Notes toward a Curriculum
Enrollment, Accreditation and Affiliation
Appendix: Some relevant poems
The dream of founding a poetic academy has been with me in one form or other since 1971, when I became convinced that poetry could be practiced in a more significant and constructive way than is occurring now, to the best of my knowledge.
“Academy” is intended to mean both an institution of learning, and an association of poets resolved to reassert the place of poetry in modern society. As an institution of learning, the academy would need to compose a canon, a body of knowledge which poets should endeavor to master; and it must comprise a system by which poets could be identified, instructed and accredited. As an association, it would need to be based on common understandings about the purpose of poetry, the role of the poet, and the obligations of poets to one another and to the community.
This academy is based on three major premises.
The first premise is that poetry is not just "art for art's sake." It is an expression of the soul, and and such ought to strengthen the bonds among its writers and readers.
The second premise is that poetry is a way of taking stock of one's life and of the world. In 1958 Paul Celan stated that he had written poetry “in order to orient myself, in order to find out where I was and in what direction things were moving with me.”
Moreover, we are all orienting ourselves within the same world. Each writes within a landscape that contains other poets. We must develop a poetics which acknowledges this fact. As Bob Dylan once said, “I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.”
The third premise is that poetry must break with the now-amost-traditional bohemianism of the artistic world, and renew its commitment to the moral order. The practice of poetry should be accompanied by the study of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and other works that teach the art of living in community.
The Jewish intellectual tradition is communal. Western literature, on the other hand, especially in recent centuries, has placed the emphasis on the poetic ego, the quest for personal “immortality” through fame. “I have erected a monument [to myself] in enduring bronze,” wrote Horace, in a poem that has been widely translated and imitated. Poets have been encouraged to see themselves as creators of their own world, forgetting that they are creatures (as Celan’s “Meridian” reminded us) within a larger Creation.
There is no doubt that this forgetting is rooted in the “natural” egotism of humans generally, and of poets in particular. But poets in particular must transcend that egotism if the craft of poetry is to right itself. And I believe that we can transcend it, because what is best in poetry is rooted not in the ego but in the soul.
The twentieth century, in which the cult of artistic egotism reached its height, was also the century when poetry lost the ear of the people. Or rather, the ear of the people was stolen by newfangled media which increasingly played to the ego and drowned out the voice of the soul. The cult of artistic egotism played into the hands of these interests by depriving poets of the high ground from which to appeal to the people. Had poets, at the beginning of the century, stuck to the Victorian ethos of social responsibility – had they formed an association that could model that ethos – they might have been able to inspire a resistance to this brainwashing.
We must assume that it is not too late.
Notes Toward a Curriculum
To prescribe a curriculum for the poetic academy is no small undertaking. For now I will approach it by summarizing my own training – the training of just one individual, but of one who has long had these general desiderata in mind. I have also worked in what I know about the training of other poets. Thus these notes will alternate between narration and tentative prescription. The reader and fellow-poet is always invited to comment and to supplement.
I will summarize the education I have received so far (or have observed others receiving) as a series of “modules,” as they say in the world of education. This word implies a set of units that can be selected, arranged and supplemented in building a “system” – whereby, needless to say, the question to what extent a “system” is desirable in training poets is always to be acknowledged! A little poem by Osip Mandel’shtam comes to mind here, which I once translated as follows:
There's no need to speak of anything,
there's no need at all of studying,
just that way the darkened animal
melancholy soul is beautiful.
It has never thought of studying,
it has never learned to say a thing,
like a youthful dolphin see it ride
the grim gray billows of earth's ocean-tide.
This may serve as a reminder of the one “unit” that is not a module, whose voice the poet must never cease to listen for, to cherish and respect, in oneself and in others. This is the one certainly “required course.” Or as the late Chaim Sokolik once said to me, when I had finally shown him a couple of little poems he approved of, “You are forgetting your culture, you are becoming a poet.”
(One caveat: I don’t want to be heard as implying that the primitive poetic voice is unconditionally to be trusted. Unfortunately, that voice has been heard to utter hateful jingles and tuneful incitements to disharmonious acts. The poetic voice is very much bound up with our physical being, which means that it is capable both of degradation and of purification under the supervision of a moral consciousness. This is something I hope to understand better with further study; for now it is perhaps sufficient to recall Oded Mizrachi’s remark: “What you can say as a human being and a Jew, is also what you can say as a writer.”)
The “modules,” on the other hand, are more like “electives.” Probably a person can be a poet without having “taken” any one of them. My suggestions for such “electives” are based on introspection and observation about the lessons and experiences that have been useful to me and others as poets. Each poet (and one’s personal teacher if any) must come to understand the particular configuration of one’s own abilities, and seek to develop them accordingly. But by acquiring as many such “modules” as possible, a poet both enriches one’s own work and also becomes able to connect with others, which is just as important as remaining true to oneself.
Again: poetry is rooted in a very primitive layer of the personality. I have seen (and wish very much that I had copied) a poem by a developmentally disabled man – about Spring – that had rhyme and rhythm and the kind of tunefulness which much sophisticated “poetry” has lost. I have known one developmentally disabled woman who could recognize beauty – something, again, that the academies often train out of people. And yet on the other hand, poetry is capable of absorbing a lot of complexity, of integrating a large and varied body of knowledge without ceasing to be “naïve.” A program of education for poets could, I believe, be designed with this in mind.
For a preliminary overview, let me list the “modules” to be discussed below:
Module 1: The Scientific Background
Module 2: The Mother’s Teaching
Module 3: Music
Module 4: Artisan Verse
Module 5: The Stock of Stories
Module 6: The Classics of One’s Native Language
Module 7. Personal Guidance
Module 8: Math
Module 9. A Period of Silence
Module 10: Grammar and Linguistics
Module 11: Ancient and Modern Languages
Module 12: Textual analysis, “literary criticism”
Module 13. Personal struggles, “therapy” and self-analysis, meditation, the “vision-quest”
Module 14. Formality
Module 15. A free verse apprenticeship
Module 16. Peer exchanges
Module 17. Shakespeare and Dante
Module 18: Miscellaneous Information
Module 1: The Scientific Background
It may seem odd for a poet to place this first, given that science and poetry are so often opposed. I start out with it for an idiosyncratic reason -- because science happened to be the prerequisite for my own existence! My parents were at first interested in classics and French respectively, but then, wanting to move with the times, they both gravitated into geology and met in that department. However, this particular circumstance certainly brought me face to face with one of great facts of the modern world, with which the poet must come to grips.
Among the science, geology (I had one course in it in college) may be particularly related to poetry. It deals with the material foundation of our existence, with the planet whose fate is bound up with ours. In Hebrew adam (man) is of the same root as adamah (earth). And Freud, one of Celan’s main sources, once compared his task with that of the geologist, discovering layers of deposit and upheaval. But perhaps every science has is angle of relevance. In the Divine Comedy the leading science is astronomy; the reader is constantly made aware of the position of the stars, which serve both as a timepiece and as a frame of reference for orientation.
