What a Poem Is

by David Ebenbach

For a long time I didn’t know what a poem was.

I mean, I would read a thing and have a feeling that I was reading a poem, or sometimes I’d read something labeled a poem and would have a feeling I wasn’t actually reading a poem, but I couldn’t really explain why.

Of course this might make you ask Who cares? Do we really need to be able to draw lines between poems and not-poems? Why do we have to DEFINE everything? Which, as questions go, are totally fair. That said, (1) I’m a teacher, so I am frequently called on to define things, and (2) it’s just about to be National Poetry Month, so maybe we should know what that even means, and (3) I find it a little off-putting when people just throw up their hands and say that anything can be a poem. A sunset can be a poem! A bear can be a poem! A pair of underpants can be a poem!

And anyway (4) I like defining things.

(If you don’t like defining things, you might want to stop reading. Or if you dislike definitions, but you do like being irritated, you might want to keep reading.)

There have been times in history when it was easy to decide what was poetry and what wasn’t. These were times when poetry followed formal rules about, say, syllable count, alliteration, stressed syllables, rhyme—or at least when poems insisted on having line breaks. But we’ve had free verse for a long time now, and prose poetry is pretty mainstream, too, so the fact is that we just can’t rely on those markers of formal rules as indications of what kind of thing we’re reading. And yet poetry is not dead. I don’t care what Robert Frost said about playing tennis with the net down—we still have poems. You can feel that, right?

That said, faced with the truth that we’re in a post-rules period, for a long time I figured that there was no way to define poetry with any reliability.

There was one thing I did know, though: reading poetry is, for me, a different kind of thing than reading prose. When I read prose—or at least literary prose—I pay pretty close attention; I’m alert for metaphors and nice turns of phrases and crucial plot points and significant dialogue and so on. When I read poetry, on the other hand, I pay extremely close attention. I’m watching for all the same things I watch for in a short story, for example, but I’m also taking in the sound of the words, the visual pattern of the piece on the page (including stanzas and line breaks, if there are any), repetition, the choice of each word and punctuation mark, and a lot more. My face is practically pressed to the page, trying to get every drop of fantastic into me. So there’s a difference there, at least in the reading.

For a long time that was all I knew.

And then one day I finally realized what was right in front of me: this approach to reading also leads inexorably to a definition of poetry. Specifically:

A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.

That’s it: A poem is a piece of writing that rewards you for reading it as though it’s a poem.

Do you see what I mean? A poem, a real poem, gives you significant things—a rich experience, pleasure—when you read it with the focus and alertness to words and sounds and punctuation and everything else that a poem demands.

This definition rules sunsets out, and underpants. (They’re great, in their respective ways, but I’m telling you they’re not poems.) It also rules out a good deal of writing. An illustration: Go get a copy of the latest tax filing instructions and read the booklet extremely closely, paying attention to every aspect of the language—word choice, word length, spacing, vowel and consonant sound, rhythm, etc.—and squeeze those details to see if they yield any emotional and intellectual power. You will probably not find this activity rewarding. That’s because you’re reading something the way you would read a poem even though it isn’t a poem. And how do you know it isn’t? Because reading it like it’s a poem is such a waste of time.

Unfortunately, there are also some “poems” that turn out this way, too. Let’s say you read a particular “poem” with devout attention and discover that the thing is only skin deep. Some okay ideas with random line breaks, let’s say, and nothing else of note. I’m telling you that’s not a poem. Or maybe the “poem” is full of lots of ornate language choices everywhere—constant alliteration! punctuation explosion!—but at the end you don’t feel like anything significant happened as a result of all that ornamentation. You took in all the detail and found the detail self-indulgent and unrewarding. I’m telling you that’s not a poem, either.

But one of the things I like about this definition is that it doesn’t just rule stuff out—it also rules stuff in. Take the case of the “found poem.” By “found poem,” I mean some theoretically prosaic text—hand-washing instructions, a car’s owner manual, a memo—that the author didn’t mean to make so interesting, but (by accident or unconscious inspiration) the thing did turn out interesting. The typo in a menu’s “Hummus and thyme warp [wrap]” is unexpectedly delightful; the repetition of the word “don’t” in a list of instructions becomes hypnotically rhythmic; punctuation and a line break allow for multiple meanings in this great January headline about Donald Trump:

Doctor: No Heart,
Cognitive Issues


And of course a lot of poems—things that the authors meant as poetry—are rewarding in these ways, too. That’s why it’s a pleasure to read them. They ask us to be attentive and thoughtful, and when we oblige we get something great out of the experience. In fact, a poem, if it’s really a poem, is inherently a pleasure. A poem is a risk that turns out well, an attentive labor (by the writer and then by the reader) that leads to bounty.

As writers we might keep this in mind ourselves when we hunker down to write a poem. For this National Poetry Month and beyond, let’s make every little thing matter. It’s okay for our work to be demanding—really that’s part of what makes it poetry. But our job is to make sure that meeting those demands is worth a reader’s time. If not, well, it doesn’t matter how many lines we broke, or semi-colons we dropped in, or rhymes we slanted; we’ve written something, but we haven’t written a poem.

