Thursday, July 29, 2010

Poem: I noticed the 21st is Ascension Day. Monads. Art inspired by mixed signals.

I suppose if you locate a calendar of notable days in Christendom and, with an eye to Ascension Day, discover which year it fell on the 21st; THEN imagined a list of people who might have been able to help Sarah Sarai's literary efforts (but didn't in spite of or because she tried to impress them) figure out the roman a clef-ness of this poem.

I wrote it nine or ten years ago. I was focussed on fiction, but light-heartedness and light-headedness returned me to poetry. The night before I jotted the first draft someone (I really can't remember) feverishly told me about the word "monastic." By the way, I hope you realize that "shebang" includes the concept of "whole" so there's no need to write the whole shebang because then you're really saying the whole whole shebang. Get it?

Oh yeah. Monads. Leibniz, though a contemporary of Spinoza's, didn't have the Dutchman's subtle grasp of metaphysics. Leibniz was all about "monads" which are "An indivisible, impenetrable unit of substance viewed as the basic constituent element of physical reality in the metaphysics of Leibniz" according to the

Here's a better explanation. You know the children's song "I'm a Little Teapot"? Okay then. Sing these lyrics to its tune. "I'm a little monad, short and stout. Nothing comes in and nothing goes out."

I noticed the 21st is Ascension Day.

You’re heading true north
but truth is elusive, useless
even. Incorporeal monads
have soul. Corporeal monads
got it rough. And I think therefore
divides man and beast merely.
After that it’s a free-for-all.
The roots of monasticism,
I learned last night, are in
plain sight, mono, one body
being ample for a lifetime.
In six days you will be dust
(or not), perspective being
everything and a bias. In six
days in your eyes the shebang:
a speck approaching or receding.

Happy birthday.

Sarah Sarai, pub. in FRiGG
& included in The Future Is Happy, available at
Amazon and Small Press Distribution.
image from

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Poem: Success. What's up with America's definitions of same? Or the NYT's?

Apparently the New York Times considers the actress Laura Linney a late-comer to success. Sure, that's a journalistic hook, and gives us all a chance to cheer her on. And I suppose I have to pat down my defensiveness--aren't we all successes & co.

Though it's not as if Linney decided at age 40 to finally follow her dreams. And got lucky. She began as a stage actor. Her father is one of my favorite playwrights, Romulus Linney (who also wrote the charming The Jesus Tales--a Beckett-like conversation between Peter and Jesus).

She had an ongoing role in TV's Tales of the City. She was Richard Gere's girlfriend in Primal Fear. This is big stuff, pop culture big. And that's what seems to win the NYT's, in this case, writer Frank Bruni's, respect, although for him, and most reporters (those who report), only total saturation and undying public allegiance are enough.

I see this over and over. A actor who is not one of the top ten in terms of box office (a writer who hasn't won a National Book Award, and on and others) considered to be below par.

Huh? 99.9% of Americans are, by logical or some approximation of logic, failures?

To be a success in America you have to be Julia Roberts or Denzel Washington or their ten box-office-draw equals? Which brings us to:


It takes something to make a life work, whatever your deal.
Something like willingness to be late for the guided tour yet
find your way, you’ve heard the routine, to worship what you
worship and cosset that whispered Remember you’ve been loved,
not believed or cared about for many years, but lingering in
the waxy portals of your quivering ears tipped red. And
there’s no running away unless you believe concrete obscures
the bulk of you you’ve been skedaddling from a long time,
a thing to dissect, not the skedaddling from life’s sadness,
no, try repercussions of life’s sadness arising not from desire
but some childhood omission not overcome. Your little
cheesecloth gut feasts on indigestion and futility. Say what?
It’s not cowardly to seek open arms fleshy and embracing?

Sarah Sarai, pub. in Taiga
& included in The Future Is Happy, available at
Amazon and Small Press Distribution.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My First Interview Airs Monday, July 26, 9:30-10 p.m.: Expect insight and giggling

Writer Anne Fiero interviewed me this afternoon for her radio show "Arts and Answers" which airs on the Columbia University station, WKCR 89.9 FM.

We talked and I read about ten poems, a mix of work from The Future Is Happy and newer poems.

