Thursday, October 28, 2004

Quick hits

Good day in the park yesterday,(+$160) not so much for the money, but because of how i made it. Patience is the key to poker and i waited and waited and folded and folded, until Kareem went on tilt and started shedding loot like a shaggy dog. Taught a cool workshop at Banneker High today, the kids were very quick and i think we'll get a lot done. did some revising, but didn't finish the structure essay like i wanted too. it's all Lanny Barbie's fault. I'll finish it tomorrow, i think. Below is poem/riddle i wrote a few years ago, each line is about a different kind of book i.e. a cookbook, see if you can figure out what each kind of book is. i'll post the answers tomorrow.

This book isn't rubber, but will bounce if not properly balanced

This book is made of Middle Eastern fruit, never numbers higher than 31, and will meet you for dinner, dancing, or a movie

This book sits on the sides of the Mississippi, the Amazon, and the Nile, or richochets off rails of green felt

This book has its own staff, and comes quartered, whole or in half

C'mon Baby, this book will light your fire

Friday, October 22, 2004

'Listening' to Kyle Dargan

So i'm finally getting around to my review (?) of Kyle Dargan's 'The Listening', it took me longer than i thought because some of the poems required serious analysis. After reading this book several times i couldn't help thinking about how in Chess, the difference between a player rated 'Expert', and a player rated 'Master' is often in the kinds of mistakes that Experts think aren't that significant, but that Masters don't make. I'll start off by saying that i agree with Q. Troupe that it is an impressive debut. Dargan has a true poet's ear for melodic language, and the gift of being able to construct memorable imagery, two things that I think many poets publishing today lack. He also seems to have an intuitive understanding of one of the things that MFA programs are terrible at teaching-the structure of poems. The single biggest thing i hate about reading 'academic' poems is how flat and boring they are, how they often are compilations of excellent descriptions, but lack any tension at their centers. This is something that i think in part comes from many poets (Teachers and Students) not understanding the functional role of structure in a poem. (By 'Structure'- I mean something completely different than 'Form', I mean the way that ideas, images, or emotions in a poem are ordered, regardless of the form.) If one reads the best poems in the language, one will quickly discover that there aren't that many structures which make for successful poems. His grasp of structure (to me) isn't quite mastered, but I think he has a huge head start on most poets with MFAs. He has an expansive vocabulary, although many of his obscure words simply don't pass the substitution test, they often seem to be more sizzle than steak. No doubt some people will be impressed by them, i'm just not one of those people. But those words are legitimate signs of an exceedingly deft intellect. Among the better poems in the book are 'Ahboo', which is very strong for an occasional poem, 'nap.i.ness' (even though he went for the Black Nat okey-doke with the 'Jesus' reference. Please read Revelations 1:14, "wool" is clearly a color reference, not a texture reference.), 'On Men' [Daddy's hands], 'Surrender IV:Muse', and 'Nuclear Winter,' which is a very well done 9-11 poem. There are a lot of poems that are just a whisker off, including; 'Of the Sun', Redefinition', 'Palinode', 'Second Sky', 'Melody Forensic', 'Rock w/you', and 'Letter:Muddy Waters.' One consistent problem for me is that often Dargan is too clever by half, for example, in 'Letter' the first part of the poem tries to get 'experimental' in its typography, but nothing before the 'Who am I?' stanza really helps the poem get to where it's going, one could start the poem there and have a much stronger poem. The other stuff just ends up being a distraction. 'Palinode' is another example, it feels like the epigraph is dragged in to justify the title, otherwise the quote doesn't really seem to relate to the poem. The poem itself suffers from a minor logical flaw, the poem is structurally based on an analogy between the idea of 'cold' and a woman, but the third stanza begins "You aren't cold-", which means the poem now tries to say she isn't like cold, but is, but isn't. He could have avoided this conundrum by beginning the stanza with the interrogative-"Are you cold?", then the rest of the third stanza would have answered the question in a conflicted way that would have made a very nice resolution. The long poem 'Second Sky' is a nice attempt at a serious subject, but the poem, while containing memorable lines and images ("tongues ossified and became runes") lacks any linear arc across its several parts. 'Melody Forensic' is a poem that suffers from a too clever attempt at resolution. The poem could have ended on the pun "eyes wilted from your blow", its work is certainly done after that line (and he could have kept his last line by putting it after "Mr. Cool at the bar" and writing it "so sure he could swallow your blue note whole." But at any rate "could' is much better here than "can", even if the lines are left in their original order. These are to be sure the most minor of flaws, evidence i think, of how much talent Dargan already has and how much potential he shows, this is after all only a first book. Five strong poems is a lot I think for a first book, although I'm not sure that this book is quite as good as Young's 'Most Way Home', Jackson's 'Leaving Saturn', Hayes' 'Muscular Music', Jordan's 'Rise', or Strange's 'Ash', but it's close. When Dargan gets past his "Look Ma, No hands!" stage, and keeps only what propels the poems forward, and fine-tunes his sense of structure and its functional role in poetic Tension/Resolution, i think he will be a formidable and welcome force in American Poetry.

