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September 05, 2003

Interview With Mike Snider, Part 2

Friedrich --

Continuing our interview with the poet and blogger Mike Snider. Part One can be seen here. Mike's own blog is here -- please do pay it a visit.

2Blowhards: Some general rube-like musings and whinings ... I make an effort to read some contempo poetry, I'm interested and open -- yet often when I've finished lingering over a new poem I wind up thinking, Whew, that certainly wasn't worth the effort. It's all lyric, and it's all manufactured epiphanies, few of which I find I can buy. While often when I listen to country and western, for instance, I'll think, Wow, rhyme, rhythm, cleverness, wordplay, concision: pleasure! How much of this can we blame on me and my rube-ishness, and how much on what's become of the poetry world itself? I get a kick out of such poets as Betjeman, Larkin, Wendy Cope -- easy to enjoy, easy to appreciate. And I'd recommend them to people who gripe about nothing of worth being published in ages. I have my modernist pleasures too (Dennis Cooper, Charles Simic), but I'd be shyer about pushing them on people. Modernist pleasures are usually rather special ones.

Mike Snider: From one rube to another, Betjeman, Larkin, and Cope are pretty wonderful, and there aren't many out there who can match them. But the first two are dead, and Cope's last book, after long years of nothing, isn't up to her first two. Richard Wilbur, now in his 80s, continues to write marvelous poetry and to produce incredible verse translations of classical French theater. Among at least somewhat younger folk (some a lot younger) I like Alicia Stallings, Tim Murphy, Rhina Espaillot, Jenny Factor, and Kim Addonizio, but I think R. S. (Sam) Gwynn may be my favorite these days. His "No Word of Farewell: Selected Poems, 1970-2000" is in print (and buyable here), and includes selections from the incredibly funny mock-epic "The Narcissiad," in which the poets make war on each other until only one is left. Sam describes the eventual winner early on:

Confident in his art, he knows he's great
Because his subsidy comes from the State
For teaching self-expression to the masses
In jails, nut-houses, worse, in grad-school classes
In which his sermon is (his poems show it)
That anyone can learn to be a poet.
With pen in hand he takes the poet's stance
To write, instead of sonnets, sheaves of grants
Which touch the bureaucrats and move their hearts
To turn the spigot on and flood the arts
With cold cash, carbon copies, calculators,
And, for each poet, two administrators.
In brief, his every effort at creation
Is one more act of self-perpetuation
To raise the towering babble of his Reputation.

That's not calculated to win friends in the academic poetry establishment. Neither is this more serious piece:

At Rose's Range

Old Gladys, in lime polyester slacks,
Might rate a laugh until she puts her weight
Squarely behind the snubnosed .38,
Draws down and pulls. The bulldog muzzle cracks
And barks six times, and six black daisies flower
Dead in the heart of Saddam's silhouette.
She turns aside, empties, reloads, gets set
And fires again. This goes on for an hour.
Later, we pass the time at the front door
Where she sits smoking, waiting for the friend
Who drives her places after dark: You know,
Earl's free next month. He says he wants some more
Of what she's got, and she's my daughter so
I reckon there's just one way this can end.

2B: I poked around the official poetry world a couple of times and was surprised by what I encountered. For instance, at the time that the New Formalism was making a splash, I talked to various heads of poetry departments and organizations. They all but called the New Formalists a bunch of fascists.

MS: Part of that results from the way the New Formalists presented themselves: the Preface to 1996's "Rebel Angels" (I have the '98 edition) says "the most significant development in recent poetry has been a resurgence of meter and rhyme, as well as narrative, among large numbers of younger poets, after a period when these essential elements of verse had been suppressed. ... These poets represent nothing less than a revolution, a fundamental change, in the art of poetry as it is practiced in this country."