Anne is a wonderful interviewer. Her insights into my work were lavishly interesting. She drew me out. When I'm nervous I can be terse, but her questions engaged me and I had much to say, even if I was occasionally flummoxed. Flummoxation can be charming.

Anyway, I was interested and hope you will be too.

If you aren't in New York or won't be home at 9:30 Monday night (July 26) (WKCR 89.9 on your radio dial) the interview will be archived soon thereafter at

Friday, July 23, 2010

Poem: Six, Seven Strawberries (not, alas, a Flarf)

Last night I was a Flarfee. I was a teenage Flarf. I dreamed I Flarfed in my Maidenform bra. Oh ye of little Flarf. Consider the Flarf. It neither toils nor spins (being all about Flarfing). So I was at an all-Flarf poetry reading: Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, Sharon Mesmer, Shanna Compton, Burt Reynolds, two scuba divers from the Grand Caymans, an innocent babe. Much laughing. (Flarf lays bare the human condition and tickles it.)

The poem I herein post has not a thing to do with Flarf. I talked with an NYU film student, however, Felix. We discussed Bergman. Less intelligent topics too. I promised I'd send him my Bergman poem, Smiles of a Summer Night, and doing so was reminded of my sainted ma, a Swede, who instilled in all her four daughters (although one of my sisters refused to acknowledge same) a love of the metaphysical and strawberries.

Six, Seven Strawberries

Oh to be a strawberry so smashed on a slice
of buttered bread that insides and outs are
children standing, arms wide and mouths
open in the dancing downpour. Oh to feel
sugar sprinkled. We Swedes may be dumb
like smiles glossy from a nincompoop’s
joke but try this and tell me life’s bleak:
strawberries, repeat, berries plump as
thumbs, handfuls in your father’s white
handkerchief sagging like a cot at summer
camp with five girls giggling feathers
to the air. Spread butter on white bread.
Remember both have histories, meadows
green as foliage imploding with dew and
a thousand lush dreams. Your mother
with blush pink roses flowering through
her cheeks and smoky wisps of hair
sweaty on her pulsing temples. You once
fit two more happy girls on the cot so now
more strawberries, six, seven strawberries
on the butter, strawberries rubbing
strawberries, fleshy ladies joyous despite
bellies bulges, striations life makes.

Sarah Sarai, pub. in The Smoking Poet
& included in The Future Is Happy, available at
Amazon and Small Press Distribution.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Poem: The Blood of Billy Bob Thornton, o silly culture

Update, August 4, 2011.

Just saw a newsblip.  Today is the birthday of Billy Bob Thornton. Feeling kinda sanctified?

So I thought of this poem, published a while back in Sprung Formal, from the Kansas City Art Institute.  The poem is part of a veritable triptych of movie-fancier verse, the other two poems being "The Brave One" and "In Denzel Washington's Gaze."

One reviewer of my book wrote that sometimes I rely too much on pop culture references.  Now, everything this reviewer had to say was smart, insightful and worth consideration. And I'm still not sure if I agree or not, except it is possibly the case that his comment, while not being entirely on the mark, signaled a different problem with some poems.  I suspect those poems may not be complete, fully fleshed, in and of themselves. I could just as easily rely to much on philosophy or literature references. 

Literature, nah. It's my love, was my life until I expanded, but I have never assumed everyone or anyone around me would chuckle (or cry) as they read a few lines referring to Gargantua's never ending education. Ya know? Besides, I read Gargantua and Pantagruel over forty years ago. I can't remember it accurately.

Philosophy, on the other hand, I do reference in poems, now and then, if and only if it's there. "It" being a memory of something I read in those there great books, and the memory being present because of the magic of association. When I posted "The Blood of Billy Bob Thornton" in 2010, I just shoed you the poem. Today I wrote this intro.

The Blood of Billy Bob Thornton

Elite aeries. Angels airlifted. Special ops. Lean/
hard. They get the job done. From way high up,
euphoria, oily blue wings and lo! a pulley.
Round my waist, one wing. It’s our time for visitation.
Lord, I’m glad I’m not skinny. Ma’am.
The matchstick in his lips is a Black Hawk, hovering.
Precise but mortally built. O, silly culture.
Love is a warning. I can lift you it pleads.