In the scientific ethos there is much that is of human importance. The scientist has no choice but to be humble before the material facts, to be open to new information, to be fair-minded and objective at least with respect to the physical universe. This possibility of objectivity is also a promise of community. This may be one reason why Paul Celan (see below) often uses the word “stone” and related words. “As if, because there is stone,/ there were still brothers,” he once wrote.
Of course, it is easier to be objective and open with respect to the physical universe, than to exercise fairness in human situations and to do justice to human beings. Nevertheless, scientific objectivity can serve as a model and a corrective to the superficial view of poetry as a field of mere subjectivity, where “anything goes.” Shelley’s famous dictum that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” suggests a connection between poetry and the sense of justice, which in turn implies some kind of objectivity, even if that objectivity is less tangible than that which can appeal to physical proof. I felt a kind of objectivity in Celan’s work; and recently I read in the Maharal that poetry is connected with the “attribute of judgment,” which term seems also to mean the objective dimension of reality.
Module 2: The Mother’s Teaching
Throughout most of human history, the mother has been the first teacher of the child, and the figure of the “muse” is probably a representation of the mother. From the mother the child learns its first words, acquires its primary relation to language. The relationship of trust between mother and child is probably also the basis of the poet’s attitude toward the “implied reader,” and of the poet’s hope for the world as a place where human potential is nurtured rather than destroyed. This is true of the true poet no matter how sophisticated and ambitious he or she may become; Osip Mandel’shtam, in his wonderful “Conversation about Dante,” points out places where the most intellectual of poets has not forgotten his baby-talk.
It is not certain to what extent the existence of this central memory within the poet depends on the actual relationship to the mother, especially after the first stage of language acquisition. The intensity of Celan’s attachment to his mother in youth as well as in childhood is well known. On the other hand, Dante is said to have lost his mother at an early age, likewise Gerard de Nerval and Edgar Allan Poe. The expectation of such a relationship is probably built into the infant mind, and even a frustrated expectation may have some vision of what it needed.
In this age many people suffer from maternal deprivation due to the conscription of mothers into the workforce and their partial replacement by day-care centers and television. This does not seem to augur well for poetry. Yet, the conscription of mothers took place in the Soviet Union at least a generation before it took place in the United States, and yet the interest in poetry persisted, at least until the fall of the Soviet regime let the media loose on the Russian public. This suggests a strong poetic tradition, a milieu pervaded with poetry, may compensate for a deficiency in maternal teaching. Thus it is possible that, by strengthening the poetic tradition and giving it more of a presence in human life, poets can help people to recapture the early closeness to the mother, even if they have been somewhat deprived of it in their individual development. This closeness, in turn, is the basis for people’s devotion to the community (personified in many traditions as a maternal figure).
In this respect I was more fortunate than most of those born in subsequent generations, or even in my own. My parents seldom even listened to the radio, and for one winter we lived in an isolated place where my mother had to entertain me and my brother all day. Besides reading to us, she instinctively devised from us a sort of miniature oral tradition, consisting of the stories, anecdotes, songs and proverbs that she remembered. Moreover, my mother, who had had elocution lessons as a child, always chose and enunciated her words very carefully, and thus conveyed to me a reverence and respect for language, for the plain meanings of words and their ordinary associations. I have tried in prose and poetry to convey my memories of that early period, and hope that these reminiscences may be of some use to other poets in reaching back to that space.
Module 3: Music
Poetry and music have always been closely associated. Here, again, I was fortunate in my mother’s teaching; she evidently knew quite a few songs for children and taught them to me almost as soon as I could speak. When I got to school I already noticed that the other children were self-conscious about singing. In these days of recorded “music” it is less easy to cultivate singing, but it should be done as much as possible. From singing we learn rhythm and structure and the kind of physical engagement that is at the core of a good poem. (But again, this association is not inevitable; I can think of one very good, even very “musical” poet who claims to be almost tone-deaf!)
At the age of nine my parents insisted that I begin piano lessons. Unfortunately, the teachers I had were not very good, and moreover my musical talent seems confined to that knack for tune-making which many poets seem to have, so I never became a real musician. Still, I think it was valuable to be compelled to learn some classical pieces and to get some idea of musical forms (e.g. sonata form, rondo) and of tonality and the cycle of keys. I also think that a poet cannot hear too much Mozart!
Module 4: Artisan Verse
By “artisan verse” I mean verse composed without great literary pretentions and often for some utilitarian purpose. In this category I would place the nursery rhymes and the poems in children’s books, folk and popular songs, patriotic songs, the songs we sang at summer camp, the songs composed by well-meaning adults for the pupils of school music classes, even the songs we children sang to drive our elders crazy. Some of all this seemed to me even as a child like poor stuff. Nevertheless, it was all a training in thinking in verse, putting words together so that they rhymed and scanned, on the one hand, and made some kind of sense, on the other. (Free verse had, at that time, not trickled down from the artistic world to the space where people lived; and the present tuneless forms of popular music were a thing of the future.)
My own first poems were written before I had been exposed to much classical literature. They drew on the knowledge of verse-making that I had gleaned from the above-named sources. Even today, when I set about making a poem, I often feel that I am drawing on the artisan tradition, even more than on anything received from the masters. Again, this aspect of a poet’s education has suffered recently and would be difficult to reproduce. Nevertheless, it might be worthwhile to “simulate” the verse environment, by putting together an anthology of artisan verse and making tapes of the songs sung by past generations, for those who missed them.
Module 5: The Stock of Stories
Among the books that I read in childhood were several collections of myths and fairy tales – Grimm’s, Anderson’s, the Blue Fairy Book and several of the other colors, various compilations of Greek myths. I also was influenced by a way my mother had of seeing parallels to the stories in real situations, and later I met another person who also saw such parallels. I also read a number of psychological interpretations of myths and folktales.
To poets in the Western world these stories furnish a language of allusion that enlarges the resonance of the specific lyric situation. I understand that now there are books that try to gather and sort out the stock of standard plots that circle the globe and that in various guises have supplied ideas to various dramatists including Shakespeare.
In 1969 I began to encounter the world of Hasidic stories, aggada, and midrash. This is of course a very different body of work, centering on the relation of the soul and of Israel to the Creator, and the eventual repair and redemption of the world. The two bodies of narrative are not entirely unconnected, however. The Hasidic masters, especially Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, have been known to treat folk material as a source of parable. At the flash-point of my own vision-quest (see below), a story came to me that was a variation on a Greek myth, altered so that it became a parable of world-repair.
