Monday, March 8, 2010

Here’s a fairly typical poem by Lisa Olstein, who, according to the Poetry Foundation, has been associate director of the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and who won the Copper Canyon Press Hayden Carruth award.


You take the mortar; I’ll take the pestle,
the weight we laid five years before the door.

You take the door, its flank and hollow.
You take the hollow morning we set out,

I’ll take the conch shell, the sea.
You take the sea, our kitchen window looking out on it.

I’ll take the kitchen; you take the potatoes,
their rough edges, their eyes.

You take the flashlight’s eye we turned skyward
to rebut the stars. I’ll take the sky it travels.

You take my fear of long journeys, of talking in my sleep.
I’ll take sleep and the first morning sounds

of the monastery on the hill. You take the monks;
I’ll take the way they sweep the ground

before every step, the way they nurse other men’s
crippled oxen through long flickering nights.

Reading this, one is quickly overwhelmed with questions. What is the point of one taking the mortar and the other the pestle when the one is of no use without the other? Does this mean that everybody loses in breakup, which seems to be the subject of the poem, though there’s nothing in the poem that would confirm it one way or the other? And is it even true? Or perhaps this is a metaphorical description of a breakup experienced by the poet. That also there’s no way of knowing.

Then what’s this about “the weight we laid five years before the door.” That would seem to be the pestle, but few pestles are heavy enough to serve as doorstops. But maybe it wasn’t the pestle, or it was a very big pestle. Then why mention it at all? In what way does it advance the subject of the poem?

And why “five years before the door”? One could place something five inches before a door or five years before a particular event, but not five years before a door. Is this a compact way of saying five years ago, five years before one of the protagonists went out the door? If so, it confuses rather than stirring one with the poetic sentiment, in contrast, say, to Dylan Thomas’s “Once below a time.”

I could go on, but the puzzlements merely pile up without edifying clues. One might be able to imagine a golden thread that ties all the disparate elements of this poem together, but I can’t see any way of verifying any such unifying theory from the poem. It’s rather like attempting to verify string theory by weaving cats cradles.

Now Hayden Carruth is a well-known poet and Copper Canyon is a press of high repute. I wasn’t able to find any explanation, in a quick search, as to why Olstein won the award, but the Poetry Foundation, also an organization at the summit of the American poetry world, quoted the following blurb on its page dedicated to information about Olstein.

“Olstein places the mystical next to the mundane, bees next to bricklayers, purple finches next to garage doors, reason next to faith, chance near fate.”

What is one to make of this? Does the blurber see bees as mystical and bricklayers as mundane? Both are really equally mundane. Perhaps the blurber meant poetic rather than mystical. But is that even true not to speak of edifying? Worse, is reason mystical while faith is mundane? Perhaps the blurber reversed the order of the examples here. But then, is reason mundane? And which is more mystical or mundane, chance or fate, though perhaps since they are merely near, not next to each other, the dichotomy doesn’t apply.

It’s difficult not to conclude that this whole business, and much of contemporary poetry, is an enormous scam, though my impression is that those perpetrating it fully believe in their own deceptions. It’s as if Bernie Madoff really thought his colossal pyramid scheme would enrich all the participants.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Email I sent to a friend after telling her her comments on a poem I'd sent her were in themselves a poem, and she asked me if she should try writing poetry:

"You don't need to try. You've already done it, written a poem and a good one. If you want to write more, it's simple, at least it is for me. I start from a feeling and say what I need to to evoke it for a reader.

"As for what I need to say, I begin with free association. This produces a list of things I associate with whatever it was that stirred up the feeling and can include metaphor and simile, tho it doesn't have to.

"I then work to sharpen up the images and language and edit to remove things, even very clever things ("Kill your darlings" they say in MFA workshops), that distract from the emotional impact. "I also try not to be too explicit. As the Roman grammarian Servius Maurus Honoratus says, and I fervently agree, 'The art of poetry is not to say everything.' If you're too explicit, it puts the reader in a prosaic frame of mind, rather then evoking feelings. Poetry is like rhetoric, political one-liners or bumper stickers. (Auden said it's memorable speech.) It should push buttons, be subliminal, tho not so much so as to make it obscure. At least that's the way I see it. Others have diffferent views.

