Sunday, January 30, 2011

Does Poetry Matter? (1)

Marianne Moore, poet and lover of baseball

The above is the question for the 2011 "Great American Think-Off" sponsored by the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center in New York Mills, Minnesota, a town of 1,100 people just outside Wadena. This place seems like kind of an Upper Midwestern Chatauqua, promoting dialogue on philosophical issues and supporting the arts.

My brother-in-law passed the question along to me, and it's been fun to think and write about it. My first thoughts went to an essay by Dana Gioia, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1992, called "Can Poetry Matter?" It was the usual diatribe against the way poetry has been relegated to academia. His claims were that poetry has marginalized itself because it only speaks within a very small subculture of people, and rarely, if ever, transcends individual experience at all. He lamented the MFA system that creates thousands of poets who then become the only people who read poetry. It is not hard to see his point. 

What is more, I've found many poets over the years to be incredibly mean-spirited, clinging to whatever little fistful of power they've carved out for themselves. Many are interested only in who is reading them, and not so much in reading or praising the work of others. I canceled my subscription to Poetry after reading an essay by Kay Ryan about the Associated Writing Programs conference in Vancouver in 2004-05. I attended that conference, where so many of us trying to write and teach flocked to hear the latest poetry stars read from their work and basically just keep up-- as well as, perhaps, connect with a few in our community to talk about our work. I have no idea why Kay Ryan would want to rip apart the people who attended that conference, but the whole thing just furthered my already developing cynicism about "the poetry world."

There is a great deal of poetry, especially the poetry of the time, that I think does not matter at all. Or matters no more than any other text. Much of the poetry written today is inaccessible, or precious, or sensational, or witty and clever. Books of poetry published these days are more like novels-- they have a theme or a through-line. I think this is a result of the poetry contest, where 50 pages on a single theme or telling a single story are more likely to make an impression than a collection of poems on a variety of subjects. When reading hundreds or even just dozens of manuscripts as a judge of a contest, it takes something to capture the attention and hold it long enough to register. But what this also means is that poems have lost much of their lyric power, and depend or lean on the context provided by other poems in the collection. And books of poems can be read once and then put aside. In most cases, we can get all they offer from one sitting.

Of course, the poetry slam and performance poetry scene have opened poetry up to a large number of people who are not "trained" in academia as poets and for whom poetry matters. It builds community and gives people an outlet for an astonishing amount of creativity and storytelling. At its best, it pushes the language and musicality and keeps things fresh. Poetry doesn't seem like one small, elite world so much as a collection of texts and writers that feed multiple subcultures in America today.

So the first thing we need to consider is, what is the nature of the question? Does poetry matter-- not just to individuals, but to society? To civilization? Does it matter more than regular speech or letters or at least as much as "business documents and school-books"? Here we are in Marianne Moore territory. Her poem, "Poetry," (from which that quoted phrase comes from) reads, in its final form:

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

She doesn't get to this final form, however, before constructing a much longer poem, and tinkering with it as she must have all her poems to get the number of syllables she required for each line and the diction just right. Her quirky system of organizing arguments into lines that followed an arbitrarily assigned number of syllables each, even when our language is more attuned to accented verse than syllabic (think haiku verses Shakespeare) demonstrates her love of the word game that is poetry as much as the "truth" game or what she calls "the genuine."

In her longer version of the poem "Poetry," she has wonderful claims, such as: "when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry, nor till the poets among us can be 'literalists of the imagination'-- above insolence and triviality and can present for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have it."

This says a lot about her vision of what can make poetry matter, but also suggests she didn't think that much good poetry was being written in the 1930s.

I'm going to write several more entries on this topic, as I think it through. I've already assembled several examples of how and where I see that poetry does indeed matter (much more than I can include in the 750 words of the final essay for the Think-Off). You can let me know if I am able to make my case.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Kitchen Rehab, week 3

Steve is a neat, methodical rehabber, and every day when I come home from work, visible progress has been made. Once the cabinets were painted, he put them back to make room for painting the island. He even put the sink back! They will come out again when the new sink and countertops are installed, but while the floor rehab happens, we have water, our stove, and even a nice little eating area!

