VIS-PO-ART and the Shimmering Verge

The forthcoming winter issue will feature an interview with Molly Peacock, and I love one of the things she talks about, which I’ll preview for you here.

PEACOCK: The shimmering verge is for me the place between two states of being or two emotional states. I opened my one-woman show by asking people to imagine a paint chip and that paint chip is green, and then I asked them to imagine another paint chip and that paint chip is blue, and then I asked them to get one greenish-blue and one blueish-green and greenish-greenish-blue and blueish-blueish-green until they can’t tell the difference; they can’t tell what color the paint chip is anymore. And that is the shimmering verge, the place where one color shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And that’s where one emotional state shifts into the other and you can’t figure out exactly where. And for me, that’s where the poem occurs. And because the poem is always about the thing we don’t have words for, that’s why the poem exists, because we didn’t have words for it before. … And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is, like where the side of road exactly ends and the land begins. It’s that kind of thing—where the lake ends and the shore begins.

That might be the best description of “real” poetry that I’ve ever heard.  Poetry gives words for things we don’t have words for yet — if there were words, we wouldn’t need the poem.  That’s the problem with cliches and hallmark verse, and I suppose it’s what makes real poetry too challenging for most people — not that they couldn’t understand the shimmering verge, but that they don’t understand that this experience is what they’re looking for.

The concept deserves its own post, but it’s not going to get one.  Not much of a segue, I know, but what I want to talk about is visual poetry.

Starting a couple weeks ago we’ve added Dan Waber as a contributing editor, helping us make visual poetry a more regular part of Rattle.  Whether loving it or sounding baffled, we’ve received a huge response to last summer’s Vispo issue, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to keep that fire going.  It’s explained in a bit more detail here, but what we’re going to do is this: Dan Waber will write a column on visual poetry in every e-issue, usually focusing on a specific poem, series, or artist.  We’re also encourage black and white visual poems to be considered for the open section of our print issues.

Quite incidentally, we’ve already got two concrete poems slated to appear this winter — a shaped sonnet by Patti McCarty, and a textual flame by Paul Siegell.  We’ll also have an ekphrastic sonnet, and the photo it’s written after.  I wasn’t sure if any of these should be considered visual poems — each of them are enhanced by a visual element, but that visual element isn’t really necessary to any of them; if you just read the poems out loud, they’d still be good poems.

Since we now have a resident vispo guru, I asked Dan what he thought, and he directed me to this fun page, where he turns categorization into a quiz, listing 31 gray-area pieces, and making us decide.  Of course, which category a poem falls into will always take a back seat to the experience of the poem itself, but the human brain is basically a categorizing machine, so you can’t blame us for feeling the urge.  If you’re up to the challenge, take the quiz.

Two interesting results seem to arise.  First, the general concensus of the results for each piece seems to stablize as the quiz progresses — respondents seem to agree more often later in the series.  Dan describes the quiz as an educational tool, forcing us to make a label and so exploring that label, and this suggests that the tool actually works.  Maybe we don’t always agree what to call these things, but the more often we label them, the more confident we become in our labels.

What’s more interesting, though, is that visual poetry seems to exist as another kind of “shimmering verge” — that indescribable ground between poetry and visual art.  “And it’s not that there isn’t a border, it’s that you can’t quite tell where it is…”

In the same way that, I think, the shimmering verge scares fiction readers away from poetry, I think it might be the shimmering verge that scares poetry readers away from visual poetry — if you don’t know that the shimmering verge is what you’re looking for, you don’t know what to make of it, it’s unsettling.  But if you embrace the shimmering verge, then these are the poems that become most exciting.

Hey Hilda, Publish a Book Already!

As I was putting my eight hours at the ol’ poetry factory today, updating returned subscriptions and stuffing envelopes (with a papercut on my thumb to prove it), I was listening to Poets Cafe‘s interview with Hilda Weiss, which you can download by clicking here.  It occurred to me that Hilda Weiss might be the best poet I know of who hasn’t published a book yet.  We published a single poem of hers in Rattle, “My Neighbor Gives Me Meat Bones,” which she reads during the interview (and you’ve got to hear her read it).  Other poems she reads there are great, too, particularly the sestina.  I was hoping to find it somewhere online, but could only find a scant offering from Moonday Poetry, a local reading series in LA, from which this poem is stolen:


These moments.
These sometimes moments
of joy and success, of beauty and surprise.
How embarrassing.

I am so
unaccustomed to good.
Moments of awe
encumber me.

beginning to see,
they occur and occur.
Perhaps they swim

like young, brown trout.
When the eye and mind
learn to separate fish from water,
suddenly the fish are everywhere.

