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The Possibility of a Poetic Drama

By Joel Brouwer

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“The questions—why there is no poetic drama to-day, how the stage has lost all hold on literary art, why so many poetic plays are written which can only be read, and read, if at all, without pleasure—have become insipid, almost academic.”

So wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” published in The Sacred Wood (1922). Some fourscore years on, how has the situation of poetic drama changed?

Well, if there was no poetic drama then, I guess there’s something like less than none now. You could argue that between then and now we’ve seen dramatists whose language has bent more toward the poetical–Beckett’s monologues, the folk songs in Brecht, even the blank verse which lurks beneath much of Mamet’s dialogue–but why are so few poets interested in writing–and not just writing but producing–plays in verse?

I’m sure some will argue that verse drama is very much alive, pointing to Glyn Maxwell, Verse Theater Manhattan, Christopher Logue, and other authors and organizations. All very true; I’m not saying the form is extinct. But even if we postulate for the sake of argument that there are dozens, if not hundreds of verse dramas being written this minute, I think we can still agree that verse drama is not well represented in print or on the stage. When did you last go to see a play? When did you last go to see a verse play? When did you last see a verse play by a living writer?

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon a good deal for a number of reasons. First, I had a lot of trouble hammering out issues of point of view in the poems in my most recent book. Far too late into the development of the manuscript, I thought to myself, damn, this would have been much easier to do as a play. Second, the increasingly virtualized nature of our cultural discourse–by which I simply mean that I can sit here at this same screen and watch a movie, attend a photography exhibit, hear a concert, read a poem, chat on this blog, etc.–has led me to ponder theater’s great anachronistic strangeness, namely, you have to be there. Third, I’ve always liked thinking about fallow or forgotten genres and media, like those things we made in junior high where you wrapped colored string around finishing nails tacked into plywood to learn about asymptotes. Fourth, sigh, you knew this was coming, I think I might be working on a verse play myself. Hoo. Ray. Kill me now.

Four possible reasons why you haven’t been to see an original verse drama in as long as you can remember, if ever:

1. Because theater itself is a dying art, and verse drama is just one passenger on that sinking ship.

2. Movies. Duh.

3. Modernism. The concept of “verse drama” became antique when authors like Beckett began to write plays in prose that made meaning like a poem.

4. Thanks to advances in publishing technology and the internet, all of poetry’s DIY energy is going into the creation of books, journals, and web sites, where it once might have gone into memorizing lines from your friend’s verse play in order to mount a production of it in your back yard. No, really! Think about it! Well, maybe not. I’m just thinking out loud here, people!

Any other ideas? I’d be glad to hear them.

Comments (55)

  • On July 9, 2009 at 4:57 pm Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Oh, I have to shout out here to my friend Joyelle McSweeney, who is very much alive, and who has not only written verse plays but mounted productions thereof.

  • On July 9, 2009 at 5:12 pm Jordan wrote:

    I saw several productions of plays by Kenneth Koch during his lifetime, and a few since he died. I’ve also seen verse plays by Tim Griffin, Edwin Torres, and, well, me. But I take your point.

  • On July 9, 2009 at 5:58 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Joel,

    Isn’t Shakespeare verse drama? He’s pretty big.

    Every genre has something it does better than all the other genres, and what live theatre does better than all the other genres is put ‘life’ on stage, and so there’s going to be a strong incentive for those who work in that genre and identify themselves with that genre to keep it in the realm of what it does best–and why should they mess up reproducing ‘real life’ by having characters speak ‘in verse,’ when they can ‘reproduce life’ better by having characters speak like actual people do?

    Why then, we ask, does Shakespeare continue to be so popular? Well, first, I would say Shakespeare wrote his plays with an eye on physical stuff–there’s tons of sub-textual genius in his plays which has nothing to do with ‘verse,’ per se, and second, verse doesn’t have to sound like artificial prose–in the hands of a genius verse can sound like ‘prose that’s better than prose.’ Shakespeare knew his Plato and was re-writing Plato’s dialogues, essentially; Shakespeare always had ‘A Republic’ in mind, thus giving his plays the ‘epic’ and ‘philosophically transcendent’ scope which fit the sweeping, luxurious, elevated language.

