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Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Stephen Dobyns essays "Best Words Best Order"

This book is a joy to read. Accessible, intelligent, informative, entertaining--everything one could want in a book. Stephen Dobyns has written nine collections of poetry and nineteen novels, so he knows of what he speaks. He makes it clear that his viewpoints are not always held universally, but to this reader they made infinite sense. Furthermore, there was no posturing, no 'talking down' or excluding which was my experience with Gluck. I learned and I learned a LOT. A breath of fresh air!

The title "Best Words Best Order" comes from Coleridge. In the chapter on tone, Dobyns says "the end product is the poem's intention and how that intention is communicated: what Coleridge called the best words in the best order.

I urge people to buy and read this book. I am only going to pick out excerpts that struck me as noteworthy (for myself) rather than do a commentary--and leave the balance of the goodies (and there is a feast of them) for you to read yourselves.
There is SO much here, I implore you to read this.

In the preface, Dobyns set the tone with this:

I believe that a poem is an emotional-intellectual-physical construct that is meant to be re-experienced by the reader. I believe that a poem is a window that hangs between two or more human beings who otherwise live in darkened rooms. I also believe that a poem is a noise and that noise is shaped. A poem is not natural speech, it is artificial speech. I believe that whether one is a formal poet or a free verse poet, one is always involved with the relation between stressed and unstressed syllables. And I believe that a poem doesn't try to present reality but presents a metaphor that represents some aspect of the writer's relation to the world: a metaphor than can be potentially experienced and become meaningful to the reader. In the next several hundred pages I will expand upon these ideas and ideally they will grow more precise.


--The deception is that the work can remain tied to the writer, even that it expresses him or her. The finished piece belongs to the reader, not the writer. If the work is successful, the writer has to become invisible.

"Metaphor & the Authenticating Act of Memory"

-- The more sophisticated we get about language, the less we are moved by its simple expression. Poets constantly seek ways to make emotion fresh. One of the most obvious functions of metaphor is to heighten emotion.

--The memory is more actively engaged by verbs that engage the senses.

--Many weak poems substitute vagueness for mystery.

"Writing the Reader's Life"

--A piece of writing is a body of information governed by a purpose...
purpose is predominantly communicated through structure...the selection and organization of significant moments of time.

--A work of art must engage the intellect. It must engage the emotions. It must engage the imagination. It must contain within it some definition of beauty.

--All fiction and poetry begin in metaphor...the act of inspiration is, I think, the sudden apprehension or grasping of metaphor.

--what the writer uses most often to create tension is surprise...all good metaphor incorporates surprise...a good poem constantly uses surprise.

--we write, finally, to be free of things, not to express ourselves; to become articulate, not to mumble to ourselves; to drive our feelings and vague ideas into consciousness and clarity. Structure is our primary means of achieving articulateness and consequently of communicating our discoveries.

"Notes on Free Verse"

--The study of "the elements and structures involved in the rhythmic and dynamics aspects of speech" is called prosody. Free verse employs a prosody governed by the unexpected.

--Why a poem requires rhythm is a much larger question. Most simply it can be said that rhythm is a texturing of language...for now let us define a poem as a rhythmetically ordered noise of indeterminate duration; it is rhythmically sculptured sound...that is meant to be heard gives rhythm an importance that is doesn't have in prose.

--in much free verse, the poet consistently tries to keep the reader from correctly anticipating the direction of the poem. It is partly for this reason that "surprise" became a major tool of 20th Century poetry.

--In 1913 Osip Mandelstam wrote "the capacity for astonishment is the poet's greatest virtue."

This essay is 77 pages long, and goes into the evolution of free verse, and many detailed analyses of stressed and unstressed syllables, counterpoint created by lineation and syntax, and the manipulation of repeating elements--all components of
free verse. It is so well written and accessible that I can only urge you to read it. The history of free verse, Whitman and Wordsworth, Baudelaire and Verlaine--the players and their contributions, their quotes and their differences are intriguing. The whole discussion of UK English vs. American English is worth reading this essay alone.

