The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is the using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,
And the food had been transfigured,
Changed into a weak, old whiteness,
Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

John Dryden’s “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham”: An Analysis

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; John Dryden (1631-1700), Playwright, Poet Laureate and CriticI’ve talked about John Dryden on this blog before, way back in 2016, in a look at his poem “Astræa Redux.” But for today, I’m not interested in 17th-century English politics or lovely descriptions of Dover’s cliffs. Nor am I interested in tackling any of Dryden’s extended satires and allegories—no point trying to condense “Absalom and Achitophel” into a blog post. Instead, I’d like to highlight a short delight of his, one which I envy for its tight control of tone and language: “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham.”

The “Mr. Oldham” of the title refers to John Oldham, a 17th-century satirist whom Dryden greatly admired and who died in 1683 at the age of thirty. Published the following year, “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” is both a tribute to a talent gone too soon and a showcase for Dryden’s own skills as a poet. Like a great number of Dryden’s poems, it’s written in heroic couplets: rhyming, self-contained and balanced pairs of iambic pentameter lines.

Let’s have a look at the text, shall we?

“To the Memory of Mr. Oldham”

Farewell, too little and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own;
For sure our souls were near ally’d; and thine
Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools we both abhorr’d alike:
To the same goal did both our studies drive,
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place
While his young friend perform’d and won the race.
O early ripe! to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might (what nature never gives the young)
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue.
But satire needs not those, and wit will shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.
A noble error, and but seldom made,
When poets are by too much force betray’d.
Thy generous fruits, though gather’d ere their prime
Still showed a quickness; and maturing time
But mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.
Once more, hail and farewell; farewell thou young,
But ah too short, Marcellus of our tongue.
Thy brows with ivy, and with laurels bound;
But fate and gloomy night encompass thee around.

The great challenge Dryden faces in writing “To the Memory of Mr. Oldham” lies in its very concept: it is an elegy written to honor a satirist. The poem cannot be entirely mournful, as that would not fit the person of John Oldham. But it cannot be entirely playful, either; neither the dictates of the genre nor basic respect for the dead would allow for it. No, Dryden must balance these two disparate moods, which requires some finely-tuned craft.

One way Dryden successfully negotiates these mixed moods is through his choice of allusions. In lines 9-10, he invokes the friendship between Nisus and Euryalus, two figures who appear in Virgil’s Aeneid. Specifically, Dryden refers to an episode in Book V, a footrace that Nisus and Euryalus partake in during the funeral games for Anchises. The text of Dryden’s poem lays out a solemn treatment of the event: Nisus loses his footing (“fell upon the slippery place”), which allow Euryalus, who had been trailing, to come from behind and win. This is of course a parallel for the relationship between Oldham and Dryden: Oldham’s great satires predated Dryden’s, but Dryden lived longer and would achieve much greater fame (“The last set out the soonest did arrive”).

However, looking into the full context of the allusion reveals a comic, almost absurd dimension to it. Nisus doesn’t merely trip; he sets off a chain of events befitting a gross-out slapstick comedy, complete with animal viscera. I’ll quote the full sequence from Dryden’s own translation of the Aeneid, which he’d publish a full fourteen years after Oldham’s death:

Now, spent, the goal they almost reach at last,
When eager Nisus, hapless in his haste,
Slipp’d first, and, slipping, fell upon the plain,
Soak’d with the blood of oxen newly slain.
The careless victor had not mark’d his way;
But, treading where the treach’rous puddle lay,
His heels flew up; and on the grassy floor
He fell, besmear’d with blood and holy gore.
Not mindless, then, Euryalus, of thee,
Nor of the sacred bond of amity,
He strove th’ immediate rival’s hope to cross,
And caught the foot of Salius as he rose.
So Salius lay extended on the plain;
Euryalus springs out, the prize to gain,
And leaves the crowd: applauding peals attend
The victor to the goal, who vanquish’d by his friend. (5.426-441)

In other words: Nisus slips in a pool of sacrificial blood, getting absolutely soaked in it; then, he grabs the second-place runner, Salius, by the foot, so that his good friend Euryalus can cross the finish line first. Not the most dignified conclusion to a sporting event. One can see why Dryden would leave out certain parts of that anecdote in his elegiac poem, at least explicitly. But the context for the allusion is still there, and the informed reader could get a little chuckle from that knowledge.

Beyond the content of the poem, Dryden also uses its form to balance its serious and comic aspects. After spending the first ten lines establishing the close connection he felt with Oldham, Dryden wonders what “could advancing have added more” to his friend (line 12). It’s at this point that Dryden brings up a common criticism of Oldham’s verse: it’s rough and lacking in polish. Dryden, though himself a paragon of Restoration sophistication, doesn’t hold Oldham’s rugged poetry against him—at least, not beyond some lighthearted ribbing.

