On my last trip down to the used bookstore, I found a copy of Kenneth Koch's 1000 Avant-Garde Plays. The plays are rarely more than a page long, loosely connected, and probably impossible to stage. Two short examples:
Madagascar, why are you leaving?
I don't know.
But I do know this is two hundred fifty MILLION years ago,
And I have to go.
Lemur-filled and enormous island, where will you go?
I don't know--I think just out there in the sea--
To save my lemurs I have to go . . .
(MADAGASCAR floats out into the Indian Ocean.)
O addio, dolce Madagascar!
The Great Ball
(Chinese music. It is dusk. Two Chinese travelers, SUNG and WO, and one American, JESPERSON, are in the mountains on a long journey home. They come upon a place where many people are dancing around a huge china ball.)
The Great Ball of China!
(He tries to budge it.)
Ooof! Impossible to lift it! Even to roll it!
Who built this ball, or is it a social event?
The common people of China. It is one--and both.
(Very dark and cool Chinese night.)
And you thought poetry wasn't fun, huh? One more before I leave you. Like his fellow New York School poet, John Ashbery, Koch seems to have a thing about turning Popeye into the inspiration for modernized Greek tragedy. . .
Olive Oyl Comandeers Popeye's Gunboat and Sails Off to Attack Russia
(A gunboat. The actors speak the lines from behind big stationary cut-out card-board or wooden figures of OLIVE OYL and WIMPY.)
Okay, Wimpy! Hand over those controls! This barge is going to Russia. We're going to blow those bastards up!
Olive Oyl! What? Have you gone crazy? What will Popeye say? He is a man of peace.
Well, he has peace now. If you go down belowdecks
You'll find him, strangled, and with a knife in his belly--
A perfect "statue" of peace. He put my child in his tomb!
You too must die, Wimpy! For America!
And for the good of the democratic world! Now, OFF
(The boat veers about and a large, menacing face of OLIVE OYL fills the whole stage).
Today's link: Wallace Stevens' poem The Snowman being read into a cellphone from various locations.
In his book The Art of Poetry Writing, William Packard advocates trying out traditional verse forms like the sestina, villanelle, and the sonnet. I have written exactly one of each of these, and they aren't my best poems. The form I find myself drawn to again and again is the ghazal.
The ghazal is the traditional format of Persian and Arabic love poetry. Each stanza has two lines, and the ghazal is meant to be evocative, rather than linear. In theory, you should be able to put all the stanzas in a bag, mix them up, and pull them out one at a time, and have the resulting order make as much sense as any other.
Traditionally, the two lines of the first stanza end with the same word, and the second line of each subsequent stanza also ends with this word. You can omit this detail if you like, or keep it. It can make for a repetitive sound, but if used well, adds power to the poem.
Some of the best English ghazals are by Agha Shahid Ali, a Kashmiri-American who directed the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts. This one is from the collection The Country Without a Post Office.
The only language of loss left in the world is Arabic.
These words werer said to me in a language not Arabic.
Ancestors--you've left me a plot in the family graveyard--
Why must I look, in your eyes, for prayers in Arabic?
Majnoon, his clothes ripped, still weeps for Laila.
O, this is the madness of the desert, his crazy Arabic.
Who listens to Ishmael? Even now he cries out:
Abraham, throw away your knives, recite a psalm in Arabic.
From exile Mahmoud Darwish writes to the world:
You'll all pass between the fleeting words of Arabic.
The sky is stunned, it's become a ceiling of stone.
I tell you it must weep. So kneel, pray for rain in Arabic.
At an exhibition of miniatures, such delicate calligraphy:
Kashmiri paisleys ties into the golden hair of Arabic!
The Koran prophesied a fire of men and stones.
Well, it's all now come true, as it was said in the Arabic.
When Lorca died, they left the balconies open and saw:
his qasidas bradided, on the horizon, into knots of Arabic.
