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Slut

By Dale M. Kushner

Poetics

rizzoRemember Rizzo from the movie Grease? The indomitable Stockard Channing played a smoldering hottie who rivals the perky Olivia Newton-John. We recognize the split: Betty Rizzo struts her T & A. Wholesome Sandy flaunts perfect teeth.

Back in the day Rizzo was called a slut, a word that even sounds dirty. Leap forward thirty-five years and we’d be her cheering squad. Sure, Rizzo boasted a fine rack and leaned toward the uncouth, but like today’s female protagonists, she had moxie and smarts. Think: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. Think: Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games. Think: Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. These characters have more in common with the brazen dames immortalized by Crawford, Stanwyck, and Davis than they do with the kittenish Newton-John. Fifty years ago, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan inspired women to stash their aprons next to their brooms and see what else the world offered. How would the prophetic Betty have reacted to what Elizabeth Hand calls the new Femininjas?

Philip Larkin’s noted poem This Be the Verse harpoons familial sanctity.

 

“Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself.”

 

Not solely an angry poem, This Be the Verse is a recalcitrant force. In reality, Larkin’s fucked up benefaction is as much a sly smirk as it is contemptuous memorial. Along the lines of that anonymous dictum, it takes one to know one.

What Larkin has been to the anti-familial, John Tottenham strives to be for the anti-marriage set. Tottenham’s second poetic issue is Antiepithalamia and other Poems of Regret and Resentment, from Penny-Ante Editions. The epithalamia the title sets itself against is an obscurity and so is defined on the back- epi-tha-la-mium n., pl. –miums or mia: A song or poem in honor of a bride and bridegroom. Right from the start, the book winks at its reader, for it is a screwed up invention about what it perceives as a screwed up invention. As the first line of the book’s first Antiepithalmium stresses “At last their smugness is united.” Quite.

You’ve surely seen all the fanfare on TNB lately about The Beautiful Anthology (TNB Books, June 2012), a collection of essays, stories and some poetry on the topic of beauty. Thanks to the tireless efforts of editor Elizabeth Collins the book has emerged as a very beautiful physical object full of diverse, witty, engaging pieces. There has already been a fair bit written about the essays in this volume, but given my whole-hearted insistence that poetry is the queen of all forms of writing, I decided a look at Erato’s hand on the book is in order.

From an obituary in the New York Times:

For all her verbal prowess, for all her prolific output, Ms. Rich retained a dexterous command of the plain, pithy utterance. In a 1984 speech she summed up her reason for writing — and, by loud unspoken implication, her reason for being — in just seven words.

What she and her sisters-in-arms were fighting to achieve, she said, was simply this: “the creation of a society without domination.”

Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
~ Mark Twain

 

The debate regarding a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry is getting really old. Those of us who care about the art of poetry are quite aware of each side’s stance—on the one hand poetry is treated as a calling (Anti-MFA; the romanticism of outsiders who lead reckless lifestyles and who place the judgment of a “successful career” as a poet into the hands of posterity), on the other hand poetry is treated as a career (Pro-MFA; careerism, wherein schooled poets explicitly strategize with other schooled poets, publishing each other’s poems and books in order to stay on track to tenure and/or to maintain a recognizable status of “success”). Without a doubt, the Pro-MFA side is the sovereign of literary publications and the publishing system. It is for this reason that the Anti-MFA side comes off as the aggressor in this debate; the Pro-MFA side deflecting its opponents’ jabs with an aloof air of boredom, or at times with an agitated sense of exasperation. The bottom line is that this debate, this nonsense, must be brought to closure. And so, please bear with me as I rehash a few issues here in a swift attempt to finally, and thankfully, put an end to the MFA debate.

In summer of 2009, in a comment on my own piece, “Only one poem for the implosion of Capital”, I invoked Skelton for his leadership bringing female grace upon my pen.

 

Refresshyng myndys the Aprell shoure of rayne;
Condute of comforte, and well most souerayne;
Herber enverduryd, contynuall fressh and grene;
Of lusty somer the passyng goodly quene;

(Refreshing minds the April shower of rain;
Conduit of comfort, and well most sovereign;
Herber enverdured, continual fresh and green;    “Herber enverdured”: herb garden covered in greenery
Of lusty summer the passing goodly queen;)

 

Last year was a pretty good one for writing, but there must have been a superior, secondary, annual echo, because about a month ago, the goodly passing queen halted, pulled up a chair, and flourished a Midsummer birch wand.  Someone must have whispered my need in her ear.