Module 6: The Classics of One’s Native Language
(mutatis mutandis, for native speakers of languages other than English)
My parents basically stopped reading literature at maturity, and thus were preserved from being influenced by modernism. My father still had a five-volume anthology of English poetry from his college days, and the bookcase also contained the complete works of Shakespeare and of Longfellow. Also of Wordsworth, Cowper and Burns, but these were in very fine print and I did not read them till much later. Mother read me The Ancient Mariner and Hiawatha; one of them introduced me to the Shakespeare sonnets; Tennyson I discovered in the anthology, whereupon my father, as a corrective, administered Wordsworth.
At fourteen I was advised by a teacher to read Louis Untermeyer’s two-volume anthology, Modern American Poetry/Modern British Poetry (1950 edition). From Untermeyer’s anthology I gained a knowledge of the poetry of the first half of the 20th century, when tradition was still strong and many quite beautiful things were written, in the classical tradition, that are unjustly neglected today. I also got a sense of the negative influences that were creeping in, the antisocial tendencies introduced by Pound and his ilk, which resulted in the springs of inspiration drying up after 1950 (the year of Millay’s death). A subsequent edition which I saw reflect later taste. Just now on Amazon I saw that there is exactly one copy available of the 1928 edition, which indicates that though out of print this work is still treasured. But if this anthology is unavailable, there are other mid-twentieth century anthologies (such as that by Oscar Williams) that are almost as good.
A confession: except for a few poets, my knowledge of the classics has been acquired mainly from anthologies. This is partly an effect of laziness, with which I am afflicted as much as anyone else. It takes an act of concentration to confront a classical poem and get into it, still more to plunge into the world of another poet, and that strength of mind does not get easier to find. However, reliance on the older anthologies also has its positive side. Robert Frost is said to have learned his craft from Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. An anthology gives one the sense of a tradition to which all the poets are contributing, rather than causing one to focus on the poets’ respective idiosyncrasies. In a time when it is important to rebuild the common tradition, this is no bad thing.
At any rate, even the relatively little that I know of the English classics has been of critical importance. I don’t think I would have persisted in writing poetry if it hadn’t been for poems like “Let me not to the marriage of true minds,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and “Ode to the West Wind” (I guess those are my four all-time favorites). These are the poems that have given me the feeling that it is important to write poetry, that poetry is an enterprise that must be continued.
Module 7. Personal Guidance
The same teacher who recommended Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry/Modern British Poetry, also suggested that I should read Dickinson and Millay, having sensed in my early attempts an affinity to both these poets. I followed this advice and have been very grateful for it. Dickinson’s effect would be hard to trace; she is too singular to be successfully imitated, and perhaps what she gives most is the encouragement to attend to one’s own singular perceptions. But from Millay I learned some very plain lessons – not the least of which was to steer clear of snobism and literary fashion, which have caused so many to disparage her unjustly. I believe, too, that it was from her sonnets more than any others that I caught the knack of writing in this form. Above all, there is in Millay’s work a vitality which I think may at one point have literally saved my life, when I was influenced by two self-destructive poets (Plath and Celan), and had recourse to sonnet form in order to contain the impact.
Celan was also recommended to me by a teacher who sensed an affinity. To this one prompting I owe, directly or indirectly, the inspiration for most of my subsequent work, since through the study of his work I came in contact with the Jewish tradition.
One of the first Jewish sources that I read in connection with Celan was a collection of Hasidic stories. One of these stories made the point that Hasidism cannot be learned only from books, that one needs to find a personal master. As I prepared for my one interview with Celan, it occurred to me that perhaps I was feeling like a Hasid preparing to visit the tzaddik! Although some who have read my protocol of that interview have found it disappointing, it has always seemed important to me that I actually met him in person, was able to verify that the poems were written by a real human being.
Recently I found myself suggesting to one poet that she read Edward Lear, and to another that she read Christina Rossetti. I hope they did so. To find one’s affines among the masters is the surest path to strengthening one’s own voice. I would like to hope that in the poetic academy of the future, an experienced poet might serve as a personal guide to a younger one. No one, of course, can teach another how to write poetry, but it is possible for a teacher to see the young poet’s potential and hazard a guess as to what they need to learn next.
Module 8: Math
Mathematics is a weak subject for many poets, myself among them. I stumbled over long division, shed bitter tears over algebra, and ducked the math requirement in college by taking symbolic logic. Yet I must admit that despite my weakness in algebra, the working out of a sonnet or a blank verse argument often reminds me of solving an equation or a demonstration in plane geometry (my strongest math subject).
The math anxiety of many poets is curious, given the fact that poetry used to be called “numbers!” Traditional poetry is, after all, based on numerical relationships. So many stresses or syllables to a line, so many lines to a stanza, the occurrence of rhyme at regular intervals. One of the most skilled formal poets of this time, Richard Moore, is also an amateur mathematician, and has written about his experience of mathematics in an essay posted in The Hexagon Forum.
The preoccupation with numerical relationships is one thing that formal poetry has in common with Judaism! Numbers play a far greater role in Jewish thought and practice in that of any other tradition I know of.
Obviously the relation of a poet or kabbalist to numbers is very different from that of the pure mathematician or the scientist. This is clearly a field for further thought.
Module 9. A Period of Silence
During my senior year in high school I became intimidated and wrote very little poetry for the next five years.
This intimidation had, as I now think, two sources.
First, the later pages of Modern American Poetry/Modern British Poetry were already blighted by the deep freeze that descended on poetry everywhere after the second World War. (It had been coming on since the early years of the century.) From the trend that I saw there I divined, accurately, that poetry of the kind I wanted to write would not be welcome in the literary world.
Second – I put this second though maybe it should be first – I doubted my ability to produce anything that could add to the tradition I valued. When I compared my own puny efforts with Keats’ and Shelley’s early masterpieces, with the scope and fluency of Tennyson’s best pieces, my pretentions to be a poet appeared to me ridiculous. I didn’t make sufficient allowance a) for the fact that the great poets of the past grew up in an environment where every literate person read poetry and most educated persons could write verse if they had to and b) for the fact that a verse environment is created by poets of the rank and file as well as the great, just as the ecosystem of the ocean includes plankton as well as tuna.
At any rate, I was intimidated and for several years wrote little of my own. But my preoccupation with poetry did not lessen during these years. I learned to analyze poems, to figure out how they work; and I read quite a number of poets who seemed to speak for me, when I had no hope of speaking for myself. In short, I served an apprenticeship as a Reader. And I think that nothing has been more valuable to me than this experience.
In our high school newspaper I read a sonnet by an older fellow-student, Martha Frautschi, the sestet of which I remember:
I have accepted now the fact my line
Will never fill a volume such as this.
Grant then I find the gift, subtle and fine,
To understand the greatness that I miss.
To read another’s thoughts with wise delight
Would be a gift more precious than to write.
Though I think Martha Frautschi could have been a poet, the point is well taken. For the gift of reading is as indispensable to a culture as the gift of writing, even though no monument is erected to the Reader. Without the presence of the Reader, the poet labors in vain.
