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October 23, 2005

"44 Sonnets"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Of the new books I've spent quality time with this year, my favorite has been the shortest: Mike Snider's poetry collection "44 Sonnets." By my count, 44 sonnets equals about 5300 words -- I've written blog postings that were longer. But Snider does an awful lot with his words. I found "44 Sonnets" as moving and engaging as a much-clung-to novel, or as the kind of CD whose music you find yourself returning to dozens of times.

Sonnets? Sonnets? Y'mean, like Shakespeare and the Romantics? Note to those who haven't yet stumbled across this fact: There's a rhyming-and-metering, traditional-forms renaissance going on in the poetry world. It's typical -- as in annoying/amusing -- that the academic poetry world isn't thrilled by this development, and that the official poetry institutions are being pissy and dismissive too. But a fact is a fact, and the scene itself is lively and welcoming one. This is an eye-opening anthology of recent poetry written in traditional forms. Eratosphere is this crowd's web hangout. And the West Chester Poetry Conference is the scene's annual in-person get-together.

Interesting, isn't it, the way that a traditional-poetry-forms scene has taken shape at the same time that similar developments are occurring in architecture, in music, and in the visual arts? What with so much of our cultural life going cyber-electronic, you might not expect a renaissance in traditional forms-and-skills to be happening at the same time. In any case, you won't find the coverage these developments deserve in the conventional arts press, which remains as devoted as ever to its standard-issue mix of happenin'-media-events and the academic avant-garde.

Hmmm: To simplify things for myself -- without, I hope, doing too much of an injustice to the book -- I'm going to discuss "44 Sonnets" as though it exists primarily on three levels.

* As individual creations, Snider's poems are lovely: as casual as notes on postcards yet with that grand sonnet-structure thing chiming away in the background. This mingling of the informal and the formal -- of the passing and the eternal -- combined with Snider's generally rueful tone makes it hard not to be reminded of Philip Larkin. (If you haven't read Larkin, snap to. Try this collection. The audio version of it is wonderful too.) Larkin's tonal speciality was a kind of bleak bitterness that he made seem very humane. By comparison, Snider is companionable and friendly, intimate without being pushy about it. But Snider has a Larkin-esque accessibility and virtuosity, as well as a similar kind of half-muffled sense of tragic mischief.

There's another thing that reading the poems reminds me of: listening to the more personal and quiet kinds of country music -- Jimmie Dale Gilmore, for instance, or Guy Clark. This is partly because Gilmore and Clark are rumpled, sad/funny artists too. But there's another reason: Snider's poetry always has a full-bodied performance charge. As lowkey as they often are, his poems have a handmade physicality and an emotional warmth and presence -- an open and frank aliveness. Here's an example:


The Fall

When we'd pile in my great-aunt's Chevrolet
And drive to see the trees turned red and gold,
Grandma would scowl. "Reminds me of death," she'd say.
"It means that everything is getting old."
"Now, Helen, 'after winter comes the spring.'"
But she'd have none of that. "It came and went
For you and me, Sister." And then she'd sing
"Go, tell Aunt Rhody," just for devilment.
I have her picture, nineteen, sure to break
The heart of every man she ever met --
Another from her fifties, in a fake
Nun's habit sucking on a cigarette,
And both are faithful. Grandma, you were right.
There's nothing grows in Fall except the night.


A lovely and moody snapshot-plus-reflection, no? My first time through the collection, I was drawn along by the casual ease, then drawn back for more by I'm not entirely sure what. In the poem above, for instance, I found myself staring at the third line, chopped exactly in two, then landing in the fourth line with a self-contained closure. The fifth line is just as self-contained, yet it opens up new vistas ... The poem's weighty themes -- death/life, light/dark, the question of faith -- mingle with and grow organically out of a casually recalled, small memory. To my mind, the poem is part email and part hymn.

* On what I'm thinking of as the books' second level, the poems work together, building on and ricocheting off of each other. Read as a whole, "44 Sonnets" tells a single story and paints a single picture. The poems aren't linked in any intricate way, and the book isn't the kind of glittering narrative-poetry stunt that something like Vikram Seth's "The Golden Gate" was. (I enjoyed "The Golden Gate," by the way.) It's a patchier and looser depiction, a modest stack of beaten-up postcards rather than an intricate structure.

Narratively speaking, the book is an evocation/account of Snider's own life from youth to age. It's suggestive rather than comprehensive. Ideas are taken up and let go. Topics are raised, and then returned to in surprising ways. Stories are recalled, then half-dealt-with. Letting go of what's at stake is understood to be okay, because -- as with longterm friends -- you never really lose emotional touch. That might be the main reason I found the book so engaging; it feels like a lived and experienced thing rather than a conventionally "complete" and "unified" artwork.

