Review: 3 Poems By Hazel Hall

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Hazel Hall

Hazel Hall (1886-1924), via Wikipedia.

Today, Hazel Hall is an almost-forgotten poet, but in the early 20th century, she’d written for some of the biggest publications of her day: Harper’s, The New Republic, The Boston Evening Transcript, The Nation, and others. Residing in Portland, Oregon, and sickly from adolescence (reminiscent, in that sense, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning), she spent much of her life paralytically confined to room and window, watching, as she would, all else around her birr. Thus, her subjects tended towards people (or rather, their images), sewing, and moments that, had she the opportunity to experience things a little differently, might have been larger, deeper, more expansive.

But such wondering is pointless, and Hazel Hall is quite good despite it all — excellent, even, in her best poems, with the occasional great flourish that reads like a classic what-if? moment. Yes, her poems are usually too ‘small,’ both in subject and accomplishment, to ever be called visionary, in the deeper sense, but they do have a kind of small-v vision, a way of looking at the world that, when compounded over time, is uniquely Hall’s. That’s because so much of her content is, rather than mere repetition, closer to being a slightly new angle from which to view the same basic idea. Loneliness, for instance, is treated sadly, or given a sinister edge, or a hopeful one, depending on the poem; people are interesting, and living fully, or pitiful and ignorant of such, refracting Hall’s own moods; sewing needles can be weapons in one poem, or almost personified as a ‘seeker’ in another, to the point that the narrator, being a seeker, herself, implicitly casts doubt on her own knowledge of things. Thus, after reading a few dozen or so of her poems, they really get condensed by the mind into 2-3 larger ideas. You may take that as a flaw or boon, but it’s undeniable that even her lesser work has a way of insinuating into the reader, even if some of the specifics are ultimately forgotten.

Hazel Hall, then, is an example of an artist who, barred from most kinds of life experiences, still had enough of an inner life to extrapolate into the rest of the world, and richly, at that. This is both uncommon and instructive, for it sheds light on talent in a way that strips away any real context, proving that, for all the silly attempts critics often make in ‘understanding’ a writer’s life to get to the bottom of WHY the art was able to be created, in the first place, talent (and its expression, really) is a mere crap-shoot, and knows NOTHING of its entry and egress, into or from whomever ultimately gets to indulge it.

It’s also interesting that, after many decades’ time, Hazel Hall is still very much a niche poet, affecting, as she does, only the occasional women’s studies course, and other academic events. She has not entered into the public … Continue reading →

No More Ghettos: On The Death Of James Emanuel, Poet

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James Emanuel, (c) SAMBG MYA Photography, via Entree to Black Paris

James Emanuel, (c) SAMBG MYA Photography, via Entree to Black Paris

In Confucian philosophy, there is a passage called Ta Tung, or “The Great Harmony,” which describes the ideal relation between things: that the best leaders are elected, wealth is shared and not left idle, and every man, woman, and child belongs to each other — and to itself. On my way to work, I often stop by a large statue of Confucius off the Bowery, in which this passage is emblazoned. There, one finds a multitude of trees growing up from stone, and flowers in the spring and green all summer. Yet not once did I ever see a Chinese person stand beside me and gaze at the man, much less read the inscription, for to the Chinese, he has become a kind of furniture, and the Chinese (at least here) live in a ghetto of their own construct.

The poet James A. Emanuel died on September 28th, 2013. The last few days, I’ve stopped at this statue a bit more often than usual. I’ve read the inscription carefully; I’ve tried to feel what it means to not regard oneself as “merely” oneself — as the words seem to exhort — but as part of something extraneous to it, something unnecessary, unimportant. Perhaps this is because I’ve been having trouble at my job and needed to stabilize. Or perhaps it is because, with James Emanuel more and more on my mind, now, I’ve realized that the content of those words was actually the content of his own life’s work: to keep the world from getting stuck on itself — that is, in its own skin, its own ghetto — and to bring it out of the enclosure.

Like many young writers, I’d first discovered James Emanuel’s poetry through Cosmoetica, and this essay, in particular. In reading his Whole Grain: Collected Poems, Emanuel — a black American poet and academic most recently living in Paris — immediately struck me as an artist of immense talent, even as his work (despite its strong identity) did not seem to “mark” him as a black writer, or as any “kind” of writer, at all, except one of talent and breadth that went beyond questions of race, and into deeper ideational concerns. Of course, he is not unique, here, for other black writers have routinely bemoaned their forced ghettoization into purely (and, even worse, stereotypically) black concerns: Charles Johnson, a Buddhist who wonders why blacks are so little concerned with “deeper” questions, even now; Claude McKay, who had his popularity stripped for his refusal to toe a political line; Ralph Ellison, who fictionalized these kind of subtly racist interactions; and James Baldwin, likely the richest of all black philosophical thinkers, and who — atheist, gay, and critical of everyone around him — did not ever comfortably fit into any school or methodology, save that of honesty and the striving for excellence, which have their own methods, separate … Continue reading →

Wallace Stevens: “A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts”

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Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens, in full. (c)

[Listen to my reading of the poem here.]

