Congressional Representation for Nature

The lead article in today’s Boston Globe‘s Ideas section is titled “Sued by the Forest:  Should nature be able to take you to court?”  It tells the story of a New England community–Shapleigh, Maine–that voted in its town meeting,

114-66, to endow all of the town’s natural assets with legal rights: “Natural communities and ecosystems possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist, flourish and naturally evolve within the Town of Shapleigh.” It further decreed that any town resident had “standing” to seek relief for damages caused to nature – permitting, for example, a lawsuit on behalf of a stream.

This concept of government rights or representation for the environment reminded me of something poet Gary Snyder wrote somewhere.  I went to my shelf looking for Turtle Island but didn’t find it, so I’m stuck with just saying that SOMEWHERE in Snyder’s ouevre is this reference.  The ideas is not new.

I loved it when I first read it, and I love this idea now.

Why not?!  Corporations have the rights and privileges of individuals–it’s called “corporate personhood“–and they have used the Civil Rights Act, for example, to override the democratically determined decision to prevent installation of a cell tower in a small town in Massachusetts.

Yup.  Pretty startling.  So how about “environmental personhood”?

How to Save the World

That’s a dramatic title for a post.  It’s what hooked me into reading Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure in Mind and Spirit.  The back of the book features the three-line personal ad that begins the story:  “Teacher Seeks Pupil.  Must have an earnest desire to save the world.  Apply in person.”  Given its serious subject matter, the book might be one of the top ten most important books on the planet.  The book isn’t so much a “how-to” book on saving the world but tries to point out what underlies our drive to destroy the world, which we’ve been doing steadily since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago and which has become more intense and wide-spread since the industrial revolution.

Quinn re-interprets the core stories of Genesis while weaving in anthropological and historical analysis of “primitive” vs. “civilized” societies (or what he renames “Leavers” vs. “Takers”).   For three million years all was well with hunting and gathering until the agricultural revolution.  At this point, the Takers began to break the “law of life,” which fosters life for all:  they began to exterminate competitors, destroy competitors’ food (to make room for their own via agriculture) and deny competitors access to food.  This obsessive need to control our food supply originates in a fear of not being in control of our own destiny, of trusting in higher powers.  In breaking the laws of life, we end up co-opting the role of the gods by deciding who lives and who dies (i.e. the fruit of the tree of knowledge).

In other words, for the Takers the world belongs to man, whereas for the Leavers, man belongs to the world.

Quinn ends with an insightful observation, one that can be viewed in conservative reactions to environmentalist critique of our culture of consumption:

people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty.  They need more than a vision of doom.  They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them. (243-44)

This new (or, rather, old–i.e. Leaver) vision of the destiny of humankind involves humans being the first to reach sentience and therefore the first to learn that we have a choice:  thwart the gods and die or be Father to all future species evolving to sentience after us.  In this story, “Man’s place is to be the first without being the last.  Man’s place is to figure out how it’s possible to do that–and then to make some room for all the rest who are capable of becoming what he’s become” (243).

So Quinn strikes at the mythic roots of our war with nature and tries to re-orient our species by providing the key to breaking out of our captivity to “a civilizational system that compels us to go on destroying the world in order to live” (25).  My hope is that the Albatross contributes in some small way to the change of consciousness that Quinn’s book points toward.

Poem in Your Pocket Day 2009 and Shmoop

I discovered, just in the nick of time (though not enough time to do much about it) that today is “Poem in Your Pocket Day.”  I wrote about this back in May, saying “April 2009 was a whole year away,” and here we are!

I’ll talk for a moment about how I found out about it–it’s an interesting process that shows the power of social networking.  I have a twitter account and have been “tweeting” for just over a year now.  It’s been in the news a lot lately, so if you haven’t heard about it you’re way out of the loop.  When somebody starts to “follow” me (i.e. subscribes to my tweets), I get an email message saying so.  I always take a look at who it is who’s chosen to follow me, to see if they are interesting enough to follow.  Some of them are goofy (e.g. Santa Claus), and some are just promoting a business or a website.  Occasionally, it’s someone who has obviously used a Twitter search tool to seek out people posting on subjects of interest to him or her.  Today I got an email saying helloshmoop is now following me.  Upon checking out their twitter profile, I saw one of their recent tweets mentioning that “Poem in Your Pocket Day” is happening soon… I followed the link and voila!

