Archive for July, 2009

From confirmation hearings for Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress Kay Ryan before the United States Senate Committee on Interstate Commerce, Recreation, and Poetry, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, Chair.  The excerpted testimony comes from the third afternoon of the nine-day hearings in early July of 2008, in which Senator Orrin Hatch, R-UT, requested that Ryan explain her poetic philosophy underlying “He Lit A Fire With Icicles,” her elegy for German writer W. G. Sebald.  Many later recalled this relatively heated exchange as one of the most memorable of the hearings in part because of Ryan’s coinage, “The Enjambed States of America.”  The slogan “UnbreaKAYble,” which appeared on bumper stickers, T-Shirts and at the end of television and radio ads purchased by the 527 group Citizens To Confirm Kay Ryan, has been compared to the “I Believe Anita” slogan that was publicized similarly during and following the Senate confirmation hearings for then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas.

Senator Orrin Hatch: And Ms. Ryan, do you recall your use of enjambed line breaks to break up a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter at the poem’s conclusion?

Kay Ryan: Senator, I—It has been some time since I wrote that poem.  I’m not sure that—

SOH: The poem’s sixteenth line ends with the word stay.  And the poem’s twentieth, its final line, ends with the word away.  Isn’t that correct, Ms. Ryan?

KR: Yes, Senator, that does, that sounds correct, to the best of my recollection.

SOH: Then do you also recall that the final four lines, and I’ll read them, “When he could feel his feet he had to back away,” do you also recall that this single sentence, six iamb feet lined up like ducks in a row dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, that it is in fact four lines, at least according to your poem as published?  It is four lines, isn’t it?

KR: Yes, Senator, I believe that is correct.

SOH: I’ll get back to the issue at hand then, Ms. Ryan.  I’m sure you won’t be surprised, and I’m sure the other members of the committee and the members of the public here today won’t be surprised to hear that I’m curious about how you came to the decision to break apart that single thought.  I say single thought, of course, since that is the traditional, and, well, agreed upon definition of a sentence.  A single thought.

KR: Senator, I think what you’re—

SOH: And I consider enjambment, the breaking up of that single thought, a serious matter.  I think all Americans do whether they agree with my position, which I know is a matter of deep personal, moral feeling, whether you agree with me or not.  I’m sure that my constituents from the great state of Utah agree that it’s a serious matter.  But frankly, Ms. Ryan, based on the record that myself and others here today have tried to bring to light, I’m not sure I am yet convinced that you treat this matter with, really, the gravity it deserves.  And that concerns me.  It does.  It concerns the American people.  So I would hope that the other members of this committee would give pause before simply rubber stamping a Poet Laureate who went out and enjambed single, inviolable thoughts, thoughts contained in rightfully codified, systematic meter, went out and enjambed them willy-nilly.  The, really, the question before you, Ms. Ryan, is whether or not there was a legitimate reason, a poetical basis if you will, for your dissection of the poem’s closing thought in the manner you did, in fact, dissect it.  And I give you the opportunity to explain yourself, if you can, here today.