    Verse drama requires genius, like sculpting in marble; few are good enough to sculpt in marble; few are good enough to make drama live in verse.

    Also, I would say that Modernism, with its elitism and its fakery and its manifesto-ism, was not cut out to succeed in drama, because elitist fakes don’t do well in front of a lot of people. WC Williams failed as a poetry reader in public, Pound never wowed large audiences, except maybe as a radio broadcaster in fascist Italy, Henry James failed as a playwright and T.S Eliot’s plays have not had any sort of lasting success. I worked on a Yeats play once; I don’t think Yeats really succeeds as stage work, either.

    Eliot was popular as a reader of his poems, which are somewhat like Browning’s ‘little dramas.’ Seamus Heaney attracts large crowds when he reads his poems. When successful poets read their poems, audiences certainly listen to them as if they were enjoying ‘little dramas.’

    Poems are already, for all intents and purposes, dramas. Here’s what the New Critics Brooks and Warren wrote in “Understanding Poetry:”

    “all poetry, even short lyrics or descriptive pieces, involve a dramatic organization. This is clear when we reflect that every poem implies a speaker of the poem, either the poet writing in his own person or someone into whose mouth the poem is put, and that the poem represents the reaction of such a person to a situation, a scene, or an idea. In this sense every poem can be–and in fact must be–regarded as a little drama.”

    Novels are dramas, too. And so are paintings.

    Theater is best, then, at reproducing drama that is ‘live,’ that is ‘real,’ and since verse is not normally spoken by ‘real’ people, there’s the rub.

    What would help, I think, would be for a Verse Stage company to form, and produce high quality performances of works like Plato’s dialogues, closet dramas of Milton, Shelley, etc and see what non-Shakespeare, poetic material might be staged in a manner to win over large audiences.

    Thomas

  • On July 9, 2009 at 6:27 pm Barry Cunningham wrote:

    Musicals and operas are poetic dramas; with music!
    Some odd folks even think that the music makes the words and action more interesting.

  • On July 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm noah freed wrote:

    I didn’t realize Shakespeare was alive & writing poetic dramas today! Or could it be that someone doesn’t even bother to read the posts he replies to? Considering that every single one of his comments is exactly the same echo chamber, convincing no one, this could well be the case. I love how seriously crafted the comments are, too, as if anyone is actually reading them, now that they’ve heard the single thing their author has to say one trillion times.

    A limit to the number and length of comments per day—per week even—is the only thing that might resuscitate Harriet. I’m out of here until that happens.

  • On July 9, 2009 at 8:00 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    One can only hope you read it to arrive at this judgement, Noah Freed–which is savage. If you want to put something down you’ve got to be well-informed, otherwise you might look foolish. So I’m sure you did.

    I’d say the Shakespeare post gets right in there in its attempts to come to terms with the very first words of Joel Brouwer’s article: “The questions, why there is no poetic drama to-day, how the stage has lost all hold on literary art.” To answer that you also have to consider why poetic drama was successful in the past.

    I’d say thank you for an eloquent and well-informed start.

  • On July 9, 2009 at 8:51 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Noah,

    Joel mentioned Brecht, Beckett, and movies in wondering why people don’t write verse drama much anymore; I thought Shakespeare should get a mention. Perhaps it’s you who didn’t read the post very well.

    Feel free to disagree with my opinions. I won’t bite. Really.

    Funny how, in a free and open environment, you would rather shut somebody up, than add your own wisdom.

    Thomas

  • On July 9, 2009 at 9:36 pm Don Share wrote:

    I guess his name is mud, but I’ve seen some verse dramas by Derek Walcott over the past several years.

    Quite a while ago in Cambridge, Mass. (of course), there was a celebration of the Poets Theatre in which plays by O’Hara and Koch were performed (with Koch participating, and featuring Wallace Shawn) – it was swell.

    There’s been a lot of interest in Pound’s radio operas (if that counts), thanks to Margaret Fisher’s book… As for Eliot, well, I recently listened to the old LP of The Cocktail Party and thought it surprisingly successful; then again you can’t go wrong with Alec Guinness and Irene Worth!