Who knows how long it would have taken for me to discover shmoop… if ever… and I could easily have let this day slip by.  But now I have a chance to take some of the actions suggested by the poets.org “PIYP” page.

There’s been a lot of bad press about twitter in recent weeks, but like any tool there are good and bad uses.  Today’s Hiawatha Bray column in the Boston Globe talks about how he was won over to the use of twitter as a way to “capture the wisdom of crowds.”  So it’s all about the crowds you choose to join.  Who are you following?  Do they make relevant posts telling you of interesting websites or news items, or are they telling you what they are cooking for dinner? Some twitterers post bursts of tweets that amount to short poems.  I would have enjoyed playing with this twenty years ago, when I was an English student.  Now there’s not a lot of time for it after family and work, but when there is, I often find some useful sites, like Shmoop.

Shmoop is a collective of M.A. and Ph.D. students who have launched a website with learning and teaching resources for literature, U.S. history, poetry, and writing, and it claims to make us better “lovers of life.”  If you’re reading this, you don’t need to be told that poetry will help you love life more and better.  This is my hope and goal for Albatross as  a poetry journal–and has been since we started back in 1985:  to get us to love the environment (life!  all of life!) so that we stop destroying it (as the Ancient Mariner did in Coleridge’s poem–the source of the journal’s title).

Albatross #20 now available

I just posted Albatross #20 at the main site.  The print issue will be out within the next couple of weeks.

There are some amazing poems in this issue.  Some of my favorites include William Keener’s and Lyn Stefenhagens’s.  I hope you enjoy these poems as much as I have.  And the cover art is awesome as well.  While visiting my son in Gainesville, we went to a party at an art gallery, and the owner was selling this woodcut as a card.  I asked him if I could use it for #20, and voila!

I have found other works of art this way.  Another of my favorites, the cover for #10, was done by a professor at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.  We were sitting next to each other at Dunn Brothers Coffee House, and he was sketching these cool abstract pieces.  Again, I boldly asked to use the artwork, and this is how it came to be on the cover.  This cover for #10, by the way, was featured in the 1998 (I think it was) Poet’s Market.

Preview of Albatross #20

I just finished finalizing the PDF file for Albatross #20 and will be sending it along to the printer.  I like to print 100 copies so that there are some in print out there in the world.  I guess I’m still stuck in the age of print literacy.  But I’ve seen too many poetry websites (and too many of my published poems) disappear when the website becomes a dead link.  This way, the poets, a handful of subscribers, and a few university libraries that archive small press poetry all have a hard copy.  This way, I’ll feel like I’ve left something behind in the world, something of value, something real.

In the process of laying out the journals, I type the entire poem in and then proofread it a number of times, so I come to know the poems quite intimately.  I always have a few that are my favorites.  I posted one by Andy Roberts titled “Standoff” in my last post.   It’s not very profound; it’s a simple poem, with a simple enough message, but I chuckle every time I read the ending, and that’s been a good 10-12 times of late.  Every time I read it I have the same response, so I thought I’d write about it here.

The poem describes an encounter that the persona has with a pair of Canadian geese, who loudly defend their nest, which happens to be on the well-worn path s/he (we’ll call him or her “the poet” from here on out) has been walking regularly for 30 years.  After introducing this scene, Roberts concludes:

I will not win this argument
against pink hissing tongues.
I will not win this argument,
not in a million years.

I love this.  It’s so simple but so true.  We are at present losing the argument with nature, and it will only get worse before it gets better.

This poem could easily have appeared in Billy Collins “Poetry 180” anthologies.  In the introduction to the first one, Collins writes,

The idea behind this printed collection. . . was to assemble a generous selection of short, clear, contemporary poems which any listener could basically “get” on first hearing–poems whose injection of pleasure is immediate.

Collins developed these anthologies to try to reconnect poetry to high school students who too often experience poetry as a painful process of reading dense and opaque writing that doesn’t seem to make much sense.  As Collins demonstrates–not only in these anthologies but in his own poetry as well–this does not have to be the case.

Poetry–like many forms of art–is an act of communication, and Andy Roberts’ poem does a good job of doing just that.