Don’t ignore my offer.

dedicated to Evan Washington
First published in Sprung Formal, Kansas City Art Institute; and collected in The Future Is Happy, available from SPD or Amazon.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Story: "Letters, Crones Dont Worry Of " |feminist tale for you & you & you (Fairy Tale Review)

Letters, Crones Dont Worry Of

I here relate an episode that befell me many years ago. I had lived near seventeen years, was big of rump and uncommonly meloned of bosoms surely for one with no babe suckling (as is the honor of woman). My frocks held close against my comely portions, such was the common fashion in those years as ladies so begarbed themselves in swaths of silk, as station allowed. And yet it should not matter to this tale what was my look nor how I hid my shame, as Eve never did from Adam whilst the Lord’s bounty was theirs. For I am but she the teller, one person and female amid all the wonders of man, and it is only my own mannish pride, I am supposing, which compels me in the telling.

Back when my life was fine, I never thought about the Crones. It is just the wind, I always allowed, crying to the frozen stars.

Now, in the house in which I was girled and womaned there were four, being as I transcribe. My father, Albinus, tall as a spire and learned as all ministers of universities, but his own man who hoed and planted, then retired to the elm’s shade to read his volumes, his French and his Latin and Greek. His hands were callused from work honest as sweet Mother of God’s blessed soul. His fingertips smoothed from brushing vellum in the evenings to guide his eyes from page to page.

My mother Mary was like her holiest namesake a devout woman who implored the rest of us to clutch faith within our hearts; hope was her gift as learning was my father’s. He was stern it is true but kind in soul whilst my mother, to bring a contrast, was gently sad, like a cloud that cannot stay in any one place. When, like the cloud, her sadness lifted as if had been plucked by angels on high, she would tell us that was how evil would flee those who, being hearttrue, were worthy of eternity with the heavenly saints.

Of saints what did the Crones know? My mother was not the sort of woman to know of the howling Crones.

Scotus was my brother and whilst owing to a palsied body he could never leave his bed of goosey, was dear as smallest feathered creature, fluttering to learn whatever he could in his mock terrain. Scotus and my humblest self, myself being Constance, meaningless tho it is for me to say, never wearied of reading to one another in what languages we mustered, tho I never have the gift of ease with the foreign. Scotus was the more learned of us, his time abed conspiring with his patience of which I have so little, to enable his efforts as a lettered man.
Letters were not something Crones put a thought to, not there in their darkened moor.
We were a happy family until the shadow from nowhere a geographer could name darkened our last few days together like the mist the Lord of All sent over the new land, as is written so early in the Holy Bible’s old testament of creation.

For a fifth soul was to be added to our simple family and she was a sister. Id have had a sister, younger, whose golden hair I might have plaited and whose girlish glee and plumpness would have filled my days. Yet she did not live out the passage from my mother’s belly to this vale of tears, nor did my mother keep breath in her bellows and soon from grief and to be with them both, did my father so die. And as we comforted one each to the other, Scotus and I, his health turned quick awful and he returned to dust. God has willed all to die, and those who alive are left are sad and punished.

I buried my brother in the cold earth that never is lifted like a cloud by the angels cept the one time a rock was rolled from the cave to return God to God. Even the King of Brits and His Cousins upon the Continent or in Spain are not spared from the final bed of dust and mud.

And the shrieks of the Crones confirmed what I say. The shrieks of the Crones were the shrieks of the soul.

I found no consoling thought or deed to turn light to my sorrows, tho townspeople were generous in the way we are one to another, leaving turnips, sprigs of hollyhock or horsefloppy dried to flare a flagging flame. Suitors came to court, to save me from the worst you might conceive, a woman of her own means, but I was inconsolable.
And inconsolable, began to heed the crones’ eerie laughs I heard at times from thicket and heath.

Id sit by the hearth grown cold as the Devil’s brass throne and clutch my sides and grip so strong my flesh that marks would bloom like a goblin’s heather, blue against my pale. I felt not my cutting and pinching, but was like to the Dear Women weeping at Our Lord on the cross. Distance there was between me and living, a cushion of air thick and foreboding as that before a storm descends to ravage innocent nature.