AGNI Monkey

2017-03-23 03 King JoeDavid Ebenbach is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at davidebenbach.com.


Writers Are Citizens of the World

by Nancy Kassell

We are writers. We protect our time and our psyches and just now it’s especially hard. Terrorist attacks, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, threats to constitutional government, and oh yes, do I still have a job sap our writing attention. Writers and other artists have always been the ones to try to reckon with the terrors and anxieties of human experience. Tag: we’re IT.

I’m thinking about Adrienne Rich’s phrase “the dream of a common language” (the title of her 1978 book of poetry). The phrase suggests a vision of a community of goals and values, aspirations and hopes which may have the power to transcend boundaries: national, linguistic, cultural, social, maybe even religious and political. A work of literature is universal, we say. In this divided and divisive time in the United States, it seems more important than ever to think and write globally, and with awareness of justice, fairness, kindness, and at times, rage.

And we are working against gross misuses of languages. And disrespect for language. Ignorance, and proud of it. We have a president who commands few words and uses them to deliver threats, warnings, insults, and apocalyptic decrees. Who has no sense of nuances of meaning or the common practices of social communication. Who seems to exist in a vacuum and doesn’t know or care about social, political, or cultural traditions or history. Who embodies American anti-intellectualism, described by Richard Hofstedter in his 1963 book of that title. The president’s ethos is a grave threat to American culture and society.

Thucydides’ description of changes that occurred in the Hellenic world during the Peloponnesian War resonates with our moment in history:

“To fit in with the change in events, words, too had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; the ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted to action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . .”

This passage has often been cited in times of crisis or uncertainty, and unfortunately it is often applicable. What does it mean for writers today? It has always been an artist’s responsibility to tell the truth. The telling must be precise and eloquent. Loud and expressed often. Truth is complex, of course, but it is definitely not lies, half-truths, fake news, evasions, or silence. Journalism and other media are the most relevant here, but a writer is also a citizen, and citizenship carries responsibilities. In a broader sense, too, a writer is a citizen of the world.

The New America values wealth over people. It values wealth over language and culture. This is a country of, by, and for the rich; a democratic republic trending toward plutocracy, autocracy, and oligarchy. Writers and other artists, along with many, many others, will likely suffer the consequences of fundamental changes now in progress.

For myself, a poet, I find that I need to bring more of my concerns about our culture and my country into my work. I am trying to write more, and more precisely, about what is happening today, traditions of the past as I know them, and how these are connected—and not.

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author photoNancy Kassell was a founding and long-time member of the Writers’ Room of Boston. She is the author of two books of poetry, Text(isles) (2013) and the chapbook Be(longing) (2016), both published by Dos Madres Press. Her translation from the Polish (with Anita Safran) of “Non omnis moriar” by Zuzanna Ginczanka, the first English translation of the poem, appeared on AGNIOnline. She lives in Brookline, MA.

Build Strangers, Bomb Walls

by John Poch

I wrote a poem called “Donald Trump.” It’s a curtal sonnet, and it’s not very good. Even though I knew I had little chance to succeed with this poem, I went ahead and wrote it. My inspiration to begin the poem was a poet-friend of mine, Matt Roth, who said this phrase that I immediately knew would make for a good ending of a curtal sonnet: “build strangers / bomb walls.”  That spondee, right? So I ripped him off, and then I just had to write the poem backwards to lead up to these final rhymes. As with most poems I write, I spent too much time on it. I’m a slow study. All told, maybe an entire 40 hours (spread out over a period of about two months). Incidentally, I wrote this poem before Trump even won the nomination. I never thought he would get that far or even be President. Who among us poets, the most imaginative of people, could imagine? I know thousands of poets, and there are only two of them who think Mr. Trump is doing a good job or could possibly do a good job. Of these two, one is a delusional person who believes Sandy Hook and the 9/11 disaster to be conspiracies perpetrated by the CIA and Jews. The other is, I think, a multi-millionaire, who personally benefits from Trump’s policies that benefit himself and the ultra-rich, so he’s laughing all the way to the bank, literally.

Like most political poems, my poem fails due to its knowing all too well its rhetorical stance. One of my favorite adages about poetry is by Yeats: “Of our quarrel with others we make rhetoric; of our quarrels with ourselves we make poetry.” A poem must be a place of discovery. What’s to be discovered here, so I can be poetic and not rhetorical? That Donald Trump is, in fact, a petty and ignorant man, a lover of money, illiterate, a con-man, and a womanizer? Big surprise! Come on; everyone knows these truths we hold self-evident. Of course, being a poet, I need to say this in an interesting way, formally, so that’s a bit of a challenge and perhaps could result in something. But then, probably not much with this here poem. Yet so many people around me are writing political poems and getting so much attention for them, even though I don’t think much of these poems, in general. There’s little mystery, or none. At best, they might entertain with ranting, but they aren’t writing good poems.

