Contributor Update: Dallas Woodburn

Dallas Woodburn

Today we are glad to share that SR Contributor Dallas Woodburn’s debut collection of short stories, WOMAN, RUNNING LATE, IN A DRESS, is scheduled for publication in March 2018 from Yellow Flag Press as the winner of their Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award.

Dallas Woodburn, a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing at San Jose State University, has published work in Zyzzyva, Superstition Review, The Los Angeles Times, Fourth River, Flyway, and Monkeybicycle, among many others. A four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won first place in the international Glass Woman Prize and second place in the American Fiction Prize. She is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors.

Guest Post, Hannah Brown: Laughter, Not Zero, at the Bone

The spring after my father died, a large bull garter snake undulated across the floor of what had been my father’s office in the basement. “The Old Boy’s gone,” my brother said, “so the snake must have figured it was finally safe.”

*  * *

I had learned to walk in the dewy grass outside the back door of our farmhouse in Hastings County. I have a dim memory of snatching something moving. My hands were always quick. I headed back to the house and knocked on the door. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do remember my father outside, his face red, fiercely chopping with the axe. My mother said I had entered the kitchen with a small garter snake spiraling around my forearm, its head licking the air by my hand.

My father’s horror of snakes was a weakness my mother enjoyed. When he took her and her mother to Florida the first time, they bought a papier-mâché snake, a little piece of string between each of its sections. If you pinched one of the sections between thumb and forefinger, both its head and its tail sections writhed. The conspirators placed it on the dashboard, and my father studiously ignored it all the way to Tampa.

When they parked at the motel, my grandmother picked it up. “Why, what’s this, Bill?” He ignored her question, which sent my mother and her mother into gales of laughter— then, and every time they told the story.

I was fifteen and about to graduate from high school, and had read some mischievous information about interpreting symbols. I decided to make another open foray in my ongoing battle with all adults. My father, who had gone out with my mother’s older sister before he went out with my mother, was sitting with my aunt at the kitchen table.
It was large enough for eight of us at every meal: breakfast, lunch, and supper, every day, no breaks, no ceasefires. There were eight of us, six children and my mother, and him. Unlike city children, or children who lived a happy distance from the local school, we went home for lunch—and so did he. He was a fierce man, tall and well-built, with an inclination for the fancy. When he went away to university, one of his first purchases was a suit of tails.

There he sat, smoking a cigarette with my aunt. She was also fierce, an accomplished artist, who could kick her foot up over her head on a moment’s notice. She smoked without cease, but my father only smoked one cigarette, and only with her when she visited.

“I have a personality test, “I announced. “If you’re not too chicken.”

Neither was. They both willingly took the pencils and pieces of paper. My instructions were to draw a snake. My father was finished first. His snake looked like this:


Father's Snake Drawing



My aunt finished in a few minutes. This was her snake:


Aunt's Snake Drawing







“So, what’s your interpretation, Hannah?” My aunt was pleased with what she had drawn, but not for long.

“The more coils your snake has, the more sexually frustrated you are.”

My father laughed out loud.

* * *

My mother picked up the garter snake with the bacon tongs and threw him in the ditch across the road. She looked aghast when she said a little bit of tail had broken off, and then smiled and coyly asked me if I wanted it.


Guest Post, Kerry Cullen: On Heroes

POWOne particularly boring day in 9th grade Chemistry, I wrote a story about my group of friends defeating our evil teacher. I folded it in a note, and passed it along the back row, where the story’s heroes read it one by one, stifling laughter and sneaking glances at the blissfully unaware teacher. We had recently decided we were all superheroes–vigilantes, to be specific. Everyone got a nickname and a power, debated among the group. I still didn’t have a name or power, and I was too self-conscious to make up my own, so I asked a friend.

He screwed up his face, thinking. “What are your skills?”

“I dunno.”

“Well, you’re good at writing. You could be the journalist that follows the superheroes around!”

“So like, a secret superhero disguised as a journalist?”

“No,” the boy said, already shaking his head. “No, that wouldn’t make any sense. If you had powers, you’d be fighting the bad guys with us. You can’t have powers.”

“So I’m not part of the team?”

“Not technically,” he said. “But without you, who would know about all the stuff we’re doing? You would give the townspeople hope! Someone has to do it.”

I refused.