That Oldham apparently required schooling in “the numbers of [his] native tongue” (i.e., the meter of English poetry) certainly sounds like a diss (14). And Dryden is more than capable of taking inferior poets to task; just read “Mac Flecknoe” for proof. But that one line is as pointed a Dryden’s pen gets. If anything, he is apologetic for Oldham’s technical deficiencies.

First off, the “native tongue” quip is preceded by the parenthetical qualifier, “(what nature never gives the young)” (13). Meter takes time to master, and Oldham alas was robbed of so much time. Second, Dryden insists that Oldham’s chosen field, satire, “needs not those” strictly metrical lines, and that “wit will shine / Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line” (15-16). Indeed, that line is self-demonstrating: leading with a two deviant metrical feet, full of sibilants, stops, and weak central vowels. It’s not quite Pope’s Essay on Criticism, but it’s still pretty clever. Finally, Dryden elevates Oldham’s esteem by tacking a swipe at their poetic rivals: rough meter is “a noble error” in a time “When poets are by too much force betray’d” (17-18).

Now, at this juncture, Dryden is at risk of drifting too far into satire. In a 25-line poem, there isn’t that much room for digressions on poetic fashions. This is why I find lines 18-21 so crucial in the poem’s overall construction. On a formal level, these lines bear all the marks of a turning point in a poem of heroic couplets: a triplet rhyme ending with an alexandrine (i.e., a line of iambic hexameter). On a content level, these lines return our attention to Oldham himself, to his “generous fruits…gathered ere their prime”. Those poems Oldham wrote, Dryden says, “showed a quickness,” one which “maturing time” may not have aided, for it “mellows what we write to the dull sweets of rhyme.”

Yet this is the exact moment the poem itself “mellows,” use the “dull sweets” of the triplet and the extra foot of the alexandrine to slow the pace, to wind the reader down into an appropriately reflective mood. From this point on, the satirical aspects of the poem recede, giving ground entirely to elegy. Dryden goes on to call Oldham the “Marcellus of our tongue” (referring to the great but short-lived Roman general), bestowing his spirit “with ivy, and with laurels,” while the reality of death, “fate and gloomy night,” “encompass” his friend (24-25). If the poem has lost some of the tonal complexity seen in the Nisus and Euryalus allusion or the riffs on numbers, it’s only because the world has lost, in Dryden’s eyes, an unappreciated source of humor.

What do you think of Dryden’s poem? If you have thoughts you’d like to share, or suggestions more classic poems to give the old close reading, let me know in the comments.

Charlotte Smith’s “Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex”: An Analysis

Charlotte SmithLet’s take a deep dive into a poem, shall we?

I first became aware of Charlotte Smith’s poetry during the first semester of my MFA, when, for reasons I won’t bore you with, I had to recite her “Ode to Death” for workshop. I distinctly remember its accepting attitude towards its subject—not quite Dickinson’s friendly relationship with it in “[Because I could not stop for death],” but still cordial, curious even.

Recently I decided to look through more of her work, and lo and behold, the first of her poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry deals with a similar theme:

“Written in the Church Yard at Middleton in Sussex”

Pressed by the moon, mute arbitress of tides,
While the long equinox its power combines,
The sea no more its swelling surge confines,
But o’er the shrinking land sublimely rides.
The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed,
Tears from their grassy tombs the village dead,
And breaks the silent sabbath of the grave.
With shells and seaweed mingled, on the shore
Lo! their bones whiten in the frequent wave;
But vain to them the winds and waters rave;
They hear the warring elements no more:
While I am doomed, by life’s long storm oppressed,
To gaze with envy on their gloomy rest.

There’s a lot we can, and will, talk about here, but this being a sonnet, why don’t we start with the turn in the final couplet?

The ending of this poem is somewhat odd, even unsettling. After three quatrains of detached observations of a coastal graveyard, the speaker turns to her own, morbid concerns: she is “doomed” to “envy…their gloomy rest.” Not only is this turn emotionally dispiriting, but it also seems to rest on a false premise: what “gloomy rest” is there in this graveyard?

In “The Sonnets of Charlotte Smith” (published in Critical Survey 4.1, pp. 9-21, 1992), Stella Brooks focuses on the poem’s diction to get to the heart of the apparent contradiction. Although the speaker

longs for their oblivion for herself…the preceding violation of the “silent sabbath” of the graves, the shock of the “village dead” being “torn” from their tombs by the “huge billows,” the “raving” of the “winds and waters” have suggested anything but the claimed oblivion; the graves have been disturbed, there is no “gloomy rest” for their inmates. (p. 14)

Of course, Brooks does not see this discrepancy between the speaker’s description of the graveyard and her interpretation of it as a flaw in the poem. Rather, that discrepancy is emblematic of a “turbulent Romantic fantasy” (p. 14). The speaker has a need to express her heightened emotions, in spite of the constraints placed upon her.

I’d like to push Brooks’ reading a bit further, for the poem strains against more than just the facts of the case. The formal elements of a poem, after all, are another kind of constraint. In case of this sonnet, elements that would ordinarily suggest calm and composure in fact hold back an uncontrolled force of emotion.

