Conducted by Jonathan Hobratsch & Agon Haroldson
Welcome to Round 1, Game 2 of Poetry April Madness: the Sporting Event of Poets. If you are unsure of the rules of this game, then you can check them out here. For the results of Game 1, you can click here.
Check out the results for this second game of round 1 below:
The Terza Rimas (Wendell Berry, Richard Howard, Ezra Pound, Ben Mazer, Stephen Dunn, Anne Waldman, Dorothea Lasky, Ron Silliman, Laura Riding)
The Metonymys (Louise Bogan, Linda Gregerson, Frank O’Hara, Jericho Brown, Erin Belieu, James Wright, Albert Goldbarth, JD McClatchy, Jerome Rothenberg)
The Poem Match ups:
Stephen Dunn “Sweetness”
Frank O’Hara “Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed]”
AH: No doubt, this first poem by Stephen Dunn must be about Walter Payton, former running back for the Chicago Bears, who’s nickname “Sweetness” was a testament to his impressive agility, which like poetry, is, thus, deserving of poetry.
AH: Let’s move on to Stephen Dunn.
JH: [Reads the poem] This is a lovely poem in tercets. I hope I’m not misreading it, but I think the poem is somewhat about the superficiality of what being sweet does, as well as the dark source from where it comes. Especially, in tragic situations, the nicety is never enough. Let’s look at this tercet, “I acknowledge there is no sweetness/ that doesn’t leave a stain,/ no sweetness that’s ever sufficiently sweet …” The ellipsis marks the turn in the poem, and what’s before the ellipsis is in fact the summary for the rest of the poem, I think. A friend’s lover has been killed in an accident. Our powerlessness in the time of another’s grief is shown through, “…and I repeated/ the one or two words we have for such grief/ until we were speaking only in tones.” Words, the stuff of poetry, does not suffice for “such grief.” Sweetness enters ,”as if on loan,” and stays “just long enough/ to make sense of what it means to be alive.” As if like a bee pollinating a situation, sweetness returns to its hive, or its “dark source” as Dunn calls it. The sweetness was birthed by tragedy, as some good things are. Powerful poem.
AH: Can Frank O’Hara top that?
JH: O’Hara’s got a lot more name recognition, but partially because he’s a fun poet. As we saw with the Alfred Corn and John Hollander match up yesterday, the fun poems fall to the tragic poems. I’d like to explain why I think this is, but I don’t have time.
AH: Yes, we don’t. We have to keep going.
JH: [Reads] Yes. And this poem is a fun poem, and not O’Hara’s best fun poem, but still a good one.
AH: So Dunn wins?
JH: Yes, but let me talk about this one. I really like O’Hara’s comparison of traffic to the hailstorm that he’s apparently witnessing — “…I was in such a hurry/ to meet you but the traffic/ was exactly like the sky”. As in many O’Hara poems, the lack of punctuation and pauses, coupled with the occasional all-caps (“LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!”) and his fast-paced imagery, place the reader in his hyper-active and chaotic world. O’Hara might be THE poet of New York, because he best captures the movements and the anxiety of the place. The reader is with O’Hara as he’s simultaneously dodging traffic and hail. O’Hara doesn’t collapse, but he sees a headline that Lana Turner has, presumably at a party, where she was free of the dangerous elements of nature. As I think about the poem, I’m thinking these poems are about equally as strong. The child-like enthusiasm of O’Hara’s poem grows to maturity once you realize what he’s doing.
AH: But Dunn still wins.
JH: I don’t know. I’ll say Dunn. I think the last line of O’Hara’s poem is kind of….unnecessary and dumb (or insert other Donald Trump insult).
AH: Terza Rimas are first on the board.
Result: Dunn def. O’Hara
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 0
Ron Silliman “from You, part 1”
James Wright “A Blessing”
JH: The first time I heard of Ron Silliman, I saw him on a poetry card (similar to a baseball card) at a booth on Governor’s Island. He’s a widely respected poetry activist. In his poem, which I assume he wrote in a coffee shop, he seems to be reflecting on war, World War II is my guess, and a war involving grammar within the coffee shop. The poem takes us on a journey of images painted to set the poet’s tone, “A lone ship defines the horizon. The rain is not safe to drink” and “The rose lies unattended, wild thorns at the edge of a mass grave.” I’ll often gravitate to a poem for the fragments of images that it contains rather than for what the entire poem might mean. A poem, for instance, might exist solely for “The rose lies unattended.” Somehow, the rest of the poem is necessary to see this rose in its environment, and would lose power if the poem was just a blank page with “The rose lies unattended.” Although, that could work, too, depending on what was on the preceding page and after it. From the talk of mass graves, Silliman moves us inside the coffee shop to young men, presumably free of a future mass interment and too young to think too often about fate. They fight over pronouns while caffeinated. I like the final image of the dog and bicycle equally chained up outside the coffee shop. It’s Winter, so the dogs is left out in the cold and the bicycle is chained to a no parking sign. I assume the grammarian in the coffee shop, if the dog and bicycle belong to him, or even if they are not, is more focused on sentence structure than the condition of the dog or the parked bicycle. The poem is like a painting.