I’ve always wanted to be a hero. I’ve always wanted to be one of the people out there in the world doing the courageous work that ordinary people don’t have the guts for. When I was an evangelical christian kid, I wanted to go into international missions. I wanted to adventure, take risks, go to unusual places. I was excited for the Second Coming–I wanted to live in a time of upheaval, to defend my faith against monstrous beasts. If not that, then I wanted to be a nun, to live an extraordinary life of prayer. When I moved away from religion and into LGBTQ rights activism, I wanted to be a different kind of hero. I wanted to go on a hunger strike in prison. I wanted to chain myself to a building, to put myself in physical danger for a noble cause.


I’ve always wanted to be a fiction writer, too. The most common advice given to fiction writers is also the best: “Ass in chair.” Stay where you are; keep writing. Of course you need to live a life in order to write, and in order to be a healthy human being–an often underrated pursuit among artists, but a necessary one nevertheless. A good writer, though, should be perpetually conscious of the work, always ready to use their few solitary moments to sit down and dig into the deepest marrow of their soul. It doesn’t look romantic, sitting in a chair all day; it’s not a hunger strike or a sit-in or an exotic adventure.


But it certainly requires fortitude. In one of W.B. Yeats’s last poems, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, a writer near the end of his life ruminates on the stories that he used to write about, great tales of adventure and triumph, vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose. But in his age, the writer realizes that what he has left are not the mythical creatures and characters, the circus animals, all on show. Rather, it is the unglamorous murk of human emotion that he must write from. He concludes the poem, saying


I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.


I asked a professor in college once: how do you dig into the darkest parts of yourself for writing, and also live a healthy life? He peered at me over his fingertips, with his uncanny pale blue eyes, and said, “I am always vigilant.”


To be a writer is to be vigilant. To be vigilant is to be watchful, awake. To keep a vigil is to stay awake in prayer. To be a vigilante is to be ‘a self-appointed doer of justice’.


These days, I want badly to be a self-appointed doer of justice. Villains are everywhere and multiplying, and a clamoring part of me wishes that I could abandon my work and my ordinary life and even my writing to go on some death-defying, valorous adventure–ideally somehow involving magic? –that would mold me into a true hero, capable of quickly and concretely changing the world. I want to single-handedly save lives. I want to do something noble and powerful, worthy of an incredible story. Of course, if my impulse for action is contingent on story, my underlying desire is probably more about the tale than the act.


I’m not talking about small acts of goodness: calling senators, writing letters, doing volunteer work in a community, being kind and attentive to the people in your life. All of those and more are humbler works that come from less glory-hungry urges, and that, if done consistently, don’t make up merely one adventurous plot arc to tell and retell. Rather, they make up a whole life of daily, mundane choices, like waking up every day, getting your ass in that chair, and putting pen to paper.


The only thing I’ve wholeheartedly kept from my former Christianity is an immense respect for and love of prayer. A favorite author once called prayer an ‘act of love’ and I’ve felt that definition ring true more than any other. For me, writing and prayer are inextricably linked–both a deeply embedded part of my childhood, both a salvation, reconciliation, meditation. Both annoying, sometimes. Both easy to procrastinate on, both unglamorous, both private, both practices that everyone else seems to do with more ease, more beauty, more reward. Both practices that thrive in questions and not answers. Both vigils. Both staying awake.


To be a self-appointed doer of justice, vigilante-style, you need answers. You need clarity and security in the knowledge that what you’re doing is right, or at least mostly right, or at least pointed in the general direction of the greater good. We will always have heroes and villains in this world, self-appointed doers who believe that they are on the side of justice. Who have been told what the side of justice is, and have decided to fight for it. Some fight for the weak and downtrodden and underserved. Some fight for their god. Some fight for their money.


And following them are the journalists, the storytellers, the poets. The people with more questions than answers, the people whose job it is to give the townspeople hope, or fear. The people sifting through what their leaders are doing to find the truth under it. The people who lie down where all the ladders start.


This world needs heroes. It needs writers, too.

Guest Post, Julia Lichtblau: Photography Pioneers Duke It Out In The Realist, A Novel About Berenice Abbott

Cover for The Realist by Sarah ColemanBefore diving into The Realist, photography critic Sarah Coleman’s incisive, elegantly written debut novel about pioneer photographer Berenice Abbott, I spent a few hours with Abbott’s work, with which I had only a glancing familiarity. I wanted to see the work in my mind’s eye before reading descriptions.