I wrote the poem anyway because poems are places of discovery, and you never know what might happen. And I needed to lead up to that final surprising revelation of what it might be for a poet to say we need to “bomb walls.” I’m a pacifist, in general, though not completely, so I knew that I was conflicted there, and a poet needs to be conflicted about his writing.

For a year, I’ve sent the poem around to a whole slew of places, but no one wants it. I’ve tinkered with it, and it hasn’t got much better. I’m not upset. I get it. It’s just not very good. It’s got a few decent rhymes. Sometimes good poems go unpublished, but that’s not likely the case here. The politics (specifically, the rhetoric) limit the poem. Yeats wasn’t wrong. But my friend Paul Hunton, an Emmy-winning director, made a little poetry film out of it, and our collaboration is excellent, I think. My poem needed a little boost of visuals to raise it to a level worth listening to. It’s like most songs you hear on the radio. The lyrics aren’t very good out there by themselves, but some instrumental work allows the song with its faulty lyrics to climb the charts.

Check it out?

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John_Poch_4John Poch’s most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared widely in journals such as Paris Review, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, and Five Points. He teaches in English Department at Texas Tech University. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


Accidents of Bread in Cheese: Trump at Table

by David Gewanter

Washington is both a city and a metaphor. In most ways, it is livelier as metaphor, a shining civics lesson, and a swamp of scandal. Day and night it gobbles and spews information, papers, and policies. The city’s residents live near unfolding history and important people—I walk by Senator John Kerry’s house daily—yet we exist, for the most part, outside of history. How many DC residents have real access to insider knowledge: 5,000? 500? As FBI man James Comey explained: “people talking about [classified information] often don’t really know what’s going on. And those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it.” So, 699,500 city-dwellers must imagine the rest of the narrative, weaving together hunches, shreds of gossip, and speculation into some hazy image, a “what’s going on” that only the powerful know.

Washington insiders operate in political terms; DC residents are relegated to work in imaginative—that is, literary—terms. Now, literary thinking may seem a weak sister of political debate and machpolitik. Yet it has gathered new force in the Age of Trump: for even as terms are being thrown out to describe his presidency—from “autocrat” to “idiot”—the powerful sense grows that we have entered the realm of the absurd. A new healthcare law will deprive 23 million people of healthcare—millions of them Trump supporters. Russia meddled in the election; Trump fires FBI director Comey investigating it; the Kremlin, unasked, renews Trump’s copyright privileges in Russia. George Orwell’s 1984, with its “doublethink,” “newspeak,” and alternate math “two and two is five,” is back on the best-seller list. Absurd realities pile up daily, reporters can hardly keep pace. Some people, binge-watching the several investigations and reports, complain of a “Trump Ten” weight gain.

Are we ushered into the absurd by such local paradoxes? Paradox after paradox, stacked like lumber until we face a “big bundle of unified nonsense,” as today’s Washington Post wrote about healthcare deprivations. In art, the pleasure of accepting paradox is acknowledged by John Keats as Negative Capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Here, perhaps, stands the fault-line between our political instincts for debate, news, “fact & reason,” and our more loose-jointed art impulses, seeking symbols, hidden byways, “Mysteries, doubts.”

These two modes of thinking—political and literary—compete to dominate the Washington narrative. Does the city employ them equally? Not really: the literary remains Washington’s Unacknowledged Legislator, disliked and distrusted by the political. Demanding facts and logical coherence, today’s news-hunting Gradgrinds are irritated by paradox, dreams, or visions. They consider literary thinking, which does commerce with Mysteries and uncertainties, as feckless and soft, like Leslie Howard in the old movies: a sensitive, wan aesthete searching for a light at the end of the tunnel. But that light comes from a train about to barrel him over.

To be sure, literary “doubt” indicates doubleness, and that can include “doublethink.” But doubt and paradox are accepted elements of literary judgments, interesting and useful—even necessary. Why resolve them? But Washington politics sees doubt only as ignorance and weakness; as for paradox, it is called “contradiction,” and treated as a kind of hypocrisy. Both ignorance and contradiction must be resolved in debate.

Political thinking readily offers dark visions about the outcomes of literary, fanciful thinking. If we drift to sleep wondering how a cow jumps over the moon, well, we might wake up inside Kafka’s Metamorphosis, punished for our dreams by becoming a cockroach. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes warns us not to tolerate absurd nonsense terms such as “round quadrangle” or “accidents of bread in cheese.” From this view, artistic double-thinking—the “this-yet-that” capability that delighted Keats—leads to moral catastrophe. The actual, painful world will pop your dream-bubble. Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Similarly, Orwell: “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The battlefield, certainly, provides a first home for the absurd, as literary novels from The Red Badge of Courage through Catch 22 have shown. Orwell, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, refused to shoot a fascist whose pants had fallen down. A battle-cry of that war: ¡Viva Muerte!, Long live Death. But it is a more civil war—fought jaw to jaw—that makes Washington’s daily bread. In James Comey’s recent senate testimony, political fact-finding and literary hunches would each contend for dominance: whichever narrative was persuasive, the other one would seem false, and absurd. It was not a moment when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald supposed, you can easily hold two opposing ideas in your head. Over 20 million people watched his testimony, more than the NBA finals (whose outcome was less in doubt).

