Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

How to make a poem

July 26th, 2017

In John Williams’ novel Augustus, one of the Emperor’s oldest friends, a poet named Gaius Cilnius Maecenas, quotes the poet Horace on how to make a poem.  It is the best thing I have read on the subject.  According to Maecenas, Horace said, “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so – but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I concede an end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so.  And then I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command.  I borrow from others if I have to – no matter.  I invent if I have to – no matter.  I use that language that I know, and I work within its  limits.  But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not the end that I conceived at first.  For every solution entails new choices, and every choice made poses new problems to which solutions must be found, and so on and on.  Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”

Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings

May 1st, 2016

I’m reading Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, a recent book of poetry by Joy Harjo. I think it may be a great book. It certainly inspires thought and feeling. One of the things I find myself thinking about is the dilemma confronting anyone who wants to write criticism of lyric poetry. If a volume of lyric poetry is working the way poetry can work, it is extremely difficult and maybe impossible to articulate an “argument” or even a “point of view” that the volume expresses, from which criticism can proceed. That is because what poetry points at is a preverbal or nonverbal set of truths. In this it shares something with the visual arts. Who was it who said, “If I could write about it I wouldn’t need to paint it?” Poets, and especially lyric poets, could make a similar statement, except of course they are writing about “it.” So that doesn’t leave the literary critic much to work with. The critic can do the Helen Vendler thing and focus on the technical means whereby the critic thinks the poet has achieved the poem’s effects. Or, as more often seems to happen, the critic can do the Dan Chiasson thing of throwing out a lot of fuzzy impressionistic verbiage in a hopeless attempt to communicate the poem’s effects – hopeless of course because that could be done only by reproducing the poem itself. As you may be able to tell, I don’t much care for either of these approaches. The Vendler approach leads to the response, “So what? Who cares?” If I’m a good poet, she’s not telling me anything I don’t already know, and if I’m not a good poet, knowing what she’s telling me will be useless. The Chiasson approach lands us square in the middle of “I don’t get it, and I don’t see why I should.” So I will content myself, for the present, by saying that Joy Harjo, line after line and page after page, evokes fundamental human realities. Her subject matter appears to be the product of a modern day Native American woman’s meditation on the past six hundred years of European and North American history.  If you’re interested in that, check out this book.


May 29th, 2014

fireworksI was going to title this post “Yahoo!” but that might have been misinterpreted.  So much of our language has been commercially appropriated.  Eat more kale, says I.  Anyhow… I am pleased and proud and tickled and relieved to announce that the second volume of my poetic trilogy, which revisits Dante’s Il Purgatorio in much the same way that To Join the Lost revisited L’Inferno, has been accepted for publication by Fomite Press, a publishing house after my own heart.  Visit their site and you’ll see what I mean.  The “relieved” is because I took some risks with this one, and they seem to have paid off.  Both of the editors who have read it so far have liked it enough to want to print it.  Projected publication date is some time in the first half of 2015.  So… if you haven’t bought a copy of To Join the Lost yet, now would be a good time to do so, so that you can be all read up and prepared when Goldfish Rising (or whatever we decide to call it) hits the streets!  You can get your very own copy of TJTL here; if you ask, I’ll autograph it for you.

Why people don’t care about poetry #14137

April 20th, 2011

Over the past weeks I’ve received a couple of invitations from a poetry professor at the local university, to a reading this evening by poet Natasha Trethewey.  I am totally unfamiliar with her work.  So… why should I go?  The publicity that Professor J– has sent me includes a picture of an attractive woman of indeterminate age, perhaps in her thirties?  That’s not enough to entice me out of doors on a rainy evening.  It says she’s a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Well, good for her, but in today’s literary environment that tells me nothing.  Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer last year.  W.S. Merwin won it the year before.  These names may mean little to you.  What they mean to me is that you can win the Pulitzer with a lifetime of great work behind you and a recently popular but relatively weak book, or even despite the fact that your work sucks.  Trethewey’s won several other prizes, too, none of which I’ve ever heard of.  Today’s poetry world is full of prizes.  Every issue of Poets and Writers magazine has pages upon pages in the back, listing all of that month’s prizewinners.  I’m not sure that every one of them is great and fully deserving of our attention.  Finally, there’s a quote from the introduction to Trethewey’s most recent book.  The introduction was written by Rita

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Here’s one for Tim

April 2nd, 2011

When friend and web site designer extraordinaire Tim Twinam sent me an email saying he liked my last post, I realized that I’ve been blogging for a year and this is the first time that anybody has written in to comment on the poetry.  Ironic, considering that a book of poetry is the raison d’etre of this site!  Along with that realization came another – although I allow myself to feel a mild disappointment at the silence which greets verse, I don’t really expect anything different.  Story of my life – it’s like a taboo subject.  Perhaps it’s because the poems are so awful there is no polite response, but I don’t really believe that.  Most likely, nobody feels qualified to say something.  Except for pop songs, television, movies, and video games, art is something our culture has walled off from daily life.  We have lost the habit of responding to a poem as if it were an intelligible statement about something of mutual interest, part of a conversation.  Not an altogether unjustified reaction, since so much modern poetry has given up on that, too.

Grouse, grouse, grouse.