Last night we moved the hutch. It is no exaggeration to say the house was built around the hutch. It was brought in through holes in the wall where the windows would go and put in its place, where it has stayed for 23 years. It's not actually a hutch, but a vestment cabinet, bought from the monastery back in 1987 for $75 when Steve and his first wife were building out here on the Sisters' old pig farm. I like that this cabinet is at the center of our very modern house, acknowledgement of the place's origin.

With the hutch out, the kitchen is empty. Today Steve rips out the old floor-- two layers of linoleum and backer board, nailed and stapled down seemingly at every 3 inches or so, requiring that it basically be sawed out and torn up in chunks.

The good side to that awful news is that, because there are two layers, there is fully 7/8 inches to the subfloor, enough room for the concrete floor to be poured without requiring dropping the floor more or lifting the level of the doors! The concrete floor is scheduled to be poured next Thursday. That will include carrying buckets of cement up one level from the driveway.

I'd like to say I have other topics to post on, but the rehab has kind of taken over everything else! So thank you for indulging me!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Kitchen Rehab

We're in full-on kitchen rehab mode. It's such an overwhelming project, I've mostly just tried not to think about it and to stay out of the way. So far, the decision vis a vis paint and flooring and countertop material/color have been very easy, which has helped. Also, the "surprises," such as they've been, have been mostly fortuitous. Aside from uncovering some very frayed wiring to the dishwasher, all the foundational stuff appears in good shape. The original builders put in two kitchen floors, which actually is to our advantage. We're going to have a concrete floor poured, so needed 1" depth for the pouring. The extra floor gave us another 1/2" to work with, so it looks like it won't have to be taken down another level-- the subfloor can stay where it is.

Unfortunately, they stapled the floor down every few inches, so getting what is there up is a thankless job. A thankless, I'm thinking, as scraping the popcorn off the 25' ceiling... Steve is undertaking both of these projects (while I try not to think about it and stay out of the way, though I did clean after the popcorn duststorm). He's undertaking all the other thankless work as well-- taking out cabinets, painting them, putting them back, moving the stuff out of the room (albeit, piecemeal) and putting it back...

The good part is, with any luck, it won't need to be done again for another 25-30 years, at which point we'll be too old to care...

What I wanted to share was a picture of this amazing ladder. It is the only thing that makes painting that ceiling and the upper reaches of the dining room possible. It is an incredible piece of equipment, solid as anything, beautiful in its hardware and architecture. I just can't get over the stuff that is on this farm sometimes, and this ladder is a good example.

The other picture is hopefully the height of the chaos... no sink, no stove, the cabinets being painted... The countertops are ordered, and the carpenter will come this week with the new cabinet doors... the trickiest thing will be that floor... I'll be sure to post more later.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Patti Smith / Just Kids

Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids is not an advice book, and should not be read as one. If you want to know her program for becoming a famous rock star in the 1970s, here it is:  move to New York City, even if you don't have any money and have to live on the streets for awhile (a good place to meet artists); attach yourself to a truly talented, driven artist; get a job that puts you in contact with people that might help you become an artist of some-- any -- type and allows you enough time to work on art of all kinds; move into the Chelsea Hotel, and work those contacts for all you're worth.

Really, it seems attaching herself to Robert Mapplethorpe and moving into the Chelsea Hotel pretty much paved the way for her success. In her memoir, and to her credit, she doesn't claim any great talent or really very much direction at all. If it weren't for meeting Mapplethorpe, getting hired by a bookseller, and hooking up with Sam Shepard, it's hard to tell what she might have done. At the Chelsea, she met rock stars, including Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Also Gregory Corso and some others who helped get her up on her first stage, St. Mark's Church, for an accompanied, high-octane poetry reading.

She was surprisingly, almost shockingly, nearly drug free. (The drugs make a very late appearance, which might say more about the '70s and rock and roll than anything else.) Her rough living was founded on poverty: homelessness and hunger. No health insurance. She comes across as eager and kind and enthusiastic, engaged and caring. Surely she was a little more raw and tough than the voice of this memoir would have one believe-- you almost have to remind yourself by looking at the pictures or focusing on the imagery in the artwork-- to remember what their "scene" was like. What it was they were creating was more punk than folk, even if she claims to have modeled herself on Bob Dylan.