Friday, October 15, 2004


(For Rakim)

He spits similes high
makes metaphors fly
asks words to dance
and spies, as they comply.
Rolls his funky riffs
in the shape of a spliff
and blows ring ideas
so all can catch a whiff.
He creates from the concrete
debates on the downbeat
articulates an argument
plus- makes it sound sweet.
He tempts a toe to tap
And makes nappy heads nod
find himself accused
of making rhythm his god.
Though his ancestors come
from the time of talking drums
some wanna squeak and squawk
because he speaks drumtalk,
scatting Hiphop lines
in drum machine times,
his ghetto poetry flows
syncopated in rhymes.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Poem 15 OCT 04


Consider the tempered steel shell of the helmet,
the visor's slitted squeak and click,
the silver broadsword's pointed glare,
the gorget around the Adam's apple like a silver hand,
And the ornate breast-plate of the cuirass,
the chain mail linking like a thousand tiny phrases,
the mace spiking like a gargantulan metal spore,
the tasset's hip overlapping insistence,
Then the thigh carressing twin hollows of the cuisse,
the creak and moan of the knee-keeping greaves,
the sabatons protecting the tiniest of toes.

Can even the most well-armored knight,
stop a ladybug from crawling under his chest-plate?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reading Francis Scott in the Key of Jimi

i finally got some work done, this is the first of a series of essays that will look at political poetry.
Today I would like to examine the most infamous performance of what is probably the most famous political poem in the USA, ‘The Defence of Fort McHenry’. Written in 1814 by a lawyer and amateur poet on a sloop outside of Baltimore Harbor during a naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, the poem was published widely in American newspapers in the days and weeks after the battle. It became famous as a poem but became immortal when re-published by a Baltimore sheet music publisher as a song, under the name ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ It has always struck me as curious that discussions of ‘Political Poetry’ (by ‘Political Poetry’ I mean poems with socio-political import or concern) seldom mention this poem, despite the fact that its prevalence in American culture is at least a tacit admission of the power of poems to speak to ideas and concepts of deep socio-political impact. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that people most commonly encounter the poem as a song, and therefore think of it as only such. It was however, conceived, written and originally published as a poem, and the fact that it could be sung to the tune of ‘To Anacreon in Heaven Forever’ (an English drinking song) had to be pointed out the poet by his brother-in-law Judge Joseph Nicholson. (This is not a unique feature of this poem. Metrical poems with a verse and chorus structure are often set to music, or sung to preexisting melodies. Some poems without such a structure share this feature, such as the poems of Emily Dickinson which can almost all be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas’).
Many people think of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ as political only because it is the National Anthem, failing to realize that it became so (in 1931) because of its popularity resulting from its nationalistic political overtones. It would be almost impossible for a poem to have as its central image the national flag, depicted surviving an invasion of the country by a foreign power and for that poem not to be political. Written right after the British had captured Washington, DC and burned the (not yet) White House, the poem was published and re-published because it encapsulated a moment in the battle that could stand as symbolic of the entire young nation in its moment of crisis. That is, that like the battle-scarred flag that remained after the fierce bombardment, the nation would persevere and remain intact and free after winning the war with the British. But, the song became and remained popular (it was commonly sung at the beginnings of baseball games during WW1, before it became the national anthem) because it symbolized something important about the ideals on which the country was founded. That those ideals had to be fiercely fought for, and that the battle for them is ongoing (as the passage of the insidiously named Patriot Act reminds us) and never ending. An assertion of the poem’s fourth stanza that “this be our motto ‘in God is our trust’, is the source of the National Motto “In God we trust” adopted in 1954. This epitomizes the power of poetry to utilize images to communicate with readers in a deeply emotional and powerful manner.
The poem has an interesting structure, each of the firs three stanzas opens with a question, and these questions are answered in the fourth stanza. The first stanza, which is the only one most Americans know (if they know it at all) is normally the only one sung, and is itself composed of three questions. Each line ranges from 11 to 13 syllables and overall average about 12 to a line.

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro' the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watch'd, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro' the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The first verse is capable of standing alone as a complete poem or song, which is probably one of the reasons that the others are rarely sung. The fact that the third question of the first verse “O Say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave . . .” is left unanswered at the end gives the song its timeless quality. It also does not hurt that it can be interpreted as two different questions:

1. Does the flag still wave, as in Did it survive the battle ? (Key’s original intent)
2. Does the flag still wave over a free independent country?