I was born in Burlington, Vermont in 1948. Though I did not appreciate it at the time, I received a greater and more appealing exposure to books and poetry than most kids get. My mother was a nurse, and my father was a teacher; and my mother regularly read aloud to me and my two siblings (my younger brother Bradley and my younger sister Martha), starting well before we reached school age. The poems my mother read included Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” selections from Mother Goose, Eugene Field’s “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses, and Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat.

In addition to being fortunate in drawing the open-minded and literate family I did, I was lucky in the state and city of my birth. When I was growing up, Robert Frost was still living for much of the year in Ripton, which is just off Route 7 about 35 miles south of Burlington. He was our “local” poet and in 1961 was officially made Laureate of Vermont. By the fourth or fifth grade our teachers had introduced us to his work. I was particularly enchanted by the little Morgan colt in “The Runaway” and by the “miniature thunder” his hooves make as he dashes about the meadow, frightened by his first experience of a snowstorm. And beginning at the age twelve or thirteen, I attended the productions of a fine summer Shakespeare festival at the University of Vermont (which sits on a hill overlooking Burlington and Lake Champlain), with the result that I had seen or read most of Shakespeare’s major plays, and some of his interesting lesser ones, by the time I graduated from high school.

Though always a reader, I probably would have not become a poet had I not gone to college at Stanford. When I arrived, I discovered and took classes from a group of terrific young writer-teachers in the English Department. This community had been fostered by, and reflected the enduring influence of, two longstanding members of the faculty, the poet Yvor Winters (who had recently retired and who sadly died of cancer not long after) and the novelist Wallace Stegner. Moreover, nearby San Francisco was center of the Beat Movement. In this environment, it was perhaps inevitable that a student like myself, who loved books, would be drawn more deeply into literature and would try his hand at verse. After receiving my B. A. from Stanford in 1970, I attended Brandeis University for graduate study with the wonderful epigrammatic poet and Renaissance scholar, J. V. Cunningham, eventually writing under his direction a doctoral thesis on the history of detective fiction.

My first book of poems, Uncertainties and Rest, appeared in 1979. Sapphics against Anger and Other Poems followed in 1986. (In 1995, these were reprinted in a joint volume, Sapphics and Uncertainties.) More recent collections include The Color Wheel (1994) and Toward the Winter Solstice (2006). I have also edited The Poems of J.V. Cunningham (1997) and have published two books of criticism: Missing Measures (1990) and All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing (1999). The first of these examines the revolt against meter in modern poetry and deals with poetics and literary history; the second offers a more practical, nuts-and-bolts discussion of meter and versification.

To close on a personal note, my wife Victoria and I have been married for 31 years and divide our time between Los Angeles and New York City. A librarian and art historian, she is the Brooke Russell Astor Director of Collections Strategy for the New York Public Library, and I’m a professor of English at California State University, Los Angeles, where I also direct the school’s Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.


Editor’s note:  Mr. Steele, a poet and critic I’ve long admired, is this week’s poetry feature.  He submitted an autobiography for us which was too long to use in the template, but notable enough for its own piece.

Please see also his poem “Pastoral at Rock Point” and his self-interview.

—Uche Ogbuji.

In the maiden voyage of this column, Poetry for the Nervous, Vol 1, I led with the principle that what you love, what strikes you, what moves you in poetry is what matters.  Critics do not matter.  The judgments of others do not matter.  Poetry is yours to dispose as your heart dictates.  If your teachers or friends impose upon you some poem or poet they champion, and you just don’t get it, there is no need to think yourself stupid or inadequate, nor to give up on poetry as a whole.  You will find what you love eventually, because poetry in its essence is as deep within us as our desire to communicate.

From an appeal towards what you love, I’ll work into something a bit less romantic.  I think the best poetry is also useful.  That’s a dangerous word in the world of art, wrapped up as it is in the most ancient debates about aesthetics and utility, but I’m always ready to argue that gallery art is great, but does it really beat, say, a well crafted chair that is beautiful to behold, and is also very comfortable for sitting?  Do any human efforts match the art of nature, for whom, especially if you are a cosmologist, utility is the most fundamental quantity?

In the interests of candor, I should preface this review by stating that Nancy White was a beloved and formative teacher of mine when I was a student in the 1990s at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. It was in her class that it first seemed possible to make a place for oneself in the world through the written word. Nancy and I reestablished contact only a few months ago and I was sorry to hear of the difficulties she had endured in the time that had passed, but it would be no exaggeration to say that from the compost of misfortune grew an amazing thing: a book of poems called “Detour.”

The poem “Woven and Sewn” opens this collection with a surprising and arresting tough-love invocation: “You are no virgin listen. You must stop here.” This voice is both contemporary and timeless, assured and experienced, with its second person address aimed as much at the poet herself as to the reader. This dialogue exhorts us to take heed, to “Sit down,” for there are important things to be read.

