resist a lot more. Here's a bit from Linton's review of Jeremy Begbie's latest book. When Begbie argues that music can have a profound effect on human behavior, Linton writes:

Well, no. Not really, or not quite. Music's proven effect upon behavior isn't profound; it's actually pretty trivial. The tempo of particular kinds of music played in particular kinds of grocery stores can affect the speed in which shoppers will generally move through the aisles (but it isn't particularly good at selling individual products: funny animated critters are better—think of that lizard selling car insurance). And like the Chippendale furniture and brass sconces in the law office that suggest sober stability, music can be used as décor. As décor it can do all the things that décor can do: set mood, play upon cultural memory, suggest appropriate behavior—but music cannot dictate behavior any more than the furniture can get you to sign a contract if you don't want to. And relationships between parents and peers play the pivotal role in an adolescent's formation, not music. Music is a means of expressing those relationships.

I think it's good to have this tempered view. Music is just music, sound given significance by individuals and by a tradition. It is not salvation or love or God. Does it work uniquely? I think so. Am I too much of an advocate? Probably. Do I want Michael Linton planning the music at my church? No.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Now that you own a victrola

I had thought about writing a poem about my grandparents' Victrola. You know the one? It's really there in my mother's garage, rescued from Grandma Clark's basement when we moved her into the nursing home. It's wooden. I played with it as a kid. It plays music, yes indeed. The needle is heavy enough that you could use it as a weapon, or maybe a cooking implement. It would be the kind of poem that Billy Collins thinks we have enough of. In his famous essay "My Grandfather's Tackle-Box: The Limits of Memory Driven Poetry" Collins points out that:
"Up until the end of the eighteenth century, poetic decorum would remind the author that he must keep himself subordinate to his subject matter, which would be determined by his choice of genre. High matter for the epic, verbal coyness or plangent sincerity for the love lyric. For a poet to write of his own life— his discovery of daffodils in a field or his grandfather's tackle box in the attic — would be not only self-indulgent but of no value to an audience interested in its own edification, not in
the secrets of the poet's past."

Yet it's not because of Collins that I haven't written that object-fetishization poem about my grandparents' victrola. No. I read the advertisement copy from the original machine, and it was already a poem:

Now that you own a Victrola, the whole world of music is open to you. There is no kind of music that you may not hear, at will, for the greatest artists in the world record for the Victrola. Everything is yours, from the magnificent pagentry of the grand opera to the wild swing of the dance. The opera, the oratorio, the gospel hymn, the musical farce, the popular song, the war-song, the military march, the symphony — these come to you in your own home. There is no variety of personal taste and no condition of mind, to which Victor records will not minister.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

All the real artists are thieves?

Taking pride in original songwriting however begs the question, What is an original song, when it comes to folk music (or any genre)?

All aspects of creativity are basically reconstituted bits and pieces of things we’ve seen, heard and experienced, finely or not-so-finely chopped and served in a form that hopefully blends the ingredients into something “new.” The ancient Greeks seemed to know this, expressed in their belief that the Muses of creativity were the daughters of Mnemosyne, Titan goddess of memory. Perhaps we would like to think that the thoughts that go into creating a new song are purely impressions from “real life,” but a melody does not suggest itself as much from the impression of the 6 train ride you took this morning as it does from a melody from another song. The same for chord progressions, song concepts, lyric sounds and patterns, song structures and everything else. Folk music is supposed to be a shared continuum after all, and as Louie Armstrong said, “All music is folk music, I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”

Despite knowing all this, as a supposedly “creative” artist I am often shocked to discover that a song I’ve written has been a blatant unconscious rip-off of somebody else’s song, either in its structure, or lyrics, etc; if I’m lucky the other person’s song is not particularly popular or recognizable!

from a column by singer/songwriter/thief Jeffrey Lewis. Here's his Had it all on Youtube.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

On 52nd Street--Philip Levine

Down sat Bud, raised his hands,
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of '50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits--imitating you--
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
"Same thing last night." Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he'd ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night's
still there, just where it was, just
where it'll always be without
its music. You're still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Lincoln stares back

My former professor and first serious poetry teacher, Dan Guillory, has for the last number of years been writing poems about Abraham Lincoln. I reviewed his collection of those poems for a forthcoming issue of Illinois Heritage. I was struck by several poems about the iconic photos that have come to mark Lincoln in the American imagination. In the book, each poem is preceded by a short historical headnote. Here's the text of both the note and the poem for one of the photo poems, along with what I think is the photo.

Butler's Ambrotype, August 13, 1860

In the summer of 1860, while Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency, Philadelphia artist John Henry Brown was hired to paint an official campaign portrait. He described his visit to Springfield in these words: "We [Brown and Lincoln] walked together from the executive chamber to a daguerrean establishment. I had half a dozen ambrotypes [positive image on a glass plate] taken of him before I could get one to suit me." The ambrotypist/daguerrotypist mentioned here is Springfield's Preston Butler, who photographed Lincoln on Aug. 13, 1860. The ambrotype shows Lincoln with atypically neat hair, combed smoothly over his forehead. Campaign badges were made from the photograph and sold for 10 cents each or $6 per thousand.