The second question can continually be asked in times of crisis, which would explain its rise in popularity during WW1. In fact, in 1916 President Wilson ordered that the song be played on military occasions. Key’s use of a question as a rhetorical device, and use of a central concrete image “the star-spangled banner” as a symbol gives the poem its power. And allows (the first verse at least) to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ and leave it open to some interpretation thereby avoiding the two most common pitfalls that plague the majority of poorly written political poems. However, as the National Anthem the song has also become a magnet for political protest, particularly by African-Americans who feel that the country might not be achieving the ideals espoused in the poem. The most world renowned of these protests occurred in 1968 during the Olympic games in Mexico City. Two US sprinters, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, winners of the 200 meter dash stood barefoot on the medal podium and during the customary playing of the national anthem of the gold medallist, each lowered their head and simultaneously raised a single black-gloved fist. This silent act of rebellion so enraged IOC and US Olympic officials, that Carlos and John were immediately withdrawn from the upcoming relays, stripped of their medals, barred from the Olympic Village and ordered to leave Mexico City. Coming, as it did in the summer of ’68 it is entirely possible that this protest inspired Jimi Hendrix to begin playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” during his concerts the following year. Early in ’69 Hendrix played the song first in Stockholm, Sweden and then in Los Angeles, CA. It was however, his performance of the song on the last day of Woodstock that was captured on film and quickly became the most infamous instrumental performance in the song’s history. Hendrix’s brilliant use of the song to protest the expanded bombing (now including Cambodia and Laos) of the ongoing Viet Nam war sears into the senses like an aural burning of the flag. To many conservatives it sounds like a simple-minded desecration of the song by a guitarist in the midst of an LSD-induced rage. A careful and close reader however, cannot help but acknowledge it as pure genius. Hendrix’s particular genius lay in his use of the guitar to play not only music (melodies and harmonies), but also to create sound effects that illustrate the actions depicted by certain lyrics. Jimi’s use of the poem’s words, although never actually spoken may be the most remarkable thing about the entire performance. The key is to recite the lyrics as Jimi plays them. He opens with a bluesy but otherwise straightforward rendition of the song up until the words ‘the rocket’s red glare’, at this point he stops playing the melody and reproduces the sound of an incoming rocket and its explosion and resulting chaos. Another incoming rocket, a second explosion, and then screams and wails of anguish follow this. There is a third incoming rocket and explosion and then from amidst the roar of distorted feedback emerges a single musical phrase, the part of the melody which accompanies the words ‘the bombs bursting in air.’ The isolation of this single phrase makes it clear that this is a deliberate protest to the current bombing of Viet Nam. To eliminate any question about his intent, Hendrix (who served in the US Army in the 101st Airborne) follows the phrase ‘the bombs bursting in air’ with the sound of an air raid siren, then a duplication of roaring jet engines, and then the distinctive and unmistakable whistle of bombs falling through the air and exploding. Unlike the explosions of the earlier rockets, these explosions are much lower and more massive (this was the war the created the phrase ‘carpet-bombing’) and are followed by extended screams and cries of anguish. Hendrix then returns to next the part of the melody that corresponds with the lyrics ‘gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.’ He then delivers his ‘coup de grace’, interpolating almost two bars of the song “Taps.” This is probably the most stunningly creative and apt part of the entire performance, since the song “Taps” was composed by US Army General Daniel Adams Butterfield during the Civil War and is primarily used by the Army for two occasions; the nightly lowering and folding of the Post flag, and at military funerals right after the folding and presentation of the flag. Thus, “Taps” directly connects the US Army, the US flag, nightfall, and death. In fact, the song’s first verse concludes with the words ‘falls the night’, and its third verse concludes ‘Friend, Good Night.’ Hendrix follows this snippet of “Taps” with the third and concluding question of the first verse, ‘Oh Say does that star-spangled banner yet wave’, letting the notes of the word ‘wave’ trail and hang like a flag in a stiff breeze. He then continues with ‘O’er the land of the free’ and here he lets the notes of the word ‘free’ feedback into a high-pitched whistle which then plunges and falls like the earlier bomb sounds. The pun on the word ‘freefall’ is almost certainly intended, since that word is a perfect description of how bombs descend from planes, and Hendrix concludes with ‘and the home of the brave.’ His pause after the word ‘wave’ highlights the fact that the last question is really two different questions, and foregrounds the second of the two questions. Given that the original poem was written after a naval bombardment and that Hendrix’s recital (even though instrumental) foregrounds the poem’s words to protest the US bombing of another country, I would argue that this is an example of political performance poetry.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Reading Robert Hayden

When I first encountered Hayden’s work, I came across “Winter Sundays” in some anthology, and as soon as I read it, I was struck by the poem’s power and beauty, and “knew” that the poet was black, even though neither his name nor anything in the poem indicated that. I immediately went to a bookstore looking for more of his work, found his Collected Poems, and was one happy black mickyficky. I must have read “Middle Passage” about ten times. DAMN.
Anyway, critics sometimes argue about whether or not “Those Winter Sundays” and “Frederick Douglass” are sonnets. Both poems have 14 lines, but neither poem is faithful to a sonnet rhyme scheme. “Frederick Douglass” takes great liberties with the line length, but is closer to a sonnet’s internal structure of 8 lines to set up the argument, then 6 lines for the conclusion, (it takes 10.5 lines for the argument, then 3.5 for the conclusion). On the other hand “Winter Sundays” starts off, and ends with lines of iambic pentameter and never strays very far from 10 syllables per line, but has a very different internal structure.
I personally don’t consider either poem a “sonnet”, but rather improvisations on the sonnet form, a ‘syncopation of the form’ if you will. This is a common African-American (A-A) practice, where we take a Euro-American form, and “hook it up” by infusing it with an A-A aesthetic. For example, American culture is responsible for the invention of the fruit pie; the French had fruit pastries, the English meat pies, but it was Americans who came up with apple, and cherry pie. Enslaved West Africans, whose staple starch was the yam, found themselves in America and riffed off the form of a fruit pie, making sweet potato pie, (sweet potatoes are the American equivalent of yams). Here we have the African content in the Euro-American form. Transforming the form. And this is what I think Hayden is doing ”, (I am well aware of the fact that Hayden is alleged to have vociferously disagreed with the idea of a Black Aesthetic). Further examples include; Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things”, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace”, and Marvin Gaye’s “Star Spangled Banner.