Memory is no longer confused, it has a homeland--
Says Shammas: Territorialize each confusion in a graceful Arabic.
Where there were homes in Deir Yassein, you'll see dense forests--
That village was razed. There's no sign of Arabic.
I too, O Amichai, saw the dresses of beautiful women
And everything else, just like you, in Death, Hebrew, and Arabic.
They ask me to tell them what Shahid means--
Listen: it means "The Beloved" in Persian, "witness" in Arabic.
The world is full of bad poems. Objectively bad poems. Subjectively, they may be very good, or even worse than they might appear to the objective eye. The poem lamenting lost love, as written by a twelve-year old girl, is probably objectively bad. It might have seemed good to her at the time of its writing, but will probably appear even worse than it is to her adult self. Very few people want to relive the raw enthusiasm of age twelve.
The worst poems are generally the result of a few fallacies which graduate students teaching beginners' poetry classes are hired to clear away. Don't rhyme if you have no meter, don't use abstractions when you can appeal to a concrete image, write what you know but not about: anorexia, your break-up, or your first period. Or write about them, but burn the poems. Or at least have someone you respect critique them before getting up and loudly declaiming them during open-mike night at the cafe.
For beginner's classes, the best poetry assignments are the ones that are the most annoying, because they bind you up in hoops. For instance, in my first poetry class, we were assigned to write a poem--
*only six lines long
*with each line having an odd number of syllables
*containing the first names of both your parents
*mentioning the year 1976
*also your favorite color
*also your favorite flower
Everyone hated that assignment, but the poems that resulted were all very different, and very good. It was the same assignment that a visiting professor had given to the MFA students, who also hated it, but who also got good poems out of it. It's the type of assignment that makes it virtually impossible to produce an objectively bad poem. Go ahead and try it. Even if you don't think of yourself as someone who writes poetry, you'll get something out of it. And it's better than doodling on your memo pad in class or at a meeting. Doing this makes it actually look like you're taking notes.
Today's link: Haiku the Blog. Go write a journalistic haiku. They're entertaining and hard to screw up.
My writing lately has taken a turn for the silly. I'm only just starting up again after a long hiatus, and so perhaps I'm still getting my sealegs, but part of me wonders if I'm going to turn out like one of those "outsider artists" whose art gets worse and worse as their technique gets better. They start off making blocky and yet colorful and interesting, almost Cubist paintings, and end up with delicately rendered unicorns standing amongst the posies. And I'm just 23.
I've read that Gertrude Stein was dedicated to writing each day, believing on the benefits of consistent output even if consistent inspiration wasn't available. Inspiration can't be forced, of course, but I've found that keeping a jotbook handy dramatically increases my output, if not the quality of my work. And my supposed "decrease" in quality may be just the illusion that comes from writing down everything that comes into my head: poems about elevators, kites, and umlauts. The everday object is not always graced with extraordinary dignity, nor does one always have something profound to say about it.
Periods of fervent writing alternating with off-periods, or dry spells, and probably part and parcel of writing, especially for the easily distracted. During the dry spells, one forgets the "B" poems stuffed in the backs of old notebooks, and tends to see one's past as full of creative glories, rather than as the mish-mash of good and bad writing that it was. One also gets distracted by asking whether one should have a mission--if I'm trying to improve my work, how so? If I'm trying to say something with my work as a whole, what is it? In the meantime, you're not writing.
At times like this it's best to get back to the poetry. Read it. Take a trip to the used bookstore and you'll probably come up with six or seven new books. Go to readings. Nothing makes me write more fervently than going to a reading. I'm physically incapable of doing anything at a reading except jotting ideas on the back of the program. Keep the jotbook handy, and write about umlauts, if umlauts are what the muse sends you. The good stuff will come later. Or it just may be about umlauts, and you'll have to be down with that.
Today's link--Ubuweb. There's some silly stuff here. Excuse me, avant-garde.