Okay, Tim, at least you’re willing to talk, bless you.  So… yeah, I find Canada’s Maritimes to be pretty damn numinous.  A few years ago my son and I went on a trip to Newfoundland.  The purpose was to visit Anse aux Meadows, the site of the first known European settlement in the New World, dating to five hundred years before Columbus.  Newfoundland is a giant island shaped like an “L”, and Anse aux Meadows is at the top.  It’s a long way up.  On the road there, we passed through Gros Morne National Park.  In the park is an area called the Tablelands.  A mile’s hike from the road one enters a long ravine or narrow valley between towering, barren, brownish rock cliffs.  The rocks are hundreds of millions of years old, formed (if I understand correctly) by one continental plate sliding under another and forcing the earth’s mantle up.  It was a chilly afternoon with rapidly moving clouds.  I had the place to myself, and stood for a long time in that desolate, ancient valley, beside the little stream that runs down its center.  Returning to the car, where Isaac was napping, I encountered a rock in the middle of the path.  I was certain it had not been there before, but I could not imagine how it got there during the hour since I’d passed.  It is about the size and shape of a human heart, salmony brown with grey veins.  There’s a story of a shaman who was asked if he could talk to the stones, and he answered, “The trick is knowing which ones.”  I felt that this stone definitely had something to say to me.  It wanted to hitch a ride.  I hesitated, because I was unsure what I was inviting into my life, but it is hard to argue with a stone.  It’s sitting in my living room right now, and I am waiting for the day when I have learned how to listen to it.

Tablelands, Newfoundland

I have seen my mother’s bones,
naked, shattered, immense,
and the waters threading down them
braided at my feet
and rushed through the rubble
calling loudly

Vote for me!

March 10th, 2011

Yeah, you!  I’m talking to you!

I received an email the other day from the Vermont Arts Council inviting me to nominate a candidate for Vermont Poet Laureate, and I thought, who better than me?  For all of you who agree, follow this link to help me throw my hat in the ring.  You can find everything you need to know to fill out the nomination form right here on this web site.

Poetry doesn’t need to be boring or mystifying or trivial.  It can be about more than some feeling or experience or passing fancy or perception the author had.  It doesn’t have to be a word game.  It can do more than advertise how sensitive or perceptive or humane or smart or verbally adept the author is.   It doesn’t have to come in little bite size pieces that you can read while folding toilet paper.

Poetry can engage the world on all the levels that you do.  It can make statements, tell stories about characters doing things, express points of view and arguments and ideas, contain adventure and excitement and jokes that are actually funny.  It can be so big that it takes hours and days and weeks to read.  It can be so vivid that you don’t want to watch a movie instead.

I want to wrest poetry away from the clammy fingers of the Standard MFA Workshop American Lyric that are clenching it by the throat, squeezing the life out of it.  I am sick of reading award winning poems that tell me in twenty lines or so about some tranche de vie.  Why are you telling me this?  Who cares?  Why should I care?  Why should anybody care?    I am sick of being dazzled by verbal brilliance – it hurts and it’s bad for the eyes.  I am sick of poems that dare me to understand them, like an adolescent with something to prove to himself.

Where are the poems that back an eighteen wheeler up to your head, unload, and leave you with completely rearranged furniture and a new set of tenants?  Who is writing them?  I’ll leave it to you to decide if I’m such a poet, but if you agree with me that this is something poetry needs to do and that too few poets are trying to do it, then VOTE FOR ME!

The deadline for nominations is March 25.

A cheap way to Join the Lost

December 8th, 2010

Antrim House Books is offering To Join the Lost and all its other paperback titles for 30% off through December 21… with free shipping… what better  stuff for a holiday sock than  poetry?  To order online, go to Antrim House’s Seth Steinzor page, click on the “add to cart” button, and write “sale price” under “directions to the merchant” – you’ll receive a rebate check with your book.  Or books.  Come on, you’re not going to buy just one and keep it to yourself, are you?


November 16th, 2010

Here’s what we’re up against: I just looked at’s list of “100 best books of the year.”  There’s a sidebar which allows you to browse the editors’ picks by clicking on any of 23 categories, including “Business & Investing” and “Food Lit.”  Poetry isn’t even listed.  So bless you, hardy soul, who has found this web site.  Strike a blow against Corporate Cultural Hegemony!  Buy my freaking book.

Return to the Gamut Room

October 15th, 2010

I’ll be reading from To Join the Lost in the Gamut Room at Middlebury College the evening of Wednesday, November 10, 2010.  Although I’m not sure the feelings it arouses in me could properly be called “nostalgic,” there definitely is a charge for me in returning to this venue.  I was one of the founders of the student-run coffee-house back in 1974, together with Eve Ensler, who actually did most of the organizational work when I bowed out to write my senior thesis.  She may never have forgiven me.  Sorry, Eve.  I’m not sure of the time yet – watch this space.

So why write poetry, anyhow?

August 8th, 2010

The author in China, drinking tea with ground up turtle shell jelly.

Not for the money, that’s for sure.  Booklist and Library Journal ignored To Join the Lost, which is what I guess they do to titles not offered by the already bankable (I don’t think either of them regularly reviews poetry anyway), and without the imprimatur of those two gatekeepers one’s chance is greatly diminished of entering the literary Valhalla represented by a review in the New York Times or other national publication, and since it is reviews that spur sales one is stuck with whatever business one’s hometown paper can inspire (if one is lucky enough to obtain their notice, which I have been) and of course friends and relatives.  That stack of cartons in the living room, author’s copies, isn’t likely to get much smaller any time soon.

But it’s an itch I cannot help but scratch.  A college professor once told me, “Seth, words come too easily to you.”  True of prose, not of poetry.  Poetry is hard.  I can bash out five hundred, a thousand words of prose without any effort at all.  Ten lines of verse is a good day.  Is it the challenge?

Partly.  There are several kinds of challenge here.  There is the gamesmanship of working in form.  If you’re not thinking about form when you write, as you write, with every word that you write, then you’re not paying attention to the thing

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