Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

October 5, 2006

A Conversation on Experimental Fiction and Now Poetry



The argumentative aspect of a conversation on experimental fiction and now poetry, began with Scott Esposito’s posting the following in his blog, about an article John Freeman wrote:

Stunning lack of experimentation in American fiction in the past 20 years? John, you’ve been reading The New York Times too much, amigo.

Below is last night’s response to Frank Wilson’s (pictured) call that “More people should chime in.





Hi Frank,

From your return e-mail, I see that I knew where some of the conversation was on the web, but now I think I have at least this linked circle’s conversation.

09/10: in Newsday: John Freeman’s Turning readers upside-down

09/18: in his Conversational Reading blog: Scott Esposito’s John Freeman’s Experiments

09/24: here in Books Inq.: your I suppose it’s only fair …

09/26: in his Conversational Reading blog: Scott Esposito’s Huh

10/02: in his The Reading Experience blog: Daniel Greene’s A Safe and Useless Place

10/02: here in Books Inq.: your Daniel Green advances

10/04: in his Dragoncave blog: Art Durkee’s What is “experimentation?”

As one who has been tagged as an experimental poet, as Art Durkee has, I like his use of the word “play.” But, some of the discussion has gotten pretty heavy, even Daniel Green’s, who I kept wanting to add what he would add as I read his entry, making me think I would have nothing to add myself, but then he stopped, leaving a ball to pick up.

The crux resides in where the muse lies, or what has been inspired. If I am inspired to write a regular poem about something to do with love, or death, or the new roof on my house and how that is mystical or a metaphor for living a moment in life somehow, I may choose a sonnet, a villanelle, conversational prose, free verse, whatever form seems to catch the rhythm and language I want to create. Experimentally speaking, thematically it may fail or succeed, and at the level of word choice it may also succeed or fail. But, I will not necessarily advance poetry writing, poetology or poetiatry, and maybe not even my own skill level. It’s a regular old unexperimental poem on that score, other than in its thumbs up or down aspects.

I may, though, get some inspiration to advance form somehow. Here we have the possibility for experiment. Anne Carson is known for her edgy work at the limits of what is poetry and what is not, sometimes answering which prose is poetry and which is not, hybrid stuff. We may look at her work, and unexperimentally choose to write in the forms she has trailblazed for us. Yet, for the most part, in the material I have of Carson’s, within the forms she chooses, she has her themes and such that she weaves in. Her topics are applied to her forms experiments. She’s so good, I imagine she publishes her experimental successes, yet I also imagine her (unscientifically private?) failures.

Another approach is to play with language, in a way that the poet’s musing is in how words will be selected and arranged. There is no inspiration from death, love, or a new roof, nothing mystic–not intentionally written in anyway. What comes of these methods have a lot to do with how we humans as readers try to make sense out of language. I think of the language poets, but also Jackson Mac Low, who did some great experimental work with language and computer models, whose work with Gertrude Stein’s language I have enjoyed.

Musings can come “in between” the thematically inspired and the form inspired. Poems can be written by Google searching a phrase, to use only words that follow in querie results. Which reminds me of a poem that made Best American Poetry one year, pre-written lines that were passed back and forth in Babel Fish from English into French (I think it was) into English into French, and so forth. On that one, again, once the experiment is done, the nifty effect becomes common knowledge.

Again, I like Art’s use of “play” and want to add that we need to watch where the muse lies for a poet, what’s amusing the poet. But, as we know, whatever is amusing the poet does not always succeed. These failures become part of the experiential knowledge we have.

But, experimental poetry should also include when a poet blazes trails thematically. Mark Doty‘s upcoming book “Dog Years” is billed as his writing about the “unsayable”. This may or may not be true, and if it is true, it may not work. If it does not work, then critically speaking, John Freeman may say something similar about Doty’s work, as he did here, in the review that began this good conversation:

Danielewski clearly wants to push the boundaries of the novel even further with his latest, “Only Revolutions,” but he has done it with a smaller, less ambitious story.