Featured Poem: “Standoff”

STANDOFF by Andy Roberts

I’ve been walking this trail thirty years
but today I have to change course
because a pair of Canadian geese
have built a nest on the left.
The male hisses and rushes at me.
I stand my ground but he won’t give up.
This is life and death to them,
and the pair are screaming their outrage,
defending the nest.
It becomes clear
I will not win this argument
against pink hissing tongues.
I will not win this argument,
not in a million years.

Revising Poetry – example #1

In my last post, I promised to discuss some of Roger Desy’s revisions to his poem “in the light of snow.”  In his first revision, he mostly changes just the opening lines, so I will post first the original and then the 1st revision:

ORIGINAL

— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper intemperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness

1ST REVISION

— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter a surface wisp of hiss
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over the onset darkness

— as frigid iridiscence preserves distant stillness over a terrain of glaze

facets of an insensitive whitening squall near at hand across a nightfall earth

The rest of the poem is more or less exactly the same as the original, except for a couple of other minor changes:  the change of a couple of words in the tenth line:  “dens” becomes “nests” and “under the lilac womb” becomes “under a lilac womb”; also, the addition of fertile in line 12 (“embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless fertile crytalline identity”).  I will begin, then, by commenting on these more significant changes to the opening lines.

In the first line, Roger changes “the surface hiss of fields” to “a surface wisp of hiss”.  The change from the definite to indefinite article (“THE surface hiss” vs. “A surface wisp”) may seem inconsequential but often makes a big difference in terms of what the poet calls attention to:  a specific instance (a “the”) as opposed to a more generalized phenomenon (an “a”).  I see why he changes “hiss of fields” to “wisp of hiss”:  if you speak the words out loud, you hear the assonance, the attention to sound that every poet should be paying as s/he crafts a poem.  I sometimes pay so much attention to sound that I find some sounds inappropriate or distracting in certain phrases.   The ‘”p” sound in “wisp” here has that affect upon me.  I like the “s” sounds in “surfaCe wiSp” and “hiSS,” but the “p” as a labial plosive (something like that–can’t remember the exact terms from my study of linguistics) is problematic for me.  The meaning of the phrase is a bit compromised as well:  what is a “wisp of hiss”?  The original, “surface hiss of fields” doesn’t approach the level of musicality that the revised phrase achieves, but it does preserve sense at the same time that the F sound preserves echoes from earlier in the line:  “fallen soft fierce snow.”  (The E sound in “fields” also anticipates the E sound of “leaf-thin light fall” — and here, again, are the echoes of the F sounds).  In some ways, the revised line brings too many S sounds into play, which draws a bit too much attention to the sound:  “preSSureS of fallen Soft fierCe Snow Scatter a SurfaCe wiSp of hiSS” (S sounds are capitalized throughout).

As you can see, there is much to consider in the crafting of a line, or even a single phrase!  And I know that Roger puts this level of thought and feeling into what he does, given the kinds of revisions he makes from draft to draft.

The next major revision is a kind of flip-flopping of phrases.  In the second line, he moves “a nightfall earth” to the end of the fourth line and replaces this with “the onset darkness” (a change to the original “more fertile darkness” that it replaces).  By moving this, he loses the assonance of the I sounds in “vIolet lIfe over a nIghtfall earth” (I sounds capitalized here).  I like the phrase “a nightfall earth” a lot and am glad he kept it–it’s a fresh phrasing.  I think it works in either location.

The third and fourth lines are also quite different from one another.  The original plays on P, R, and U sounds:  “peRmafRost pReseRves an aRctic iRidescence undeR tundRa winds” (R sounds capitalized).  The revised third line abandons this for heavy assonance on the soft I sound:  “frigid iridescence preserves distant stillness” and ends with assonance on the A sounds of “terrain of glaze.”  The fourth line of the revision also loses something in the rhythm when squall changes from a verb (as it is in the original) to the object of the preposition of:  “facets of an insensitive whitening squall near at hand…”  The original, in my opinion, is much more in line with the rest of the poem (the multiple modifiers piled up like the snow that the poem describes:  “deeper intemperate radiance squalls near at hand…”).