"I'm also concerned with the music of the sound which consists of rhythm (close to meter but not the same--for a wonderful example of non-metric rhythm, google the text of Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill") and devices such as alliteration and rhyme, tho I only use rhyme sporadically and I never use it or alliteration deliberately. I just take it as it comes, and come it does, a lot of it automatically. Our minds work that way.

"I'll also take out things and use syntax you wouldn't normally in prose to make the sound flow better. I'll even put things in that aren't substantively necessary (the sorts of things I'd otherwise edit out) to make the sound flow.

"There you have it, a five minute seminar on writing poetry. Just add water and serve. Or, more helpfully, if you want to send me draft poems, I'll give you my thoughts. But the one you've written is perfect, aside from my one small suggestion. Doesn't need anything but a title. How about 'On Reading a Friend's Poem about the Coming of Spring'? Very Chinese."

Here's the poem I sent her:

Inching up on the Equinox

It comes a couple of minutes closer
every day,
the fiery notches in the ridge across the valley,
where the sun rises,
each one farther north,
the snow, so long on the ground,
reduced to patches,
and the path where I walk by the river
soft again,
ready for grass to sprout.
In a few weeks the starkness of winter trees
will be laced with budding leaves
and the woods, silent today,
will ring with the songs of birds.

and hers:

Lovely, lovely.
Two days of sun and we are so grateful.
I'll print your poem and put it on on the wall
along with my hope list,
Meanwhile I'll watch the woodpeckers
and the lady cardinal
munch suet in the bare garden.
They also are waiting for spring
along with the rest of us.
Oh my, the sound of a loon.
My friend last night promised I would hear them

Friday, February 26, 2010

I think one important reason for the small following for contemporary poetry is that it’s not directed to a broad audience, not even a broad, educated one, but rather to the priests and acolytes of a small cult the literature of which is arcane and solipsistic. Educated readers who liked poetry in college but haven’t become devotees of the cryptic sort of poetry that’s fashionable today are turned off by most of the poems they encounter in the New Yorker, for example, of which I hear many complaints, or the New York Times book reviews. They’re also turned off by reviews that are full of praise for poetry they find baffling, bloodless, dull and of little if any relevance to their main concerns.

If journals and publishers are interested in increasing the audience for poetry they would do well to try to find out what the educated general reader who isn’t impressed by the products of post-modernism likes, instead of relying on reviewers and editors who are in thrall to the cult.


My poetry, I modestly believe, could withstand the test of time. Readers 50 years from now could say “So that’s what it was like then,” while recognizing our common humanity. You couldn’t say that of 90% of the poems being written today. They’re convoluted, arcane and solipsistic, and there are so many of them, hundreds of thousands, millions probably, and so many winning prizes and receiving extravagant praise. People a century from now will shake their heads in disbelief as they read them, if at all, the way they did at the salon painters and Arthur Wing Pinero, or les precieuses ridicules. But they probably won’t look at my poetry at all for I haven’t paid my dues by publishing in journals. All that’s left are my files and a self-published book. I wonder how much good poetry is lost this way. What causes poetry to rise to the top these days is self-promotion. We’re in the Andy Warhol age.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On the overuse of enjambment.

Try reading the following poem, by Kay Ryan, our current poet laureate, pausing at each line break.


A blue stain
creeps across
the deep pile
of the evergreens.
From inside the
forest it seems
like an interior
matter, something
wholly to do
with trees, a color
passed from one
to another, a
to which they
submit unflinchingly
like soldiers
or brave people
getting older.
Then the sun
comes back and
it’s totally over.

Some argue that enjambment slows down the reading, others that it speeds it up. If that contradiction isn’t enough to throw the contemporary heavy use of enjambment into question, consider the following. If the purpose is speedup, why bother? The poem reads just as fast and arguably better without the enjambment.

A blue stain
creeps across
the deep pile
of the evergreens.
From inside the forest
it seems like an interior matter,
something wholly to do with trees,
a color passed from one to another,
a requirement to which they submit
like soldiers
or brave people getting older.
Then the sun comes back
and it’s totally over.

Could it be that most of the enjambment in contemporary poetry is merely a fad and an affectation?
Kay Ryan’s cloud, reverse alchemy: a wonderful example of the intellectualization of contemporary poetry, by Kay Ryan, our 16th poet laureate. Takes the gold of natural beauty and transforms it into the lead of “creative writing”. Also some priceless enjambment, but that's another story.