It's all very personal, you know.
You blink, and the camera blinks back
At you, the rolling eye returns
To haunt you, even the crushed satin
Necktie is honored in timelessness.
For once, they got the hair right.
I'm never this neat in Real Life.
But this isn't real -- I'm being
Sold like a piece of soap
Or a view of Niagara Falls.
No matter, for this is America
And I always wanted to become
The first truly modern President.

from Dan Guillory's The Lincoln Poems

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ars poetica

It has been made a question, whether good poetry be derived from nature or from art. For my part, I can neither conceive what study can do without a rich [natural] vein, nor what rude genius can avail of itself: so much does the one require the assistance of the other, and so amicably do they conspire [to produce the same effect].

from Horace, Epistles, Book II, Ars Poetica

call for ekphrasis

The Mississippi Review is soliciting ekphrastic work for their Oct. issue.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Entering the work

Mennonite poet (and friend) Jean Janzen has a wonderful memoir/essay interspersed with poems published in the Spring 2008 issue of Mennonite Life. What I like about the poem below, among many things, is the way she weaves her mother's presence into a Titian altarpiece she sees in Venice. In the painting, she sees "the image of my mother in a studio family photograph in which she holds her first daughter in her lap. Here she was in a city threatened by floods, like her ancestry, 'alive' and glowing." Somehow, though, the poem doesn't make the painting just a Rorschach of her past, but sets up a real exchange, a dialogue with the painter and the viewer. Here's the poem:

My Mother in Venice

She had another life,
not only the vast expanse
of prairie, but this island
adrift and shimmering.

Here she is, in the Frari Church
holding the Child.
Centuries ago Bellini
saw her at the fish market

shivering in the rain,
brought her to the small
fire of his studio
and began brushing her round

face into glow, dressing her in blue silk-my mother
in this city of mirrors
where the centuries swirl

together, where she still holds
the Child, my Brother, where she doesn't hold me.

Friday, August 1, 2008


What I don't understand is the beauty.
The last attempts of the rain, my shoulders
aching from all afternoon with the ladders
and the hour with her. I watch the rainbow
until I have to focus so hard I seem
to create it. Thinking of her watching
this storm, wanting him. This lightning.
This glut in the gutters. Now only
the yellow left. Now the blue
seeped out. The purple gone. The red
gone. People downstairs playing Bach,
the quiet attenuated Bach. She must
have tried and tried. The holes drilled in.
The small man in the movie who looked
like laughter would kill him. The carnation
farmer who left snared birds for the woman
he loved. Who would hang himself after
stitching her ribbon to his chest.
What I don't understand is the beauty.
I remember the theatre in Berkeley where
we sat eating cucumbers, watching the colossal
faces played over with colossal loss.
I would get off early and meet her outside,
her hair always wet. All last night
I listened to the students walk by until 3,
only the drunk left, the rebuffed and
suddenly coupled. What did I almost
write down on the pad by my bed
that someone lowered me into my sleep? One morning
when she and I still lived together,
the pad said only, cotton. Cotton.
Sometimes it's horrible, the things said
outright. But nothing explains the beauty,
not weeping and shivering on that stone bench,
not kneeling by the basement drain.
Not remembering otherwise, that scarf she wore,
the early snow, her opening the door
in the bathing light. She must have tried
and tried. What I don't understand is the beauty.

--Dean Young from Beloved Infidel

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Curator

Here is the story, now, that I want to tell you.
Early one day, a dark December morning,
we came on three young soldiers waiting outside,
pacing and swinging their arms against the cold.
They told us this: in three homes far from here
all dreamed of one day coming to Leningrad
to see the Hermitage, as they supposed
every Soviet citizen dreamed of doing.
Now they had been sent to defend the city,
a turn of fortune the three could hardly believe.

I had to tell them there was nothing to see
but hundreds and hundreds of frames where the paintings had hung.

“Please, sir,” one of them said, “let us see them.”

And so we did. It didn’t seem any stranger
than all of us being here in the first place,
inside such a building, strolling in snow.

We led them around most of the major rooms,
what they could take the time for, wall by wall.
Now and then we stopped and tried to tell them
part of what they would see if they saw the paintings.
I told them how those colors would come together,
described a brushstroke here, a dollop there,
mentioned a model and why she seemed to pout
and why this painter got the roses wrong.

from Miller Williams' poem The Curator

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hey, John Keats

River Goddess, India, 8th-9th century, Berkeley Art Museum

They can knock off your nose
lose your makara, your tortoise,
but they cannot undo the curve of the Yamuna in your hips,

Or the globes of the world, two worlds
that are your breasts, and the Ganges of beads
running between them.

Your children are silent and moving with you.

Oh, John Keats, I am here to tell you,
you should see what she keeps in her red sandstone urn.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

even though i hate fireworks

I took these last night at the local gunpowder celebration.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Real Sofistikashun

Probably one of the funniest two or three poets writing in English, Tony Hoagland is also one of the more humane, thoughtful, and helpful writers of work on how to write and read contemporary verse. His collection of essays Real Sofistikashun has a wonderful opening piece on Image, Diction and Rhetoric that I am likely to include in a future course packet. Other useful essays from the collection can be found on line.

Fragment, Juxtaposition, And Completeness: Some Notes And Preferences

How to Talk Mean and Influence People or here

Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment

Three Tenors: Glück, Hass, Pinsky, and the Deployment of Talent or here

One of my favorites is on the dilemma of Self-Consciousnes. Hoagland writes of the initial loss of innocence that comes with studying writing:

The gradual intrusion of self-consciousness is one inevitable side effect of an education in art. To read ten poems, or a hundred, is one thing. To read ten thousand is another. As we internalize more of the tradition and become progressively less shielded by our ignorance, we realize how local our upbringing has been, how much there might be to know, and perhaps even, sigh, how limited our talent. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock comes to know that he is not Prince Hamlet; we must deal with the fact that we are not Eliot. When a person takes the step toward learning more of craft and its history, more of artifice—when, for example, a person crosses the threshold of an MFA program—she chooses to end a childhood in artlessness. She gives up some of their innocent infatuation, the naïveté, the adolescent grandiosity, maybe even some of the natural grace of the beginner. “They are good poets because they don’t know yet how hard it is to write a poem,” I have heard a teacher say, a bit tartly, of her beginning poetry class.

