Saturday, May 18, 2013

Face: Sherman Alexie’s Native American haibun

In his introduction to the translation by Cid Corman and Kamaike Susumu of Basho’s Back Roads to Far Towns (oku-no-hosomichi), Robert Hass describes haibun as a prose poem combined with thematically-related haiku, and he offers Basho’s book as the defining example. The last in a series of five poetic diaries, the book describes a journey that Basho took through the mountains of northern Japan, lasting nine months and covering 1,500 miles. Hass argues that it was in this volume that Basho “refined and sharpened” the haibun form. (Today, the on-line journal contemporary haibun online is dedicated to English-language haibun based on Basho’s model.)

Sherman Alexie’s poetry collection Face includes a range of different types of poems, with several that may be viewed as particularly imaginative extensions of the haibun concept, but cast in a completely different form and cultural context. A specific example is the poem “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” consisting of four prose poems, alternating with four sonnets. All of these components are thematically linked, and Alexie’s sonnets are organized like the Shakespearean model as three quatrains, with a concluding couplet, but his rhyme schemes are a novel mix of styles. Specifically, in their book Strong Measures, Phillip Dacey and David Jauss define the following sonnet types, based on their rhyme schemes:

Shakespearean sonnet: abab cdcd efef gg

Hybrid sonnet: abba cddc effe gg

Couplet sonnet: aabb ccdd eeff gg

Alexie’s sonnets – both the sonnet components of this poem and other examples in his collection – mix these styles. For example, the first sonnet in “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers” has the following rhyme scheme:

abab cddc eeff gg

while the second mixes these styles differently, as:

abba ccdd efef gg

Another poem from Face that pushes the haibun concept further is “Vilify,” a villanelle with 14 numbered footnotes. The villanelle itself is somewhat unusual in the length of its lines: the first has 23 syllables, more than twice as long as the traditional iambic pentameter’s 10 syllables. And while the use of footnotes in poems is not unprecedented, this is most commonly done in translations to provide cultural or historical context. For example, many of the translations in 100 Tang Poems, a collection of Chinese poems written between roughly 640 and 900 AD, include brief footnotes for precisely this purpose. In Alexie’s poem, however, the footnotes become an essential ingredient: the 19 lines of the villanelle itself occupy just over a page, while the footnotes go on for nine more pages, including passages of dialogue and Alexie’s commentary on everything from the history of the villanelle form to a list of the twelve U.S. Presidents who owned slaves. These prose excursions are natural for Alexie, who has also published a number of prose volumes, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This is a collection of 22 short stories that you have to love for their titles alone, which include, in addition to one with the book’s title, one called “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” and another one simply titled “A Good Story.”  (That said, the stories do live up to their titles.)

My favorite poem from Face is “Comedy Is Simply a Funny Way of Being Serious.” Here, Alexie pushes the “poem with footnotes” to new creative heights I never could have imagined before reading this example of the form. The poem itself consists of two seven-line monorhyme stanzas. In an era where free verse remains the dominant poetic style, monorhyme is unusual enough by itself: every line concludes with the same end rhyme. The poem’s footnotes are numbered and each one takes the form of a rhymed couplet. Most unusual of all, however, are the sub-footnotes: the numbered footnotes cite lettered sub-footnotes, and together these form a sonnet.

For a very long time, poets have been advised to “study the masters,” and while this is excellent advice, it does raise the question “who are the masters?” In some specific cases, there are fairly clear answers: for haiku, one of the obvious masters is Basho. For example, in his book, Matsuo Basho, Makoto Ueda argues that:

“… if one poet is to be singled out as the greatest contributor to the development of haiku literature, there will be little question about the choice: it has to be Matsuo Basho.”

Similarly, since his name is attached to one of the standard sonnet forms, Shakespeare is a clear master of this form. Where it becomes much more difficult is the identification of contemporary masters. Based on a first – but careful – reading of Face, I believe I have found in Sherman Alexie a master worthy of study.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Repairing Poetry

I recently finished reading The Poetry Home Repair Manual, a short little book (paperback, about 160 pages) by Ted Kooser, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 through 2006. The book was published in 2005 and the biographical blurb also describes the author as a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and – reminiscent of Wallace Stevens – a retired insurance executive. The subtitle of the book is Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, and while I don’t consider myself a “beginning poet” exactly, there are certainly things I can do better, and Kooser’s book offers a number of useful suggestions and observations. In fact, the opening sentence of the book is:

“Most of a poet’s education is self-education, and most of what you’ll learn you’ll teach yourself through reading and writing poems,”
but he goes on to note that “the craft of careful writing and meticulous revision can be taught,” and it is his pointers on some of these topics that I find valuable.

The first chapter addresses a few key preliminaries (things like, “You’ll never be able to make a living writing poems,” on page 1, followed by “We teach ourselves to write the kinds of poems we like to read” – italics his – on page 9). These points are perhaps obvious enough on reflection, but they are also both important and all too easy to forget from time to time. More generally, Kooser’s philosophy of poetry is summarized in the following statement from the book’s introduction (on page xi):

“Poetry is communication and every word I’ve written here subscribes to that belief.”