A blue stain
creeps across
the deep pile
of the evergreens.
From inside the
forest it seems
like an interior
matter, something
wholly to do
with trees, a color
passed from one
to another, a
to which they
submit unflinchingly
like soldiers or
brave people
getting older.
Then the sun
comes back and
it’s totally over.

Kay Ryan, Poetry, February 2010

Monday, February 15, 2010

Some Early Reactions to My Book, Explorations

Richard Trousdell, professor of theater, University of Massachusets, Amherst: "I just received your beautiful book. How wonderfully designed it is, that splendid cover, your picture with the poem on the back, the type face so elegant, the whole thing just speaks of your spare, eloquent style. I can't wait to dip into it more fully and frequently, but its very appearance speaks for you wonderfully. I'd certainly see to it that the Times Literary Supplement gets a review copy. Meanwhile, sincere congratulations on a marvellous accomplishment."

Frank Basler, business consultant, Bridgeport, Connecticut: "Thank you again for you book of poems. I read one or two each morning and am loving them!"

Connie Wanek, Duluth, Minnesota, poet and winner of Library of Congress fellowship, among other prizes: "Thanks so much for your book, which came in the mail a few days ago...I'm enjoying the poems very much."

Adèle Bloch, Manhattan neighbor of my daughter: "Your father is a wonderful poet: his imagery is vivid, tactile and imaginative, his sense of nature and of the passage of time most evocative.”

"Your father’s opus sits between Goethe and Victor Hugo whenever I don’t reread it. It has a multilevel appeal."

Katharine Hazen, poet, Northampton, Mass.: "What a perfectly beautifully made little book, I've never seen a lovelier one, everything is done right. I should learn a lot from the simplicity and directness of the poet's voice."

David Davies, a friend from my international development days: "Your wonderful book of poems arrived yesterday, and I've dived in with great pleasure."

"I read your book of poems the other day and was full of wonder at how much you've captured of my life."

"Your book may be a hidden treasure. If you can get a review or two, you may be overwhelmed with sales.

"Madlyn Smith, Dartmouth College faculty wife, I keep your book on my bedside table. They are all so good but I do have favorites... "Polished Stones,""Memorial Day" (could be Hanover), "Silver Is the Color of My True Love's Hair," and more, more, more!!!

Betsy Loughran, author, Belchertown Massachusetts. “I haven't thanked you properly for your book. It arrived just as I was in the last throes of getting my book to the publisher… But still I'm best at the poem a day. Two that I read this morning were "Life and Death" and "Pullman Memories." I agree that life is more interesting than death... As to Pullman Memories - I certainly have very similar ones… So thank you. I will enjoy dipping into the book with my morning coffee for the next several weeks.”

Favorite Quotes

“The art of poetry is not to say everything.” Servius Maurus Honoratus, 4th century Roman grammarian

"Of the many definitions of poetry, the simplest is still the best: 'memorable speech.' " W.H.Auden

A Few Provocative Opinions

We consider some poetry great not despite our inability to understand it but because we can’t understand it.

Poetry critics love the cryptic. It gives them something to interpret.

Writing poetry is so popular because it’s the only form of writing in which you’re not likely to be widely criticized for incomprehensibility.

Poetry is the only form of writing in which ambiguity is considered a virtue.

The dominant mode of contemporary poetry is studied incoherence.

Contemporary poets devote a good deal of intellect to making their work incomprehensible.

If poetry that can mean something different to every reader is good, isn’t the ultimate poem a blank sheet of paper?

There’s an arms race among contemporary poets to see who can be the most arcane and solipsistic.

Poetry today is a form of intellectual machismo.

Contemporary poetry seldom delights. Reading it is more often a form of forced labor.

The trouble with much poetry today is that it tries too hard to convert emotional experiences into intellectual ones, and succeeds too often.

Contemporary poetry, like serial music, has alienated its audience. It represents the triumph of theory over experience.

With post-modernism they’ve squeezed all the joy out of poetry.

It isn’t the form that makes a poem. It’s the feeling.

Ultimately, what a poem has to say is more important than how it says it.

The essence of poetry is feeling. All else is ornamentation.

The problem with contemporary poetry is that it’s become an academic discipline.

Beware the poetry-academic complex.

Many contemporary poets think they live in a gated community. Actually they live in a ghetto, and have locked themselves in.