Yet, he goes on to point out, that is part of the necessity of poetic growth:

Self-consciousness in writing, as it does in life, open up a kind of delay between impulse and action, between thought and word. That pause—as these examples show—offers the opportunity for calculated intensifications and angularities that would never occur in “natural,” uninformed speech.

And he concludes with this helpful notion about intelligence, cleverness, and the reader:

Self-consciousness often provokes an overexertion of cleverness. But intelligence, when used well in a poem, never makes the reader feel less smart than the writer, or left behind. Rather, it gives the reader the exhilarating pleasure of being smart in concert with the speaker. . . . To learn what a poet needs to know is to become an initiate; that initiation imposes burdens as well as powers. We have the obligation to make real poems, to contribute to the living, evolving heritage of poetry. . . . Finally, if our awareness of the great Past makes us self-consciously anxious, it is good to remember that Everything has not been done. Possibility has not been exhausted. More reality is being made at the reality factory every day, and new ways to handle it are being invented—language is a technology, after all. Its adaptations are legion; its evolution is hardly over.

In the spirit of this blog, here's an excerpt from his poem Requests for Toy Piano:

Play the one about the family of the ducks
where the ducks go down to the river
and one of them thinks the water will be cold
but then they jump in anyway
and like it and splash around.

No, I must play the one
about the nervous man from Palestine in row 14
with a brown bag in his lap
in which a gun is hidden in a sandwich.

Play the one about the handsome man and woman
standing on the steps of her apartment
and how the darkness and her perfume and the beating of their hearts
conjoin to make them feel
like leaping from the edge of chance—

Friday, June 27, 2008

The longer tradition

from Viz: Rhetoric-Visual Culture-Pedagogy

One conversation about the relationship between the visual and the textual concerns ekphrasis, commonly defined as the poetic description of a work of art. Regretfully, this popular definition of the term disregards the long and rich rhetorical tradition of ekphrasis, which has been understood as the rhetorically charged description of anything that can be perceived visually or evoked mentally.

Although there are plenty of examples of ekphrasis in classical literature, the earliest extant instructions on how to compose one and what its functions are appear in the Hellenistic composition handbooks known as progymnasmata . . . . These handbooks were designed to train young people in public speaking, and they taught that an ekphrasis was not meant to be composed for its own sake, but it should rather be a part of a longer oration. In this context, the ekphrasis served to evoke a vivid picture in the mind of the audience so as to sway its members’ emotions and prepare them for the subsequent analytical and/or narrative exposition of the issue at hand. An ekphrasis could be composed in any style; it could be used as an introduction (proemium), substituted in the place of a narrative, or inserted as a pointed digression. When inscribed around an image, such as an icon, the ekphrasis functioned to provide commentary and/or guide the viewer’s interpretation of the patron’s intent. Occasionally—and this is especially true for the late antique and Byzantine period—an entire oration could be comprised of an ekphrasis, which functioned allegorically to illustrate either vice or virtue, creation or destruction, wisdom or folly, temperance or intemperance—but always with a rhetorical goal, embedded in a specific historical context.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

students from last time

Two student writers from last fall's version of this class are included in the current issue of Stonework, a journal from Houghton College. Steve Slagg's Why I am not a Theologian and Rachel Alsdorf's In the Byzantine Chapel Fresco Museum show the variety, craft, and intelligence of the young poets from that class. Congratulations, Steve and Rachel.


P. S. Check out colleague Brett Foster's three pieces as well (one link seems to be broken).

Monday, June 23, 2008

American Gothic, Redux

From a long time ago, an ekphrastic that is mostly description, not what I try to do or teach these days. Can't decide whether or not to put it in the new book, but I still like the last several lines, esp. the internal rhyme with edge and head.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Are you sure he was funny?

Your assignment:

Write the catalogue copy for the exhibit/auction before this was thought to be a Rembrandt and after it was authenticated. Go.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Two Violins--A. E. Stallings

An A. E. Stallings poem from the June issue of Poetry. I like the penultimate stanza:

One was fire red,
Hand carved and new—
The local maker pried the wood
From a torn-down church's pew,

The Devil's instrument
Wrenched from the house of God.
It answered merrily and clear
Though my fingering was flawed;

Bright and sharp as a young wine,
They said, but it would mellow,
And that I would grow into it.
The other one was yellow

And nicked down at the chin,
A varnish of Baltic amber,
A one-piece back of tiger maple
And a low, dark timbre.

A century old, they said,
Its sound will never change.
Rich and deep on G and D,
Thin on the upper range,

And how it came from the Old World
Was anybody's guess—
Light as an exile's suitcase,
A belly of emptiness:

That was the one I chose
(Not the one of flame)
And teachers would turn in their practiced hands
To see whence the sad notes came.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Taking My Cousin's Photo at the Statue of Liberty--Richard Blanco

May she never miss the sun or the rain in the valley
trickling from the palm trees, or the plush red earth,
or the flutter of sugarcane fields and flamboyant, or
the endless hem of turquoise sea around the island,
may she never remember the sea or her life again
in Cuba selling glossy postcards of the revolution
and T-shirts of Che Guevara to sweating Canadians
at the Hotel More gift shop, may she never forget
the broken toilet and peeling stucco of her room
in a government partitioned mansion dissolving
like a sand castle back into the bay of Cienfuegos,
may she never have to count the dollars we'd send
for her wedding dress, or save egg rations for a cake,
may she fall in love with America like I once did,
with its rosy-cheeked men in breeches and white wigs
with the calligraphy of our Liberty and Justice for All,
our We The People, may she memorize all fifty states,
our rivers and mountains, sing God Bless America
like she means it, like she's never lived anywhere
else but here, may she admire our wars and our men
on the moon, may she believe our infomercials, buy
designer perfumes and underwear, drink Starbucks,
drive a V-8 SUV, and have a dream, may she never
doubt America as I have, may this be her country
as I still want it to be for me when she lifts her Coke
into the June sky and clutches her faux Chanel purse
to her chest, may she look into New York Harbor
for the rest of her life and hold still when I say, Smile.

