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A Southern Slang Sonnet

Growing up as I did south of Houston, TX (in a small, working class town)…I was surrounded in my youth by many colorful regional “sayings” and quips. Though I have lived now in the Mountain West longer than anywhere else, I was recently inspired to try to write a Shakespearean sonnet but using some of that southern slang from my childhood. The resulting poem, “Bless Your Heart Sonnet”, was recently published by the editors at The Beatnik Cowboy:

Bless Your Heart Sonnet

You been conceited since the day you was born.

Walkin’ around with your nose so dang high

In the air, you could drown in a rainstorm!

You no apple pie on the fourth of July.

You no sweet tea on a warm summer day:

More like spoilt milk—in case you forgot it.

Struttin’ around in your new lingerie,

But no one gonna write you a sonnet. 

I swear to Gawd woman, you smash me to bits

And our time together is cattywampus.

You can kiss my behind and kiss my grits.

You ain’t no Georgia peach, you just pompous.

But bless your heart, you sure did butter my biscuit!

And when you sizzle like bacon? Cain’t resist it. 

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A Ghazal for Compassion Fatigue

My thanks to editor Vera Ignatowitsch for including my poem in the February 2022 quarterly issue of Better than Starbucks:

A Ghazal for Compassion Fatigue

Oh mama, the world is wet with weeping again.

Oh papa, the storm-tossed & lost are sleeping again.

When hope is double-crossed, the cost can be severe.

How often can hardened hearts start beating again?

The trauma that we all hear is a mantra of fear.

A litany of terrors & errors repeating again. 

The stretcher-bearers bear the bodies from the rubble.

But why be too troubled with all that bleeding again?

We are punished & pummeled, worried & wearied.

But all things buried will soon start pleading again. 

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A Superior Form of Babbling: Plato, Poetic Form, and Song

Poets, like infants, relish sounds for their own sake. Poetry is a superior form of babbling.

—Terry Eagleton

Poetry:

I suppose I should confess that I am something of a Christianized Platonist when it comes to the topic of poetic forms. This is no doubt an odd claim to make on several levels. To begin with, Plato at times expresses a vigorous suspicion towards poetry and the poets of his own day. In his seminal work, The Republic, Plato says that “there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” To put the argument in a nutshell: poets are mere “imitators” while philosophers seek the truth behind all appearances. In addition, like music, poetry has the dangerous potential of stirring the emotions, distorting “the truth” and disrupting both reason and calm of soul. Nevertheless, I find Plato’s basic notion of eternal/transcendent forms informing the essences of various physical objects to be provocative. In the “Christianized Platonism” of a scholar like Catherine Pickstock, this has ramifications for both art and liturgical practice: “In the Phaedrus, Plato portrays the transcendence of the good, its beyond presence-and-absence, as a kind of contagion, for its plentitude spills over into immanence, in such a way that the good is revealed in the beauty of physical particulars.” (Pickstock 1998, 12) 

     Perhaps Plato intuited an organic order in nature and in our own bodies that scientists have since confirmed: down to our very DNA, we are inscribed beings “written” in a code/text that is partial to order and replication. Do I believe there is some eternal and perfect form of a sonnet that all earthly sonnets are a shadow of? Not really. But I do believe that we are pattern making and pattern seeking creatures, and poetic forms are one way of participating in that long and precious inheritance. That inheritance spills over into all aspects of human culture. As Plato has Socrates say in the Symposium, “everything that is responsible for creating something out of nothing is a kind of poetry; and so all the creations of every craft and profession are themselves a kind of poetry, and everyone who practices a craft is a poet.” (Cooper 1997, 488)