AH: Next is James Wright with his often anthologized poem.
JH: Yeah. There’s an upside and a downside for a poet going into April Poetry Madness with a all-too-well-known poem. The upside is that it can potentially obliterate the competition. The downside is that I could have read the poem so many times that the novelty of a new worthy poem could go against the masterpiece poem.
AH: On to James Wright. Lest we run out of time. I am old. I could die any moment.
JH: [Reads] Yes. This poem could still break most other poems into blossom. It’s a free verse, pastoral poem about one of those fragile and perfect experiences that happen all too infrequently in life. Two horses appear to the narrator and his friend. The horses love each other and seem happy to greet the humans. Two lines that get me are, “They love each other./ There is no loneliness like theirs.” It’s beautiful, but I am perplexed by what is meant. It’s in the present tense and it is about the horses. The horses have each other, love each other, but they are alone, and there is no loneliness like this. The two men, don’t know the horses, since they are never addressed by name or with any familiarity. Two men and two horses find each other, and build some sort of spiritual bond as strangers. The moment seems like moment before Adam and Eve had been cast out of Eden. Purity, idealism, beauty and love is on display. We watch something unusual and lovely. The ending, well known, is, “And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear/ That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist./ Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into Blossom.” While one with the horse and nature, the narrator feels unnatural to his surrounding. He’s held delicately in place to the heavenly world around him. The experience is spiritual and Edenesque.
AH: Who win?
JH: Wright. Silliman’s poem was worthy competition, though.
Result: Wright def. Silliman
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 1
Anne Waldman “The Lie”
Jerome Rothenberg “A Glass Tube Ecstasy”
JH: Waldman’s poem is a villanelle , which is a style I find leads to forced lines and forced rhymes. It’s nearly impossible to do it well. It might work with humorous poetry.
AH: Oh, a vaudvillanelle!
JH: Exactly, old fashioned slapstick in strict poetic form.
AH: Does Waldman pull off her serious villanelle.
JH: It’s definitely one of the better villanelle’s I’ve read. It reminds me so much of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art,” which I think might be the best English-language villanelle. The most prominent repeating line in Waldman’s poem is “Art begins with a lie,” which is a great line to start with. Followed by what I assume is the disconnect between artist, art-lover and the art itself, and then it continues with what the poem thinks art is, despite what we might want it to be. I like the ending, “You fluctuate in an artful body/ You try to imitate the world’s glory/ Art begins with a lie/ That’s the story, sharp speck in the eye.” Villanelle’s are generally discombobulating to me, because I feel like I’m being spun around and the lines can sometimes come off as unhelpful non-sequiturs, but Waldman is able to making much of the villanelle flow naturally.
AH: Ok, on to Rothenberg’s poem now.
JH: Ok. [Reads] First off, before I continue reading this. Any poem dedicated to comic Dada poet Hugo Ball is going to be liked by me by the dedication alone. On the downside, should this poem prove to imitate Hugo Ball, a Dada poem cannot win a poetry competition. I say this while having great respect and love for the Dadas.
AH: Move along.
JH: [Reads] Wow, this is actually quite well done. It’s semi-biographical about Hugo Ball and the Dada experience. It seems to be using lines from Ball’s work within the poem. Rothenberg is able to make the eccentric, the unwanted, and the non-understandable into a personal song that can be respected for what it is. I think this poem can stand as a defense for all poets formerly opposed to Hugo Ball. I think the pissing in the sink part might actually be an anecdote about W. H. Auden, but maybe they both did that.
AH: Did we forget Auden in these match ups?
JH: Yeah, we did. I think it’s because he’s usually placed as a British poet.
AH: Who wins this match up?