Let’s look at “Frederick Douglass” first.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
And terrible thing, needful to man as air,
Usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
When it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
Reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
Than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
This man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
Beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
Where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
This man, superb in love and logic, this man,
Shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
Not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
But with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
Fleshing his dream of the beautiful needful thing.

To properly ‘read’ this poem, we must properly ‘hear’ it first. The key is remembering that A-A culture is an oral culture, and that Douglass was both a minister and a great orator, (oratorical skills are very highly prized in the West African cultures from which A-A originated), and he is part of a line of great A-A orators from Olaudah Equiano to Jesse Jackson. Because, in this poem, Hayden (who was raised in the Baptist Church) uses a rhetorical style common to speeches and sermons. Speeches like poems utilize certain devices to achieve their effects, and A-A preachers and speakers often utilize semantic riffing in their sermons (think of a preacher saying” Jesus!, is our protector, our comforter, our redeemer, our Lord and Savior” or Malcolm X saying “You’ve been misled, tricked, hoodwinked, bamboozled”).
Examine the first line of the poem, it has 18 syllables (10 is the norm for a sonnet) and is far and away the longest line in the poem. With a poet of Hayden’s caliber this is no accident, he deviates from the form for a reason, he is running long just like a Baptist minister on a Sunday morning. But check out why he goes long, read the first two lines without the phrase “this freedom, this liberty”. They read “When it is finally ours, this beautiful/ And terrible thing, needful to man as air”, he clearly doesn’t need the phrase “this freedom, this liberty” for the poem to make sense. The inclusion of the two abstractions “freedom”, and “liberty” isn’t particularly poetic, and the phrase adds an extra 7 syllables to the line, so why did he do it? To send us a message, that this poem was operating under a different aesthetic. Note that while not particularly poetic, the extra phrase sets up a riff “this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful/ And terrible thing”, the kind of riff found in A-A speeches and sermons. In fact the whole poem is composed of a series of such riffs. Also note that the argument of the poem is one long sentence, which ends in line 10, and at the beginning of the conclusion is the word “Oh”. Once again, this word is not needed to make the point, and adds an extra syllable, but it is exactly the kind of impassioned plea we would expect to find in a sermon, or speech. And unlike other Hayden poems, but like a speech this poem contains only a few similes and metaphors. In effect Hayden is delivering a mini speech to memorialize Douglass. Below, I’ve taken the liberty of modifying the line breaks in the poem so that the structure of the riffs throughout the poem are revealed, and I’ve also added responses to Pastor Hayden’s calls to help illustrate its sermonic nature.

Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours,
this freedom,
this liberty,
this beautiful And terrible thing, [Speak! Brother]
needful to man as air,
Usable as earth;
when it belongs at last to all, [To all!]
When it is truly instinct,
brain matter,
Reflex action; [Teach, Teach!]
when it is finally won; [Yes Lawd, finally]
when it is more
Than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians: [Preach, Preach!]
This man, [This man!]
this Douglass,
this former slave,
this Negro [Tell’em now]
Beaten to his knees, [Beaten!]
exiled, [Exiled!]
visioning a world
Where none is lonely, [None!]
none hunted,
alien, [Speak!, speak!]
This man,
superb in love and logic, [Superb!]
this man,
Shall be remembered. [Yes, he will!]

not with statues’ rhetoric, [Oh, No!]
Not with legends [Oh, No!]
and poems [Not poems!]
and wreaths of bronze alone, [Not bronze]
But with the lives
grown out of his life, [Speak!]
the lives
Fleshing his dream [Preach!]
of the beautiful needful thing. [A-men!]

It is as if an escaped slave has been riding north in the luggage compartment of a train, and now the journey has ended and he is allowed to uncoil to his true height. Note the five “When” riffs, followed by the six “This” riffs that make up the main statement of the poem, and how they contain riffs within themselves. Note also, how after all the abstractions in the first line, he grounds the poem with two concrete similes, i.e. “needful to man as air, usable as earth”, then follows with an arpeggio of metaphors i.e. “brain matter, diastole, systole” that connect freedom to the body physical, his point being that Douglass was fighting for a tangible freedom, not a theoretical one, (this is underscored by the metaphor “fleshing his dream” in the last line of the poem).
The poem’s tension is established by the statement that “When this freedom is finally ours”, “this man shall be remembered”, which brings to mind the question how? And since Hayden is a poet, the natural answer is “by this poem”. But, the next section then answers, “Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric, /Not with legends and poems”, but “with the lives fleshing his dream”, this unexpected answer supplies an element of surprise to the poem’s resolution. But, Hayden isn’t just riffing on the sonnet as a form, he is also riffing on a particular sonnet, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55 (Not marble, nor the gilded monuments). In that sonnet Shakespeare tells his lover his “powerful rhyme” will outlast statues and cities and preserve the memory of its subject. Hayden goes Shakespeare one better, stating that Douglass will be remembered not with statues OR poems, but with the lives of those who actually get to fulfill his dream (freedom and equality for all Americans). This ‘sermon within a sonnet’, that yearns to be free, perfectly symbolizes the duality and dilemma of being African-American.