"Pacing: The Ways a Poem Moves"

--A poem communicates as much through the manner of its telling as through what is told.

--Unless a poet's language is precise and interesting, exact pacing is impossible.

--Clarity must be a constant concern. It is one of the tools the poet uses to move back and forth between the reader's ignorance and knowledge, and without this pacing is hardly possible.

--To learn to control pacing is one of the many ways a poet learns to control the poem. As Baudelaire said, "There are no minutiae in matters of art."

"The Function of Tone"

--When we approach a poem, we try to find its emotional center and to discover why the poem was written. It is through tone that we make these discoveries.

--an imposed tone such as sentimentality or earnestness is a minor form of spectacle. It is a rhetorical device imposed from without in order to convince the reader of the value of what is within.

--Our first question is "Why was this thing (poem)made?" Until we understand the poem's tone, we can gain no sense of the poet's intention. Until we gain a sense of intention, we have no understanding of the poem itself.

"The Voices One Listens To"

--And there is a sentence in an essay of Charles Baudelaire's on Edgar Allen Poe that I often think about: "In the whole composition, not a single word must be allowed to slip in that is not loaded with intention, that does not tend, directly or indirectly, to complete the premeditated design."

--Years ago on National Public Radio the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was asked how she could continue to write when faced with imminent censorship. Her answer was that one must write as if one were already dead. If it is necessary that one must write, then one must write regardless of the consequences, even if it means not publishing.

This essay discusses the difference between "political" and "partisan" and all the treachery of writers being trapped in political correctness, approval by outsiders, and readers' responses.

Rilke wrote that the writer must write with a sense of complete freedom, as if he or she were already dead or as if no one else existed.

"The Traffic between Two Worlds"

The two worlds are our common reality and that "other" world which for simplicity we shall call the artistic or spiritual world. This essay concerns the ways we traverse from one to another and why we should.

When our sense of value becomes entirely material, then we treat other people as commodities and ourselves as consumers. The result of being too much of one world or too much of the other is to lose a sense of contrast and to become too centered on the self and to be less able to see ourselves in relation to the world around us. We become isolated.

--One of the functions of poetry is to chart this other world. Poetry explores the world of feeling just as an explorer charts the physical world.

--The successful poem is a microcosm of this other world and a microcosm of the poet. In addition it is a microcosm of the time and society in which it was written.

--It is empathy that lets the poet take subjects from the world, then lets the reader find himself or herself within the subject and become a participant within the poem, since, after, all it is the reader's world, too. Some writers have such an abundance of empathy they never have to think about it; others must remind themselves constantly.

Rilke's Growth as a Poet

A most unsettling essay about what it takes to be a successful poet. Dobyns explores the life of Rainer Maria Rilke (perhaps the greatest lyric poet of the 20th Century) after telling us that talent is merely potential,the promise of possibility--but that it takes more. Talent isn't enough. Determination, ambition, energy and gall as well as the need to have one's ego serve the writing (and not the reverse). Most poets go through two stages of a three stage process, but the third stage is where the difficulty lies. Rilke breaks down that last stage in his own letters as the following:

--1. A willingness to face and forgive all the nastiness (insanity) that the unconscious mind dredges up.

--2. The need to look (at something) without imposing one's prejudices, without any ulterior motive. (to be concerned about telling the audience about one's loves and hates is not to make art.)

--3. To measure the work against your conscience. Are you truthful in your gazing?
Are you being influenced by outside concerns: fame, money or love? Is it the totality of your craft? Are you lying about its completion?

--4. The need of unconsciousness. Whoever meddles, arranges, injects his human deliberation, his wit, his advocacy, his intellectual agility is already disturbing and clouding their activity. Ideally, should be unconscious of his insights. (Rilke made distinctions between 'making' and 'revising' and the making was the unconscious part.

--5. The final point is that the artist must not turn his/her back on any subject.
If it catches his gaze, he is not permitted to turn his back on it.