JH: I think most people would like Waldman’s poem more. I’m going to support Rothenberg’s poem. This is strictly from bias. I find villanelles generally off-putting; although, she does a fabulous job in one of the strictest forms. I also have a soft spot for Dada, history and biography. I did expect a Hugo Ball inspired poem to be a dud, but Rothenberg took me by surprise. It gets very interesting and captivating later one, as Dada language is gradually thrown into the poem, signifying the “collapse of language.” The poem ends with the impossible, but beautiful line of, “a priestly gas pump/pulls/her hair out.”
Result: Rothenberg def. Waldman
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 2
Richard Howard “Like Most Revelations”
Louise Bogan “Medusa”
JH: I’ve only seen Richard Howard read his dramatic monologues. I think I’ve only read his dramatic monologues. So I find it surprising that the top poem in the Google search was not a dramatic monologue.
AH: I like the two titles of these poems, and I’d like to merge them into one–“Like Most Revelations: Medusa.”
JH: This reminds me of a fortune cookie that said, “Avoid Medusa.”
AH: Anyway, we should get started.
JH: [reads] The poem is “after Morris Louis,” a c. 1950s painter who is known for painting color stripes on blank canvases. Color fields, actually. Knowing who Morris Louis is actually helps in understanding this poem. Every other line is “It is the movement that _____ the form,” and then fill in the blank with words like incites, delights, achieves, creates, etc. Each line is like a color of Louis’s color field. As a color has a personality or mood, so does each line. While each line is about the same, just as each line of color is shaped the same, the one word adds color to the line, the color adds color to the painted line. Overall, the poem used Morris Louis in form and as example to sustain the end line of “It is the movement that creates the form.”
AH: Now let’s look at Medusa.
JH: [Reads] This poem is much, much larger than Howard’s. Howard wrote a technically perfect poem, but Bogan’s has LIFE, even when it is frozen. “Sun and reflection wheels by,”as it does, and as it must. Medusa’s head is shown to the narrator through a window. Then we get, “This is a dead scene forever now./ Nothing will ever stir./ The end will never brighten it more than this,/ Nor the rain blur.” And the next stanza, which must be added, “The water will always fall, and will not fall,/ And the tipped bell makes no sound./ The grass will always be growing for hay/ Deep on the ground.” This poem could slay 200 poets in April Poetry Madness. Unless I’m misreading it, Medusa has frozen an entire vicinity. Time and life are reflected loudly in its paralysis.
AH: Does Bogan win?
JH: Bogan wins.
Result: Bogan def. Howard
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 3
Ezra Pound “In a Station of the Metro”
Linda Gregerson “The Selvage”
JH: As Harold Bloom rightly says, Ezra Pound is a better translator than an original poet. However, I am one of those people that actually likes his Cantos. I think they’re far better than this poem, which is inspired by Eastern poetry. It’s nice, but that’s about it.
AH: That’s it?
JH: Yeah. I’ve never reacted to it, even when I first read it in undergrad. I can’t see Linda Gregerson losing to Pound.
AH: Would Pound’s poem defeat Vachel Lindsay’s “Lincoln” poem from yesterday?
JH: Yes. Only because there is at least some mystery to think about.
AH: Let’s move on to Gregerson.
JH: [Reads] This poem is about as opposite from Pound’s as you can get. It’s a longer poem, three parts. I’ll just stick with part one. A selvage is the handmade edge of cloth. I like the first part of the poem the best. I think it’s referring to the 2008 election. A family from North Carolina mentions that they will vote for the unnamed African-American candidate in the poem. When responding, the narrator is becomes aware that the family isn’t using the term they generally use for black people. Somehow, this realization that they’re cloaking their political incorrectness, or evolving into racial tolerance, instills optimism that their candidate, presumably Barack Obama, will win. It should be noted that he won North Carolina in 2008. Gregerson wins here.
Result: Gregerson def. Pound
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 4
Dorothea Lasky “Love Poem”
Jericho Brown “Hustle”
AH: Metonymys are already just one win away from winning the entire round.
JH: [Reads] This poem has a nice imagery between snowflakes and the inner soul. The soul in this is sometimes expressed similarly to what one may think of as a ghost. Except for lingering, it thrusts away from the body at a terrible velocity. Like snowflakes, no soul is perfectly alike. With no perfect likenesses, there can’t be a perfect snowflake. There are no perfect souls either. Lasky brings up colors–the white of bed sheets and of a cardinal that flies out the window. We see them in their perfect color, because we cannot see it otherwise. However, as we learn that souls are imperfect and off-color, and that the cardinal is perhaps representative of her lover’s soul, then we can only go back, discoloring bedsheets and bird. She is initially drawn to her lover, for having a perfect soul, before she realizes souls are not perfect. For whatever reason, she moves from her own relationship. I had expected her to either notice the imperfect nature of her lover, or to somehow defend the imperfect nature. Anyway, next image. A man dies at a funeral, “Once at a funeral, a man had died”. The man’s soul, races out of the body, as if it had willed its human to die just so it could leave the funeral. We do not get to know the man, but we get the image of its soul–strange and double funny. The death is also strange and double funny. The soul blows away like a snowflake, and the spectators, able to see the souls, felt cold. The soul is winter, or the leaving of a soul is. Soul because a sensory feeling. The wintry soul is very ghost like. Poetry redefines.
