Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play: Essays on the Practice and the Art
A follow up to the highly praised Poets Teaching Poets, Daniel Tobin and Pimone Triplett's Poet's Work, Poet's Play gathers together essays by some of the most important voices in contemporary poetry: Carl Dennis, Stephen Dobyns, Tony Hoagland, Heather McHugh, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Eleanor Wilnor, Dean Young, and the late Larry Levis and Agha Shahid Ali.
Lively, accessible, and erudite, the pieces range from discussions on syntax and the syllable to the complexities of canon formation under the shadow of imperialism, race, and history. Exploring the work of John Donne, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, Charles Olsen, Ezra Pound, Anne Carson, Robert Herrick, Harryette Mullen and many others, Poet?s Work, Poet's Play---like its predecessor volume---will be an invaluable tool for teachers, students, and poets at every level.
"Gathering together essays by unquestionably important poets, Poet's Work, Poet's Play has immense pedagogical value in the way it demonstrates how to discover in poetry resources of language and structure often overlooked in first, and ensuing, readings of complex texts."
—Laurence Goldstein, Professor of English, University of Michigan, and Editor, Michigan Quarterly Review
From “Ancient Salt, American Grains”
In addition to exemplifying his own practice, Charles Olson's program of projective verse is particularly significant because it both gathers into itself many of the innovations advocated earlier in the century by Pound, Eliot, Williams, and others, and sets the table for the more radical postmodern poetries that have followed us into the new century. For example, it is possible to foresee Susan Howe's linguistic montages in Charles Olson's claim that the new technology of the typewriter can indicate "exactly the breath, the pauses, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtaposition of even parts of phrases" and so for the first time "without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening [the poet] has done" and so further "indicate how he would want any reader... to voice his work." How much more would Olson see the computer developing this potential even further? Notice, however, that Olson's concern is with the breath, with speech, and that the page--the typewriter's field of action--suggests a spatial orientation exclusive of those oral traditions that have shaped traditional meter and form. Of course, stanzas by definition are "little rooms," but the spatial metaphor in the word's etymology does nothing to diminish the oral and therefore temporal dimension of poetry. People on the street do not speak in octava rima or blank verse, but Yeats' and Frost's uses of these conventions on the page have less of a visual appeal than the deconstruction of traditional form into atomized, "non-traditional" parts on the page, whether by pauses, syllables, or juxtapositions of phrase. The phrase "composition by field" clearly suggests as much, and visual poems like George Herbert's "Easter Wings" and "The Altar," and John Hollander's “Swan and Shadow” are exceptions that prove the rule. So by a strange reversal of original intent, Olson's program might be said to more deeply entrench the poet in the print bred culture from which he sought to liberate it, as well as the burgeoning digital culture, precisely because the freedom brought by scraping traditional meter and form makes positioning on the page even more integral to indicating how the reader ought to listen to the moves the poem makes.
A second problem, suggested earlier, concerns the issue of what Charles Olson's friend Robert Creeley called restriction. Because projective verse (and potentially all free verse) calls for a radical adherence to openness, to a furtherance of the poet's impulse to discover, there is nothing to stop the poem from not stopping. The obvious result is shapelessness, which is one of the reasons why Robert Hass fears that free verse has run its course. Pound's Cantos, Williams' Paterson, Olson's own Maximus Poems, all lose in formal integrity because, in the final analysis, they have no closure. In contrast, a long sequence like Berryman's The Dream Songs, though clearly open in its articulation of Henry's angst-ridden musings, nevertheless obtains an accrued sense of closure through Berryman's elongation and re-formalization of the sonnet. Likewise, though multifarious in the formal expression of its parts, Irish poet John Montague's The Rough Field obtains closure through the leitmotif of the journey and the sequence's overall circular structure. It almost goes without saying that if the great pitfall of traditional verse is a staid satisfaction in filling out the form to the letter of its convention, the great pitfall of non-traditional verse is to make convention out of originality. The result is verse that reads like the proverbial chopped prose, or as seems more and more the case, verse that runs like words in spate in lines that confuse excess with passion. At the far side of the gulf between open and closed poetries, lies mannerism: on the one hand the idolatry of tradition and form that mistakes security for achievement; on the other a pretentious radicalism that mistakes faddishness for sophistication.
Whether Olson's is a program for a more sophisticated poetry or not, if literary historian David Perkins is right in observing that he "writes in a language that was never spoken anywhere," then the irony of "Projective Verse" is that it reminds us that poetry ought to have the strength and vigor of speech that the best poetry has never lost, and it does so with practical acknowledgement that speech is not merely a recording of what might be heard in conversation but is speech shaped by the ear of the poet. To re-double the irony, despite his desire to escape the metrical strait-jacket, the last run-over line from "Maximus" quoted above is pure iambic tetrameter ("the mast, the mast, the tender / mast"); which perhaps only suggests that measure does exist in the rhythms of speech, however "kicked around" that speech might become, and it is one of the poet's essential jobs to listen for it. Despite Olson's objection to traditional meter and form, some of the ancient salt gets into the American grain. Moreover, in instances where attentive listening shapes the process of composition, I would argue that the gulf between closed and open modes collapses, and does so regardless of the individual poet's particular aesthetic or polemical program.