Now let’s take a look at the other poem-

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
And put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
Then with cracked hands that ached
From labor in the weekday weather made
Banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking,
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
And slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
Who had driven out the cold
And polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
Of love’s austere and lonely offices?

If people have read any poem by Hayden it is likely to be this one. The sonnet is a flexible form, but by and large it has been used more for love poems than any other subject matter. Hayden invokes this tradition by opening the poem with two lines of pentameter. All of the imagery in the first stanza is concrete, and used to establish the setting. His decision to place the word “too” directly after the word “Sunday” greatly helps to emphasize the father’s sacrifice. Towards the end of the second line his choice of the synaesthetic “blueblack” as an adjective is masterful, because it does double work; one meaning evokes the father dressing in pre-dawn darkness, the other suggests a cold so chilling, it numbs and bruises. In the next line the connection between “cracked” and “ached” is reinforced by consonance, and “ached” and “labor” are reinforced by assonance. The fact that the fire is “banked” tells us that this is a woodstove. The poem’s source of tension is established in line 5, with “No one ever thanked him”, which implies that the father’s actions are unappreciated, and also sets up the expectation that he may be thanked later in the poem. Hayden’s decision to place a stanza break after line five, separates the first stanza (which concentrates on the father) and the second (which concentrates on the son), and sets up a contrast, which reinforces the distance between the two.
In the next stanza, Hayden begins with the word “I” and re-tells the story, showing how the morning’s events were experienced by the speaker. This retelling occupies the next seven lines of the poem and means that the poem takes twelve lines to state the argument, a significant deviation from the standard sonnet structure. The poem also uses narrative to state the argument, something which isn’t usually done in sonnets. The phrase in the first line “the cold splintering, breaking” is a triple entendre; he could mean the metaphorical “breaking” or diminishing of the cold, a literal “breaking and splintering” of the cold (as when ice melts quickly), or the wood in the stove “breaking and splintering” in the blazing flames. Line six also serves another purpose we will come back to later. The phrase ”chronic angers of that house” (an excellent use of metonymy, since it is actually the father’s anger) in the last line is extremely important, as it gives the father a flaw (a bad, and possibly violent temper), which helps justify the distance between the two, and ratchets up the poem’s tension another notch.
Beginning the last stanza with “Speaking indifferently to him” helps to reinforce the son’s emotional coldness towards the father, and together with line eleven re-illustrates the point of tension in the poem (that the father’s actions are unappreciated). In line twelve, we find out that the father has “polished my good shoes as well”, which takes the tension up still another notch.
The best resolutions are those that provide some sort of surprise, and Hayden doesn’t disappoint. In the last two lines we are looking for some kind of thanks to resolve the tension, but instead we get a question i.e. “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” Another source of surprise, is that throughout the poem the speaker has been addressing us, the reader, but his final question could also be directed towards the father.
It is the next to last line which really makes the poem special, the repetition of the phrase “What did I know”, changes the simple question, “what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” into a plaintive plea for forgiveness (“What did I know, what did I know) ”), which acknowledges the significance of the father’s actions. But, the speaker never directly thanks his father (of course the presence of the poem is an indirect thanks). This means that the poem brings us right up to the moment of full resolution (the actual thanking), a resolution which is foreshadowed by line six (“I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking,”, where the “waking” is the speaker’s epiphany, and the “cold” that breaks and splinters is his “indifference”), but never actually provided. This partial resolution draws us back to the poem over and over again, seeking full closure. Note that the last line is ten syllables, which invokes the sonnet form again. One last source of surprise is the choice of the word “offices” to end the poem. Here the word could be read as a concrete noun i.e. (a place of business), which would make the last line a metaphor, but actually has another definition which is “duties”. (“austere” and “offices” are also linked and reinforced by assonance). If we assume that Hayden is in fact the speaker, the poem is made even more poignant by the fact that he was an adopted child.
So, how did I “know” that Hayden was black? I think it is because of the very rhythmic way the poem uses music. There are sound devices in every line of the first two stanzas i.e. (Sunday/early, clothes/cold, cracked/ached, labor/made, banked/thanked, wake/breaking, rooms/warm, I/rise, fearing/anger), and they provide a steady rhythm throughout the poem, and a haunting beauty as well. This kind of rhythmic effect is common in A-A poems, but less frequent in poems by other poets.

Reading Harryette Mullen

Let’s look at two poems from Harryette Mullen’s book, S*PeRM**K*T. Mullen’s work is strongly influenced by “Language Poetry”, although the poems in this book are on the cusp between Language Poems, and poems which seek to use language as a primarily communicative tool. Because, while they eschew the use of the first person; or of linear narrative, and highlight the ambiguity inherent in language; they clearly refer to the world outside of the poem, often have a unified thematic thread, and have a social conscience; critiquing sexism, racism, classism, and rampant consumerism among others. The book’s title can be variously read as “SuperMarket”, “S-Perm Kit”, or “Sperm kit”. As the readings of the title show, this book utilizes punning as a primary (but not sole) literary device, where Mullen picks up words, and fans through their multiplicity of meanings like a magician with a deck of cards.
There are at least five different types of puns used in the English language, all of which are found in these poems.
A) Homophonic Puns- Words or phrases which sound the same but are spelled differently i.e. male/mail, seen/scene
B) Double Entendre- Words or phrases which are spelled the same, but have unrelated meanings i.e. can (verb, meaning “able”)/can (noun, a metal container), or the double entendre of “hard as calculus” which can mean “difficult as Calculus” (a type of Mathematics), or “tough and durable as calculus” (the mineral deposits often found crusted in water pipes)
C) Sonic Allusions-words or phrases which sound similar to, (and therefore call to mind) other words or phrases i.e. “scarred strangled banter” alludes to the “Star Spangled Banner”
D) Lexical Puns-Puns which repeat a word or root word in different forms i.e. “I’m cursed with this curse to just curse”, or “in this journey, you’re the journal, I’m the journalist/ am I eternal, or an eternalist? “
E) Visual puns-Puns where the spelling of a word or part of a word calls to mind some other word which looks similar, but is pronounced differently i.e. He’ll burn forever in Hell, where “He’ll” is a visual, but not sonic pun on “Hell”