--Richard Blanco

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Focus on the dogs, cats, and pet birds

An excerpt from poet Alfred Corn’s Notes on Ekphrasis, a solid overview of the practice:

Actually, a poem about an obscure painting is also at a disadvantage. Where the original image is well known, we can compare it to the poet's version of what it contains; and the poet's departures from the original, or inaccurate interpretations of it, are sometimes revealing. Without the original image, though, we are forced to trust the poet's description as being accurate, and we are unable to know where it is not. Meanwhile, the compositional task is much more difficult in such cases since the text of the poem has to convey all the relevant visual information, while still qualifying as poetry. On the other hand, if the subject is, say, Leonardo's Mona Lisa, or any other very famous work of art, there's no need to give a detailed description; the audience already knows what's in the painting.

A disadvantage, though, of using very great works of visual art as a subject for ekphrasis is that the comparison between the original and the poem about it may prove too unfavorable. Readers may wonder why they should bother reading a moderately effective poem when they could instead look at the great painting it was based on. If the poem doesn't contain something more than was already available to the audience, it will strike the reader as superfluous, the secondary product of someone too dependent on the earlier, greater work.

The reader may also wonder why the description wasn't done in prose rather than in lines of poetry. All art historians and critics agree that complete and accurate verbal descriptions of visual art are very hard to achieve, even in prose. When the expectations associated with good poetry are part of the goal as well, we see that writing a good ekphrastic poem is a formidable task indeed. The aim of drafting a text entirely adequate to its source, giving a verbal equivalent to every detail in the subject work, is probably too lofty. A more realistic goal is to give a partial account of the work.
Once the ambition of producing a complete and accurate description is put aside, a poem can provide new aspects for a work of visual art. It can provide a special angle of approach not usually brought to bear on the original. For example, in a banqueting scene, the poem might, instead of describing the revelers, focus on the dogs, cats, and pet birds given free rein in the scene.

Monday, June 2, 2008

If you're looking for interpretive/historical context

You can do no better than my colleague Dr. John Walford and his textbook Great Themes in Art. Not only does he include first rate historical, artistic, and thematic context, but John also has some great passages of ekphrastic prose, describing and engaging art across the ages.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Archaic Torso of Apollo--Rainer Maria Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Keats-On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles--John Keats

My spirit is too weak—mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet 'tis a gentle luxury to weep,
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep,
Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time—with a billowy main—
A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

“Ekphrasis is about physical as much as verbal translation, about moving the visual object from its original residence into the house of words and then restoring and revivifying it” –Grant F. Scott, from The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis and the Visual Arts (University Press of New England, 1994).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A few classic examples of Romantic ekphrasis

I'll be gone on a writing/editing jag for a day or two, then off on vacation. But in the meantime, I thought I'd post a few classic examples of ekphrasis, mostly from the Romantic poets who made the practice central to lyric poetry, taking it away from more narrative moments in epic poems (think Achilles' shield). Here's Shelly's poem on what he believed to be Leonardo's Medusa. However, most scholars now think the version of the mythical character Shelley viewed in Florence is not by Leonardo at all, but by an anonymous Flemish painter. Leonardo's Medusa does not, apparently, survive. So what remains? Ekphrasis.

On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery--Percy Bysshe Shelley

It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky, 
Upon the cloudy mountain peak supine;
Below, far lands are seen tremblingly;
Its horror and its beauty are divine.
Upon its lips and eyelids seems to lie
Loveliness like a shadow, from which shrine,
Fiery and lurid, struggling underneath,
The agonies of anguish and of death.

Yet it is less the horror than the grace
Which turns the gazer's spirit into stone;
Whereon the lineaments of that dead face
Are graven, till the characters be grown
Into itself, and thought no more can trace;
'Tis the melodious hue of beauty thrown
Athwart the darkness and the glare of pain,
Which humanize and harmonize the strain.

And from its head as from one body grow,
As [ ] grass out of a watery rock,
Hairs which are vipers, and they curl and flow
And their long tangles in each other lock,
And with unending involutions shew
Their mailed radiance, as it were to mock
The torture and the death within, and saw
The solid air with many a ragged jaw.

And from a stone beside, a poisonous eft
Peeps idly into those Gorgonian eyes;
Whilst in the air a ghastly bat, bereft
Of sense, has flitted with a mad surprise
Out of the cave this hideous light had cleft,
And he comes hastening like a moth that hies
After a taper; and the midnight sky
Flares, a light more dread than obscurity.

'Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
Kindled by that inextricable error, 35
Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror
Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman's countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Musical Excurstion--Part Three*

Option Three: Attend a live performance, rehearsal or ritual use of music (a worship service or patriotic gathering, for instance). In addition to listening closely to the music, pay attention to what you observe and what you experience in your body. Attend to the way the musicians (which might include you) move and use their bodies to produce sound (fingers, breath, muscles). Notice also their emotional reactions and facial expressions. How do their “feelings” translate into sound? Observe how various musicians work together, or how a solo performer engages or ignores her audience. What about this social experience of music makes it differ from listening to a recording? To what uses is this music put (is it an escape, a source of connection, background music, a didactic force)? How does the “utility” of the music affect your sense of its artistic value? Describe as well the physical space in which you encounter this music. In what ways do the walls, the floors, the benches affect the sound and sense of the music?