     For most of my vocation as a poet, I have described myself as a “half assed” formalist. I am no Richard Wilbur, Timothy Steele, or A.E. Stallings in terms of skill, but my poems tend to be at least “formalish”, a phrase coined by my fellow Colorado poet-pal Wendy Videlock. For me, it is mostly the convention of rhyme and sometimes loosely metered (but still very orderly) stanzas that I have enjoyed employing in my work to date. But trying to adhere more strictly to a received poetic form has had exciting consequences. What some poets experience as undue restriction is for others a playing field upon which excellence is achieved only by exercising creativity within the established parameters that govern the game. It is the very boundaries or “rules” that make the game possible in the first place. Regarding his despair over much that goes for “postmodern” free verse poetry today, the Catholic poet and scholar James Matthew Wilson writes the following:

I do not call poets to reassume the chains or nets of formal verse as if commanding their return to slavery. Rather, I insist that grammar is essential to poetry because it offers real freedom, in the same way our speech offers us more freedom than the grunts of a hog or the barks of a dog…Metrical verse offers poets the only kind of freedom that actually exists: the freedom to be determined. (Wilson 2015, 115)

This is a sentiment that goes against much of the American/individualist ethos which is to be as undetermined (or “free”) as possible in all things, including poetry. But all art has its history and conventions, and to be an artisan, one must first be an apprentice. Those who don’t spend some time learning their “forms” first will most likely find that their own poetic innovations lack even the surface enchantment of a decent limerick. And so, learning the technical aspects of received poetic forms is a necessary, if sometimes challenging, practice. As Timothy Steele concedes, while poetry cannot be reduced to its technical forms, “Its rules can be imparted logically. It is even possible to indicate ways in which those rules support and fuse with the more elusive property of genius. And if it is true that technique without genius is arid, it is no less the case that genius without technique is often unfocused, diffuse, and self-defeating.” (Steele 1999, 22) It also bears mentioning that if poetry is to speak to an audience larger than other poets, it behooves us to recognize that outside of the academy the favorite poems of those in the “general public” are often those that still employ rhyme and formal structures of some sort (this is especially true if one also includes the popularity of Rap music and lyrics…where a high density of rhymes and alliteration continue to be highly prized).  Bruce Bond, a truly prolific poet and now retired professor of English at the University of North Texas, has written a wide variety of both free and formal verse. As a guitarist/musician, he also brings an interesting perspective to the tension between received poetic forms and rhyme on the one hand with the restless novelty of form (or formlessness?) sought by more experimental poets:

Far from suppressing spontaneity and imaginative play, formal symmetries open up possibilities of musical surprise. As any good jazz musician knows, too much change is boring: in a world where anything can happen we’re hardly surprised when anything does. It takes recurrence to raise expectation and so then artfully to break it. Not only does rhyme tolerate difference, it requires it. (Bond 2015, 93)

Song Lyrics:

     Poetry and song are closely related in human history. Poetry obviously predates literacy, and it is easy to imagine our human ancestors chanting poems around a campfire to ensure a successful hunt or harvest. In my own development as a writer, poems and lyrics/music have been closely intertwined. My discovery of Bob Dylan as a teenager was the first time I remember feeling like song lyrics could approach the status of literature. My own poems tend to be “musical” in nature, including rhyme and usually foregrounding a lyrical “I” just as my song lyrics favor rhyme and a first-person perspective. And I have always loved stories and narrative as well…two elements that poetry and song (especially ballads) often share. In fact, “the ballad came to poetry from song. It is a form found in every language, every country, every culture. Its shape, structure, and rhetoric are all defined by its roots in the oral tradition.” (Strand and Boland 2000, 74)

     Of course, despite their similarities, there are important differences between page poetry and song lyrics. Even though many of my poems favor a strong element of order and closure, they also tend to be a bit more loose in their expression of both meter and metaphors than my song lyrics typically are. Poems, even those written in a received form, often feel less circumscribed to me than most song lyrics do, even when the poems have more compression or “condensery.” To state it bluntly, poems make their own music while song lyrics usually need the addition of music to come to full life. Put another way, “a song’s poetry is better heard than seen—or rather, better seen and heard together.” (Bradley, 2017, 13) Other than the ballad form, it has been my experience that just adding music to a poem (unadapted) is very challenging work and can often feel forced. As the great musical theater composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim reflects:

