Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rerun: 4 Digby video poems from The Throne of Psyche

Mercer University Press, 2011,
in hardcover or paperback
Cover art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt

Carving pumpkins, herding cats and progeny, writing some tight small poems in a pause mid-novel: I've been empty of blog posts somehow, so please take this little homage to and appreciation of Paul as an apology. More anon.

Videos by UK-born Paul Digby, composer, videographer, singer, fine cabinet-maker, painter, knitwear designer, computer genius, and more. There is nothing this man cannot do! Or so I suspect. He writes lovely music, but evidently that's not enough for him--he has to put the rest of us to shame in innumerable categories of creation with his apparent belief that he is a human being and so can do things! He lives in an obscure corner of Ohio. I can't imagine what they can do to deserve him.

This one is a riposte to Billy Collins, for writing a poem about taking off Emily Dickinson's clothes, a thing that is forbidden!

And this one is about the sad adventures of a nesting doll. It's a harsh, cruel world out there, full of unexpected powers.

Here is where I let it all hang out about being a Southerner in the bitter, snowy, lakeside winters of upstate New York. Do I always feel like this? Of course not! Snow is magical.

And this poem I wrote when my eldest child had meningitis--about the strong, sudden knowing that he would live, when things were at their worst.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Touchstones and the Nobel kerfuffle

Muse reading a scroll by an open chest.
Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 435-425 BC. From Boeotia.
Musée du Louvre. Public domain, Wikipedia.

Bob Dylan . . . can be read and should be read [italics mine], and is a great poet in the grand English poetic tradition. --Sara Danius, Nobel Permanent Secretary 
There’s little that’s inherently controversial about praising words originally meant for vocal delivery. Playwrights have won the Nobel Prize for Literature before. But in an era when songwriting and song performance and song recording are tied together, when many musicians’ literary voices are first received via their literal voices, lyrics alone should inevitably have a hard time competing with “pure” poetry or prose. --Spencer Kornhaber (what a name!) at The Atlantic
A great many of my friends and acquaintances have been busy proving that Dylan either deserves or does not deserve the Nobel, given for the written portion of his work considered as literature. A great many famous people have done likewise.

Being a peaceable sort, I leave them to the joy of it.

But I'm pleased that people are talking about poetry.... What has interested me about this whole episode is the common lack of any sort of clarity about what poetry is, or what high achievement in poetry might look like. Instead, most people are carried away by a tsunami of love for Dylan, or by their anger at the debasement of literature--the latter group assumes that we all know what literature is, though I haven't seen any defining examples or analysis.

The problem with the award is that is given only for the written part of a singer-songwriter's work. But it's hard for us to look at just the words. The songs keep getting in the way, don't they?

I suggest a simple comparison based on some touchstone work by Dylan and a poet, a this versus that to let us consider and meditate on what it means to: a.) hold up lyrics to a song as written literature and b.) to hold up a poem meant to stand alone as written literature to be read silently or aloud.

Here are written lyrics to a Dylan song--do your best to not hear the music in your head. (Well, I can't do it, and I doubt very much that the Nobel committee could either!) Again, remember that the award is for the written words only. If you're my age--well, if you grew up in the Western world--you probably grew up with Dylan songs running through your head, so it's quite a challenge to look just at the words.

I will let Rolling Stone pick the song. Here's the no. 1 on their countdown list, 10 Greatest Bob Dylan Songs.

Once upon a time you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you?
People call say 'beware doll, you're bound to fall'
You thought they were all kidding you
You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hanging out
Now you don't talk so loud
Now you don't seem so proud
About having to be scrounging your next meal

How does it feel, how does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone

Ahh you've gone to the finest schools, alright Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it

The first fourteen lines of "Like a Rolling Stone" give you a taste, but maybe you'd better read the whole thing here. Copyright, copyright! I don't want to get in trouble with something quite so powerful as the Dylan enterprises.

And next to that, we should put a poem not set to music, one that aspires to literature. To lean over backwards and be generous yet parallel, I'll pick one by a living American poet who aspires to literature (but who was, of course, just passed over for the Nobel.) After all, Dylan hadn't won the Nobel until yesterday.

Like Dylan's lyrics, this poem is also under copyright protection, so I'll just give a 14-line excerpt and a link to the remainder. Here goes:

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
                     Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

    Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

    Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden

Read the rest of Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" at The Poetry Foundation, here.

But perhaps it is more appropriate to look at a poem by someone who has won a Nobel prize for literature. Try these fourteen lines:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity. 

Surely some revelation is at hand; 
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi 
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   

Read the rest of "The Second Coming" by Yeats here. (Even if you've departed on a bandwagon already, Yeats is always worth a look. And, indeed, a second look.)

And now, after some meditation on words alone, perhaps it would be appropriate to have an opinion....

* * *

Postscript: A. M. Juster says, "Dylan’s Nobel honors his words for their musicality, accessibility, and ideas. His recognition may help to drag scholars, MFA programs, and literary journals away from their postmodernist tedium and toward a welcome revival of poetry that provokes and delights the public. For that reason alone, as others flame about Dylan’s Nobel don’t think twice – it’s alright." Read the rest here.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Inaugural, redux

Remembering the 2013 challenge to write an inaugural poem from poets Richard Krawiec and Kay Stripling Byer, I rooted around for this poem. I find it curious to contemplate those older thoughts during this campaign, the most--shall we politely say lively?--lively and divisive American election since the campaign of 1828.

