Archive for the ‘ Essay ’ Category

My Heroes Haven’t Always Been Real

Oh hey, yeah, so it’s me on the AGNI blog:

At a recent reading, someone did in fact note how frequently my poems name-check historical characters.

“That’s because,” I answered, not altogether unseriously, “my poems are the only place my name is ever going to be alongside theirs.”

the AGNI blog


    Looking for Bobby Fisher

T. S. Eliot in New York, 1958

In the spring of 1958 the (relatively) new Mr and Mrs Eliot travelled to America for a month so that T. S. Eliot could introduce his new wife, Valerie to his family. They sailed from Southampton to New York aboard the Media before flying to Texas for lecture engagements and then on to Cambridge, via New York, to spend time with various members of the Eliot family. 

Introducing Mrs. Eliot
Photo taken 4/19/58, waiting to enter New York sound.

Eliot’s note on the reverse.

What Writers Really Do When They Write

An artist works outside the realm of strict logic. Simply knowing one’s intention and then executing it does not make good art. Artists know this. According to Donald Barthelme: “The writer is that person who, embarking upon her task, does not know what to do.” Gerald Stern put it this way: “If you start out to write a poem about two dogs fucking, and you write a poem about two dogs fucking – then you wrote a poem about two dogs fucking.” Einstein, always the smarty-pants, outdid them both: “No worthy problem is ever solved in the plane of its original conception.”

George Saunders: What Writers Really Do When They Write

                                      Gertrude Stein

What You Need to Know About the Trump Inaugural Poem

First off, it’s not. No poetry will be read at the Trump inauguration, per the program.

The poem was written by a certain Joseph Charles MacKenzie (more on him later) and posted to a site he, whatever his real name is, obviosly runs (see the comments): Classical Poets, on January 15, 2017.

Somehow The Scotsman got word and reprinted it the following day: “Scotland-inspired poem created for Donald Trump inauguration.”

The day after that, The Independent covered it as “Poem celebrating Donald Trump inauguration describes Barack Obama as a ‘tyrant.’” Then the interwebs went nuts.

So far there’s no indication the Trump camp had anything to do with the writing, initial posting, and subsequent dissemination of the poem.

And who is this Joseph Charles MacKenzie? If he is real (and I suspect that name is an alias), he comes off as quite the troll and résumé padder. He writes in his site, Mackenziepoet, among other things:

For my translations of some important sonnets of the French Renaissance (into Middle English), I earned the Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize then sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation.

French into Middle English. Of course. Also, that prize does not seem to exist, though the Witter Bynner Foundation does. Also:

One of my professors, an Oxonian named Charles Bell, indicated that some of my sonnets surpassed many of Shakespeare’s. Indeed, a sequence of 154 sonnets I had then completed later received First Place in the Long Poem Section of the Scottish International Poetry Competition.

154 sonnets! Some surpassing many of Shakespeare’s! One can only gasp. Also, the referenced prize does not seem to exist. Also, Charles Bell was a prominent Scottish surgeon (nice touch), though he was not associated with Oxford.

However, I suspect Joseph Charles MacKenzie is not real — he’s an alias, a cover for a troll.

Here the man (he is a man) behind the screen gives his name as Joseph McKenzie (the name of a Scottish photography piooneer) and claims he “received his M.L.S. from Texas Woman’s University School of Library and Information Studies. He is a humble librarian.” This picture is used:


                        Mr McKenzie, I presume?

Whereas here, the man in the shadows gives his name as Joseph Charles MacKenzie, and states “At St. John’s College, where I obtained my B.A. in Literae Humaniores, I read the Nine Lyric Poets of Greece in their original dialects.” Of course. 

He also claims he has an M.A. in French Studies with a minor in Italian from the University of New Mexico, and uses the same photograph as above (towards the bottom of the page), and this one at the top:


Well, it’s hard to say if they are the same person, but there is a tempting similarity, no? But I suspect the photos aren’t of the person behind the mask.

