Tag Archives: blogs

First Affections: Ozymandias

This summer Robert Archambeau wrote a breezy (and yet smart) personal Biographia Literaria on his Samizdat Blog. He demonstrates a deep poetic education. Like Coleridge, he reads and writes quickly and astutely. He also consumes (or appears to comprehend) entire literary oeuvres. Therefore, he can write convincingly about his debts to Whitman, Pound, Matthias, Wordsworth, Byron, Johnson, Blake, and (now) Coleridge. (So many Romantics, why no Keats?) To be sure, these are a scholar’s debts (and undoubtedly, a reader’s and a writer’s debts too), but I wonder if there’s not also a smaller, more quotidian way to tell the history of one’s poetic affections.

Earlier this week I was rereading a few of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems. This is always a good time of the year to read the opening lines of “Ode to the West Wind“, but what caught my attention and reminded me of Archambeau’s ambitious literary biography, was my long (and yet infrequent) fondness for Shelley’s “Ozymandias“. I first read the poem at the age of 13. I remember exactly where I was sitting. Facing west, at a classroom desk one seat away from the windows. My useless middle school teacher was painting her nails or reading romance novels, anything but teaching. Flipping to the back of my textbook, I discovered poetry. In “Ozymandias” it rhymed, was packed with moral irony, and echoed the biblical sensibilities that meant (and mean) so much to me. In the next couple of years I read nearly every poetry book I could find in my tiny school library.

As it turns out, I am not a devotee of Shelley’s poetry. I tire of his lurid long-windedness. Likewise, “Ozymandias” seems a bit too easy–milk, not meat–but I owe it (or should blame it) for much.


Last month Doug Holder of the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene posted a series of quotations and excerpts on the question “What is a failed poet?”

After skimming through these, it is clear that I do not have anything of substance to add in the way of an answer. Perhaps I am more than a “failed poet” — I am a poet who has failed at defining his own failure. Oh fun!

I think this question would have worked for a “meme” – a blogging trend I appear to have avoided … or failed. So (as ever, late), I’ll take it up here: what is a failed poet?

One who turns (desperate) from verse to the imagined audience of the blog.

And what do I write? This and 20 bad lines a month. (June 23, 2008)

As if the Genome Wasn’t Long Enough

Having discovered it while browsing the medical literature, I am beginning to read Gillian K. Ferguson’s The Human Genome: Poems on the book of life. Although I expect to read some of it now and then, I do not expect to read all of it. Ferguson may be the only person to sincerely read all of it–all 1,000 pages. The blog version strikes me as a bit heavy on the “extra-features”. Ferguson writes quickly and doesn’t appear to look back. Consequently, everything gets plugged into the “manuscript” – notes, favorite quotes, definitions, the whole box of research papers (minus those that the mice ate). Her poetic style suffers likewise – rather than finding the one turn of words that best does the job, she will redo the job several times before she let’s it go. For example, the poem “Does God Remember” (2 May 2008) focuses on the chemical nature of life, but does so immediately following a prior poem which imagines the creator as a chemist “Who Breathed Chemicals into Life” (1 May 2008). The redrafting continues within poems as well. “Does God Remember” begins:

Does God remember the defining;
shining organic coalescence, time

when the first cell settled
– the wondrous chemistry.

What follows is a series of riffs each doing their best to imagine God’s alchemy. The poem ends, however, with little for the reader to carry away. In fact, one wants to return to the top of the poem just to recall what was to the point for taking the flight to begin with. Here’s a bit more of a micro-view of the redrafting I am complaining about:

Even God thought it was a miracle

when He had made it possible,
dreamed them into existence –

imagined the matrix, Word,
to call from Periodic Table,

list ingredients, principle, into life –
held his breath that it would work,

this calling to matter of pattern,
this holy glueing; good practise

for his trick of body and soul,
joining of irreconcilable stuff

only a god could possibly pull off –
like a magician with a miracle, or

two up his sleeve; bouquets

I think that could be profitably reduced to about 5 lines. I like the glue and the periodic table, but that should do it. And by all means, one should avoid the double reference to “miracle”. It’s kind of silly to think of God as “like a magician with a miracle”, but even worse to use this as way of describing a God imagined to be surprised by the creation: “Even God thought it was a miracle …”.