When I turned to The Realist, I saw that I would have done as well, if not better, to read the book as preparation to view Abbott’s pictures. Coleman’s book is rich with well-researched historical ambiance—the Montparnasse art scene circa 1920; Wall Street’s glory moment before the 1929 crash; Hoovervilles in Central Park as the Depression set in; the backstabbing art world personalities. But Coleman’s ability to transform the cerebral process of artistic development into drama made me understand Abbott’s extraordinary images as part of a long series of epiphanies.


Photographically speaking, Coleman knows her stuff. She has degrees in art and writing, writes about photography and literature on her blog, “The Literate Lens,” and has published in ARTnews, Salon, Photo District News and elsewhere. It helps that Abbott feuded with and befriended famous personalities, including Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Djuna Barnes, and Margaret Bourke-White. Yet it’s no small achievement to write scenes with historical figures that are believable, advance the story, and don’t fall into Hollywood archaic diction, the great pitfall of the historical novel.


The Museum of the City of New York posts some 250 images from Abbott’s seminal “Changing New York” series online. The pictures, from 1935-38, taken under a Federal Art Project grant, capture a city becoming “modern”– sleek, glossy, mechanized, aggressive—at break-neck speed. Aluminum skyscrapers dwarf 19th century brick warehouses with iron hardware. Smooth art deco façades stare down a Belle-Epoque turret encrusted with dragons, crowns, and other medieval regalia. Other images could have been taken during the Civil War. Horse-drawn produce wagons and masted schooners. All marry time and place with the play of plane geometry and light that makes New York’s ever-mutating ugly beauty.


Coleman’s book—albeit a fictionalized biography—is both a healthy corrective to the prevailing delusion that we’re all great photographers, courtesy of the phone camera, and timely as sexual abuse, gender discrimination, and homophobia make headlines. Abbott, a lesbian, butted up against all of the above in the course of her life, which spanned most of the twentieth century (1899-1991).


The Realist opens with Abbott’s famous “It Has to Walk Alone” speech, in which she took on the entire photography establishment as keynote speaker at the field’s first national conference in 1951, when Abbott was 51. Inveighing against both pictorialism—“the making of pleasant, artificial photographs, in the superficial spirit of some minor painters”—and abstract modernism, she declared the photography is at heart a documentary medium, that “… can never grow up if it imitates other media. It has to walk alone.” An artistic manifesto, the speech also took revenge on her (by then-dead) nemesis, Stieglitz, ridiculing his photograph of a castrated horse’s rear entitled “Spiritual America,” and his acolytes.

“Cultural America has been represented by the back end of a horse to people who didn’t even know they were being insulted.”  [She said]

Now there are surprised coughs and some laughs, as if she’s twirled a dirty garment in their faces. Symbolically, perhaps she has. She has dared declare that the emperor had no clothes—that Stieglitz was a phony.


When it’s over, “…[Margaret Bourke-White] squeezes her hand, nods at the cameras. Then she leans in again. ‘My dear, that was staggering,’ she says, ‘But what on earth made you do it?’”


Coleman’s novel depicts Abbott’s courage as more than intellectual. Elsewhere in the book, we see her accepting an apparently friendly invitation to shoot from a crane hanging one hundred feet above the city. The crane operator makes the crane swing terrifyingly, to teach an uppity female her place. She descends, trembling. “ ‘Sorry,’ says Dwyer, ‘Windy up there.’

‘Like hell,” she says…. ‘Like hell, you piece of shit.’”

Coleman traces Abbott’s sang-froid to her harsh, working-class childhood in Ohio. Abbott’s father leaves her mother, then returns to abduct her older sister. The mother’s remarriage ends after she comes home to find Bernice (She acquired the second “e” later) standing over her unconscious stepfather after fending him off with a bottle. Their escape doesn’t presage mother-daughter tenderness. After smacking her, Ma asks if she could be pregnant. No. “Then there’s nothing else to say. We won’t speak of it again. As of this moment, we start a new life.” Her mother’s coldness is another theme that weaves through the novel, though Abbott eventually makes a long and loving relationship.