I found it as rewarding to interact with the book in nonlinear bits and pieces as I did to read it from front to back. It's one of those poetry collections that has a hypertext-like quality. (It can't be a coincidence that the poems make easy and frequent reference to email, the web, and webcams.) I confess I have a weakness for this kind of book. Many exceptions allowed for, I've always preferred books that are collections and miscellanies to books with big, read-it-straight-through spines. I'm a fan of the book as a bin of living things that might or might not work with each other. I like bottom-up scrappiness better than top-down system-building, Stendhal better than Flaubert, Montaigne better than Hegel.

I like neighborhoods better than individual buildings, too. In the case of "44 Sonnets," the book is like a neighborhood. And the poems have a separate-but-working-together, humane, lived-in quality that reminds me of the kind of neighborhood that you both love and take for granted -- that you love partly because you can take it for granted. This kind of deep quiet pleasure is an affront to much contemporary thinking and practice, by the way. It has nothing to do with standing out or battling for attention, let alone with deconstructing or post-modernizing anything. As any Christopher Alexander buff will tell you, what's wonderful about "patterns" -- and the sonnet form is certainly one kind of pattern -- is that they enable the quality of "life" to occur. And in "44 Sonnets," life flourishes.

* I don't want to make too much of the book's third layer because Snider is so un-pushy about it. But I think it has to be mentioned and acknowledged anyway. In his very unforced way, Snider opens up what I'm prone to think of as the erotic-religio-aesthetic dimension of life -- what's sometimes thought of as the "mythical" dimension.

With his calmness and expansiveness, Snider suggests a useful attitude towards this dimension: It's a big deal -- the biggest of all deals. But it's also not such a big deal, because we have all had moments when we've felt like we've caught a glimpse of the big picture. These moments are both extraordinary and ordinary -- and, in any case, they're part of life as nearly everyone experiences it. We come out of an encounter with a new set of eyes ... For no reason we can account for, we're suddenly aware of fresh aspects of life ... We turn a corner and seem to emerge from a fog ... We get a glimpse of Life-with-a-capital-L in some kind of larger perspective ... Why pretend not to have experienced such moments?

A classic modernist example of using the particular and the mundane in order to invoke the mythical is William Carlos Williams' "Paterson," where the river that flows through a New Jersey mill town becomes the river of time itself. Snider gets similar effects very simply, and much more accessibly. (I liked "Paterson," by the way.) The specifics are the specifics of Sniders' life, from childhood to youthful adventure to battered-and-bruised to just-glad-to-be-here. Yet the topic is also life-as-we-experience-it more generally. You're accompanying a particular life trajectory, taking warm note of its details, its pleasures, and its pains. Yet you nod as you go along, acknowledging that, Yup, in its essence, this is just what Living a Life is like.

Snider accomplishes this effect very economically, sometimes taking a break from a series of everyday-seeming poems to pause for philosophical musings, sometimes opening up moments within otherwise narrative poems to register what lies beyond. His control of what I think of as metaphysical perspective is for me his most amazing technical achievement. An example:


Stranger Than the Net

Pity the diver scooped up from the sea
And dumped alive into a forest fire,
But not because of fearful tragedy --
A man who's never lived cannot expire.
And thought it's sometimes years until the neighbors
Notice their neighbor's mummified remains,
No Finnish tax-collector at his labors
Is three days dead before his boss complains.
But somewhere there's a man who lost a nut
In a conveyor belt while jacking off --
After he stapled his ruptured scrotum shut
He kept on working -- look it up, don't scoff.
It's useless weighing weirdness for these tales --
Sometimes there really are exploding whales.


In case you haven't stumbled across the subject matter Snider is dealing with: This is a catalog of weird, real-life events that have become known thanks to the web. I take the poem to be an evocation of those moments when web-surfing makes us go "Wow" in the very largest sense, a Wow that incorporates many smaller Wows: Wow over what we've just learned or seen; Wow over the marvel of technology; Wow over the sensation we can have of flying weightless through all of space-time; Wow at the way web-surfing can work on your imagination like Hindu mythology does ...

The "Net" of the title seems to invoke the Internet, the Buddhist idea of the self-reflecting-unto-infinity crystalline net of Indra, and the way the poem itself nets together its collection of weblinks. Poetry encounters the cybersphere and glimpses a reflection of itself, as well as multiple reflections of something much, much larger.

