An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity

Tonight I returned to a passage that has stuck with me for years, from an introduction to the poet Chimako Tada in The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry (J.D. McClatchy, Ed.) The passage quotes Tada’s philosophy of poetry and expresses why poetry has such a spellbinding effect on some of us.

In poetry…all the elements work functionally, each word having a numerical value that changes constantly along with the changes of syntax. When dealing with even a short poem the reader must engage his intellectual energy to follow an equation of almost infinite complexity. How does such difficult work come to be experienced as pleasure? Because the concrete images and situations and structures presented by the poem satisfy not only the senses and the emotions but also the brain’s capacity for performing intellectually delicate work. And when to that satisfaction with decoding is added the poetic impact of glimpses of the utterly unexpected, of some other world, the resulting pleasure can approach that bliss which is among the most sublime experiences available to humans.

I do not know if the “numerical value” of words she evokes relates somehow to Japanese prosody, to some more mystical quantification, or something else entirely, but I can say that I have sensed this kind of intellectual work going on when I have become deeply engaged in reading poems. It happens after several read-throughs, when the words have begun to adhere to the mind through repetition, and new senses become apparent, or one notices felicities of sound that were missed in earlier readings. There will always be, in our enjoyment of good poems, an infinite progression of pleasures extending just beyond the reach of our ability to comprehend them.

Here is a link to a Chimako Tada poem that I particularly like. 


It’s only natural that contemporary poets would adopt the rhetoric of school exams into their work. Virtually everyone these days has a ready familiarity with the tropes of multiple choice, show your work, time’s up, etc. And there’s a dialectic of ambivalence surrounding tests and testing that’s made for poetic treatment. We are told that test scores don’t mean anything, and yet are warned that our future depends upon passing at the top. The exam is both a trifle and a trial, a measure of merit and an arbitrary milestone on a path that leads into the white glare of FUTURE the bored student has heard so damn much about.

Eve Adamson plays with this dual nature of the exam in her poem, “Being 101: Final Exam.” There’s a call-and-response feel to this most unusual of sonnets in which the student’s answers out-whimsy the perplexing questions. She answers the question, “How many stars?” with “Cylindrical obsess,” which I read as a non-sequiter with a defiantly dismissive tone, as if to say, “If I don’t like the question, I’m not going to give a direct answer.”

My favorite question/answer? “Where does the river go? Inside the heron’s footprint.”  You’ll have to read the poem (and listen to Adamson’s wonderful recitation) to find out just who this heron is.

Chandler on Writing

Raymond Chandler. Every now and again, I pick up one of his books and get lost in the fast-talking, whisky-swilling swagger of it all. Last night I was thumbing through Trouble Is My Business (probably not one of his most memorable works) and came upon the following passage in his introduction about writing for pulp magazines. In a world drenched in overly sweet platitudes about writing well, this little nugget works because of its hard-nosed matter-of-factness:

…if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly, but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

How Can I Answer the Child?

This past Sunday was Walt Whitman’s birthday. A friend sent me this review of In Walt We Trust by John Marsh, which promises to be a fascinating read that I will have to commit some time to very soon. Accompanying the review is a marvelous comic by Sabrina Jones which illustrates one of my favorite passages from “Song of Myself.” It is often said that Whitman is all ego. I’ve always felt that to be a gross mischaracterization. It would be more accurate to say that Whitman’s ego is All. After all, as he says, “Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”


I am taken by this poem by Karen Volkman over at Omniverse. I would classify it as an ekphrastic of dance, which, though not unheard of, is probably not as common as poems about paintings, or even film. What I think Volkman does so well here is evoke the experience of watching dancers through a scrim: “the seem-stain of its edging” is a beautiful image–seeing objects diffused by translucent cloth is like looking at a stain of seeming, a not-quite-solid, not-quite shadow form. “Seem-stain” calls attention to the otherworldliness of the diffused silhouettes, exploring the line between precision of image and abstraction.

The legs of the dancers speak, describing their dance: “This is kind of a step, kind of/sideways flying. This likes defying//space and what defines it.”

I often entertain the idea that all poems are an ars poetica–or, that most poems contain at least one moment where it may be said that they comment on their own making. “Defying space and what defines it” seems to be the aim of this poem, which it achieves with great, gravity-defying aplomb.

Rising and flying

I just picked up a copy of Through the Forest by David Wagoner, and I encountered this poem for the first time. He’s a fine observer of nature, and this one strikes me more than his other poems by its embodiment of the caterpillar’s experience, rather than reportage from the perspective of a human being encountering nature. You might say this is “deep pastoral” in that the human experience becomes one with what it absorbs? These are just first thoughts. It’s a beatiful poem that I’m sure to read again and again. 

Good Stuff in the latest Hudson Review

Check out these two beautiful lyrics by John Foy. I especially admire the first, for its clean, precise diction–not a word wasted–and the uncomplicated way he complicates otherwise complacent phrases. What does it mean to want the world for someone, given the lamentable state of the world? Foy answers this, though he admits that what we want never makes much of a difference in the way things turn out. 

I’m still exploring this issue, but another standout for me has been Richard Hornby’s review of a performance of You Can’t Take it with You, which includes a brief but interesting history of the sitcom. It’s a must-read. 

Giving Dark a Dream

Check out this knockout sonnet by Mary Meriam over at American Arts Quaterly. 

I love the kinetic syntax of this poem.  The language races through the line breaks and rhymes like the pickup truck that darkness drives “into the hills and hollers”, and soars like a flicked cigarette. I love the detail of “gunshots hit the town’s Masonic club,” all the more because it remains a bit mysterious to me, something to puzzle over. 

There’s tons else to love in this issue of AAQ, too. If you don’t already subscribe to the print edition, you should–it’s free, and beautifully produced. 

Langston Hughes’s Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years after He Dies Fighting at Harper’s Ferry by Erica Dawson

Back from 2011, appearing on Blackbird. 

There is so much to love in this poem. How Dawson creates its voice and persona. How she builds narrative, setting, and tone through hints and telling details rather than exposition (she excels at this in all of her work). How she begins with an all-but-inconsequential pondering of the sounds of language–a casual, playful, unselfconscious remark that you just don’t expect to find in a poem. How she closes with a devastating metaphor that brings you (along with the speaker) down to your knees (and with a nod to Whitman, as well). How she does this:

Damn all Octobers, sin,
Forgiveness. Dam the streams until
Oceans of buried brothers spill
Like grief beneath the skin

Of rivers. […]