After you’ve left the venue, either right away of some time later, try to recall the experience in as vivid detail as you can, focusing especially on the music you remember. Which musical quality stays with you? And which non-musical detail remains?

Deep(er) Contexts(and how they might find their way into your writing about music)

1) With a bit of research, identify the narrative elements you would need to know in order to better understand a musical work—setting, character, point of view, conflict(s). If it’s a love song or an oratorio, what’s the story that structures the piece? What moment in the biblical or mythical or historical record is being portrayed? What elements of that narrative are left out? Which characters disappear and which are emphasized? Who is “telling” this part of the tale? Consider “finishing” or “unfinishing” the story with your work.

2) What kinds of cultural conflict or personal upheaval pervaded the artist’s world when the work was made or performed—a war, death of a beloved, divorce, illness, moment of cultural excitement, etc.? How are these events present in the work, implicitly or explicitly? Or how does the work move away from these conflicts, masking them, or using the music as a sanctuary? Is the work in protest to the situation? Is the work about coming to peace with its surroundings? By knowing the conflicted situation within which the work emerged, how do you feel closeness or distance from its work?

3) In contrast to chaos and conflict, investigate the typical habits, manners, and patterns that might have been part of the work’s emergence (or the lives it represents). What work was done as this song was sung? Who has made love with the music in the background? Where does this Bach chorale come in a typical Lutheran service? How might the work itself or the objects to which it refers have had daily, practical uses in the lives of people? What do these details add to the structure or pattern of your poem, story or essay? How do they change your sense of the work to which you’re attending?

4) Biographical context, especially the way a particular work either represents a period of an artist’s life or affects his or her life, is unavoidably attractive. Read a biography of the performer or composer and see if the work you’re listening to has been mentioned. How did the creator of that work view it? What might the artist have said or done just before the work was made? What obvious or hidden impetus led to the work? How did she feel once it had been completed? What did he claim to intend that is missing or (indeed) present? What effect did this work have on his reputation? Where did she rank the work in relation to other pieces? If this piece is highly popular, how might the artist feel about it now? What technical problem did the artist work out in completing this sonata or symphony?

5) Find one or two primary sources, such as diaries, artistic statements, interviews, photographs, films that can be woven into your poem or prose, either implicitly or explicitly. Consider using a quotation from one of these sources for an epigraph or as a concluding line. Consider arguing with the artist’s words directly, using the music as evidence against him or her.

6) Investigate the artistic movements/trends/techniques that your work uses and to which it responds. To what other artists was this composer paying close attention? With what contemporaries (or traditional masters) is this composer or performer conversing? What does he steal? What does she alter? How does the work represent a movement or school of art or music? Find the movement’s founding statements and consider them as part of your poem.

7) What kind of critical and/or popular reception has this work enjoyed? How has this reception changed over time? Where in this procession of responses is your own reaction? Is the work popular or obscure? Who knows about it and what uses do these audiences make of the song (for instance, in what weird commercial would you see or hear this piece)? Can you use some of the critical comments as language for your work? Can you make the audience/critics characters in your fiction or poem?

8) Consider the song as an object/artifact (think of the film “The Red Violin”). Who has owned the vinyl record or the sheet music? Where has it been sold? What near losses has it survived? How many times has the song been performed? What marks have those encounters left on the work? What changes have occurred in its uses (for instance, going from ritual use to concert performance)? How might the earliest performers of a tune think of its current use? How do you know?

9) When I learned that the sarabande was a dance, it changed my entire sense of Bach’s first Unaccompanied Suite for Cello, demonstrating the power of terms to affect what we hear. That sense changed even more when I realized it was a dance that had been banned for its suggestiveness. Investigate one or two of the musical terms that apply to your piece of music. What difference does it make to you to understand the structure of 12-bar blues or to know the difference between andante and allegro? How would you contrast the official definition of a musical device with your actual experience of the piece?

Writing the Song

Poetry offers a very strong way to give a verbal representation of sonic and rhythmic experience, emphasizing in language an embodied encounter with a piece of music. A range of formal choices can follow from your response to the piece. If you note repetitions, you might consider a formal poem that can offer its own sonic pattern of repetition (a pantoum, a villanelle, or a sestina, perhaps, or a use of anaphora or rhyme). You might offer alliteration, assonance of internal rhyme as ways of heightening the musical qualities of language. Or you might be attentive to metrical variations and caesuras.

In your fiction you might highlight the memorial functions of a song. Consider how various artists, styles or tunes offer good ways to invoke setting—era, culture, etc. Explore the ways various characters use music as a way or marking their lives, as a kind of unofficial soundtrack of experience. Or explore a ritualized experience for your characters and its connection to song (the way a hymn suggests home, or the function of lullaby as it passes from one generation to the next). How can you create entire scenes around a particular musical instance—teaching, learning, hearing a song? What social exchanges require music (think here of the role of dance in Jane Austen’s or Edith Wharton’s novels)?

Non-Fiction offers many ways to examine the effects of music on individuals and communities, as well as to examine the difficulties in communicating musical experience to others. Focus on a particular element of you own growth in musical awareness and try to describe how it happened. What did it take for you to collect all of the vinyl versions of a particular artist’s work, and why do you value them over others? Or what happened when you stopped practicing the piano, as your parents wanted, and then picked up the guitar or gave up music in favor of driving your car downtown looking for girls/guys? What did it mean when you formed or broke up with a band? How do you miss or embrace singing hymns or being part of a choice? Or what has music meant to you in especially difficult or joyous times, and how has that changed over the years?

*This is part two of an exercise I'm drafting for this course. Again, please post poems or send responses to this excursion. You'll note that, again, that this excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

John Ashbery--The Painter

Sitting between the sea and the buildings
He enjoyed painting the sea’s portrait.
But just as children imagine a prayer
Is merely silence, he expected his subject
To rush up the sand, and, seizing a brush,
Plaster its own portrait on the canvas.

