WHAT DO POETS THINK ABOUT BEFORE THEY WRITE THE POEM?

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I know that when I think of anything with a design to make some design of it in order to present it to the world as poetry, I first make a simple observation of some problem that is bedeviling me, that is making me unhappy in my life, and thus as a poet, I always begin as a philosopher.  I always think of hindrances to my happiness.

For instance, I might reflect upon my forbidden desires—not morally, or sensually, but philosophically.  I will not rebuke myself for my desires, nor will I desire my desires; I instead consider my desires good and the forbidden nature of them bad, establishing this as a starting point, and then I proceed to resolve the conflict between desire (good) and desire’s forbidden aspect (bad).  I do not let myself get distracted by the object of my desire, for poetry is not really made for such an exercise; the stirring of desire can be hinted at in poetry, but picturing the forbidden will at once lead to the desire itself, the image invoking desire; but the desire, to be treated philosophically, must remain a mere component of the poem.

The following poem came about precisely in this way.

What I love, what I hate

What I love, what I hate
are both together, in orbits, flying—
People will tell you what they are
But people are always lying.
Sated with what I love
Can make me sick,
What I hate
May stab, but be a good stick.
All I can say of
What I love, and what I hate,
Is what I saw yesterday,
Dead, at the gate.
All I can see of
What I love, and what I hate,
Is hate is always—here,
And love is always—late.
What I love I detect in you,
Hopeful, confused,
Trying to be true
To what is gradual and late:
The reason for our love,
An understanding of our hate.
If  you would know, at last, our fate,
Meet me tonight at the mountain gate,
We’ll stare into the evening
And laugh.  And wait some more.  And wait.

…………………………………………..

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9 Comments

  1. wfkammann said,

    February 10, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    All I can see of
    What I love, and what I hate,
    Is hate is always—here,
    And love is always—late.
    What I love I detect in you,
    Hopeful, confused,
    Trying to be true
    To what is gradual and late:
    The reason for our love,
    An understanding of our hate.
    If you would know, at last, our fate,
    Meet me tonight at the mountain gate,
    We’ll stare into the evening
    And laugh. And wait some more. And wait.

    Shelton Brooks ( b.1886, Amesburg, Ontario, Canada d. 1975.) A child of Native American and Black parents, Brooks learned his keyboard skills on the family pump organ. His father was a Preacher, and Shelton and his brother would play the organ at services. (Shelton played, and his older brother pumped the Bellows pedals which Shelton couldn’t reach.) His family emigrated to Detroit, and the 15 year old Shelton made some appearances as a child prodigy. In time, he became a cafe pianist, and a very famous black performer. He performed as a pianist, playing Ragtime around 1909 and began his composing career with mainly Ragtime numbers.

    Shelton wrote his first big hit in 1910, Some of These Days with his own lyrics. He had already introduced the song in his own vaudeville act, when Sophie Tucker’s maid, introduced both him and the tune to Sophie. Tucker loved it and she made it her theme song. Brooks also tried his hand at performing in stage roles such as Plantation (1922), Dixie To Broadway (1924), and Ken Murray’s Blackouts of 1949. Perhaps Brook’s best known hit was his 1917, hit The Darktown Strutter’s Ball. Among his other great songs were Walkin’ The Dog, There’ll Come A Time and Jean. Brooks enjoyed a long recording career as well. Many of his recordings were comedic, for example the Okeah record 4632 carried the titles, Collecting Rents and Chicken Thieves, both comedy skits, not songs. Shelton died on On September 6, 1975. (Biographical facts from Kunkle V. 2, p. 625)

    Verse 1:

    I’ve got some good news, Honey,
    An invitation to the Darktown Ball
    It’s a very swell affair
    All the highbrows will be there

    I’ll wear my high silk hat and my frock tail coat
    You wear your Paris gown and your new silk shawl
    Ain’t no doubt about it, Babe,
    We’ll be the best dressed in the hall.

    Chorus:

    I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey.
    You better be ready ’bout half past eight
    Now dearie, don’t be late,
    I want to be there when the band starts playing

    And remember when we get there, Honey,
    Two-steps, I’m goin’ to have ’em all:
    Goin’ to dance out both my shoes
    When they play the “Jelly Roll Blues”
    Tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutters’ Ball.