    The Poetry Foundation has a prize for verse drama, which you can read about here:

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=181121

  • On July 9, 2009 at 10:58 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Has Christopher Fry already been forgotten? Of course the problem is his overt spirituality, because although he came from a Quaker background he did find refuge in the Church in much the same way as Eliot did–who was also his mentor. His name is also forever tied up with Gielgud, Olivier, Richard Burton and Edith Evans, but who remembers he wrote the script for Ben Hur? How bout that?

    I still have a copy of the NY Times obituary someone sent me shortly after his death in 2005–it’s folded up in my copy of “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” An obituary’s a good way if there is any to judge the pulse of a reputation, and July 5th, 2005 is today.

    Good quotes are included in Benedict Nightingale’s evaluation. “His plays radiated an optimistic faith in God and humanity, evoking, in his words, ‘a world in which we are poised on the edge of eternity, a world which has deeps and shadows of mystery, and God is anything but a sleeping partner.’ He said he wrote his plays in poetry because that was ‘the language in which man expresses his own amazement’ at the complexity both of himself and of a reality which, beneath the surface, was ‘wildly, perilously, inexplicably fantastic.’”

    Christopher Fry is still highly regarded among England’s more spiritually inclined, including anthroposophists, and his plays are regularly performed in amateur theatricals.

    Is there a key there?

  • On July 10, 2009 at 12:55 am Justin Runge wrote:

    Joel,

    I just want to say that theatre (let’s set aside the verse variety for now) is no more “a dying art” than poetry. In fact, less so, depending on how you define your knell.

    Theatre is often supported at all levels of education in this country, from elementary to secondary school, and at universities, where many thousands of students pursue degrees in all aspects of theatre art—acting, directing, technical theatre, dramaturgy, etc. In addition, theatre continues to be supported to various degrees locally in the form of community theatres, and at state levels, often as festivals (Shakespeare and otherwise). Summerstock has no shortage of eager twentysomethings to cast, and eager audiences to consume, regional theatre is robust, fringe theatre in New York, L.A. and elsewhere thrives, and Broadway (for all the doom and gloom) continues to make plenty of money, as do touring companies of the same shows once they wrap up stints on the Great White Way (and not just your Disney cash-ins).

    Good luck applying the same sources of support (save our fair universities) for poetry.

    You seem to find theatre a curiosity, but in all honesty, a large chunk of society interacts with and experiences theatre every year, from die-hards, to tourists, to high schoolers, to parents, to arts patrons, to academics, and so on.

    (And while TV time is no indication of achievement, CBS seems to keep airing the Tonys every year, while I still can’t find out on what channel the National Book Awards is broadcast.)

    I don’t think all this morbidity helps. Let’s just keep plugging away and not begin drafting obituaries.

    Justin

  • On July 10, 2009 at 5:08 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    Beautiful quote of Nightingale’s, Christopher. Thanks.& I’d agree, Fry is a fine example of verse drama, playable,with spiritual shine.

    I’d hasten to add Jean Annouilh–what he did in both “The Lark’ and “Antigone”-was to render both of those well known stories in radiant and socially pertinent and newly tragic language. Even in translations, they bear no loss.

    Don’t leave out Lorca. All of him. What else is “Yerma” or “Blood Wedding?” And Brecht’s poet’s theatre knew how needed the form was, and it haunted, and it worked. And if the ancient is invoked, then look all the way back to the Japanese Noh dramas.Or to the ancient Hawaiian chants, which when performed today, with the traditional dance,bring gods and geneologies and soul into the same long breaths(no need for translation.)And there are contemporary composers of chant and drama in those islands who have traveled the world with such performances. Inspiring.

    And, I will venture into dangerous modernist ground for a minute and say that I believe Pinter is spare and trenchant modern poetic drama. (His political poems never truly achieved poetry, they were far to polemical.) But his plays are rarefied poetry in fine dramatic proceniums. Rhythmic. Lyrical. Formed and shaped with repetitions, balances, long and short breaths… Trenchant. Including their silences.

    But today? You’re right Joel. We’re beggars, for the lack.

    margo

  • On July 10, 2009 at 5:56 am Margo Berdeshevsky wrote:

    p.s. joel, for your own coming verse play; write on , macduff, and damned be she who first cries hold, enough.