White’s voice here sets the tone for the rest of the collection in which virtually every poem is spoken in the second person, an affect that results in an immediate, intense, and sustained identification between reader and poet. The use of the second person in place of the poetic “I” serves to mediate the potential of a solipsistic or journal-entry quality in such an introspective and domestic narrative. Instead, White transcends the confessional and succeeds in gathering and inviting a sense of the universal, of reciprocal alterity; a sense of the recognition of the other that is oneself.

As is suggested by the circuitous implication of the title, the narrative of “Detour” follows a non-linear path that mirrors that of the psychoanalytic process. The structure of the book, divided into three parts – “Smoke,” “Solid,” and “No Sequel” – moves from the cataclysmic events leading to divorce to an unsentimental review of childhood where a revised understanding and reclamation of the self takes place before returning to a present that readdresses what has come to pass on different and farther-seeing terms. Based perhaps on the credence that the only way out is through, “Detour” describes a kind of map of the internal processes necessary in the evolution of the psyche after your world has been shattered and ultimately answers the question: How do we express personal transformation in poetic terms?

“Poetry is a form of courage” which is the “ability to do something that frightens one, for one’s choices can’t be about being afraid,” says Joan Retallack. Similarly, Charles Bernstein speaks of an “aversive poetics” in which “mental fright” is the “place where poetry begins.” We hear this starting point of fear in “Propeller” where:

       you don’t know don’t know
       because all of this so far is mostly made of fear

As with “Propeller,” in many of the poems, the rawness of emotion is undercut by an adherence to and innovation of form. Replete with fresh turns of phrase, syntax, and construction, they showcase a delight in words and a playfulness of language, music, and line. There is also strong evidence of a sharp wit and an ironic, self-deprecating sense of humor.

“Thirst,” “Honest,” The Drinkers,” “Your Life Has Stood,” “Look Up,” “Tide Going Out,” “You Remember How a Voice,” “Your Mother Starts Talking,” “Ceremony for Coming of Age,” and “After Detour,” for example, are full of surprising linebreaks and/or parenthetical clauses that create a sometimes discordant, sometimes syncopated visual and musical experience that mirrors the interjections of the mind when one’s thoughts become at once repetitive and scattered.

In “Reflection in a Hard Surface,” these techniques describe the devastating guilt of an imagined complicity in one’s own betrayal, of not knowing better, of expecting to have known better:

                     not you (no one) he
        lied to you them us her and the you you
       thought you
       were isn’t now so who
       listened who ate
       the bait who let it into the
       ear like a drop of warm oil did it ease
       something there where we had hardened did we
       store his lie down in red coils did the hue of our
listening reach for him to tell it (the story) again (the story)
welcome and annihilating did we assist did we assist weren’t we there

“Grasslands,” bearing echoes of e.e. cummings, but with a sharper edge of melancholy, knowingness, and reflectiveness, demonstrates how White’s voice is more modernist than postmodern. The use here of the phatic function, or verse equivalence, with its disruption of non-verbal utterance, is at once amused, musing, and deathly serious:

       you force the car
       fast on the oiled road
       narrowing like love become

       useful but you
       are fruitful pining
       magic as a frying pan

       see how
       explanations pow
       smear harden on the windshield

In such poems as “Beauty,” however, we glimpse a more unadulterated rawness that is nonetheless controlled by the freshness and rigor of its form. Neither shying away from the hard facts, nor dwelling on the pain of them, “Beauty” demonstrates a trust in the reader that allows for the revelation of vulnerability. The vulnerability here lies in the specificities, just as the devil is in the details, and it is through the microscope of such detail that the simultaneity of the particular and the universal in such a loss is conveyed:

       … his neck smelling of
       narcissus his lack of hangnails his laugh like
       a landmine such intention

       of goodness his appearance golden his
       tantrums his silence frozen after fine sex
              cordial after bad his beauty his

       beauty his darkness is love

In “Summer,” White’s sense of irony and humor, her tendency to not take herself too seriously emerges and yet it is not lost on the reader that what is happening here is deeply serious as well as utterly human. Describing how one grows accustomed to certain habits of emotion, it begins with a meditation on the sadness of premature endings:

       Today the sun is out which is sad.
              Trees sad when rustling and when still.
              Leaves that drop in July. When the lilies
                     open their widest, it is sad to be
                     alone in the house…

The poem builds to reveal that:

       … It is sad that he slept
       with those women, some of whom you
       also fed at that table. Discussing it,
              civilized, was sad, and the climb up
                     again and again to start over…

And later, White writes:

       You think, when you feel it return,
              how loyal sadness is, how accustomed you are,
                     spreading its folds about you.