AH: Let’s check out Jericho Brown.
JH: [Reads] This poem is a powerful ghazal about prison and social commentary about prison. He mentions Dwayne Betts, a poet who wrote a book about coming of age in prison. He also makes mention of Love Jones and how in the movie the lead characters dance, “as if none of them have a brother in prison.” The poem is a commentary, but it is touching and tragic. We see the desires of those imprisoned. The police are shown suffocating sharks by pulling them out of the water. The visual here is that the cops might be more dangerous and more dastardly than the sharks. Overall, the poem makes clear that for one part of society prison is a part of life, whether one is ever themselves imprisoned or not. For another part of society, presumably white people, prison is so detached from reality that prison is rarely used in their literature, even when the story is about someone that is mentally ill. Jericho Brown, naming himself in the ghazal, as one does in ghazals, ends the poem by saying he left his birth name for a name he earned in prison, Jericho Brown. The poem, like Dwayne Betts’s book, might be a coming of age in prison poem. Jericho Brown earned his name and he’s proud of it. This is a very personal poem, and all his heart is in it.
AH: We have to hurry. Who wins?
JH: I wish I could give ties in this, because it would be a tie. Honestly, as a white man that has never known anyone in prison, I’d feel guilty for passing over Jericho Brown’s great poem just because I can’t wholly identify with his experience and the experience of people that he knows well. He obviously builds my awareness in this experiential gap of mine and for that I am thankful.
AH: This means the Metonymys will go on to round 2. We will continue with the rest of the matchups nonetheless.
Result: Brown def. Lasky
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 5
Ben Mazer “Crisping the Comedian C”
Erin Belieu “The Body is a Big Sagacity”
JH: The title of the poem probably means it has a connection to Wallace Stevens’s “The Comedian as the Letter C.” [Reads]
AH: Is it?
JH: Mazer’s poems are always so epic! So many of them should be made into short films that are narrated or something. Yes, in Stevens’s poem, Crispin goes on a Western Hemisphere voyage for his own self-discovery. Mazer uses the word “crisping,” which makes me think of cooking. The origin of the word is “crispus” meaning “curled.” Like an epic, the poem begins “in medias res” (in the middle of the action), starting of with “And with my sword cane I rapped the dog on its head.” In one sentence we get a clear picture of the kind of person the voice of the poem is. While Stevens’s poems is a journey through the Americas for a self-discovery, I think Mazer’s poem is an otherworldly journey, probably underworldly. If inspired by Stevens, I get a lot of Milton in it as well. Milton, if he had a sense of humor. I hope I’m not misreading this, but the narrator in the poem seems to be a kind of steam-punk Lucifer, carrying a sword cane and dying his hair green, who eventually reverts back into a human. I think it was all a vision. He says, as human, “My soul was stirred, and hungered to be reviled,/ revived and furnished . . .” This implies two things. First, he wasn’t previously reviled, but now he wants to be after receiving the vision. Secondly, he had had a soul, since it wants to be revived. It is unclear whether the previous soul was also a reviled soul. If there is a connection to Stevens’s poem, I think, other than some Stevens-like lines, then I think it is the narrator’s self-discovery through his own visions/otherworldly experience. Sometimes Mazer’s poems require more than one reading to get the gist of things.
AH: We need to move on to the other poem.
JH: I feel half-competent in my reaction to Mazer’s poem, but move on we must. [Reads] Belieu’s poem comes from a line from Nietzsche, and she quotes lines from him towards the end. I’ve not read very much of him. Once again we have a match up between starkly different kinds of poems. Mazer’s poem is otherworldly to me. It is Mazer’s imagination. Belieu’s poem is very much of this world. The setting is a Costco parking lot, and the poem meditates on Nietzsche’s line in light of the narrator’s observations in the parking lot. In this way, anyone can visualize Belieu’s poem with very little effort. Mazer’s poem requires us to gather the information from Mazer’s head and then process it accurately enough to decode what he is saying. In poetry, I’m usually attracted to the fantastical and epic, which seems to be out of style, sadly. This is because I go to literature to escape the real world.
