Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Formalist in the Family

Cousin Bobby, on my fathers’ side. I don’t believe I’ve ever met him. Much younger than my mother he was apparently quite attracted to her.

How do I know this? Well, it has always been a family story of course, but in preparation for the aforementioned formal poetry class I was reading the second essay in the book on Syllabics and found a reference to Bobby; Robert Beum.

I read the bit out loud to my sister and brother in law as we were all getting ready for dinner one night last month. My sister went off into her study and brought out the copies of his poetry books she had, most of which I have copies of too, but there was one small red volume published in 1949 called The Ninth Hour by Bobby using a pseudonym, Robert Lawrence.

It has a handwritten dedication to both my mother and father in the front of the book, but the last section of nine pieces is actually dedicated in print to Benny. That would be my mom.

And it is, (how do say?), a bit racy for the times. Funny, and interesting and explicit!

We were laughing and looking at my sister in a new light…she was born the year before the book came out…

It was all sort of weirdly wonderful and funny and embarrassing all at once.

Bobby wrote a book with Karl Shapiro on prosody that was a staple for teaching formal verse called A Prosody Handbook that was just reissued a few years ago in a paper.

I need to order myself a copy and relax. Obviously formal verse is in my blood.

Monday, October 13, 2008

An Unhappy Tale of Where I've Been - Poetically

So I’ve been reading lately about Paul Engel and Wilbur Schramm (the Renaissance Man and stutterer ) and the history of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop because, honestly, I am looking for someone to blame, or at least some understanding of how American poetry got into the fix it is in.

Where no one is willing to say what is or isn’t poetry.

One is supposed to be inclusive and anything, anything goes. Mostly though it is short pieces of prose with chopped up lines and a poignant personal quality that are published and praised.

Oh, or the language is so dense and mannered, that we pass it off as poetry because we think we might be too dense ourselves to “get it”, but those MFAs and teachers of MFAs must know what they are doing. I mean they are published. They have won competitions, they have books with spines.

Or it could be the shock value ranting of a drugged out or a can’t let go of one’s youth wishing they were still drugged out coffee shop poet.

Or a formalista. A poet who sticks to the rules of form with the zeal that can be sadomasochistic and they like it that way.

Each off in their own silos denigrating the rest.

I remember very clearly sitting down at lunchtime on a windy day about ten years ago with the book, The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux , local poets where I expected to get some assistance and understanding of writing a sonnet in Iambic Pentameter. I had this wild idea that I would write something for one of the innumerable Valentine’s Day sonnet competitions.

I wanted to know how to make my lines scan and how to make them sound natural and contemporary and not stilted and precious.

What I realized over the space of the next week, after Googling things and talking to Andrew was that these two poets didn’t have a clue what they were writing about. I admit I was enough of an innocent in the ways of the world of poetry as to be shocked and hold a small sense of betrayal as they are both well known writers locally and they teach.

After my heady success and enjoyment of Voice for the Actor, the class I took this last summer at the marvelous Portland Actors Conservatory, Andrew suggested that I try my hand at a class on formal poetry. So I signed up for The Attic’s class starting in September for what I understood was going to be a weekly class where different poetic forms were examined, discussed and attempted.

The book for the class was An Exaltation of Forms edited by two women firmly entrenched in the formal camp Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes.

Thinking I was supposed to, I read most of it before the class, very uneven but a good general survey of the forms we use today and some of their history.

Imagine my surprise then disappointment, frustration and anger, after having made it through three weeks of class and hours of almost unbearable workshopping that felt like being flayed alive by apprentices at the slaughter house, of already completed and clearly previously workshopped poems (including two sets of 6 linked haiku about sex by an older gay man who only came to class once in the first four weeks) I realized that I know more about formal verse than the teacher!

The teacher, who won a chapbook competition and has three books of poems with spines published by prestigious presses. She has been teaching poetry to undergrads and grad students for years.

This, this is a microcosm of how American poetry got into this mess it is in.

Rattled, I withdrew from the class last week.

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