A scholarship to Ohio State is the first step in her liberation. Abbott comes to New York, hoping to become a sculptor, moves to Paris, where she falls into photography working as an assistant to Man Ray, the surrealist, and becomes a sought-after portrait photographer there. (The book includes a number of Abbott’s photos, including a dreamy 1926 shot of the exquisite Tylia Perlmutter, her first lover.) While there, she also discovers the Parisian photographer, Eugène Atget, and becomes his champion and admirer. At the end of the 19th century, as whole swathes of Paris were razed under Baron Haussman’s redevelopment plan, Atget documented the condemned neighborhoods and the old-fashioned businesses that were becoming obsolete with the advent of department stores. Not only did she buy his collection, she sought to emulate his documentation of Paris in her own work on New York.

On returning to New York as the Depression hit, she approaches Stieglitz, hoping to interest the doyen of photographic taste in a show of Atget’s work, only to collide with him over artistic vision. Every novel needs a good villain, and Stieglitz fills the bill. Coleman portrays him as almost deranged by this nobody from Ohio, a woman, who dares to challenge his primacy. He takes her successes as personal affronts to be avenged. Was Stieglitz as odious to Abbott as he comes across in the book? I’m not a photography historian. Abbot’s and Stieglitz’s professional enmity is amply documented. And a powerful man employing scorched-earth tactics to defeat a rising female rings a lot of bells.


In the most dramatic moment of the book, Stieglitz corners Abbott at the opening of her “Changing New York” show at the Museum of the City of New York and calls her images derivative of his.

“Are you crazy?” she cries out. “Light and shadows? Do you think you own the sky?” She pauses, wondering whether to use the word delusional— then settles for something else, perhaps worse. “I think you’re jealous. I have a museum show, whereas you have to show your second-rate work in your own gallery.”

Stieglitz’s skin has turned ashen… “You are a rude, untalented, inconsequential woman,” he spits out. “Just wait. I’m going to bury you…” He takes a step forward, almost as if to make good on the threat—then stops suddenly, clutching at his chest.


Abbott, however tempted—to quote Liza Doolittle’s song “Just You Wait” in My Fair Lady—“to be off a second later/and go straight to the the-atre”—feels morally obligated to administer CPR.


The ups and downs of Abbott’s career are fortunately leavened by love interest. Elizabeth McCausland, an art critic who seeks her out after a show in which her work was upstaged by the surprise inclusion of paintings by Salvador Dalí (orchestrated by Stieglitz, of course), becomes the love of her life—but not without a serious hitch. At the time, she’s engaged to a man—albeit a wealthy, kind, supportive one. As her friendship with McCausland heats up, Abbott is unable to reveal her commitment. When McCausland finds out, she flees. However, she does show up for the “Changing New York” opening, turning the evening—very nearly derailed by the villainous Stieglitz—into an emotional as well as artistic triumph.

Berenice Abbott's Soap Bubbles

Abbott’s work moved into science photography, taking on the challenge of bringing science photography up to the sophistication of the research. The 1946 image of soap bubbles reproduced in the book, which looks like obsidian or black pebbles, seems like a celebration of the abstract beauty of form divorced from context. And here we see once again the photography establishment pulling the rug out from under Abbott. Edward Steichen, the head of photography at the Museum of Modern Art offers her a show, then changing his mind before it’s formalized.


Coleman shows Abbott falling into despair. What gets her out of bed in the end is her friend Beaumont Newhall, first head of photography at MOMA and now director of the George Eastman Museum  invitation to speak at the 1951 photography conference at Aspen which opens the book.


“It’s not just a pity prize?”

“Oh please, give me credit. Have I ever said I pity you?”

Berenice doesn’t answer. She thinks, again, of the scene at Aspen. An audience made up of executives and curators. The top practitioners of her field. And Steichen, sitting where she can disembowel him with a glance.

Beaumont leans down, pats her hand. “I can see you’re thinking about it. Think some more. I’m going to a meeting now. I’ll stop in to see you later.” He gives her a quick peck on the cheek, then straightens up. “Not to be picky, but it would be nice if you bathed by then.”

Abbott was dogmatic that photography’s nature is inherently documentary. Yet what gives  her images their transcendent beauty is their form much as scene. Reading The Realist, I suspect Abbott wouldn’t have thanked me for the compliment. But, as Coleman’s novel dramatizes, Abbott was not after compliments. She worked doggedly to capture the essence of a place and moment. Whether one calls it documentary or art is perhaps only important to critics and scholars. Abbott wanted her work to be accessible. With this lively, knowledgeable, and engaging novel, Coleman makes it more so.