At this moment the Reader appears to be extinct. Yet poets who see the need for the revival of the Reader could undertake to be Readers of one another. Their own work will only gain by it; and they will be able to make a stronger case for the reading of their own work, if they themselves have set the example by reading their friends.
One further note: it is to this period of silence and reading that I attribute one tendency that not too many other poets seem to manifest, namely that of imitating other poets in a serious way. Many of my teachers, and much the criticism I read as a student, took it for granted that to be too much “influenced” by another poet, to be “derivative,” to be an “epigone,” was necessarily negative. Harold Bloom’s ideal of the “strong” poet is one who conceals his debts! But it seems to me possible to think about the matter quite differently. If one has really listened to a master enough to sense where he or she was “coming from,” then on a given occasion one may think, “Poet X would have had something to say about this,” and proceed to write a poem in which Poet X’s voice can be heard as well as one’s own. I submit that the impulse to do this should not be resisted. To “play back” other poets in this way is surely to contribute to the unity and continuity of the tradition.
Module 10: Grammar and Linguistics
I wonder if middle- and high school students are still taught to diagram sentences. I remember this exercise from ninth grade, and am not sure I could still do it. But I think it helped me to get a sense of the mechanics of language.
In college I majored in linguistics. At the University of Wisconsin, where I obtained my B.A., the method then in vogue was “structural” linguistics (the textbook was by Charles Hockett). This involved mainly analyzing phonemes and morphemes. I found it pretty dry and couldn’t tell you, now, much of what I learned. Nevertheless, I think it did help to reinforce my sense of linguistic structure. Possibly studying a computer language would have done the same thing.
I would have preferred to take Indo-European linguistics, which would have told me more about the history of language and the roots of the words we use, but unfortunately that was out of fashion. Just as I graduated, people were starting to talk about generative grammar, of which I felt mistrustful; it seemed associated with too much jargon and too much pretention to pluck out the heart of the mystery of language. The poet must flee from jargon as from the plague.
Incidentally, Paul Celan also took his undergraduate degree in linguistics, inspired no doubt by a similar curiosity about the workings of language. However, he told me that the influence of his linguistic training had diminished with the years.
Module 11. Ancient and Modern Languages
I had three years of high school Latin; because in my high school the third and fourth years were given in alternate years, I had Virgil instead of Cicero (the usual third-year subject). I have not forgotten quite all of it, and am glad that at one time I was able to read the poet whom Dante regarded as his master.
Latin was invaluable, because much of our English vocabulary is of Latin origin. Without knowing some Latin, I do not see how a poet can be aware of the root meanings and underlying structure of many words.
Latin is also a great aid to learning the Romance languages – French, Italian, and Spanish. Thanks to Latin, I was able to learn French speedily; and without having had a course in Italian, I can read it with a dictionary, or get the feeling of a poem with the aid of a facing translation. (Opera librettos, which in the good old days used to be included with the records, were also a help.) For Dante (see below) this much knowledge of Italian is indispensable. Latin was also of some help in learning Russian, because many Russian compounds are formed on the model of the Latin ones.
At one time or another I knew three modern languages: French, German and Russian. I believe that the exercise of learning to think in a foreign language is useful. It takes one out of the framework of one’s own language, makes one aware of alternate ways of saying things. On returning to one’s own language one is less inclined to take things for granted.
At the age of thirty I was prompted to begin studying Hebrew, which I learned with the help of Joseph Weingreen’s A Practical Grammar of Classical Hebrew. This was very difficult, but, needless to say, I recommend it fervently, even to those who think they cannot learn languages. Without Hebrew one understands the Bible only very superficially, and has only limited access to the immense wealth of the tradition of Torah learning. Acquaintance with this material could reorient and greatly refresh the Western tradition (the work of Yakov Azriel is one pledge of this; I hope that my sonnet cycle Rim of Gold, based on the Midrash, is another). Moreover, despite the original difficulties of memorization (arising from the fact that Hebrew, as a non-Indo-European language, has no common roots with English), Hebrew ends by giving the learner a great deal of assistance, due to the logical – almost mathematical – way in which it constructs words from a limited stock of triliteral roots.
In 1999 I was prompted to learn classical Greek, and made my way through Clyde Pharr’s Homeric Greek. I hoped in this manner to connect with the “other” root of the Western tradition (cf. Matthew Arnold’s remarks on “Hebraism and Hellenism”). But though I managed to get through Homer and Hesiod and even to read Oidipos Tyrannos (always with the help of translations, of course), I found this course less productive than I had anticipated. Oidipos Tyrannos, which I had long looked forward to reading in the original, actually spoke to me less than the translation I had read long ago (which had been made by someone who had read the Bible). Perhaps I should have persisted and gone on to Plato. But my recommendation to any young poet would be: learn Hebrew first.
Module 12. Textual analysis, “literary criticism”
One valuable thing that I did pick up at the university was practice in analyzing a text so as to perceive its inner workings. At first I resisted the analytical approach, but in the end I think the understanding thus gained has enriched my own work.
One teacher from whom I benefited was the late Reuben A. Brower. As a freshman at Radcliffe, where I spent my first two undergraduate years, I took his introductory humanities course. I remember him discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, pointing out all the metaphors that have to do with eating, and reflecting on what these metaphors tell about the play’s approach to life. This attention to associations and symbolic pattern is, I believe, the most important aspect of literary criticism, because in this way one extracts the implicit meaning. Interpretations of this kind, written without jargon and in a straightforward manner, are very useful reading. It would be good to compile an anthology or reading list of model interpretations.
There is a lot in literary criticism that a poet needs to beware of. Any interpretation of a poem that is more difficult to understand than the poem itself is monstrous (as a student of Celan, I have unfortunately seen many such; the practice is known as Hermeneutics). Also to be mistrusted is any doctrine that pretends to tell you how to distinguish between “good” and “bad” poetry. Worrying about “good” and “bad” (in the aesthetic, not the moral sense) is a reaction of a cowardly ego that cannot bear the thought of being “taken in.” This reaction will inevitably make one unjust to others and is also harmful to one’s own inspiration. One should worry, instead, about the possibility of overlooking some vital spark.
At Radcliffe a student repeated to me one saying by a teacher whom I had found otherwise dull: “The purpose of criticism is to get back to the moment of creation.” I remember scoffing at this at the time, under the spell of the prevailing doctrines that tended to treat the poem like an aesthetic object. But I now think it is the best remark on criticism that I ever heard. On a few occasions it has been given me to feel as though I were inside the author’s head and saw what he meant. This is, I think, what scholars ought to strive for, instead of building card-houses of false concepts.
