Saturday, July 30, 2011

What are poets concerned about?

They take up their sharpest pen to battle phrases that are over-used and thus we read with half our attention. They guard against their own excesses, whether they be phrases that sound too pretty, draw too much attention to themselves, or are too perfect. They are wary of invention without discovery, and seek always to differentiate.

They struggle to go beyond their own bound definitions, to destroy their own habitual modes of thinking and writing. They like to live with the questions awhile.

They wrestle with the music of language, and the music of their own breath. They work with light and shadow, outside and inside, and they know in whose poets' shadows they walk, following the light. They have muses from above or below, angels or demons, handing them either gift or curse.

They think about the line, about the sentence. They think about the space, the pauses in between words and breaths. They excavate meaning, brushing away dirt and rocks, and recreate from the bones some richer language. They make words earn their keep. Or resurrect them from near-death.

They dance, allude and elude. They like leaping. They pay attention; they pay and they pay. They are involved in making, in moving, in transforming. And they take up their responsibilities like a bagful of rocks, heaving it up on their shoulders as they walk. They like taking walks.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Homophonic Translation

(abridged, p. 126-128)
by Charles Bernstein

Take a poem, or part of a poem, in a foreign language and translate it word for word according to what it sounds like in English. Try this with a language you know and then with one you don't know. Don't use a dictionary, just rely on what your ears hear and go from there.

Homophonic means "same sound": try to stick as close as possible to what each word sounds like in the original when thinking of an equivalent-sounding word in English. Use slang and other nonstandard English words. Let the syntax take care of itself.

This exercise works differently for languages that share many cognates with English--such as French, Spanish, and Italian--than it does for languages that do not have much in common with English. Experimenting with Oriental, Slavic, or Native American languages is likely to produce a wilder range of possibilities.

Pamela Alexander comments: While the results may or may not be useful as they stand, they may provide happy accidents, associational gems, or a tonal structure you can use to envision a poem of your own. It encourages strangeness that arises from the experience of being lost in the foreign land of the incomprehensible page, that land where meaning has to be invented.

Mixed-up: A love poem

The sapling cedes to the wind and rain, thought the roots hold,
made of deeper yearning than what clasps our feet to this earth.
I cling to you in the same way, though I'd never say it aloud.
You ensnare me with joy, and I wrap my arms around the oak
feeling each booming vein.

Words always fail; from tower to inlet, everything I utter disappear:
sounds so elusive, they pass from mind to mind like a shared dream.
They touch lightly, a mere notion's delicate filaments dancing
in a cupped hand. I wish I could close this fist and own it,
but it lives on the wind.

Love may never reach your ears, but it passes from hand to hand,
a coin cycling through the market on a good day. You aimed it right.
But I'm the one juggling the apple on my head, waiting to be saved.

I am the ballast to your wave.
Unrevised first draft of a poem using words from a crossword puzzle I solved last week. I know little of love to write a good love poem, but well, it doesn't mean I don't feel like this.

Friday, July 15, 2011


from Derek Walcott's Midsummer

Raw ocher sea cliffs in the slanting afternoon,
at the bursting end of Balandra, the dry beach's end,
that a shadow's dial wipes out of sight and mind.
White sanderlings race the withdrawing surf to pick,
with wink-quick stabs, shellfish between the pebbles
ignoring the horizon where a sail goes out
like the love of Prospero for his island kingdom.
A grape leaf shields the sun with veined, orange hand,
but its wick blows out, and the sanderlings are gone.
Go, light, make weightless the burden of our thought,
let our misfortune have no need for magic,
be untranslatable in verse or prose.
Let us darken like stones that have never frowned or known
the need for art or medicine, for Prospero's
snake-knotted staff, or sea-bewildering stick;
erase these ciphers of birds' prints on sand.
Proportion benedict us, as in fables,
that in life's last third, its movements, we accept the
measurements of our acts from one to three,
and boarding this craft, pull till a dark wind
rolls this pen on a desktop, a broken oar, a scepter
swayed by the surf, the scansion of the sea.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Important Excitements

Writing groups of related poems (abridged, p. 160-3)
by Maggie Anderson

Write a group of poems related to each other in form, in content, or both. Start by writing a brief proposal of what you intend to do in advance and then stick with it. The number of poems you write can vary. (5-12)

Because this exercise requires that you work out your concerns through more than one poem, it widens the pallet. When your usual poetic strategies have been used up, you may find that the three or four poems you still have to write will surprise you as they come out of boredom, sheer tenacity, nerve, or some hidden pocket in the imagination that you didn't even know you had.

A few good lines or gestures can be a rather thin repertoire. Writing a group of related poems asks that you think, consciously and in advance, about what you are "importantly" concerned with in your poems, not just line by line or poem by poem, but over the whole of your work. It asks that you seriously consider your work as a continuing project that engages you, with the fullest range of options, over a period of time.