Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Starting points: poetry

The focus of this blog, at least as I presently envision it, will be on my efforts to develop my own personal poetics of science fiction and of poetry--an effort not so much to figure out what goes on in writers' minds as they create their works but to figure out what goes on in mine as I read them (though of course the two events are related!), and perhaps as well to work out what I think should happen as I attempt to write them.

This post is about where I'm at with poetry right now, as I start this blog.

Reading poetry is extremely new to me. For most of my life I found myself completely unable to do it; I could and did (and do) read prose, fiction or non-, all day long, productively, but for some reason the instant I was faced with a line break, I would freeze up.* Even when poetry was quoted or otherwise included in prose works, I would end up glazing over and skipping it, hoping that it would be interpreted for me or maybe wasn't very important.

*The sole exception, for some reason I've never been able to understand, was Emily Dickinson, whom I have always loved, though even with her the bulk of her work goes over my head. When she's writing about love or death explicitly I'm right there with her, but then once she starts talking about gentian and bobolinks I'm lost.

This started to change about a year ago, following (not coincidentally, I suspect) an extremely rapid series of linked personal catastrophes that changed my life dramatically, irreversibly, and immeasurably for the worse. Most likely I will not be going into that subject in any detail here, and I mention it now only because I find it painfully fascinating that such horrible changes in my life helped to produce such a fruitful change in my aesthetics. I do not hesitate for a moment when I say that it was not worth it.

Anyway, my conversion to poetry started with the Greeks, whom I began reading (in translation; how I wish I could read them in the original!) after being fascinated by Gabriel Josipovici's discussion of them in What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which among other things tied in surprisingly well with some thoughts I had been having about science fiction (and sparked many new sfnal thoughts as well). I started with Sophocles, in the Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald translations (and the others that tend to be included in the same books as theirs, David Grene and so forth), and then moved on to Richmond Lattimore's Homer, and to various translations of Aeschylus and Euripides. I enjoyed it all,* but none hit me the way Sophocles did, particularly Ajax and the last works: Philoctetes and above all Oedipus at Colonus.** And then there was Sappho, my god, there was Sappho, in translations by Willis Barstone and by Mary Barnard, both gorgeous, so different from one another, so frustratingly fragmentary.

*With the exception of Euripides, whom I found tedious in Paul Roche's translation. I really should go back to him in different translation and see if that helps.
**If I knew how to write opera, and I wish I did as much as I wish I could read Greek,
Oedipus at Colonus would be my second--after an adaptation of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To...

I say poetry began there for me, but that's a retrospective judgment. At the time, I apprehended these works primarily as prose--just with an unusually large and ragged right margin.* On some level, though, it seems that they were priming me for other poetry, because shortly afterwards I decided, seemingly out of the blue, that it was time to start seriously attempting more modern poetry. When I did, I suspect that experience with the Greeks did in fact help overcome some of my previous difficulties.

*Sappho, admittedly, is impossible to read this way and I did take her in, right from the beginning, as nothing other than poetry. With me, there are always exceptions, always equivocations.

(It is important to note somewhere, and it may as well be here, that reading poetry still does not come easily for me; I still struggle, even with "easy" poems, even ones I enjoy. It's just that now [SPOILERS] I find the struggle worth it, where before I did not. The struggle now is not always in vain, and indeed can often be enjoyed in and of itself.)

It didn't work immediately, of course. My first attempt, massively overambitious, was Wallace Stevens, whom I chose because of his central importance to my brother. I gave up quickly--and I still feel that I am not in a position to appreciate Stevens, though I consider the failing to be entirely mine, and plan to reattempt him, hopefully more fruitfully, in the near(ish) future.

After this failure, I decided that it would be a good idea to try to "break in" to poetry with the work of someone whose prose I knew I enjoyed. I happened to be in the process of reacquainting myself with Muriel Spark (again partly inspired by Josipovici), most of whose novels I had read as a teenager but not since, and was finding that I still enjoyed her I turned to her poetry. Much of it went well over my head; some of it seemed surprisingly trivial; but some of it hit me powerfully: "Elementary," with its "But knowing little of natural law/I can't describe what happens after/You weigh a body such as I saw,/First in air and then in water"; "Chrysalis," with its last line ("But it was a bad business, our being surprised") in context so simultaneously comic and damning; "Canaan," with its "No year is twice the same, nor has occurred/Before. We bandy by the name of grief,/Grief which is like no other. Not a leaf/Repeats itself, we only repeat the word."

This was making sense to me. Not only the words themselves, but their form, their positioning as poetry rather than anything else.

After that, the main problem was that I was lost as to directions. It is exciting to enter a world one knows nothing about, but also puzzling, paralyzing. I returned to Emily Dickinson, happily, but this still gave me nowhere to go. I recalled the names of a handful of feminist poets, mostly from mentions in various works of Joanna Russ.* Luckily for me, I started with Adrienne Rich's Diving Into the Wreck, which completely knocked me flat and remains one of the key poetic texts in my life. Many of the poems there left me physically shaken, quite literally, and I frequently found myself having to put the book down and take long walks between the poems. To be clear: this sort of reaction, to any work in any genre of art, is not remotely common for me.

*Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, incidentally, explains very well why Emily Dickinson gave me nowhere to go.

I've attempted other of her work, but aside from a few of the poems in the (I think) generally better-liked Dream of a Common Language nothing has struck me with anywhere near the same force; as yet, I have no idea why. I've tried some of the other feminist poets roughly contemporary with her: Marge Piercy’s The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing and My Mother’s Body did little for me, though I've recently read her novel Woman on the Edge of Time and found it near-perfect; Audre Lorde’s Coal did little for me, though I suspect her essays may be for me a better introduction; Marilyn Hacker’s Separations did little for me, though (and I recognize that this is silly) after reading Samuel R. Delany's autobiographical The Motion of Light in Water and thus getting a glimpse of what some of her poems are "really about," I find myself appreciating them more. I don’t know why I’ve struck out so comprehensively with them, though I suspect my male socialization is involved; I will continue to try.

Gradually, looking into influences and schools and various critical writings* has given me some direction. Science fiction writers frequently help: Delany and James Tiptree, Jr., both pointed me in the direction of Hart Crane, who has been pivotal. I cannot overstate the impact reading his The Bridge and White Buildings has had on me; they have been intensely provocative and moving, though I would not say that I "understand" them, per se.

*Unfortunately mostly male, a problem I am aware of and am trying, with difficulty, to rectify in all areas of my reading.

Throughout my personal difficulties over the past year, I've been writing therapeutic poetry, never with any illusion that any of it was Art, or that anyone besides myself would find any value in any of it. We're talking bad high school poetry caliber, or perhaps a little worse. After reading Hart Crane, though, that began to change, and my poetry in recent months, no longer purely therapeutic, has been improving to the point where I'd almost think it was worth making public. I'm not quite there, but maybe someday. If I ever do get there, I'll owe it largely to him. He has taught me more than I could ever begin to express.

My goal in writing poetry began to be somehow to synthesize the lessons of Crane and of Rich, particularly as their very different approaches to queerness both resonated so strongly with me. Coincidentally, shortly after developing this goal, a brief mention in a Richard Eberhart essay (I have not read his poetry) led me to pick up Denise Levertov's Collected Earlier Poems 1940-1960. I quickly found that in many ways her work strikes me as (admittedly minus the queerness) almost exactly that synthesis of Crane and Rich that I was looking for in my own work. This description is of course reductive and in many ways utterly false, but nevertheless Levertov quickly joined Crane as co-holder of the title of "my favorite poet."

Some others who have been important to me: Elizabeth Bishop (for some reason primarily only her first book, North and South, and very little of her later work; add hers to the litany of works I want to reattempt at some point), Walt Whitman (whom thus far I have read only in the original version of Leaves of Grass and not in the more canonical revisions and expansions), a bit of Allen Ginsberg, much to my surprise (some of the non-"Howl" poems in Howl, particularly: "A Supermarket in California," "Transcription of Organ Music"), and the prose poems of Arthur Rimbaud (in Louise Varèse's translations).

Dickinson, Whitman, Rimbaud, and the Greeks aside, I have had very little success with pre-20th century poetry. I've attempted some of the English Romantics et al., John Keats, Percy Shelley, Emily Brontë, William Blake, Christina Rossetti, and bounced off each time, completely mystified as to what I was supposed to get out of them.* The same has happened with the earlier poets I've peeked at, Donne and Milton and so forth.

*The lines quoted by Russ that led me to Rossetti, "All my walls are lost in mirrors, whereupon I trace/Self to right hand, self to left hand, self in every place,/Self-same solitary figure, self-same seeking face," do fascinate--but even here, would I have noticed them if not for Russ's help?

Apart from Rimbaud and the Greeks, I've read no poetry in translation. Oh wait, there was also Baudelaire, from whom I gleaned absolutely nothing apart from a particularly vicious misogyny.

My very limited familiarity with poetry, in addition to largely starting around 1920, essentially ends somewhere in the late 1970s. By far the most recent poetry I've read is Tina Darragh's Striking Resemblance, from the mid-80s. I have absolutely no concept of what has happened since then, or of how to find out. I would love to know of some good poetry periodicals to read, but am afraid somehow to explore.

I have no idea what my philosophy of poetry is or should be, or whether I should have one. I have no idea what schools or practices or styles I do or do not approve of.

Something you may have noticed in this post is a near-absolute lack of any discussion of why I like or don't like the poets I do like. Partly that's because this is really just an introduction, but mostly it's because I have not as yet figured out how to talk about poetry. Having a place to try to work that out is, indeed, one of the primary purposes of this blog.

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