Monday, March 17, 2014

Thomas Wolfe's New Orleans

Enjoy Thomas Wolfe the novelist? John S Barnes saw poetry in Wolfe’s work, and through careful selection and a few skillful line breaks, he reveals it to us.
Here is an excerpt of Wolfe's writing entitled, "New Orleans -- River."

And he looked upon

The huge yellow snake of the river,

Dreaming of its distant shores,

The myriad estuaries

Lush with tropical growth that fed it,

All the romantic life

Of plantation and canefields that fringed it,

Of slow lights on the gilded river-boat,

And the perfumed flesh of black-haired women… (1)

In the blog regarding this poem I asked two questions.  Let’s look at them more closely now.

1. Does Wolfe's poem still speak to us about New Orleans -- how it was, and how it is now?

I can’t answer for every reader, but once I’ve reoriented myself to Wolfe’s languorous voice I fall quite easily into the scene. It is work, however, to acquire the correct mindset because Wolfe’s style violates so many of today’s standards -- of good writing, and in some cases good taste.

Note here how he has used trochaic feet, having selected words heavily weighted in the first syllable. Such beats are used to subtly increase tension in verse, and yet, here, Wolfe has used them in a piece which, on the surface, is depicting how lush and slow-moving the river is.

Long words that take a long time to pronounce, such as “estuaries,” “tropical,” and “plantation” help to slow the reader down, to match what Wolfe had hoped to evoke. The use of hyphenated and compound words has the same effect, as in “black-haired,” “river-boat,” and “canefield.”

The use of Trochaic feet, however, subconsciously sets a sterner tone, and I for one feel the speaker must be a bureaucrat, or perhaps someone from the Army Corps of Engineers. Consider too, that few people appear in this piece, and when they do they are viewed at a nameless distance. The speaker speaks like a visitor to, not a native of, this place.

2. How differently would Wolfe's work be executed if he were writing today?

If he were like most other poets of our time, he would try harder to ground his writing in the concrete and visual aspects of the world.  A piece about the Mississippi river as it flows through New Orleans would probably make reference to bridges, levees, cars and roads alongside, cranes, the skyline, speedboats, sailing boats, fishermen alongside with their rods and reels…and the industrial hubbub of the Port of New Orleans.

This particular piece, on the other hand, seems anachronistic relative not only to Wolfe’s lifetime in the early 20th century, but seems completely unanchored in history.

Needless to say, Wolfe today would never refer to “dancing darkies on the levee” (2).  Although for Wolfe’s time this was acceptable, to do so now is a serious violation of cultural norms. On a technical level, to do so again emphasizes the great distance between the speaker and the people in the scene.   

A modern reader used to contemporary work will require a few moments to reorient oneself to the voice of Thomas Wolfe as poet.  It is worth the effort, however, in terms of technical study, as well as for the joy of rediscovering an iconic voice.


1. Wolfe, Thomas. Barnes, John, S., ed. A Stone, A Leaf, A Door: Poems. New York: Macmillan. 1945. 65.

2. ibid.

For a contemporary New Orleans poet, please check out Red Beans and Ricely Yours and its author, Mona Lisa Saloy.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Thom Satterlee -- Burning Wyclif

Thom Satterlee's linking narrative Burning Wyclif won the 2006 Walt McDonald First Book prize, and was probably the best book to come out that year

Not only is this the most beautifully bound book of poetry I think I've ever seen, but Thom Satterlee, assistant professor of English at Taylor University, and advisor to the student-run magazine Parnassus, is obviously a master at his craft.  His research into his subject, his empathetic exploration of a time very different from our own, as well as his mastery of technique makes his a stand-out book among this year's many prize winners.

Burning Wyclif is a novelized-biography of John Wyclif, the 14th century reformer declared heretic by Pope Martin V in 1415. Wyclif's books were ordered burned by Pope Martin, and no images of Wyclif we have today are actually from his time. Satterlee therefore had to restore the life of Wyclif to us, much in the same way an archaeologist restores a whole garment from only a few charred bits.

To this scant historical framework Satterlee brings the wisdom and sensitivity of a mature writer. He uses free verse, sonnets, and other forms to their best effect. His villanelle "A Young Italian Man Healed of the Plague by Saint Bridget of Sweden" reminds me how muscular this form can be in the right hands.

Satterlee gives voice to plague victims and survivors, The Black Friars, William of Ockham, John Ball (executed leader of the peasant revolt), The Flagellants, the Duke of Lancaster, Arab scholar Ibn Khtir (based on Ibn Abu Madyan), assorted clerics, politicians, devotees, and a host of others who filled the 14th century world we are invited to enter.

Here, Satterlee gives voice to Wyclif's trepidation over his own writings. He has come to the point where he realizes that to follow God will bring him into direct conflict with the Church.  He agonizes:


All day I felt

too afraid to read


what I had written.