By dawn, people started waiting in line at DC bars broadcasting the hearings. Comey quickly gave patrons their money’s worth: he claimed that President Trump told “lies, plain and simple” about the FBI, and that, at their White House intimate dinner pour deux, Trump spoke of Comey’s investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, who had just resigned: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Comey said he wrote down notes immediately after every private meeting he held with Trump. Why? “The circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with,” Comey answered. Regarding the nature of the person Comey was interacting with: “I was honestly concerned that he [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”

So Comey, before meeting with Trump, had worried that Trump might later lie; months later, he claims that Trump did indeed lie. The core issue in this narrative, then, is the question of character. To gauge character, Comey weaves together several literary strands—the setting, the dialogue, the tone, and his hunches about the man. Comey is finding his path through the realm of Mysteries, doubt, subtle readings of character—and yes, supplementing them with reasoning and fact: for Trump’s public lies had been well-catalogued before the January inauguration, and now number in the hundreds.

Can imagination work in tandem with practical knowledge? It seems so here. Perhaps the quaint notion of reading “character” has re-emerged as a master coin in Washington. It certainly held value a hundred years ago, when banker J.P. Morgan—who once bailed out Wall Street—testified before a Congressional committee on trusts. Morgan was asked how a person qualifies for loans—how someone’s ability to get credit is determined.

Q: Is not [someone’s] commercial credit based primarily upon [his] money or property
A: No, sir; the first thing is character.
Q: Before money or property?
A: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.

For Morgan, character brought loans, credit:

A: I have known men to come into my office, and I have given them a check for a million dollars when I knew they had not a cent in the world.

Likewise, the question for Comey’s testimony became one of character, personal credibility. The committee senators, their faces dewy with Arnoldian high seriousness, focused on the primal political issue: what did Trump’s comments mean? Was he sharing a wan personal desire, or was he trying to press Comey to do his bidding?

Comey testified that Trump was pressuring him: “I took it as a direction.” Conservative and progressive senators divided on this question in predictable fashion, but each of them became, briefly, what Marianne Moore called “literalists of the imagination”: they tried to imagine tone, context, and intent for the term “hope,” a word echoing Bill Clinton’s home town in Arkansas, and Barack Obama’s bestselling The Audacity of Hope. Given that the country remains battered by an election filled with personal accusation, resentment, and cultivated fears, it was perversely satisfying to hear our public servants parse this term.

We needed John Le Carré or Thomas Carlyle to join the inquiry. Instead, we were left with Senator James Risch who, with a litigator’s precise reductionism, tried to maneuver Comey. “Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this—they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?”

Comey didn’t know of a case one way or another, but legal scholars later found cases where people have indeed been prosecuted for this. Senator Kamala Harris suggested that we certainly would understand a gunman telling us, “I hope you will give me your wallet.” As for tone: perhaps Trump was being playful, as he was when boasting of grabbing pussy, or shooting someone on the streets of New York. The anecdotes provided by juridical questioners couldn’t firmly establish the tone and context of Trump’s “hope” comments: they shrank the question to a prosecutor’s either/or. Dialogue, tone, context, character: can they be treated as essentially factual, or should they remain the stuff that literary Mysteries and hunches are made on?

Senator Angus King, though a lawyer, tried the literary route.

KING: When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or—or “would you,” do you take that as a—as a—as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed—Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re—we’re thinking along the same lines.

Briefly, imaginative and literary thinking took center stage at the senate hearing: a shared cultural memory showed how an autocrat would stage a sly command. He said this; he meant that. It presented, in Marianne Moore’s metaphor, an imaginary garden with a real toad in it. Jobless English majors across the nation cheered, gratified for having taken their SAT prep course. There it was: a literary topos, not a political disclosure, that had finally spanned the DC knowledge gap—the gap between insider knowledge and the public’s general ignorance. It displayed how literary thinking, even as it seeks the marks and methods of human behavior, must weigh its observations against memory and misleading associations. Literary insights tempered by doubt and self-correction are not double-think absurdities, not political contradictions, but efforts at mature judgment.

With Comey’s exchange with King, the humanists had their day; yet within weeks of the hearing, Trump boasted that his tweets and remarks had forced Comey to tell his story, not—as most everyone else saw—that Trump’s lying about FBI morale had prompted Comey to disclose the “hope” comment publically, and thus to induce the FBI to hire a special investigator. And with that, Washington had shifted back: two and two might be five. Trump complains of “fake news”; meanwhile, his golf resorts have posted fake Time Magazine covers featuring his picture.

Hobbes contended that absurd statements should not be called “error,” but “nonsense.” Yet our experience with the absurd, after Beckett, Camus, and Co., has broadened beyond that; the absurd now offers a consonant world view one can live within. In Orwell’s geography of the mind, this should not be possible. “Plain, unmistakable facts [are] being shirked,” he complained, “by people who in another part of their mind are aware of those facts.” In Washington terms, this means that the 70% of Fox viewers who thought Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks were somehow, somewhere aware of the fact that he wasn’t. But cognitive dissonance may now be easier to suppress, given our divided, self-reinforcing news-watching habits. There is not “another part of their mind” where true facts are found. Orwell, curiously, was being optimistic.

