Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ginsberg's "Howl" Part 1: An Ode to Fallen Comrades

This poem is in honor of "the best minds of my generation destroyed". I consider it to be an elegy--yes it's elegiac because it is mournful of a past that is gone--but it's a different version of elegy that Ginsberg has created his own, that doesn't follow the same tradition. When Ginsberg himself reads it, it sounds like a is performing a sermon--the tone of his voice seems like he's a priest in a church. The form is elevated and important, rhythmic, like the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. It's easy to feel the beat of the poem--it's from the Beat generation after all.

"Howl" is in honor of all of Ginsberg's fallen comrades. He's listing everything, good and bad, that made them great. Whether it was being caught for sneaking drugs, being high and wild under the influence, having sex with "saintly motorcyclists", writing poetry that ends up being only "stanzas of gibberish", growing older and not evading time, Ginsberg is glorifying his friends in their youth, he's immortalizing them in his poetry, and he's honoring them, who fell victim to vices supplied by a rotten generation. Ginsberg even honors his mother, albeit privately, "with mother finally*******". He does all of this, and it's funny!

Ginsberg writes in "Howl" about his generation, as if the regular rules don't apply. In remembering his friends, he chooses to depict them as honestly as possible and yet, mythologizes them. The rules don't apply, because they made up their own rules--Ginsberg is making his own elegy for them. Who says it can't be funny. Perhaps it is so, because it is so definitely heartbreaking as well. Their highest reward is a promise that "their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion".

I'm saying that "Howl" is Ginsberg's eulogy to his generation. His voice seems like it would support this notion, but it's not completely elevated. His tone changes throughout the poem, fluctuating sorrow with defiance, with boasts and regrets, always respectful. He is "putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death". Bad ass eulogy!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Some More on Olson "Maximus"

That moment when you read a poem, and you GET it! Somehow, the energy--that Olson wrote about in Projective Verse--hits you, and you feel it! And you KNOW what it is, because you feel it. You're not unsure if that's what the poet actually meant, because you've read it, you've engaged in the text, you've thought about it, and you've done the digging. Like Bonilla said, you have to trust that you got the meaning. I was waiting for that moment when I would get "I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You", and I almost did! During today's lecture, when Professor Bonilla shared her reading of Olson's epic poem, I almost caught the energy, but I think I have some more things to figure out and some more digging to do.

The part that holds my epiphany is in Part 3, here is a section of it:
"the underpart is, though stemmed, uncertain
is, as sex is, as moneys are, facts!
facts, to be dealt with, as the sea is, the demand
that they be played by, that they only can be, that they must
be played by, said he, coldly, the

By ear, he sd.
But that which matters, that which insists, that which will last,
that! o my people, where shall you find it, how, where, where shall you listen
when all is become billboards, when, all, even silence, is spray-gunned?

when even our bird, my roofs,
cannot be heard"
The underpart--although you can't see it, is there, "it's fact!". You have to trust that it's there. There's no other option. Just like love, sex, and money--you don't really have a physical proof of love, it only exists in faith. Sure you can say "I love you" all you want, but that doesn't mean it's the truth. With love, you just trust. Sex and Money are imaginary ideological constructions--it's not really real, it's created in the mind--everyone is under the same illusion--and even though it's not real, the effects are real. The underpart of the nest is a fact, because it supports the nest. It is the most important part--even though it's not readily apparent. Yes, the nest is shaped in a circular form--but this is not empty. The "underpart" IS the nest, because without it, there would be no nest, and it is NOT the nest, because it is the underpart--completely separate.

I think Olson is saying that, yes "love is the form", the circular movement, but it's not empty, even though it is in the shape of an O. He ends the verse with "o sea city)", almost like it is a secret: It's tucked away, it's humble. It's not the "O" of grandiose and tragic emptiness, it's the o of infinity. It's the non-physical idea that is true because of faith and because of words and breath.

Poetry needs to be understood "by ear"-which is out loud, which is performed, which is communicated with others (because language is impersonal). In accordance to saying things aloud, they must be listened to. Because when we lose the energy between the poet and the reader, there is a lack of breath, a lack of connection. Nothing can be communicated--the thing that makes poetry come alive is dead. "When all is become billboards" is the day we lose our soul, because we cannot hear anything anymore. We can't even hear the birds anymore!