As I finish considering these changes, I have to say that I like the original version much better than the revisions.  The one revision that I do think enhances this version of the poem comes when he adds “fertile” to the 12th line, which provides the same effect I just described:  a kind of piling high of modifiers that mimics at the syntactic, formal level of the poem its content about snow:  “a pure serene hyacinth seamless fertile crystalline identity.”

Ultimately, though, such revisions reflect a poet’s careful attention to the craft of the art form, and final decisions have to be left to the individual as to what most satisfies his or her needs in writing the poem in the first place.

Featured Poem: “in the light of snow”

I introduce this poem in a previous entry titled “On Revising Poetry.”

IN THE LIGHT OF SNOW by Roger Desy

— pressures of fallen soft fierce snow scatter the surface hiss of fields
over the leaf-thin light fall — strewing a violet life over a nightfall earth

— as permafrost preserves an arctic iridescence under tundra winds

a deeper temperate radiance squalls near at hand over more fertile darkness

— dawn upon damson sun blown sudden golden shaken from bowed limbs bent
to breaking under the weight of individual infinitesimal vermilion clarities

— amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts
in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon

— the dead of winter snowbound blankets the unborn within — newborn reside

swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest

— humility a perfect deerprint cuts into the pomace of the selfless fields
embedded in a pure serene hyacinth seamless crystalline identity

— evening on snow — pregnant with silence — nuzzling the scent of slanted buds

listens to sibilance grazing the keenness of the last azure roseate crimsoning

What I find distracting about this version of the poem are the strings of prepositional phrases at certain points.  After using Lanham’s book Revising Prose as a textbook, I couldn’t fail to notice this.  His “paramedic method” suggests first of all circling all of the prepositions.  When you do this to the poem above, you notice that in the fifth stanza there is a string of prepositional phrases:  “amber midmorning shards of light settle on tufts of drifts / in shadows of the temperatures setting-in — into the evening of the afternoon” (six in a row here), followed by a stanza with another string:  “newborn reside / swaddled in torpor under the lilac womb warm in the nests of their dens at rest” (five in a row here).

Roger commented on his use of prepositional phrases, providing some perspective on the effect he was trying to achieve:

you refer to excessive prepositional phrasing.  you can’t get away with this in prose.  in this poem prepositions are a kind of marker for time.  the poem of course has to do with time and a sustained perception — from one evening to the next.

i say this so you know there’s lot of glue on those phrases.

lines 7 [the shortest line] and 8, following subject/verb, consist of six phrases, taking the eye and other senses through shifts of light that tend to resolve on the red end of the spectrum, where the poem begins and ends.

it’s a lush poem, a style i don’t often enter.  nothing like a dead end, but there’s no room to write this kind of poem every day.  i dread imitating myself.

i went searching for this poem this last week for other purposes.  two lines in it needed to be reviewed again [lines 3 and 4].  i wound up reviewing the poem and tightening it up.  the prepositional phrasing aspect is essentially unchanged.

(It’s interesting that he says you can’t get away with excessive prepositional phrasing in prose, because when you read the examples of academic jargonese that Lanham provides in his book, you suddenly realize that you’ve been inundated with it… And Lanham provides a concrete solution for avoiding such bureaucratization of language.)

I did compare this to the one he published in Albatross #18, and it *is* different from this other one–the use of dashes, the rhythms, the phrasing.  The attempt to capture time and sustained perception not only through the poem’s content but also through its form I found particularly interesting–though I’m not sure the use of prepositions as a marker for time is the way to go about this.  Having form reflect content is a powerful strategy, and I do think that the strings of prepositional phrases tend to elongate the moment being described.  However, I can’t ignore the fatigue that this induces in me as a reader, whether or not this is brought about by knowledge of Lanham’s paramedic method.

In the following passage, Roger speaks of rejection as an opportunity for revision.  I think we can learn from his positive attitude:

funny, but when i get my work rejected, i’ve come to look at it as an invitation to get it right.  i’ve learned more about my work by reviewing/revising it after rejection than i ever expected.  funny, but rejection works for me.  and i ought to have some insight, being the most rejected human being i know!

In future entries, I will post and discuss some of Roger’s proposed revisions.