Political and literary thinking move in parallel; sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes, as in the Comey hearing, they provide vastly different answers. Facts can pop the dream-balloon; but art, in its turn, can needle the bloated body politic. Each has its task. From political research we get Barbara Tuchman’s detailed narrative on the causes and vanities leading to the Great War: The Guns of August. From literary imagination we get Thomas Hardy’s ironic ballad “Channel Firing,” with its startling image of skeletons waking up to cannons roaring their “readiness to avenge” the attacks that have yet to happen. Hardy rhymes “avenge” with “starlit Stonehenge,” casting together the present political, the musical, and the mythic. And the prophetic: Hardy wrote the poem in April, 1914, four months before the war. Beyond the realm of reason lies a shadowland of doubt and uncertainty; we can only traverse it in sudden, leaping assumptions: of character, tone, dialogue, literary reference, and metaphor.

How reliable are such materials? Robert Frost warns us not to take metaphors too far. He lauds the “tantalizing vagueness” of poetry, its “way of saying one thing and meaning another”; yet he advises us first to gain “the proper poetical education in the metaphor” and, more broadly, in “figurative values.” We should “know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness,” Frost notes. Otherwise, “you are not safe anywhere”: “you are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.” Nor safe in the prosaic, treacherous city.

The avenging arts of poetry may be figured like that ancient, circle of sacrifice, Hardy’s Stonehenge; or like the circling ditches of Dante’s Inferno, found in the woods near the city that exiled him. Dante may have lost the political battles of his day, but he then created a literary, and post-mortal payback for evil action. After your death, your body will suffer endless punishment—punishment that is figured as a metaphor of your crime, but that has become as real and physical as fact. For Dante’s Ugolino, it was to eat the brains of the man who forced him to eat his children. What lies ahead for Trump? There may be some outcome beyond the body’s last meal, the “ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink” (David Ferry). Perhaps Trump will be gorged on the suppurating diseases of 23 million sick people, and become the “infinitely suffering thing” that appeases “the conscience of a blackened street” (T.S. Eliot). Mr. Trump, welcome to your table.

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David Gewanter‘s new poetry book, Fort Necessity (U. Chicago Press), will appear in March 2018. Previous books: War Bird, The Sleep of Reason, and In the Belly (all U. Chicago Press); co-editor, Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (FSG & Faber). Awards include: the Zacharis First Book Prize, Whiting Writer’s Fellowship, Ambassador Book Award, Witter Bynner Fellowship, James Laughlin Prize (finalist), Academy of American Poets prizes, Hopwood Award, and “Book of the Year” (Contemporary Poetry Review). He teaches at Georgetown and lives in DC. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

Save the NEA: One Poet’s Story of How the Arts Build Community

by Patricia Traxler

I wish the Trump administration had some understanding of how essential the arts and humanities are to civilization, but I don’t have a lot of hope for this realization to strike them, because Trump is a philistine and he’s got a lot of company these days—philistinism seems to be a burgeoning thing in America. Several years ago, Kansas (the state I live in) became the only state in the Union to have abolished its arts commission (one of the first acts of far-right Tea Party pet Gov. Sam Brownback, whose tax cuts for the rich have also decimated the public schools in this state). Now the US may end up the only developed nation in the world to have axed its national arts endowment. The White House budget office has drafted a hit list of programs that Trump and his advisors would like to eliminate, and that list includes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.

Just to give some idea of what killing the NEA will (or more aptly, will not) accomplish, the $146 million budget of the National Endowment for the Arts represents just 0.012% (about one one-hundredth of one percent) of our federal discretionary spending. According to 2012 NEA figures, the annual budget for the arts per capita (in dollars) in Germany was $19.81; in England, $13.54; in Australia, $8.16; in Canada, $5.19, and in the United States just $0.47. Yes, 47 cents annually per capita. For all the arts combined. And the new POTUS feels that’s too much.

It would be impossible to enumerate all the programs that will likely die when the NEA and the NEH are killed, and the many people these cuts will deprive of things like public television programming and National Public Radio; school enrichment programs in the arts; and community programs to encourage music, dance, theater, visual art and literary art, literacy, and the pleasure of reading.

Just speaking from my own experiences as a poet and a teacher of poetry in the wide-ranging community work that I’ve been privileged to do in California, Kansas, and other states across America over my long (I’m old!) career as a poet, nearly all of my community work has been supported directly or indirectly by the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities through local, state, or regional arts organizations.