If you want to see the comments people made about the poem back in January, 2013, go here.  But below is the text of the original post:



Around five or six o'clock today, writer Richard Krawiec challenged a number of people on facebook to write an inaugural poem--Kathryn Stripling Byer is probably to blame for my inclusion on the list... (Thanks, Kay!) I curled up by the window while snow fell down and drafted this blank verse poem. It opens with images from the Bible--the lowly pot and the potter.


Even a famous man is just a pot
Thrown on the wheel—centered and true, one hopes,
But a pot all the same. So says the book
You use today, on which you swear a vow,
Your fingertips touching the word of God
And your skin prickling with the fingerprints
Of the potter—or nervousness, perhaps.
As pot, you circle round the air, you shine,
Preserving and protecting, defending
This Constitution you swear to uphold,
Words that are wild, sweet apples from the branch
Of freedom, watered with blood of ancestors.
Like an oblation jar, now keep for us
The fruit of that dream nation pilgrims sought
And suffered, all our union marred by sin
Because we were only men and women,
Fearing the white ships at the harbor’s edge,
Fearing the dark shapes moving in the woods,
Fearing and scorning what we did not grasp.
A jar holds summer’s peaches, summer’s sun
As if no time has passed: so hold the dream,
As if both light and shade could be our joy,
As if the past could yet be a blessing,
As if our knowledge came from wrong and right
Twisted together, a tree of knowledge.
So hold the dream, and let us taste of light
In scorning no one for his freeborn thoughts,
Knowing how little we discern, knowing
That we must stand together in this place,
One country given much, among many,
One planet set against the stars and cold:
So hold the dream, and let us taste of light.
 21 January 2013

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Good things

Ashley Norwood Cooper, "The Virgin Mary Paints St. Luke on her iPad"
is at left (look for Mary in a red gown.)
no. 1

Hurrah for another Pushcart Prize poetry nomination! Thanks to Trinacria for nominating "Portrait of the Magi as Three Horses."

no. 2

Franklin Einspruch says: "Perhaps for the first time in history, we are looking at the possibility of a conservative avant-garde." He was talking about visual arts, but it works for writing as well.  (I often think that the way forward is through the tradition.)

no. 3

I'll be speaking at The Frederick Buechner Workshops at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena next year! (And I'm going to Kyoto in 2017....) Feeling sorry for family members who will be doomed to stay home and feed the cats!

no. 4

Tonight my friend and neighbor Ashley Norwood Cooper is talking about "The Virgin Mary Paints St. Luke on her iPad" during the Artists' Walk at at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle near Columbus Circle, NYC!

no. 5

The up side of the Elena Ferrante revelation is that her story strikes a blow against cultural appropriation--a belief that could destroy the arts in our time, if allowed full sway.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

A beginning, with green sheep...

The Ferrol Sams Award.
Silver Award, Foreword Book of the Year Awards.

"Its themes and the power of its language,
the forceful flow of its storyline
and its characters have earned the right
to a broad national audience." review
I have been busy with children and deadlines and applying for a short fellowship, so here is a little snip from A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage in place of a post I've had no time to write. A snip, a clip from the beginning to a first chapter, instead...

Death comes to White Camellia Orphanage;
A savage laugh, a riddle and reply.