Mapplethorpe, too, comes across as sweet. What I loved most in the book were the times Robert would be listening to her tell a story, or come in and find her doing something, and say, "Patti, no!" The first instance is when she's telling him the story of stealing from the jewelry box of a sick friend. Every time she got to the theft in the oft-repeated story, he's say, "Patti, no!" as if to get her to move away from the jewelry box. This playful outrage is repeated, and wonderful, especially near the end when he comes into her apartment and finds her awkwardly trying to roll a joint. "Patti, no, you're smoking pot!" It's what I will remember most from the book (and no doubt imitate in interactions with my friends).

Patti Smith was a poet, a singer, a painter/assemblage artist, a playwright (with Shepard), who got some very lucky breaks. She comes across as serious about life, but not serious about art, except for her desire to be an artist, in the way many people her age in the time the book takes place (18-24) are. If she were older, you could call her a dilettante. But she was actually just someone awake to her time, engaged with the people who came into her life, who found her way onto a much larger stage through the power of her personality and stick-to-it-ness.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bad World, Good Wife

We don't watch much television, by which I mean following shows week to week. The one show we do watch regularly is The Good Wife on CBS on Tuesday nights. The acting is good and the stories are interesting and the point of view, figuring out what the show is up to, has also kept our attention.

I'm actually starting to think it's the most cynical show on television. Let me explain.

From the beginning, the law firm that Alicia Florek (Julianna Margulies) works for has been in financial trouble. The main goal of the two partners, Will Gardner (the wonderful Josh Charles who did so well in the Aaron Sorkin debut series Sports Night) and Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski, who seems to always be holding a martini even when she's not), has been to increase billings and make decisions that will keep the firm financially strong.

This is interesting in and of itself: the very likeable partners make no bones about the fact that their first priority is making money. Not in the "we support X number of employees and their families and they're all counting on us" way, but in the "I went into law to make money and now let's see how we can make the most we can, because that's the measure of success" kind of way.

Because their primary driver is money and keeping wealthy clients, the firm's principals' morality is in many ways slippery. The enemy on the show is clear: that privileged mercenary Cory (Matt Czuchy) who doesn't realize that he's no match to Alicia as a lawyer-- and can't compete with her anyway because she has a powerful husband and thus potential to bring in more money! Cory and the corrupt state's attorney who took Alicia's husband's job when he himself (the incomparable Chris Noth as Peter Florek) was disgraced, come across as sleazy and mean-spirited. But are they any moreso than the lawyers we like?

After the last episode, when Will Gardner and company tricked their young client and lied to him to try to get him to take a lesser sentence (thus leaving his pregnant girlfriend with the longer sentence), Alicia is uncomfortable with the tactics/strategy. However, her objections seem lame, because they're based on her belief in true love, not wanting to lie to the young man to turn him against his girlfriend. But she seems to accept the tactics ultimately, even participate, as she accepts her brother cheating on his lover (what is one to do?) and, though surprised, even accepts Diane's paranoia and move to siphon off clients/lawyers from the firm. Surprise is the closest thing to moral outrage on the show, at least when it comes to the principal characters (the "opposition" is always outraging us with their wiley ways and unsavory associations).

The title refers to Alicia Florek as "the good wife"  for standing by her husband after his public and humiliating (for her) affair, and throughout accusations of corruption. We're never sure if this is being questioned or not-- is it a virtue? Is it what she, as an individual, should do? As the second season progresses, one must ask-- does she have to leave all moral judgment at the door to stand by her man and her firm? On what basis is she "good"? Is loyalty the highest value, and is it required in a job as well as a marriage? By "keeping her marriage together" do we mean maintaining the lifestyle to which she and her family have become accustomed by working in a corrupt profession? Is she simply becoming acclimated to the world "as it really is" so that she'll realize it doesn't matter if her husband cheated on her or not? What is this show up to? It's definitely enough to keep us tuning in.