Poems depend on packed images, on resonance and juxtaposition, on density. Every reader absorbs a poem at his own pace, inflecting it with his own rhythms, stresses, and tone…Music straitjackets a poem and prevents it from breathing on its own, whereas it liberates a lyric. Poetry doesn’t need music; lyrics do. (Sondheim 2010, xvii)

Conclusion:

      The thing about writing formal poetry well is to do so without the poem itself becoming overly formulaic. What the poet wants the poem to “say” and how the poem ends up being “said” are both part of a dialectic in which the finished object is a synthesis of both. In my view, all good poems have a form of some sort, whether received or invented. As Denise Levertov once told an interviewer: “My notion of organic form is really based on the idea that there is a form in all things—that the artist doesn’t impose form upon chaos, but discovers hidden intrinsic form—and on the idea that poems can arrive at their form by means of the poet’s attentive listening.” (Brooker 1998, 10) I would add that such attentive listening can only become well developed if one also practices listening carefully to one’s poetic predecessors. Every novice writer who asks an established author what they should do to become better writers is told the same thing: read as much as you can, as broadly as you can, as deeply as you can…then read some more. Learning different poetic and songwriting forms is essential, but: “No instruction manual can teach as much as careful attention to the sounds in even one great poem.” (Pinsky 1998, 7) 

Works Cited:

Bond, Bruce. 2015. Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand. Ann

     Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Bradley, Adam. 2017. The Poetry of Pop. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Cooper, John M. ed. 1997. Plato: Complete Works. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company,   

     Inc.

Pickstock, Catherine. 1998. On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy. Oxford and Maiden:  

    Blackwell Publishers.

Pinsky, Robert. 1998. The Sounds of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Sondheim, Stephen. 2010. Finishing the Hat. New York and Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.

Steele, Timothy. 1999. All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Strand, Mark and Evan Boland. 2000. The Making of a Poem. New York and London: W.W.  

     Norton & Company.

Sutton, Walter 1998. “A Conversation with Denise Levertov.” In Conversations with Denise   

     Levertov, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, 10. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Wilson, James Matthew. 2015. The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking. Menomonee

     Falls: Wiseblood Books.

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Those Other Po-Mo Poets

Grand Little Things (GLT) is an online literary journal that embraces versification, lyricism, rhyming and formal poetry submissions…a still rather rare aesthetic focus given the near dominance of free verse and postmodern “experimental” poetry in North America today. And so, I am indeed very grateful to GLT’s wonderful editor, Patrick Key, for publishing my new poem, “Those Other Po-Mo Poets” which you can read at the link here.

Patrick told me the poem made him laugh, which was certainly my intention, as it pokes light fun at a certain strata of poets who still seem to think that using rhyme or writing in a received poetic form like the sonnet will doom you to sound like a 19th century Victorian.

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Turning a Poem about a Woman Beer Brewer into a Full-fledged Song

I recently wrote a poem that me and my long-time musician friend turned into a full-fledged song: “The Ballad of Miranda McAfee”…ostensibly inspired by an all-women run Brewery in my home state of Colorado. The video for our song on YouTube is here.

And if you’d like to learn more about the brewery that inspired it, just google “Lady Justice Brewing.”

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On “Failing Spectacularly in a Good Way”: A Poetry Book Review by Barbara Egel of The Misuse of Scripture

Barbara Egel at Light poetry magazine has written an absolutely delightful review of my 2020 chapbook of poems, The Misuse of Scripture, in the latest Winter/Spring edition of the publication. Light was founded in 1992 by John Mella under the name Light Quarterly, it’s America’s oldest and best-known journal of light verse and they continue to build on John’s mission to “restore humor, clarity, and pleasure to the reading of poems.”

