Befriending Frankenstein

hoaglandI have been reading Tony Hoagland’s newest book of essays, Twenty Poems that Could Save America (published by Graywolf Press, a wonderful imprint). In his first essay, “Je Suis ein Americano: the Genius of American Diction,” he talks about the current direction of American poetry, the experimentation, the fractured language and syntax, the shifts and ruptures of trying to cobble together something fresh.  This is the final paragraph:

“American English is a great experiment in progress, and American poetry is its laboratory on a hill. Several decades ago, Tim Dlugos published a chapbook of poems with the title Je Suis ein Americano, as if making the point of this essay in brief. I suppose the mythic analog might be the story of Frankenstein’s monster. The creature we know as Frankenstein is patched together by a mad doctor, who employs a cut-and-paste method using the recycled parts of executed criminals. The monster escapes, descends from the mountain, and terrorizes the villagers. It sounds a lot like postmodernism, doesn’t it? Yet the big, interestingly fabricated fellow is trying to communicate something—maybe he just wants a hug, but he can’t make himself understood to the frightened townspeople. Their natural-enough tribal reaction is to try to kill him. In American poetry, too, the boundary between the natural and unnatural continues to shift, and American poets keep pushing the limits, searching for a creation at once wide awake and divine.”

So for today, here’s a poem by Dean Young. He plays with set phrases, awkward translations, myths, and most of all expectations. Don’t worry about making sense of it (though I think it has a delightful, deep, cumulative logic). Just revel in his surprising images and word choices, which are always fresh:

Changing Your Bulb

I disconnect the power for at least
five minutes until your bulb is cool
and no longer producing song through
small chewing devices at the end
of its beak.  Clunk goes the tipped-over
pounce-meat.  When I change your bulb,
am I really changing my own?  This concludes
these opening remarks.  Later you will be asked
to repeat them as a test of metal decay.
Now take your steel ring by any sharp
of tool at place of two gap or at least
that’s what the instructions say.
Maybe you were made in Tunisia.
I have loved you longer than my one life.
In the north, Siegfried rests after his hunt.
The new adults go into summer hibernation,
called aestivation but we are just waking.
Wing-wear: always a troublement, but there,
in the Wild Valley and Forest of the Rhine
your new bulb gets installed, acting mainly
as an exacerbation to fuzzy brain function.
I feel like I’m approaching a cliff wrapped
in an enormous kite, cheery as life insurance
and I can’t be sure if the statuary
is of rich citizens or supernatural forces. Continue reading “Befriending Frankenstein”

Back from camping

Making the coffee this morning, Larry picked up my new Dean Young book and said, “You know, reading a poem takes just about the right amount of time to brew a cup of coffee.” I responded that our daughter recently told me that People Magazine is designed so that the articles are can be read “in the time it takes the average person to take a dump” so that Larry’s remark was a sort of corollary.

foreignHe came back a few minutes later, coffee in hand and said, “With that logic, doctors’ offices should have copies of Foreign Affairs Quarterly.”

So starts another day back in foggy Berkeley.

No there there, a short rant

I am taking a class on prosody, and yesterday, Gertrude Stein and her work came up in conjunction with form.  It led me to reflect on her and my reaction against words separated from meaning.

490px-GertrudeSteinFrom 1940-1944, while other Jews in France were being systematically ferreted out and deported to camps, Gertrude Stein lived in cosseted comfort. She was an apologist and translator for Marshal Pétain and his Vichy government, and had publicly supported Franco in the 30’s. No amount of revisiting of Stein and her views can change that fact that during her years in France during World War II she never distressed or disturbed herself in any way about the horrors around her. Stein was an extraordinarily privileged woman with large influence; she never raised a dime or a word in defense of the persecuted. Continue reading “No there there, a short rant”

More awakenings

Following yesterday’s post about poems that try to make sense of the constant data we swim in, here’s one by Dean Young, from his booking, Fall Higher. The Tony in this poem is the Tony Hoagland from yesterday.

Some Recent and New Errors

My books are full of mistakes
but not the ones Tony’s always pointing out
as if correct spelling is what could stop the conveyor belt
the new kid caught his arm in.

Awake in America

How can we process the barrage of data in which we live? It’s hard to make sense of the huge events that shape current history, and yet here they are, paraded in front of us replayed at 6, 9, 10, 11 and in-between, mingled with small horrors, trivia, obligation, inspiration–an overwhelming soup, seasoned with complicity and powerlessness.

Tony Hoagland and Dean Young are poets whose work seems to me to address this in particular. So I thought I’d post a few poems over the next few days–one by each of them, a few by others. Let me know what you think.


Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says America is for him a maximum security prison whose walls

Are made of Radio Shacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials;

Continue reading “Awake in America”

Dreams of Kay Ryan

From time to time, poets make cameo appearances in my dreams. Last night it was Kay Ryan. We were at a party together, and I was trying to show her how to undress and change your outfit in the middle of a public space without anyone noticing.  The trick is to move very naturally, at an unhurried pace, and just keep interacting normally with the environment while you slip into something else. Unfortunately, I was wearing a starched shirt that crinkled like wrapping paper when it moved, which ruined the process. Kay was understanding.

I asked her if she ever felt trapped by her own style, if she ever got tired of writing “Kay Ryan poems.”  She didn’t seem to have a problem with that. I woke up with this poem:


How is it that
we recognize
with our sense
and with our eyes
that tall dogs,
short dogs,
fat and thin,
are all one species
from within?

Continue reading “Dreams of Kay Ryan”

Narnia or poetry workshop?

