Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Poetry Boards; Last Night's Reading

Last night I had a lovely reading at the Mendocino Hotel where I sold four books to a sparse audience. But they were attentive and I had a grand time. Doing what I do best, reading from my own work, always pumps me up! I got to bed late. But what a pleasure to fulfill your calling--a calling with which those who have followed this blog are familiar.

Today at in a discussion of the effect of online poetry boards, I had this to say.

I have nursed these questions for years, having begun the Melic Roundtable poetry board in 1998, shutting it down in roughly 2006 when barbarians invaded. We did not require registration at the board, one of the last "free" boards, and the moderators had no power to delete. For a while we had a thriving culture, winning more IBPC awards than any other board. But it collapsed and policing didn't interest me.

The main difficulty in poetry boards is separating the unfledged from the advanced, so that beginners are not cudgeled into despair nor the elite bored and disgusted. Many boards now include levels to join by personal choice, as in the "Merciless and Possibly Painful Critique" at the Poetry Free-for-All (I don't necessarily recommend this board but here's the link: )

The proliferation of boards has definitely diluted the quality, say since 2003. At that time there was great competition between a few boards for primacy: Melic, Alsop, and Web del Sol among them.

It is the grand disparity in craft and talent that "dumbs down" boards into factories of misguided compliments. I suspect the best poetry workshops reside in private listservs or carefully guarded posting areas. Zeugma was an early example of this, producing a number of fine poets before it ceased.

Ultimately it's like tennis: always play a slightly better player. But for those of us who have published widely and have non-vanity books, where do we find these players? Certainly the exalted like Ashbery, Murray, Strand and Levine don't play anywhere.

To speak the truth, I wager that most advanced poets have little patience with fledglings, despite the encouragement ladled out at seminars and as MFA instructors expected to be "nice" for the continuing income generated. Here capitalism largely prevents excellence IMHO. The similar "never a discouraging word" culture practiced at so many boards is maddening. Fear of hurting the feelings of the callow will soon make a more discerning critic into a skunk at a garden party (to use a much worn trope).

So rather than deride the existence of mediocre boards, or promote the severity of a board as I mentioned above, I think the best solution is a listserv or personal correspondence between poets of roughly the same level instead of the potpourri nature of boards and their subcultures of obvious glad-handing.

Lastly, "Fleet Street" has always existed, famously satirized in Pope's "The Dunciad." Its proliferation on the net is not a new development, but an inevitable consequence of tyros reaching for the laurel. To this we ought to be accustomed by history.

You can always find me at Facebook now as Craig Erick Chaffin. As I said in a previous post, I think Facebook and Twitter are driving down the popularity of blogs, save the exalted, group blogs (like Huffington's) that have morphed into profit generating enterprises.

At 1 Kilobunny (though I did get very pumped up after the reading as I always do),

C. E. Chaffin

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Existential Psychoanalyisis

I've recently read some Kierkegaard, which I wrote about here briefly, and I just finished Sartre's "Existentialism and Emotion." Though I have often called myself an "Existential Christian Taoist" (in part to form the acronym for Electro-Convulsive Therapy which I have twice endured), my understanding of Existentialism has been more second hand. In the book Sartre spends the last two chapters on "Existential Psychoanalysis," showing how it might differ from traditional psychoanalysis. Fascinating though somewhat dated stuff.

In my Logopoetry I essay I substituted "Existential" for "Post-Modern" as the dominant philosophical core of poetry since roughly 1960. I stand by my pronouncement; the key problem of the Post-Moderns has been the problem of the self, perhaps best typified by the poetry of Mark Strand, but certainly also owing to the psychological research of such luminaries as Kohut and Kernberg.

In any case, how does existential psychoanalysis differ from traditional analysis? In Existentialism, existence must precede essence. Our essence, our configuration of personality, derives from our choices, and not to choose is as much a choice as to choose. Thus our personalities are not powered by unconscious material but by conscious choices, and whatever we become conscious of no longer belongs to the unconscious. Thus an existential therapist would not be interested in potty training, rather what the subject could remember about the choices in such a struggle--which of course doesn't have to be a struggle at all, since training often goes smoothly. The individuation of attachment to mother can also be seen as a choice, a choice that leads to other choices of independence--or not. There are no excuses in Existentialism; what you see is what you get. To say, "I would have been a doctor if only I'd had the money" is equivalent to choosing not to be a doctor. To say "My mother dominated me" means you chose to be dominated. In this Existentialism somewhat resembles Renaissance paintings where children are represented as little adults. Adolescence is a creature of the post-industrial world. That choices may be harder to make in adolescence perhaps makes them even more important. But there is no excuse for one's behavior. It is freely chosen in the face of circumstances and despite circumstances, and the resulting path fits best with the transactional analysis concept of "life script"--the drama we live out from our repeated choices, what in pure analytic terms might be named a "complex."