To start, let’s continue talking about endings: line-endings. A quick glance reveals that of the sonnet’s 14 lines, 13 of them end with some form of punctuation, from the brief pause of a comma to the heavy stop of a period. End-paused lines are famous for slowing the pace at which one reads a poem, as they represent both the end of a unit of syntax (a phrase or a clause) and a unit of verse (a line). Further, when end-paused lines occur with such regularity, they give the poem another measured music in addition to the meter (more on which later).

There’s only one line in Smith’s sonnet, line 9, which lacks end-pausing punctuation, and naturally this moment represents a turning point in the poem: “on the shore / Lo! their bones whiten”. It’s an awkward line-ending, as the next line all but starts with terminal punctuation, with that exclamation point coming just one syllable in. The poem’s rhythm staggers right as the speaker confronts the full extent of the graveyard’s damage. The speaker has mentioned how the sea has degraded the graveyard prior to this, but those descriptions tend towards abstraction: “village dead,” “the silent sabbath of the grave.” Here, though, death is rendered concrete: whitened bones “with shells and seaweed mingled.”

Now, line 9 may be the point where the poem’s composure completely dissolves, but Smith has been building up to this moment throughout the first two quatrains.  The apparent calm in the lead-up is illusory. For one thing, the sound-play in the first eight lines is incredibly emphatic. The first two rhymes are on the similar-sounding [aɪdz] (“tides”/”rides”) and [aɪnz] (“combines”/”confines”), with either sound amplifying the other. Internally, the lines are super-charged with repeated sounds: “Pressed”/”arbitress” and “moon”/”mute” in line 1, the double alliteration of “huge billows” and “heaving bed” in line 5, the sibilance of “breaks the silent sabbath” in line 8, and so forth.

It’s difficult to read this poem aloud without feeling a bit pompous, the sound-play is so heavy and the lines so measured. One imagines Smith declaiming this piece to the decay before her, arms raised to the heavens like a capital-R Romantic heroine, trying to convey her emotions to the spirits. But behind all that power, there’s also strain, and that strain comes through in the poem’s meter.

The first quatrain scans pretty regularly for a sonnet, with no line straying too far from iambic pentameter. Line 1 has an authoritative initial trochee (“Pressed by | the moon…”) and line 2 starts with a double iamb (“While the | loud e | quinox…”), but beyond those two substitutions, it’s four lines of forceful iambs. (Even if we give “power” its modern two-syllable scansion, the stresses stay on the same syllables in the line; the anapest changes very little.) What’s more, the stresses keeps accentuating words relating to strength: “pressed,” “loud,” “power” “swelling surge.”  If not for the rhyme, I could almost see King Lear reciting these lines on the stormy heath.

But the second quatrain does not scan so easily. Consider lines 5 and 6:

The wild blast, rising from the western cave,
Drives the huge billows from their heaving bed

Forcing these lines to fit the mold of iambic pentameter is a challenge. The mid-line comma and the possibility of pronouncing “wild” as two syllables suggest we scan the first three words as two iambs (“The wi | ld blast“). The rest of line 5, meanwhile, has a fairly intuitive cadence: “ris | ing from | the wes | tern cave.” Putting both parts together, though, we end up with six stresses instead of five. We can either demote “from” to an unstressed syllable, which maintains the semantic emphases but producing an ungainly scansion (“The wi | ld blastrising | from the wes|tern cave“), or we can elide “wild” into one syllable and demote either it or “blast,” which makes for a better-scanning line but is unsatisfying semantically. Who says “wild” or “blast” weakly?

Line 6 presents a similar problem, with a natural reading producing a six-stress line. Demoting “from,” as it did before, makes for an even worse scansion than before: “Drives the | huge bil | lows from | their hea | ving bed.” The other option, demoting “drives” or “huge,” as it did before, forces us to de-emphasize a strength-related word, exactly what the poem encouraged us to do in the first quatrain. Gone are the forceful declamations; uncertainty now reigns. The poem may get back on song in the next two lines, with just the initial trochee in line 7, but it does so just in time for the bodies to start surfacing.

All of the above may be interesting, but how does it factor in to the poem’s conclusion? Well, it justifies how the speaker could possibly see “gloomy rest” in this scene. The disturbed dead are numb to the chaos around them, unable “to hear the warring elements.” But more than that, the dead cannot think or feel, whereas the speaker is compelled to contemplate their fate, with all that loud language and emotion discussed above bouncing about in her head. The one thing someone in such a position could envy is quiet. But in the Romantic world of Smith’s poetry, that is impossible. The speaker can only “gaze with envy” at the possibility.

To end on a (slightly) cheerier note: Lit Brick has an amusing summation of the poem in webcomic form, so enjoy that!

What do you think of Smith’s sonnet? Have any suggestions for more classic poems to dissect? Feel free to share in the comments.