The Review by Barbara Egel

It’s pretty obvious that Daniel Klawitter, a religious brother in the order of St. Luke, does not fit the clerical stereotype. His book fails spectacularly (and I mean that in a good way) at modesty, abstemiousness, overt piety, and the kind of performative humility that masks intellectual laziness or lack of imagination. The poems here—each inspired by a specific Bible verse—use humor as a form of agape, painting the Bible’s authors as humans with a sense of the absurd and with faith that God can take a joke. Certainly, the poems don’t always—or often—go in the direction their epigraphical scriptures might suggest. “Red Stuff” harks back to Genesis: “And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint.” What follows is a list of red things in rhymed couplets, including a “socialist padre” and “that sweater for Christmas with its horrid design.” Klawitter’s irreverence surfaces midway through the poem when he rhymes “precious red rubies” with “some people’s boobies.” That womanizer Jacob might have been a fan, but it’s certainly not what the reader expects. Similarly, the verse from Mark, chapter 14 about taking up serpents and drinking poison results in “The Small-Town Drunk Goes Church Shopping,” which ends with the lines,

But them Pentecostals take their religion
The way I often make my whisky:
Volatile, risky, and hard.

The rhyme technique Klawitter uses in those last two lines—an end-rhyme matching a word midway through an adjacent line—appears throughout the book and is surprisingly not disruptive. The reading ear places the words easily while the eye plunges forward.

Part of the pleasure of this book is realizing how bizarre some Bible quotes are when taken out of context. Klawitter does treat some of the more famous verses, as in “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” but often his attention is captured by verses that, in the Bible, feel like exposition on the way to a revelatory plot point, or that are simply not in the stories that permeate our culture. For example, the verse from Ezekiel about the prostitute, Oholibah, lusting after men “whose genitals were like those of donkeys” isn’t in the Sunday School curriculum, but it yields a wonderful poem, “Yes, But Does He Write You Poetry?” whose speaker feels a bit insecure about his endowments.

The more serious poems in the book are striking, especially in contrast to their lighter mates. Inspired by Proverbs, the sonnet “In Sickness and in Health” depicts its speaker’s longing to take away a loved one’s pain.

But love, though under duress, is never destitute.
Even in the face of hell it hopes for paradise.
Even in purgatory it yearns for heaven:
Even in this hospital, that burns like Armageddon.

Theologically, The Misuse of Scripture lies somewhere between the Talmud scholars and Chesterton’s Father Brown. Poetically, it is a rewarding book: engaging light verse that makes you think about what the Bible’s many authors might have really meant.

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A Short Essay on Imperial Leather by Anne McClintock

First published in 1995, Imperial Leather by professor Anne McClintock has become a modern classic in feminist and postcolonial studies. I first read it in 2001 and still find her analysis of the race-gender-class “triplet” to be highly convincing and informative. She characterizes these social categories as being in a relationship of “intimate interdependence” (p. 61), and at the same time denies that they are “structurally equivalent of each other.” (ibid).  Rather than granting any one category of the triplet a general primacy, she provides evidence that they influence each other in ways that are not always obvious. McClintock dishes up an illuminating amount of data to prove her thesis that: “A triangulated, switchboard analogy thus emerged between race, class and gender deviance as a critical element in the formation of the modern, imperial imagination.” (p. 56). Reading her book, one has the impression that some mystical event is going on before your very eyes…so magically does she strip away the layers of imperial discourse that you are left feeling that you have just experienced an epiphany of revelation. I would like to look first at some of McClintock’s examples of the connections between gender, race and class. I will conclude, however, with one particular criticism concerning her historical example of one person’s cross-dressing as a subversive activity.