The boy called Pip by his father—who had named him after a boy in a famous book, a child for whom everything had turned out well enough—woke in the dense warmth of an Emanuel County summer at 4:17 a.m., a fact that he learned years later when he became acquainted with clocks because for the rest of his life he would wake at the very same hour, the very same moment of the morning as if his body could never let go of the need to be awake for that minute of the day.  He did not open his eyes.  He did not need to open his eyes.  He knew where he was, the same place he had been for almost a year.  He was on the farm sharecropped by the Hooks family although the land was always called by another man’s name as if to remind the husband and wife that they owned not much more than debt and the clothes on their backs plus a spare change for Sunday and a clutter of ironware and dishes and a few clanking enamel chamber pots.  For the last several years it also had been known as The White Camellia Orphanage or The Cottage because of the doings of Mr. Sam Truetlen, owner of a nearby cotton gin and the far-off Gen’l Notions Store, who had traveled all the way to New Orleans and on to Dallas once upon a time, and there, on the outer edge of the known world, had toured a cottage-style orphanage intended for destitute white children and run by the Klan.  Some years later, Mr. Sam, being a man prone to fits of “projecting,” backed his own orphanage though most of its children still claimed at least one parent on some played-out, ramshackle farm.  Wherever his kind had sunk so desperate and low as to scoop up the red clay to eat, Mr. Sam would arrive on muleback and plod away with one or more children riding pillion, some to stay at The Cottage for a month, some longer. It got so that people for miles around could recognize Daisy Belle, the white mule, and Goshen, the soot-gray one.  As for the name of the orphanage, that was the influence of the Klan, with its Knights and Dragon, its Cyclops and Nighthawk and Kamellia—and Mr. Sam’s tip-of-the-hat to the city of Dallas.  So that was where Pip had been lodged for almost a year, in The White Camellia. 
It was high, hot summer in Emanuel County, Georgia, and not one soul was saved from the day’s blaze or from the night’s smother of warmth; up and down the county, the only sleep was a restless sleep, and near Lexsy, one or two old people woke in a fright because the air was just about too dense to breathe—their trembling hands reaching for funeral-parlor fans printed with a portrait of Christ and some luminous, faintly green sheep—and on some gully-shattered sharecropped place, an infant who had been fighting for air yielded up the ghost on his mother’s naked breast.  Mr. Sam, next door to the cotton gin, returned to bed and dreamed his nightly dream of being weighed in the scales and found wanting.  At The White Camellia Orphanage, the bone-tired children slept without dreaming, all but one, who dreamed about a lost penny.    
When he woke, Pip knew something was akilter.  He did not know more, neither whether the hour felt wrong or right.  There was a faint slippage of coolness on his back where his brother—his half-brother—Otto normally slept.  The kinship bond between them was tangible, such that the children seemed inseparable, a blood brotherhood of commingled beings.  Loss and grief had only made their physical need and ache for each other more clearly manifest.  The musky smell that belonged to the little boy was ebbing away, and Pip could detect only the presence of the two others in the bed and the four across the room.  The brothers always slept together, with a careful space between themselves and their bedmates, an act that demanded they cling to their perches even in sleep to avoid tumbling down into the deep valley of the bed.  Now Pip lay breathing in the scent of near-naked boys and the stink of the chamber pots. These were smells he did not find disagreeable, just as he did not dislike the fumes of kerosene from the lamp or the odor of Miss Versie, unwashed and marked with a faint whiff of blood.  

Where was Otto?  

Friday, September 30, 2016

Golem and swan

Thanks to Prufrock News for once again featuring one of my poems, this time linking to "The Poet and the Golem" from Books and Culture. Artists of all sorts need chatty champions, people who are willing to get the word out and say in public what they admire and like.

For every writer who is the lucky recipient of a black swan, there are many more who go swanless. After Typee and Omoo, Melville went so swanless that he was eventually forgotten. Dickinson was swanless, though I expect swanlessness was good for her art--nobody chiseled off the oddly important dashes or beat her over the head with the idea of how very strange and curious her work appeared, and that much of swanlessness was good for her singular art. (Most people aren't so strong and vitally themselves as she was.) Poe was so terribly swanless. And Kafka was swanless. In fact, most artists in most artistic fields go swanless.

And so I very much appreciate that Micah Mattix, busy professor that he is, takes the time to share news about poets and writers he finds worthy on daily basis. It is a good thing that he does, and he does it faithfully. If you want to subscribe, go here.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Dear old Blogspot,

Have I mentioned that Facebook has a thing for me? Facebook is constantly asking me what's on my mind, though it (he?) never offers to give me a penny--not one red cent--for what's on my mind. What's on my mind, Facebook? Twitter. Where I just discovered the following important information: 1.) Definitely not keeping up. Entirely missed until now that WaPo declared Hillary Clinton to be "style icon"; 2.) Had no idea there was also a Khloe K. until poet A.M. Juster kardashianized my mind. What is this obsession with the "K"? " 3.) And the thing seen first on Twitter this morning: rules for "your novel." Makes me want to (cheerfully) burn "your" book. Bonfire of the Inanities. Also, I am going to reread my friend Ashley's Facebook post about art and appropriation and see what people thought because that post lacked anything about a presidential candidate's upholstery or an important K, for that matter, and it also had that odd thing, substance, and did the good work of setting firecrackers under a few rules. Which is satisfying in a world where the number of rules for the arts appears to be on the increase. Yes, general corseting of the mind and the arts is as common as web pages, and those in turn are as common as particles of styrofoam in the seas.

And what, Facebook, is this magic thing where you turn small-f Facebook into large-F Facebook? Even on my blog. Here. Yes, exactly like that. You like it like that.

You (you-reader, not you-Facebook or you-blogspot) may possibly be able to tell from the above that I read Andrew Sullivan's "I Used to be a Human Being" yesterday. (Subtitle: An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too. Clip: "There is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen.") And so, human nature being a weathercock, I contemplate whether I should drop out of Facebook and twitter (and possibly blogging), or whether it is possible--wishing to be moderate in all things save those few in which I am genuinely and joyfully and purposefully immoderate--to be moderate with the 'Net.

The whimsical, whirligig wind blows; I turn about and decide that the world is billionated with human beings, and that it doesn't much matter if I talk to myself here and there or not. Except: time. So precious and falling through the hourglass. Must go meet some human beings face to face, and then put some words in the right order.

Update, or threat-tweet from A. M. Juster: You'll like my k-heavy Kardashian double dactyl in next year's Waywiser anthology. Evidently a double dactyl anthology is forthcoming! Better put it on your To Buy list. There may never be another one.