To come back to earth: Snider works in such an easy-flowing way that it's possible to read through "44 Sonnets" as simply as if it were written in prose. It's also possible to read the poems individually and to savor them as built things. I found that the greatest pleasure came from balancing the two approaches, from taste-testing the poems, enjoying them buffet-style -- lingering over them yet keeping on the move too.

A big part of the fun is taking note of the many ways Snider gives the sonnet form a workout. In the two poems I've included in this posting: Why has he used the A-B-B-A rhyming scheme in the first one, and the A-B-A-C scheme in the second? Asking these questions and wondering what the answers might be feels satisfying and civilizing. Although there's nothing pedagogical about the poems, even my sad, non-poetry-buff mind was able to tune into many different formal variations, and to pick out subtleties in flavor and coloring.

I'm tempted to rave a bit, and say that for me "44 Sonnets" is an almost ideal example of American high art. It's as approachable as country music yet it offers a lot of sophistication too -- the pleasures of orchestration, organization, and philosophy. It doesn't present itself as better than folk or popular art; it isn't competing in that way. Instead, it offers a different kind of pleasure -- more complex, more reflective, and more refined.

Besides being a first-class poet, Mike Snider is a first-class blogger too. I did a q&a with Mike long ago: Part One, and Part Two. Not to worry: With this posting I'm not doing p-r for a bud. I've never met Mike. I'm a fan, not a friend.

You can buy "44 Sonnets" by clicking a button on the top-right of Mike's blogpage. Three bucks! That has got to be one of the most attractive arts bargains around.



posted by Michael at October 23, 2005


Thanks for the leads. I did run into one problem at (the other) Mike's blog. Radioland's commenting system can't do a simple thing like auto format comments (screwed up my (ersatz) haiku). Think we can get (the other) Mike to switch to Movable Type or Wordpress?

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on October 24, 2005 03:34 AM


What can I say but thank you? It's a good thing I don't wear hats!


I sometimes think about moving to some other blogging software for just the reason you mention. But you can use html in the comments: "p" and "br" tags for double and single-spaced breaks, respectively, and right now I'm just not up to the work of doing the move.

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 24, 2005 09:19 AM


It's good to see poetry again.

Still, it's fun to ask some of the more twitchy lit profs what the difference between free verse and prose is. Then, after they've nearly hurt themselves (or others) trying, ask if "free verse" actually means that nobody would pay for it because it doesn't rhyme. Of course, only do this when you're taking the class pass/fail.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 24, 2005 11:01 AM

Hey, excellent review (i.e., not just gush or just hostility) of what appears to be an excellent collection.
Too bad the second comment it got had to be from a yoyo. (Yahmdallah, traditional verse is no more the only kind of effective poetry than Andrew Wyeth's pictures--which I greatly admire--are the only kind of effective painting or Rogers and Hammerstein's songs--which I greatly admire--are the only kind of effective music.)

One question, MIchael: what in the world do you mean by saying, "As any Christopher Alexander buff will tell you, what's wonderful about 'patterns' -- and the sonnet form is certainly one kind of pattern -- is that they enable the quality of 'life' to occur?" Sounds loopy, to me. Pattern increases expectancy, which is useful to counteract compexity of statement; and it ties a poem into other poems using a similar pattern to increase its connotative value. That allows for the "quality of 'life' to occur" sounds like some kind of vacuous mysticism or a flatly wrong opinion that a quality life can't occur outside some pattern.

--Bob Grumman

Posted by: rjgrumman on October 24, 2005 08:40 PM

Whoa. Cool.

Posted by: Peggy Nature on October 24, 2005 08:51 PM



Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 25, 2005 09:33 AM

Yes, I do think Yahmdallah made his point artfully.

Posted by: annette on October 25, 2005 11:59 AM

What point? That there is no real distinction between free verse and prose — which is certainly wrong — or that even some educated people have a hard time articulating that distinction?

It's actually pretty easy, at least if one excludes prose poems from the category free verse. Free verse uses line breaks and other visual cues to create a rhythm which cuts across and interacts with the rhythms of prose or speech, just as metrical verse uses repetition of language features such as syllable or stress count to create a rhythm which does the same thing. Both can be done well or badly; both are usually done badly.

Problems arise when "poetry" is used to signify intensity or value, as in "poetry in motion," or even Wordsworth's disastrous formulation in the 1805 Preface "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility." (It wouldn't be quite so disastrous if people also remembered the rest of the piece.)