KR: I thank you, Senator Hatch, for that opportunity.  Before I answer though, I believe some clarification may have—may be, rather, in order.  I think what you’re calling a rhyming couplet of iambic hexameter is perhaps, if you’ll excuse me, not entirely accurate.  It is true that those final four lines can be considered six iambs, and that the second iamb of the first and third of those lines is enjambed.  But it might also be said that each of those four lines is a trisyllabic foot unto itself, a Cretic or amphimacer foot.  These are matters left up to interpretation, and intended to be left to interpretation, by the American people, as established in the precedent of 15 Poet Laureates and many, many Consultants in Poetry for the, to the Library of Congress before me.  I feel I should also note that the poem’s previous lines do not follow this structure, whatever we choose to call it, and that the couplet itself, is in question even if undoubtedly this poem does contain some rhyme.  A digression, perhaps, that I hope this committee will forgive.  The larger issue, however, if I take your meaning correctly, Senator, is a question of my loyalty to integrity and, I believe, by implication, clarity.  The suggestion has been made today and in the previous weeks, before I was able to speak for myself, that my use of enjambment is confirmation of a not-so-secret belief that some parts of thoughts, some words, and therefore some citizens of this great nation are more important than others.  In other words, my critics would have it that I have a tendency toward prejudicial emphasis.  I want to assure you, Senator Hatch, as well as the other members of this committee and all of the American people that this great deliberative body represents, I want to assure you that nothing is farther from the truth.  And I think if you go back and look at the context in which these, well, these line breaks occur, that is in the whole poem and the author it was trying to honor, I think you’ll see that I had intended to show exactly the opposite.  It is my belief that the integrity of a single thought is unbreakable, just as this nation has proven it is unbreakable, following our bloody second birth in the Civil War.  What the poem suggests about Mr. Sebald, who is, for the record, a man I greatly admire for his unwillingness to insert even a single paragraph break into his narratives.  The poem suggests that we must notice the juxtapostion, the natural pauses for mutual regard, for perspective, the stopping and restarting that takes place within integrity.  And again, I would suggest that this notion is confirmed in our history and in our character as a nation, a nation that is united because it is enjambed, the Enjambed States of America, if you will.  We are joined by our integrity as a culture, as a nation, as individuals.  But we are set apart, as states, as people, set next to each other, enriched by our relation to each other.  We comprise a more powerful whole because of our undeniable separations.  We are enjambed as a nation and within ourselves and it is the fact of this enjambment, the acknowledgement of it, that makes us so great.  It is what makes us unbreakable.  That’s not exactly that that poem is about, but that is, was rather the basis of my use of the, I want to re-emphasize, rather narrow usage of the technique.

SOH: Ms. Ryan, are seriously suggesting–

Senator Patrick Leahy: Senator Hatch, your time has expired.   We must—

SOH: Mr. Chairman, I retract, I—One more question, please, Chairman.  I will be brief.

SPL: I don’t think I need to remind you, Senator, that we would all like to ask the nominee a lot of questions that—

SOH: I do apologize, Chairman Leahy, I simply want to know if Ms. Ryan is aware that W. G. Sebald, the subject of her poem, was a German citizen who wrote extensively about the so-called atrocities committed by the American army liberating Germany in WWII.

SPL: Senator Hatch, your time has expired.  I will thank you to respect—

KR: Mr. Chairman, excuse me.  Excuse me.  If the chairmen permits, I’ll answer the Senator’s question.

SPL: Very well, Senator Hatch, you may ask your final question.

SOH: Are you, Ms. Ryan, aware of Sebald’s writings on the so-called fire-bombing of Dresden?

KR: I am.  I am well aware of Mr. Sebald’s sympathies.  I would ask, request that you judge me, however, on my own work, and not by supposed association with the sentiments of anyone else.   My tenure as Poet Laureate would be loyal to the best interests of the American people and nothing else.

SOH: Thank you, Ms. Ryan, for your testimony, and thank you Chairman Lahey, for your consideration.

SPL: I prefer, for future reference, keeping to the schedule to being thanked, but I thank you both for your brevity once consideration was granted.  We will, uh, will take a ten-minute, a flexible, ten-minute break now.  This hearing is now in recess.


Read Full Post »

This morning, I sit in the car, listen to the famously homespun man from my home state reciting a poem called “Lonely Lake.”  Reportage of a beautiful, silent experience with an unnamed Other, every moment soaked in that familiar longing for God knows what and humorless attention to the world’s detailed confirmation of nominal meaning, the poem recalls nothing so much as poems like it.  Busy not working, the poet has noticed the world around her, sponged it all up, contemplated, tested experience against its anticipated description.  She has crafted something carefully small, flawless as a photograph of sunlight in water.  Still, I sit in the car, in the air busily soaking up the lukewarm rain now that the air conditioner is off, let the careworn voice chant the poet’s last few lines, my breath chuffing protest of predictability.  Stepping out into the street, I look across the park at the sun holding up the rain clouds beyond the trees, thrusting daylight toward me, at the water birds stalking the grass.  Everyone else spends the moment somewhere dry and out of sight, as if the scene is mine alone.  Is there a more tempting way to look at a landscape?  As if I’ve come so far for good reason?  As if I’m supposed to do something about all this.