There have been law shows before that looked at the crass business side of law. L.A. Law was a good example. The divorce lawyer, the affairs, the ambulance-chasing and high profile, celebrity cases. It was over the top, but we didn't exactly like Arnie (Corbin Berenson) or some of the other characters. Even when we did like them, it wasn't because we saw ourselves in them.

The Good Wife is a very different show. These people are believable, everyday Chicagoans-- Middle America folks who have gotten where they are (we believe) in part because of their goodness and also because they're smart and likeable (like us). But maybe not. Maybe, we see, as they unapologetically proceed through their cases and their lives, it's because they are good at their jobs, which are not really admirable, and because they have single-mindedly pursued power and money.

I'm still thinking this through, but am interested in what others think. I'm not going to stop watching the show, but I am beginning to wonder just how good the good wife is...

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Death of Sisera

Yesterday I spent the better part of the day with the book of Judges as part of my book project for The Saint John's Bible. Judges chronicles a time for the Israelites between the death of their leader Joshua, who brought them into the Promised Land, and the time of the kings. The goal is for the people to be led directly by Yahweh, but they aren't up to it. The Lord "raises up" judges. They do more than keep the peace among the people; judge are deliverers, leading, directing and offering guidance in battle.

One of the judges is Deborah, and although I'd heard of her, I didn't really know her story. Deborah is a judge who leads the people with her military leader Barak (who insists that she go with him into battle) against the forces of the great military man Sisera. The Lord throws Sisera's troops into panic, and they are routed by the Israelites. All of Sisera's men are killed, but he escapes and flees to the tent of Jael, the wife of one of his allies. However, Jael, after luring Sisera into her tent, drives a tent stake through his head and into the ground while he is sleeping. This is a double humiliation for Sisera, whose forces are routed by a woman (Deborah) and who then is killed by a woman (Jael). To see the illumination on the SJB web page, click here.

What drew me to the passage, though, was the fact that it is told first as a narrative in Judges 4 and then, in chapter 5, as a poem/song.

The Song of Deborah is a classic ballad telling the story of triumph in battle. The opening suggests the purpose of the song is to retell the story: "When locks are long in Israel, when the people offer themselves willingly-- bless the Lord." In the times of prosperity to come, when your hair has grown long, remember how the Lord delivered you from your enemy Sisera. Later it will directly instruct people to retell the tale to all people and throughout time. Then the poem tells the story of three women.

It first recounts the sorry state of the Israelites in the time before Deborah arose, when "caravans ceased, and travelers kept to the byways," a time of "new gods," "plunder" and "war in the gates." After much praise of  Deborah, the narrative turns on the short verse: "then down to the gates/marched the people of the Lord," followed by a list of the peoples.

"Then loud beat the horses' hoofs/ with the galloping, galloping of his steeds." After the poetic telling of that "most blessed of women" Jael, and her dreaded tent spike, the poem makes its most interesting move.

It moves to a distant scene and introduces a third woman. "Out of the window she peered, / the mother of Sisera gazed through the lattice. 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? / Why tarry the hoofbeats of the chariots?'"

Isn't that great? This mother and "her wisest ladies" imagine the soldiers of Israel "deviding  the spoil" and taking "a girl or two for every man." It's a really unusual and striking move, from an unabashed celebration of victory in battle to the women left behind, now at the mercy of the victors.

In this writing project, I find it tricky to figure out how to present what I'm reading. I do not read the Historical Books as actual, literal history. These books are more akin to the Greek histories and tragedies, or perhaps the "histories" (and often the tragedies) of Shakespeare. They are literary and, although as a Christian I believe in their ability to tell me about God's relationship to humanity, I do not of course find the battle scenes or violence instructive of how "the people of God" should behave. Let us concentrate more on the opening of this and so many stories in Judges: "The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord... So the Lord sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan." This opening phrase will be repeated again at the opening of chapter 6, after we are told "And the land had rest for forty years."  Ultimately, the story of violence is the story of disobedience, the people's inability to follow God.