    Verse 2:

    We’ll meet out high-toned neighbors
    An exhibition of the “Baby Dolls”
    And each one will do their best
    Just to out-class all the rest

    And there’ll be dancers from ev’ry foreign land
    The Classic, Buck and Wing, and the Wooden Clog
    We’ll win that fifty dollar prize
    When we step out and Walk the Dog.

    Chorus:

    I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey.
    You better be ready ’bout half past eight
    Now dearie, don’t be late,
    I want to be there when the band starts playing

    And remember when we get there, Honey,
    Two-steps, I’m goin’ to have ’em all:
    Goin’ to dance out both my shoes
    When they play the “Jelly Roll Blues”
    Tomorrow night at the Darktown Strutters’ Ball.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    February 10, 2010 at 4:55 pm

    A postcript to the article above.

    In early 1931, John Dewey was invited by Harvard U. to give 10 lectures in honor of William James on the philosophy of art. The text of these lectures is called “Art As Experience,” and these lectures defend, sum up and solidify the modernist avant garde of the previous decades. Dewey was personally involved in modern art collecting, as were many of the “theorists” who officially defended the new art that was had cheaply and then made their possessors millionaires. Dewey is agog over French impressionism and praises color over form. What gives the game away is when he uses scare quotes in describing “three-dimensional” and “flat” painting. Perspective is a mere affectation to Dewey; line and color is all. Dewey is that classic modernist theorist, like T.S Eliot: he is a conservative defending the dionysian.

    To get to the point: what inspired the post above as a whole was this from “Art As Experience:”

    “The nudes of Renoir give delight with no pornographic suggestion.”

    The formula, which I hope others will try, is the following:

    Choose a provocative idea from aesthetic philosophy. Keep this idea hidden, but let it guide your choice in a picture, your pre-poem philosophy (as much as possible make this philosophy cohere to writing ‘the’ poem as opposed to ‘a’ poem) and then a poem arising from that philosophy.

  3. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    I posted the little poem below as a response to Franz Wright’s famous poem, “To,” which we discussed a few threads below. And I think this discussion is still on-going — on Scarriet our threads form a symphony, you see, and they never peter out or get closed.

    And I post it again because Franz Wright refused even to look at it — he considers me such a “loser” and someone who cannot be considered as a poet in the same breath with him. Well, it makes no difference to me at all whether the poem is good enough to be considered beside the winners or losers of all the prizes in America today, even the Pulitzer. It’s a considered poem composed by an old man who cares, and is about a naked woman whose presence in his youth gave him “delight” — in John Dewey’s sense, “with no pornographic consideration.” Indeed, it’s about a naked woman becoming not only a saint but an icon. So of course it’s about Hegel.

    LIFE CLASS

    The merest daub you say
    will do it.

    This undressed girl beside the vase
    will satisfy my lust
    for meaning even if
    her unlaced body wilts
    upon the stand.

    Afterwards she draws her belt
    tight about her waist
    and leaning slightly forward on the stool
    gazes at my work.

    I explain that relics
    start like this—

    the silver mantle is for later,
    the mirror last
    of all.

    The still, god-wrapped girl meanwhile
    like all the rest
    bows down in yet
    another’s arms.

    “Purple,” Franz, but “with no pornographic consideration” — a small definition of poetry. Also an unusual and considered experience, not just wallowing in self-pity.

    I survived it too, and she looked just like that Renoir but with no clothes on. When she came to look at my work the soft cotton of her robe was even more kind to her body — like even the unskillful painter uncovers the saint wrapped up in the icon. That’s worth writing about. That’s worth noting.

    Christopher

  4. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 12, 2010 at 1:25 am

    Tom,
    The young girl looks so beautiful, doesn’t she.

    And your poem coming right after is so funny yet so full of desire and expectation — “What I Love, What I Hate” indeed. “A yearning unappeased” — delicious. I remember all that. The Troubador sensibility, amour courtois— that’s what I was pursuing with Lewis and Hough. Ariosto and Edmund Spenser.

    And of course you’re a knight, Tom — and of course knights get a lot more of the action than they write about.

