The ballad is a form that can easily sound antiquated and sing-song on the page. This is, of course, because “sing-song” isn’t a negative descriptor when describing actual song, and ballads are, indeed, songs. On-the-nose rhyme (knee, three; fall, ball), coupled with end-stopped line endings (pauses in the syntactic flow, often punctuated, at line’s end), and short metrical lines can sound clunky to our contemporary ear when we’re reading a ballad without singing it. The literal music of the ballad complements the literary aspects of the ballad, a kind of leavening agent interacting with the prosody, providing a whole other level of pattern and pleasure. Even inverted grammar (“The day he held up me”) and added filler words (“And over it he gone, gone he”) which contort the sentence to conform to meter and rhyme can feel more at home in song than in the stark light of the page. Even great dance moves can look a little weird if there’s no music playing at the party.
Stripping lyrics of their music is one factor shaping how some ballads can sound to us. Another factor is a contemporary ear shaped by generations of interrogation of “easy” effects in poetry. See Alexander Pope’s An Essay On Criticism for such critique:
And ten low words oft creep in one dull line:
While they ring round the same unvaried chimes,
With sure returns of still expected rhymes;
Wher’er you find “the cooling western breeze”,
In the next line, it “whispers through the trees”;
If crystal streams “with pleasing murmurs creep”,
The reader’s threatened (not in vain) with “sleep”…
…and that was his take on easy prosody and clichéd phrases at the beginning of the 1700s, two hundred years before the Modernists’ aesthetic interventions, and three hundred years before our contemporary context.
But engaging with traditional form enables the contemporary poet to enter centuries-old conversations, tapping into (and subverting) expectations shaped by those traditions. So what makes for a satisfying “unsung” contemporary poem in the ballad tradition? There are, of course, many answers to this, but when my students ask how to make their forays into the ballad form feel more “contemporary,” there are a few answers that come immediately to mind: contemporary diction and subject matter; syntax that flows like natural speech and doesn’t invert itself to “fit” the meter; the sense that all words and lines and rhymes are necessary to the work of the larger poem and aren’t simply included for the sake of the prosody; a full spectrum of techniques of rhyme, not simply the most obvious and oft-used pairs of perfect rhyme; and enough enjambment to subvert expectation and create a fulfilling tension between line rhythms and sentence rhythms.
In past posts, I’ve explored one of my favorite modern ballads, Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner.” One of the best examples of a more contemporary ballad is Joshua Mehigan’s “The Orange Bottle.” The lilting song-like quality of the prosody plays beautifully off of the subject matter of control (and lack of control) in our medicated (which also means over-medicated and under-medicated and mis-medicated and side-effected) culture. The poem’s a candy-coated juggernaut, a music-box possessed. Read it in its (long) entirety for the full effect.
While it’s not technically a ballad, Erica Dawson’s “Langston Hughes’s Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years after He Dies Fighting at Harper’s Ferry” is another amazing contemporary example of song-like prosody alive and well on the page. Like a ballad, Dawson’s poem employs rhyming quatrains and rough three or four beat lines. The difference is really just in the rhyme scheme—where ballads are ABCB or ABAB, this poem’s rhyme scheme is ABBA, also called “envelope rhyme,” a touching decision in a poem written as a persona poem love letter to “My dearest, sweetest Lew.” Toward the end, one finds the rhetoric of this rhyme scheme echoed in other figures; speaking of “this letter,” Grandma Mary writes to Lew:
I am its two dimensions:
Two praying hands, my skirt
Pressed to my thighs pressed closed.
Dawson’s enjambment at the end of her second stanza shows the possibilities inherent in dissonant lineation:
I’ve lost all semblance of “I’m fine.”
So I say damn the free
Water beneath the thick
Ice spots on the Cuyahoga and Lake
Erie . . .
Here, the prosody holds “So I say damn the free” as its own sentiment for one blasphemous moment, resonant in an address to a husband who died for the cause of abolition, before “free” as noun tumbles back to “free” as adjective simply describing the water in the next stanza. Prosody enables us to keep both possibilities, even as the sentence clarifies its intentions. Here, form opens up possibilities, complications, and contradictions—its restrictions enable the poem to make more meaning. To “make it new” is always a challenge in poetry, and even more so when entering the long history of a formal tradition. It’s thrilling to inhabit this challenge in the work of Mehigan and Dawson. While their poems don’t set up the expectation that readers should sing along, there is certainly a participatory pleasure in the traditions and subversions enacted in these works. And without musical accompaniment urging us forward, we can linger at and return to the (many) moments of tension, beauty, and surprise therein.