When the ink dried

I hid the page


beneath other pages, believing

that if I were right

pride would make it


impossible to write again,

and if I were wrong

shame would do the same. (1)


This task of historic reconstruction is one that novels-in-verse and linking narrative poetry do particularly well, because of the intimacy and focus of verse. Poetry, too, is allowed a looser, more easygoing relationship with plot than its prose cousin enjoys; which allows the poet to follow the map of the interior life, which plot-driven narrative often must skip over.

Through his success Satterlee shows us how people lived in a distant era of disease, religious turmoil and political upheaval. He returns us to the voice of our cultural ancestors telling us how things were, and how they might be again.


1. Satterlee, Thom. Burning Wyclif. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press. 2006. 52.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Erin Noteboom, Poet, is Erin Bow, YA Novelist

Hi all,

The post directly below this one is a reprint of my earlier article, reviewing Erin Noteboom's Ghost Maps. Erin Noteboom also has written another gorgeous book of poetry Seal up the Thunder (Toronto: Wolsack and Wynn, 2005) and a bittersweet memoir, The Mongoose Diaries (2007).

What some readers may not realize is that Erin Noteboom, poet, is also Erin Bow, influential YA novelist. Using her husband's last name, Erin produced the wildly popular YA novel Plain Kate (Scholastic) in 2010. Erin Bow's most recent YA, Sorrow's Knot, was released in October 2013 as a Publisher's Weekly Book of the Week.

Since this is a blog about novels-in-verse, I'll jump to make the connection here. Erin Noteboom's poetic voice was drawn to the long, storytelling form. Erin Bow's YA voice is drawn to the poetic. Strength comes from strength, producing wonders, don't you think?

Check out Erin Bow's website for more info, photos, and contacts. Enjoy!

Erin Noteboom: Ghost Maps

During her visits of April through December 1995, Erin Noteboom recorded her conversations with Carl Hruska, an American veteran of WWII. 

The resultant book of poetry, Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska, is part oral history and part journey of imagination.  In places she retells his story through her own verse.  In others, Noteboom lets Hruska’s words stand on their own, unadorned.

Hruska had been a homestead-bound Iowa farmer before the war, so his way of interpreting the many strange new experiences is through the language of horse and plow.  From the deck of a troop transport ship he sees the Atlantic Ocean in terms of a field of wheat, (1) and describes the first negro sailor he meets as having a head a “lambswool head.” (2) In the depth of winter in the Ardennes, he speaks of soldiers asleep, braced against each other “like sheaves of wheat.” (3) Killing his first enemy soldier left him with grisly, ambivalent feelings, like chopping “a black snake with a hoe.” (4)

In this selection, from Waste Noteboom records, with third-person detachment, how Hruska lost his leg.

It happened in an orchard.


Lying there, he stares

into the ragged holes that wasps have chewed

in windfall apples – soft

as mud, now, brown

as the hand of frost.  Gone


to waste.  By that alone

he might have guessed at mines.  This

hungry country. (5)

The lacing of wispy verse around verbatim accounts reminds the reader of handwork, of embroidery with appliqu├ęs. Vivian Hruska’s life of waiting back on the farm -- knitting, doing chores – often appears in the form of letters to her husband overseas. These bits of plainspoken rural news relieve the reader from the grisly wartime narrative, just as they surely formed comfortable daydreams into which Hruska could retreat as he fought his way toward that fateful apple orchard. 

In the end, we readers are left with a compelling story of marriage, of people called out from their normal lives, of countryside at peace and war.

1. Noteboom, Erin. Ghost Maps: Poems for Carl Hruska. (Toronto:  Wolsak and Wynn.  2003.) 17.
2. ibid.
3. ibid., 26
4. ibid., 21
5. ibid., 50

For more information about the poetry of war, and other related topics, please scroll down to my posts on  
  • History: A Home Movie, 
  • The Unraveling Strangeness
  • Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune
For poetry that most closely resembles Vivian Hruska’s memories, please visit Kyrie and Tamsen Donner: A Woman’s Journey in the article "The Way-Back Machine."

Sam Savage: The Criminal Life of Effie O

Illustrated poem, novel-in-verse, Sam Savage has written a children’s book for adults.  With simple, deft verse he sketched out characters readers can really care about.


In his introduction to The Criminal Life of Effie O, Sam Savage (a.k.a. The Old Rat) explains that he wanted to write a children’s book for his kids, but they grew up. This hilarious and touching illustrated novel-in-verse is what he wrote instead.  It is composed in rhyme by a skillful hand, and illustrated with charming line drawings by Virginia Beverley. 

As is the case in folk tales and children’s stories, simple shorthand is employed.  Substitute “suburbs” for “dark woods” and “the city” for “the enchanted castle.” This urban/suburban, good/bad equation is employed without comment. For his purposes Savage needs “Wal-Mart,” “subdivision” and assorted familiars to stand in for the stultifying malaise that often overcomes relationships, and individuals.