So there was never any paint on his canvas
Until the people who lived in the buildings
Put him to work: “Try using the brush
As a means to an end. Select, for a portrait,
Something less angry and large, and more subject
To a painter’s moods, or, perhaps, to a prayer.”

How could he explain to them his prayer
That nature, not art, might usurp the canvas?
He chose his wife for a new subject,
Making her vast, like ruined buildings,
As if, forgetting itself, the portrait
Had expressed itself without a brush.

Slightly encouraged, he dipped his brush
In the sea, murmuring a heartfelt prayer:
“My soul, when I paint this next portrait
Let it be you who wrecks the canvas.”
The news spread like wildfire through the buildings:
He had gone back to the sea for his subject.

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

Others declared it a self-portrait.
Finally all indications of a subject
Began to fade, leaving the canvas
Perfectly white. He put down the brush.
At once a howl, that was also a prayer,
Arose from the overcrowded buildings.

They tossed him, the portrait, from the tallest of the buildings;
And the sea devoured the canvas and the brush
As though his subject had decided to remain a prayer.

-- from Some Trees.

Musical Excursion--Part Two*

Option Two: Choose a recording of an unfamiliar piece of music, perhaps something utterly beyond your usual musical habits and tastes, or perhaps an obscure tune by your favorite singer, one you haven’t heard in years. As you listen to the music, what do you notice about the piece or about your physical/emotional reaction to it? Are you moved or bored? Do you feel critical or full of praise? What surprises you about the music? What seems predictable? When the piece finishes, what remains in your head—phrase, melody, feeling? Finally, probe each of your responses and see if you can connect a concrete image or physical sensation with each one. For instance, “When the djembe plays, the thud of the hand on the head of the drum resonates like a foot stomping on the floor ” or “Dylan’s voice made my teeth grind.”

During a second listen, notice what you missed the first time. How has your initial response changed or been confirmed? What new questions does the second encounter raise for you? What additional information, about the composer, about the uses of the music, or about its musical/formal qualities would you like to know?

Finally, if possible, find an additional recording of the song. How is this performance different from the one you heard initially? What aspects remain constant? Which do you enjoy more, and why? Which recording would you recommend to someone else?

Write a paragraph or poem that either a) contrasts or layers the experience of hearing the two recordings on top of one another; or b) describes your reactions to the newness or surprise of the piece and/or lays out the questions you’d like to answer for yourself after listening to this new music. Or develop a character sketch of the performer you have heard, or the composer of the piece, investigating the significance of this tune in his life.

*This is part two of an exercise I'm drafting for this course. Option three will appear tomorrow, with other aspects of the excursion to follow. Again, I'm interested in reading responses to this excursion. You'll note that, in this version, the excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Musical Excursion*

As I type this, music pours through my headphones, a Bach suite for unaccompanied cello, recorded by the great Pablo Casals in the middle of the last century. Hearing Casals play on my iPod, I can’t help but think of the time I heard this same piece played by Slovakian cellist Josef Luptak. While sitting on wooden pews in a stone chapel in an Austrian castle, as Josef reached the end of the sarabande, we saw mist settle on mountains just barely visible from the tiny arched window. And, almost as a miracle, in the silent space between movements, birds sang. Everyone was still. For a moment we inhabited together a sacred space made possible by Bach, by Luptak, by his listeners, by the setting, and, wonderfully, by some random, improvisatory birds. How I’ve wondered (for five years or more), do I write this? Should it be written?

While nearly everyone has some kind of powerful experience with music—hearing, performing, practicing,
dancing—we often have difficulty expressing music’s effects, its means of moving, comforting, or energizing us.
Descriptions often seem either cold and technical or florid and vague. In both deliberate and serendipitous ways, this
excursion encourages us to find in our musical encounters generative energy for poems, stories, and reflective prose,
to engage our bodies, memories, and intelligence in ways that might hint at the deep connections between language
and music, between story and memory as it appears in song.

Embodied Listening
Begin this excursion with one of these three exercises, each designed to generate a draft that can be focused or
expanded by responding to the questions below.

Option One: Choose a recording of a very familiar piece of music, one you’ve listened to, sung, or played countless
times. As you listen to the song, make a list of all the associations you have with the piece. When/how did it come
into your life? When do you catch yourself humming it? What do you think of the composer/performer? With whom
have you shared your appreciation for this song? What other songs/artists make music like this? Once you’ve made
your list, set it aside and listen to the song again.

This time try to forget your past associations with the music and attend instead to your body’s response to the
music. Do your muscles feel relaxed or tense? What happens to your breathing? Have you shut your eyes or left them
open? As the sound fills your head, how do you react? Does your heartbeat quicken or slow down? Do you dance, or
tap your toes, or play the drums with your pencil? As soon as the music ends, close your eyes and sit with these
physical sensations for a few moments (as long as you are able). When you open your eyes, what sensations remain?
Set your two lists side by side and listen a third time. What aspect of the music itself—tempo, lyrics, rhythm,
repetitions, variations, instrumentation, etc.—seems to connect the two lists you’ve made? What questions about the
performer or the composer arise for you? Not referring to your memorial associations or you own bodily experiences,
how would you describe this piece to someone who has never heard it? Would you put it in a genre? Would you
prescribe uses for it (perfect for a romantic evening, great to work out to, the best commuting tune, etc)?
Now, write three short poems (6-10 lines each), or three paragraphs (from a first person point of view), each
drawing from one of your lists. What theme, character, emotion, or experience begins to cohere from these three