Naturally the existential approach simplifies analysis. Begin with today's choices and work back if necessary; or let the therapist proclaim to the patient that they are entirely free to choose differently at once. In this it would resemble the educable notions of cognitive-behavioral therapy, re-shaping the thinking and choices of a personality rather than trying to understand the underlying unconscious impulses.

Nevertheless, people do get stuck in the complexes of their past choices, as in a life script, why women who are abused often pick abusive boyfriends, why all the sisters in my mother's family chose alcoholic husbands. Can such unconscious choices really be explained by earlier capitulations in development, or do they more deserve the mercy of extended analysis as the basis for choice? In my experience, putting a life under the microscope of choice does not sufficiently allow for the godlike influence of the parents on the tabula rasa of the infant. We do not choose our parents, our circumstances. How does the boy born in a Bengal slum secure the hope of bettering himself? How do the rich and privileged end up in rehabilitation centers? The course of adult development never did run smooth, and there are jerks and suprarational progressions which occur in all of us that simple choice cannot explain. What choice does a seven-year-old have in sexual abuse? Little or none. Who thinks of resisting their father at that age? So the existential approach, like transactional analysis, seems too simple and limiting for the task of helping human self-understanding. In this I think Sartre is wrong and unwittingly aligns himself with B. F. Skinner and extreme behaviorists.

To put Existentialism on its head we must declare that essence precedes existence, that some inborn nature, our DNA in short, has a strong effect on development. Take my inherited illness, for instance, manic-depression. If identical twins are raised separately from birth and one develops full-blown manic-depression, the chances the other twin will have it are 75%. What does this have to do with choice? Or in anoxic birth insult resulting in cerebral palsy? Or in Turner's syndrome or any amount of genetically determined defects? Obviously Sartre didn't have such science at hand when he penned his book, but he was wrong. I think essence precedes existence. I think the constellation of our DNA predisposes us to certain choices and life patterns. We have too many biological choices already made for us at birth--not a tabula rasa but a precondition and tendency towards certain choices, why boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls.

Thus existential psychoanalysis appears to me a crock. What is needed is understanding and forgiveness both for the choices we freely made and those incumbent upon us from our birth natures and unchosen circumstances. Dwarfs don't do well at basketball, in other words, no matter their choices. As imperfect beings we need help with our natures and the choices that issue from our natures, not a bald declaration of our responsibility for everything. Strangely, Sartre steals a passage from Dostoevsky when he says, "You are responsible to everyone for everything." What a burden to assume from birth!

When I say I am an Existential Christian Taoist, what I mean is that I believe in free will within the limits of genetics, that I believe in the Christian approach to failed humanity, and that I also believe in the flowing nature of reality, that reality as much comes to us as we choose it, that often it is best to go with the flow of one's appointed life than resist it maniacally, though sometimes such resistance is needed. Sometimes you must be a rock in the river of life, as the river is going the wrong direction for you.

My ECT designation allows for inherited tendencies and informed and uninformed choices, with a philosophy of eternal redemption attached. Here Christianity does Existentialism one better: Every choice in life leads to damnation or salvation. Choosing one's self over all others is the path to damnation; choosing one's self and others, or in relation to others, respecting in them the same spiritual center that all men share, is the path to salvation. And the path to salvation is not the lonely, haunted, desperate path Kierkegaard paints; it is rather the joyful submission to a process in which our choices are informed by our best beliefs, chief among them "Love your neighbor."

Still, extremism does not obtain here; before becoming a Christian one must first become a person, preferably an adult. If religion (esp. fanatical devotion) is introduced too early in a child's development it can be stunting, leading to fear and closed mindedness. Christianity is meant as a blessing, not a curse. To love and be loved are its central constituents. To do good works is an outgrowth of this spiritual contract. To pursue healing of others, as Christ did (and the first hospitals were established by Christians), is witness to the fact that we are not whole, that we bear diseases we did not choose, that there is something essentially wrong with a world where beings capable of salvation are subjected to suffering not of their choice.