His grievances and diagnosis of the dismal future of American contemporaneity listed in Part 3 are answered at the end of Part 4, with his violent threat to the "billboard-ization", the "Fordization"--he is Beowulf slaying Grendel in his own epic poem--"o kill kill kill kill kill/those/who advertise you/out)" (2161). Maximus is not going to take it lying down, he is going to fight against that which mechanizes us, that which tries to sell us out.

I also have a theory that the reason Olson writes in such a confusing way, i.e. a way that the meaning is not available on the surface level--one has to "engage" in it and understand the metaphors and meanings and form married with the content--is because Olson doesn't want just anybody off the street to get the meaning, like the regular mainstream American Joe. He wants the one who understands it to be worthy of understanding it--because according to "I, Maximus", he's worthy. It's an epic poem for an accordingly epic and elevated audience--and who is that audience in contemporary America? Not the juggernaut corporate boss with all the money and power, not the WalMart-shopping, American Idol-watching, McDonald's-eating, mainstream consumer and subscriber to lowest-common-denominator ideology, complete with mechanical imaginations. Olson is addressing the educated elite who take time to read, engage, and dissect poetry, those who are interested like he was, in diagnosing the problems of American contemporaneity. He's telling the truth, but he's telling it slant.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Midterm Essay

English 30C: Contemporary American Literature

Midterm Prompt

Perform a “close reading” of the poem on which you presented in class—“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Develop the reading from the text, not a biographical reading. Look at the syntax, word choice, punctuation, rhyme, and rhythm (i.e. Form of the poem) in your reading. Also account for the ironic tensions set up in the poem and its tone. Does the poem unify or balance the tensions? You must use one other text we have read in class to contextualize and support your reading.


T.S. Eliot might have been afraid of his emotions—“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but a escape from personality”—but it helped him to write his commandment to new American poets about depersonalization in poetry. As an American poet, Elizabeth Bishop was no doubt aware of this manifesto and puts into words this revolutionary notion. In “One Art”, Bishop tells the story of loss, ranging from small and miniscule things to vast continents to her own personal voice and ability to joke about tragedy. Bishop’s work, although seemingly very personal, possesses a universal way of relating to others about loss, and succeeds in conveying what T.S. Eliot described in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as significant emotion—that is “emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet”. The only way one can achieve such a thing, Eliot claimed, is to turn away from actual emotion and to depersonalize the poet from the poem. Bishop understood Eliot, in that the poem she wrote is all about the loss one experiences, and how this can be likened to the loss one experiences when creating art.

If the “Art of Losing” is taken to literally mean the “Act of Writing”, because of the loss of personality when writing poetry, it makes sense with Eliot’s dictum about the nature of the poet: “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (1008). However, and this serves to counter Eliot’s statement as well as to relieve an ironic tension in Bishop’s work: Writing is a way of recapturing or regaining the loss, because it places the loss onto page, and reverses it. The loss is now immortal, and can never be lost. The “mother’s watch”, the “two cities”, and “vaster realms” will now be remembered whenever the poem is read. This is Bishop’s intention when, on the very last line, she quite abruptly tells the reader—or herself—almost as an urgent aside, to “Write it!” and not to forget it.

Another ironic tension throughout the poem is the tone. At first glance, it is a melancholy look back on the fleetingness of life and life’s possessions. A somber reminiscing of all things that are inevitably lost, “the mother’s watch” and other relics of people that serve as physical memories, “door keys” or other opportunities lost, and “you” which can be the reader, the actual poet herself, or a third party. However, an inkling of a sardonic tone permeates the poem with word choices such as this: “And look! My last or next-to-last, of three loved houses went.” She quips that the “art of losing isn’t hard to master”, which embodies the joking tone about the process of writing. In the last stanza, her acknowledgement of the loss of her “joking voice, a gesture I love” sets up an irony that creates a new tension—Bishop is talking about the loss of her personality in her poetry, in the same way Eliot has commanded, but the poem is actually filled with her joking voice. It is a contradictory move, but it proves that, although Bishop has a respect for Eliot’s work, she is also her own person with an individual identity who can break some rules. Ironically, this is what Eliot wants in new poets anyway—to continue the tradition of non-tradition: “the business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”