Recommended Readings in Sports Literature

I’ve recently finished teaching an intersession course here at Johns Hopkins—that is, a three-week course, held during the period between winter break and the start of the spring semester, on a topic of my choosing. As such, I’ve spent most of January thinking about the literature of sports, and how various writers manage to make the subject compelling to a general audience.

Speaking as someone who loves sports, someone who organizes dinner plans and reading schedules around “the game tonight,” I often find written descriptions of sporting events rather dull. I’ll read newspaper recaps or student stories about some athletic contest, and my eyes will start glazing over the text immediately. As a reader, I want more than a litany of individual events. I want an actual narrative, or an argument, or something musical.

As such, most of the pieces I selected for the syllabus take an indirect approach to sports. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the game—the thing we care about when watching sports—they tend to emphasize the beauty inherent in athletic excellence, or the personal significance that the sport holds for the characters, or what the sport tells us about society. Such approaches are not just more creative than the play-by-play method, but are also more appealing to a reader who doesn’t care about sports but still appreciates good writing.

What follows are a series of pieces from my syllabus that my students seemed to respond to the most. They all either provoked interesting discussions during class, or had a clear influence on their own creative efforts. Each of these works, I believe, tells us something about how successful sports writing functions.

“Analysis of Baseball” by May Swenson (link here)

May Swenson’s poem “Analysis of Baseball” breaks the title game down to its constituent parts, down to the people and equipment necessary for it to occur. That sounds like the driest poem in history, but it’s a blast to read because Swenson privileges sound above all else. The poem’s paratactic phrasing, insistent repetition and constant rhyming results in a work that is quite playful coming off the tongue. Consider the following excerpt:

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date. (lines 17-25)

Obviously we can see the heavy alliteration and rhyme, which would make for a sonically dense poem to begin with. But also consider how the enjambment creates tiny pauses right as we learn the pitch has fooled the batter. Just as the pitcher has played his foe like a fiddle, Swenson has the reader right where she wants them.

On the first day of class, I had my students write imitations of the various baseball poems we discussed, and “Analysis of Baseball” was the most popular model. Conceptually it lends itself to that exercise well, and it was quite fun to hear what happened when students allowed themselves to chase the sound while describing the sport of their choosing.

“Body and Soul” by B. H. Fairchild (link here)

One of my colleagues—a tip of the ol’ hat to J. P. Allen—sent me a link to this poem when I was first designing the course, and I’m forever grateful for that. Whereas Swenson’s poem homes in on how the game of baseball is played, B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul” concerns itself with why people bother playing it.

An extended narrative about working class men playing sandlot baseball in Oklahoma, “Body and Soul” is at once a humorous yarn and a meditation on the nature of masculinity. These grown men, short a player for a full team, allow a fifteen-year-old to join them. The kid, to their shock, proceeds to hit a whopping five home runs against them—turns out the kid was a young Mickey Mantle. It’s the exact sort of plausible-enough tall tale you’d expect to hear from your grandfather at barbecue.

But it’s the sections where Fairchild explores the psyches of his characters where the poem really comes to life. Why, the poem asks, did the men keep on pitching to Mantle when he kept taking them yard? It all comes down to foolish, self-destructive male pride:

…they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. (lines 97-102)

As a portrait of the everyday athlete, at once sympathetic and critical, “Body and Soul” is a difficult one to top.

“Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo (link to excerpt here)

In this story—originally published as a novella, later made into the prologue to his 1997 novel Underworld—Don DeLillo chronicles one of the most celebrated days in baseball history: October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thompson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and the New York Giants won the pennant over their arch-rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Every baseball fan knows about this game, but DeLillo’s story makes it fresh by mostly ignoring the game itself. Instead, his narrative focuses on the spectators at the Polo Grounds, and the personal struggles they’ve brought to the ballpark. We follow the likes of Cotter Martin, a boy from Harlem who’s snuck past the turnstiles to watch his beloved Giants; Russ Hodges, the Giants radio announcer getting a sore throat at the worst possible time; and J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director who’s just learned about a Soviet atom bomb test.

My students found this emphasis on the spectators fascinating. Most sports literature—for an obvious example, think “Casey at the Bat”—treats the crowd as a single character, a chorus of approval or disapproval. Not “Pafko at the Wall”: each member of the crowd has their own inner life, their own motivations and fears. It’s a difficult task, and it requires a lot of space (the story runs about 50 pages in my anthology of baseball writing), but it’s a challenge worth accepting.