    John Dewey knew that too, as did Renoir.

    C.

  5. Christopher Woodman said,

    February 12, 2010 at 2:42 am

    Orlando innamorato first, then furioso!

  6. thomasbrady said,

    February 12, 2010 at 3:06 am

    Christopher,

    James Tate wrote, “Like it or not, we are part of our time. We speak the language of our time. For poets, it may be more rarefied; it may more be adorned or convoluted, but nonetheless, in some way reflective of our culture. I, for instance, as a very young man, was relieved when I first read William Carlos Williams and realized I could stop trying to write like Algernon Swinburne.”

    Isn’t this the silliest thing you ever heard? Why not write like Algernon Swinburne? If one were a good poet writing today, and one took a stab at writing like Algernon Swinburne, the result might be rather pleasing. If one dressed like Algernon Swinburne and wrote letters like Algernon Swinburne, this could be even more fun. I’d much rather get a letter in the style of Swinburne. One might even legally change one’s name to Algernon and ape that poet’s drinking habits and diet. It could be really wonderful. But Williams? One doesn’t have to be a good poet to write like Williams; one just has to be spare and rather boring. If one were to successfully imitate William Carlos Williams, no one would notice.

    I can see a play: The Story of William Karl Williams. An ordinary guy, with a squeaky voice, a bit pedantic, a bit obtuse, and the whole play would just be this riff on how the main character simply disappears into the background wherever he goes. You’d even have a classroom scene in an English class, and everybody reads what they’ve written, and our protagonist’s poem is the worst, but he’s really earnest and pleased with what he’s done, and, someone, just to be nice, compliments some plain thing he’s written, and he smiles and this passionate music swells. It would be a dark comedy, like something by Beckett or Ionesco or Pinter or Albee. People adore this guy and his dull poetry; the audience wouldn’t understand why. That would be the joke of the play, its absurdist element, the plain, modern anti-hero adored for his utter dullness, but the main characters in the play wouldn’t see it, wouldn’t realize how absolutely dull and absurd they were. Then perhaps Algernon Swinburne could show up at the very end of the play, dressed in purple stockings (Willam Karl Williams and his life would be very black & white), a brief, mysterious appearance at the end, out of nowhere. “Who are you?” “I’m Algernon Swinburne.” Curtain.

    Tate once wrote a funny poem called “The Finn” about a Finn living in Harvard Square and the Finn is depressed at how he blends in and how no one cares about Finnish literature; Tate’s Finn is portrayed as colorless, invisible. But Tate can’t see that WC Williams is the Finn. WC Williams is more the Finn than the Finn in Tate’s poem, and the joke is even better, because no poet in James Tate’s generation (Tate was born in ’43) can see it.

    Thomas

  7. Alan Cordle said,

    February 12, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I think that poem is actually called “I am a Finn.” If you think that Finn is colorless, you should read the entire sequence of Finn poems that is Ted Genoways’ self-published (in the series he edits at University of Georgia Press) book called Anna, Washing. Tate’s poem is somewhat amusing because the Finn seems to be reciting facts right out of an encyclopedia. Genoways didn’t even bother to use one. His characters are supposed to be Finnish, but they could be from anywhere. There’s no indication he spent even five minutes doing a little research into Finnish-American immigrant culture.

  8. thomasbrady said,

    February 12, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Thanks for the correction, Al. Tate’s poem is very much a cut-and-paste affair, but the first time I read it, I did laugh. The joke wears thin after a while, and it begins to slide into the ‘Poets are Comics Who Are Not Funny’ realm, but James Tate once and a while strikes comedy gold. The serious poem which nonetheless grins is an interesting genre. (memo: work up a post on this) I think Eliot’s “a patient etherized upon a table” from “Prufrock” can be seen as this: a depressed person nonetheless joking in a way that many people might not ‘get.’ Ashbery made a career out of doing this. It takes a special sort of depressed/hilarious person to pull it off…

  9. Alan Cordle said,

    February 12, 2010 at 5:08 pm

    I saw Tate read here in Portland a few years ago. The first few poems were cute; I may have LOLed. But then, as you say, the joke — or rather, the formula — wore thin. By the end of the evening I felt like GOLing, groaning out loud.