AH: Does this mean Mazer’s poem wins?
JH: Not necessarily, since I’m voting on which poem is the stronger poem. I think Belieu’s poem is much cleaner and user-friendly. Mazer, who is the type of guy who can write 100 poems in a day like Lope de Vega, is sometimes less polished, but he’s often more lyrical because of all the practice he’s had day by day. Mazer is like the last modernist, which is a compliment. I don’t want to make a decision.
AH: We have two more match ups to get through.
JH: I’ll go with Belieu, because Mazer’s poem feels as if it is part of a sequence of poems, at least three, which I very much want to read, by the way. It is also very possible, that given my time constraints that I’ve misread the poem, and by missing the point, I’m losing much of its magic. Belieu’s poem is very understandable. I don’t have to re-read it. As someone generally disinterested in poems about mundane life, such as a visit to Costco, even when made more interesting with philosophy, I would say I personally like the world of Mazer’s poem more. Yet, Belieu wins because it is the more complete and stronger poem today. Perhaps, the ruling could be reversed on another day. Overall, both poets have poems I enjoy better; however, Google search shows that these two must be popular.
Result: Belieu def. Mazer
Current Score: Terza Rimas 1 Metonymys 6
Laura Riding “The Wind Suffers”
JD McClatchy “Resignation”
AH: Metonymys are destroying the competition.
JH: Well, the wind suffers, too. I first heard about Laura Riding through a book of criticism by John Ashbery. [Reads] The title comes from the first line. The narrator suffers from being what she is, just as wind, sea and fire suffer from being anything at all. She suffers from living, and I would assume of the capability of thinking. Stone, light and birds, suffer from what makes them stone, light and birds, as she, too, suffers from what makes her her. She precedes with stanzas of rhetorical questions that seem Biblical in their beauty and alien in their syntax, “How for the wilful blood to run/ More salt-red and sweet-white?/ And how for me in my actualness/ To more shriek and more smile?” Her refusal to use standard grammar and syntax are important to the poem, I think. The suffers from being, so by doing so, she either is avoiding being what she ought to be, or she is habitually uniquely syntaxed and is suffering for being so, since she is analogous to things suffering exactly for what make them each what they are, such as a bird suffering for having wings. The poem reads like the Old Testament merged with a Gnostic text.
AH: Let’s move to McClatchy.
JH: It’s going to be hard to beat Riding’s poem, because it’s definitely a true original. Anyway…[reads] He quotes Willa Cather, regarding how trees seem resigned to how they have to live. They poem merely lives out the quote. It gives us a unique perspective of the life of trees underground. A good angle, considering we often only thing about the parts of trees we see, when the roots are deep. The roots are shown as “the tangled grievances” of trees, which are concealed by earth. They resign themselves to being unconcerned of their situation or the life around them. It’s a nice poem, not overtly difficult.
AH: Your verdict.
JH: Definitely, Laura Riding. It’s shame her team isn’t continuing forward.
Result: Riding def. McClatchy
Current Score: Terza Rimas 2 Metonymys 6
Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things”
Albert Goldbarth “Library”
AH: Berry needs a win here to make his team’s defeat somewhat respectable.
JH: [Reads] It’s a poem with a deep spiritual tone, a poem for meditation and tranquility, “I come into the peace of wild things/ who do not tax their lives with forethought/ of grief. I come into the presence of still water./ And I feel above me the day-blind stars/waiting for their light…” It’s beautiful. The anxiety of the narrator dissipates in the beauty of his own language.
AH: On to Goldbarth.
JH: Ok. [Reads] This is one of those list poems, I forget the technical name for the term. “This book” repeats as the first part of each stanza. It reads as someone going through their entire library and giving a brief summary of each book, often in how it relates to his life of how the book looks or smells. He includes his MFA thesis. It’s a funny poem. “And this book can’t be written yet; it’s author isn’t born yet./ This book is going to save the world.” It inspires me to write one myself, but I don’t think its a better poem than Berry’s poem.
AH: Alas, the great Berry won’t continue to round 2 despite his victory.
Result: Berry def. Goldbarth
Final Score: Terza Rimas 3 Metonymys 6
A tough defeat for the Terza Rimas, nearly every one of their poets were deserving of moving on.
The Metonymys with Louise Bogan, Linda Gregerson, Frank O’Hara, Jericho Brown, Erin Belieu, James Wright, Albert Goldbarth, JD McClatchy, Jerome Rothenberg, will move on to round 2.