He reinforces this point of view with his second chapter, entitled “Writing for Others,” where his focus is on making poems comprehensible, emphasizing that if readers can’t understand anything in your poems, they are unlikely to read them. In fact, this view is somewhat controversial, and Kooser hints as much, also noting in the book’s introduction that:

“If you’ve gotten the impression from teachers or from reading contemporary poetry that poets don’t need to write with a sense of somebody out there who might read what they’ve written, this book is not for you.”

He expands on this point on page 2, arguing that “some poets go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging.” It is certainly true in many of the creative arts – and perhaps nowhere more so than in some types of modern music – that certain schools of thought place a very high value on abstraction. When I was much younger, I was greatly intrigued by the theory behind Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique of musical composition, particularly in some of it’s combinations with mathematical notions like group theory. Ultimately, though, however much I wanted to like the results, I never heard a piece of music built on these intellectually exciting ideas that actually sounded good to me. To some extent, this is a matter of taste, but even Schoenberg recognized that the more abstract the work, the more difficult the communication of ideas – in his case, musical ideas, but the same holds true for poetry where the term “communication” can be much more literal. In his book, Style and Idea, Schoenberg expresses the view that “to lay claim to one’s interest, a thing must be worth saying, and it must not yet have been said.” He immediately goes on to say that:

“Here is the greatest difficulty for any listener, even if he is musically educated: the way I construct my melodies, themes, and whole movements offers the present-day perceptive faculty a challenge that cannot yet be met at a first hearing.”

This comment is the first thing Schoenberg says at the beginning of a section headed “Repetition,” where he argues, next, that repetition helps greatly in understanding music, and finally, that he himself went to considerable lengths to avoid ever repeating anything. Analogous observations may be made about poetry: classical, formal poetry (e.g., Shakespeare’s sonnets) exhibited considerable repetition, of various types: end-rhymes (the repetition of final consonants and their preceding vowel sounds at the ends of lines), meter (e.g., iambic pentameter, where each line consists of five repeated iambic feet), and in some cases repeated lines (e.g., in forms like the villanelle or the pantoum). As the practice of poetry has moved away from these forms, some of it has followed Schoenberg’s aesthetic direction, greatly reducing repetition and emphasizing abstraction.

Billy Collins was U.S. Poet Laureate before Ted Kooser, and he edited the anthology Poetry 180 during his tenure.  In the introduction to this book, Collins discusses an article he read in a high school student newspaper where the young editor offered the following assessment of modern poetry:

“Whenever I read a modern poem, it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

At least partially in response to this critique, Collins assembled an anthology of what he describes as “short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically ‘get’ on first hearing.” The first poem in the collection is his own, entitled “Introduction to Poetry,” and the second is “Selecting a Reader,” a very funny thirteen-line poem by Ted Kooser.

The third chapter of Kooser’s book is “First Impressions,” where he suggests that “the titles and first lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship toward your reader.” Building on this view, he urges particular care in selecting these elements, noting that:

“Opening lines set up expectations and possibilities. For example, if a poem begins with three lines of strict iambic pentameter, a reader will be disconcerted if that forceful rhythm is abandoned in the fourth line. If you rhyme the first stanza of a poem, the reader will wonder why you didn’t rhyme the second and the third.”

Subsequent chapters offer detailed advice on other aspects of writing poems, including examples that illustrate how the placement of accented syllables in a line can influence its pace, practical advice on rhyme, a brief discussion of the key differences between prose poems and more traditional lined verse, and a chapter on the differences in impact of metaphors and similes. Probably my favorite chapters are “Working with Detail” (Chapter 9) and “Controlling Effects through Careful Choices” (Chapter 10). In the chapter on detail, Kooser emphasizes “the value of unexpected, unpredictable detail,” noting that these are the details that lend the greatest realism to a description, precisely because they are unexpected. In Chapter 10, Kooser emphasizes the distinct roles and utilities of different parts of speech, noting for example, that carefully selected, specific and unexpected adjectives can be extremely effective in clarifying and enhancing nouns, while the use of adverbs can usually be avoided through careful verb choices. This chapter also emphasizes the impact of word placement – beginning, middle, or end of the line – repeating several simple examples with different placements of the same words to illustrate the sometimes considerable impact placement can have on tone, pacing, and comprehensibility.

All in all, I liked Ted Kooser’s little book quite a lot, and I plan to re-read it from time to time. That said, his book isn’t for everyone, as Kooser himself notes. His poetry tends to be narrative and concrete, and this style doesn’t appeal to everybody. If your taste runs more to the highly abstract – language poetry, for example – you might find something like the University of California's excellent four-volume series Poems for the Millennium more to your liking. Even so, Kooser’s book contains a number of useful, practical nuggets of advice, suggestions that are particularly valuable for the beginning poet, but also worthy of consideration by “more seasoned” poets encumbered by larger piles of rejection letters.