Module 13. Personal struggles, “therapy” and self-analysis, meditation, the “vision-quest”
It is said that in some Siberian cultures, those destined to become shamans are tormented by demons until they agree to take on the job. In my youth I went through a difficult phase in which I consulted practitioners of many therapeutic schools and also read quite a bit about psychology. The most helpful writer was Freud. Not that I agree with all of his theories, but I liked his method of analysis, which was very similar to that of the kind of literary criticism I found useful. In fact, the works by Freud that I like best are his literary analyses. I also read some of Jung, who is open at certain points where Freud is closed, but whom, somehow, I trusted less. And I also tried out a number of meditation techniques, besides simply brooding a lot.
This therapeutic process was long and wasteful. I found no way out until the poems I was writing and reading, and the dreams I was dreaming, ended by assigning me a part to play, a task to try and accomplish. Just at that moment I happened to read John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, and it seemed to me to be about what I was going through. Unfortunately, unlike Black Elk, I wasn’t able to contact a group of senior visionaries who understood these things; most people just thought I was crazy, and I had to learn by trial and error (and am still learning) what I could say to whom, and how to understand it myself so as to reduce the contradictions between me and the rest of humanity to a minimum. Again, literary criticism was helpful here, as it enabled me to see the story I was living as a variant on a recurring dream of Western literature.
Perhaps a poetic academy could accumulate sufficient wisdom so that it could help poets to dream their dreams, to remember them, and to interpret them constructively.
Module 14. Formality
As noted, I learned to write sonnets (Shakespearean ones, anyway) at an early age, and still believe that the sonnet is, after the simple ballad stanza, the most important form for a poet to master. It seems to me to have mysterious virtues, evidently inherent in the number 14. It is possible, of course, to write dull sonnets -- the landscape is littered with them. What counts, however, is that no form can show so many wonderful poems, and in such incredible variety.
In 1995-6 I set myself the task of writing a sonnet a day (except on Shabbat) for a year. I know of two other poets who have done this. For the first part of my year I was assisted by a specific project – a sonnet cycle on my encounter with Paul Celan. During the rest of the year, I had to cast about for themes (though generally there was enough going on to supply them), and the results were mixed. But I think that this exercise did help me to master the Petrarcan form.
Blank verse, which has the fewest requirements of any form, I did not start to use until past thirty. I think the reason for this delay might be that blank verse is a declamatory form, and so (unless one is a playwright) one tends to use this form only after becoming fairly sure of oneself and of what one has to say. I wrote what is, in my own and many others’ opinion, my best poem (“Invitation”) in blank verse at thirty-four, but only achieved a reliable fluency in blank verse by writing an epic, The Consciousness of Earth, begun in my early forties. In writing this poem I set myself the task of writing fifty blank verse lines per day, good or bad. It was an awful grind and at first the verse was mostly bad, but gradually it began to flow. Since the ‘90’s I have found blank verse useful in writing letters.
Almost any arbitrarily imposed form can act as a stimulus to ingenuity and inspiration. (Richard Moore has explained that this is because it distracts the conscious mind and allows some deeper knowledge to find a voice.) This was amusingly demonstrated a few years back when Billy Collins, who may have a poet in him somewhere, invented a ridiculously difficult form, the paradelle, as a poke at formal poets. Amazingly, a number of formal poets have taken up the challenge, and I have seen a few poems in the form that are good poems.
In each of the standard forms – blank verse, heroic couplets, ballade, villanelle, sestina, rondeau, rondeau redoublé, pantoum, terza rima – a certain number of good poems have been written, along with a great many that seem (as Dorothy Parker accurately said of her own rondeau redoublé) “scarcely worth the trouble.” Those forms that depend on the repetition of words or lines can very easily seem trivial or obsessive. I think that the best method for using these forms is to memorize, or at least read attentively and think about, at least one poem in the form, and then wait (or look around) for a subject that seems to “call for” that form.
There is a good form book in Clement Wood’s rhyming dictionary. Some of the newer ones are tainted with superciliousness. Someday I would like to see a large anthology that would contain as many successful poems in each form as the anthologist could find. The successful poem in a fixed form is one that manages not only to fill out the form but to make the form appear significant.
The ability to write in fixed forms is something that came to me over several decades. I didn’t manage a tolerable Petrarcan sonnet still I was almost thirty. My first – short – poem in terza rima came when I was past forty, and I was able to use this form with tolerable facility only in my fifties. At the age of 61 I managed to write a corona, “Prophecy,” which may well remain my technical high point. In an earlier time, in an environment more pervaded with verse, I might have achieved this at a younger age. Because of the difficult environment, it may be that the peak years for poetry have shifted from youth to middle age, when poets have had time to compensate for an impoverished early environment.
During this late period of formal development I also became more conscious of the line as a unit. Regardless of what form you are working in, each line has to be interesting and balanced in itself. I learned to pay more attention to the sound quality, and began using quite a lot of alliteration and assonance. I am very fond of these devices, though I understand that the twentieth century establishment tends to frown on them. As long as the sound underlines rather than overwhelming the sense, it is one more way of creating coherency.
To what extent is proficiency with forms to be equated with poetic quality? At the end of the day, I would have to say that the connection is a loose one rather than a tight one. Poetic quality, as we cannot too often remind ourselves, is something that does not like to be “pinned down.” I am by no means sure that I was a better poet at 61, when I wrote that corona, than at 25, when I wrote a half-rhymed sonnet that is still with me as a kind of mantra. “Invitation” came out of prolonged brooding on a certain subject matter, at a time when I had had little practice in blank verse; that it turned out to be a good example of blank verse, appears almost as a happy accident.
My tentative conclusion is that though it is vital to read the formal poets of the past and to know the rules of the forms, form should not be pursued too much as an end in itself. The impulse toward form should come as an accompaniment to some deep emotion, conviction or concern. Form is a kind of armor which the soul puts on in order to appear in this material world. In too much “neoformalist” work, the suits of armor are empty. Or as Roy Campbell once put it, “They use the snaffle and the curb all right,/ But where’s the bloody horse?”
Incidentally, HaRav Kook wrote (to my knowledge) one poem in Western form, which to me bears out the view of form as armor: “Sobu Tsiyon ve-hakifuha.” It begins with a quotation from Psalm 48: “Walk about Zion and encircle her, count her towers.” The revival of formal poetry should go hand in hand with the determination to shore up Zion, Western civilization, and the integrity of the human soul.
Module 15. A free verse apprenticeship
I am mostly a formal poet. My first poems were formal. In moments of strongest emotion I tend to fall back on sonnet form. However, there was a period when I was writing mostly free verse, because that was the prevailing style in the ‘60’s and even in the ‘70’s. “No one” was writing sonnets for quite some time after I had started writing them again. The poet who affected me most strongly – Paul Celan – wrote almost entirely in free verse.
