A beautiful Rambling from Joseph Wood
I wanted to share this, a facebook note the poet, a great buddy of mine, Joseph Wood posted on Facebook. It’s a little all over the place but, aside from just being written pretty beautifully, it makes a lot of diverse, wide-ranging, interesting points. So enjoy. And discuss.
And here’s a video of him reading at the Racine Public Library, if you missed it the first time I posted it. But you should read the note/essay/thing, before you watch the video. Because the note is really long. But this video is of an amazing poem, which he does great justice to in his reading as well. Enjoy:
Working toward an open-self through closed forms–A reflection on health, poetic form, and EN 219 and 104
After five years of dealing with an acute anxiety disorder and sustained battle with depression—sucking the energies of family and friends—I was luck-stricken as my psychiatrist—the third in less than a year—found a medication that physically awakened me and fundamentally made me a human again: Vyvance. This medication is used in the treatment of ADD but can backdoor depression. However, I took one of these ADD tests: an ADD score is 20; I had 70. This led the doctor to also refer me to a sleep specialist; apparently apnea can trigger a whole host of illnesses that fall under the category “mental health”. After one brief session, this specialist is absolutely convinced I have apnea—which triggers ADD, which can trigger than depression. A domino effect, if you will. Or the apnea can turn latent or mild afflictions bizarrely wild. And so I wait to descend to my sleep lap appointment.
In the meantime, I am settling into a completely different physical and mental space. There are downsides and upsides, but I am—and I am stunned to say this—heartened and well. But in this time of a new physical and mental space, I have come to a strange place as an artist. A fundamental question of what am I doing? In the past, during the times of great depression and erratic behavior, one thing that managed to thrive and become very dynamic was my writing. It seems art often relies on some level of instability, an uneven ground, and I milked it for every penny it was worth. It seems I wrote two kinds of poems. One type was a long, rangy, highly associative poem whose aesthetic value lay in a dark, disturbed self living in a world of religion, pop-culture, and human relationships gone carnal and wrong. The other type of poem I wrote was either a tight lyric or somewhat looser prose hybrid that appropriated history, geography, or pop-culture as a way to make the darker self of the first type of poem transcend its particular affliction. In fact, if I were to trace the trajectory of my two books and current manuscript, I would say each begins with a broken speaker seeking absolution and finds absolution in his own self-construction of a “larger” order, be it social, political, behavioral, natural, etc. In short, the end of these manuscripts gesture toward a grace and forgiveness with an implied shift toward clarity. As if by being sucked up into the world, the speaker would somehow be—well—healed and forgiven. But the latter part, “forgiven”, begs the question “for what”? If there lays a fundamental, intellectual shortcoming in my work, it would be that my bravado and emotionality runs the roost—and I’m unable to fully meet the terms of my own artistic treatise—examine the self, accept it, and get curious about the world on its terms, not mine.
Do not get me wrong. These poems—as aesthetic objects outside my own intentionality and self-evaluative trajectory—have merit. I have a good ear and know how to cut a line. My more successful poems can make wild shifts in subject and change scope and tone on the dime. Moreover, the long poems—the ones I read aloud quite often—are unabashed in their directness (so much so, it frightens some listeners) and yet, there is something about them that seem to resonate with readers as not mere Confessionalist work—or worse, diary entries. In fact, many of them also employ a grim humor and genuinely are interested in their appropriation historical, geographical, and religious drives.
However, something interesting happened since Vyance. Before taking this medication, over the past 5 years, I went from compulsively running 90-110 miles a week (well beyond my fitness level as a hi 15, low 16 5k runner at my ultimate peak) and weighing 145 lbs to—after a series of predictable and devastating overuse injuries—stopping almost all exercise, eating everything under sight, and ballooning up to 260 lbs. I was so tortured by my weight gain and loss of running (of course, that was a symptom of a larger of unresolved personal issues that could not be resolved because my behavior was all over the place) that it emotionally broke me over and over. And as I write this, I ask for what reason, this is stupid? I had tried to write about the running and depression in essay form to utter failure—it was over-explanatory and boring as fuck. It essentially was a long-winded faux apology whose section shifts had as much intellectual depth as a jelly donut.
The moment I took Vyvance, a chemical went off in my brain—I felt like this part of my life could be let go (in a day, seriously, this shit works well). And in doing so, I wrote a long poem that was again rangy, direct, but this time, took on a self like a jockey to a riding crop and ended with taking personal responsibility—I transcended nothing. It was a good start. However, when someone said to me, I am so fucking tired of reading about your pain, it made me stop in my tracks. I had, over the years, appropriated others in my work, yes, but the larger concern was that the poetic choices I made allowed me to indulge in a kind of self-absorbed enterprise; that the world was funneled through my own shortcoming and dysfunctions but these poems—because they were “good”—gave that behavior credence.
