On Blogging, Menus, and List Making

Posted on September 15, 2011

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Having grown up in the era of manual typewriters, it could hardly be more exciting, to say nothing of daunting, to join the blog parade. But what fun! Please feel free to comment on this or any subsequent post. My plan is to blog on poetry, poetics, publishing, writing in general, books, restaurants, cinema, the motion of the planets, art, and whatever moves me. In particular, I’m interested in reviewing new books of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction from other literary presses. Something to keep in mind.

Soon, I’ll have some thoughts on the art and practice of restaurant menu writing, and the link between the appetite and tone. “Harpoon-caught swordfish” for example, from the North Fork Table & Inn menu in Southold, Long Island, way out on the North Fork, about as close to Orient Point as you can get without falling in. That restaurant venture is the product of a mid-life crisis, bringing Manhattan kitchen stars Gerry Hayden (Aureole, Amuse) and Claudia Fleming (Gramercy Tavern) to Southold, along with some wicked penmanship via their menu.  That will be fun. But, as this is my maiden voyage into the Blogosphere, it seems fitting and proper to start with something closer to the place where (intentional) poetry and list-making meet.

For several years now, I’ve been urging the notion that every poem is a list poem. What poem is not a careful, thought-filled, soul-mongered list of what’s included, what’s excluded? Take, for example, “The Apple Trees at Olema,” by Robert Hass (The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems, Ecco Press).

How is this poem not a list? A list of the names of things. Names of concrete things; names of abstract things; a list of that which hovers between concrete and abstract (see The Things They Carried); a list of triggering verbs, a case made for a list of adjectives and even, good Lord, adverbs? Red wheelbarrow. Thin moon. Lupine flecked meadow.

Glazed with rainwater: The light catching in the spray that spumes up on the reef is the color of the lesser finch they notice now flashing dull gold in the light above the field. How is this Hass not like every other poem, in that respect, including and importantly so, each anthropological piece of say, Sappho’s fragments? List made by time’s erasure?

In his poem, “Maps,” Hass offers this (I would propose, ars poetica):

Of all the laws
that bind us to the past
the names of things are
stubbornest

So, should anybody want to take me up on this (my kingdom for a stout Cortez), I will like to know it. Should you like to offer fabulous shopping lists, I’d like to see those, too. (What blog, you say? This one, here, now, today. Finally.)

I think probably it’s a mistake to use a Hass poem as an example, though I might want something that offers up more than a covert list, less than an “obvious” catalog poem. It might be more useful (to me, that is, to my argument, that is) to take by way of example something less chatty, because — really — the argument is more simple than that, and one hopes, therefore more convincing. Which is to say that each and every word in a poem (well, let’s say for now, nouns) constitutes part of a — let’s hope — considered list. Sometimes connected. Sometimes not. Sometimes associative. Associative. (Is there any such thing as a wholly non-associative poem?) But since I started with this Hass, let’s stay with it for now.

My friend and superb poet Carlen Arnett makes this excellent observation about “Meditation at Lagunitis”:

What interests me is that this expands as much as it telescopes (penetrates)  toward the essence of the subject matter. Hass very typically does exactly this  in his poems, right?:  > Meditation at Lagunitas > BY ROBERT HASS > All the new thinking is about loss. > In this it resembles all the old thinking. > The idea, for example, that each particular erases > the luminous clarity of a general idea. 

Which makes me think (reminds me, really) that there is a wholly different sort of subterranean list-making going on here (I mean, besides the list of “things”) and that’s the list of ideas. Or with Hass, in Lagunitis, a list of positions, focusing down from great emotional distance to emotional embrace.

Hass begins, tonally, with irony and cynicism (“All the new thinking is about loss / In this it resembles all the old thinking”), and launches into a series of positions that glorify loss — the image of the “clown-faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk of that black birch.” (list!) Apart from the evident work of the foreshadowed “black,” most of these positions are merely contemporary clichés. The result is, by keeping the contrast dialed down low, he keeps the speaker at a distance. By insisting on clichés, he even keeps his images at a distance. Distance itself is distanced. But then Hass weaves in meditation, image and narrative in such a way as to dismantle his own irony and cynicism, and to change his mind and, for that matter, the premise of the poem. So the dramatic conflict of Meditation becomes whether or not to acknowledge the ascendancy of loss and decay. I have an elegant proof, but no time and space to sketch it fully. Not here, today, now. Maybe next week.

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