#ArtLitPhx: Historias del taller escritura creativa en español PARTE 2


Ofelia Montelongo, a former student editor-in-chief from Superstition Review, will be hosting the closing event for the Creative Writing in Spanish Workshop at the Palabras Bilingual Bookstore (1738 E McDowell Rd, Phoenix, Arizona 85006).  The event will take place this Friday, December 1st from 7pm to 9pm.

The students of the workshop will be sharing the stories they wrote during the six-week course/workshop, thanks to the support of the Arizona Commission on the Arts. If you’re driving, remember that the library’s parking lot is behind the bookstore. For more information, check out the event’s Facebook page.

Guest Post, Muriel Nelson: Looking for Inspiration, Distraction, or Most Anything That Doesn’t Start with T or Rhyme with Rump

Coffee, yes.

Pink hats, yes.

Chocolate, yes.

But none of these inspires for long. Just look at the length of those “paragraphs.” The poems I wrote last winter were equally stunted.

I tried starting each day with coffee and resistance.

• Email Electors. Their purpose is to protect us from an unfit candidate, right?
• Sign petitions. We’re the majority. We’re strong if we stick together. We need to save what’s worth saving! (Can we?)
• Challenge the NYT to publish a front page without mentioning #45. Don’t play what he deals!
• Contact GOP senators without revealing my blue-state zip code.

I tried pink wool next, along with gutsy poets Eleanor Wilner and Maxine Kumin. Later I read Mark Twain for his anger and humor combined and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his thoughts on hilaritas from inside a Nazi prison.

If none of these could shake my dark mood, I tried dark chocolate while writing to “get that out of my system,” as my mom used to say. A friend and I had challenged each other to write a colonoscopy poem. Here’s the end of mine:

No kidding, the Russians are way ahead of us.Enema Monument, Zheleznovodsk, Russia
Bet you didn’t know that ‘the world’s first
monument dedicated to enema treatments’
was unveiled in Zheleznovodsk.
Just imagine ‘three angel-like children
carrying above their heads a big pear-like
enema.’ And behold! an American tribute
on the White House lawn: three model-like
wives in stilettos carrying one huge snake
of a colon, its rectum facing us and plated gold.

For distraction, I thought music might help, and fast walks in the rain powered by our non-stop fox terrier. Discovery: Gregorian chant sooths the terrier breast, if not my own. I looked for the oddest apolitical topics I could find. After reading about 5000-year-old bog butter, I persuaded a like-minded fellow writer to hear a talk on old food with me. Unfortunately, neither of us found a way to write about that butter. We both needed something else.

Don’t we all? How much energy’s been sapped since November? (E = mass times what?) Obviously, we need competent national leadership so that all of us can get on with our lives, but how about right now? Who feels safe from threat or harm and able to create? Even if we aren’t personally threatened, others’ lives need protecting. Who among us can go on writing as before?

Recently, I became “trans-sectional” to sing alto rather than second soprano, and learned that I needed to wake up my lower register so that I could trust it to do more than speak frog below middle C. I needed new warm-ups for writing, too, to address the low notes of our time, this era of “the broom”—Joseph Brodsky’s name for the Soviet strategy of cowing people by spreading hatred and danger everywhere and sweeping up victims at random.

I found that instead of distraction, I needed wonder, wonder at what was actually here. In one of his prose pieces, Osip Mandelstam wonders at the power of a madman’s gaze. In another, he reveals what animates many of his poems when he writes, “I love fear.” All around me lurked the mysterious powers of irrationality and fear-mongering rumor. A seemingly unbelievable rumor would be started and passed on. It would quickly expand, explode, and radiate like a bomb. Yes, hackers were and are accelerants, but does anyone know why a frightening rumor seems more persuasive than reason and proof? Its power comes from more than repetition. More than echoes. It demands attention and remains a mystery, drawing us deep into the primitive parts of our brains and then catching fire in our imaginations. Shakespeare knew how to set that fire: Fair is foul, and foul is fair.

Fear in a poet’s hands can become beauty, as Mandelstam’s poems demonstrate:

Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight –
the great, darkening year.
Into the seething waters of the night
heavy forests of nets disappear.

Witches (nasty women). Storms. Nets. Darkness. Disasters which loom everywhere now mix fear with amazing beauty—the joyous dance of an Ebola survivor, the blood orange of the sun and moon glowing through wildfire smoke, the fierce heart of Carmen Yulín Cruz in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the spectacular death of a star streaming to us from the Hubble, human chains, an offered hand, and, lifting its head above gray volcanic ash, the pure yellow of a single stubborn dandelion.

