Category: Poetry

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An autographed sepia photo of the Australian poet, Judith Wright, sitting with a sun hat as an older woman.

Refractions of Reflections: on Judith Wright’s “Naked Girl and Mirror”

From time to time I come across some thoughtful commentary about the absence of solid examples of masculinity in modern culture. Any discussion of positive role models is less common than that of its ‘toxic’ counterpart—and is often portrayed by those who fail to embody it. It makes sense that this would have negative effects on young men. But it also seems to me that young women are dealing with a counterpart sickness—one of surfeit. You can binge for hours without ever being satiated, if what you’re consuming lacks substance. Even the most intrepid attempts at “validation” wither when untethered to reality, and so much of what’s held up as models of femininity is shallow and incoherent.

But then consider the issue of “representation” in general. Fair enough, as it’s undoubtedly important: both in terms of who gets to have their work taken seriously, and in what subject matter gets taken seriously. In the sense that insofar as art can distil aspects of reality with a unique power, it’s just nonsensical to arbitrarily exclude whole domains of life from this. But one of the issues with an excessive focus on representation creeps in here, as quality art just can’t be subjected to a quota, and have this result in anything constructive. Inevitably, laziness sways, and it is simply much easier to quantify how many authors published by a certain press have vaginas as opposed to penises, than it is to tease out the particulars that distinguish a masterpiece from a mediocrity.

The consequences? On the one hand, considering how many of the proverbial Dead White Males were themselves trivial, literarily speaking, what harm is there in adding a few more living, be-melanined, or female dull equivalents to their number? The other problem is a little subtler, based on not who gets to write, but what gets written about. Why should representation be aspirational? The idea that art has a duty to present some kind of wholesome moral message (nuance need not apply) seems omnipresent these days. Even putting aside the fact that it’s been proven throughout history that the greatest works tend to chafe against the pettier needs of their times—well. Yet an excellent poem (for example) can offer a vivid representation of life through being able to capture more of its layers and complexities than is possible through any other means. Enough talking about this. Let us look. […]

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Poetic Pragmatism: on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”

Too often young writers fall into the nebulous trap of attempting to be philosophical or spiritual without any practicality to ground them. As example, it’s not uncommon to see young poets write about clichéd themes with indistinct language, as their verse falls within familiar, tired tropes ultimately resulting in some limp attempt at poetry. Again, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach a poem, mind you, but when starting out, it’s typically better to start small, e.g., write about how much you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee, or what you notice while on line at the grocery store, or simply the pleasure you feel (for the gluten tolerant) when eating a bagel. Furthermore, it is important to keep mindful that all these pedestrian events can be philosophical if rendered well.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is regarded as a 20th-century poetic darling, who wrote much in the same vein as Marianne Moore, albeit less cerebral. Despite her thin output, Bishop managed to create several successful poems evoking a child-like eye, such as “The Map,” “The Moth-Man,” “The Moose,” “Questions of Travel,” and “In the Waiting Room,” among others. Her verse can be gentle and comforting, unpretentious and inviting, with all the while her narrative unfolding quietly and uniquely. Readers should be encouraged to study her Complete Poems (again, a thin output compared to many other poets), but her poetic approach can nonetheless offer some aid to the otherwise lost, disillusioned writer. […]

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A stylized photo of African American poet Robert Hayden, in sepia tones, wearing his trademark thick eyeglasses under a cloudy sky.

READ THIS POET: Four Poems by Robert Hayden

If there is one common denominator that remains imperative when applied to literature and poetry specifically, it is the demonstration of craft. After all, anyone can write a political screed, but that doesn’t mean such a work is well rendered. Rather, to be presented with a skilled mind that has not only put great thought into each line but also has consideration for the reader—well, this makes all the difference. Thankfully, Robert Hayden was this sort of poet and person. An African American who grew up in the slums of Detroit, Michigan, he spoke adamantly of not wanting to neglect his history and experience, nor to be limited by either. Much of his career seemed to involve a need for his own identity—to write what he wanted, rather than what activists might have expected of him. ‘There is no black poetry or white poetry, there is only American poetry,’ Hayden states in this interview, dated March 1975, wherein he also notes his opposition to the way Black writing is presented—that is, as sociological works rather than literature.