Yes, the shrieks of the Crones will flame at your ears when you weep the sadness of life on earth.

The Crones lived away from the town in a hut or a manse, it is hard to say, that made mock of the snugness of our cottage. Wind whipped through its walls yet candles didnt flicker. As I think now, Id always knew they were there, gray and great of hair bundled white and black about their shrewd faces.

Feeling I must join my family, began I to pack our trove to spare the villagers who had laid turnips at my door from needing to finish my family grief. And then I was to walk to the riverbank and hurl my meaningless form into its icicle depths and hope mercy and forgiveness would guide my spirit.

But as I packed my father’s New Testament, in the Greek which is sad so few can read, I saw the words of the Apostle who divinely spoke.
In the Beginning.
Oh the shrieks of the Crones, oh, the shrieks of the Crones, they fought with my brain and my thinking.

My black eyes held to the word meaning word, which I knew meant {and pardon if I sound like a learned person which you must know if you are this far into my tale I am not} Rationality and Reason. In the beginning was Reason?

No Reason there was to the wails of the crones but comfort perverse, o comfort perverse.

And I knew. When God the Jesu asked God the Almighty why He forsook Him, the world felt the shrieks of the Crones. The Crones were older than God, and they shrieked for Our Lord and my family.

So I will join them; I will be a Crone and I will shriek o I will shriek, I will shriek as a Crone for us all.

Sarah Sarai, pub. in Fairy Tale Review, 2009 {The Aquamarine Issue}

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Last Night's Nightmare: On My Non-existent Poetry Career (at times) and Lack of Restraint (at times)

dateline: an indeterminate time last, night's slumber. Columbia University had moved and was greener and serpentinian and what was I doing there anyway? It was near a subway and a freeway and not necessarily Columbia. I knew it was uptown though it felt eastish while Columbia is on the westside. I wondered if it was Cornell-Weill Hospital although I couldn't remember the name.

I didn't begin uptown and can't say how I got there except I'd been with a group of poets downtown, maybe downtown Long Island (hah!) and we had disbanded with the intent of rebanding. A reading was in the works and I was to be the final of three featured readers.

A simple walk was called for, crossing of a street, nothing a New Yorker can't handle. This New Yorker couldn't handle it apparently because I was mysteriously and suddenly uptown and near-desperate to get downtown. Everything had changed and there were buildings from other dreams and landscaped mazes.

Those two young women were so nice to me. Those two! They were undergraduates. Columbia, I think or maybe they were patients at Cornell. They tried to help me get to the subway which had moved and was more like a mossy racetrack in the approach. I was thinking I might get a cab but the cost is silly high and I can usually get to my destination by subway or walking. Immaterial. No subway no cab. The poetry reading was underway. I was dreaming third-person omniscient. Carol Novack, head minstrel mistress ringmaster editor publisher inventor of Mad Hatters Review was in charge of the reading at which I was not. Would they wait? Would they be angry?

Along the way which somehow I got to be, along the way, I met up with a young man with whom I had an appointment about something cool something young man-cool you now those young things. I had to cut it short and reschedule because of the reading for which I was late. The End.

Does this qualify as a nightmare? It was mine last night. Here is the correlative reality:
--I was in a reading on Thursday night, one of three featured readers. I was last. (Though totally on time.) I was told it was my best reading ever. It was a good night. (And therefore anxiety provoking?) The attendees were open mic-ers.
--After the reading, over pizza, we talked about other readings. One friend mentioned the time we read at KGB Bar and how lucky we were. I didn't tell him I'd read there another time, with the Carol Novack Mad Hatter's crew.
--About a month ago I attended the first day of a conf. on Rethinking Poetics (theory) at Columbia. I didn't not fit in and I wasn't uninterested but I wasn't inspired.
--I am feeling enormously frustrated about my poetry career. Yes. Career. And Friday morning I emailed a load of self-pity to my poor publisher about my frustration. Man do I need to learn restraint.