I laughed in recognition at the very first sentence of Jamie Zvirzdin’s lecture: “It is no secret that science writing is often abysmally inaccessible, even for the initiated—like a bizarre ancient ritual that even its most faithful modern practitioners don’t understand but pretend they do.” When my neuroscientist brother generously sent me an early published paper (among other things, he’s a MacArthur Fellow now), I was able to see only subjects, predicates, and various other syntactical forms; its content remained opaque.
“Humans love stories, so let us give them the science that they need in the form that they need it, using fiction’s tools,” said the essay prompt sent by KR. Of course I agree. Even had I not been asked to join in a dialog about science writing, today’s NY Times article would have caught and captured my eye.
Expert science writer Carl Zimmer’s Updated Brain Map Identifies Nearly 100 New Regions was sub-headed MATTER, which to my ear echoed the title of the story KR had accepted for the special Poetics of Science issue: “What Can the Matter Be?”
Could anything then be more serendipitous than to read:
In the 1950s, for example, German researchers noticed a patch on the side of the brain in which neurons had little myelin, compared with neighboring regions. But the finding was soon neglected. “People tended to ignore it, and it was lost in the literature,” said Dr. Van Essen. The computer rediscovered the odd territory, and Dr. Van Essen and his colleagues found that it becomes unusually active when people listen to stories. That finding suggests the region, which they call 55b, is part of a language network in the brain, along with Broca’s area.
Long ago, I wrote a (twice-published) poem, “The Two Cultures,” inspired, as Zvirzdin notes, by the 1959 lecture of “British physical chemist and novelist named Charles Percy Snow.” Another “of course”—as a writer of fiction, poetry, and drama, I come to the topic of science writing from the other culture entirely. Along with that author, I wanted to help with bridge building:
Long before I knew the word metaphor, the first story I ever wrote was in fifth grade in the late ’50s, personifying a solar prominence as the expression of the Sun’s anger. But I grew up in a home where a microscope and a chessboard were my older brother’s forbidden prized possessions, and I was his nuisance younger sister. My earliest reading included my father’s Grey’s Anatomy on his office shelf. Fascination with its illustrations and wonderful words gained me some paternal approval.
The sibling rivalry between Science and Story that began in the nineteeth century (and for me, in the twentieth) has always been grounded in family metaphor. I read my brother’s sci-fi and then found favorites of my own, like Asimov’s Nine Tomorrows and The End of Eternity. I read The Origin of Species as if it were just another book on the shelf, which it was. I don’t remember which one of us first found Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland by George Gamow or Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, but I have no doubt that both have inspired scientists/storytellers alike.
From the nineteeth century, much fiction emphasized the dystopian dangers of science or described phenomena before they were discovered or named (like Stevenson’s astonishing 1886-before-Freud fragmented telling of mental breakdown in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the equally inexplicably prescient 1909 story by E.M. Forster “The Machine Stops,” Huxley’s Brave New World, and Orwell’s 1984). But in the twentieth century, some authors, like John Updike, recognized that serious contemporary fiction had to “speak” science since it had become the ground of modern being. At one point two decades ago, I emailed Harold Bloom at Yale to ask him if Shakespeare had ever written about the future (other than about dynastic anxiety), and I treasure his approving agreement that no, the Bard had not.
Whichever side of the cultural bridge we start from, and before AI overtakes us all (and leads the way beneficially—I’m an optimist), writing today needs both novelty and context, Imagination and Memory. In allusive, metaphorical terms, Evolution not only allows but also insists on both. If we write textbooks or stories lacking either, we’re one-eyed, ungrateful mules . . . and sterile. Nature doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.
It’s a false dichotomy to ask: “Does the dramatization of scientific discovery shift attention from science to character, or does it humanize the scientific process for readers?” It does both in the most delightful way.
Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:
Karen Luper: There’s a lot to think about here, and in such a good-sized group much has already been touched upon even if not in direct response to this post. Back to the pleasure and the sense of awakening (literally, apparently—so some call it area 55b!) that come with stories—these are an indication of the power of story, which we’re all familiar with, and leads, as we think about science and its authority, to obvious questions of how that power is put to use. Does storytelling in science carry a different weight, or a different responsibility? Are the consequences different for getting the story wrong? “Survival of the fittest” is a good example of getting the story of evolution very wrong. And Jamie Zvirzdin talks about how hard a story is to shake, once it’s stuck. So I like to be careful with this idea of story, with the balance of precision and lyricism, and with an awareness of intent, too—whether it’s to educate, indoctrinate, include on a journey of exploration, bolster any number of agendas, deceive . . . the list is long, and I don’t mean to tilt it toward the negative—I’m only painfully aware of some of the abuses. It’s a precious charge, this work.
