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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Suppose you wanted to call attention to an issue. You'd want to define the statistics up for that particular problem. One way of doing so is to expand the definition. So take these examples.

hunger vs. food insecurity

If you are serious about hunger, then you might want to define the issue in terms of "food insecurity." That encompasses many more people, not just those are suffering from famine conditions, but malnourished people or those who might have to skip meals. Some of these food insecure people might be overweight, in fact.

"at risk"

By defining a population as "at risk," then you are expanding from people who are actually suffering from whatever it is, to those who are at risk of doing so.

Racism & Sexism

By defining racism in structural terms, we find that every white person becomes a racist just by benefiting from racism.

Now this might sound like a right-wing post, and that is not my intention, but the expansion of definitions has some unintended consequences. One of these is to muddy the waters by definitional elasticity (forgive the mixed metaphor.).  Another is to trivialize real problem by throwing disparate phenomena in the same sack. Suppose we had a statistic that included both bank robbery and jaywalking, and said that "90% of respondents reported that they had robbed a bank or jaywalked in the past two years." That might be true, but you'd want to have mechanism for sorting out those two categories. Or if you asked: "Have you ever stolen money or a ballpoint pen from a bank?"

If we no longer distinguish between serious and less serious instances of the problem, then it becomes too difficult to treat the more serious offenses with the degree of seriousness that they deserve. So if we are really after bank robbers, then it makes sense to not have an expanded version of bank robbery, that also includes stealing the pen for the bank when you fill out your deposit slip.

Some Poems You can Write

The list poem is a great medium for imaginative freedom & concrete imagery.  There has to be a common element in the list, but it can be a capacious one. For example, "These foolish things (remind me of you)."  So you have "A cigarette that bears a lipstick's traces / an airline ticket to exotic  places." The common element is that they are foolish things that remind me of you, but this common element is in the mind of the singer, not in the things themselves, and in a kind of associative, metonymic logic.  

Or "the way you sip your tea / the way you wear your hat."  Or "Things to do in Providence" (Ted Berrigan). Or Herrick's "The Argument of His Book." 

Little children can write list poems effectively. The tone can be anything you want, comic or serious.  The order of elements can be arbitrary & free, obeying only the invisible laws of the imagination. You can do a "chaotic enumeration" of elements, or tell an implicit story. There doesn't have to be anything dull about a catalogue.  


You can write a pantoum or another fixed form. One thing I've done is a villanelle without rhyme. It gives the feel of a pantoum, almost. 


You can get a really great title, and then try to write a poem using it. It should be a title that is misleading in its implications. So, you could take a title and interpret it too literally. Take Monk's "Brilliant Corners." How could a corner be brilliant?  Or you could make the poem unrelated to the title, totally metaphorically oblique.  

The Argument of His Book

I sing of the Tribe of Ben and the progeny of Neruda

of painted lips and of the cymbal's crash

I sing of the disappearance of small objects

not through magic but through negligence or theft

the loss of other, more significant things too

a poet of disappearance and loss of various kinds

I sing the law of lengthening limbs and the "piano tinkling in the next apartment"

I sing without a voice to sing, through the melodic quality of ink

and paper, I sing the green paper of Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares 

and I will not stop until I've sung my fill

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Losing and Finding Small Objects

I have a problem misplacing small objects, often fountain pens, which are not cheap as pens go. I don't dare get myself a really expensive one. What I tend to do when I feel myself especially prone to losing things is to clean up my environment. In so doing, I sometimes find things that have been missing, and also make it less likely for me to lose other things. Being able to keep track of small objects, then, is a kind of test of my general ability to hold everything together.

Herrick (3)

Maybe the trick of Herrick is that he doesn't take himself too seriously.  He works seriously at his poetry, but his persona is not arrogant at all.

You tube piano tricks

I have been listening to some youtube piano videos, and I have noticed that one of the qualities in the best ones is that the player knows how to play, rather than demonstrating a technique or sequence of chords without any real jazz feeling. It might seem obvious but that's my guarantee that the player will not steer me in the wrong direction. The three best instructors I have found are Marius Nordal, Aimee Nolte, and Hal Galper. When you hear them play there is a level of conviction there, even when showing a simplistic lick it will be with the right feeling. There are other guys on the net who play woodenly, whether because they think they need to to teach, or because they actually aren't very good.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Herrick (2)

I guess what I like now about Herrick is the variety of approaches to life, but all within a single personality.  You get to know him well, and the deployment of a topos like the carpe diem feels sincere, because you feel that is something he identified with when he was writing this poem. He was one of the first poets who taught me how to read him, like many other poets since. It was also probably one of my first experiences in doing this with an early modern poet.  Herrick is one of the best connectors I have to my 15 and 16 year-old self.

I don't like biographical approaches, and don't know much about his life, but I feel a very strong personality in his poetry.  

I can identify this in time with some precision, because I only attended this school for two years. Ninth grade was at a Junior High School, and I didn't ever make it to 12th grade.