Guest Post, Michael Hudson: Mediocris Poeta: Some of My Favorite Dismal Quotes about Poems & Poetry


The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo Book CoverBack about 1992 a friend of mine was taking a creative writing class at the University of Akron and I happened across one of her assigned texts, a slim volume of essays called The Triggering Town by a poet I’d never heard of named Richard Hugo. The book is (or was) considered a classic and was assigned to creative writing classes across the country. I loved it. As a fumbling, clueless novelist, I found the advice in Hugo’s book to be bracing. Also I experienced a gratifying twinge of fellow feeling too, because Hugo worked a desk at a manufacturing company for fourteen years (he worked for aircraft giant Boeing), and I’d just started a similar job myself (I stayed over sixteen years in truck equipment manufacturing sales).

For many years I ransacked that book, they gradually forgot about it as I got older and my cynicism increased. Recently, I ran across my copy of The Triggering Town, frantically underlined and scribbled with my marginal notes. I dipped in and found still much to be admired – Hugo is an engaging writer and a true gentle soul. But the poetry – Hugo’s poetry, which is featured throughout the book – I found to be awful – a kind of “Deep Image Lite,” with long passages of just “Lite” – plain-voice aw shucks stuff with incontinent descriptions of wind and water and the sun and stuff. That was a dominant mode back in the ’70s and ’80s, the American equivalent of the Georgian Period (browse a back issue of Poetry from that era to see what I mean). Hugo, glad to be rid of Boeing and quite comfy at the University of Montana, was a booster of the burgeoning university poetry scene:

“Mark Strand remarked recently in Montana that American poetry could not help but get better and better, and I’m inclined to agree. I doubt that we’ll have the one big figure of the century the way other nations do, Yeats, Valéry. Giants are not the style of the society, though the wind knows there are enough people who want to create them, and not just a few who want to be them. I think we’ll end up with a lot of fine poets, each doing his thing. There are a lot of bright and substantial young people writing and a lot of good poetry-writing teachers available to help them, poets who earned the title the hard way and who are generous enough to pass on all that they learned for themselves…”

(From the essay “Stray Thoughts on Roethke and Teaching” from The Triggering Town, 1977, p. 33).

Sign me up, please. So I would’ve said in 1992. Now I read this with dismay. For sure we have no “big figures” in American poetry – Elizabeth Bishop (died 1979) is perhaps the last “big” American poet. And we certainly do have lots and lots of poets “doing his thing.” But has American poetry – I mean the individual poems – gotten “better and better” since the 1970s? I don’t think so, and whenever somebody make such a claim I ask what poem they have in mind, what individual poem endures the way Bishop’s “One Art” or Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” or Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” have?

Throughout history people have tried to professionalize poetry (“Shakespeare can’t be a poet, for he didn’t go to university,” sniffed the University Poets). These are not the poets “who earned the title the hard way” so much as they are poets who have established their credentials and careers. But real poets don’t have credentials and careers; they only have poems. Which leads me to my next, and for me far more bracing and truthful quote, by the desolate poet, critic, and possible suicide Randall Jarrell:

“Writing good poetry is only occasionally difficult: usually it is impossible. But writing what seems to you good poetry is always easy, if only, somehow, your standards of what constitutes a good poem can be lowered (and specialized) to what you write; this unconscious and progressive lowering of taste, a sort of fatty degeneration of the critical faculties, is the most common of ends.”

Randall Jarrell, from his essay “Poets: Old, New and Aging” in Kipling, Auden & Co. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), page 44.

A very terrifying quote; it scared me to pieces when I first encountered it 15 years ago or so, around the time my infatuation with The Triggering Town had started to fade. That “usually it is impossible” got to me at first, but as the years went by I became even more uncomfortable with that “what seems to you good poetry is always easy.” What a blighted, limited, pessimistic, and unhelpful way to look at the art! What a grump. Isn’t poetry something to be shared and taught in schools and workshops and senior citizen living centers? Isn’t poetry something to be mastered, with an extensive M.F.A. and Ph.D. academic apparatus in place to instruct and nurture and matriculate the worthy (“a lot of good poetry-writing teachers”)? Isn’t poetry the embodiment of the truth that every person has a story, thereby every person has a voice?