–from Meridian Anthology, Vol. V, 2007

I guess what I love about her work is her slow precision — the willingness to draw so much attention to a simple word or phrase, that it can be lifted out of simplicity, and be exposed for the beautiful musical score that it is.  In the poem above it’s “These moments. / These sometimes moments.”  And then the repetition of “occur” — which with all this attention for the first time for me hints at the relevant word “ocular.”  It’s such a slender little poem, not opaque in the least, but it really packs a punch.

What I kept thinking about, listening to the interview, was that there are so many awful poets who publish books — who win awards, give readings instead of mostly filming them.  Why isn’t there a collection by Hilda Weiss yet?  Is it because she’s too busy running to focus on her own work?

When I’m feeling cynical, I start to think that success in the poetry world is only a measure of two things:  ego and energy.  We know Hilda’s got the energy, so maybe it’s the ego that’s missing?  If that’s the case, maybe this will help: Hey Hilda, you’re a good poet — publish a book already!

A Partial List of Great Poems Since 1900

As Compiled by Readers, Slightly Edited By Me; Listed Alphabetically, Linked When Available, Sequences Excerpted; Leave a Comment to Suggest Your Own.

Comment to suggest more, and I’ll add them to the list.  If you have text of any of the poems I couldn’t find online, email it to me, and I will post it — all great poems should be online somewhere!

More on Greatness: Art vs. Art History

dolphinWhy is Citizen Kane always listed as the greatest movie of all-time?  Is it the most memorable, the most moving?  The most adored?  Nope — if that were the criteria, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and It’s a Wonderful Life would top it easily, along with at least 100 others.  It’s not the most layered or the most worthy of critique, either — David Lynch runs circles around Orson Welles in terms of complexity, and I’ve never seen him on a top 100 list.

When critics call Citizen Kane the greatest movie of all time, what they really mean is that it was the most innovative.  It was Citizen Kane that introduced the montage, the spinning newspaper, deep focus cinematography, compressed time, disparate sound — tools other directors have been using ever since.  It doesn’t matter whether or not watching Citizen Kane is actually enjoyable today; it’s always going to be worth watching because it’s historically important.

In college I took an introductory film class at a time I was still a biology major.  The textbook was subtitled “A Guide to the Greatest Films in History,” but it was quickly clear that we weren’t really talking about film history, but rather, film evolution.  Every Monday night there was a screening, and for every movie we were told to watch some novel technique — the jump-cut, the sound bridge, the collage, the panorama.  The Graduate became a movie about the use of popular music in film.  Hitchcock’s Rope became the anatomy of a real-time film broken into 10-minute long takes.  The discussion was never about why the films were good; it was only about what aspects of the film were new.

Biologists are interested in the diversity of life, but evolutionary biologists are interested in the origins of anatomy.  The bottlenose dolphin is perfectly adapted to its life in the coastal sea, but evolutionary biologists are far more interested in the first toothed whales to use echolocation.  Bottlenose dolphins can differentiate between distant objects that differ by less than 10% in surface area.  Is it accurate to call early carnivorous whales, who could faintly detect a cluster of hard-shelled nautolids in the dark, “greater” than the bottlenosed dolphin, whose sonar is so fine-tuned?  Worse than inaccurate, a statement like that doesn’t even make ontological sense.  The word “great” is too ill-defined.  Early whales are more historically interesting.  Modern dolphins are more highly evolved.

When some people say art is “great” they mean historically important.  When most people say art is “great” (myself included) they mean that it’s evocative, transformative, memorable, moving, etc. — at some particular time, for some particular audience (usually “right now” and “me”).

This seems like a very simple distiction, right?  Almost too obvious to mention. But it’s a distinction that the vast majority of academics — and this is the problem with academia — seem incapable of making.  The other day a friend of mine asked me what I think about this article by J.D. Smith from American Arts Quarterly, and this statement in particular:

Artists have been expected to épater la bourgeoisie for over a century, but continuing a revolutionary struggle starts to look foolish when everyone alive has been born long after the fall of the ancien régime. Surveying twentieth-century poetry, for instance, Timothy Steele has argued that decades of vers libre bards are still reacting to the late Victorian era’s soporific iambic pentameter and metronomic approach to recitation, dragons long since slain by the likes of Eliot and Pound. Apparently, the former avant-garde, like many other triumphant revolutionaries, would rather fight than govern. Remaining in a defensive stance, they have failed to establish a tradition that admits of development and amplification. Instead, there is a narrowing and reduction—a working out of ever-narrower formal questions. Thus the “progression” from the Cubists to Mondrian to late Rothko.

If you can fight through the jargon, he’s just saying that poets since Eliot and Pound have been beating a dead horse.  We’re like those soldiers still fighting in Polynesia weeks after V-J Day.  The Romantic poets surrendered long ago, but free verse keeps on carpet-bombing.