Do not, I repeat not read that interview with the writer instead of not reading it.  And don’t go back to Google when you’re done, don’t see there’s another farther down the page that might be better.  Do not read the other one since maybe the first is just him responding to the wrong questions.  Yeah, the second has better questions, more interesting answers, but he’s still keeping the magic all to himself, and the inspiration you thought you’d get from hearing how a book you loved got made will only reveal how shallow that love is.  Don’t think that maybe the book wasn’t so good after all, that it maybe says that same thing over and over, that we’re just who we are and that’s it, since the world doesn’t allow much else, and certainly don’t waste any time worrying that your own book might not even say that much.  Don’t realize away your innocent experience of the story when you experienced it, now that you begin to see the mind that made it, and don’t worry about the politics of your own unwritten story.  Do not, not now or later, wonder what he would think of the people in your world, the ones struggling to live on the page, the others still unimagined.  Do not confuse his book that exists with yours that wants to, don’t make that confusion an excuse to stall progress.  Don’t imagine anything but more things happening in your own world.  Don’t have a conversation with the writer, and do not, if you do, turn it into an argument.  Don’t try to parse his faux humility, actually certainty that some just got it and some just don’t.

The best poem I read all week, new graffiti appears in the bathroom of the coffee shop.  A rectangle of Sharpie ink holds a heading, Petition To Kiss The Jonas Brothers, and three entries in the same hand.  The first is obscured by crayon or lipstick, some waxy stuff the color of a new bruise.  It’s hard to imagine anyone but whoever is under the substance being the one who put it there, satisfied then that the joke is no longer on her or him.   Names two and three, Angie B., Airplane, stay slapped onto the wall in plain view, apparently unnoticed, or undamning, or still eager for those fraternal kisses.  Then, underneath, in some shakier hand’s pencil, two more additions: Excited PedaphileSex.  Like some British comedians’ absurdist sketch, the list has quickly careered out of control, the penciled genius turning the joke inside out, into infantility itself, a destructive commentary that assembles some new form.  It’s hard not to imagine the thoughts of other coffee drinkers who notice me walking out of the bathroom, then right back in to linger on the names one more time, making sure I have them right in my mind.

Read Full Post »

So, I figure if California can issue 28,750 IOU’s worth $53.3 million dollars, then I–on a holiday weekend when I’m a million miles away from home and all I’ve got is sky and church lady pie and firecrackers and road and family and a little baby who gives kisses and smells like pears and wants to swim in the pool and a mother-in-law I need to steal secrets from and a husband who just flew in from London and a tupperware dish filled with banana pudding and old friends who are getting divorced and need to tip champagne glasses and other friends who have fallen in love or seen Hawaii or gotten new jobs or degrees or just gotten (happily and a bit to their surprise) through another day; when it’s all crickets and fireflies and sitting on the porch; when the heat’s so thick, your mind swims and your limbs hang limp; when your mother keeps calling from the other room, calling and calling, and you remember all the times she called for you, the lilt of her voice, and you can’t tell if you’re ten again or a hundred, and the door swings open, and Get off the computer, she says. Come on in for some coffee–well, then,  I can issue an IOU too.

Dear Reader, IOU. I can’t promise my word is any better than California’s, but, heck, at least it’s summer, and if I don’t pull through, you can drown your sorrows in lemonade and call it all a midnight dream. Happy, happy Fourth!!! May you make it to Monday with your appendages intact and your debts all paid.

Read Full Post »


You’re at your computer. Tickets are a tense, electrifying JBB-Cover-Smallfew seconds from going on sale. Eyeing the time, you’re hitting “Refresh,” and elsewhere, all your friends are doing the exact same thing. That’s Paul Siegell’s jambandbootleg. A widespread, high-spirited head rush. Desperation, fretfulness—all out life-leaping. “The party starts in the parking lot,” indeed. With poems shaped like a guitar, the American flag, even a Golgi apparatus, Paul’s monumental artworks could easily transform into posters. His is a poetry of exploration, heart and astonishment. Simply put: read Paul Siegell’s music. Read it as if listening to the most banging bootleg.


Please check it out here: A-HEAD Publishing, and here: AMAZON

(Amazon’s already on backorder. Oops! But go ahead. They’ll still fulfill it. Pronto!)


“For centuries, people have tried to take words and turn them into music. What Paul Siegell does in his collection of poetry, jambandbootleg, is take music and turn it back into words. And he does it exceptionally well, capturing both the excitement of concert-going and the poetic essence of the improvisational music scene.” —MARC BROWNSTEIN, bass player of the Disco Biscuits

Read Full Post »