The understatement of tragedy suggests that there is no real significance in the loss, even though there obviously is. Bishop’s main goal here is to assuage any deep remorseful feelings connected to loss, because the loss is always bound to occur—but she is losing the ability to joke about disaster. By the end of the poem, she admits what she believes to be her flaw, and this is the same flaw within Eliot’s statement of depersonalization—that the art of losing (personality and emotion) “isn’t too hard to master”—which means it actually is, to a degree, a disaster. A certain detachment is required to be a poet and Bishop is commenting on the fact that it is indeed disastrous and heartless, but she is also aware of the fact that her craft requires the loss—she has already lost things, so this is her appeal and apology. Her inclusion of the statement “though it may look like like disaster” serves to further separate herself from the tragedy, it is a thrice removed simile, which is another strategy of depersonalizing oneself from ones poem.

Bishop was clearly aware of Eliot’s instruction that poets must be aware of those who are dead, in a traditional context of that which is already living, however, she was also able to finish Eliot’s declaration and to continue the statement into the future. Bishop’s use of the future perfect tense in the last stanza: “Even losing you…I shan’t have lied”, shows her awareness of the present’s context in the future, the way that future historians will look at our present as the past. It is in this sense that Bishop, and all great writers and poets, are predictors of the future that have an awareness of “what is already living”, and are able to make poetic statements about what will be regarded as true and as part of the tradition. The future belongs to the poet.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Poem #4--Poetry Experiment

This is a poetry experiment. The poet's identity is unknown and the poem is out of context. I think that, by not even knowing the writer's gender or race or age, it helps to decontextualize the poem. The poem stands for itself and is free from any subjectivity that might come from knowing the identity or biography of the poet. This was what the Formalist Critics wanted to do, to strip away any timeliness or bias and to let the poem speak for itself. The Formalists were all about "Close Reading", balance, and the close marriage between form and content. This is the poem, and below is my immediate reaction and observations:
"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I love two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster."
Right off the bat, I noticed the ABA ABA rhyming structure: Master, Intent Disaster:Fluster, Spent, Master:Faster, Meant, Disaster, and so on. The rhythm in the beginning seems a bit awkward, but the later stanzas reveal a more easy flow. There's an average of 10-11 syllables in each line, and once you notice this, you get a steady rhythm going, and it starts to make sense. Up until the end, where it breaks the established structure, but not severely. The last stanza has 4 lines, with an ABAA rhyming scheme. Also it seems a bit out of form because it includes parentheses, and because it addresses someone (possibly us, the reader), and offers a direct commandment ("Write it!"). ***

The story of the poem is obviously one of loss, but it's not one of total tragedy. It's of every day loss, the kind that is unavoidable, and the kind that makes us human. The first stanza is the mission statement. The next lines follow the theme, and are a progression of the building sense of "vaster" and disastrous loss. What starts as "the fluster of lost door keys", becomes forgetting "places and names", culminating in the loss of a continent. Just as the form becomes more easy to read, the losses mentioned here, carried by the form, leads into a greater understanding.

The first line is a kind of mantra that is repeated throughout: "The art of losing isn't hard to master". Usually, there is a belief that art is reserved for those with true talent, but it's not hard to learn this craft. It's a humbling idea, that suggests anybody can perform this art, it's as easy as losing something/someone, but it's a painful process not all are willing to go though.

An interesting line is also in the first stanza: "So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster". This makes me think about the disposability of our society. So many things are made not to last, that's why warranties are invented. I bought a brand new Macbook two years ago. It was beautiful. I used it every day, and it of course it got busted up and scratched. Finally one day last month, it wouldn't turn on and I learned that the hard-drive just up and died! I took it to the store and, because I had the warranty, they gave me a new hard-drive. It sucked! But it certainly was no disaster. I don't know if this was the actual meaning the poet meant, but it's one I take to heart. Once we accept that things in this world are only finite--even us--we realize that the show must go on.