At best, free verse compels one to compensate for the lack of ready-made structure by paying closer attention to the implications and associations of each word, and by finding new ways to give the poem structure and symmetry. Celan was the all-time master of this skill. His poems tend to be quite short and spaced out on the page. They seem like the product of an intense listening, with the phrases dropping in one by one from a great silence. (But a sonnet should be written in the same way.) I still come back to free verse at times, and perhaps it helps me to return to the forms with a sense of newness.
Free verse also, in the atmosphere of the ‘60’s, allowed one to write poetry without being too self-critical. This was helpful to me, who had perhaps been inhibited by an excess of self-criticism. Amid the “psychedelic atmosphere,” a lot of soul-content that had been bottled up was allowed to billow out. Unfortunately, a lot of questionable impulses also billowed out, and the end result was a culture dominated by the yetser hara (the evil inclination) in which the soul has little voice.
I think that free verse tends to lose its momentum with increasing distance from a culture of formal verse. (Just as it was possible to be “a good person” for a generation or two without the discipline of religion, but then…) Paul Celan had grown up with formal verse, continued throughout his life to translate formal verse, and included at least one rhymed poem in all but his very last collections.
There is also, I believe, another reason why Celan was able to use free verse in a particularly appealing manner. The formal poem invariably gives an impression of self-completeness, and it is this self-completeness that Celan wanted most to question. His poems listen for an answering voice. His poetry is not understood by those who do not pick up its note of self-dissatisfaction, its sense of being “on the way to something.” It is very different from the work of those to whom free verse is sufficient.
Module 16. Peer exchanges
As a child and adolescent I was a solitary poet. I didn’t know, to speak to, anyone else who wrote poetry. When I began writing poetry again after the aforementioned period of silence, it was in Berkeley, in the time of the “counterculture,” when many people were writing and sharing poetry – and dreams -- as part of a general process of introspection and search for orientation. Sadly, that search was to prove abortive for most. People were surrounded by incitements to impulse gratification – they had lost the very concept of resistance to temptation – so the energy of the quest was dissipated.. But for a time the exchange was extremely stimulating, and has remained in my mind as an ideal. Some of the poems I heard then are still interleaved in my mind with the poems I myself was writing at the time. I have a feeling that the real model for Dante’s Paradiso was the early experience with a company of poets, the “Fedeli d’amore,” who wrote not only to encourage one another as poets but to share their mystical experiences.
Experience in “workshops” has been far more mixed. Some workshops I have attended are based on a premise I would question – namely that the main purpose of poets’ meeting is mutual criticism, instead of mutual inspiration. (I read once about a study that showed that children do not learn grammar from being corrected but just from imitating adults’ speech patterns.) In the worst case, the criticism can degenerate into downright attacks. But even with more good will, too much of the criticism has a repressive tendency; it could seem as though poets turn the hostility of a world resistant to the appearance of the soul, upon one another. This kind of criticism is actually harmful to poetry (see the appended poem, "Corpses Clog the Litmags")..
I believe that peer exchanges should be a part of a poet’s education. However, those hosted by our Academy should start from a very different premise – namely, that the aim of peer exchanges should be to help us to appreciate one another’s work. Criticism should be given, if at all, in private, the only exception being the offering of constructive suggestions (“what about putting it this way”) which can be a continuation of the author’s creative process. The poet should not bring a poem to share until tolerably satisfied with it. The other participants should then apply to the new poem the same skills they bring to analysis of a classic, until they see what the poem means and how it works.
A workshop of this kind would be a preparation for membership in a mutually supportive association of poets. Their poems would undoubtedly echo one another, as well as the poems of the masters; and from an exchange in this generous spirit, the strongest poems would eventually emerge, to be shared with the wider society.
An incident from the early career of Paul Celan may illustrate the possibility I am trying to bring out. While still in Czernowitz, Celan was friends with another young poet, the late Immanuel Weissglas, and toward the end of World War II they exchanged a number of poems, many of them concerned with the traumas and losses both had suffered. Most of the poems exchanged by the two poets were, as I recall, roughly comparable in quality. At one point, according to an article that was published in 1972, Weissglas wrote a poem about the death camps that employed imagery from Goethe’s Faust. This poem, written in somewhat wooden iambic quatrains, was not a great poem and would not have attracted much attention. However, the author of the article believed that this poem prompted Celan to write his “Death Fugue,” which also employs illusions to Faust but is couched in a totally original form and is incomparably more powerful. This poem got the world’s attention.
Now, this article was met with indignation by some who had defended Celan against a completely baseless and invidious charge of plagiarism by the widow of another poet. But when I first read it, I did not view the allegations as in the least problematic. It reminded me of the way poets in Berkeley had “worked off of” each other, inspired one another to do what they wouldn’t have been able to do in isolation. I actually felt disappointed when someone, with the best of intentions, argued that the poem by Weissglas, who remained a “minor” poet, was written after the “Death Fugue,” as a gloss or weak echo. Possibly the true tale will never be known; my point is that if Weissglas’ poem was written first, this would not be to Celan’s discredit. Rather, it would be one piece of evidence for a collective poetic process that needs to be encouraged.
A group of poets determined to sustain this process would need to study Pirkei Avot closely (see below). They would need to cultivate great fortitude in order to resist the pressures toward competition in this society. If they could do so, however, they would stand a chance of making poetry’s voice heard again.
Module 17. Shakespeare and Dante
In the high school I attended, three Shakespeare plays were taught in successive years – Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet. Hamlet was again taught in my freshman humanities course.
Few poets (I hope) need special encouragement to read Shakespeare. He is readily accessible in English and his importance is not in question. I once read a book (wish I could remember the title) that pointed out that a large number of English words are first attested in Shakespeare’s work; and it once occurred to me to write an essay on Hamlet using as many idioms as possible from the play itself. To some extent, we all speak Shakespearean.
Dante, however, is a different case. The reputation of the Divine Comedy is far wider than its readership. People around me seemed to know what it was about, but few had read it. As a freshman I picked up a Sinclair’s bilingual edition of the Inferno in the university bookstore. I read through the prose translation and was rather appalled by it, as I guess one should be.
Again, it was Celan who prompted me to get back to the work. After his death I reread the Inferno and the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, looking more at the Italian this time. I also read Mandel’shtam’s Conversation about Dante, which helped me to appreciate the mystery of the poem’s combination of strict formality and linguistic vitality. It also fell to my lot at that time to make a study of the modern novel (see the page on The Web of What Is Written), which led me to conclude that the Divine Comedy is the fountainhead of Western literature (and the true source of that “anxiety of influence” of which Bloom has made us aware). Even Shakespeare would not have been quite the same without him. Everything leads up to this work; and most of what comes afterward, to the extent that it claims to be a depiction of the general human condition, consists of failed attempts to equal or surpass it -- or to mock it. Lyrical poetry, including that of Celan, continually points back to it. Only by understanding the influence of this work – and the opposition to its influence -- can one perceive the Western tradition as a whole.