     The beginning of Imperial Leather brilliantly exposes the fascinating psychological conflicts exhibited by Europeans during the era of exploration and conquest and reveals the influence of science and sex fantasies on the European imagination during the time of first contact with indigenous peoples. For example, the dominant Western-scientific paradigm combined with patriarchy to view exploration and “discovery” as a highly sexualized endeavor. The interior of previously unknown lands were “penetrated” and their treasures “opened.” These new lands were also incorporated into what McClintock calls a “porno-tropic” tradition of map making in which “knowledge of the unknown world was mapped as a metaphysics of gender violence…In these fantasies, the world is feminized and spatially spread for male exploration, then reassembled and deployed in the interests of massive imperial power.” (p. 22-23). Thus, the connection between gender and economic/military imperialism is laid bare and made explicit. Using a drawing by Jan van Straet from 1575, McClintock proves how embedded the sexual discourse of imperialism was from the very beginning. Depicted in the drawing is the fully clothed explorer Vespucci, holding all the technical instruments of European power, and before him is a naked female extending her hand. In the background are native people engaged in cannibalism. McClintock deconstructs this drawing with great insight, remarking that:

As in many imperial scenes, the fear of engulfment expresses itself most acutely in the cannibal trope. In this familiar trope, the fear of being engulfed by the unknown is projected onto colonized people as their determination to devour the intruder whole…However, the implosive anxieties suggested by the cannibal trope were just as often warded off by fantastical rites of imperial violence. (p. 27)

We hear echoes at this point in the book of Freud’s “castration anxiety” theory being applied to European explorers in general. Indeed, it is the use of psychological concepts that, in no small measure, make McClintock’s book such a thought-provoking read. Thankfully though, MClintock does not suggest that it was a fear of cannibalism that caused the conquest of indigenous peoples! Although her focus is on women as “imperial boundary markers” in the male imagination, she explicitly states that: “the feminizing of terra incognita was, from the outset, a strategy of violent containment—belonging to the realm of psychoanalysis AND (emphasis mine) political economy.” (p. 24). I would have preferred she had made political economy a bit more primary as it relates to imperial conquest, but perhaps the fact is obvious enough. As Ward Churchill has said of another European explorer: “Columbus did not sally forth upon the Atlantic for reasons of ‘neutral science’ or altruism. He went, as his own diaries, reports, and letters make clear, fully expecting to encounter wealth belonging to others.” (Since Predator Came, p. 15).  Yet, as McClintock demonstrates, the wealth of others including plundering the sexuality of native women as well.

     Later in her book, McClintock teases out the instability of meaning around the concept of race by discussing the Irish. She writes:

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the term ‘race’ was used in shifting and unstable ways, sometimes synonymous with ‘species,’ sometimes with ‘culture,’sometimes with ‘nation,’ sometimes to denote biological ethnicity or sub-groups within national groupings: the English ‘race’ compared, say, with the ‘Irish’ race. (p. 52).

Again, McClintock presents us with a visual aid for analysis. We are shown a British cartoon in which the Irish are given ape-like features in order to suggest a comparison with Africans. Furthermore, the home of the Irish man and woman is depicted as being in a state of disarray. This becomes what McClintock labels “the iconography of domestic degeneracy.” The notion of “unclean” ethnic groups is used by the dominant classes to distinguish among whites who are of the same skin color as their oppressors. Thus, concludes McClintock, “The notion of race was used to invent distinctions between what we would now call classes.” (p. 54). In addition, as groups of male workers began to express proletarian consciousness and solidarity in the late nineteenth century, the Victorian ruling classes were forced to deal with their own fear of insurrection:

Images of female violence suffuse the image of the crowd, despite the fact that the unruly urban crowds were predominantly male. Male crowd behavior, it was held, mimicked social behavior that was typical of women. Tarde, for one, saw the crowd’s ‘fickleness,’ its revolting ‘docility,’ its ‘gullibility’ and its ‘nervousness’ as definitively female…By feminizing the masculine crowd, the language of gender became a regulatory discourse for the management of class. (p. 119).

 I find these examples that McClintock employs to be quite supportive of her thesis that race, gender, and class all exist in a lascivious relationship with each other. That is, one may find all three in bed together at any one moment and in a variety of “positions.”  Yet some clarity is needed here. Sometimes one part of the race-gender-class triplet initiates the circle of oppression with the other two as active co-participants. This does not mean that the other factors are less important, only that they may not be the primary origin of a particular historical circumstance. And it does seem to me that McClintock comes close to obscuring and confusing the nature of class power when she writes on the cross-dressing fetish of Hannah Cullwick.  