Me, I’m always struck by how DeLillo, on the few occasions he actually talks about the game, chooses to emphasize moments of comic failure: Bobby Thompson getting thrown out a second, Don Mueller hurting himself sliding into third, etc. DeLillo saves the beautiful descriptions for the fans, especially Cotter. The passage in which the kid sneaks into the Polo Grounds is just exquisite:

Cotter thinks he sees a path to the turnstile on the right. He drains himself of everything he does not need to make the jump. Some are still jumping, some are thinking about it, some need a haircut, some have girlfriends in woolly sweaters and the rest have landed in the ruck and are trying to get up and scatter. A couple of stadium cops are rumbling down the ramp. Cotter sheds these elements as they appear, sheds a thousand waves of information hitting on his skin. His gaze is trained on the iron bar projected from the post. He picks up speed and seems to lose his gangliness, the slouchy funk of hormones and unbelonging and all the stammering things that seal his adolescence. He is just a running boy, a half-seen figure from the streets, but the way running reveals some clue to being, the way a runner bares himself to consciousness, this is how the dark-skinned kid seems to open to the world, how the bloodrush of a thousand strides brings him into eloquence. (p. 658, in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff, Library of America, 2002)

Even in the bleachers, “Pafko at the Wall” tells us, athletics is transformative in more ways that one.

“Roger Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace (link here)

A celebration of perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis, David Foster Wallace’s essay does to Federer what Don DeLillo does to Cotter Martin: use language to convey a moment of kinesthetic brilliance. “Federer Moments,” Wallace calls them, and they require almost as much virtuosity to describe as they do to perform.

Wallace’s technique of choice here is the long sentence, and I do mean long: a single-sentence rally between Federer and Andre Agassi, for instance, lasts for over 250 words before finally reaching a period. But this is no show of self-indulgence. Rather, Wallace uses the long sentence to illustrate all the complexities of tennis that a player must understand simultaneously and intuitively, and also to suggest the sheer stamina needed in top-flight tennis. If you get tired just reading about Federer’s exploits, just imagine actually doing them.

But the part of the essay that most interested my students, and ended up framing a lot the discussion in subsequent classes, was an almost-digressive paragraph on the language we use to describe sports. Sports are often thought of as simulations of war, and the pageantry surrounding them, especially men’s sports, bears that out:

[I]n men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their love of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

In part, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” is a corrective to this tendency in sports writing. It leads by example in praising the aesthetic qualities of a world-class athlete, asking us to see the emergent artwork in a point well-played. The world could certainly use more lyricism and less brute force, no?

Part II of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (link to slighlty edited version here)

I’ve briefly talked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen before, as part of my list of modern classics in poetry. In particular, I noted how much I admired Rankine’s decision to use John McEnroe as a Greek chorus to discuss the various injustices Serena Williams has faced on and off the court. So I won’t dwell on that specific craft choice here.

Instead, I’ll highlight the section’s use images, as the mere presence of photographs and video stills made Rankine’s piece unique within the class. Sometimes, Rankine’s chosen images provide visual evidence of the incidents she cites, most notably the photo which closes the section: Caroline Wozniacki “imitating” Williams by stuffing towels into her shirt and skirt. But other times, they illustrate a point that’s rather difficult to express verbally.

In my most unfortunate omission this intersession, I neglected to include the image credits in my scan of the piece. As such, my students weren’t sure what to make of the image of one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits: gaudily decorated performance art outfits that make a lot noise when worn. They are designed to call attention to the wearer’s body in a public space. Including the image of a Soundsuit provides a parallel to Williams’ position within the world of tennis: a black woman from Compton, standing in an historically white and wealthy space. Her body’s mere presence, Rankine suggests, calls attention to itself.

Someone whose image is notably absent from this section: Serena Williams. If that’s not a significant and deliberate choice, I don’t know what is.

Note: the version of this piece linked above lacks the embedded images that I’ve just been praising. Quite a shame, that. By all means, consider getting your hands on a physical copy.

“The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates (link here)

I’ll close with what is perhaps the most straightforward piece on this list. Taken from her collection of essays on boxing (titled, appropriately, On Boxing),“The Cruelest Sport” sees Joyce Carol Oates confronting the brutal realities of a sport she greatly enjoys. Boxing is not merely violent, like football—violence is part of boxing’s very essence, the intention of every fighter who enters the ring. Who can ethically justify watching a sport where the goal is not simply to win, but to cause one’s opponent to lose consciousness?

On top of the sport’s physical dangers, Oates doesn’t shy away from the socioeconomic conditions which underpin boxing. After all, what would drive someone to enter the world of prizefighting, if not economic necessity?

Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as means of eradicating boxing, that poverty itself be abolished, that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene.

This article resonated with a lot of my students, because the harmful effects of sports institutions extend far beyond the boxing establishment. The head trauma crisis in the NFL and the appalling response to sexual abuse in US women’s gymnastics are just two recent examples. Sports are useful to a writer not simply because they’re exciting, but because they offer us a lens through which to view society. How does a business treat its workers? How do institutions treat their most marginalized members?

That’s enough from me. How about you? Are there any pieces of sports literature that you think exemplify a compelling approach to the subject? Let me know in the comments.

Four Fragments on Nothing

Let me take you back, briefly, to late 2010.

My 12th-grade AP English teacher, Mr. LoGiudice, is out of school for reasons I can’t remember now, but he told us the day before he’d be absent. He’s left the substitute with a prompt that we’re to spend the entire period writing about. We just finished the unit on Shakespeare, so I’m expecting something related to Bard.