Here is the first poem-

What’s brewing when a guy pops the top off a bottle or can talk with another man after a real good sweat. It opens, pours a cold stream of the great outdoors. Hunting a wild six-pack reminds him of football and women and other blood spoors. Frequent channels keep high volume foamy liquids overflowing, not to be contained. Champs, heroes, hard workers all back-lit with ornate gold of cowboy sunset lift dashing white heads, those burly mugs.

The first sentence asks a rhetorical question about the events commonly pictured in print ads, and TV commercials (critiquing the use of macho imagery to sell beer), here “brewing” is a pun, meant metaphorically (what’s happening?), and literally (as a reference to how beer is produced), also note the internal rhyme (pop/top), and assonance (top/off/bottle), the word “can” is also being punned on. In the second sentence “It” refers to both a commercial and a bottle of beer, “stream” is the beer leaving the bottle, the body of water (the purity of the water used by the breweries is often touted in beer commercials), and the “stream” of images in the ad. In the third sentence “Hunting” is both literal and metaphorical, and “six-pack” refers to beer as well as wild animals, “blood spoors” is both literal, and alludes to ‘blood sports’ i.e. football, and “him” is the viewer. In the next sentence “Frequent” is both literal and plays off the idea that channels are on different frequencies, “channels” refers to TV channels, “channel” as a body of water, and “channels” as different types of advertising, and “high volume” refers to the amount of beer, beer sales, and the sound level of the commercials, “not to be contained” refers to the beer, the commercials, and the amount of sales. The last sentence lists the type of macho images favored by makers of commercials, “cowboy” refers to both the occupation and the type of sunset, “dashing white heads” are of the actors, and the foam of the beer, and “mugs” is a type of beer glass, the faces of the actors, and in African-American vernacular a reference to the men themselves.

Next we have-

Well bread ain’t refined of coarse dark textures never enriched a doughty peasant. The rich finely powdered with soft white flours. Then poor got pasty pale and pure blands ingrained inbred. Roll out dough we need so what bread fortifies our minimum daily sandwich. Here’s a dry wry toast for a rough age when darker richer upper crust, flourishing, outpriced the staff with moral fiber. Brown and serve, a slice of life whose side’s your butter on.

This particular piece, critiques notions of social class by charting how white bread
began as an expensive luxury item for the rich, which made it desirable to the lower classes, even though the cheaper, darker whole grains they were eating were more nutritional. Then, when the health food movement began and people realized the value of whole-grained breads, the companies changed their prices, and those same whole-grained breads became more expensive and now are signs of higher class.
Mullen starts off with an allusive pun (well-bred), then “refined” refers both to people and wheat flour, “coarse” is a homophonic pun (course), “dark textures” refers to both the texture of bread and the color of peasants (who worked outside, and were therefore darker), “enriched” is both literal and a bread reference, “doughty” is a visual pun (dough), also note the assonance of (bread/texture/never/peasant). In the next sentence “finely powdered” refers to both the type of milling necessary to make white flour, and the wigs worn by the rich, note the internal rhyme (powdered/flour). The next sentence begins with alliteration (poor/pasty/pale/pure), then the puns, “blands” (brands), “ingrained” (in grain), and “inbred” (in bread). The fourth sentence puns on “roll out dough”, which is literal and also means “pull out the money”, on “need” (knead), “what” (wheat), “fortifies” (white bread is both enriched and fortified with vitamins), and the phrases “our daily bread”, and “minimum daily requirements”. The next sentence puns on “wry” (rye), and “toast”, then “rough age” alludes to “roughage”, “darker” is a reference to bread and to the fact that in modern times the rich tend to be more tanned, Mullen then follows with “upper crust”, then a visual pun in “flourishing” (flour), after which “staff with moral fiber” alludes to (stuff with more fiber), while critiquing the idea that the upper classes are morally superior to their servants. The final sentence contains “brown and serve”, a reference to ready-made biscuits and the fact that African-Americans often worked in domestic capacities, then “slice of life”, and an allusion to the phrase “know which side your bread is buttered on” which contains an allusive pun on “butter” (butler).
Presto, chango, now you see him , now you don’t. Given the interpretive role required of the reader, some of you may see more, or less, in these poems, which is part of the joy of reading them.