"Mandelstam: The Poet as Event"

More extensive history on the Russian Symbolists, and those who broke from them with their own ideas. Olip Mandelstam's career culminates in 1933 with a poem which is blatantly anti-Stalin. For four years he was harassed and ultimately sent to Siberian prison camp where he died. He asked his wife, "Why do you complain? Poetry is respected only in this country--people are killed for it. There's no place where more people are killed for it." In later memoirs, his wife declared that Mandelstam always said that they (the authorities) "always knew what they were doing: the aim was to destroy not only people, but the intellect itself."

"Chekhov's Sense of Writing as Seen through His Letters"

This essay about Anton Chekhov informs us how the man raised himself out of a vulgar, abusive childhood into an extraordinary artistic life, one dedicated to objectivity and compassion for his fellow humans, good and bad. It is inspiring and relevant, but also I think a wonderful indicator of where Dobyns' own ideals lie. Throughout this book, I have been impressed with his scholarly objectivity, clarity, and his many ways of teaching that artists should strive to transcend the mundane.

"Ritsos and the Metaphysical Moment"

One of my favorite essays, Dobyn's addresses the work of Yannis Ritsos, a Greek poet who is also a Marxist (1909 to 1990)--one of the greats of the 20th Century, and I had never heard of him. The whole essay is about poetry and metaphysical moments and a history of poets and the metaphysical, including the occult. This is fascinating reading. I wanted more, more, more! It again addresses that "other world" (out of our common reality) that the poet taps, magically. To read the poems chosen by Dobyns as exemplary of this poet's ground of being is worth the whole book.

In pre-fifth-century Greece, according to Jaeger, "the poet was still the undisputed leader of his people...the Greeks always felt that a poet was in the broadest and deepest sense the educator of his people."

--The poem (one of Ritsos's) a sense of a world far larger than we had previously imagined. For Ritsos, what is important is that a connection is made between human beings and that our lives have been increased. This is his business as a poet: to help us live by awakening us to something beyond the mundate, by trying to connect us to a mystery that his poems celebrate.

"Cemetary Nights"

This essay is titled after Dobyns' poem of the same name. It is a wonderful, wonderful explanation of its genesis and more importantly, the entire "other worldliness" of Dobyns' own dark internal life. He says "Sometimes I think communication is all we have--a voice like a silver wire extending through the dark or one chunk of flesh pressing against another chunk of flesh. Sometimes I don't even think that."

As Suzanne Langer says, a work of art is the objectification of subjective life. It gives form to inward experience and makes it conceivable. it helps a person to define himself or herself in relation to the world and even predict the course of that world. For me, this makes each poem a political act, and even though I expect no results from these political acts, it keeps me writing. There is another Asian figure that I often quote to myself: "Sardine threatens, who knows it?" But writing poems is what I do best and so I keep doing it. It is also what I like to do best. Clearly my definitions as to the function of poetry are connected to the series of definities that allow me to tolerate myself, let me get up each morning and not put a bullet in my head. That finally is why I keep coming back to thinking that communication is possible. Not only does it allow me to write, it keeps me alive.

And I must give you the poem:

Cemetary Nights

Sweet dreams, sweet memories, sweet taste of earth:
here's how the dead pretend they're still alive--
one drags up a chair, a lamp, unwraps
the newspaper from somebody's garbage,
then sits holding the paper up to his face.
No matter if the lamp is busted and his eyes
have fallen out. Or some of the others
group together in front of the TV, chuckling
and slapping what's left of their knees.
No matter if the screen is dark. Four more
sit at a table with glasses and plates,
lift forks to their mouths and chew. No matter
if their plates are empty and they chew only air.
Two of the dead roll on the ground,
banging and rubbing their bodies together
as if in love or frenzy. No matter if their skin
breaks off, that their genitals are just a memory.

The head cemetery rat calls in all the city rats
who pay him what rats find valuable--
the wing of a pigeon or ear of a dog.
The rats perch on tombstones and the cheap
statues of angels and oh, they hold their bellies
and laugh, laugh until their guts half break,
while the stars give off the same cold light
that all these dead once planned their lives by,
and in someone's yard a dog barks and barks
just to see if some animal as dumb as he is
will wake from sleep and perhaps bark back.

Just a hint, the 3rd to last line...the dog?
That's the poem!