For three days, I seriously questioned if I’d ever write poems again. I could not write poems such as flarf or a lot these pop-culture, witty lyrics because I lack the understanding how one adjudicates those poems’ success. I also would not write poems whose rhetorical posturing couched personal experience as a somehow intrinsic universal truth. I believe all different kinds of poems must be in the universe—it is good for the art to have plurality, even at the expense of “meritocracy”—but it was not something I could or would not undertake.
Ironically, two things fell into place. First, fucking around one day on the Poetry Foundation’s website, I idly scrolled the site and stumble upon the “forms of poetry” page. My friend, Nick Demske’s recently published book utterly redefined the scope and possibility of the sonnet—sick, twisted, and culturally adroit, these poems manipulated the form to such degree that the poems called into question the form’s historical inheritance. There was some kind of itch in me—I don’t know how else to describe it, so many things I do are impulsive and intuitive—but I came across a form called the Triolet. The basic set up is this:
ABaAabAB. The capital letters represent repeated phrases. Small letters end-rhyme.
Apparently, the form came into place in the early 14th century in France by a Benedictine monk. The timing and the creation of the poem make me think its initial function was song—hymnal perhaps—I’d need to do more complete research. From the little research I have done, the form appeared to have fallen out of use until the 19th century—usually for witty parlor poems. Thomas Hardy, however, put out “How Great My Grief” and gave the form some emotional heft. Its power lies in the repetitions, where time and POV evolve and emotionally break down Hardy’s speak to the point of a felt grief as opposed to the merely articulated one he began the poem. Other than Hardy, I have only encountered the triolet sparingly in contemporary poetry: Sandra McPherson had one from the 1970’s, Rachel Hadas had a series in Poetry; and my favorite of all was AE Stallings “Triolet: Line Attributed Apocryphally to Martin Luther” whose turns and repetitions are delicious and the poem itself is just badass fun and brilliant. However, in all the modern incarnations—probably because they adhering to a true 8-11 syllabic line—these poems’ potency lies in their lyricism. They are not haiku or early Modernist Imagism by any means, but they also really boil away any intellectual and narrative scaffolding. Dive right in and be on target or have the poem fail.
I sat with this form just swimming around my brain. After initially—and petulantly—washing my hands of this whole “poetry writing” thing, I knew I could not tear myself away the arts (as a friend FB suggested I do if I could—but you know, if you got to write, you to write). I also knew I wanted not to avoid self, but avoid self-drama and indulgence. This was not a critique of past poems; this was a fundamental shift of where I wanted my poetry to go. I wanted to write poems that were investigatory and discursive as well as experiential. And like Berryman’s or other more traditional sonnet sequences, I wanted to build in a series of juxtapositions and circularities that would allow the poems to ring off each other, both discursively and lyrically.
I realized quickly I didn’t want the terza rima, rondeau, ghazal, or pantoum—these were open-ended forms that could easily take me back to self-indulgence—and really, I wanted to build a self-contained system that allowed me—over the course of a long sequence—to contradict and undercut. The sestina felt too long and because of its length and number of repetitions, breeds neurosis I was not looking for. The villanelle, while engaging a repetition of phrase, also had stanzas, which meant air. For some reason I’m still trying to figure out, I wanted a singular, tactile chunk. The list could go on, but let me cut to chase and say that it came down to the triolet and the Italian sonnet. Sonnets, especially in crown sequences, often give enough time to build before the turn. But there was something a bit too—I don’t know—excessive in the time the sonnet gave (strange claim, I know).
Because of the triolet’s repetitions, there was a greater chance for syntactical inversion and homophonic play. However, because my syntax sprawls at times and I wanted to investigate as much capture experience—I needed a longer line and a different way to conceive of the poetic occasion. This is where the second coincidence comes in. This past Fall, I was teaching an early American literature survey to honors students. This course covers the time span of pre-Colonial to the Civil War. The honors students often outdid me, with such flooring observations as “Do you think Benjamin Franklin was building an American bible in his Autobiography” or “one could argue the pioneer texts were not documents of isolation as much as they were for wishes for community—ergo, they are not documents solely of disillusionment.” We talked about Franklin and Thoreau a great deal—both of whom haughtily regaled the details of their experiments, but somehow quietly acknowledged that the experiment of self is inherently flawed but should be pursued nonetheless—if anything, it could make for a more conscientious society.