The substitute grabs a piece of chalk and, with a slightly confused manner about her, writes the prompt on the board, which I quote now in full:

Nothing.

There’s some laughter around the room, with a bit of disbelief mixed in. Who can possibly take this prompt seriously? Who can write an essay, even an awful SAT-style essay, on “nothing”? So I’m not sure anyone does. Certainly I don’t.

By this point in my life I have fancied myself a poet, by which I mean I like writing ballad-esque song lyrics and have been reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Poetry. As such, I decide to write a poem on nothing, a poem that interrogates the very concept of nothing.

It is, in something approaching an irony, the longest poem I have ever written up to this point: two pages written out, split into four sections. (That’s not actually very long, but I tend to cap out around 20-30 lines.) I throw in every approach to nothing I can think of. Allusions to Seinfeld, that show about nothing. Quotes from King Lear, where we’re admonished: “Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.” The brains of politicians, because nothing is easier than mocking politicians.

I turn it in. I feel good about it. I go on to include it in at least one of my college applications. And for the longest time, I think no more of it.

*     *     *

Now, the purpose of that prompt in the context of the class was to introduce the unit on existentialism and absurdism, on the search for meaning in a universe that has none. It was a way of transitioning us from Shakespeare to Sartre, from Edgar and Edmund to Vladimir and Estragon. We never, so far as I can recall, discussed what we wrote the day Mr. LoGiudice was absent.

Yet I feel that little poem I wrote must have had some impact on me, because “nothing” keeps popping up in my work. “Nothing” grows in the fields. Magicians hide “nothing” up their sleeves. I speak of “a thunderclap / that releases nothing.” There is “nothing” to be concerned about.

One construction, in particular, I’ve discovered I’m fond of: “nothing but.” It’s a curious phrase, highlighting the object being named by denying the reality of all other objects. It’s so brazen an approach that it always carries an air of absurdity. It also lends itself to undermining itself. One of my published poems, “Rural Sound Check,” begins like this:

Nothing but pebbles sliding
under my sneakers, nothing
but groundhogs and garter snakes
darting through leaves on the roadside…

These two phrases cannot be true simultaneously; each denies the other. The implication must be that what the speaker initially believes to be nothing is, in fact, something, many things even.

Compare that to John Brehm’s poem “Sound Check, Rural Manhattan,” which directly inspired mine. His begins not with a “Nothing but…,” but a “Just…”: “Just a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks…” Brehm’s speaker does not necessarily deny the existence of other sounds, merely their apparent significance. It is, perhaps, a more honest and nuanced way to approach his subject than I take. After all, when you begin as nihilist, there’s only one direction to go.

*     *     *

In The Wilds of Poetry: Adventures of Mind and Landscape, David Hinton describes the poetry of Gustaf Sobin like so:

A Sobin poem opens a “talk of mysteries,” a force field of wonder and query and unknowing. It begins somewhere already in process (often marked by ellipses), as if its beginnings were lost, thereby suffusing itself in silent/unsayable origin. It is often fragmentary, or otherwise fully of empty interstice. The language is always provisional, decontextualized, conditional, incomplete, full of words like as if, might, would, could. It revels in a vocabulary of vanishing: vestige, relic, obfuscated, elision, obliterated, nothing, extinguished, dismantled, empty, dissolving, invisible, illegible, abolished, nothing. (p. 290)

I’m not sure why Hinton feels the need to list the word “nothing” twice, but it illustrates the difficulty in writing about that which is mysterious or absent: we lack a good vocabulary for it. We end up speaking in negations (nothing, invisible, illegible) or in terms of destruction (dismantledabolished), rather than the continuous, affirmative presence that we might mean.

Granted, a creative poet can find ways around this problem of language. Sobin, for example, uses the power of the line-break to separate the prefix from the base word, allowing the word and its negation to exist simultaneously. One can see this in the poem “Languedoc,” with the phrase “that thin / il- / legible tremor” (lines 19-21). The tremor’s illegibility is made its most legible trait, rather than a problem we have in perceiving it.

But more often than not, in attempting to describe that which we call nothing, we’re left with abstraction, reiteration, and frustration. We may, after a time, feel like Prufrock: “That is not what I meant at all; / That is not it, at all.” Or, again, like Prufrock: “That is not it at all; / That is not what I meant, at all.”

*     *     *

I must confront the possibility that this post is a way of intellectualizing a personal fear of mine: have I nothing to say? Are my poems merely an excuse to string sounds and images together, with no recognizable end? Or do I have a subject, but lack the language to even think it, let alone record it?

A word I now realize is missing from Hinton’s analysis of Sobin: “doubt.” Why speak in a manner “provisional, decontextualized, conditional, incomplete,” why lead a poem with an “as if” or a “just,” why dismissively call these reflections “fragments,” why speak of “nothing” in the first place—if there is nothing to doubt?