The poem ends with the subjectivity of the poet (and the reader) confronting the Source of being, with a vision of the tremendous energy of the Creator pouring in and sustaining the world.The poem offers a model of the Creation, a model that, again, in many ways cannot be taken literally now. But it represents perhaps the first coming-to-consciousness of poetry as a way of orientation, and a first attempt to portray the matrix within which orientation takes place. The poem’s amazing synthesis of its time’s knowledgesurely represents (even though, again, much of that “knowledge” is outdated) a drive toward unification and perfection of the world, which has supplied many subsequent poets with energy, hope and vision.
On the present literary scene, the influence of the Divine Comedy appears to have dissipated. This, I believe, is due to the refusal of sublimation which is one of the great mistakes of modernism. A community of poets that could recognize this error, and that could be open to the Jewish as well as to the Western tradition, could approach Dante in a new way.
My guess is that there will never again be a single masterpiece that could rival the Divine Comedy. This work may represent the limit of the individual mind’s ability to integrate information about the world, and the store of information has grown enormously since then. But if one looks at the prehistory of the Commedia, at the Vita Nuova and its context, one see that Dante was wrote as the isolate survivor of a community of poets. This community could be revived and enlarged, it could collectively possess a knowledge beyond the scope of the individual, and perhaps eventually help to realize that global wholeness of which the Commedia is only a prefiguration.
In this Academy, at any rate, the Divine Comedy would be the basis of the “survey course” on Western literature. It would be studied thoroughly, with excursions to its various sources, and then its derivatives and affines would be studied in its light. With this organization, I believe that the student could get an overview of the essential Western tradition in a surprisingly short time.
Module 18: Miscellaneous Information
As I started out by saying, poetry is a faculty that can make use of various skills, and integrate various kinds of knowledge. It appears that the greatest poets have often possessed a large fund of knowledge about the world. Dante clearly did; so, apparently did Shakespeare (I recently saw some references to studies that claimed to show that his many references to law are quite precise). Paul Celan is said to have possessed an “encyclopedic” knowledge, especially about plants, and to have had an extraordinary memory for names and faces and kind of “second sight” about the life-histories of the people he met. Possessing no such extraordinary capacities, I have nevertheless found inspiration in the contact with other fields of knowledge. Many of the poems on this site, including “The Hexagon,” came out of my experience in law school. I think that if a certain recent prejudice against didacticism could be overcome, poetry could be helpful in organizing and evaluating the secular knowledge that has so proliferated over recent centuries.
The above, then, is a summary of some kinds of knowledge that, as far as I know, can be useful to a poet. (I haven't tried to talk much about Torah studies, which are assumed as an encompassing preoccupation; perhaps others more knowledgeable could write about the interface of poetry and Torah study.) Now, how to go about devising a curriculum from all this?
To begin with, perhaps the above summary (as amended and supplemented by others) could serve as a kind of “checklist” for poets who would like to be part of the Academy. Poets interested in the idea of an academy could use it to reflect on their own background, and identify any areas in which they would like to expand or deepen their own knowledge.
One possible exercise: for each of nineteen weeks, take one of these modules. Think about your own path through this area of knowledge. Write about it. See what old poems of yours are related to this area. See if any new ones come. Exchange such poems with other poets, and show them to anyone else you can get to read them.
Eventually, the Academy should be able to come up with a “reading list,” which prospective members would be assumed to have absorbed. In the above notes, materials for several “survey courses” were suggested: a course on Dante and his sources and derivatives, a course on the forms, a course on the classic poems of one’s native language. These could be constructed, and fitted into the curriculum of any institution willing to host them. Eventually, perhaps a two- or four-year curriculum could be devised.
The central poem on this website, “The Hexagon” describes an imaginary poetic academy that is in touch with the community and can identify and train young poets from an early age. Those who are in contact with young children might think about constructing teaching materials.
These are just a few of the possible projects for an association of poets who share a vision of poetry as way of orientation.
Enrollment, Accreditation, Affiliation
I imagine this association as (in Western terms) a kind of “Arthurian” plot. In the Arthurian legends, there is a set of actors, each of whom has their own quest and task within the general project of taming social chaos and creating a just order. In recent times a number of “cult” novels (Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, Watership Down, The Last Unicorn, Momo, all of which are recommended reading) have been based on this plot. Their popularity shows that this plot still does have some appeal, and that a group of poets endeavoring to act it out would stand a chance of being eventually understood.
A poet would join, I imagine, by expressing one’s commitment poetically. (Some of the poems that express my own commitment are appended to this document.) Eventually, too, an examination based on the “reading list” might be constructed.
Once part of the association (assuming it has grown to a certain size!), the poet might be assigned to an affinity group, and might participate in formal meetings, whereby (as in formal poetry) the formality would be felt as enabling rather than inhibiting the communication of vision.
Members of the association would be under vow to support one another’s best efforts as representative of the community.
By imposing such obligations on themselves, poets would qualify themselves to apply to the community for recognition and support as “fair witnesses” and general ombudsmen, as well as entertainers who have the welfare of the entertained at heart.
Click here to inquire about joining.
The “proceedings of the academy” could be published online, and perhaps from time to time in paper format. They might include any materials others would like to contribute toward the program of the academy. There could also be a thread of poems written by the members in a continuing poetic conversation, or submitted by them as relevant to the topic at hand. These could be archived by date and perhaps also made searchable by author and keyword, as suggested in the “Hexagon Foundation” brochure.
Appendix: Some Relevant Poems
Below are a few poems, and one letter, that may serve as an expression of my personal commitment to the ideas formulated above, and that may also help to recall and summarize.
As you will see, this commitment can be expressed in various poetic modes. My hope is that each reader/poet will find one’s individual way of expressing this commitment.
We gather here to see
faces from which we need not hide our face,
to hear the sound of honest speech, to share
what dreams have etched upon the sleeping brain,
what the still voice has said, when heavy hours
plunged us to regions of the mind and life
not mentioned in the marketplace: to find
and match the threads of common destinies,
designs grimed over by our thoughtless life --
A sanctuary for the common mind
we seek. Not to compete, but to compare
what we have seen and learned, and to look back
from here upon that world where tangled minds
create the problems they attempt to solve
by doubting one another, doubting love,
the wise imagination, and the word.
For, looking back from here upon that world,
perhaps ways will appear to us, which when
we only struggled in it, did not take
counsel of kindred minds, lay undiscovered;
perhaps, reflecting on the Babeled speech
of various disciplines that make careers,
we shall find out some speech by which to address
each sector of the world's fragmented truth
and bring news of the whole to every part.
We say the mind, once whole, can mend the world.
To mend the mind, that is the task we set.
How many years? How many lives? We do not know;
but each shall bring a thread.