I also had the great luck of teaching—for a special freshman comp class—Hans Zinsser’s brilliant 1930’s classic Rats, Lice, and History. Zinsser desires to write a biography of typhus; biography in the Greek sense of the word, meaning a particular set of people as opposed to the individual (he was very weary of Freud). His narrative framework roughly mimics the scientific method—he starts large with the foundations of what makes life possible—he’s a bacteriologist—and slowly (and quite to the frustration of my students) whittles down the conditions for a real biography to take place by using methods of exclusion, dialectical synthesis, and mutation. He hops from France to Spain to India in one paragraph with no theoretic transition—as a doctor would present numerous findings to his colleagues.
With these large texts from both classes—and their contemporary rebuttals (Lawrence was a miserable dude)—were slowly awakening in my head, something quiet accidental happened. I found myself going back to—of all people—Emily Dickinson. Hitherto, I always was in love with her counterpoint, Whitman. He was unabashed, delighted in excess, and would say pretty much any damn thing he wanted in a poem. And—however erroneously—I saw Whitman in other writers I loved: late Williams, Ginsberg, Stanford, Baraka. Their poetic extremes insisted one engage on the writer’s levels; the reader would take it all or take nothing. But there was something about Dickinson—and I’d also say this too about Marian Moore—that did not require insistence. Maybe it’s a gender thing; I am no expert in this matter. But both Dickinson and Moore did not work to arrive to a synthesized world (not to be confused with harmonious). Rather, that world was there in line one. And it was with my class, for the first time, I looked closely at Dickinson’s dash—how it utterly opens the self to the world because I nor my students could never tell what would modify off of what. Yet, she also existed within the tight confines of meter and rhyme and so an inherent tension exists between the open-endedness of her grammar and the sonic fixedness of her stanzaics. And finally—to read a large selection of her work—is to see a true project at hand—one that evolves, debates, denies, deludes, cautions, etc. The entirety of her collected poems created, I’d say, a discursive framework when juxtaposed and/or read thoroughly, but whose individual poems functioned on sonic and syntactical invention and singular moments.
And so, for now, I have really started to fuck around with Dickinson’s dash within the triolet. I don’t have the nuance and control of Dickinson obviously and my poems most likely will make some lit journals that my grandchildren may discover in my attic once I’m dead. That said, there is something so amazing about long-lining the confines of triolet and messing around with sentence inversion on the refrains, but still adhering to the end rhymes and line count.
It boils down to this: the triolet gives me enough room to build an intellectual or emotional moment, but then undercuts in the middle. I cannot tell you how many times I think I’m heading one place on line three only to have line four kick in and take the rug out from my feet. And I build again in lines 5-6, but then the last repetition requires another shift. I find that every statement is tenuous; the form utterly breaks down any authority and self-indulgence—there is no time for pity or wallowing or self-mythologizing victimhood. Rather, using the triolet to write about depression and convalescence (as it is an illness), forces me to treat things as factual. And since the poems allow little to no room for narrative, I find that the sequencing of the triolet forces me to do what I never could do before—treat myself as a complex entity—mind, body, and chemicals. Moreover, the form and sequencing forces me to engage the outside world on its own terms (well, as close as I’ll ever get) because I simply don’t have time in one poem to interject a long-winded self and the sequence would fall apart if there was no larger, competing apparatus against one POV.
I have 25 triolets. I don’t know where I’ll end—probably double this. I want to see where they evolve to—I’m feeling Zinsser’s grasp banging around my head. Here are two triolets that I hope will mark a new progression in my art, but more importantly, in my life:
Inch below the ring finger, right hand freckle two short black hairs
intertwining. To name them ick—correctly—relies methodology—
ladder down a crater whose bottom bottoms out—new black floor
or a right hand severed in a saw blade—stump—prosthetic—hairs
a biography whose page has turned, lamentations lost years
later—a decimal in a tome of checkbooks, a comma in Socrates’
two short last breaths—hollowed-out phalange—freckles & hairs:
dust & dirt intertwining—relies a love of ick. A name is not a method.
I exist from a series of mysterious accidents. No coincidence
when I cease I will, in time, break into carbon—Out the swamp,
spread the air: so forms the field: I the future stunted stand
of firs. A mysterious series of accidents are not coincidence;
they perpetuate, they build, they are the ongoing circumstance
we call knowledge. We are, at best, peg-legged, sonorous bumps—
a collective accident of mysterious intellect. Coincidence
our words, over eons, have not ceded & fell into swamp.