L. Shapley Bassen: Labor Day today . . . computer finally died, and it’s a difficult adjustment to the new one we had waiting. But I wanted to add the result of a conversation I had ABOUT the Poetics of Science conversation . . . re allergory and metaphor. The best explainer I know offered that “analogy CLARIFIES while metaphor DRAMATIZES.” After the thoughtful, lively KR talk about the two words/methods . . . I hoped that definition might help others as much as it does me.
Can science writing be a literary art? Here at KR, we obviously think so, and we have created a special issue—The Poetics of Science—to demonstrate the many ways in which science shapes and is shaped by the literary imagination.
In conjunction with this special issue, for the next two months, the Kenyon Review will host an online discussion of writers, editors, and scientists on what makes great science writing. We start with a provocative piece by science writer and editor Jamie Zvirzdin entitled “Observations of a Science Editor: If Romantic Scientists Pilfered Fiction’s Toolbox, You Can Too.” Over the next two months, we will publish a series of responses, along with other blog posts and book reviews devoted to literary science writing. Join us as we discuss how science inspires and challenges some of today’s most exciting writers!
Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2016. 112 pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
What does it mean to be avant-garde? Does it require a specific set of practices, access to arcane knowledge, or membership to a certain school? Anna Moschovakis’s third collection, They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, might suggest experimental poetry requires formal devices, making use of non-standard forms on the page and in the layout of the book in order to disrupt convention. Her formal approaches, however, create new possibilities for meaning, and so prove to be integral to the content of the work. The result is a poetry that can be seen to rely on invention to generate new conceptual opportunities for what is essentially a lyric mode. If Moschovakis writes experimental poetry, it is in creating a lyric that thinks as much as it feels.
The opening line of poetry works as a first indication of these considerations, appearing not where we might expect it, but in the footer of the dedication page, coincident with the dedication to the poet’s grandmothers. “[ WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE ROOM ] [ HOW ARE WE IN THE ROOM ],” the poem begins, and continues in the footer throughout the book until it concludes in a thicket of slashes just after the acknowledgements page. This untitled piece, with its unconventional use of brackets and a strong tendency against sense-making, breaks with the common “one poem per page” rule known by anyone familiar with poetry manuscript submission guidelines. Instead, the footer poem is the constant companion of the book’s other work, sometimes echoing those poems, but most often giving the appearance of having resulted from the arbitrary processes of layout and design.
These are not simply happy accidents, though. The interplay between the four long poems/sequences in They and We Will Get into Trouble for This deliberately echoes both internally and externally. When, for instance, the body of a poem mentions (however obliquely) David Antin’s writing on Vietnam in “the fringe,” the footer exclaims “[ THIS CONVICTION ] [ A TALE OF OUR WICKEDNESS / IT IS NOT ],” and sets feedback humming that is picked up elsewhere in the book. Moschovakis’s intertextuality reaches out to Antin, among others, but also operates on the level of the volume, and animates even the single page, with an effect that is as resonant as it is glancing. As with most Oulipo techniques, the devices Moschovakis uses may sometimes appear arbitrary, but they are anything but random. And so when a profusion of brackets confronts the reader in one poem, and double bars “||” in another, and then also unpredictable slashes in still another, the poet invites us to read these varying graphical marks as having significance, if not necessarily precise significations. The indeterminacy obliges multiple readings, suggestive of everything from formal logic operators to film cuts to traditional line breaks in quotation.
To be certain, though, the formal elements Moschovakis employs have stakes beyond the graphic and concrete. The gathering of what is normally kept separate plays out, for example, in the sequence “Flat White (20/20),” where Moschovakis interweaves twenty sections of what she calls her “often-corrupt translations” of a poem by Algerian poet Samira Negrouche, with twenty sections of her own poetry written in response. The result is a sequence that breaks down the division between poet and translator, and comes close to erasing whatever distinction was left between writing and translation. In a section attributed to Negrouche, the poet speaks of what precedes an encounter:
That which predisposes toward an encounter these are sometimes the four winds that become confused / telescope / on an eagle’s nest and the instant /\ word of love will cancel \/ really cancels /\ all the forces of opposition.
