When I see interesting things, I file them away and often never look at them again. This is a shame.
But I found this again: 33 Rules of Poetry for Poets 23 and Under by Kent Johnson.
I fall quite neatly into this category, don’t I?
Ordinarily, I would hate a list of this sort, but I find myself taking a lot of this advice seriously, even if some of it is meant in jest. Here are my favourites:
1. Study grammar. Only by knowing grammar, knowing clearly the parts of speech and sensing their mysterious ways in sentence parts, will you be able to write interesting poetry. For poetry is all about grammar’s interesting ways.
5. Ask yourself constantly: What is the worth of poetry? When you answer, “It is nothing,” you have climbed the first step. Prepare, without presumption, to take the next one.
8. Read Constantine Cavafy’s great poem, “The First Step.” Meditate upon it.
13. After reading Roland Barthes’s famous essay on it, watch professional wrestling at least once a month. Reflect on how the spectacle corresponds, profoundly, to the poetry field.
15. Don’t smoke cigarettes, even if you think it makes you look cool to others (or to yourself).
17. Don’t let anyone tell you MFA programs are bad. MFA programs are really great—you can get a stipend and live poor and happy for two or three years.
I can personally vouch for #17.
I wonder about that ‘23 and under’ though. I can imagine enough poets older than me needing to listen to some of this stuff. Don’t drink and drive, seriously.
I’ve been passionately reading and rereading Pessoa‘s The Book of Disquiet, so much so that I’ve only gotten through a quarter of the book. Here’s some of what I read last night:
The idea of travelling nauseates me.
indent I’ve already seen what I’ve never seen.
indent I’ve already seen what I have yet to see.
indent When one feels too intensely, the Tagus is an endless Atlanticm and Cacilhas another continent, or even another universe.
and the idea that we are
Eternal tourists of ourselves.
(tr Richard Zenith)
I said a couple of days ago that The Book of Disquiet is my bible, and I’m serious about it.
I’ve also been reading Alice Oswald, an absolute delight. (Yesterday, accidentally, I found a review of the book I’m reading — Woods etc. (Faber & Faber, 2005) — and was shocked by the reviewer’s conclusion:
In Woods etc., the restless adjustments of form suggest that Oswald knows that she needs to take greater risks. But it may be that the real risk she needs to take is not one of style, but one of subject-matter. One can only remain in the woods so long.
Imagine that! I have to put aside this strange talk of subject matter and style, as if they were two entirely separate things, to look at the larger, greater condemnation of what I suppose the reviewer calls nature poetry.
I’m tired of this prejudice. Having heard it put into so many words, the trouble seems to be: we don’t live in nature anymore, so it’s unnatural (no pun intended) to write about it. Or else: those who are ‘allowed’ to write such poems write work that is irrelevant to — one imagines — the vast majority of poetry readers who live in glowering metropolises.
But we do live in nature. It’s not like the wind doesn’t blow through New York City.
And anyway, it’s not about what we write that matters, surely. What is what anyway.
I suppose I found it a strange review that didn’t seem to adequately grasp the poem it praises (the first in the book, called ‘Sea Poem’) and then wobbles about trying to figure out whether Oswald is a Hughes or a Plath. Well now.
I’ll have more to say when I’m done reading the whole book, but I already think it’s very special, particularly because it has one of my favourite poems in it, a poem that I first read on a blog four or five years ago and still can’t forget:
HEAD OF A DANDELION
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties
like an old woman taken by the neck
and shaken to pieces.
This is the dust-flower flitting away.
This is the flower of amnesia.
It has opened its head to the wind,
all havoc and weakness,
as if a wooden man should stroll through fire . . .
In this unequal trial, one thing
controls the invisible violence of the air,
the other gets smashed and will not give in.
One thing flexes its tail causing widespread devastation,
it takes hold of the trees, it blows their flailings out of them,
it throws in sideways, it flashes the river upriver;
the other thing gives up its skin and bones,
goes up in smoke, lets go of its ashes . . .
and this is the flower of no property,
this is the wind-bitten dandelion
worn away to its one recalcitrant element
like when Osiris
blows his scales and weighs the soul with a feather.
By the way, in St Louis, where I live most of the year, and which is neither a metropolis nor the great wild — not a village even –, there were dandelions everywhere during the spring. I picked enough of them and thought of Alice and the old woman taken by the neck. That’s all it takes: one dandelion.
As you may know I’ve been editing the nonfiction section of Asymptote for a while now, but for our latest issue, which will go live on July 15, I’ve been made poetry editor as well. As you can imagine, I’m thrilled. And no jokes, this will be our best issue yet. I want to name drop right now, but I won’t.
Being a poetry editor has made me think a lot about what poems I consider to be great, poems that are worth publishing and making other people read. Because sometimes I read poems simply to learn from them and this past year I’ve also been reading poems to workshop them; one’s desires can get tangled up quite easily with different aims.
Last night I wrote down what kinds of poems I like. It turned out to be a mess; but anyhow:
as coming from a deep wisdom
an understanding of the world that affects the body, that is within the body
and the body that is dispersed like the soul
living in the fringes of the feelings felt by other things (dead, alive, undecided)
allowing one’s feelings to have the greatest fringes