Those are fighting words, and not really true. It was hardly large numbers, and, in terms of critical influence, much less important than, say, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets (I love writing it out that way). The more or less standard collection of New Formalist criticism, "The New Expansive Poetry" (2nd edition edited by Sam Gwynn), also contains some pretty strong language. Tim Steele, in "Tradition and Revolution: The Modern Movement and Fee Verse," comes close to saying that the impetus towards free verse was just a mistake: "The modern movements seem not to have comprehended or admitted the singularity of non-metrical verse, nor has its singularity been sufficiently appreciated by subsequent poets and critics. ... As for Eliot's assertions that alterations of idiom inevitably bring alterations of metric, the assertion is simply not borne out by the testimony of literary history, certainly not by the history Eliot himself cites. ... the conflation [of idiom and meter] represents a fundamental confusion and mixing-together of properties that have been, for most of literary history, considered and treated as distinguishable." Dana Gioia, in "Notes on the New Formalism," writes that the traditional educational emphasis on rhyme and meter, and on speaking and memorizing poems, emphasized the "immediately communicable and communal pleasures of the art." "Certainly," he continues, "a major reason for the decline in poetry's popular audience stems directly from the abandonment of this aural education for the joylessly intellectual approach of critical analysis."

2B: Hardly seems a reason to accuse them of being fascists.

MS: The New Formalists also claim to value clarity and the communicative nature of poetry--anathema to postmodernism. Silliman wrote on his blog (here), about the clearly written sentences of a poet whose work he admires that "like rhyme or the tub-thumping metrics of iambic pentameter, the form insinuates a vision of unmediated & harmonious existence that is patently a lie." In other words, don't make sense, because there isn't any. And it sounds like he agrees with the premise of Turner and Poppel's "The Neural Lyre," that metrical organization can directly affect the nervous system, but he'd probably spell it "Neural Liar."

Not only did the New Formalists seem to tell everyone they'd been blind for 80 years, some of the more prominent figures didn't have the right politics--and that may explain the mailing list difference. You know that much of the literary academic world was and is at least vaguely left -- one poster at New Poetry reported that her students could not read Wallace Stevens because "they read in their little intros that he was a Republican insurance exec and decide he was a nasty prig, and there is little I can do about it, for all I work to separate poet from work and to involve them in something as wonderful as 'Sunday Morning.'" -- and the langpo folks were explicitly and militantly socialist.

Gioia, like Stevens, is a businessman and a Republican -- he got appointed by Bush to head the NEA. Mark Jarman is a active Christian. Turner really does glamorize combat. Gwynn confuses people because he's a straight-ticket Democrat who belongs to the NRA.

All that sounds like the last twenty years have been a struggle between the postmodern socialist langpo folks and the reactionary capitalist formalistas, but in truth both groups have been pretty marginal in their influence on mainstream poetry -- itself pretty marginal.

2B: Are you in any way a New Formalist?

MS: The New Formalists didn't have much influence on me, either. Though I knew Fred Turner in the seventies, he was writing free verse then. In the last three years I've had some contact with some of them, mostly at Eratosphere (here), a kind of New Formalist outpost on the web.

I met Gioia, Steele, and Gwynn, among others, at West Chester (here) two years ago. But I went looking for them because I'd already found my own way to form. From the beginning I'd dabbled with rhyme and (pretty much broken) meter. But of all people it was Stanley Fish (of whom I recently read there is no garde more avant) who really got me going. I read his "Surprised by Sin" for a graduate course on Milton and the book blew me away. Milton's primary rhetorical difficulty in justifying the ways of God, Fish argued, was how to portray innocence as power, rather than ignorance or naivete: the reader could not be allowed to feel superior to Adam and Eve and to think that he or she wouldn't have been fooled by Satan. Milton's response was to build up our First Parents and more importantly to lay traps for readers so they, too, would be caught in the poem's Satan's snares, at least for a while. He did it a little too well -- Keats and Blake, among others, fell for them completely.

A quick aside and a question: The title of the New Formalist anthology comes from Keats' statement that he would have been among the rebel angels. And how did Fish get from close study of authorial manipulation of the reader's response, to arguing, as he did later, that the reader's response, independent of authorial intention, is the text?

Anyway, one of the things Milton did was to use a conversation with Raphael to demonstrate, among other things, just how reasonable, knowledgeable, and curious Adam was. In the course of that conversation, which occupies the central third of the poem, we get cosmology, astronomy, geology, history sacred and secular, biology, ethics -- everything.