Reading Carl Phillips

The poets Terrance Hayes and Yona Harvey asked me to look at this poem. Carl Phillips is not one of my favorite poets, mainly because I feel he is a one trick pony (although it is one hell of a trick). His poems depend on three basic techniques (which all create the same effect) to achieve almost all of their tension, and once you know how the trick works, his work can get boring fast. Add to that the fact that 90% of his poems are about one of two topics; unrequited desire, or ecstasy (sexual, romantic, or religious) experienced for a short time, that recedes. But, if you can’t see the tricks, his work can seem amazing. (For the record, I’m not saying these techniques shouldn’t be used by poets, only that if this is primarily what one does, or all one says, things can get mighty dull).
For example- there is a well known philosophical dilemma which goes; If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? This can appear to be an unsolvable paradox, when the tree hits the ground we know it makes a sound, but if no one hears it how could there be a sound? The key is understanding that the word “sound” has two very different meanings which usually can be used interchangeably. One is “sound” as the waves generated, the other is “sound” as the waves being perceived. In normal speech a slight difference such as this isn’t usually important, but in this question it is crucial, because each side of the paradox relies on a different definition. As your mind bounces back and forth between the two definitions it seems like there’s a paradox, because one definition (waves generated) requires a "yes" answer and the other (waves perceived) requires a "no" answer, but it’s just a trick of the language. If we replace the word “sound” or define it one way or the other, the answer is clear. (If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it generate sonic waves? YES. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is there to hear it, are the sonic waves perceived? NO). This “dilemma” doesn’t really tell us much about the world, except, if you think you’ve found a paradox, double-check the language it is written in first. Here we have a word, which conceals a usually unrecognized double entendre, and Carl Phillips uses this kind of pun (often of a sexual nature) over and over and over in his poems to make us (often unknowingly) bounce between two different definitions. He also knows that in English, word order affects the meaning of a sentence; “I left the keys in the car” means something different than “I left the car in the Keys”. Phillips uses convoluted syntax to create ambiguity in his sentences, often to make the reader bounce between different meanings (Dickinson was fond of this technique). The third trick is, he uses sentences which negate (or appear to negate) themselves, i.e. “The sentence after this is true. The sentence before this is false.” This is a circular argument, which in Logic is invalid, because neither statement can be verified, but in a poem, who’s checking the validity of the logic of the sentences? (Besides me) Once again we bounce between two different poles, with no resolution even possible. In the poem below he (like Wallace Stevens) employs all three techniques to create tension, and employs them to stunning effect.

King of Hearts

Somewhere now, someone is missing him,
since here he is for the taking, nicked
at three of his four corners, decked out

in the fade of much play, his two heads
laid prone on the sidewalk before you.

Like you, in this heat and humidity, no
wind, when it comes, moves him. Like you,

he knows a thing, maybe, about wilting—
how, like sleep or some particularly

miserable defeat played over but this time
in slow motion, it has its own fine beauty.


once you’ve found him, when you’ve

brought him home, the man with a face as
close as you’ll ever get to the other one,

the one it was easy enough, earlier, not to
pick up, to step on, even, and move slowly

but unbothered away from, you’ll only remember

the part about wilting.
And even that, as

you lift his ass toward you, as your hands
spread it open until it resembles nothing

so much as a raw heart but with a seemingly
endless hole through it—even that will

Him, between drink and the good money

you’ve paid, doing whatever you tell him.
Him throwing back whatever words you hand out.

You’re the king, you’re the king, him saying.

The title refers to either a playing card, or some pretty Casanova type guy who sleeps around, and is fallen in love with, but commits to no one. The key question in this poem is, who is the “him” of the first line? It is both the king on the card and the Casanova guy. Notice the double entendres; “here for the taking” (the card and the man), “nicked at three of his four corners”(the card literally, the man metaphorically), “decked out” (out of the deck), “fade of much play” (the card and the man), in black street slang "decked out in the fade of much play" can also mean "wearing a hairstyle (a fade) that is common", “two heads”(of the card, and of the man), “when it comes”. Also the word “wilting” and the phrases “missing him”, and “miserable defeat” will acquire new referents by the poem’s end. So in the first part of the poem we bounce between the image on the card (which is a symbol) and the actual Casanova guy.
In the second section Phillips introduces a new lover whom the speaker compares to “the other one”, the King on the card. The word “wilting” in the second section, now has a slightly different meaning, that is –to melt in the presence of desire. In the next sentence Phillips uses the second half of a simile to do double work, the simile is “until it resembles nothing/ so much as a raw heart but with a seemingly/ endless hole through it”, here “as a raw heart but with a seemingly
endless hole through it” not only describes the “ass” of the temporary lover, but also the emotional condition of the speaker. In the line “ –even that will fade” Phillips is referring to the “wilting”, returning it to its previous meaning, and the wordplay should be obvious (the wilting fades). Phillips finishes the poem by having the new lover refer to the speaker as “the king” which he is because he is momentarily in charge, and the aggressor in this sex act, and is not ,(because he is still subject to his desire and his control will “fade”). This reference also implie that he is headed towards the same destiny as the Casanova guy/face on the card. The first line of the poem now means that the speaker is not the only one who is in this predicament, there are others like him. And in all fairness, I do think that this particular poem does an excellent job of illustrating the difficulty of romantic relationships and encounters.

Reading Etheridge Knight

I won't do my review of Kyle Dargan's book today, instead here is one of my essays about "As You Leave Me" by Etheridge Knight. I think this is one of the most beautiful and poignant love poems I have ever read. Etheridge Knight is one of my favorite poets, and this is one his best poems.