In the end, what I'm really enjoying is the stories. After my first weekend of writing, I really kept my amazement that the story of the movement into Canaan begins with two Israelites hidden and protected by the prostitute Rahab, who is later spared when Jericho is destroyed. What a strange and wonderful opening to this "history." And this week, I have the great Song of Deborah to take with me into the week, a wonderful poem that seems to speak across the centuries, of a warrior woman, a treacherous queen and the mother of a warrior on top of Mt. Tabor, realizing her son will not return from battle.

Image: Death of Sisera, Donald Jackson, ©2010, The Saint John’s Bible, Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.  Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholilc Edition, ©1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Baked Ziti

There was a time when I made baked ziti for special occasions, but I think the last time I made it was for the disastrous final Christmas of my first marriage. We were in Cleveland, and I can't go into details about the complete disarray of the lives of those assembled, but part of what was going on was that I insisted on making Christmas Eve dinner for the first time. The previous year we were served literally no food. Well, I think there were cheese and crackers. We picked up sub sandwiches on the way home after opening presents at my sister-in-law's house.

In that marriage, I had entered a family freshly grieving the loss of the matriarch, and my husband's father, not known for his active engagement before the death of his wife, was more or less sleepwalking through the holidays. As my sister-in-law's life spiralled downward, Christmas became ever more depressing. That last Christmas before my own marriage imploded was a doozy, but at least we had a good meal.

One thing I remember strongly about that Christmas Eve was taking down and washing his mother's china. It was beautiful, simple stuff, unpretentious and classic, something I myself would choose, and coated in several years' worth of grime. I had never participated in such a simple act of domestic restoration before-- cleaning china and glassware, unwrapping and cleaning the serving plates, polishing silver. It was a real pleasure to be engaged in such a meditative, productive task in an atmosphere that was mostly marked by avoidance and shocking revelations. I also felt connected to this strong, modest, intelligent woman I had never met.

I made two types of baked ziti: one with mushrooms and poblano chilis for the vegetarians and one with a mix of ground pork and beef for the meat-eaters. The meal was beautiful and delicious. Just to give you a sense of the ambiance, though, let me describe my brother-in-law's appearance that evening. He sat next to me, having arrived from his shift as a meat cutter at the local grocery meat department. He had an absessed tooth which had caused his mouth to swell up horribly on one side, and which also made it impossible for him to wear his prosthetic front teeth. He was trying to get in my good graces over another family issue, so I just remember him lispingly making his case to me while we ate.

I'm not sure what made me want to make baked ziti this year. Maybe it is the stark difference in my life circumstances between then and now. Probably it was the fact that I wanted to make another dish with the ground venison and remembered how good this one was. In any event, it turned out wonderfully, and we ate it last night in the good company of my new sister- and brother-in-law Kevin and Amy Kluesner, who walked through a very blizzardy night with salad and wine, and with whom we shared many a fine toast and hope for the New Year. The Kluesners have a grandchild on the way. Steve just wrote out the final tuition check to put the last of his three daughters through college. The log cabin is complete. There will be an even bigger garden next year, and good work for us all.

I served the baked ziti on my own china, with a bottle of chianti my brother gave me. Afterward we walked to the third house on the farm, where we celebrated Sophia's 21st birthday with champagne and cake and a great game.

Baked Ziti

1 lb dry ziti pasta
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb ground mixed venison and pork (I've also done a veggie option with sauteed poblano peppers, mushrooms and spinach)
1 jar spaghetti sauce
6 oz provolone or smoked gouda cheese
dollops of sour cream
6 oz shredded mozzarella cheese
grated parmesan
herbs: oregano, thyme, salt, pepper and fennel

Cook the ziti until al dente per package instructions. In a skillet, sautee the onion until translucent, add ground meat and fennel and brown over medium heat. Add spaghetti sauce and other spices and simmer 5-10 minutes. Layer as follows in a buttered 9 x 13 baking pan: ziti, gouda, sour cream, 1/2 sauce mixture, remaining ziti, mozzarella and sauce. Top with grated parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes or until cheeses are melted and bubbling.