Fun and games.

I suspect the “real” McKenzie or MacKenzie (I think the former) has been having fun via his various aliases. A day’s search led me to a likely candidate, neither librarian nor linguist/poet, and perhaps belonging to a so-called higher calling. However, any further speculation on my part would be just that. 

I’ll close with the mission statement (scroll to the bottom) “Joseph Charles MacKenzie” (the linguist/poet, not the librarian incarnation) put forth, who first posted the Trump  poem:

THE TRIUMPH OF TRADITION OVER MODERNISM

You have boycotted modernist so-called “poetry” for over half a century, but arrogant publishers have ignored your rejection of pseudo-intellectual nonsense in chopped-up prose.

Backward old elites have censored traditional lyric poetry because it clashes with their Marxist-totalitarian world view. The result has been complete censorship of traditional lyric verse and the loss of the ability to produce it.

The only solution to the crisis is the triumphant appearance of Joseph Charles MacKenzie’s Sonnets for Christ the King, the first significant body of traditional lyric verse produced since the poems of W.B. Yeats and Charles Péguy.

“MacKenzie” is nothing if not modest. Oh, and he claims to be “New Mexico’s first traditional lyric poet.” Of course.

On Dickinson’s Birthday

As someone who witnessed the deaths of loved ones, including close friends and her father, in the last decade of her life, as well as the horrors of the Civil War in the 1860s, Dickinson had good reason to be preoccupied by the question of what comes after life. But her writings on death are not in line with mainstream Victorian culture, which wanted to make death palatable and familiar. Dickinson makes death uncomfortable through its very overfamiliarity: ‘Death is the supple Suitor / That wins at last’.

Chris Townsend, The Inventions of Emily Dickinson

I Had Told You I Did Not Print

From Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry, by Dan Chiasson:

“It has been argued that Dickinson refused publication exactly because it was synonymous with print, whose standardizing tendencies she knew would miscarry her precision effects. When, in 1866, Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican (under a title likely chosen by its editors, “The Snake”), Dickinson complained to Higginson that, among other problems, she was “defeated . . . of the third line by punctuation.” Her manuscript had read, “You may have met Him—did you not / His notice sudden is—.” But, when the poem appeared, the editors had supplied a question mark: “You may have met him—did you not? / His notice instant is.””

“The question mark makes the second half of line three auxiliary to the first: “You may have met him—did you not [meet him] ? / His notice instant is.” But Dickinson’s preferred punctuation, while it leaves the possibility of the auxiliary clause intact, allows for other syntactical relations: “You may have met him—[if you haven’t, you should know that] / His notice instant is.” The words “notice” and “not” reflect each other more vividly without the hard stop of the intervening question mark. Dickinson seems to have preferred “instant” over “sudden” in later drafts of the poem, but when it appeared in the second edition of her work, edited by Todd and Higginson, a comma materialized in the spot where the question mark had gone. “I had told you I did not print,” Dickinson once wrote to Higginson, suggesting that it wasn’t shyness or modesty that kept her from publishing; it was a fierce constancy to her vision of the page.””

A. E. Stallings on Dylan

Song has been divorced from poetry for a long time, at least in the English-speaking world. I think that is to the impoverishment of poetry. There is the Shakespeare of dramatic blank verse, for instance, and the Shakespeare of the sonnets, but there is also the Shakespeare of the songs – and it is the songs that perhaps influence literature as much as anything else – lyrics made to be sung, but which we perceive now as words on a page. Songs and poetry were once indistinguishable (Sappho famously is supposed to have invented the Mixolydian mode), and have continued to feed one another: A. E. Housman, for instance, claimed that his influences were the Scottish Border Ballads (folk songs), the songs of Shakespeare and the poet Heinrich Heine (whose poems were themselves often set to music).

Bob Dylan: Song as Poetry

I’ve made a similar argument before, regarding rap lyrics and poetry:

The Common Controversy: Are Popular Song Lyrics Poetry?