Blogging: Here I am laying out my nightmare, frustration, one-time map of New York City. Nightmares: The joy is they represent feelings. They are not (so far in my life) predictors. Nightmares are Rogerian, reflecting back to me what it is. It is frustrating but it may not be that way tomorrow. The other nightmare (and this rare, believe me) was cooler but I only have images and I will use those elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Poem: "Today no one is your friend." Spinoza in housing court, Descartes, an infant

As I was scheduling a housing court appointment in December 2008, a messenger (a legal messenger, akin to a jazz messenger) in a sharp blue suit, smart, really smart, black, offered to represent me. His pro-bono client hadn't showed and he was training a new lawyer.

All of a sudden I had a team of lawyers, both gorgeous, the trainee from Africa. When we walked down the hall a few weeks later I felt like Madonna flanked by her people. Just when things were dicey, Sarah Sarai had herself an entourage of snappily dressed professionals.

A mother walked up and down with her baby while I waited in the wide corridor—111 Centre Street is a boxy and merely functional building. I pulled out my notebook.

My lawyer leaned over to ask me about my plans. Plans? I conjectured on the probable niceness of the opposition; he tried to toughen me up. The title? A direct quote.

“Today no one is your friend.”

Safe for the duration in a risen-cream snuggly
against his mother’s heat down and down
one peeling corridor. An inquiry

from my lawyer: “What’s your plan?”
Start here and end when informed in Blake’s
“autumn of the seraphs” or

by a distraction of friends buzzing
near a white light bright enough for interrogation,
though the only query from

family ashy in the scattered Pacific is
“Nice to see you, did you think you’d end up here?”
Some asking of

a convert from Descartes’ distinction of finite and
infinite (
I know that I am finite; therefore the infinite

(there’s me and there’s You); to the infinite miracle
of Spinoza, who saw perfection as rational
merely thought

to surpass human comprehension
. He polished lenses
every day, an endless impermanence, and was fully lit
with joy.

Sarah Sarai, published in Flâneur Foundry, Issue II, Spring/Summer 2010 (

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wayne Koestenbaum & *Cleavage* (on the Schwarzkopf question) (Nazis, Goebbels, Elisabeth's dark past)

I'm the only person in my family who can't play an instrument. We didn't have a drawing room or many guests over, but we did have a baby grand (guaranteed--one of my father's great bargain buys) at one point in our zigzag fortunes. I felt sort of idiotic. My mother saved me with this insight when I was in my early twenties. Sarah listens to music so carefully it's as if listening were her art form. (A paraphrase but pretty close.)

She was right. I was consumed with listening to music, all of it, though she was referencing classical, especially art songs, the singing of which was her pleasure.

I have been topped and easily, however, in listening, by poet and essayist Wayne Koestenbaum. In Cleavage (Ballantine Books), a collection of essays on clothing fads, icons gay and otherwise, celebrities and celebrity interviews, books, reading, more, more, he sweeps me off my feet already ill-balanced on the musical staff.

I write of only one beautiful and reflective essay, "Listening to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf." I first heard recordings of soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing lieder at my German friend Alois' in San Francisco. Alois loved Bach especially, but no lover of music classical can bypass art songs. They are the Chekhov short stories, the Indian miniatures, the small perfect gems of music. Alois grew up gay (Catholic) in Nazi Germany, and was on his own from age 13 in wartime Europe. He scoffed at Schwarzkopf, calling her Shriek-koff, though he owned many of her records.

At age 18, I was a sponge. If Alois said, it was true. And compared to Anna Moffo or Elly Ameling or Maria Callas there is something not entirely pleasant about her singing, and, as Koestenbaum points out, she has a covered voice--too controlled.

What I didn't know about was her German childhood. Her young talent was nurtured by the Nazis. She wasn't necessarily a "hater," but she was a favorite of Goebbels--something she had to contend with ever after, in the public eye. The darkness is in her singing.

This essay becomes quickly a chronicle--how Koestenbaum, a German Jew born in the U.S., integrated the totality of Schwartzkopf into, into what--his affection and dislike; his soul and Satan's bum. Like that. Here is his description of the voice and phenomenon of Schwarzkopf.