Shiny record albums scattered over
the living room floor, reflected light
from the lamp, sharp reflections that hurt
my eyes as I watch you, squatting among the platters,
the beer foam making mustaches on your lips.

And, too,
The shadows on your cheeks from your long lashes
Fascinate me- almost as much as the dimples
In your cheeks, you arms, and your legs.

hum along with Mathis- how you love Mathis!
with his burnished hair and quicksilver voice that dances
among the stars and whirls through canyons
like windblown snow, sometimes I think that Mathis
could take you from me if you could be complete
without me. I glance at my watch. It is now time.

You rise,
silently, and to the bedroom and the paint;
on the lips red, on the eyes black,
and I lean in the doorway and smoke, and see you
grow old before my eyes, and smoke. why do you
chatter while you dress? and smile when you grab
your large leather purse? don’t you know that when you
leave me I walk to the window and watch you? And light
a reefer as I watch you? And I die as I watch you
disappear in the dark streets
to whistle and smile at the johns.

copyright 1979 Etheridge Knight

There are two keys to this poem; the first is how the title sets up the tension, and that tension is developed, then released, the second is the expert use of concrete imagery to show (not tell) the story. After we read the title, the big questions are; who is leaving and why ? The first stanza of the poem (each of the first two stanzas is one complete sentence) opens up with a concrete image i.e. “shiny record albums”, note the adjective (shiny) and how it becomes relevant in the second clause of the sentence, also note how the setting is established right away, the second clause tells us why the records are shiny, building on that image with the reflected light, the third clause shows us that the reflections hurt his eyes, building even further by introducing the object of the speaker’s affections (we will return to this clause later), the next clause shows us she is sitting on the floor, and the last clause introduces a very important image the “beer foam making mustaches”. At the end of the first stanza we have a couple sitting on the floor, drinking beer, listening to records (what kind of records?).
The image introduced in the second stanza (“the shadows on your cheeks”) is the kind of detail only a person deeply in love would be fascinated by, the next image (her dimples) gives us some information about her (she’s got some meat on her bones). At the end of the second stanza we have a speaker who is observant of and fascinated by minute details of her appearance.
The third stanza shows us what type of records they are listening to (Johnny Mathis records), which along with the beer foam mustache confirms the idea of a romantic encounter. This stanza contains the poem’s three comparative images; the metaphor “quicksilver voice that dances among the stars” (Mathis has a great deal of vocal range and is known for singing high notes), and a metaphor modified by a simile, “whirls through canyons like windblown snow”(Mathis’ voice has an ethereal quality). The next clause (sometimes I think . . .) shows us that the speaker feels that this relationship is equally important to both of them. The next image (I glance at my watch), moves the poem towards its crisis point, and the third sentence in this stanza (It is now time), appears to bring the tension to a head. At the end of this stanza we have a tight couple who are enjoying themselves, but now it seems their time together is up, but why?
As the fourth stanza opens, she still hasn’t left. Note how each detailed image moves the story along with maximum efficiency, (rise silently/to the bedroom/the paint/on the lips red/on the eyes black). The fact that the woman puts on her makeup in the bedroom indicates that she probably lives there. Note how the repetition of “smoke” shows his rising level of anxiety. The line “grow old before my eyes”, shows us she is probably no older than twenty. The first sentence of the fourth stanza ends with the speaker leaning in the doorway smoking and watching. Note that the next sentence begins without a capital letter, and is the first of four questions which do so. The first two questions are about concrete details of her actions (chatter/smile) which indicate she is at ease with her actions, a direct contrast to his condition. The third question moves the poet from the doorway to the window, (note the alliteration i.e. walk/window/watch), and the fourth question shows how high his anxiety has gone (he switches from a cigarette to a reefer). Note the alliteration in the last sentence (die/disappear/dark). This last sentence is what makes the poem truly special, as it holds its surprise until the very last word. The tension which has been building is suddenly released, but not quite in the manner we expected. The word “johns” explodes in the mouth like a firecracker. The source of the speaker’s anxiety is now revealed. The problem is not the fact THAT she is leaving, but rather WHY she is leaving. The woman is a prostitute, and is on her way to work. Knight never tells us her occupation, he shows her at it, which I think increases the shock, since she appears to be willingly engaged in this activity. The romantic elements of the encounter, and the fact that the speaker is openly acknowledging his affection for the woman, eliminate the possibility that the speaker is the woman's pimp.
The earlier line “sharp reflections that hurt my eyes as I watch you” appeared to be only concrete details that advanced the story, but if we think of reflections as “contemplative thoughts”, we see that this line foreshadowed the speaker’s predicament at the end of the poem. And although the poem’s tension is released, the speaker’s source of tension is never resolved. This type of partial resolution gives the greatest pleasure. Knight never wastes an image, every detail either propels the story forward, or deepens our understanding of the relationship. Note that despite the speaker’s obvious unease with her profession, he never attempts to stop her, simply suffers quietly. When we think of technical mastery, we tend to think of clever rhymes, dazzling wordplay, complex metaphors, or sizzling similes. The technical mastery in this poem lies in its well chosen concrete imagery, which is also quiet, and easy to overlook.