100 Best Poems to Memorize

Roughly ten years ago, Poet John Hollander put out a book of verse entitled Committed to Memory : 100 Best Poems to Memorize.

Reading Versus Watching: Fantastic Voyage

Kelly Link is an extraordinary fiction writer. She will take an old saw like the ghost story or the fairy tale or the girl with latent, supernatural powers, and completely reinvent it in a startling way; this always with a depth of character and emotional complexity that is lacking in so much genre fiction. Even people who are totally turned off by the fantastic and the supernatural should find themselves absorbed by her use of genre methods to get at what it means to be human.

The Form Question

There are various conservatives on the poetry scene at present who often bemoan the loss of "Form" in poetry and decry the current tendency toward open form composition; Mary Oliver and Dana Gioia are among the more prominent lights of this misguided notion, associated as they are with the New Formalist movement in the eighties. What's particularly difficult to process is where this idea came from that "free verse" was in some way divorced from the care and craft required by formal prosody. Never mind the fact that current trends in public education expose most americans only to Shel Silverstein in their early years, followed closely to a broad survery covering roughly the two hundred fifty or so years between Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson. Never mind the fact that American poetry more or less begins right around the era of Dickinson or that the Elizabethan dialect grows more and more unfamiliar to speakers of American English with each passing year, and what we have is a situation in which the speakers of a national language, that is, American English, are by and large unfamiliar with their national poetry.

What does this mean to the formal argument? Well, for one thing, American poetry since it's maturity has largely been a bastion of free verse. After all, free verse poetry—despite early and important examples from the King James Bible—found its first true paramour in Whitman's cadenced line. Excepting Poe, all of the important poets of North America have worked largely with free verse of one method or another.

On this fact I am grounding my axiom that American Verse is Free Verse. For an American poet, strict adherence to a form is an aberration of the national poetry. This is not necessarily the case for other nations and languages. Particularly for speakers of the various Spanish and French dialects who have a number of distinct linguistic features available to them that lend themselves to formalism—including large numbers of regular verbs, syllable timed rhythm, and generally more morphologically homogenous lexicons—not to mention many more form options than the pittance available to an American English poetry.

So where does this criticism of the lack of form come from? There are several factors. One is the previously mentioned problem with poetry education. Free verse, also called open form by its defenders—although I think that open verse is much more descriptive and will use it exclusively in the rest of this essay—is defined by this woefully inadequate education in poetry as "that poetry that doesn't rhyme." Formal verse is defined by contrast as "poetry that does rhyme" and given its end of the historical spectrum in that afforementioned high school poetry survey, often gets the short shrift; perceived as archaic and "out of style" by those who aren't really paying attention, it has, to the poorly educated reader, been reduced to mere doggerel, the kind of inspirational poetry found in Reader's Digest magazine or spewed by the so-called "Cowboy Poets." As such its appeal is largely conservative, geared as it is toward those uneducated proles not even sophisticated enough to form the mistaken impression that formal poetry is passé.

Not helping matters is the fact that many poetry magazines, editted by similar idiots who've been through the same inadequate educational system, often put in their submission guidelines "no formal poetry." By which of course they mean "no doggerel made up of rhymed couplets in roughly iambic septameter," with which such magazines are no doubt deluged. (Of course, they wouldn't be if they just pulled their listings from the Writer's Market like we suggest.) So, for young people just learning to write poetry and looking to these major magazines for guidance, they might be understandably put off should they like such devices as end-rhyme and a fixed number of feet per line. From this point of view, the New Formalist response almost makes some sense.

Except of course that formal verse never went away, and if one looks carefully, one will find that American poetry is filled with sonnets, odes, and various other fixed forms at every turn. Granted, most of it is terrible, but there are certain standouts, such as Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets or the more recent Jim and Dave Defeat The Masked Man. Formal verse isn't going anywhere, so the dim lights attempting to rescue it by writing it badly aren't really accomplishing what they think they are. Of course, those who don't bother to understand what they're doing before they set off to do it seldom do.

Confessional Fiction

Confessional fiction and the cautionary tale of Richard Grayson. A review.

Reading Versus Watching: Episodic Characters

One thing that surprised me about Cervantes' classic was it's episodic nature. It doesn't have the overarching narratives that have been been imposed on it by countless adaptations in other media. Instead it moves smoothly from one vignette to another, much like a television show. And what a television show!

In Defense of Roth

I really wanted to like Levi Asher's overrated writers list because he knocks some of the same people we like to knock, but his criticism of Philip Roth is so completely wrong-headed, I'm a little baffled.