"The Maker's Manipulation of Time"

This essay explains in great detail the relationship between time and art.
Also it addresses the need for "play" in life and art. (the most interesting point being that a football game, besides being a competitive sport, is a playing out of our approaching death--an enactment of our fate! (Perhaps I can get more interested in football now?).

The "maker" is the artist and must stay ahead of the audience, and poetry is born of play. He stresses the "making" and "manipulating" by means of craft, and not just content. Poems don't just float in, as some would have readers believe.

--The field of play on which the audience and maker are engaged is time itself, that future we have been discussing. Literature and music are sequential, and sequential art demands the manipulation of future moments.

You need to read this one for the full benefits of Dobyns' penetrating insight.

--The play aspects of poetry are dependent on communication and on the poet's need to think at every moment of the revision process where the reader is in relation to the work in order to "enchant the reader and hold him spellbound" as Huizings wrote. In technical terms the poet achieves this by controlling the reader's temporal experience of the poem, In larger terms, however, the poet needs to define to himself or herself what is meant by communication and even the function of poetry within the culture. Indifference to such matters on the part of the poet is perhaps a reason for an increasing indifference to poetry in the world at large.

"The Passerby in the Birdless Street"

This is a plea for art to take its rightful place alongside science, but done in a very entertaining and affective way. The title is taken from a Jean Follain poem which Dobyns uses to illustrate his points.

--Every poem with an emotional center tries to make an emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical link with the reader. Some do it simple, some in a more complex fashion. Nearly all do it by leaving out information that the reader discovers by working out the analogy--the puzzle--which leads the reader to experience the poem. The poem does not simply refer to an event, it enacts the event by providing answers to the reader's questions of how and why.

--Our enemy is ignorance. Discursive and nondiscursive thought are ways of decreasing it. Ignore one or the other and we have decreased our ability to reduce ignorance by half. It astonishes me that there are people who continue to label art as a frill that has no place in education. It astonishes me that critics with major reputations see only the puzzles available in art and ignore its affective nature, its gift to develop our sense of empathy, to expand our ability to intuit (itself a type of thought), its role in helping us to learn how to live. And I'm astonished by those poets who go by many names--language poets, postmodernists, neo-surrealists--who choose to replace the affective nature of poetry with something else--sound, wit, form, whatever--thereby reducing poetry to the level of decoration.

"The Problem of Beauty and the Requirement of Art"

This final essay explores the various definitions and attitudes about Beauty
and most especially its' place in Art. I loved reading the various points of view, from the very shallow (flesh beauty) to the Romantics (universal beauty). Ultimately I agree with Dobyns -- a point of view embracing a 'higher' aspiration in art, but
not limited.

--a writer needs to redefine beauty every time he or she begins to write, bearing in mind that beauty can be violent and ugly. Our milieu, the contemporary, the time in which we breathe, is our entry into our work--the door we open to reach the beauty that is the work's purpose, the dog that barks. We can't let the contemporary become a locked door by being controlled by a dominating fashion that, if listened to, will trivialize the work.


My problem with this book (all of which I have read twice and much of which I have read many more times than than twice), and with your post about this book, is that it reminds me that I know nothing, I will always know nothing, I will always be at the very start of learning how to gaze and how to speak of gazing.
That's the mark of a true teacher, isn't it? To show you how little you know? I felt exactly the same way...but loved "how" he taught and that he cared so deeply that I learn.
Wow, this is a wonderful post, Bev!
Thanks, Mary! Great to see you.
"Rilke wrote that the writer must write with a sense of complete freedom, as if he or she were already dead or as if no one else existed."

That's one of my greatest struggles as a writer.

Thanks so much for this. I've added his book to my list.
I hope you enjoy it, Barbara!!

just found this and am blown away. what he says about the poet becoming invisible--I believe that to be the ideal for all writers and genres of writing. (Updike talks about it for fiction.)

and I love what he says about vagueness substituting for mystery. I must use this with students.
I love this book! Thanks for blogging about it.

Forgive me for this tiny nitpick: "Cemetery..."
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