On Revising Poetry

I will often like most of a poem that I receive as a submission but find that some parts (e.g. a word choice, a punctuation mark, a peculiarity of phrasing) are distracting and divert my attention from the kind of spell that a poem puts over its reader.  If there aren’t too many of these parts, I will accept the poem for publication only if the poet agrees to suggested changes that will, in my opinion, make it read better and easier.  Other times, there’ll be large chunks that need to be re-worked, and I will return the poem, asking the poet to work on the overall approach and resubmit with other poems.

I recently received one poem that reminded me of a book I used to teach when I taught writing at the college level.  The book by Richard Lanham is called Revising Prose (the title to this blog entry is meant to echo this book); it offers a “paramedic” method for revising prose, with concrete steps to perform.  I will post the poem in its entirety, as a “featured poem,” in a separate entry after this introduction.  Of course, I seek the permission of the poet before I do this.  I found the poet’s comments in response to my request relevant and of potential interest, and so I post them here:

you should know, though, when i submit a poem, i never want to be embarrassed by it.  which means i rely on it being finished.  but finished is one of the most relative words in the vocabulary.  i know for sure a poem should seem an inevitable result but never be so.  there is really nothing inevitable about a poem, from the first word to the poet moving on.  a poem is a series of words that makes better sense than otherwise or creates a satisfying sense of completion or fulfillment at least for the moment, though that series of words can change any number of ways.

which also means, when i send you a poem, it’s been worked on and worked out.

which is not to say i’m unaware of blemishes on a perfect face.  i see them in almost every poem i write.

many pass because we’re a forgiving species underneath it all and they can be part of the beauty.  but if i find myself looking at the same soft spot every time, trust me, it’s gone.

i look at revision as part of my job, part of the process — nothing original, but i look at revision as both rewriting and unwriting and writing again.  sometimes you just have to cut it off to be kind.

it’s a tough process, but by the time i’m done and willing to let it go out on its own, i’m not going to be embarrassed.  ihopeihopeihope!

The poet is Roger Desy.  I got a clear sense of his craft after reading this.  Here is a poet who takes his work–his working–seriously!  And his is a craft I appreciate, for I have published one of his poems before–“elm” in Albatross #18 (p. 20).  I offer his work-ethic as described above as a model for those submitting to Albatross. One thing is for sure–Roger has nothing to be embarrassed about.

But, despite all of his own efforts at revision before submission, there may be room for more revision once the poem comes into contact with an editor, one who approaches it differently, perhaps more freshly–certainly more innocently–as a kind of “expert” reader responding to the crafted work.

In my next entry, I will post the poem in its entirety and our further discussion about revision.

The Poetry of Science

I’m reading a book titled Into the Cool:  Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life, about the role that (the second law of) thermodynamics plays in the origins, formation and maintenance of life.  One chapter opens with an extensive quote by E.O. Wilson, a quote worth reproducing in whole:

Still, scientific theories are a product of imagination–informed imagination. They reach beyond their grasp to predict the existence of previously unsuspected phenomena. They generate hypotheses, disciplined guesses about unexplored topics whose parameters the theories help to define. The best theories generate the most fruitful hypotheses, which translate cleanly into questions that can be answered by observation and experiment. Theories and their progeny hypotheses compete for the available data, which comprise the limiting resource in the ecology of scientific knowledge. The survivors in this tumultuous environment are the Darwinian victors, welcomed into the canon, settling in our minds, guiding us to further exploration of physical reality, more surprises.  And yes, more poetry.

When I first read this, I thought it was a concise and accurate summary of Thomas Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  I like the way that it suggests that the winning theories end up as “memes” in our minds, and from there become available for further imaginative leaps of “informed imagination”–which Wilson summarizes as poetry.

Of course, as a poetry blog, I am focused on the idea of science as a source of poetry.  I have always found it to be so–going back to my undergraduate studies, when intro courses in astronomy and geology were quickly translated into metaphors of a self in transition.  Much of my own recent poetry integrates references to various sciences and grows directly out of considerations of science, such as my Snowman and Fireman poem sequences.

I am tempted to go through all 19 issues of Albatross and find the poems that would serve as examples of my point, but then it occurs to me that I should leave that up to you.  Suffice it to say that science informs poetry best when it grows out of an intimate knowledge with current theories, when these theories naturally lead to metaphors that help us go beyond ourselves and frame our experience in the broadest of terms.

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