I agree with Sartre that man's chief desire is to be God, and that this lies at the center of many of our choices--the wish to control everything, the infant's wish to control its mother, the broker's wish to control the stock market. These are infantile longings that nevertheless seep into our adult consciousness and cause continual havoc. Sartre argues that in our wishing to become God, God is relegated to the limit of our powers, a "god of the gaps" if you will. I agree with this in part, as does the Bible, where the Fall originated from a desire on man's part to become as God. Yet in Sartre's formulation God is no longer necessary, he is only a symbol of the pinnacle of man's striving, beyond which we feel the need to posit a god.

But it's much simpler than this. The process of development is a ceding of the imagined, narcissistic powers of infancy in favor of individuation and socialization. This happens whether we like it or not, and here choices can be revealing, as in the unpublished poet who considers himself the greatest undiscovered talent in the world and sneers at editors who have rejected him. Such a one has been able to maintain his imaginary centrality and importance in spite of experience. But in most cases experience chips away at our narcissism until we see others as equal in value if not ability. This is the necessary and normal education of this life. And if in this experience one feels a lack, an abiding need for something or someone greater, it is also natural to adopt a religious stance, not as a defense but as a hope for the best in us.

Religion is not a defense against insignificance; it is not a band-aid for suffering; it is not a reward for good behavior or good works; it is a necessary longing for transcendence that religionists believe is natural to man and his development.

To make it absurd, what would the Existentialist say to a risen Christ? That he chose to be resurrected? A priori, Existentialism does not allow for miracles except those that are achieved through our choices and work, perhaps with a little luck. An Existentialist could pass his fingers through Christ's wounds and say, "How interesting! What choices did you make to attain this?" There is no room for the supernatural in Existentialism, indeed no room for fate as we understand fate as the intersection of natures and events. If I encounter a bar room brawl I will likely try to end it or take up one side of the struggle. Others might retire to the safety of the bathroom or outdoors. Just these sort of encounters put the lie to pure Existentialism, as our choices flow from our natures and our natures derive ultimately from our inherited biology, secondly from circumstances over which we have no control, as in our parents' treatment of us. Being the second-born son in my family, in addition to my inborn sense of justice, makes me take up the defense of the innocent, always tempting me to join the fight. My brothers are more peaceable than this.

Should I remove "Existentialism" from my acronym? No, because I think as one matures, the primacy of choice becomes more dominant. What one chooses at forty differs immensely from what one can choose at twenty. Experience tempers hope, hope informs experience, and no forty-year-old is going to take off for a career as a professional baseball player--that choice would be absurd. One has the freedom to make absurd choices but the wisdom of experience tends to narrow such choices to the bounds or reality as we move forward.

Here's one: Did I choose to be a poet or was I chosen? I go into this a bit in my essay in Pif, "How I Became a Poet." I was already making up songs and poems before I could read. I wrote poetry from an early age. Why? It was part of my nature. In the essay I refer to people and things that discouraged me from poetry, but I could never stop reading it or writing it. Thus a poet is both born and made. We suffer our natures and our choices. When our choices are most in accord with our natures we are most happy. Then happiness is not a concern of Existentialism, rather integrity--the integrity of acknowledging one's choices. I say choices pre-exist in us according to our natures, that essence precedes existence, and if in saying this I no longer qualify as even a junior existentialist, so be it. I have made my choice.

2 Kilobunnies,


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Back to Blogging; Poem, "On Resurrection"

I haven't blogged in a coon's age and my readership has fallen by two thirds, but I am not concerned. Facebook and Twitter are downsizing prose into convenient bites, endangering the language until it becomes a telegraphic utility. Imagine Joseph Conrad or Henry James trying to twitter--it beggars the imagination.

Likewise I like a good deal of blank page to initiate thought, and language must prepare us for denouements, for set-ups and set-downs and cruise control as well.

I am a classicist, I admit. Not all changes in the use of language are propitious, and poetry is certainly one of the casualties of modern reality speak. It's the subtleties I love, the difference between "indifference" and "neutrality." It's the fine lines between connotations that Shakespeare exploited, not to mention his joy in puns.

The reason I have ceased blogging for so long is that I've been happy. Happy, happy! And whence this source of happiness? Good chemicals! Yes, my mood has been purring along like a satisfied cat after a meal of fresh bird. Only me and my psychiatric headdresser know for sure.

I have been writing poetry though reading much more of it. I've recently sampled Ashbery, Merwin and Stevens. Stevens outclasses them in spades. Indeed, Stevens ranks as one of the top five poets in English in the 20th century, IMHO. Throw in Eliot, Frost, Yeats and Larkin and you have my preferred current quintet.