Wallace Stevens is not only one of the 5 or 6 greatest poets to have ever lived, but — after years of being nigh-impenetrable to me, as a teenager — has become one of my favorites, too. He can be beautiful without emotion, and he can be emotional with nothing but an intellectual base. Too often, such things are treated as mutually exclusive, when in fact, one can simply be a route to the other, with Stevens’s choice of ‘intellect first’ generating some interesting effects. After all, if you erase emotion — at least in the literal sense — yet still write in a way that the reader utterly wallows in it, what does this say except that the intellect is, paradoxically, one way into the heart? (And I’d argue it’s the superior route.)

No, I wouldn’t go as far as calling Wallace Stevens a “dead end” in poetry (as Emily Dickinson was, or parts of Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake were), but prior to Wallace Stevens’s ascent, there were few that resembled him, at least in this regard. At best, there were prototypes — perhaps in some of the direct treatment of the Chinese classical writers, some parts of Ezra Pound, something of Yeats in mid-line, or Rainer Maria Rilke, who might in fact be the closest to him of all great contemporaneous writers. Yet Stevens still reads like an aberration, and MANY writers of the last few decades have tried to emulate him. I know, because whenever I open a given poetry book — usually forgotten after a few years’ time — there are the inevitable Stevens rip-offs, since many assume that merely writing ABOUT ideas (as Stevens did) is the same as writing about them WELL (which few ever do). In such cases, jargon takes place of real language, and broken prose for genuine music, since it is those things that, unfortunately, are presently associated with ideational heft.

Yet here’s an example of the above done right, and how emotion can come in roundabout ways, even when dealing with topics that, at first glance, seem to have no real connection with human experience:

A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts

*from Parts Of A World (1942)

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur —

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light,
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is … Continue reading →

Book Review: “Sonnets: 150 Contemporary Sonnets” by William Baer

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William Baer Sonnets

William Baer’s 150 Contemporary Sonnets

As a kid, I was, I admit, a little gullible. No, one could not play tricks on me, or generate obvious lies in the hope that I’d believe them, for such things — please excuse the pun — were mere child’s play, and always level with the world. Not so with poetry, I thought. Here were smart people, most of whom were a lot more experienced than I was, and were, therefore, in the position to guide me. I was willing. I was receptive. And I wanted to learn, for — despite the burgeoning ego of adolescence — I was quite serious, too, and needed help to connect memories, this or that minor experience, some fleeting, ill-remembered word into a system that mattered. I wanted, in short, to be a writer, here were people that were doing it, and every force, from awards, to reputation, personality, popularity, and, at times, the opaqueness of how such things were judged, in the first place, seemed to imply that they were doing it quite well.

That was on the one hand. On the other, I was also discerning enough to realize that the advent of free verse helped engender poetry that slipped, well, into total formlessness. This was not ‘freedom’ (as the phrase might imply), since to be free also implies to be in (and under) the control of something, to allow good expression to flow. The crowd did not heed this, and my automatic reaction was, well, reaction: that if free verse wasn’t doing it right, something else was, and that something must have been its diametric opposite, i.e., New Formalism. This is, of course, an example of extreme thinking, and showed my inability to make some nicer distinctions. But the New Formalists nonetheless struck me as the good guys who, fed up with laziness and schlock, wanted to bring poetry back to its source, and were, in fact, quite rebellious in their aesthetic conservatism — ironic given that art moves forward, not back, with the New Formalists merely substituting one bad side-step for another. And yet… ‘poetry at its source’. I liked the ring of it, and before I knew it, was lost in a fug of syllables and feet that had remarkably little to do with the source itself.

Of course, the issue here is that a poetic form is NOT poetry, but a method, and New Formalism a mere aesthetic preference that may or may not lead to good writing. Now, I shed my fixations as soon as I realized this, but not before acquiring a few documents in the midst of this (short) foray. One such document is William Baer’s 150 Contemporary Sonnets, an anthology that was put together from submissions to the now-defunct The Formalist journal (edited by Baer) as well as other publications. Yet despite having claimed to have published over 500 “talented sonneteers,” Baer’s anthology does not include a single truly great sonnet a … Continue reading →