Bob and I have had many disagreements, well-documented in the New Poetry mailing list archives, but I've found it's a bad mistake to let his disdain for opinions he doesn't share obscure the arguments he makes.

BTW, at the risk of offending someone who apparently likes at least some of my work, I must note that a fair body of free verse rhymes, and Paradise Lost, arguably the greatest and most important poem in English, does not.

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 25, 2005 12:42 PM

I'll only add that I'm pretty far from being a lit prof. And, ironically, that I think free verse a step backwards--BUT a hugely valuable step backwards because, among other things, it helped free poets to create visual and other forms of what I call pluraesthetic poetry, and having many kinds of poems is better than having only one (major) kind--except for those who like only representational painting and conventionally "melodic" music.

--Bob Grumman

Posted by: bob grumman on October 25, 2005 03:02 PM

Cearly Michael is not a devotee of the Discovery programme Mythbusters, which scientifically demonstrated that it is impossible to suck up a diver with a firefighting helicopter. It's an urban -- or exurban -- myth. As are, probably, the other tales.

Posted by: Dave F on October 26, 2005 06:17 AM

Apparently I wasn't clear enough, but the diver "never lived" and "No Finnish tax collector" went into and through rigor mortis unnoticed at work. As you say and I intended to say, those are urban myths.

The whale tale is certainly true, however, and I remember confirming the conveyor belt story years ago — my memory may be faulty, as a quick search today turned up no definitive evidence one way or the other.

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 26, 2005 08:29 AM

I didn't look hard enough: Snopes says it's true.

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 26, 2005 08:42 AM

I remember the whale tale (plus photos) as a legit news item from fairly recently. The guy who stapled up his nutsack too. Though on the Web, who knows? I could have been looking at the Onion, come to think of it ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 26, 2005 11:06 AM

Yahmdallah: I think you'll find that prose is full justified, while free verse is only left justified.

Posted by: Brian on October 26, 2005 01:01 PM

Ain't that what I said? But that difference is, among other things, a kind of stage direction, a marker of the poet's rhythmic intentions, and makes possible a rhythmic complexity which prose simply cannot support.

Almost all of my own verse is metrical, and part of the reason for that is I believe the rhythmic resources available in that mode are far greater than in free verse, and I think that that makes it easier, once one has a certain facility with meter, to make acceptable poems. Meter and rhyme can also make poems more memorable,and, from my point of view, that's a good thing. How to make good poems of any kind is, of course, a mystery to all of us.

Posted by: Mike Snider on October 26, 2005 02:49 PM

Hello Michael
I love and miss you!

For those of you who like Michael's poetry you should hear him read it.

Posted by: Melanie on October 27, 2005 07:28 AM

Enjoyed the review. Ordered the chapbook. Love the price.

I enjoy reading any poetry that's good, whether it's metrical, non-metrical or somewhere in between. The notion that there's some rigid fence dividing the two, and that everyone on "the other side" is a charlatan, is incredibly silly, the kind of thinking propagated by wannabe alpha males who are more interested in chest-thumping and teeth-baring than they are in poetry. And as someone who writes mostly in meter, whenever I see someone publicly trashing free verse and claiming that metrical, rhyming poetry is the One True Holy Roman and Apostolic Poetry, I always find it embarrassing, kind of like when my 90-year-old grandmother would say something unflattering about "colored people" in a crowded restaurant.

Posted by: anonymous opiner on October 27, 2005 12:02 PM

p.s. In case it's not clear, that last bit wasn't prompted by the review but by one of the comments in this thread.

Posted by: anonymous opiner on October 27, 2005 12:08 PM

A few more comments. Much free verse, especially contemporary free verse is not left-justified. Also, free verse allows for more than the rhythmic complexity Michael speaks of, important though that can be. Denotational emphasis, for instance--that is, giving extra importance to an idea or image by breaking a line on it. It can also allow for interesting momentary ambiguities. As a silly example compare "I love you not" with "I love you/ not." I consider its greatest value, though, as a first step toward the greater, more fertile, breaks with convention that have led to infraverbal, visual poetry, and other kinds of what I call burstnorm poetry.

--Bob Grumman

Posted by: Bob Grumman on October 30, 2005 10:49 AM


It made my day to read your poems today(Mary Anne sent me a heads up). I'm still in Charlottesville, VA, playing in an Old Time band called The Slate Hill Show and waiting tables. You are a good poet and a people's poet and that can be a lifeline for anyone struggling to keep a heart intact in these Orwellian days. Thank you!

April(Freeda's daughter)

Posted by: April on November 7, 2005 02:34 PM

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