I am preoccupied with the Schwarzkopf question only because her voice has presented me with an ambiguity ever since I first heard her sing the Verdi Requiem in the 1964 Giuliani recording. Her voice, with its sublimely projected vowels, and its air of a world that will never be marred or crimped or diminished, asks me whether I live fully and honestly enough, and whether I have too quickly shut the door on lost experience. Her voice asks whether I have paid attention, whether I have been sloppy, whether I have obeyed the score, and whether I have served the music, even if I can't guess what the music means. Her voice demands that I make a stricter reckoning of my own life and see if it measures up. Her voice shames me into wishing I were cleaner, sweeter, and more concise.

That's good listening.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Susan Tammany's brilliant art on display at Druid's, N.Y.C.

REFLECTIONS: An Exhibition of Paintings by Susan Tammany

736 Tenth Avenue (between 50 & 51 Streets)
New York City
through July 31, 2010

This reception and tra la la fete is : WEDNESDAY, JULY 14, 7 p.m. to whenever.

Susan Tammany took the sly, sexy, girlie blue suede shoes-in-Central Park photograph on the cover of my book, The Future Is Happy. She is a painter of breathtaking quality, her canvases rich with color and insight, and this show is much deserved. If you can't make it on Wednesday, stop in another time. Druid's, in Hell's Kitchen, has good food and a good bar. "Reflections" promises superb art.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Wherein fiction is completed and more fiction appears

A few months ago I declared two novellas I'd been working on for years, years I say!, done. Finished. The ended.

I folded each into my short story collection which bulked it up so I had two story collections, each with one of the novellas. It was such a good feeling to be finished and to have two collections to submit. I don't enter poetry book contests but I will try short story collection contests. How else will I publish a collection? I don't know. I just don't. If you do, tell me.

Here's the thing. Before I declared the novellas (From the One Side of Heaven and A Vote for Ross Perot) done, I had a sense that fiction was over for me. I wasn't interested in generating anything new and nothing new was coming to me.

No sooner were the two collections in the mail than I came across a beginning of a draft of a story from 1995, when I still lived in Seattle. It had been hiding from me. It had pricked its finger on a spindle and was waiting for me to mail the two collections, already. I liked the story's tone. I was excited about the characters who were opinionated, odd and interesting.

I also began writing a new story. Just like that. And (further) a third story. (This one I'm not so sure about, but...)

That said, I'm not feeling confident, not at all. The little voice, that doubting nagging voice, is strong these days. Luckily I'm too stubborn and too curious about how I'll end the stories to quit.

Luckily (redux) I understand much more about writing now than I did when I started. I know shortcuts and conveniences, and I know to get to the emotional heart of a character. I'm not sure I knew that years ago. I was working on art years ago, not self-consciously or in a precious way. (We don't like precious.) My perspective was of me as artisan designing a mosaic, one of many, for the emperor. It had to be perfect. It never was. That's why it took so long.

For some reason I am called on here to document my victory--finishing the novellas--and my fear of being a not-good writer. Consider both documented. The end.

image from:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Psychic networking: who needs a body? Facebook & friendship

We almost don't need bodies to know each other. We don't need "in-person" to feel transecting rings of sameness, strength and history.

On the 4th I wrote a status update on the great social networking timesuck (and joy) Facebook: Sarah Sarai bottles rockets.

Appropriate for the day, done, move on, get out, live your life, Sarah Sarai. Which I did. While walking to the life I was living that day a thought came to me, Why doesn't ** comment on that update?

** is a poet I've never met. ** is a poet with any number of poety accomplishments under her belt——book and university professor, to name two. I'd gotten to know a few FB poets through emails of life history, resentments, lusts, insights, but not **.

Still——through comments and photographs I've intuited a sense of the person and of comradeship {and this was before I read her work}.

Not long ago, a poet with whom I have emailed back and forth nailed me in terms of a specific commonality. We might not have signed on for this childhood happening——but now were sisters. Deep intuition was something I associated with friends and family——they may be thousands of miles away but I often get a sense, sometimes scarily specific, of what's happening.

That intuitive intersection—of piecing together the clues and spirit—is clearly part of my Internet repertoire. I noticed it through listservs I signed onto four or five years ago——new friends based on similar perspectives and born out in meeting. I suppose as a reader I could say, Duh. I've been responding to the written word since Beatrix Potter, but "authors" have a persona. Online friends most often don't.