    And one word on having to ‘be there’ for theatre to accomplish it’s task: A story is told of a performance of “Waiting for Godot’ in a tiny town in the South, by traveling members of SNCC, committed activists for integration in the early 60′s. They performed the play, and the following morning found one child sitting on a fence at the edge of the town. What are you doing there,one cast member is said to have asked.”Waiting for Go-dot,” the child said.

    Theatre had moved from auditorium to the road.

    best,
    margo

  • On July 10, 2009 at 8:54 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Joel, I’m really happy to see you raise this topic, having written and produced a number of verse dramas–my MFA thesis, way back when, consisted of three fantastical verse dramas with different characters talking in different meters. I know Yeats, Stevens, and Ntozake Shange were big influence on my own forays into this genre. It’s hard to shake the bug and I’m actually planning another big one.

    I think you’ve put your finger on an important part of the situation when you talk about the need to express varying points of view. Verse drama allows the lyric impulse to inhabit many parts of the personality simultaneously. It’s a fabulous way to explore one’s diffuse subjectivity. But maybe Modernism and Postmodernism, with the techiques of pastiche and disjunction, made it possible to express that diffuseness more directly (and, dare I say, more easily, from a lyric point of view) than the stringencies of plot and character that verse drama usually involves.

    My guess is, another reason is that they’re a pain to produce, and since the major advent of the poetry reading craze, most working poets now spend so much time planning, travelling to, and giving readings that there isn’t much performative energy or time left to produce and direct a play (and most of us would likely need to produce and direct our own, as I did for several years). When I used to perform short plays I did it in bookstores with a cast of three, and sets and costumes; now I’m more likely to get someone help me with a dramatic reading of a multivoiced poem–it’s just easier.

    Then there’s the suspicion of artifice that has been such a major influence on mainstream poetry in the last half-century–and what is more artificial than verse drama?
    Though that may be changing…I saw a wonderfully adept verse drama, a comedy that was really well-written in meter, at the Public Theater a few years ago–”Measure for Pleasure” by David Grimm.

    Then there’s Carla Harryman and Kevin Killian. . .

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the discussion, thanks again, Annie

  • On July 10, 2009 at 9:52 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Justin,

    I take your points and hasten to say that I don’t think theater is dying nor do I wish it to. I was merely reciting possible explanations of the dearth of contemporary verse dramas appearing these days in print or on stage.

    I’m now tempted to start up a conversation about contemporary drama in general (starting with: why is so much of it so wretchedly bad?) but I’m not going to, because my main interest here is specifically verse drama.

    Thanks for writing in.

    Joel

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:08 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Thanks to you all for your comments! I’m delighted with and grateful for the conversation.

    Koch, Fry, Eliot, Shakespeare, Yeats, Beckett, O’Hara, Stevens, Walcott, Brecht, Anouilh, Lorca, yep, yep, yep, got ‘em. Also Genet, MacLeish, Shaw. Add to this list of the elderly (Walcott) or deceased (the rest) all you want, but the fact will remain that the verse play in our time is a rara avis.

    I did not mean in my post to say that this is necessarily a terrible thing. Maybe it isn’t! I’m just curious about what usefulness the genre might hold for poets of this historical moment right here. Are there good reasons to use this form? What are they? Good reasons not to? What are those? What might cause a contemporary poet to turn to, or away from, the genre? As readers or audiences, what kinds of verse plays would we like to read or see, if we want to read or see them at all? What kinds of verse plays do you *not* want to see?

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:21 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Annie,

    Thanks so much for your input here. You probably know another of Eliot’s essays which deals with this issue, “The Three Voices of the Poet,” from the early 50′s, where he talks about the poet speaking to herself, the poet speaking to an audience, and then, the third voice, the poet speaking through a character to an audience. The essay goes to just what you’re saying about the verse drama’s usefulness in terms of inhabiting diverse points of view, but it also stresses, as you suggest too, that the poet who turns to dramatic writing finds herself suddenly burdened with unaccustomed responsibilities; namely, she has to speak for/through/with a voice other than her own. I think the contemporary poet has become quite comfortable with the idea that her own point of view is the only one to which she must be responsible; indeed, I think we get quite squeamish when we see a poet take up an “other” point of view, out of (reasonable) fear that such a move may constitute an unfair appropriation of another’s voice. Yet such thinking can lead to a damned-if-you-do (it’s not OK to pretend to be able to speak for another), damned-if-you-don’t (it’s not OK to pretend that your personal subjectivity is the sole occupant of center of the universe).