THE UNWRITTEN POEM
The poem I have not yet written
whose first line would be the doorsill
to another space
The poem I have not written yet
whose form would be that space domed for meeting
filled with its own darklight
like the shine from invisible candles
The poem I have not written
whose words would be humans met
The poem not yet written
whose voice would be the inner voice of all
I would send you
CORPSES CLOG THE LITMAGS
The soul is naked among enemies,
And nowhere does it take more grievous wounds
Than where "well-meaning" poets hack away
At one another's poems. Merciless
As angels of the IRS, they pounce
On any word that each deems not OK,
Seldom standing still for long to guess
At the moving shape on the poem's horizon
Or hear the word the poem cannot quite say.
The poet, on his knees, starts to confess
His errors as they're fingered one by one.
Soon from his comrades' hands he takes the knife
And cuts the poem's tie to his own breath
And does the rest of what the pack wants done.
Its maker's eyes lit with thirst for its life-
Blood are the last thing the poem sees.
The corpses clog the litmags by the ton.
INSTRUCTIONAL VERSES (THE PATH OF SONG)
Those who aspire to the skill of singing
And wish to know how to acquire it
Should bear in mind with joy and reverence
Four things chiefly: the word, the self,
The human other, the cosmic Whole.
First the word: how each word we use
Contains a wealth, a world of meaning.
At every hour watch words in action,
To names above all accord attention,
For the act of naming is half of art.
Read, too, the books of the bards before you,
Watch what they do and how they do it,
At tradition's table listen and learn.
Next, attend to yourself, your soul,
Storehouse of memories, well of dreams,
Wearer of wounds, seeker of healing,
Unending teller of its own tale,
Source of melody beyond experience:
Those who can hear both tale and tune,
To them all things bring signs of guidance.
Then, the others who are to themselves
Storehouses of memories, wells of dreams,
Wearers of wounds, seekers of healing,
Unending tellers of their own tales,
Source of melody beyond experience,
Messengers to you as you to them.
Above all, abhor envy like poison,
For envy blinds the I in the other,
Blots creation with hatred of good.
If envy stings, let its sting alert you
To what you must praise lest your soul perish,
Then draw its fang with magnanimous deed
And all you acknowledge shall be your own.
Last and first: the cosmic Whole,
The household of Earth and all its inhabitants,
The infinite fugue of human fates,
The hope of vision, of one awareness
Embracing all earth, surmounting strife,
In each true word the poet utters
Calls to attention, advances toward peace.
Vast is the Way, complex beyond knowing,
Yet free, unforced as a child's chanting;
At every step the goal is present
And most when we manage the step of silence.
May all who read this find friends in wisdom
And inspiration for sacred song!
THE STATE GIRLS- BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
The basketball maidens came trooping onto the court.
With hair in pony-tails (none wore it short),
With fluttering tunics, limbs slender and strong,
They seemed like members of Diana=s throng.
Like a sculptor sketching hastily for Graces,
The camera zoomed on purposeful young faces,
On flashing forms. They dodged, they leaped, they threw,
And even from far off their aim was true.
A foul is called, late in the game. They=re tied.
On the line stands a maiden tragic-eyed.
She bounces it B grips, tosses it B it=s in!
Her teammates leap, their cries lost in the din.
O fellow-bard and hearer of my verse,
Just then I would have changed my lot for hers,
But block for me and I will block for you,
And cheer each other whenever we speak true.
Somewhere far away
a gigantic crystal leans
upon a mountaintop.
From it emanate
instructions, pulsing outward
in wave upon wave.
Those who pick them up
come together, synchronize
watches, pick their leaders.
They pool their info,
receive their assignments, then
scatter to do them.
At regular times
they reconvene, compare notes,
All this to the pulse
of that distant crystal becoming
their breath, their song.
Dear J., shalom,
Thank you for this latest poem, although it confronts me with two problems, one of which I have been grappling with a good deal recently. My poem but one dealt with this first problem. Written after reading a poem on Darfur, it is entitled
THIS IS NOT A POEM
These are such news as snap the strings of song,
Make fairest euphony appear as paint
Upon a dying visage, crack the gong
Of conscience, turn the heart of mercy faint.
Can we join word to word, when limb from limb
The human form with fiendish glee is rent;
When metaphor can only serve to skim
This Tophet's cauldron? Unless in covenant
This join both those who write and those who read,
Seal mind to mind and hand to steadfast hand,
Lest all G-d's field be choked by one foul weed,
Lest G-d's true image find no place to stand
On Earth (may G-d forbid!) and naught remain
But sin past all atonement, cureless pain.
Similarly, after someone brought to a workshop a poem on some atrocity, Richard Moore responded with a poem that ended:
The subject is so easy,
It is impossible.
Of course, this problem has been noticed before. You've doubtless heard Adorno's saying that to write a poem after Auschwitz is a barbaric act. He is said to have retracted this after reading Paul Celan's "Death Fugue." But I suspect that Celan's own conscience was never entirely easy about precisely this poem; he refused to read it in Jerusalem. The man who "plays with the snakes" is also -- alas, alas -- the poet.
At the core of every real poem, regardless of its subject, there is a strange delight, arising I guess from the play of words and forms together. The delight of Art. What Adorno meant to say, I think, is that in the face of certain subjects this delight must be refused, because to accept it makes one complicit. And yet as a poet it is hard to help writing poetry. This I perceive to have been Celan's dilemma, which ended, as you know, in the river.
But in pondering his tragedy I have glimpsed one possible way out, and that is if the experience of reading the poem could serve as basis for a bond, a covenant, among poets and readers. We have all partaken of the forbidden delight, shared in the same transgression, and can only redeem ourselves by pledging ourselves to help one another in our various tasks, each of which is part of tikkun ha'olam, the repair of the world. "All for one, one for all." "Our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." What greater delight could there be than to hear again words like these. That could also be a play, you know, a play for real stakes, but a standing occasion for courage and magnanamity and ingenuity, for the best qualities of the best poetry.
Well, I have been saying all this for upwards of thirty years; but each year I feel it more keenly.
The second problem, specific to this poem, is that I don't think Ferlinghetti is a good model at this or any time. Long ago a friend's husband in Berkeley, a Texan lawyer not otherwise given to epigram, referred to him as "Fallingspaghetti," and I think that admirably describes his lines. There's no art in his poems at all; his innovation was that to be a poet, all you need is the chutzpah to get up on the platform, expect attention, and strike a series of poses. And to ask for attention in the face of the sort of event we are witnessing takes an even greater chutzpah. The poet who wrestles with form, be it only blank verse, is engaged with something other, and is attempting to offer value in return for the desired attention. To return to form could be a step toward that recognition of the other which is a precondition of covenant.
So I wish very much that the next thing you send me could be in blank verse, at least, and reflect a wish not just to express but to impose on yourself some difficulty, some task, for art's and for all our sake.
Thank you for listening, thank you for being there.