Yes to all that, I say! I’m all for poetry and its spiritual and societal benefits. I am also for “bright and substantial young people writing.” Access to poetry – reading or writing – should be wide open. But again, too often the poems – individual, quotable poems – get lost in the rhetoric of poetry. Perhaps the most egregious symptom of this is the problem of overproduction. Since Richard Hugo came in from the cold and got a university job in the 1970s, the number of American poems published has gone critical. Even before the Internet the proliferation of journals and books was staggering. This is seen by some a sign of cultural robustness and rude good health. Which leads me to my next dismal quote:

As art sinks into paralysis, artists multiply. This anomaly ceases to be one if we realize that art, on its way to exhaustion, has become both impossible and easy.

(E. M. Cioran, trans. Richard Howard, from The Trouble with Being Born).

Ah Cioran, the Franco-Romanian philosopher who wrote approvingly about suicide for sixty years or so then died an octogenarian of natural causes. Despite the discrepancies, he’s one of my favorite writers, and he’s even grouchier than Jarrell.

“The older I grow, the more I realize that I have counted too much on poetry. I have loved it at the expense of my health; I anticipated succumbing to my worship of it. Poetry! The word itself once led me to image a thousand universes and now no longer wakens in my mind anything but a vision of singsong and nullity, of fetid mysteries and affectations. It is only fair to add that I have made the mistake of frequenting a good number of poets. With very few exceptions, they were uselessly solemn, infatuated, or odious, monsters, specialists, tormentors, and martyrs of the adjective whose dilettantism, lucidity, and intellectual sensibility I had vastly overestimated.”

(E. M. Cioran, trans. Richard Howard, from The Temptation to Exist. From the essay “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter”)

Perhaps Cioran should have stuck to individual poems, not some Grand Ideal of Poetry or the “frequenting” of actual live poets. Here is the semi-forgotten poet and critic R. P. Blackmur being relentlessly clear about this:

“The greatness of Emily Dickinson is not – to review our select list of prejudices – going to be found in anybody’s idea of greatness, or of Goethe, or intensity, or mysticism, or historical fatality. It is going to be found in the words she used and in the way she put them together; which we will observe, if we bother to discriminate our observations, as a series of facts about words.”

(R. P. Blackmur, The Expense of Greatness (1940; 1955 reprint), from the essay “Emily Dickinson” p. 118)

Ah, to stick to “the words she used and in the way she put them together” and the robotic “series of facts about words.” There’s a real trick to that – to “bother to discriminate our observations.” Besides, discriminating is bad, isn’t it? It embodies a narrowing, a limiting, a judging process that violates poetry’s vast, boundless mission to…to do what exactly, I’m not sure, but certainly it needs to be doing something, doesn’t it? “For poetry makes nothing happen,” famously said W. H. Auden (in his poem “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” – one “big figure of the century” writing about another). But I think poetry is afflicted with mission creep, we start to fret about what poetry can do rather than just letting a poem just simply be. Jarrell again, on poets, criticism, and incontinent approval:

“When we read the criticism of any past age, we see immediately that the main thing wrong with it is an astonishing amount of what Eliot calls “fools’ approval”; most of the thousands of poets were bad, most of the thousands of critics were bad, and they loved each other.” Randall Jarrell, Letter to The Nation, 1948


Bad poets and bad critics loving each other (nowadays the poets usually serve as the critics, making things arguably even worse than in 1948). Mediocrity has few defenders, because who wants to be mediocre (or for that matter, a fool)? James Boswell, who had many faults, lack of candor (at least in his diaries) not being one of them, recorded this 1760s conversation with playwright Richard Sheridan:

“We disputed about poems. Sheridan said that a man should not be a poet except he was very excellent; for that to be a mediocris poeta (see note) was but a poor thing. I said I differed from him. For the greatest part of those who read poetry have a mediocre taste; consequently one may please a great many. Besides, to write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good; so that a man of a tolerable genius rather gains than loses.”

Note: Horace, Ars Poetica, l. 372. (“Middling poets were never tolerated by gods, by men, or by booksellers.”)

James Boswell, ed. Frederick A. Pottle, Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1763, 18 January 1763; page 151.

“To write poems is very agreeable, and one has always people enough to call them good…” That’s more terrifying than anything even Randall Jarrell ever said.