I think it all comes down to this:

Paranoia became Roth's central theme, and it permeates most of his novels, from Portnoy's Complaint to American Pastoral to The Plot Against America. Roth's paranoia is different from the cold high-tech creepiness of Don DeLillo or the proud anti-establishment defiance of Ken Kesey. In Roth's world, it's the ones we know best and love most who are trying to oppress and destroy us: our parents, our friends and neighbors, our lovers, our children. This is a harsh and depressing world view, and while I don't begrudge Roth the right to call the shots the way he sees them, I do not find his theme very universal. Even less do I find it edifying. This is why I find it difficult to agree when he is described as a great writer of our age.

Excuse me, if in this "If You See Something, Say Something" contemporary world, I find Roth's particular brand of paranoia and misanthropy not only edifying, but frighteningly relevent. The rest of his criticism stems from this basic complaint; Asher does not identify with Roth's view, therefore Roth's view is not universal. He goes on to say:

I must make this clear: I really do like Philip Roth. I just can't abide by the current meme that calls him a relevant spokesperson for our current time. I'm especially bothered by the fact that Roth is often called a representative voice for modern American Jews; I'm a member of that group, and Roth's bitter message of fundamental separatism does not speak for me.

I honestly think that if Asher could crawl out of his hole for half a second and take a look around, he would see a growing sense of persecution and betrayal, that extends from world events into the home and family. This is best represented for me in Roth's The Counterlife, when Roth's (or "Roth's") own brother becomes part of a militant pro-Israeli cult holed up at Masada and attacks Roth for being part of the problem and not the solution. We all tear each other apart all the time for ideologies, for sex, for money, for a thousand tiny things that we can never number, and this is something deep and fundamental and universal that Roth taps into better than, I think, anyone else. And it's something Asher just doesn't seem to understand.

Reading Versus Watching: An Introduction

Is there a difference between what we read and what we watch? A new column by Eric Rosenfield attempts to answer the question.

Gyorgy Faludy on the State of Literature

In an article headed "Literature Will Not Survive the Twentieth Century," Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy discusses literature today:

I don't know what happened, I can't explain. Literature can't be explained. Nowadays, a poem is published and in a year it is forgotten. Back then, a poem in a periodical like Nyugat or the Pesti Naplo was something to be proud of. Irodalmi Jelen, a periodical published in Arad, still has things worth reading. But even they have trouble filling 16 pages with the raw material they have to work with. Once, new books generated discussion. But there's no criticism. Since I returned home, I've had two serious reviews. Seventy years ago, if people had asked me or somebody else to list a few poets who'd survive the 20th century, I could have listed 10 or 15 names. Now? Name a poet who will definitely be remembered a century hence? You can't, can you?

Faludy also compares the falling numbers of books being read by Americans to the Dark Ages, which I think is taking things a step too far. However, I think he is right to say that there isn't a critical milieu in the way there used to be. Even (or maybe especially) in the "Blogosphere," have there been memorable discussions on novels and poetry? Other than to say "this is a good novel" or "this is a good poem/poet"? The attitude seems to be that nobody reads anyway, so you shouldn't say anything critical or that could be misconstrued as pejorative because we don't want to "piss in the fragile ecosystem of literature" to paraphrase Dave Eggars. But really, we need serious reviews and in-depth discussion and disagreement to have a literature at all; that is to say an environment conducive to good writing is one in which there is a constant, intelligent dialog about writing, and we let that slip away at our own peril.

In defense of Electricity

What's at issue is Gilcrest's celebration of Paper, the idea that poetry being printed on Paper is a glorious ethical Good that reminds us of the connection between Language and Nature. Note the sarcastic capitalization.

Picador Shots

Via MetaxuCafe, Picador is publishing a series called "Picador Shots" in England, consisting of short stories in booklet form for a mere £1. Authors who will be published in the series include Jackie Kay, Colm Toibin, Aleksandar Hemon, Claire Messud, Nell Freudenberger, James Salter, Niall Williams, Craig Davidson, Shalom Auslander, Tim Winton, Bret Easton Ellis, and Matthew Kneale. No news yet on whether the series will be offered in the United States.

I wrote once before that One-Story had found the perfect format for publishing the short story. It looks like Picador has found it too, and is marketing each story as an individual product (rather than emphasising subscription to a journal). I'm really glad someone is doing this and I hope it's successful and is brought across the pond.