*This is part one of an exercise I'm drafting for this course when I teach it again in the fall. Options two and three will come tomorrow, with other aspects of the excursion to follow. I'd be interested in reading responses to this excursion. You'll note that, in this version, the excursion opens itself to the possibility of poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. For the Poetry, Poetics, and the Arts Class, only the poetry options will be open.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Ekphrasis and Discovery

Leonard Barkan on ekphrasis in his Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture . Here's a little taste of his discussion, how ekphrasis follows discovery:

In the face of these new interrelations, Sangallo and the other onlookers respond in two ways: they draw and they talk. They create more works of art, and they conduct an impromptu seminar on the history of art. The words are a sign that art has a history that deserves to stand alongside the history of power or of nature, while the establishment of a past history of art directs the course of art's future history. The images are a sign that art can be made not only out of dogma, out of natural observation, or out of historical events, but also out of art itself. The words and images together produce aesthetics—which is to say a philosophy and a phenomenology proper to art itself. The unearthed object becomes the place of exchange not only between words and pictures but also between antiquity and modern times and between one artist and another.

A piece of marble is being rediscovered, but at the same time a fabric of texts about art is being restitched. Writings from later antiquity—Ovidian poetry, Roman novels, Greek romances, lyrics, and rhetorical exercises—turn out to be filled with passages, typically what are called ekphrases, in which narrative is framed not as reality but as the contents of an artist's picture. These passages stand in ambiguous relation to the actual objects emerging from the ground. Ekphrases are categorically different from the works of art they supposedly describe; indeed, the poetic description of an imaginary sculpted Laocoön would doubtless not resemble the statue in Rome any more than Virgil's narrative does. Yet this fabric of texts tantalizes readers with the possibility that, together with the rediscovered works themselves, it will reconstruct a complete visual antiquity. In addition, the ekphrastic literature brings with it a set of ways to look at the visual arts and a set of relations between aesthetic representation and language.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

11 Unqualified Provocations

I'm hopeful that someone will pick up this piece I originally wrote for The Pub, the unofficial magazine at Wheaton. It's tangentially related to the ekphrasis course in one way (I assigned the students last semester the task of writing a hymn/song).

Here's a portion:
We should be very careful what we put in other people's mouths. Because songs only exist when they enter and leave the bodies of others (either when they are sung or when they are heard), writers of hymns and leaders of singing need to be more careful than ever about the kind of textual relations we have within our bodies (see provocations three and four above). Too often we sing, over and over, lyrics that break under the weight of repetition. Precisely because music lodges in our senses, our memories of the texts with which music is joined will form some of our most powerful spiritual and theological experiences.

An Ekphrastic Index

Several people (ok, two) have asked for an index of the 30 Ekphrastics/30 Days posts. Here they are. The end of the term is upon me, so I'm rewarding each graded essay or exam with a few minutes of working on an essay about writing so many ekphrastic pieces in such a compressed space. I'll post that essay here when it's in somewhat better shape. Once grades are turned in, I'm headed off to be part of the staff for the New England Young Writers Conference at Breadloaf, something I've had the pleasure of doing for the past two years as well. It's always a great trip. --dw

An Ekphrastic Index

Day 1: April 90th
Day 2: Moby Dick
Day 3: Showing Raymond Carver a Photograph of My Father in His 31st Year
Day 4: Minor Resolution
Day 5: Fairy Tale
Day 6: Two Suppers at Emmaus
Day 7: Call me Bonham
Day 8: Meeting the Relatively Famous Songwriter/Pop Star
Day 9: Blake Paints What Milton Can't Show in a Play
Day 10: 1970s Arena Rock Love
Day 11: Mulready's Secret Sonnet
Day 12: Confession: The Prairie Queen
Day 13: Tim Coe, His Hat, and Touluse-Lautrec
Day 14: Ace
Day 15: Rachel's Plastic Chalice
Day 16: First of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 17: Second of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 18: Third of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 19: Fourth of Several Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead
Day 20: Some Prayer
Day 21: Rejected Lyric for a New Setting of the 23rd Psalm
Day 22: One of several hymn riffs
Day 23: I swear I use no art at all
Day 24: Four Forms for Addressing the Tired Eye
Day 25: Birthday Poem
Day 26: Flailing Away
Day 27: After David Hooker
Day 28: Pantoum and Variation on What Wondrous Love
Day 29: A little less sad
Day 30: Abstracts of Additional Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Emily Dickinson--an anti-ekphrastic?

I would not paint -- a picture --
I'd rather be the One
Its bright impossibility
To dwell -- delicious -- on --
And wonder how the fingers feel
Whose rare -- celestial -- stir --
Evokes so sweet a Torment --
Such sumptuous -- Despair --

I would not talk, like Cornets --
I'd rather be the One
Raised softly to the Ceilings --
And out, and easy on --
Through Villages of Ether --
Myself endued Balloon
By but a lip of Metal --
The pier to my Pontoon --

Nor would I be a Poet --
It's finer -- own the Ear --
Enamored -- impotent -- content --
The License to revere,
A privilege so awful
What would the Dower be,
Had I the Art to stun myself
With Bolts of Melody!

--Emily Dickinson

And one of my favorite essays on Dickinson

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Day 30--Abstracts of Additional Manifestos in the Voices of the Dead

Augusta Savage leaves her Art in the skilled hands of Harlem’s young because the Body is a Harp, No Matter who Plows it under and tries to forget

Thomas Cole on The Course of Empire and the Eventual Superiority of Nesting Birds

Edward Kemeys discourses on wild beasts who lurk in public places for public purposes such as assisting humans in offering perpeptual prayers for rain

Carl Milles defends the scale of his bronze gods, particularly Poseidon’s privates, while standing beneath the Sun Singer in Allerton Park.

As a brass band marches by, Charles Ives sings his favorite hymn and sells me life insurance, though he has been long dead.

