Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Twitter, Facebook, New Issue of Poetry and New Poem

I have to wonder if Facebook participation has not only crimped my blog but many others. I'm sure the urge to such a platform began with teenage phone-texting, that telegraphic, concrete practice of the young ascending into the cyber-ether with trails of trivia in its wake. To blog, to my thinking, is to write a piece of some substance with enough room for language to do more than say, "I'm going to the store now."

Twitter I have resisted for that reason; you can post a decent paragraph on Facebook but Twitter limits you to the mundane, unless you quote part of a poem, as I have when my publisher first urged me to employ Twitter.

Are our minds getting smaller or is the world just too big to do anything but attach passing comment of little merit? I prefer to think that it is a matter of impatience and illiteracy. How many of the new generation know anything about history in general, especially the history of literature? How many have the patience to sit down with a great book that requires their undivided attention? Video games, cell phones, Twitter, texting, don't these affect the human attention span negatively? Is everyone in such a hurry or is illiteracy the new standard?

I confess this state of affairs has somewhat discouraged me from blogging, since it's hard for me to say something in 100 words or less. Expository prose needs something more than a breathless exhalation of the latest personal circumstance. It needs pacing, development, and patience on the reader's part.


I have just received this month's edition of Poetry and am per usual underwhelmed, except for the section of personal essays in which, of all things, a Tampa Bay Outfielder weighs in literately. So does a federal appellate judge. The poems range from good to bad; Samuel Menache, the lead poet, has an obvious perch in the hallowed halls of Harriet Monroe since he was awarded the "The Neglected Master's Award"--by Poetry, of course--in 2004. Let us say simply that this is one "master" who deserves neglect.

Of the book reviews we find only the usual suspects, those with books published either by Alfred A. Knopf or Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Small presses and prominent Net poets always go unrecognized in this august journal desperately striving to be current in a world of poetic Balkanization. The editors seem without direction, like the hundred-eyed giants of Greek mythology. In trying to see everything they concentrate on nothing.

It gives me some hope to note that Wallace Stevens' first book, "Harmonium," published in 1923, only sold 100 copies. This is how many lasting poets begin, their reputations only to be rescued in old age. Some break through in their own time, but I think current darlings Rae Armantrout and Kay Ryan eminently forgettable, to name two. Where are the classicists? Where are the masters? Many lost to experimental blather, I fear, trying so hard to be original that they become grotesque. Naturally I have written about this at length in essays, but I won't bore you with links. You can always Google me, the new measure of relative cultural worth, where I hang around 20,000 references, if you must know.

To follow poetry in earnest nowadays is impossible, with probably a thousand literary magazines on the Net and who knows how many small press journals. This is why, no doubt, I prefer reading the acknowledged greats prior to 1960. Why waste your time on contemporaries when the judgment of history has already anointed those worth reading in the recent (as far as literary history goes) past? I read Poetry through each month and try to wrap my brain around what's good in it, but were I the editor, many of the poems would never have made it in. And when you look at the bios in the back, there are virtually no unknowns--almost every author has some claim to a prize or multiple books or some other sign of assigned greatness that evaporates when you read their work. Should I mention names? No, I do not wish to make enemies in an insular world where "never is heard a discouraging word." Still, in the freedom of a blog, I can post my own poems, which I think no less worthy than the fare in Poetry, where my reputation precedes me, excluding me from consideration for a lack of exalted credentials. Here's today's poem:

Blue Feather

The screech of a jay in a pinafore--
what that dark hole of dancing's for:
the blue feather at the crinoline core.

Take a pearl, how the dark seed of sand
swaddles itself in layers of pink hands,
the blue feather in the seed of sand.

My darkness doesn't advertise its blue.
I leave the Sherlock Holmes routine to you.
The blue feather of a cockatoo.

When Satan heard of the discovery
that dark was at the center of recovery,
the blue feather snapped his reverie.

The vulture circled above the humming flies.
The carrion was not a major prize.
The blue feather saw it in his eyes.

It's not a blue guitar, it's just a blade
of quills with some metallic undershade:
the blue feather of the Stellar's jay.

The informed reader will notice the obvious nod to Wallace Stevens in this piece, but I hope it is somewhat of an original nod.

When I say I am a Classicist I mean that there are principles to art: first, unity; second, meaningful substance; third, form appropriate to that substance; and fourth, a certain lyrical expectation of the language. I could list more but these four will do to exclude much contemporary verse.

I do not feel inferior to the poets in Poetry, except for their much-polished bios; my bio would likely include so many unheralded journals that the giants would laugh, but I encourage them to laugh. What Poetry does worst, what all the academic venues do worst, is to risk discovering poets on the Net or in small journals, as they may risk their reputation as exalted magazines. Just take a look at the bios in Poetry! In most cases these form a pre-qualification for inclusion.

I admit I've submitted to Poetry repeatedly but this provokes no jealousy on my part; what I see in the magazine does not impress me enough to think I am less for a relative lack of recognition. I do not recommend subscribing to Poetry unless you hunger for a snapshot of how little anyone can judge the value of a current poet's work. One should write for all time and not just for a time, but the popularity of many poets, as in the review of Fred Seidel, often depend on current references, though admittedly many of the poems in Poetry do reach for all time. Few attain it. Of the many poems included, I would cite Desiree' Alvarez and Katia Kapovich, with one poem each, as worth reading.


Here on the Mendocino Coast it's sunny today, but we all know that can change in a minute; the ever-present fog bank is far out at sea, though still visible. I watched my wife work in the garden this morning with joy, our dog curled in the sun nearby. And soon I will see my brother, up here vacationing. Thank God for the little joys of life which poetry tries so hard to capture! (Though mainly it must fail.)

Thine in Truth and Art,

C. E. Chaffin

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