    I am wondering if verse drama might be a knife to cut that knot, but my thinking on the subject is — as you see! — quite inchoate.

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:24 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Margo,

    Hear hear re: Pinter; his poems are screeds but his plays read to me like poems, most definitely.

    Joel

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:34 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Seems like the would-be poet-dramatist would have to deal not only with the exigencies of plot & diverse characters, but with something like the “level of diction”. You can see how Shakespeare juxtaposes the heightened speech of his “noble” characters with the demotic slang of the “low”, comic figures. Yeats struggled with this, too – seems one reason he leaned toward a sort of austere, symbolic, “ritualistic” drama is that this mode allowed him to employ a heightened, “poetic” diction – the furniture sort of went with the dressed-up speech.

    Ordinary American talk seems sort of vivid & anti-poetic at the same time : we pride ourselves on zingers – on super-efficient, down-to-earth, no-nonsense “useful” language (or at least we think we do – outside the Beltway, anyway – maybe…). There’s a Puritan background to this…

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:47 am Major J wrote:

    One just cannot imagine a present day Pulitzer going to a verse play like MacLeish’s J.B.

    A different age, indeed.

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:56 am Henry Gould wrote:

    p.s. regarding no-nonsense : I should say I’m speaking as a native ultra-northerner Minnesotan. It’s way, way different down South. You could make a whole verse play out of the roundabout manner how by which 2 good ol’ boys in New Orleans once taught me how to do basic CVC plumbing, after Katrina.

  • On July 10, 2009 at 11:21 am thomas brady wrote:

    I wouldn’t know what verse plays I *didn’t* want to see until I saw them.

    Drama’s strength is imitativeness–characters talking in ‘verse’ is contrary to that spirit which is drama’s strength.

    People do love musicals–and people ‘singing’ lifts us away from the imtitativeness of realism. But we do get bits of ‘real dialogue’ between the songs.

    With verse drama, artificiality will reign throughout, though I suppose you could have verse drama where people will speak ‘normally’ and then break into *verse,* at points, rather than *song.* However, this begs the question, if you’re going to speak verse, why not sing? I don’t see how the ‘VERSE musical’ could supplant, in any way, the SONG musical.’ Ah, poor verse!

    I would love to see a verse play presenting the following: some characters would speak the ‘verse’ of ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ and ‘A Station at the Metro’ and some characters would speak the verse of ‘The Raven’ and ‘Ode to the West Wind.’ Which characters would the audience most idenify with?

  • On July 10, 2009 at 1:50 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    “What kinds of verse plays do you *not* want to see?” —Joel Brouwer

    hmm, not want to see, not want, not—

    surely high on that not want list would be the verse plays collected in the book entitled

    “Three Plays”

    by the most not wanted poet extant,

    a volume which can be downloaded free from this link:

    http://stores.lulu.com/store.php?fAcctID=2254674

  • On July 10, 2009 at 2:08 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Knott want? Not knot, Knott. Want Knott, Waste Knott!

  • On July 10, 2009 at 10:18 pm Alan Cordle wrote:

    “A limit to the number and length of comments per day—per week even—is the only thing that might resuscitate Harriet. I’m out of here until that happens.” — Noah Freed

    One of the things that makes me most proud about the time I ran a little site called “Foetry.com” is that my moderation style was very light. If anyone looks through the archives, they can see that I allowed and encouraged dialogue, except, of course, when people (including me) were physically threatened. Disagree with me? Not a problem!

    It’s absurd that Mr. Freed believes that somehow a certain quantity of comments can ruin an experience for him. Is he unable to use the television remote too?

