Thursday, April 29, 2010

Wilco / Invisible Poetry / Forthcoming absence

Went to Wilco last night at the Town Hall. They played a two and a half hour set, not counting the encore, and kept a pretty consistent level of energy and quality throughout. That's quite a feat.


I know I was supposed to post a pantoum on Tuesday. I thought about it, but then I thought, wouldn’t it be more interesting to try and create my own poetic form.  Then I thought that’s a bit presumptious.  Then I thought what if I came up with some parameters and let the roll of the dice determine the specifics (number of lines, the rhyme scheme etc).  Then I found this site which lets you create poems based on tons of different forms. Then I saw it was aimed mostly at kids and decided I needed some time away from the computer.


Speaking of time away, I leave early on Saturday morning for the States.  Doing a two week road trip from San Francisco, through Yosemite, King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and ending up in Vegas.  Should be pretty sweet.  Will report back in due course, but it means it’ll be quiet here for a bit.  And I’ll summarise my April and May reading in the one post at the end of next month.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

High Time for High Violet?

[The National's new album, High Violet, comes out next month, but you can listen now at the New York Times]

The last album I truly loved and listened to obsessively was The National's Boxer.  This album came out in 2007, but I didn't get into it until 2008.  Still, that means it's been two years since I lost my head for an album.  In a way this is sad, perhaps even tragic.  I'm sure there have been great albums that have come out since Boxer (and a million great albums pre-2007/8 that I still haven't heard) but I seem to have lost the energy it takes to find new music, develop an audiocrush, and thrash an album.

It's aging, isn't it?  Once upon a time your parents liked new music, they went to concerts, they bought records (some of them still seem cool -- Astral Weeks, Trout Mask Replica -- some seem beyond redemption -- Crime of the Century, Hot Chocolate).  But at some point they stopped welcoming new bands into their record collection and settled for searching the bargain bins for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich or Elton John's Greatest Hits.

So here I am, twenty-seven, working a desk job with dreams of saving a deposit for a house, trying to write the great American Kiwi novel short story villanelle at night, and there just isn't the time to buy/download/acclimatise to new bands and albums.


Perhaps it won't be permanent.  I'm conscious of my static music collection, and hope to do something about it.  I hope there'll be another album that I'll listen to thiurty times in thirty days.  Perhaps it will be The National's new album, High Violet?

The album is streaming here in advance of it's full release in May.

I've listened to it once, but it's hard to say if I'll make space for it in my life the way I did for Boxer.  All of The National's previous albums, and their individuals songs, were growers, improving with each listen, worming their way into your head. With Matt Berninger's flat baritone it takes a few listens for the lyrics to sink in.  And all that repetition: I can understand how some people would write these songs off as boring dirges...

So it's not surprising that I wasn't grabbed often on my first listen to 'High Violet'.  'Bloodbuzz Ohio' is fantastic -- perhaps it's the new 'Mistaken For Strangers' (but I suspect it will never speak to me like MFS did...
you wouldn’t want an angel watching over
surprise, surprise they wouldn’t wannna watch
another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults
You can download 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' for free here and decide for yourself).

'Lemonworld' and 'England' are cool on a first listen too.  But what about the first two tracks?  Perhaps I didn't like them so much because I was distracted by the feature on the band (on the same page as the album stream) by Nicholas Dawidoff, which is beyond poorly written, to begin with at least...
He [Matt Berninger, the band's vocalist] is tall, with a sturdy jib, cool blue eyes, a three-day reddish blond beard and enough lead-singer swagger to hold his own among all those siblings.
Especially tenacious are Bryce and Aaron, sideburned former Cincinnati high-school soccer midfielders. More laid-back are the Devendorfs; each can half-disappear behind his large eyeglasses even though one is strikingly lean and lanky (Bryan), while the other is strikingly spare of pate (Scott).
Maybe one reason I've ebbed away from new music is I can no longer stomach the sort of music journalism where people write things like "a migraine disaffection was spreading"?

It couldn't contrast more with the Berninger's lyrics which are both dense and simple.  It's rare to find a metaphor or a word you wouldn't use in conversation, and yet it's unlike any conversation you'd ever have ("I was carried to Ohio in a storm of bees...").  It doesn't surprise me his notebook is all over the place:

In writing this post, I've listened to 'High Violet' another time through, and it's already growing on me. But I think I'll leave the stream alone for now and wait to buy the album in May.

I can't promise 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' won't pop up on my iTunes, though, and that I won't hit repeat...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sport 38: Fresh in my hot little hands

Nothing better, after a week of long hours working for an ever-shrinking public service, to get home and find a courier post parcel in the letter box.  Today it was my contributor's copy of Sport 38.