Much of Hayden’s poetry found online are his more historical leaning poems involving the Black experience, e.g., “Middle Passage,” “Frederick Douglas,” “The Whipping,” and “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” among others (including his great boyhood classic, “Those Winter Sundays”). However, this essay will not be discussing any of those wonderful poems. Rather, I wish to address those poems involving his more personal experiences, as well as how he used nature observation for his distillation. Why should these fine works be overlooked? Alas, one such poem is “Ice Storm”. […]

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Photos of Maxim D. Shrayer (Максим Д. Шраер), one with "dunce" written on his forehead, one with a Soviet hammer and sickle across his face, and another with the flag of the Khmer Rouge blocking out his ill-shaped head.

Maxim D. Shrayer Is A Post-Soviet Fraud & Murder-Apologist

It’s been years since I’ve written a takedown of a poseur or freak, largely because they are such time-sinks, yet offer so little themselves. They seek unearned attention, and, if attention is given, seek to take one away from deeper aims. To wit: Ben Shapiro (does it not damage my essay that I expect you to know who this was?) might ultimately get exhumed by trivia hunters, but this would only be slightly better than Shapiro’s own goings to and fro on the earth. Coleman Hughes certainly represents a ‘type’, but hasn’t this type been discussed to the point of acquiring its own slur? Such cons are obvious, yet the Russian émigré poet Maxim D. Shrayer lords over a grift many won’t pick up on, not only due to their ignorance of immigrant politics, but also the ease with which nonimmigrants get brow-beaten by American liberals. Shrayer’s recent essay on murdered Palestinian academic Refaat Alareer has exposed this grift, though it requires another ex-Soviet to identify its parts. And so, as I enter a more mindful middle age, I can only justify writing of losers if I also expound upon their fiefdoms—particularly if these are lesser-known fiefdoms with poorly understood dynamics.

Maxim Shrayer, a professor at Boston College, was born in 1967, in Moscow, at the start of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War. This conflict entailed geopolitical re-alignment as the Soviets backed Egypt, America backed Israel, and Russia began to suspect its own Jewish citizens as insufficiently loyal. His father, David Shrayer-Petrov, was (is) a writer, war veteran, and medical researcher stripped of his title upon application for an exit visa in 1978. This was a typical outcome for (upper class) refuseniks, whose contributions to the Soviet Union were deemed too important remit. After years of harassment, Shrayer’s family was allowed to leave for America in 1987, sparing them not only the final years of empire, but the violence and destitution which soon befell Russia. By most metrics, then, Maxim Shrayer is one of the truly fortunate. Moving from the Pale of Settlement, to postwar Leningrad, to Moscow—Russia’s wealthiest city—his family, unlike most Soviet Jews, even had the foresight to skip Israel in favor of joining the academic elite of Rhode Island, where they were quickly accepted. This is unlike the treatment most refugees get, since they are not educated, not (passing) white, and not easily used to score political points. One of his first bits of self-description (‘refusenik’) recycles his father’s identity, while his flaunting of an Israeli flag must be especially galling to an ethnostate which has ‘lost’ Shrayer to America. His career focuses on the Jewish experience, Russian translation, the writing of (bad) poetry, a devotion to the overrated Vladimir Nabokov, and, most recently, the justification of Israeli war crimes. Indeed: take away the accidents of birth and Shrayer could have been quite comfortable as a Soviet functionary. He has no personal center, no obvious gifts, and would already be forgotten if it weren’t for his willingness to patsy for a dying regime. As an apparatchik, however, Maxim D. Shrayer hasn’t quite learned that merely separating oneself from the hoi polloi is not really individualism, but an absurd mix of might-makes-right, on the one hand, and Nietzschean slave-morality on the other. Put another way, he is encouraged to speak as a victim, then leverages real-world assets to punch down. […]

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A photo of a young, red-haired Bruce Ario in a hat, eating seafood.