This ladylike image of sadness as a skirt spread around you, its politeness and primness, not only convey the awareness that such habits of thought are possible to change, but it does so with White’s keen, wry sense of humor lurking beneath.

And in “Your Father, Your Son,” White attempts to debunk gendered socializations as she tries to claim for herself “the fine foul language of his big male freedom,” to redress the dominance of maleness in pursuit of a big female freedom despite fears and expectations.

What is so appealing here goes beyond a mastery of craft and technique to something more essential: present in “Detour” is a sincere argument in favor of exploring the subjectivity of personhood that speaks to the importance of the evolution of a singular unique self. The elucidation of this painfully hard-won process in the poetry of “Detour” becomes an act of courage, compassion, and feminism.

White has a gift for putting disparate things next to one another in a kind of ontological plurality – different modes of language and different modes of abstraction. But the stylistic diversity is held together by an embodied, intensely physical and sensual urgency where each emotion is fully rendered and felt. It is this profound humanness and humanity that allow for the strong sense of satisfaction and poetic concretion with which “Detour” leaves the reader.

To that end, we see in the final chapter, as in “They Ask You About Middle Age,” the growth on an assertive hopefulness in the idea of harvest and the ripeness of personal maturity:

       Soft, barely believable mornings (and other sweet
fruits) do grow.

And the final poem, “Below the Lifeboat” shows us what can happen after going through the process, the promise of becoming “unified” “after detour.”

I am crazy about poetry. Absolutely besotted. Poetry has helped me though the darkest days I’ve endured; it’s calmed me down during minor surgeries; it’s helped me remember experiences I never want to lose to the horizon; and it’s helped me put out of my mind destructive vexations.  Poetry is so utterly a part of my life, my everyday, that I am still astonished when I run into people who dislike poetry, who distrust poetry, who even fear poetry.  As any lover prickles in unrest unless everyone else acknowledges the magnificence of their beloved, I find myself wanting to draw my friends, my family, my colleagues into my inductive field of admiration.

This column is for those who are nervous about poetry, those who have had a nervous breakdown from the effects of poetry stuffed down their gullets by bad teachers. For those who have felt belittled or just bewildered by what they have been cajoled to admire, under pain of being called Philistines.  For those who have found their intelligence insulted by shallow irrelevance.  This column is not about educating you, but rather sharing delights with you, with the full understanding that you will like some of it, and dislike some of it, and that, that’s OK.  I’ll present different ideas and themes regarding poetry each time, and I’ll always have a poem or two to share, and I hope I can put you in the mood to share alike. To tell me why the poems I pick work for you, or why they do not.  To tell me in general why you love or hate poetry.  Each column is just a touchstone for discussion. I want to hear about your experiences with poetry, or lack of same, whether good or bad, satisfying or enervating.

I’ve often heard it said that “there is no such thing as a communist Igbo”, a reference to our intense mercantile culture. Somewhat like stereotype of Lebanese, we’ve tended to structure our very existence around what we can sell, and in this 419 age, what we can con out of others. Ok, before I get an earful, that’s just a handful of petty thug “areaboy” “yahoozees”, but I digress.

Sometimes in my disgust for the roaring Supercapitalism that exploded out of Reaganomics, and Clinton’s deregulation of capital markets, I’ve taken comfort in the adage about my birthright to capitalism. They got be the ones fucking it up because my market gods (led by the Goddess Ahianjoku) don’t make no mistakes. And yes, my market gods had about enough, and all you have to to is check the news for the overdue actuarial apocalypse. The derivatives deluge. Head for the arks! Or never mind, it’s not really that bad.

The public radio show Marketplace put out a call for poems with an economic theme for April (so-called “National Poetry Month”). But as April winds up, 6 months deep into the implosion of global capital, the one poem seems painfully obvious. It’s well enough known, but I believe it’s  never been well enough understood.

“Canto XLV” (“With Usura”) — Ezra Pound

The inaugural poem by Elizabeth Alexander had one of the greatest audiences for poetry in the past 16 years or so, ever since Maya Angelou in 1993.  It seeped over its huge audience just yesterday.  Do you remember any of it?  How about the opening?

“Praise song for the day.”

How about the opening two words?  These were repeated several times in the poem as an unstructured refrain.  I wonder if you remembered any of it, even those two leading words, by the time John Roberts misremembered the thirty-five words of the constitution’s presidential oath.  If you didn’t, does it make you question the entire point of the inaugural poem?