The cancelling of opposition is a recurring consequence of Moschovakis’s encounter with Negrouche, and even if response sections often address “Samira” directly, it is possible to read the sequence as a plurivocal unity, where the translated poet and poet-translator are intertwined in a text that looks outward and in on itself simultaneously.
Other oppositions receive even stronger treatment. As the untitled footer poem explores the “They and We” pairing found in the book’s title, for example, those pronouns morph into one all-encompassing plural, “thwey,” with an accompanying possessive of “thour,” creating possibilities for an English language that has never been more in need of pronominal invention:
[ THWEY CARRY NATIVENESS / TO A CONCLUSION / IN SUICIDE . . .
[ THWEY WALK INTO THE OTHERS ] [ WHO WAIT IN THOUR ] [ UNIFORMS ] [ STUPID ] . . .
New linguistic possibilities are also new possibilities for being, and while the creation of new ontological modes may appear to be a stratospheric aim for poetry, avant-garde or otherwise, it is worth asking if there really is any other principle at stake.
. . . TO SAY ] [ THAT THE PROBLEM ] [ IS REAL ] [ TO ASK ] [ WHOSE I IS THIS ANYWAY ] [ STATIC ] [ OF DECIPHERABLE ] [ WORLDS ] . . .
But perhaps the most important opposition troubled by Moschovakis’s work is between poetry and thinking. In “Paradise (Film Two),” she moves effortlessly through a surprising array of topics: Kierkegaard, science, the Bible, Medea, cell phones, and marriage liturgy, among others. The effect is of very intelligent, disembodied talking, as if we were simply listening in on a public intellectual’s spontaneous meditations. This is an illusion, however, created by a deft metonymic exploration of ideas. When Moschovakis writes in the poem of James Burke’s late ’70s television series Connections, “in which the host followed a trail || wherever it led || across time || space || and disciplinary divides,” she calls the show an “influence” on her work, but also puts on display the lyric engine operating in her book, where the connections made across divides distinguish her writing from narrative, exposition, or argument. Musicality and emotion have their places in the work as well, but the essential element of Moschovakis’s lyric tendency comes from the sort of thinking the poetry employs, both metonymic and connective.
Careful reading of They and We Will Get into Trouble for This reveals the many formal inventions Anna Moschovakis uses are perfectly coherent with a lyric tradition, and her formal choices are conceptual, in that they help generate meaning. So there are indications that these formal aspects of the work are not necessarily “what it means to be avant-garde”—the title of a poem/sequence in this volume—just as a poem’s use of found text, critical theory, and “a pail of Guggenheim piss” are not what it means, either. Rather, the poetry that redefines and extends the art form’s limits is always the one that provides the most interesting and fruitful answer(s) to the question: “What can poetry do . . . now?” They and We Will Get into Trouble for This may have its lineage in various traditions, but if we call it avant-garde or experimental, it is to say that it provides new ways of looking at what poetry can do at this very moment, broadening our perception of what was always possible. In that sense, it is a rich and momentous book, which should establish Anna Moschovakis as one of the most important poets writing today.
Santa Fe, MN: Magic Helicopter Press, 2015. 96 pages. $12.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)
Courtesy of Charles Olson, Jordan Stempleman’s Wallop begins with a telling epigraph, one that, in part, reads, “ . . . You’d be better off to listen to me. I mean, if I’m backward, I’m backward here, and the poetry will not disappoint you, ’cause it’s backward too.” That premise, then, provides an expectation of a sort, one that Stempleman tweaks and torques throughout the collection. If, according to Olson’s definition, “backward” poetry is the type that does not disappoint, Stempleman’s work in Wallop holds to that (re)definition. Simultaneously idiosyncratic and familiar, it transforms its reader’s perceptions subtly—but by the volume’s end, that transformation is nevertheless complete.
Taken from “Relationships,” a poem that appears early in the collection, the below stanzas indicate the extent of Stempleman’s authorial relationship to both vulnerability and shame:
Yoko Ono just put a photo online
of John Lennon’s blood splattered glasses.
I feel worse now for being three when he died.