When I got home the night of the fiery 4th I saw ** had commented on me as one who bottles rockets. Some small connection builds.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A little more on Helen Vendler, CLC, and then I'm over it

I drank twenty ounces of water today in one slurp after a walk to the library in the 100-degree weather. I needed City air conditioning to bolster my research on Helen Vendler, Controversial Literary Critic.

Yesterday I posed a question concerning artists and God's ear--do we poets have a divine Talleyrand helping open diplomatic channels or special angels trumpeting our needs? Vendler thinks not.

Having read my post, two poets, socially networked, duked it out. Female-pro-Vendler; male-against. Leigh was enthusiastic about Ms. Vendler's appreciation of prosody; Jason found her limited. "Conservative hack" is what he wrote.

I'd wondered if Ms. Vendler hadn't been cowed by the academy, given the entrenched maleness of the Ivies in the late forties and early fifties. I found an interview on an NEH site.

Yes, a male academic told her point blank she wasn't welcome in Harvard graduate studies. Her childhood was high culture, no surprise, and I didn't get the feeling she ever rebelled--not against the culture, but the psychic knee jerk against mother and father and Mother and Father. She was raised Catholic. No word on her husband or son.

For whatever reasons, she accepted the received form of Who Is Worthwhile in Contemporary Literature. It's as though she chose to review only Oscar nominees instead of going risky and searching out art house. That is not necessarily her fault. She didn't have a teacher to show her the freaky.

She's no Elaine Showalter, über feminist, when it comes to daring. I mentally note Read More Showalter. A freshman comp. class I taught a few years ago was delighted with Showalter's essay on homoeroticism in Jekyll/Hyde.

I don't know that Vendler claims to be more than she is, well read and interested in poetry. She is absolutely a pioneer and each generation of freaky women should be grateful. I know I am.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Helen Vendler, the Godhead, how connected ARE poets

Aren't poets even a little closer to the Godhead than civilians? Freud's famous "Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me" which in my life translates to--Where I go, there I am--has become a truism. The poet as prophet. I love that idea. It's aloe on my extreme sensitivity. Helen Vendler, writing of Charles Simic ("A World of Foreboding" in Soul Says), not Freud, disagrees.

"I am wary of vaguely mystical claims made for poetry and the other arts--as wary as I am of ethical claims and civic claims, and of truth claims."

Okay. That serves as a refutation of the "moral" majority or ugly right-wing claims of closeness to God (as if bigots and haters are close to any form of divinity). She further writes, "Poems, like all human fabrications from straw huts to theology, are made to our measure and by our measure, and are not above or beyond us."

I'm not going to refute her with claims of channeling or a sure insight into God's/Goddess's hand touching Yeats' brow. So very much goes into genius, as into good fortune. There has to be some opportunity; or or or: wealthy parents, a patron, a good school system, a kindly neighbor with a huge library or paints to lend out, an apprenticeship with a master artist, receptiveness, historical timing, race-class-gender good fortune, nature, nurture. (Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers is a book-length description of fate, although he doesn't use that word.)

More Vendler: "Artists make us see many aspects of being, but none of them seem either spectral or metaphysical, nor do I feel admitted to a form of 'clairvoyance,' in the usual occult sense of the word."

Sometimes, when I'm in a poem of my own, I find myself trying to describe a sense of "presence," a sureness I have at least sometimes, and sometimes have to have to continue, of connection. When I posted (here) my poem "Incorporeal" (pub. in I explained why I put "divine" in lower case. In my one and only poetry workshop, the Pulitzer-prize winning poet opened my little fifteen minutes of attention with a joke--I thought you meant the 300-pound transsexual--and waited for his laugh; then spent the rest of my time sheepishly asking about references. I was too terrified to use upper case; that kind of comment reverberates.

My point in the above, other than ax-grinding which grinds me down more than anyone else, is that even a poet's use of divine-y words can be called into question. Back to Vendler. I'm not sure why a critic needs to explain to an audience of poets and deep readers her belief that poets aren't Supremely Keyed-in, just fabricators, though I appreciate many of her insights, such as writing that James Schuyler is a pastoral albeit urban poet.

