Some thoughts on Maurice Manning

There exists in Kentucky, a certain group, but not a school, of young male poets I call the sons of Wendell. That’s Wendell Berry.

These poets write out of grief for the lost Eden that is the United States, and Kentucky in particular. They speak out of a longing for a simpler, smaller, slower, more agrarian time. A time, perhaps, before God was declared dead.

All these young men are excellent poets, but the one who appeals most directly to me is Maurice Manning.

Manning ‘s persona speaks to us with a voice part frontier braggadocio (think Mike Fink) and part the trickster hick (think Mark Twain). He frequently makes me laugh, just before he makes me cry.

Manning’s could be the voice of my grandfather, who was known as Hick and whose humor was dry. When invited by his son, my father, to consider the many wonders he’d witnessed in his lifetime, he said only “We nearly starved.”

Manning’s voice takes the perception of Kentucky as a backwoods full of hillbillies and uses it to defy that perception.

Manning’s is the voice of a desperate nostalgia. My last grandmother, he writes

dead by now
for twenty years with another sad,
erasing century underway, . . .(“Grammar”)

Whereas Wendell Berry’s is a farmer’s God, tranquil in a well-kept farm, nature well under control, Manning’s is a God of passion, one more of Isaiah than of Christ:

In that real, God-given place,
which was composed of possums and dogs,
of horses and birds and trees and gloom . . .

His is like that voice “crying in the wilderness, “

That older truth and time are gone,
but not the place and not the dream,
and not the boy turned man who dreamed
the passionate dream and felt his heart
breaking open with passion, not yet. (“Old-Time Kentucky Salt-Kettle Dream”)

[These quotations are taken from Manning’s latest book, One Man’s Dark from Copper Canyon Press.]
Disclosure: I have had workshops under Manning’s tutelage and consider him a friend.

What is experimental poetry?

My friend Ray Hsu gave a reading at my alma mater yesterday, and he summarized a conversation with his friend Tim Yu about experimental poetry.  Yu mentioned how everyone seems to call themselves an experimental poet these days, and Ray responded by saying that maybe that means that nowadays, truly experimental poems will be ones that don’t look experimental.  Tim Yu said, “Or maybe they won’t look like poems.”

I thought that was a totally fascinating idea.  Ray went on to talk about a poem he wrote and then folded up into an origami man (ETA: Ray just told me this piece is called “The Coroner”).  To read the poem, you had to unfold the origami, and the way that you unfolded it determined how you read the poem.  This led into a brief discussion of the limitations of publishing–what publishers will and won’t publish, where the line is, how an editor determines a book’s coherency and what they’ll keep and cut from a manuscript to obtain that, and so on.  Ray said he likes to test the boundaries and will send his editor things like scraps of poetry written on a map.  Sometimes the editor goes for it, sometimes not (he didn’t go for the map–too bad!). Obviously, you can’t publish an origami man–at least not in the same way you publish a book.  I wonder what other options there would be for distributing that kind of experimental writing?  You could hand it out at readings, maybe, or sell it at a bookstore.  I told Ray he should conscript his undergrads into an origami poetry assembly line for extra credit.

On the way back from the reading, my husband and I talked a bit about whether the publishing industry censors/controls the literary scene more or less than it used to, and whether newer phenomena like zines and the Internet contribute to that control and/or the diffusion of control, especially when it comes to experimental writing.

Just a few disjointed thoughts on publishing, production, and experimental poetry.  What do you think?  Do too many writers call themselves experimental?  Has the term lost all meaning?  What would, or could, an experimental poem that doesn’t look like a poem actually look like?  Where does experimental writing best find its home?

We, the Light

You will witness a love of country, not

Driven by greed but true and enduring,

For it is no unworthy reward to be famed

Writing in praise of my native land.

Observe: you will see names exalted

Of those of whom you are supreme lord,

And you can judge which is the better case,

King of the world or king of such a race.

Any guesses what poet? Or what king he is addressing? Or even what country is home to this incredible race of people?

I was ignorant of it myself before I began reading a history of Portugal. Perhaps it is unfair of me to assume you too are unfamiliar with this poem, but I am writing to praise Luiz Vaz de Camoes and his epic poem of Portugal titled “Os Lusiadas” or, in English, “The Lusiads,” referring to the people of Lusitania. (Also, I come to praise the translator, Landeg White, for his enthusiasm, extensive endnotes, and excellent rhyming couplets.)

de Camoes had an interesting life; he lived in the 16th century and published “Os Lusiadas” in 1572. (White points out that the poem was approved by the Holy Office as containing “nothing scandalous nor contrary to faith and morals.) de Camoes sailed for India as a young man, was shipwrecked in Cambodia (Cambodia!) losing all but the first three cantos of the poem, and was forced to borrow money to purchase passage back home.

I was hoping for a tour-de-force of West meets East, of lush descriptions of what India, Africa, and Cambodia looked like to a 16th-century Portuguese man. Not quite. de Camoes was writing at the end of the golden age of Portuguese naval superiority; he was interested in looking back on the great deeds of his people, such as Vasco da Gama “discovering” India in 1497, not in painting the places da Gama went.

Either way, I was surprised by the opening phrase—“Arms are my theme”—because White’s endnote says this is a reference to the “Aenead”. de Camoes’ poem is rife with Greek/Roman gods; in fact, one of the major plot points of the story is a war between Venus and Bacchus over the success of the da Gama’s fleet reaching India.

Furthermore—back to that offhand comment about the holy censor offering no censure—it is explained in great detail that Venus and Bacchus and Jupiter and Tethys and the nymphs and naiads are just expressions of the greater, Christian god. Again, my ignorance; I had no idea that these two, separate beliefs had been reconciled in this way.

At the time of its writing, I’m sure that the Greek/Roman gods lent a grandeur to the poem, made it clearly epic, but today those were the points I found most disappointing. de Camoes sings when he is describing the hardships and actions and pride of his countrymen, even, for example, the strange life and fate of Inez de Castro.

Like other great Iberian epic poems, “Os Lusiadas” was written in a monorhyming stanza, meaning that all lines in the 8-line stanza rhymed with each other. White, as translator, has kept only a final rhyming couplet in the octets. I realize English is a horrid language in which to attempt extensive monorhyme but I had hoped. However, the couplets were both impressive and effectual. First, White had some excellent rhymes (Aeneas and genius); second, they were sufficient to make each stanza feel like its own bit, not too much to take in at once, in the long poem, and also offered propulsion, since no tidy end was ever the end.

Yet what man could for long avoid

The gentle web which love spins,

Between human roses and driven snow,

Gold hair and translucent alabaster?

Or who be unmoved by the pilgrim beauty

Of a face such as might be Medusa’s,

Transfiguring every heart she inspires

Not to stone but to volcanic desires?