Contrary to popular perceptions, artists working in their communities all across the US are not doing “fluffy” projects. Here’s a list of just some of the work that I’ve had the opportunity to do as a poet in my community, with support from the NEA, NEH, and state or local arts agencies:

  • For four years in the late ‘70s, I ran poetry workshops for inner city San Diego kids, the message of which was that poetry can be an expression of personal power. (Funded by the California Arts Council’s Poets in the Schools Program and the NEA.)
  • A five-year project teaching deaf and hearing-impaired elementary school students in Salina, Kansas, that writing is the great equalizer. Had to learn sign language for this job (although, according to the kids, my hands never quite lost their “accent”). (Funded by the Kansas Arts Commission and Salina Arts & Humanities, with support from the NEA.)
  • A writing class I taught for nearly twenty years at a local senior center in Salina. These people, ranging in age from sixty to their nineties, were eager to tell their stories in both poetry and prose, describing lives of making do during the Great Depression, the devastating Midwest dust storms of the Dirty Thirties, and two world wars. Fresh into Kansas from California, I learned more about my new community and its history from those seniors than from any other source. The end result: the publication of Vintage, an anthology collecting their vivid memories in both prose and poetry, dating back to World War One. Yes, One. All of these people have since died, so I love that their memories are on the record. (Local and state arts commissions, with support from the NEA.)
  • A second personal history project, this one for people of all ages and from all over the state, resulting in the publication of another anthology, In Our Time, which was reviewed in and lauded by the Chicago Tribune. (Funding: local and state arts commissions and local public library, with support from the NEA and the NEH.)
  • Decades of writing projects in the Kansas public schools, K thru 12, including individual writing sessions for students with learning difficulties, as well as classes for gifted and mainstream students, and one-on-one mentoring sessions with students who already had their own writing projects in progress. (Local, state, and NEA funding.)
  • As an outreach project during my stint as Thurber Poet at Ohio State University, a 2-month workshop with nine formerly-homeless women who had been given shelter at the Columbus, Ohio, YWCA. Most of these women had previously been incarcerated or institutionalized for mental health disorders. I’ll never forget the pride on their faces at the end of our two months together when they read their poetry on a National Public Radio station in Columbus. (NPR: another of Trump’s targets.)
  • A five-year project in which I was privileged to work with inpatients and outpatients at Salina’s large regional hospital, using creative writing exercises I had designed to fit their particular issues: stroke patients who were experiencing memory problems and expressive difficulties as well as depression; people in recovery from substance addiction; clinically depressed mental health inpatients who were in many cases emotionally isolated and suicidal but found hope and strength in expressing their most difficult and private feelings in writing; terminally ill patients who felt alone and frightened but found a measure of peace in writing or recording their thoughts, feelings, and memories for their families during our sessions. Patients’ families often read those last words from their loved ones later at their memorial services. (Funding from local and state arts commissions and the NEA, with matching funds from the hospital.)
  • Classes at an extension school called Opportunity Now for at-risk teens who have dropped out of public schools (or have been expelled), the goal of which has been to show these struggling kids that in writing they can find a trusted companion, an outlet for their fears and angers, and an expression of their own very real personal power. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources. By the time this project began, there was no longer a state arts commission.)
  • Poetry-writing sessions for boys at a local military school, many of whom had been transferred there from across the US against their wills, sometimes because of their own behavioral issues, but just as often because of the break-up of their families by divorce, a family tradition in the military, or the world travel of wealthy parents. Many if not most of these boys were suffering feelings of abandonment and loss, and they approached the unfamiliar process of poetry-writing as if it were a weapon of self-defense, coming to see their finished work as a source of deep pride. (Sponsored by the local art center, with funding from local and NEA sources.)
  • Salina’s Spring Poetry Series, which I founded in 1983, and which has brought national and international literary figures into this small community each April for thirty-four years. More than one US Poet Laureate has read in the series, as have state poets laureate from around the US and an impressive number of Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winning poets. John Villani’s The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America listed this annual poetry series as one of the five reasons for Salina’s inclusion in the book. (Series sponsored by Salina Arts & Humanities and the Salina Public Library, with funding from the NEA and the NEH.)

Some of the many other community projects I’ve had the opportunity to do with arts funding have included grief-journal workshops for children who have lost a parent or adults who have lost a spouse; a breast-cancer survivors’ writing workshop that left me moved and inspired anew after each session; a journaling workshop for recent amputees who were struggling to feel fully themselves again after the surgery that had profoundly changed their physical sense of themselves; a reminiscence-visitation program to assist seniors in nursing homes with memory issues and their social isolation.

These are just some of the community projects that one poet has been allowed to do, thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, both of which have been suggested for elimination by the Trump administration.

I feel such an urgent need to say this: Art isn’t just dessert, the cookie at the end of life’s daily meal—it’s an essential nutrient for the human spirit, and for the spirit of community that is really what makes America great. Not great again, mind you, but always and ever great, just as communities all around the globe are great in their own individual ways. We never needed anyone to come along and presume to make us great again—our communities have never stopped being great, and the collective sum of those distinct and cohesive communities is America itself. We just need the new administration to leave in place the agencies whose function it is to feed and enrich the human spirit that thrives all across our land. Leave us our NEA, NEH, and other vital programs. We can take it from there.