I'm thinking that this poem is a story about poetry itself, but the new kind of poetry that is depersonalized, decontextualized, and less revealing of the poet, as admired by the New Critics. "The ART of losing isn't hard to master". The Art-of-Losing is the act of Writing Poetry, in the sense that the writer must lose everything about the personal experience that traps the poem in a context--of women's poetry, or black poetry, or old white male poetry, etc--and transfer it to page. Something is lost in this process, but its necessary for it to be considered Art.

The final stanza addresses us, but also, that which is personal: "Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture/I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident/the art of losing's not hard to master/though it may look like (Write it) like disaster". For art to be great, it has to be divorced from anything personal, this is the "joking voice" and whatever it is that is "loved". Another message that comes to light by the end of them poem is directly stated, jarringly: "Write it!". As places and names are lost, one could say that it is because of a faulty memory. As a writer myself, I like to record things down, the moment, and my reactions to those moments, because I don't want to forget them. The poet is telling other poets to "Write it", so that all things that are lost are not entirely gone.

The tone is humbling, but accepting. It's a sad surrender, but not in a tragic sense, it's the kind of loss that everyone inevitably goes through. It seems like it's from the position of one who is wise and weathered. I can imagine that the poet would agree with the same sense of concession one feels with the phrase "well, it's not the end of the world", even when it is the end of the world. The message here is to accept the loss, to realize that it "wasn't a disaster".

***as my own personal experiment, I tried to keep the first paragraph as a critique, solely on the Form alone, but I found (as I was hoping) that you can't talk about the Form without talking about the Content.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Olson & Creeley, Projective Verse, and Black Mountain philosophy

In his manifesto, From Projective Verse, Charles Olson talks about the kinetics of poetry. From what I gathered, poetry is an exchange of energy, from the source of the poet's inspiration, to the final product of the poem itself, and finally to the reader who must read and gauge his or her own reaction to the poem. The process of poetry, of writing and reading it, is in a constant state of motion; it is an experience.

Charles Olson mentions Creeley, who taught with him at Black Mountain, with the mantra: "Form is never more than an extension of Content". This means that the poem's Content--the words, the metaphors, the Space--can never be separate from the Form--the structure, the rhyme scheme, the punctuation, the spaces, the metonymy, the Time--therefore, it's all married into one thing=the Poem, and even the experience of Reading the Poem, or the Performance of the Poem. Metaphor is a hierarchical marriage of two things: The Girl is a Rose, the Test is a Piece of Cake, the Light bulb is an Idea. One thing is not being compared to the other thing, it actually IS the other thing. Content IS Form, and Form IS content.

Metaphor (Space) and Metonymy (Time) are on a separate axis from one another. Metaphor measures the hierarchical relationship, Metonymy allows for a medium in which the metaphor can be expressed--just as language is expressed with words and speech that unfold over time--and the spark of "Is", which allows for this poem to occur is the breath of life. Space is the Empty Vessel, Time is the River, and the Breath that allows for Speech is the Wind that moves along that Vessel.

This is something I came up with in my philosophy class, and I heard a variation of it in class during the last lecture. It stuck out, and here is my version of it: All things in language are metaphors. A single thing cannot exist without being related to another thing. Otherwise it's not real, or it makes no sense! So: A thing can only be real, once it becomes something else. The becomes=IS. Metaphors exist not only in language, we think in metaphors as well.

Professor Bonilla's definition of Metaphor: "Giving the thing a name, that means something else."
and I believe that we give "the thing" a name that means something else because we can never actually Articulate "The Thing" in the first place. We only get as far as a parabola gets to its limit.

Every Irony requires a metaphor, because EVERYTHING requires a metaphor.

What other philosophical stuff can I get into that pertains to the poetry and Olson's Projective Verse??

Just as "Form is never more than an extension of Content", the two parts of language: Time (Metonymy) and Space (Metaphor), even though they appear to be two perpendicular lines separate from each other, they are STILL on the same plane. No matter what, they are married, and can never be divorced.

Forgive me if this isn't terribly clear, it is just a way to get all of my ideas out. Maybe something will stick out and actually make rational sense!