And then he may go on, to tell us where he sees it failing, and where it succeeds.



October 3, 2006

Mark Doty Physically: "Heaven for Paul"



a Margaretta Mitchell photograph


by Mark Doty

        Heaven for Paul

The flight attendant said:
We have a mechanical problem with the plane,
and we have contacted the FAA for advice,

and then: We will be making an emergency landing in Detroit,

and then: We will be landing at an air force base in Dayton,
because there is a long runway there, and because
there will be a lot of help on the ground.

Her voice broke slightly on the word help,
and she switched off the microphone, hung it back on its hook,
turned to face those of us seated near her,
and began to weep.

Could the message have been more clear?
Around us people began to cry themselves,
or to pray quietly, or to speak to those with whom
they were travelling, saying the things that people
would choose to say to one another before
an impending accident of uncertain proportions.

It was impossible to hear, really, the details
of their conversations–it would have been wrong to try–
but one understood the import of the tones of voice
everywhere around us, and we turned to each other,

as if there should have been some profound things to be imparted,
but what was to be said seemed so obvious and clear:
that we’d had a fine few years, that we were terrified
for the fate of our own bodies and each other’s,
and didn’t want to suffer, and could not imagine

the half-hour ahead of us. We were crying a little
and holding each other’s hands, on the armrest;
I was vaguely aware of a woman behind us, on the aisle,
who was startled at the sight of two men holding hands,

and I wondered how it could matter to her, now,
on the verge of this life–and then I wondered how it could matter to me,
that she was startled, when I flared on that same margin.

The flight attendant instructed us in how to brace
for a crash landing–to remove our glasses and shoes
and put our heads down, as we did long ago, in school,
in the old days of civil defence. We sat together, quietly.
And this is what amazed me: Paul,

who of the two of us is the more nervous,
the less steadily grounded in his own body,
became completely calm. Later he told me

how he visualised his own spirit
stepping from the flames, and visited,
in his picturing, each person he loved,
and made his contact and peace with each one,

and then imagined himself turning toward
what came next, an unseeable ahead.
                                                                                      For me,
it wasn’t like that at all. I had no internal composure,

and any ideas I’d ever entertained about dying
seemed merely that, speculations flown now
while my mind spiraled in a hopeless sorrowful motion,

sure I’d merely be that undulant fuel haze
in the air over the runway, hot chemical exhaust,
atomised, no idea what had happened to me,

what to do next, and how much of the next life
would I spend (as I have how much of this one?)
hanging around an airport. I thought of my dog,

and who’d care for him. No heaven for me,
only the unimaginable shape of not-myself–
and in the chaos of that expectation,

without compassion, unwilling,
I couldn’t think beyond my own dissolution.
What was the world without me to see it?

And while Paul grew increasingly radiant,

the flight attendant told us it was time to crouch
into the positions we had rehearsed,
the plane began to descend, wobbling,

and the tires screeched against the runway,
burning down all but a few feet of five miles of asphalt
before it rolled its way to a halt.

We looked around us, we let go
the long held breath, the sighs and exhalations,
Paul exhausted from the effort of transcendence,

myself too pleased to be breathing to be vexed
with my own failure, and we were still sitting and beginning to laugh
when the doors of the plane burst open,

and large uniformed firemen came rushing down the aisles,
shouting: Everybody off the plane, now, bring nothing with you,
leave the plane immediately

–because, as we’d learn in the basement
of the hangar where they’d brought us,
a line of tornadoes was scouring western Ohio,
approaching the runway we’d fled.

At this point it seemed plain: if God intervenes
in history, it’s either to torment us
or to make us laugh, or both, which is how

we faced the imminence of our deaths the second time.
I didn’t think once about my soul, as we waited in line,
filing into the hangar, down into the shelter

–where, after a long while, the National Guard would bring us
boxes and boxes of pizza, and much later, transport us, in buses,
to complimentary hotel rooms in Cincinnati.