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TraxlerPatricia Traxler was born and raised in San Diego and now lives in Salina, Kansas. She has served as Hugo Poet at the University of Montana, Thurber Poet at Ohio State, and was twice named Bunting Poetry Fellow at Radcliffe. Her poetry has appeared in The Nation, The Boston Review, Agni, Ploughshares, Ms., Slate, The LA Times Literary Supplement, and in numerous anthologies including Best American Poetry. She has published a novel and four poetry collections, most recently Naming the Fires (Hanging Loose Press, 2016). Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

(photo by Stephen Hébert, Newsweek)

Rely, Rely

by JP Grasser

Poets are, by nature, unreliable. Or so goes the stereotypic vision: we’re a clattering of penniless loafers. Mercurial, if winsome. Far from the pragmatists professionalization might’ve whittled us into, we’re more interested in taking stock than in taking stock options. We’ve got our heads in the clouds and cotton balls in our ears.

(Note: I do have my head in the clouds right now. Specifically, clouds of smog—the winter inversion in Salt Lake City—the worst air quality in the country. On bad air days, my friend wears a gasmask to ride his bicycle.)

In the weeks immediately following the election, I thought there was a great irony to the road that had led us here. How ironic, I thought, that embracing radical subjectivity, self-reliance, & individualism—you can be anything when you grow up (even a poet!)—had seemingly spiraled into a dark state of post-truth. How ironic, I thought, that the same worldview that nurtured my creativity likewise served as catalyst to the alt-fact landscape, a place where the anecdotal supersedes the verifiable, where everyone’s opinion is equally valid, if unequally true.

On the first day of class, I often ask my creative writing students to list their favorite novels. Invariably, someone throws out The Great Gatsby. Invariably, I ask if they can differentiate reliable narrator from unreliable narrator. Same difference, they say.

My mentor in college, Wyatt Prunty, once relayed the phrase “the mutual dependency of apparent opposites” with regards to Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” What happens, he asked, if we are unreliable narrators of our own lives? What’s true fiction, false truth? This is, of course, always the case; it’s not exactly breaking news that memory distorts reality. Same difference?

(Note: after some quick digging, I’ve determined this quotation appears in Dr. Prunty’s book Fallen from the Symboled World: Precedents for the New Formalism, which is listed under—prescient, eh?— Political Science on Google Books.)

The writers I know are incredibly reliable. When my dog tore off his dewclaw during a particularly rowdy round of fetch, a poet-friend dropped everything (uh, job interview prep) to drive him, bleeding in the back seat, to the puppy-ER. She & her husband also let me sleep on their futon for a week. Maybe this is just what friends do. But, take a quick tour of the pop-culture sphere, and the unreliable friend seems a sturdy trope of the millennial generation—they flaked on drinks, they flaked on the movies, they flaked on the birthday party, ad infinitum. These flake-friends sound like a box of Idahoan Instant Spuds.

Apparent, bolded in the quotation above, suggests multiplicity over binary structures. Love and Hate are not true opposites, but perhaps points on an ideological spectrum. Perhaps this spectrum exists in four dimensions, like life. Perhaps this is finally the best operational definition of Keats’s “Negative Capability.”

The etymology of “reliable” comes, in part, from the Latin “ligare”: to bind. See ligament, the OED says. I like this. I like to think reliability might be as integral to the architecture of one’s being as fascia and sinew.

Perhaps an unintended consequence of the New Criticism’s desire to discount authorial intentionality is a supreme ambivalence toward truth. The syllogism works like this:

  • The text is a self-sustaining entity; all that matters is the text.
  • Any reasonable explication of the text is a valid reading.
  • Any reading is merely an opinion.

Unbound Opinion = Truth.

This is a faulty syllogism to be sure. But hey, same difference, right?

Intentionality matters now more than ever. Subjectivity might only be the apparent opposite of objectivity; there is, per force, a Utilitarianism to the writing life: we tell the small lie to expose the big truth. Perhaps the rules have changed though, perhaps we must now tell the big truth to expose the big truth.

All narration is unreliable. All memory is unreliable. Truth can, perhaps, only be approached asymptotically. Still, we must try to reach it.

I used to think that radical subjectivity led us here, to this place, where “post-truth” deserves a dictionary entry. I thought that my artful deceit wasn’t all that different from deceit in general. But that was before I understood that absolute self-reliance is pure myth.

Even the doomsday-preppers, the hardline self-reliers, (who are looking smarter by the minute), relied on others to grow, harvest, and can their corn, to parboil their rice, to dehydrate their boxed potatoes.

It’s a deleterious strain of narcissism which tricks us into believing we’ve done something alone, based purely on merit, hard work, sweat and blood and tears, etc. (Of course, ligaments don’t figure into that cliché.)

These days, I’m reminded often of the scene from the Odyssey in which, as their craft approaches the Sirens, Odysseus fills the ears of his crew with wax. In which they lash him to the mast. In which they bind him.

(Note: in legalese, a Ulysses Pact designates a freely made decision, which binds one in future action, as in an advance directive.)