A friend from Ireland who had the temerity to purchase and enjoy my book recently sent me a CD of a rare Larkin recording, and what a joy it is! To hear "Whitsun Weddings" read aloud by the master is nonpareil. It has encouraged me to scour the net for recordings of all my favorite poets, though I must say about my all-time favorite, T. S. Eliot--yes I must say--that his recordings don't do justice to his poems, so dry and monotonic and unforgivably English in his performance. I may get over this. Sam Rasnake, editor of Blue Fifth Review, famously listened to "The Waste Land" every day for a year. I don't want to repeat his experiment, but I would love to lard my CD player with more spoken verse than I ever have before.

Speaking of which I am a good reader, and when faced with an audience my verse rises to new heights for both audience and reader. The least inflection, pause, or variation of tone can put a poem into a three-dimensional matrix that carries the hearer along in its sweep, aiding the experience immensely. I love to read. My next date is August 29 at the Mendocino Hotel conference room at 7 PM in Mendocino, CA. If any of you are in the immediate geographic region, I hope you can stop by.

As for Stevens, I read aloud his "Esthetique du Mal" yesterday to great profit. I needed to read it out loud to understand it. Same with Rilke. Eliot I find easier from long study. The spoken word revolution is right in this: a poem is two-dimensional until launched from the tongue.

Recent adventures include a ride in a jet boat 52 miles up the Rogue River in Oregon and a kayak adventure up the Big River here (for which I paid in sciatica). At the turnaround point of our trip, Kathleen and I went skinny dipping in the cool water, a real Adam and Eve encounter with no one in sight.

I find the rhythm of rowing delightful and only wish that the chronic disability of my spine might let me indulge in previous occupations like backpacking and bicycling and body surfing, but alas, one must live within one's limitations. I can still hike without a pack and swim as well; prolonged kayaking would likely land me on my back, and already did as I spent sometime on the kayak supine on the benches, resting my twisted spine. But no matter; as I said, I'm happy! And happiness should not be questioned too deeply or it loses its sheen; one should not go Descartes on the experience but accept it with gratefulness. Periods of joy in one's life should not be analyzed lest the butterfly become the man.

I have decided to hoard my ongoing work in poetry until I have a cache sufficient for an assault on the "good" journals. I feel I have sold my work too cheaply in middling journals to this point for the sheer thrill of publication. But to enhance my modest reputation would be best served by pursuing journals of reputation. I know the rejection rate will be much higher, but the reward is proportionately greater. Despite this I can still post poems here, as in most journals it does not count as publication and posts here (usually in earlier draft form) can be easily erased from the cyberworld.

BTW, there is a new review out in Chimeara from a reluctant reviewer who was won over by the poetry. I'm convinced that if you buy the book you might experience the same, even if you are not a regular aficianado of the art.

Poetry seeks to universalize the particular and particularize the universal. It can be read as a Whitman's sampler, no need to eat the whole box (or whole book) at one sitting, though with practice you can read longer. Nevertheless the impact of one good poem ought to be savored, as in my reading aloud of Stevens.

Here's one of my latest:

On Resurrection

I saw English ivy swallowing up
the wreck of a Bishop pine
in a colonnade of green,
how life incorporates death--
not resurrection but displacement
as if the pine had never been--
not transformation
but vegetable vampirism.

Last year's angelica's
brown umbrella ribs
sway beside new white umbels,
bright clones with no
recollection of death
like a phoenix shaking out
its brilliant feathers
on an extinguished cinnamon pyre
without a name.

Displacement, re-growth;
these examples fall short
of immortalization, as when Hercules
was penciled in the heavens
to join the eternal pattern
though he did not remember--
no snakes to crush, no stables to wash.
His night is a mausoleum
of connected fires whose figures
cannot speak or gesture,
imprisoned in stars.

Ah Hercules, who were you?
Your fires will not recall
eons of fusion, collapsing
into dull iron. If stars were sentient
you might be reconstructed.
For now comets streak by without remark.
Not to be recognized again
is equal to death.

The soul, a compromise
between consciousness and pears
necessitates a resurrection,
a thought fantastic in this age
of polls and corpses
but no other myth
preserves the person.
How would I know myself
if I did not remember?

I'm saving this for a good journal, should I be so lucky.

For now, adieu, my few readers. I do love blogging, much more than the telegraphic pronouncements of Facebook and Twitter.

Happy Trails,

At two kilobunnies,

Craig Erick

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Unexpected Light
Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008 ON SALE NOW!