“Heaven for Paul” comes to you here, following a conversation with Mark Doty at this year’s Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. It is from his 2005 book School of the Arts, published by and available through HarperCollins Publishers.

Here is a link to his web site: Mark Doty



I will keep exegesis to a minimum below. Instead, I want the poet to present the poem through his own speaking, through a spoken reading of “Heaven for Paul” that took place in 2004, before the book came out. First, though, we’ll look at an excerpt from an interview with Mark Doty found through the Audio page on his web site.

The idea in this presentation, then, is to first present “Heaven for Paul” as a poem to be read and valued off the page as above, however you had come to it; then to garner some ideas from listening to the poet, which I will take a brief tangent from; and then to listen to him read. Thus, we will have tarried with the poem and poet for a little extra time.

Here is the link to the the web page, where you can click onto a RealAudio broadcast of the interview:

Mark Doty on WBUR’s The Connection, in an interview with Dick Gordon, discussing SOURCE, Walt Whitman, and the complexities of writing about contemporary American life, recorded in March, 2003

At 6 minutes and 32 seconds into the interview, this conversation takes place:

Dick Gordon: Mark, when you compose your poetry, do you do it out loud?

Mark Doty: I begin scribbling in notebooks–makings of random notes on the computer screen–and very quickly I find myself mouthing those words, wanting to feel the language in the muscles of my jaw and in my tongue. And pretty soon, I am muttering to myself at my desk, and frequently taken for a person who’s a little too far gone into his inner life in public spaces.

DG: But, they’re written to be read out loud.

MD: They’re written to be heard. And even when we read a poem alone, I hope that what’s happening is that there’s a subtle kind of sounding going on, that we’re physically participating in those words, in the sonic texture of the verse. Poetry lives to be physical, to be in our bodies.

In an edited version of an address to the National Library of Australia’s literature conference, “Love and Desire”, published last week in The Age as The write of way with a reader, Dave Malouf writes the following:

When we speak of being unable to put a book down, it isn’t that we can’t wait to find out what happens next. It’s that we don’t want to give up the close and quite tender intimacy that has been established; we do not want to break the spell.

When Doty says “that we’re physically participating in those words, in the sonic texture of the verse” and that poetry “lives to be physical, to be in our bodies,” he is saying to me that there is to be a physical intimacy between the poet and the listener (or reader as it were) of the poem. In listening to the sound of Doty’s voice, even in conversation with Dick Gordon, what stands out is how he articulates his words beyond the syllable level into each letter, each “t”, each “n” that precedes a “d”, the whistling “‘s”–in physical enunciation.

This physicality shows thematically in Doty’s poetry as well. In “Heaven for Paul”, via the communication of crying, for instance–the stewardess wept, and the poem goes on, “people began to cry themselves.” There is the scene with “two men holding hands,” (each holding each, therefore), but also what ensued, that this “startled” a woman, how the speaker wondered “how it could matter to her” and then, on her reaction, “how it could matter to me” (each mattering to each, therefore)–a repeated and operant word of physicality being matter.

Doty becomes playful with taking us in and out of what we might think at first wouldn’t be, but then must be physical: disappearance from this world:

sure I’d merely be that undulant fuel haze
in the air over the runway, hot chemical exhaust,
atomised, no idea what had happened to me,

And doesn’t he bring Paul’s heaven and trancendence physically to Paul, and to us readers in such a way that we physically understand?

Here, from the Poem Present series is the Mark Doty poetry reading, in which “Heaven for Paul” begins just over 24 minutes in:

Podcast #38. Poetry reading by Mark Doty: A poetry reading by Mark Doty as part of the Poem Present series at The University of Chicago. © 2004 The University of Chicago (mp3)

It is a preview reading from his latest book School of the Arts.



School of the Arts, at HarperCollins



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