The dead lead singers from several mediocre bands denounce Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain but sing the praises of Bessie Smith, Billy Holiday, and, oddly, Elvis. They do this in harmonies worthy of a Bach chorale.

Hannah Cohoon sees heaven again with its rounded fruits, its blazing leaves of vision, and offers it to me as a token, but I am too busy humming “Simple Gifts” to hear her


Rembrandt challenges Thomas Kinkade to a cage match in the Mall of America over fair use of the phrase Painter of Light®

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Day 29--A little less sad

A little less sad*
(or, the young male songwriters all have higher voices than you’d think and seemingly darker lives than I could manage)

But still a moan, a whine
you’ve learned to do in time
and so it’s tune, a line
strung over water, a fine
high string of voices, mine
included, honest, mine
if I’m honest, I find
hidden in yours, mined
from the psalms. Behind
Absalom, the dawn, skylines,
branches, bones, refined
and sad, though less as you remind
us then, with hands aligned
on keys or strings, your spines.

*Steve Slagg introducing a song.

The singers here in mind: Slagg, Byram, Comstock, RiCharde and, if I’d been able to stick around, Barringer and Ketch.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Day 28--Pantoum and Variation on What Wondrous Love

What wondrous love is this, O my soul,
to cause the Lord of bliss to bear
a verse and cast away, to cause, a sole
cascade of syllables to mean. I fear

to cause the Lord of bliss to bare
the sacred harp we carry in our breast,
casacade of syllables too mean. I fear
la la so mi so la so mi la la so rest.

The sacred harp we carry in our breast
beats a particular meter, simple tune:
la la so mi so la so mi la la so rest.
and I am sinking down, sinking soon.

Beat a particular meter, simple tune
where millions join the theme,
and I am sinking. Down. Sinking soon.
And still I sing a round and ride a stream

while millions join the theme:
and when from death I’m free
and still, I sing around and ride a stream,
beyond my bliss, my need.

And when from death I’m free,
what wounded love is this. O, my sole
beyond, my bliss, my need,
averse and cast away, my cause, my soul.

Enjoy several versions of this tune:

1) An authentic Sacred Harp Sing

2) An NPR feature on Anonymous 4 that includes their rendition of this hymn.

3) Wheaton College Men's Glee Club

4) A 1960 archived folk recording of Almeda Riddle in Miller, Arkansas.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Day 27--After David Hooker

After David Hooker

I am trying right now--
this very syntax, these terms--
to make a cup

a stranger might put in his mouth
the way I have put cups,
have put art to my lips,

and the glazed lip of art on my tongue
for mornings, for years.
If this endeavor sounds strange,

imagine the shock when I damaged
my back moving around my studio
a few hundred tons of language like new clay.

Consider the loss when I broke to pieces
and reclaimed the dust of twenty-three old psalms
with still water and refashioned them

as a letter to my congressman, a bulletin announcement
for church, and a song I sing my son at night.
And the pain--you must know this--I endured

when in my own inattention to the natural
signs of my materials, the vessel cracked
of its own accord and I burned

my hands with liquids so hot that I swore,
in the name of art, never to try this again.

This is a number of months in the making, after I took students to David Hooker's ceramics studio last fall and they wrote poems in response to his work and his commentary about making art. In class, we called these poems, affectionately, our Hooker poems. For this we are truly ashamed. I urge you also to read David's blog and check out samples of his work.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Day 26--Flailing Away

Thrashing on Troeger Farm, 1886--Revision/Burning Away the Chaff

Thomas Hart Benton could have covered a post office wall
with you all, made your lives an allegory of horses v. steam.

I will make no parables , nor will I feed the thousands.

The bread I eat comes to me whole. The crusts I break
by hand and dip into cool, pasteurized milk.

I buy loaves as large and distant as your relative heads.

Thrashing on Troeger Farm, 1886
On the post office wall, you appear to have stopped for a mural.

Thomas Hart Benton would have colored you,
my brothers, my sisters, your horses in sepia and autumn.

He would have coursed his allegories and training
all across the regions of your faces and your fields.

The small, tough world of your love turns up for the thrashing
you give to one another and to the earth in 1886.

A few beasts walk the circle and grain separates
away the straw that breaks as it should;

you know from memory how to burn the chaff,
and how to grind and bake grains to sustain

a body of work I have never been in. Belief
for me comes easy, without gnarled limbs or crooked and curved spines.

I have made no parables, nor have I fed the thousands.

Most of my bread comes to me in perfection. The crusts I break
by hand and dip into cool, pasteurized milk.

I buy it in loaves as large and distant as your relative heads.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Day 25-prose poem 2 yrs in the making

Sitting in the Grass Near a Library, on My 40th Birthday

The air fills with blossoms and bees. I would like, now, to be Monet, to see these blossoms twenty more times in twenty different lights. I would like to be O’Keefe, to see one blossom and its red center as my red center. I hear the bees and would love to be Charles Ives, of course Bach, or even Paganini. The bee on this page knows I bear, nor will I bear, no blossoms. I have not played my scales, nor have I sketched a few thousand flowers in a book. The creature alights. I do nothing of interest. No blossom. No paint. No tune in my hand. No light. Painters, bumble bees alike have stained themselves yellow for love. I have loved them.

I would like, for a wish, to carry this scent home to you, love, who hovered above me this morning like a flower over the bee. That, though, is Georgia’s view, through her eye, not yours, not mine. I suspect my scent, at 40, is my own, as your scent is yours. It is only on occasion, this unheralded spring day, or on a page, or in the folds of our linens where such scents may be mingled, tangle one another as stamen and nectar and sting. I am no great maker of things, but I aspire, like a tune, to grace the humming, fragrant air.