Now the most remarkable thing about this, to me, was the intellectual ambition. For a long time I'd been dissatisfied with the mode of my poetry and that of almost all of the poetry I was reading. There was nothing left but the lyric, and the only lyric was the personal observation -- the manufactured epiphanies you referred to. Well, I couldn't imagine liking anyone who was interested in my perpetual epiphanies, and why would I want a reader I didn't like? Fish's analysis and Milton's example seemed to show viable strategies for the presentation of serious argument and thought in verse. (I don't know yet whether that's true, because I'm still -- occasionally -- working on it.)

The other part was having something to think and argue about, and that led to epistemology. Milton was from the last generation who could whole-heartedly believe people were made in the image of God, and that it was our rational part which was made that way. It was this participation in the nature of God which made his project of justifying God's ways possible. Still, even he had Raphael warn Adam not to spend too much time thinking about how the planets moved.

After Milton, as science took more and more ground from religion and philosophy, and the mind-body pseudo-problem appeared to grow in importance, poets retreated further and further from making any claims about things they could not directly experience. By the 19th century, Wordsworth, in the Prelude to the never-finished Excursion, could explicitly compare his project to Milton's, but it had shrunk to an exploration of the poet's mind, and after Freud, even that was lost. Blavatsky expelled Yeats from the Theosophical Society for trying to raise the soul of a dead flower, and the central imagery of Yeats' work is drawn from the automatic writing of his wife.

But evolutionary theory puts us back in the garden, and quantum physics makes the observer a participant, and evolutionary psychology dissolves the mind-body problem. We can at last talk intelligently about how we know the things we do know. We can't know things completely, but neither could Milton completely know the mind of God.

All that's pretty high-falutin' stuff, when really the truth is that I'm a ham. I love to perform. I write poems so that I can say them to people and they'll applaud. That's a kind of answer to your questions about my relationship to poetry. I love slams and poetry readings and open mics, or at least I do when I'm the one on stage. I'm loud and I've got a lot of presence and I want people to remember me and what I've written.

2B: What kind of impact has the performing had on the writing? And to what extent can you say that the writing is a kind of performing?

MS: I don't write much when I can't perform. I'd probably work as a cook (I'm a very good amateur) if I couldn't write poetry, because I get off on people enjoying what I do -- I love it when you suggest that artists should have to find their buyers the same way cooks do.

But what works on the stage can fall dead on the page, usually because it's too dependent on a performer's ability to engage an audience. Every now and then I get convinced that my poems suck, that audiences like them because they're full of jokes and sex, and working with forms is a kind of insurance against that. I try very hard to make pentameter sound like normal speech, to make the rhymes sound natural, and sometimes I get it right. I can point to the work for those that recognize the technical stuff and I can listen and watch an audience react when I read. At my last open mic there were a bunch of fine hip hop poets on just before me, and I got up saying a "Now you're in for it -- here comes 20 lines of anapestic tetrameter followed by a pentameter villanele and two Spenserian sonnets." I could see my wife cringing in the third row, but it went like magic, real applause after every poem, whistles and stomping at the end, the hip hop poets liking my stuff as much as I liked theirs. If only I could do that every time!

2B: What's the writing life like for you these days?

MS: Life continues to be crazy, and every other weekend I make a 300-mile pilgrimage to my wife and kids and then 300 back to work. But I'm healthy, playing music, and getting a reasonable amount of writing done. Could be lots worse. I might as well -- no should -- get back to work. Hope everything's well with you.

Many thanks to Mike Snider.



posted by Michael at September 5, 2003


I find it quite entertaining that Mr. Snider is inspired by Milton's ambitions. One of the chief virtues of the arts is their ability to sustain conversations, or analogies, over the centuries. It reminds me of a remark by Frederick the Great, who left a social gathering once remarking how eager he was to resume his conversation with men who had been dead for centuries, and yet were curiously so much more lively than the living. (Of course, being an absolute monarch, he could get away with remarks like that.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 6, 2003 01:53 AM

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