Exaggeration is one of the most common faults of bad poetry.

It isn’t rhyme that makes a poem.

Some poets hear music in their heads. In others’ you’ll hear the grinding of gears.

Poetry is the art of the implied.

In poetry, connotation is everything.

Taste in poetry is like taste in food, essentially arbitrary.

Ultimately what we like or dislike about a poet is his worldview.

Poetry is a narcissistic business.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This will be a poetry blog. I'll post my own poems, links to poems that I like, usually by not well-known poets, and comments on poetry.

I like and try to write poetry that’s clear and accessible and evokes for the reader the feelings that inspired the poem. I don't care for cryptic, obscure or highly ambiguous poems or poems in which the feeling is buried under layers of intellectualization. I subscribe to Wordsworth’s dictum “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” As most aphorisms, this exaggerates, but the core connection of poetry with feelings is true for me. For my taste too much contemporary poetry subordinates feeling to intellectual display.

For the most part I have favorite poems rather than favorite poets, but some of the poets I particularly like are Antonio Machado, Ferlinghetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Garcia Lorca, Hart Crane, May Swenson and Tony Hoagland. I also particularly like a series of poems called “County Lives” by the Irish poet and novelist, Dermot Bolger and Rilke’s Duino Elegies, not a model of accessibility but extremely evocative. Similarly I like Eliot's early poems and the “Four Quartets”, also not very accessible but wonderfully evocative, but I don't like ‘The Waste Land” which I see as disjointed and unnecessarily obscure. And I like the early Pound, but not the Cantos.

A few favorite well-known poems and poems by more or less well-known poets, in no particular order: Auden's “Look stranger at this island now”, Browning's “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, Hopkins’ “The Windhover”, Donald Hall's “The Name of Horses”, Bertold Brecht's “Concerning Poor B.B”, Dylan Thomas's “Fern Hill”, Jame's Merrill's "164 East 72nd Street", Elizabeth Bishop's “At the Fishouses”, and even more her less well-known and atypical “Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore”. Maybe that'll give you an idea of my tastes, or maybe it'll just confuse you, but you will find, if you don't already know, that all these poems combine clarity with feeling.

I've created this blog with the hope of broadening my audience and would very much like to hear from you if you liked it (leave me a comment by clicking on the comment button at the bottom of this posting) or, for that matter, if you didn't, which would at least give me some idea of how many people I'm reaching and whether the blog is worth continuing. I’m going to wait for responses to see if I have an audience before doing more postings, so if you’re potentially interested, let me know.

Here are a few samples of my poetry. You can find more on my website at and in my recently published book, "Explorations", available at The write-up of the book on the Antrim House website, also includes a small sample of poems if you don’t want to get into the much larger selection on my website.


Apple, blueberry, cherry, peach,
coconut custard, banana cream,
boyhood’s soft-focus dreams.

I used to stop at the bakery
on the way home from school
to buy an individual pie
one just the size for a boy
but an aunt with whom I stayed for a while
forbade me them,
deeming pies bad for one’s health.
Seeing me once munching one
as I ambled home
she gave me a scolding so fierce
I flinch from it to this day
when pie is forbidden me again
under the strictures of age.

Shades of Simple Simon,
Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn,
and maybe Adam too,
for what do you suppose was his favorite dish
after that first taste of sin?
Which leads me to a metaphysical question,
was pie designed for boys
or boys for pie?


Just below a great snowy cone in the Andes
on a broad flat shelf of mountain
wild horses race
keeping pace
with wind-driven clouds overhead,
breath steaming
long manes swirling,
as if created
just moments before
out of the primordial chaos.

Boots on the Ground

Put boots on the ground, they said,
as if they were dragons’ teeth
which, sown, sprout spectral armies
that fade away, once battle is done,
leaving no blood behind.

They said nothing about
the men and boys
who would no longer have feet
to wear those boots,
or would wear them to their graves.

Silver Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

as if some cunning craftsman
had spun metal
into silken thread.
It was chestnut brown when we met.
Her skin, all smooth then,
has begun to show fine webs
and is slack under her once firm chin.
But, when I look on her, I think
this is the girl I wed
and feel the need to kiss her cheek
or, if she’s bent over some task,
the nape of her neck
or, if she’s sitting with the hem of her dress
resting on her thighs,
to reach out and touch her knee.