As a child, I was always looking for the door at the back of the wardrobe to get into another world. I believed that I could be transported to Narnia if I just knew where to find the door. As an adult, the poetry workshop at Squaw Valley has been the closest to that magical world for me. I first went in 1986. It was a very small gathering then, perhaps 30 or 40 poets, divided into three workshops each day, taught by Bob Hass, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell. Galway was the Director until a year or two ago, and his generous spirit shaped the experience (a spirit Bob Hass continues to manifest).

With four children and a demanding job, I hadn’t written a poem in years, and the first evening I discovered we were to write a poem that night, and read it in a workshop the next morning. The terror I felt was probably what I’d feel standing at the open door of a plane for my first parachute jump. But somehow, poetry was waiting patiently for me, and that week the poems kept coming, one after another.

The process at Squaw is simple: everyone, including the “staff poets” writes a new poem each day and reads it in the morning workshop. After each poet reads, someone jumps in and says something about what works in the poem for them. A brief discussion follows, with no criticism unless the poet asks for specific feedback on something. At first I thought, “How dumb to only say nice things.” And Dean Young, who has been a staff poet, sometimes refers to it as the “petting zoo.”

But these poems are fresh, and we don’t know each other’s work. Pointing out what is working in the poem does several things. It focuses the writers on their strengths. It encourages them to can keep moving in that direction. There really is no need to say what’s wrong; the focus on what’s working implies what isn’t. And poetry is so much a matter of personal taste–different things move different people. As Lucille Clifton, another staff poet, often quoted, “the house of poetry has many rooms.”

Most of all, though, the spirit of the workshop encourages experimentation. Writers feel safe. No one presumes to “teach” you how to write a poem. Instead, everyone is trying hard to do their best work. Of course we each want to impress everyone with our skill, that’s a given. But over the week, everyone’s work improves.
It’s thrilling to watch and to experience. It’s like living in a poem. Everything informs the process. The place itself is part of the magic, but most of it has to do with the indefinable nature of community–a temporary community, to be sure–but one that makes so much possible.

I’ve been back several times. This year, while I didn’t attend, I went for the final evening, an amazing dinner at the home of Barbara Hall. Oakley Hall was one of the founding forces of this program (there are fiction and screen-writing sessions, too, although these are managed differently). The Hall family, especially Brett Hall Jones, make the ongoing workshops a reality. After dinner, anyone who wants recites a poem from memory. Sometimes, with a familiar poem like Jaberwocky or Lake Isle of Innisfree, many poets join in. I love this experience. It seems to me like watching the living voice of poetry jump from throat to throat, sometimes in different languages, always with a different voice. So that’s where I’ve been.

As a bonus, I got to hear Bob Hass talk about prosody. Someone had asked what role rhyme, meter and form play in poetry, and Bob’s answer was essentially that poetry is made of what you know. The more widely you read, the more is available to you. If you are moved by a poem, you might explore it, analyze it to see how it’s done. He had a handout that started with a line from an Irving Berlin song that haunted him:

What’ll I do when you are far away?
When I am blue, what’ll I do?

He talked about the stresses in the phrase “What’ll I do,” a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, then a final stress. This pattern is called a cradle, as the two stressed syllables “hold” the unstressed ones. It’s shape goes a long way to the power of these song lines.  If any of you want my notes, and the full handout, leave me a comment, and I’ll send them your way. Or you might want to hear Bob read one of my favorites of his poems.

The hocus-pocus gnosis of this world

This is from the final two lines of “Song,” in Dean Young’s new book, Fall Higher. I love the unique way he expresses the odd juxtapositions that somehow create what we perceive as meaning–the hocus-pocus gnosis.

He’s not an easy poet; his poems tend to be long, his images dense and unusual. He tweaks language and imagery to break through our assumptions–advertising slogans, instructions, the language of the everyday is stood on its head so that we are forced to examine it.

Sprinkled through his poems are brave assertions that few poets would dare to make, a quest for meaning, and a quirky sense of humor. A few samples:

There is a part of the spirit that cannot be destroyed.


It only gets dark
half the sky at a time.


Do you think the dictionary ever says to itself
I’ve got these words that mean completely different things
and it’s tearing me apart?

or, as a book title:

First Homosexual in Space

One of my favorites is “I Know My Friends Will Laugh,” from his book Strike Anywhere. I can’t seem to make the indentations come out exactly right (the lines under the first line in the stanza should all be indented), so for the full effect, you’ll need to buy the book:

I Know My Friends Will Laugh

but I think there’s so much spirit-stuff in this world that even
the dust kicked up on the trail above Tomales swirls and
maneuvers and gestures, alive for an instant because to be
alive is always for an instant.

My friends will say I’ve been in California too long but within
the dust there’s some further puffing up as the love in any
of us puffs up for the ineffable because love is always for
the ineffable even when she’s giggling in your arms, your
tongue in her ear.

Not the likelihood of not loving enough—stone dark with
condensed fog—although that too is spirit’s residing,
another lease, detective novels abandoned on the shelf,
pages falling out, binding crust, silverfish flashing.

Because when the spirit is divided, torn apart as it seems it
must be, the head keeps singing in the lion’s mouth even as
the body, fallen to its knees, pats the ground for some
dropped key, some broken jewelry, each tooth and claw
mark a new mouth, new eyelids opening on the next world.

I’m not even sure there is a next world.

Perhaps death is just unloosening, release, the way the rose
petals all drop at once just as Christina said they would.

Part of me says nothing like these petals and dust, part of me
says everything petals and dust.

By now my friends are nearly choking on their beers but part of me
sees my father’s chawed face the day they brought him
home from the golf course like something God bit, didn’t
like, threw back.

Part of me sees supper laid out while I shake snow from my coat.

Sees dusk ignite cattails into sheaves of light.

Sees the ant’s entrance through the smashed owls eye into

My friends, what should I believe?  Even the lice are trembling.

Dean Young

Because he recently had a heart transplant, you can also donate to the fund that is helping defray expenses for this.