The Revered Rebel: Bruce Ario’s “The Lovely Tree Branches”

It’s not uncommon for the artist to live in search of validation. After all, life’s navigation can be painful, especially when forced to interact with those unable to appreciate or recognize the value in one’s work. Just reading about Vincent Van Gogh and how his many peers thought him a nobody, or how Paul Cézanne’s father would rather his son have become a lawyer or banker—the frustration is evident. Sure, a parent wants his kid to make money, but at what expense? What if Cézanne had instead become Banker Paul rather than Painter Paul? What a loss the world would have suffered.

The life of an artist is one of sacrifice. To pursue it, one must be willing to adapt to the slog of overlooked, lower-rank jobs, and forgo the material. This is not to say that one must inevitably accept a life of poverty, but to expect a high-rank career is highly unrealistic, given such an occupation would likely leave one with little creative time. Yes, Wallace Stevens was president of Hartford Insurance, but he chose that job over an academic career because the work yielded little drain on his brain. While providing him with a comfortable living, selling insurance is far from glamorous. Moreover, Hart Crane was lucky enough to land a job as a copywriter, and Vivian Maier worked as a nanny, affording her the freedom to walk with her employers’ kids and photograph.

And as for me—even while spending several years working in a technical field, I recognized the lack of glamour in such a pursuit, but it paid the bills. This did not, however, stop me from encountering the small-minded and envious individuals who felt the need to reduce my writing talent to a moment of air quotes, dismissively referring to me as a “writer” who “took herself too seriously.” (Must I have the imprimatur of fame?) […]

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A stylized snapshot from Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap", where the group performs "Gimme Some Money".

POEM: “Thought Our Film Would Say It All”

THOUGHT OUR FILM WOULD SAY IT ALL

And then some scumbag wanted money for the footage
Of my friend. Well, HIS friend, as a fact
Was a ponderer’s poet, while he cannot

Think. Well, he IS thinking
Of himself, bobbing down a perfect sea
Storm loosened from the surface

Of our lens. Guess which had a brain
Injury and you’d guess wrong. Say CHEESE
Bitch! Or that’s what HE did at any rate

Offered. Not even poets deserve riches. […]

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The manuscript copy of William Stafford's "Traveling Through The Dark", written in long-hand in a notebook.

Improving William Stafford’s “Traveling Through The Dark”

Decades ago, when I first came stateside, & was catching up studying the collected works of mostly great American poets I had only heard about, since I didn’t have access to their books in Zimbabwe, one of the poems I stumbled upon in an anthology, pre-internet, & liked a lot, was William Stafford’s very American Traveling Through The Dark – since all across this nation roads such scenarios are quite numerous. Myself, then, an idealistic, young but naïve poet who had a handful of decent to good poems under my wing – & having written for less than five years, I simply lacked the technical competencies, poetic instincts & wisdom to see the glaring flaws inherent in it.

Now let me be brutally honest – no matter what you’ve read, heard or seen elsewhere this isn’t a great poem, nor is it even near-great! At best it’s a solid &/or good poem but what prevents it from greatness of, say, W.B. Yeat’s Leda And The Swan is its documentary style which, in the hands of a lesser poet, leaves little room to expand on its themes, its clunkiness, repetitive verbosity & William Stafford’s need to explain then overstate instead of trusting the reader to make their own quick connections by just giving us the necessary facts succinctly, efficiently & in the right sequence, so the words heighten each other in their setups into that purview of poetry not prose. Also, there’s no sustained vigor which is a by-product of brevity & being bold with the materials at hand. Yes, as poets we often love words excessively to our own detriment in their use so I’d advise to only love them to the same extent you’re willing to ruthlessly cut them, if need be. While I like the English language – I come to it as a second language so I’ve no qualms editing it rigorously. Tellingly, in this short video Stafford explains how it came about, his not knowing how to finish it, but upon taking it to a writers’ group & noticing their reaction to his reading of it, wisely stuck to his ending, yet unfortunately in the same breath, gave up revising it anymore. Then, he sent it off for publication, into this its famous but overwrought version – I no longer objectively like, at 157 words: […]