He might even say that “suburbs” have happened to both of Savage’s main characters. The eponymous Effie O is the love child souvenir of her mother Janet’s wide-ranging youth. Janet settled down from life on the road in order to raise and support Effie, yet 15 years later neither are happy with the life stability and prosperity has brought. Janet expresses her frustration in overwork and alcohol. Effie takes hers out on walls, benches, toilet stalls, and anything else she can hit with a can of spray paint.  Effie steals to support her graffiti habit, and is caught. 

In this selection, Child Psychologist Dr. Zell and Effie have an encounter.

After a dis-

harmonious hour

with Effie in his office,

Zell has a diagnosis

of the odd moroseness

that has her lately

so peaked and pasty.


He asked her questions (pried)

and Effie answered (lied).


He knew that she was lying.

She knew what he was trying. (1)

From therapist’s office Effie’s story careens through DSS, the courts, and eventually a juvenile correctional facility. Janet is having her own problems both at work and in the gated community where her how-did-I-end-up-here-from-where-I-started mid-life crisis is putting her at odds with the status quo. 

While in real life these events would be troubling, in the hands of a wise and benevolent poet this is the thread from which an uplifting story is woven. Savage understands and respects both troubled youth and middle-aged bureaucrat. He even issues an apology to hard-working teachers and social workers who might feel insulted by their analogs in the book. One comes away from The Criminal Life of Effie O with renewed compassion for self and others.  Well done.

1) Savage, Sam. The Criminal Life of Effie O. (Madison: Papas and Nellie Press. 2005.) 75-76.

For more information about illustration of poetry, image in poetry, and other related topics, please visit my articles on Journal: the short life and mysterious death of Amy Zoe Mason, Illustrated Poetry, and Janet Holmes' The Green Tuxedo.

Which Book Would You Buy Based on Title Alone?

Of the five poetry books in our selection, which would you buy on title alone? The final vote numbers are as follows:

The Lost Lunar Baedeker (21.43%) by Mina Loy

To Repel Ghosts (28.57%) by Kevin Young

Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (35.71%) by Amy Uyematsu

The Flute Ship Castricum (14.29%) by Amy England

The Book of Orgasms (0.00%) by Nin Andrews

Poor Nin Andrews lost out. I recall The Book of Orgasms as funny and far, far better that I feared it might be, given the over-ambitious title.

Follow up thoughts: Does your vote change when you consider the authors? Number of pages? Price?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Biography and Lying in Poetry

Where is the dividing line between “cultivated narratives,” and those which simply grow up wild and organic from the lives of their creators?

There is still another kind of linking narrative which we haven’t discussed yet.  It is the inadvertent one, the one which corresponds most closely to prose biography. I know, I know, this sounds like I’m talking about confessional poetry again, and perhaps I have come full circle from my original argument

Enter David Weigl, who in book after book returns to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

A bouncing betty comes up waist high –
cuts you in half.
One man’s legs were laid
alongside him in the Dustoff:
he asked for a chairback, morphine.
He screamed he wanted to give
his eyes away, his kidneys,
his heart.... (1)

Weigl does not abandon his readers in Vietnam, though. His many books have given him time (his first was published in 1976) and pages enough to explore different chapters of life – marriage, parenting, spirituality, and recovery. 

Note how the voice in this piece based on childhood, 

Mr. Brown
            was my teacher
of the sums in the sixth grade
and he saw the beautiful
figures in everything.  (2)

differs from this, in which a man looks back on the years since childhood:

All morning long in the rain,
            I drove through the street of my boyhood
past the falling-down houses,

with my friend from my boyhood
            who is a man now, like me. (3)

The nature of how poets write when they’re writing their own lives -- and poets are always writing their own lives, even when they costume it in fiction -- leads poets to create unintentional narratives.

In Bruce Weigl’s thirteen books he has returned again and again to American soldiers in Vietnam, but also spends lots of time with the Vietnamese people themselves, as well as with American veterans at home. The whole of his work taken together weaves a life story, just as volumes of a private journal or a stack of personal letters would. Weigl has said in interviews that not everything in his poems happened exactly the way it was written, that imagination has altered the way he has written events.(4) Even so, if it were prose we would call it biography.

So, where is the dividing line between intentional linking narratives – “cultivated narratives,” -- and those which simply grow up wild and organic from the lives of their creators? 

1. Weigl, Bruce. Executioner. (Small Press Distribution: Berkeley. 1976.)
2. Weigl, Bruce. The Unraveling Strangeness. (Grove Press: New York, 2002) 28.
3. Weigl, Bruce. The Unraveling Strangeness. (Grove Press: New York, 2002) 37.
4. Dameshek, Brandon, "An Interviews with Bruce Weigl," Memorious: A Forum for New Verse and Poetics, Issue No. 2, July 2004, 3 May 2006.