I admire her to no end, mind you. A woman born in 1933 excelling in academia which then was--and I apologize for the truth--male, male-centered? It could be that very interchange, struggle . . . influenced her perspective. She made herself what she is.

She's not keyed-in, however. She is insightful.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

George Washington's favorite poet [could be] Sappho

I mean, why not. He was a nice guy and smart enough. George Washington was brave and loved his wife, whatever it is love means. I sense he could have been outre enough to have liked Sappho's delicious verse. Soldiering and Presidenting took time and energy so I don't expect too much from Father Washington, but today is the 4th of July, and I am grateful for the freedom to post whoever I want.

By the way. Boo! to Pope Gregory and other 3rd Century book-burning Byzantines. Do. Not. Burn. Books. Just don't. Don't be afraid of "pagans" or ideas or women or poetry. Free yourself. I work at it every day and so can Pope Gregory and you too, my beloved reader.

Here's the woman, tr. by Lattimore. I lifted this off

The Anactoria Poem

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy--land across the water.
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my
eyes than Lydia's chariots in all their glory
armored for battle.


Friday, July 2, 2010

From pen to word processor: bang! bang! poetry! (& more on Schuyler)

On Wednesday I wrote a first draft of a poem directly on my computer, in Word. Scratch that. I wrote a draft of two different poems. On Thursday I deleted the first poem which I saw as a warm up.

Warm-up poems--and stories--are, for me, always the same quick flow of autobiography that goes nowhere. I am initially driven and soon bored.

But the second poem? I'm hanging onto it. I'd just read The Morning of the Poem by James Schuyler. I read the collection, but reread the title poem. Published in 1976 if moves through time, memory, geography, the body, the concrete detail.

I read repeatedly to get down the rhythm and sounds and because I had to. It's a wonderful book with a siren call.

That poem was the engine for me to change my method of writing poetry. Previously I wrote every first draft in longhand. No exceptions. I had my reasons, which were perhaps effete and ultimately grounded in fear. If it ain't broke and all that.

But it was broke. My poetry of late hasn't been poetic. I've been unhappy, relieved to have gotten one book out and figuring that just might be it for me. Then Schuyler mentioned typing his poems. It sounded to me like he might be typing first drafts. I haven't delved into his life although there is probably a fair amount of information available.

Motivated by an if-Schuyler-can-do-it-so-can-I impulse I did it. It wasn't just the typewriter. Morning moves across the page like music, classical, jazz, pop. I respond to music.

My new poem is in its infancy. The siren song of rewrites is beguiling. I'm not going to stop buying my 8-1/4 x 6-7/8 pads. Every new purse must still accommodate same. But my arsenal (bang! bang! poetry) has expanded.

image from

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Roget, his big list, a bio concisely related (if I do say so)

Roget's last name wasn't Thesaurus, which means treasury or storehouse in Gk. and Latin. He, Peter Mark Roget, was a Huguenot whose family moved to London. His father died, his mother was smothering. Moms!

Roget studied in Edinburgh and became a doctor. Good work. Then he invented a logarithm or something on which the slide rule is based. Smart fellow. Before then he was hired to be teacher to a young man on his grand tour of the continent. The grand tour ended in 1803 when Napoleon started throwing English people in jail. The author Madame de Staël told Roget to skedaddle. An adventure.

The man was shy. He kept word lists. Big surprise. Not bad looking, he was going to marry a lively, pretty woman who was his intellectual equal but opted for a quieter type who was no challenge; to whom he could explain the world. Grrrrrrr. He published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition late in life. That's about it.

I know the above because I just skimmed through a poorly written, overly long and unexciting biography, concisely related above. I could have been bored because I was reading a book about a man famous for making lists. But no. The writing was mediocre and there was no drama in the narrative. So you don't have to bother with The Man Who Made Lists (as opposed to that far better book {{{not on the same subject but about books of codified words}}} by Simon Wincester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, though that book's ending is gruesome).

Better to read your Thesaurus.

p.s. Happy July.

The picture is from If, however, you want more background on the slide rule (you might) go here: for The Oughtred Society, dedicated to the preservation and history of slide rules and other calculating instruments.