     Hannah Cullwick was a Victorian-era domestic worker who enjoyed cross-dressing as a man. She caught the attention of Arthur Munby, a wealthy philanthropist and photographer, and they were secretly married in 1873. Undoubtedly, McClintock proves that Cullwick controlled her relationship with Mumby by determining when and where she would engage in erotic behavior. Furthermore, Cullwick seems to gain great pleasure from passing as an upper-class person. As McClintock notes: “Over the years, she revealed a remarkable capacity for adopting different social identities and costumes at will.” (p. 173). Psychic pleasure in cross-dressing is one thing, but McClintock seems to me to go a tad too far when she suggests that Cullwick’s cross-dressing “amounted to a sustained attempt to negotiate the perils attending the Victorian erasure of women’s work.” (p. 174). I mean, maybe? But besides Cullwick’s relationship with Mumby himself, I see no compelling evidence that members of the Victorian ruling class were interested in “negotiating” with Cullwick about her class or gender identity. Just because one dresses as a person of power or privilege does not change the material conditions of society. I am reminded here of the statement by Joanne Naiman who writes in “Left Feminism and The Return to Class” that: “Marxists see power as being centered in the external, material world, rather than simply in people’s heads. Therefore, the complete elimination of its internalized form will be impossible until power inequities within society are first removed.” (p. 17). Yet McClintock seems satisfied with the claim that “Cullwick celebrated the peculiar freedoms of ambiguity rather than one fixed identity.” (p. 175). Okay…but this reveling in ambiguity can easily become a particularly postmodern seduction that clouds certain necessary conclusions. I do not doubt that the case of Hannah Cullwick as put forth by McClintock presents us with many interesting contradictions regarding the nature of power and perception. Yet, my ultimate reaction is similar to that of the British literary critic Terry Eagleton who wrote regarding postmodernism in general that:

If someone actually believes that a squabble between two children over a ball is as important as the El Salvador liberation movement, then you simply have to ask whether or not they are joking…the level of food supplies in Mozambique is a weightier issue than the love life of Mick Mouse. To claim that one kind of conflict is more important than another involves, of course, arguing for this priority and being open to disapproval; but nobody actually believes that ‘power is everywhere’ in the sense that any manifestation of it as significant as any other. On this issue, as perhaps many others, nobody is in fact a relativist, whatever they may rhetorically assert.(Ideology, p. 8)

Hannah Cullwick was a working-class woman who surely transgressed role boundaries, but did she actually pose a significant threat to the dominant order of her day? I believe McClintock is right in highlighting Cullwick’s personal agency in her reactions to the Victorian capitalist order, but McClintock possibly goes too far when she suggests that this is something that “throws into question” that dominant order. If all the proletariat in the world today suddenly decided to cross-dress on a sustained basis, confusion might certainly ensue, but capitalism and imperialism would not be fundamentally threatened in the same way as, say, a world-wide general strike of the working classes would. As Mas’ud Zavaradeh puts it: “In the post-al scenario the proletariat is no longer a revolutionary vanguard, but a ‘shopper,’ who daringly consumes objects…deconstructs binaries…and experiences ‘guilty pleasures.’ Social relations of shopping thus replace social relations of production…and role violations, not class struggle, become a dynamic for social change.” (“Post-ality” in Marxism and Postmodernism, p. 46).

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John W. May poetry review: The Misuse of Scripture

John W. May is an insightful, meticulous and careful reviewer of poetry, and he has done me a great honor by reviewing my latest chapbook, The Misuse of Scripture, at his blog Of Poetry, here. There is no satisfaction for a writer quite like a reviewer who illuminates certain aspects of your work that you yourself were barely conscious of when you were composing it.