I bet I was on the sofa when he was shot,
being as unfaithful or unreliable
as I am today, but without socks on. (14)
Implicated by something completely out of her control, the speaker of “Relationships” is repentant. But at the age of three are the concepts of faith and reliability actually accessible? And would not wearing socks truly make one feel inadequate or unworthy, especially in terms of an assassination impossible for the speaker of the poem to predict, let alone stop? Stempleman’s true gift in Wallop is teasing the line between genuine and accurate, two words that seem to have some proprietary relationship with one another but, in the end, might not actually have one at all. With its terse, occasionally unrepresentative titles—“Fixed,” “Denmark,” “Spent”—and incessantly provocative shadow play, Stempleman’s latest collection reminded me of this passage from W.H. Auden. It appears in Auden’s (in?)famous 1956 letter to Frank O’Hara vis-á-vis surrealism’s frequent use of illogic and John Ashbery’s poetry collection Some Trees, which Auden had recently selected for the Yale Younger Poets Prize:
I think you (and John too, for that matter) must watch what is always the great danger with any “surrealistic” style, namely of confusing the authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.
As many critics have noted, there’s no clear indication of the source of Auden’s disdain for surrealism. The difference between an “authentic non-logical relation” and an “accidental” one is thus less than obvious, and what’s authentic for one reader might read accidental to another. (In a similar manner, any “genuine” remembrance of a situation or incident might also be wholly inaccurate, of course.) Stempleman’s work, then, balances Auden’s statement on its head; “backward” in his poetics, he places a premium on neither the authentic nor the accidental, and, for his purposes, the causality of either sentiment is one and the same. It’s also worth noting that at the end of Wallop, in a long serial work entitled “Oh My God,” John Ashbery himself makes a name-checked appearance in the text—as does noted fictional Vietnam war hero John Rambo:
But just for a second, isn’t it neat
to think that if we can preserve
Rambo for 500 years,
he’ll have more scholarship
devoted to him
than John Ashbery has now?
Now where were we? . . . (76)
The conflation of John Rambo with John Ashbery is broadly indicative of Stempleman’s insouciance in Wallop. Further, 500 long years from now who’s to say if either Ashbery or Rambo will be remembered? One simply can’t be sure, and Stempleman wryly plays up that fact. Yet, as seen in the “Relationships” excerpt above, Wallop’s insouciance is frequently also paired with a disarming vulnerability. To wit, “Oh My God” ends poignantly, with a pared, fruitful nostalgia that indicates the speaker’s relationship with and devotion to unfettered remembrance:
In truth, it’s the last romantic
who sustains us.
The beginning of the Enlightenment
marked the end of the singing bone.
When a law broken
was to give us courage, but instead
we became more charming, slab down
the letter that drew me
to you . . .
This is our argent rebirth, the laziest
of sways, the lunatic
from the darkness
into the massed of our ideas.
And I know I’m unbetrayable
to the worst of me.
And for as long as I continue to be
as private as a war, I’ll single myself out
like this. Rephrasing
the added and the unloved
all over again. (78-79)
The emotions expressed at the end of “Oh My God” here are not insouciant nor, to my way of believing, backward either. Instead they plead for an innocence that cannot be catalogued or even satisfyingly expressed. “Rephrasing / the added and the unloved / all over again” the speaker laments a passage of time she was, in the moment, helpless to stop, but now, searching back, she is able to grieve. Life is one continuous “argent rebirth” and there’s an inherent vulnerability contained within that premise. But all we can do, in the end, is remember—and it’s via such remembrances that we allow ourselves to remain whole.
Compared with a random smattering of other twenty-first century American poets, Stempleman’s poetry isn’t particularly “backward;” indeed, Wallop isn’t a difficult book to read so much as a highly enjoyable and not-disappointing one. But the collection’s compelling mélange of images and disjunctions certainly linger in the reader’s mind after the collection’s final poem, and Stempleman’s linguistic obsessions are distinctly his own. As he writes towards the end “Responsibility,” the first poem in the volume, “And now I don’t know what to write, / which feels a lot like not knowing / what to say.” But not knowing what to write or say can, of course, be the impetus to figure out who one is and why they are that person exactly. Ignorance begets knowledge and, having declared what she doesn’t know, “Responsibility’s” speaker quickly asserts what she does:
What to say to my wife
when she looked up at me from the river
like someone who needed a hand. (1)
“[L]ike someone who needed a hand . . . ” It’s a bit sweaty and half-caked with dirt, but in Wallop, Stempleman provides that hand to his reader. And his poetic grip is both genuine and accurate.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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