And as a bonus, there was a thick brown envelope containing James Brown's B.S. Johnson-y poem-in-cue-cards 'Popocatepetl', with drawings by Anastasia Doniants:

Lot's to do to get ready for my San Fran to Vegas road trip, plus I have to do a manuscript review for Whitirea... but why not commit now to a Sport summary in my April Reading in Review post?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Tuesday Villanelle

The Villanelle: A 19 line poem consisting of five tercets and a quatrain, two rhyme sounds and two refrains at specified intervals.

That’s a lot of rules to take in. I always find it easier to read an example of the form first, and work back to the rules from there. Why not listen to Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ and see how lines one and three recur throughout and make up the final couplet.

Here are some more good examples of the form:
'The Waking' by Theodore Roethke
'Villanelle of change' by Edwin Arlington Washington
'Mad girl's love song' by Sylvia Plath

If you want to read my attempt at a villanelle, you can scroll down, but I don't think it's fair to place it so close to successful poems.  This is the third week I’ve tried out a new poetic form. First it was the triolet (another form strong on refrains and limited rhymes), and last week it was the sparser cinquain. It just so happens that this month of public poetic experimentation coincides with an utter dearth of inspiration on my part. I’ve been thinking about the villanelle for two weeks now, keeping my ears peeled for useful lines, but as I sat down to write this weekend I had diddly squat.

I tried some automatic writing, but became bogged down in my hatred of agapanthus. (I thought for a moment I could start a villanelle with ‘The berms are strewn with agapanthus dying’, but failed to find a second line...).

Next I wrote out a poem by a well known NZ poet and inserted my own lines between each of the existing ones.  Then I removed the originals. This exercised netted me one line that seemed to have potential (‘How easily we slip into familiar modes’), which I managed to finagle into my first villanelle. It was not good enough to share, but here’s the final quatrain:
Count up all of the unexplored roads
And weigh this against the life you've led:
How easily we to slip into familiar modes
When we are dressed in comfortable clothes.
This line about comfortable clothes reminded me of a poem I had written previously as part of a sequence based on Hamlet’s soliloquies.  I'd used Google translate to mangle the lines and remade poems based on the best mistranslations. In one Hamlet was a union rep speaking at a rally; another a real estate agent. I turned the soliloquy that begins "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt," into ‘Hamlet at the Graduation’ – with Hamlet playing the role of successful alum delivering an inspirational speech at a school prizegiving.  The last two lines were:
Cling to life, but die before entering the hospital,
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe!
Hmm, I thought, having bashed out the familiar modes/comfortable clothes villanelle, perhaps I could turn this trust your wardrobe shtick into a proper villanelle?

Hamlet at the Graduation

Scholars, I bring you lessons from around the globe:
cling to life, but die before entering the ward,
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe!

He who limits weakness and like a claustrophobe
veers little from his strengths will not be adored,
scholars: I bring you lessons from around the globe!

As melt is to thaw, so will joy explode
from the many rocky places it is stored,
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe

to ward off the heavy brown envelope
of a working life that you can ill afford—
scholars, I bring you lessons from around the globe.

Can the fear of God but keep the faith of Job,
let the lamb loose on lands unexplored
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe.

Throw bread and the sun's light will strobe
with singing birds. This is knowledge I have clawed,
Scholars, I bring you lessons from around the globe:
and in the meantime: trust your wardrobe!
I don’t know yet if I prefer this version to my original (which I can't divulge as it's currently submitted for publication elsewhere…), but I’ll let the above stand as my April villanelle.

Before I get to the pros and cons of this specific form, it's worth pointing out a general perk of rigid poetic forms and public experimentation (not to mention automatic writing, the fill-in-the-gaps exercise and not being afraid of bastardising your own work) is you can produce something while in a creative funk.  You don't have to wait for inspiration to hit, just for the work day to end, the dishes to be washed, and your laptop to boot up.

Villanelle summary
1. The blank page is less frightening. As with the triolet, once you have your refrain lines sorted, it helps to guide your decision making.
2. As Mark E. Smith puts it: “The 3 R’s: repetition, repetition, repetition.” If you can pull it off, (see examples listed above), it’s powerful, memorable and
3. Cachet. My cynical point for the week: unlike with the cinquain, I suspect doors will open for a villanelle because it’s different enough but well patronised.
1. The risk of thudding – in terms of rhythm, constantly ending the tercets with the same rhyme sound (and one of two lines) can easily become tedious.
2. Perhaps not a con but a question: does it need the restricted rhyme scheme? When I went back and read Geoff Cochrane’s ‘The Lichgate’ again (one of the poems that ushered me towards these formal experiments) I noticed he doesn’t stick to the villanelles rhyme scheme. In fact, only the refrains rhyme. Is it any less of a poem? I sure liked it.
3. The converse of cachet: if you don’t quite pull it off, I suspect you look like a massive try hard.