A Top 5 List: Most Read Authors

Here’s another post inspired by a prompt from Shanah “The Bionic Bookworm” McCready: Top 5 Most Read Authors. This seems like a simple, objective list to compile: just check Goodreads and read off the results, right? Well, that will produce a list, and it is the list I went with. But there might be some wrinkles to it.

For example, I’ve a read number of omnibus collections of an author’s work, such as the complete poems of Rita Dove, Marianne Moore, and James Wright. Goodreads will count those as one book, even if they are really several individual books printed together. In absolute terms I’ve probably read more of Rita Dove than I have of some authors on this list. Yet there is something to be said about picking up a whole other volume from an author, reading more of their work with intent and not just because it happens to continue on the next page.

Moreover, my Goodreads stats only include books I’ve read since joining the site. That’s not a revelation, true, but it means that this list is skewed towards recent years. I know I read a whole bunch of Lemony Snicket and Donald J. Sobol books as a kid, but they’re not making it onto this list. Nor will this list account for re-readings. I’ve read 1984 five or six times by now, but that only gets George Orwell one point.

My point is: this list is not necessarily an accurate picture of my most read authors. But looking at it, it’s a damn fine roster, and if this list turns you on to just one of my favorite writers, then I’ll call it a victory.

 

Brenda Shaughnessy5) Brenda Shaughnessy
Technically, the No. 5 spot on this list should be a six-way tie, but that would be rather much to condense into one paragraph. So I made an editorial decision and went with my favorite writer of the bunch. I first encountered Shaughnessy’s verse in Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon, 2012), which draws from Tarot cards and cosmic space for its sprawling depictions of motherhood. Her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), on the other hand, leans heavily on a choppy but still musical prose rhythm for its pieces. But it was her most recent collection, So Much Synth (Copper Canyon, 2016) that made her a contemporary giant in my heart. Two poems in particular stand out: “A Mix Tape: ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’,” which painstakingly details the process of making a mix tape for a crush, and “Is There Something I Should Know?” an epic and absolutely piercing reflection on early adolescence.

 

Andrew Hudgins4) Andrew Hudgins
At its worst, formal poetry can read as stiff and needlessly antiquated. At its best, well, you get someone like Andrew Hudgins. I first encountered Hudgins’ poetry through his verse autobiography The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood (Mariner, 1994), which to this day is still my favorite high-concept collection of poems. Its make great use of received forms to convey a child’s moment-to-moment moods, for example, the boredom-inducing “Gospel Villanelle.” But Hudgins also knows that the creaking rhythms of formal poetry have the power to unsettle. His first collection, Saints and Strangers (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) contains the blank verse piece “Air View of an Industrial Scene,” which ends with the dire line, “We’re watchers. But if we had bombs we’d drop them.” Meanwhile Ecstatic in the Poison (Overlook, 2003) begins with “In,” a common-measure ballad about kids playing in the clouds of pesticide trucks. No matter the form or the subject, Hudgins’ work is sure to prick at your nerves.

 

Shakespeare3) William Shakespeare
If this list were based on my lifetime reading habits, the Bard would take first place, and it wouldn’t be all that close. Both for classes and for pleasure, I always find myself going back to Shakespeare, and—no surprise here—he keeps getting better and better. I recently re-read Richard II, for example, and found the title character’s eloquence even more pointed and haunting than I’d remembered it. (Seriously, the “hollow crown” speech is my favorite bit from Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre.) The past few years, I’ve aimed to fill in my personal gaps in the Shakespeare canon, so I’ve read a couple of clunkers like Two Gentleman of Verona and Henry VIII. But I’ve also read such hidden gems as Troilus and Cressida, which is so cynical and war-weary you’d think it was the product of the World War I poets. You obviously don’t need me to tell you to read your Shakespeare, but for real: read your Shakespeare.

 

Larry Levis2) Larry Levis
When I first started taking creative writing classes in undergrad, I quickly realized something: my knowledge of poetry ended at around 1900. In a panic, I dove into the library stacks to fix that, and one poet in particular captivated me: Larry Levis. From the tightly controlled similes found in Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), to the sweeping, digressive reflections that make up The Widening Spell of the Leaves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), to the stark confrontations with mortality that mark his posthumous collections: Levis’s work is always compelling. While, if I’m honest, my own writing most resembles that of Hudgins’, Levis is the writer here I most wish I could emulate, but simply lack the skill to do so. Who else could take the phrase, “Death blows his little fucking trumpet,” and make it work in not one but two completely different poems?

