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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Number 165: Mark Jarman "Interesting Times"

Interesting Times

Everything’s happening on the cusp of tragedy, the tip of comedy, the pivot of event.
You want a placid life, find another planet. This one is occupied with the story’s arc:
About to happen, on the verge, horizontal. You want another planet, try the moon.
Try any of the eight, try Planet X. It’s out there somewhere, black with serenity.
How interesting will our times become? How much more interesting can they become?

A crow with something dangling from its beak flaps onto a telephone pole top, daintily,
And croaks its victory to other crows and tries to keep its morsel to itself.
A limp shape, leggy, stunned, drops from the black beak’s scissors like a rag.
We drive past, commenting, and looking upward. A sunny morning, too cold to be nesting,
Unless that is a nest the crow has seized, against the coming spring.

We’ve been at this historical site before, but not in any history we remember.
The present has been cloaked in cloud before, and not on any holy mountaintop.
To know the stars will one day fly apart so far they can’t be seen
Is almost a relief. For the future flies in one direction—toward us.
And the only way to sidestep it—the only way—is headed this way, too.

So, look. That woman’s got a child by the hand. She’s dragging him across the street.
He’s crying and she’s shouting, but we see only dumbshow. Their breath is smoke.
Will she give in and comfort him? Will he concede at last? We do not know.
Their words are smoke. In a minute they’ll be somewhere else entirely.
Everyone in a minute will be somewhere else entirely. As the crow flies.

-- Mark Jarman

Hap Notes: Mark Jarman (born 1952) is often lumped in with the "New Formalist" movement although he writes in a variety of styles; rhyming, free verse, narrative etc. His father was a minister and moved around a bit so he's got an unusual geographic profile. He was born in Kentucky, moved to his parent's birth state California, then spent three years in Scotland, then back to California. He went to U.C. Santa Cruz in the 70s and got his M.F.A. at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He studied under Stanley Plumly, Charles Wright, Donald Justice and Sandra McPherson. He has taught at Indiana State, U.C. Irvine, Murray State and is now Director of Creative Writing and a professor of English at Vanderbilt.

Jarman and Robert McDowell, a pal from his Santa Cruz days, lamented the lack of narrative poetry and started a literary magazine in the 80s, "The Reaper," devoted to more traditional forms of verse and, more specifically, narrative verse. Verses that tell a story were, and possibly are, in short supply. Jarman and McDowell regretted the constant "confessional" style of poetry that depicted much of the latter half of the 20th century. (It does sort of drag on, doesn't it?) The magazine lasted about 10 years but has morphed into Storyline Press. He has won grants and fellowships and prizes over the years (don't mean to be glib but prizes and fellowships are a poet's bread and butter so, if we know their work, they are almost sure to have gotten a few. Is this fair? Is anything?)

In today's poem I'm somewhat reminded of Kenneth Koch's "To The Roman Forum," where he says, " I am here, they are here, this has happened./It is happening now, it happened then." Life is rushy- I don't know if that's a word but it should be, it even sounds right –rushy. And cascades of thought are constantly around you, in you, pulsing on the planet. Oblivion, while it sounds restful for a while, is not a vacation spot. So stories are constantly unfolding every millisecond of the day. The words of the child and the mother are smoke because it's cold outside so you can see their breath and the poet is in a car so he doesn't hear the dialog- but there might be more to it than that, eh?

Jarman has played a pivotal role in the last 30 years, as has Dana Gioia, in bringing poetry back to a more thoughtful writing style as well as one in which all forms are accepted as having merit.

Jarman's writing is as sweet and sour as an apple from Robert Frost's tree. It's also got some honeyed notes from his faith. His prose poems on the letters of Paul, Epistles, even convert me to saying that it's a form of poetry. His "Unholy Sonnets" in Questions for Ecclesiastes, are tart, dreamy, elegant and cranky (an intriguing mix, eh?). His book of criticism The Secret of Poetry is revelatory. (Obvious that I am I fan, eh?)

We will do more Jarman this year.

Here's a good Jarman quote: "In "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost says that poetry is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit and spirit in terms of matter, to make what he calls "the final unity." But he adds that it is an attempt that fails, because ultimately all metaphors break down. I am moved by poems that recognize the limitation of their expression, even as they try to transcend that limitation."

and another: "Both these modes, if they may be called that—writing in traditional English verse, writing a poem that tells a story clearly—which had really gone out of favor by the late 70s, have been assimilated successfully, so that a young American poet, starting out, if he or she is inclined to write in traditional verse, or inclined to write narrative poetry, they won’t be told, “Don’t do that.” So, though what was called the New Formalism has been perhaps laid to rest, the effects of it, especially on younger poets, have not been."

You can find more Jarman here:

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