Like I said, I’m beginning to read this poem, so there’s still a chance that it will grow on me. It’s a fascinating project and I applaud the Scottish Arts Council for deciding to spend their money on such an ambitious attempt to bring import and meaning of contemporary science into the cauldron of verse. (May 2, 2008)

Of Lime Trees, Eels, and Lord Randal

K. Silem Mohammad at {LIME TREE} has initiated an ambitious blogging project — to comment on all one hundred of poems included in the 100 Best-Loved Poems, a Dover paperback edited by Philip Smith. While I admire and envy the ambition, I’m afraid that I will not (though plenty tempted) join this journey. I have never read an anthology of poems in which, for good and bad reasons, at least a handful of the included poems left me absolutely unimpressed. Or speechless … I’ll let the reader put a positive spin on that, if they so chose. That will not stop me, however, from chiming in now and then.

For example, let’s look at the first entry, which both introduces the project and comments on the ballad “Lord Randal”. Mohammad does an excellent job of showing the students enrolled in a creative writing class (presumably some of the readers of {LIME TREE}) how to enjoy a poem that may have been written, originally, as a song to be sung. The professor also does the students a favor by indicating that the poor sap Lord Randal was poisoned by something he ate — many students miss this fact. Mohammad, however, suggests that the eels are to blame: “the prospect of eating anything called “eels boil’d in broo'” ought to raise a red flag vis-à-vis poisoning”.

Is this true? Undoubtedly the thought of eating eels makes many contemporary, American stomachs turn, but did the author of “Lord Randal” regard the fish with similar suspicion? I don’t think so. Although less common these days, eel is still eaten and digested by English speaking pallets. In fact, in London, jellied eels are today part rite-of-passage and part delicacy. I doubt that Lord Randal’s mom was too worried that he had eaten eel — she probably served eels boiled in broth several times every year … or, at least, whenever he happened to bring them home.

So, what is it, in the Dover edition of the poem, which suggests that Lord Randal was poisoned by his “true-love”? Surely not the eels … it could have been rabbit boiled in broth or potatoes boiled in broth … and still, I believe, the suggestion that his dish had done him in would remain. Why? Because his mother doubts his report and repeats the question: “Where gat ye your dinner … my son?” Of course, there’s the dead dogs too.

Having said that, I should note two things: first (in my favor), other versions of the poem include stanzas which elaborate on the nature of his meal. These suggest that he has eaten what he thought was an eel, but what his mother would have told him was a newt or some kind of poisonous salamander or snake; second (in Mohammad’s favor) eel blood does contain a toxin. A powerful toxin (ichthyotoxin) which, when injected directly in the blood stream, as was demonstrated with dogs, proved to be deadly in even minuscule amounts. (That’s one of an endless list of examples of beneficial, but ghastly research. In this case the ethically suspect experimentation contributed to Charles Richet’s Nobel prize for his work on anaphylaxis — work that has saved many human lives.) This toxin, however, would have been destroyed when “boil’d in broo”. At any rate, this toxin was discovered centuries after the poem was written and, although it may contribute to our contemporary worries about eating the strange, snake-like fish, it wouldn’t have been know to Lord Randal, to Lord Randal’s “true-love”, to his mother, or to the first “beefy bards” that sang his sad song. (April 22, 2008)

Prose on the Brain, Poetry on the Tongue

By chance, I was reading Francisco Aragón’s post at Letras Latinas, the blog for the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In passing to more important matters, Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Aragón makes this confession:

I don’t read many novels. If anything, I’m more drawn to short fiction (I’m currently working, relishing through William Trevor at clip of a story a week). Or I read nonfiction of all types. And of course poems.

A confession which, apart from reading William Trevor and apart from the genial tone, I might have written for myself. But why? What do poets read?

In my own case, I am a tortuously slow reader – I want to read poetry and so, with what little time I have and with what uninspiring skills, I have consciously decided to read the poetry first and the fiction later. A decision that has resulted in not reading too many novels over the years. At the same time, I think I have lost my taste for flaccid, descriptive prose and the endless mouthfuls of mash potatoes that one must mull through to finish what was hoping to be a movie. Excuses, no doubt, for neglect.

But I’ve always wondered if prose readers are better at reading in the brain (an eye to cortex pathway – a fairly speedy highway) while the poets are left to trudge along, passing each word over the eyes and (if silently) across the vocal chords to the ear. If only I could land an NIH/NEA combo-grant for such a study … finding, however, a bunch of poetry readers willing to submit to the medical research, might be a problem. (April 9, 2008)