Footnote: I know the 'suits of woe' line doesn't come from the 'too too solid flesh' soliloquy (it precedes it by a mere 50 lines...) but the image was too good to pass up posting.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tuesday Cinquain

This week I took the cinquain for a test drive: a poetic form consisting of five lines, with the lines containing 2, 4, 6, 8 and 2 syllables respectively.

I read about the form online, but aside from learning it should be pronounced sin-cane (and here's me Italianing it up as chin-kwain) I had nothing but syllable counts in my head when I approached the blank page.

My first efforts were haiku-tinged: observations of nature and change.  But I quickly realised how the 2-4-6-8-2 structure (gradual build up; sudden end) lends itself to bathos (or bad jokes)...

Yellow Pages
The wind.
A northerly.
Where’s my double glazing?
You said mid-Feb, it’s now April.
This blows.

What followed were more experiments in punchlines...

At work;
At Miss Saigon;
At the men’s urinals;
At the summit of Mount Kaukau:

I also sold my soul to enjambment and just used the syllable counts as a signal when to break a line.  The results were basically sentence-long observations parading as poems...

Ken wants
To ask his wife
To change the order she
Makes his sandwiches, but he knows
He won’t.

But in the end I had to choose one poem, and one approach to the cinquain, to hold up as my week's work (all 22 syllables of it).

My choice is based on a photo I saw roughly a year ago in the Museo del Fin del Mundo (Museum of the End of the World) in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.  I wrote the cinquain without seeing this photo again, but thanks to the wonders of the internet, I found a copy (on the 7th page of Google Image results). I'll link to it (here) so you can compare how my memory matches up with the actual image, but I'll let the poem stand on its own in this post...

Photo from inside a sinking ship
The world
Slanted, askew;
The lighthouse, the island,
A trapezoid of flooding light:

Cinquain summary

1. Short, so you can trot out five or six in no time at all (quality aside)
2. Rigid structure due to syllable counts to guide the composition process
3. Built for bathos

1. The first line, being just 2 syllables, is quite restrictive. You're pretty committed to using a noun, but there are lots of single words that exceed two syllables that are unusable.
2. There's a novelty element which seems difficult to shake.  Haiku often suffers from the same thing.  If you wanna get cinquains published, I'd wager you're better off making a chain of cinquains (some suggestions here).
3. I'm not sure I'll ever be confident I'm pronouncing it right to mention the form in conversation!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tuesday Triolet

Photo credit: Darren Cliff

The Alley, Autumn

Brown leaves collect about the homeless,
Busy sorting the colours of recent hopes
And casting out their last excess.
Brown leaves collect about the homeless
Because it’s autumn and the success
Of the season rests on its tropes:
Brown leaves collect about the homeless
Busy sorting the colours of recent hopes.



I chose to tackle the triolet this week because it was the second shortest of the four forms I said I’d attempt this month, so it was both less daunting than a villanelle and didn't require the ascetic syllable counting of a cinquain.

The triolet is still brief (8 lines) and constricted by its repeated lines and use of two rhyme sounds -- and after my first attempt, one may conclude practice with longer forms is desirable.

Whether I return to the form again remains to be seen. So much depends on lines one and two: one you’ve written them, you’ve only got to write three new lines (lines 3, 5 and 6), and even they need to fit the rhyme scheme established by the opening refrain. The challenge is to move the refrain somewhere else, but with little room to enact this movement.

Here are a couple of triolets which I think are successful in achieving this ‘movement’:
Thomas Hardy's 'How Great My Grief' (discussion of the poem and triolet more generally here)
Frances Cornford's 'To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train'
Sara Teasdale's 'Written in a copy of the Poems of Sappho' (scroll down to III)

And since I’ll be trying out three other poetic forms this month, I figure why not get systematic about things and list 3 pros and 3 cons for each form I attempt?

1. Once you’ve got you’re first two lines, it’s relatively quick to fill out the rest of the poem (but it’s a hard road finding your first two lines that can reappear as they must and say something new).
2. The repeated lines lend a rhythm to the poem, and I think this would be effective when read aloud, especially for such a short piece.
3. The brevity and restrictions force the poet to make the most of every word.

1. Finding those first two lines sure can be difficult.
2. I’m not sure about the ABAAABAB rhyme scheme, but I guess nothing is stopping me from rocking an ABBABBAB…
3. Rhyming generally (I haven’t rhymed on purpose for a long time: as my homeless/success/excess rhyme will attest).