 

Ursula K. Le Guin1) Ursula K. Le Guin
Where do I even begin / with Ursula K. Le Guin? Perhaps with the masterful world-building found in her science fiction novels. Perhaps with the introspective tone that characterizes the Earthsea Cycle books. Perhaps with the fact that her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series is literally the only series of books I have ever read in its entirety. Perhaps with her poetry, or her advice on the craft of writing. Not only do I keep going back to Le Guin, I keep going back to her in different genres and contexts. I’ve never read Shakespeare’s narrative poetry, or Levis’s short fiction, but Le Guin? Hell, I’d read a history of sandwich toothpicks if she were the one writing it. For some representative books, I’d check out The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace, 1969), The Tombs of Atuan (Atheneum, 1971, second Earthsea Cycle book), and Voices (Harcourt, 2007, second Annals of the Western Shore book). But start wherever you’d like. You’re in for a treat.

So there’s my Top 5. Does your list have any overlap with mine? Are there any authors here you’ve not read before but would like to check out? Let me know in the comments.

Living Like the Reeds: Aesop and Ammons

Let us begin with a simple image: reeds blowing in the breeze. In the hands of a painter, we have the beginnings of a new landscape. In the hands of a filmmaker, a calm opening shot.

In the hands of a writer, the seeds of a practical philosophy.

Aesop famously uses this image of wind-blown reeds in one of his fables, “The Oak and the Reeds.” As translated by Vernon Jones, the story goes like this:

An Oak that grew on the bank of a river was uprooted by a severe gale of wind, and thrown across the stream. It fell among some Reeds growing by the water, and said to them, “How is it that you, who are so frail and slender, have managed to weather the storm, whereas I, with all my strength, have been torn up by the roots and hurled into the river?” “You were stubborn,” came the reply, “and fought against the storm, which proved stronger than you. But we bow and yield to every breeze, and thus the gale passed harmlessly over our heads.”

The Oak and the Reed

In his introduction to the Barnes & Noble Classics edition of Aesop’s Fables, D. L. Ashliman says that this fable may well be “the capstone to the pragmatic moral philosophy of Aesop” (xxix). Time and again, the fables instruct us to accept our circumstances, whatever they may be, rather than railing against them; examples include “The Ass and His Masters” (“Why wasn’t I content to serve either of my former masters…now I shall come in the end to the tanning vat”) and “The Crab and the Fox” (“I had no business to leave my natural home by the sea…”).

Yet it is “The Oak and the Reeds” that presents Aesop’s brand of pragmatism in its most generally applicable terms. The wind stands in for any obstacle or hardship that one may face, not just one’s station in life. Low or high, weak or strong, everyone encounters a strong gale at some point. The best that one can do, it would seem, is go along with such events, rather than resisting them and breaking down.

Had Aesop not predated them by a good three centuries, I would be tempted to group him with the Stoics, who advised taking a similar approach to hardship. Consider the following passage from the Enchiridion, Epictetus’s manual for Stoic living:

If you are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, “I will now go bathe, and keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature.” And in the same manner, with regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it ready to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.”

Epictetus’ bather could get worked up regarding the unpleasant behavior of his fellow citizens, could stand as stubborn as the oak. But their actions are outside his control. Better that he accord his will with nature, bending in the breeze like the reeds, and take the behavior of others as a given. He will thus keep his own mind untroubled.

Certainly this is prudent advice. So long as the difficulties concern you and you alone, it is difficult to refute. Indeed, whenever I read the likes of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, I find myself wishing I had their cool and dispassionate resolve.

But suppose the breeze is something more than a personal obstacle. Suppose it’s something which affects a large swath of society: an authoritarian government, or systemic injustice. To bend like the reeds, as the Stoics would suggest, may well make an individual’s life more bearable. But it does little for everyone as a collective. One might say that the lives of fellow sufferers are as beyond our control as those of the oppressors, and at any rate we lack the power to actually resist. But I feel that merely rationalizes passivity.

For comparison, let us turn from Ancient Greece to the 20th-century United States. “Small Song,” a short poem by A. R. Ammons, also uses the image of reeds bending in the breeze. In its entirety, it reads:

The reeds give
way to the

wind and give
the wind away.

I plan on doing a full dissection of the poem in a later post, but for now let’s note the difference between Ammons’s and Aesop’s reeds. For the fabulist, the wind acts upon the reeds and not the other way around. Indeed, the reeds only ever act by lecturing the oak for not letting the wind act upon it. For the poet, the apparent passivity of the reeds is in fact an action. Their bending makes it obvious that the wind is present.

What do we make of Ammons’s twist on the reed image? Considered in isolation, it is a pleasing little paradox, a short sentence dense with potential meaning. Considered in the context of Aesop’s fable, though, and one might find a message about resistance. Absorbing the wind’s abuse consequently makes it visible. Think of the specific phrase “give / the wind away.” To be given away, one must be trying to hide something, to sneak it by without notice. Those reeds, because they bend, prevent that from happening.

Sure, when the oak falls to the banks, it does so with a great crash. But reeds do not bend in silence; they flap and rustle, and they do so for as long as the wind is blowing. The oak’s resistance leads to one loud crunch, and then nothing. The reeds, on the other hand, will not be silenced until the wind is silenced. Unlikely heroes though they may be, they resist, and they endure.