The author is citing Timothy Steele, so I should probably read what he has to say before moving on — but this is a blog post, not an essay, and to me this argument seems fairly absurd.  The revolution of free verse was a simple one: poets realized that you don’t have to be metrical to be musical.  When you start using internal rhyme, variable feet, and visual space on the page, there’s so much more room to play.  It might have taken centuries to exhaust the possibilities of repetition in verse, but by 1900 we all but had, and the Imagists and Objectivists decided to move on.

Just because we’re still writing in free verse doesn’t mean we’re still fighting that war.  Eliot and Pound (and probably more importantly W.C.W. and H.D.) cleared that land for us, they slashed and burned the forest of iambic feet — and now we’re free to cultivate the fields, free to grow our prize-winning tomatoes and feed a nation of readers.  And that’s what poets have been doing.  Compare Mary Oliver to Anne Carson to Susan Howe.  They’re each using free verse in remarkably different ways, and aren’t reacting to meter in the least.  Meter isn’t dead, but poets have moved on, to the point where meter is just one of many tools at our disposal.  What else does Smith expect?  He complains that we’d “rather fight than govern,” but it seems to me that there’s been plenty of governing going on.

The problem is, art critics are evolutionary biologists — they’re obsessed with change, with charting innovations in anatomy, and so that’s all they see.  But readers are plain biologists; we focus on the beauty and efficacy and abundance of life.  We want to be inspired, transformed, transfixed.

And I think that’s why there’s this divide between the academic interpretation of poetry, and the kind of poetry people actually enjoy.  The former defines greatness as innovation — to take a poetry class in college is to basically study an evolutionary timeline.  No one has to enjoy a poem or film or work of art to acknowledge that it demonstrates a significant advancement.  But historical importance is not the same thing as importance.  There’s more to art than art history.

There's No Such Thing as a Great Poem

This blog has been full of discussion lately, and I love it — it gives me things to think about (and thus post about).  In a comment thread from last week, “G the Art Spy” argued that we publish too much poetry these days — that a journal that published infrequently and was “extremely choosy” would be most successful.   I replied that there’s no such thing as great poetry — only good poetry, and it’s hard to get people to agree even on that.  A hyperbolic statement, and the ever-engaging Cafais called me out: “Really? The great ones are rare, but they are still out there.”

Cafais is right, of course, but I do believe it’s practically true that there’s no such thing as great poetry, at least from the standpoint of a literary magazine.  Great poems exist, but they’re so rare that it’s most effective to operate under the premise that they don’t.

Like “God,” great poems are defined by consensus.  A great poem is any poem that a vast majority of poetry readers would acknowledge to be great.  I can only think of a handful written in the last 100 years.  “Howl” and “Prufrock” certainly — probably “The Wasteland,” too, although I know several people who seem to despise it.  Plath’s “Daddy.”  Levine’s “They Feed They Lion.”  Maybe Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.”  Maybe something by Cummings, but I can’t decide which one.  The most recent I can think of are Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song” and (I would argue) Matthea Harvey’s “The Future of Terror / Terror of the Future” sequence.

It’s interesting to explore what these poems have in common — an epic harnessing of the contemporary zeitgeist, etc. — but that’s not the point.  The point is: look how few and far between.

As an editor, you can’t pretend that you’ll be able to publish one of these poems — you’d be publishing one poem every decade…and how would you find that one poem, if you’re not receiving any submissions or being active in the literary community?

While there are very few great poems, there are a great many good poems — poems with a strong voice and a resonant energy, that will connect with some in particular and, for them, rise to the level of greatness.  And that’s what you have to focus on.  Every issue of Rattle contains maybe a dozen poems that move me personally — the rest are poems that I think might move other readers, the goal being that no matter who reads, everyone will be able to find their dozen.  Poetry is subjective; that’s all you can hope for.

In the 15 years of Rattle, we’ve published one poem that I think has a strong case for being called great.  Donald Mace Williams’ “Wolfe” is a flawless epic, and in turning the legend of Beowulf into a critique of man’s encroachment on nature, it has a chance at ringing the bell of the current zeitgeist.  That’s why we took the unusual step of reprinting it as a chapbook.  Does it have the power to move enough people to call it great?  The odds are long, but only time will tell.

We’ve also published several poems that border on greatness.  Li-Young Lee’s “Seven Happy Endings.”  Lynn Shapiro’s “Sloan-Kettering.”  Sophia Rivkin’s “Conspiracy.”  Salah al Hamdani’ “Baghdad, Mon Amour.”  And there are others.  But I don’t think any of them have the  universality to be called truly great — they’re great for some readers, but merely good for others.  We all have different histories and proclivities.  And that‘s what’s really great.

What I want to do, though, is ask you:  What poems do you think are great?  List as many as you can think of, and maybe we’ll make a big list.  I’d love to find some that I haven’t read yet.