If the ship is sinking, it must, I think, be our intention to navigate toward the fundamental veracity of humanity: different sameness, to rely on the spectrum of possibility. The act of creation is still an act of love. Pursuits of the creative imagination, by their very nature, are pursuits of happiness, even if tinged with pain and sadness. And joy must be the truest thing around, even the small joy I see in my students, as they recount Gatsby’s green light, across an expanse of water, symboled as it may be, dimmer now than it was before.

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Headshot_Grasser (1)J.P. Grasser currently lives in Salt Lake City, where he is a PhD candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Utah, and where he serves as Managing Editor of Quarterly West. J.P. will begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry in September 2017. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

A Thousand Kisses Deep: On Rereading Virginia Woolf

by Ioanna Carlsen

Lately, I have been unhappy for both personal and political reasons, and at this stage in my life I don’t think either is going to go away. When this has happened in the past, it’s also happened to my books, to my reading: a lot does not ring true, much is unbearable, a lot is just boring.

And then I get lucky: I find the one book that just fits, is so right, I really look forward to getting into bed at the end of the day. The bliss of being by yourself with a book; I have loved this moment all my life; it is now my greatest joy, the moment I long for. I get up from it later and later.

So I found this book by Nick Hornby, Ten Years in a Tub, and I loved it—and as it was a book about reading I found a lot of books to look into in it. When reading such a book, I make these lists; it’s very enjoyable—not everything pans out, but there’s so much promise.

And besides new books, Hornby gets into rereading the classics—and I have had that idea for some time. Laboriously, I burrowed into The Past Recaptured (probably my fifth attempt to reread it); but this time, maybe with a little help from Hornby’s essay about it, I suddenly got into it. I mean I’m not saying it’s not a good soporific, if you’re not careful, or that you can’t use the endless paragraphs for that purpose when you need to…and America is “troubling my sleep” (Ezra Pound), and I do use it for that. But then there’s also Denys Finch-Hatton’s response to Karen Blixon in Africa: “you don’t fall asleep reading Proust.” The psychology, the depth of it…it’s often “a thousand kisses deep” (an idea that haunts me of Leonard Cohen’s), and in the middle of plodding through it and trying to pay attention, suddenly there’s an amazing phrase, a metaphor that, to quote Virginia Woolf, “fits like a glove.”

And speaking of her, I turned to her when I needed a break from Proust; I have all her books and a number of books about her; I haven’t read them in years. I went through a Virginia Woolf period the way you go through a Japanese cooking period and then go on to other cuisines.

But, lately, after the political backdrop of our lives turned into a nightmare—everything my generation thought we won since our coming of age, lost all over again, and to the worst kinds of politicians—I have found the contemporary novel and much of contemporary poetry are not holding up for me, or… are not holding me up.

Rereading the classics and discovering new contemporary work that doesn’t pall is something Virginia Woolf herself writes about. I can just see her in front of the fire at Monk’s House, (where of course I made a pilgrimage), a book in her hands, smoking, grimly elegant, frighteningly beautiful, taking notes for the essays she worked on in the afternoons…

I started with the essays, and found to my amazement that she is as fascinating and compelling as she ever was. Of course she is mad—you feel ashamed to say it considering her bouts with the direst insanity—the birds outside her window speaking Greek—and nothing to treat it but hot milk. But here she is, spooling out flight after flight of fancy:

In the middle of an essay on reading, you come upon this: “if, at this moment,…I could go back through the long corridor of sunny mornings, boring my way through hundreds of Augusts, I should come in the end, passing a host of less-important figures, to no less a person than Queen Elizabeth herself. Whether some tinted waxwork is the foundation of my view, I do not know; but she always appears very distinctly in the same guise. She flaunts across the terrace superbly and a little stiffly like the peacock spreading its tail. She seems slightly infirm…” and it goes on, until we get to “She breakfasts off beer and meat and handles the bones with fingers rough with rubies.” And then she still goes on, until you have the Elizabethan age itself, what makes it live, right before you.

Because it is her, and because her reading is so deep and broad, there are essays that eighty years later we are not interested in, like who really wants to read about The Faery Queen or the Duchess of Newcastle, but sometimes you think I better check, what if I miss some flight. And always you want to know what she thinks of Dickens, Austen, our own classics. I look forward to the diaries after the essays, and because it is her, I will never have to worry about a moment’s boredom. Her thoughts and her feelings, are, how can I say this, compared to what is going on around us, always the best, “a thousand kisses deep” compared to this, the farthest thing from lies and distorting the language.

I don’t know about the novels. I reread The Years a few years ago and disliked it. Of course, it’s not her at her best or even original—but I daresay if I read the middle passage on Time Passes in To the Lighthouse right now, that takes you back through hundreds of summers and rooms until you end up with no less a figure than life itself, and what it is to leave it—and none of it has anything to do with money and power, nothing at all—I believe it would break my heart.

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Ioanna self portrait croppedIoanna Carlsen’s poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including AGNI, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train Stories. She received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry, and won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open. In 2014 she published a poetry collection called The Whisperer. She lives in the country outside Santa Fe, NM. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.