    When I was in graduate school, my thesis was a study of the “Poets in Person” project, sponsored by the Poetry Foundation. This was pre-the-one-hundred-million-donation, I think, so my work was appreciated at the time (Joseph Parisi and Helen Klaviter may remember). I believe I was the first person to quantify the influence of library literary programing as an influence on poetry readership. Synopsis: it increases it.

    The more we talk about poetry (in person or online), the more people might read it. For every one Noah Freed we lose, Thomas Brady, Christopher Woodman, Annie Finch and other frequent posters bring in many more new readers, thanks to their intellect and provocative insights.

    It would be disappointing, to say the least, if the Poetry Foundation were to run its site like Poets and Writers. I’ve always admired that Poetry allows for a wide variety of voices. I hear rumors that the Foundation is devolving towards the status quo. I’m interested to see whose voice matters.

  • On July 11, 2009 at 8:25 am Don Share wrote:

    Tell us more about those rumors?

  • On July 11, 2009 at 9:19 am Alan Cordle wrote:

    It’s my understanding that letters have gone from someone at Harriet out to at least two of the more frequent posters, putting them in check.

  • On July 11, 2009 at 1:21 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    And well they should. Harriet has recently witnessed an inordinate amount of dead horse beating, hobby-horse riding, and bandwidth hogging, with — one suspects but cannot prove — the same individual under two aliases sucking out the oxygen. None of us, most emphatically including the undersigned — is perfect, and our disagreements are what’s interesting, but a moderated forum tends to be a more civilized venue than the dreary default anarchy of cyberspace.

  • On July 11, 2009 at 1:42 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    The language in Enda Walsh’s play Bedbound, which became a smash hit after premiering at the 2002 Dublin Theatre Festival, is one of the most overtly *poetic* plays i have seen.

    Bedbound’s set “is a large box in the centre of the stage made out of plaster board. Suddenly the wall facing the audience crashes to the ground. A light comes up on a small childs bed inside the box. It is heavily stained and grubby. On one end of the bed is a young woman. She is the DAUGHTER. Her back is twisted and we see she is obviously crippled. On the other end of the bed facing her is her DAD. He is a large fifty year old man. His suit is crumpled and soiled.”

    You can judge the poeticalness of the script for yourself at the link. Though the Accentual-Stress Enforcement Bureau might attempt to prosecute as a verse-criminal any who their expert team of quantum linguists considered guilty of contravening ASEB legislation – a case for the fifteen syllable lines below being in the ballpark of Verse, could be defended – i think.

    The story ios revealed through the two protaganists monologuizing on the bed and so we have only the language to hold us. I was lucky, I saw the Cambridge University Footlight’s version at the 2004 National Student Drama Festival in Scarborough on the N Yorkshire coast; starring Cressida Trew and Khalid Abdulla, who two years later played a terrorist in the oscar winning 9/11 movie United 93, and the following starred in the 2007 Oscar nominated Kite Runner.

    Abdalla is one of the finest actors I know. His parents are Egyptian and when i first saw him in Bedbound, it took a minute before i realised his real accent wasn’t Irish, which is all but impossible for a non-native to mimic. Many 20 million dollar a movie actors biggest turkeys are those in which they have failed to convincingly act in an Irish accent. Most locals without experience or training could play these parts more succesfully than De Niro and Cruise.

    But as we know from Yeats, a minute is a long time in Irish affairs, and by the time I realised Abdalla wasn’t really Irish, it didn’t matter as the language and his vehicle of performance rendering it to flight. This is page three. I would strongly urge you read the opening to see how original this play is.

    “And head down I work and work and work and work!!
    And my body like some slick machine and my brain
    keen and fast!! I rise up the stairs from the storeroom.
    I feel its blackness on my back leave as I step onto
    The sales floor. And all color returns as the beautiful
    cabinets and couches stretch out in front of me on the blue
    baize. I watch the salesmen at their work. I look
    at their easy manner and stand as they chat ‘comfort’
    with the customers. Like royalty thei look or something.
    Their hands barely touching the fine fabrics and polished
    tables as they waltz around the store to a music inside
    their heads. I take out my other notebook marked ‘Salesman’
    and jot it all down. I watch the yes of the customers
    oohhhing and ahhing as the salesman lays out the superlatives, spinning out the patter that crackles in the air.”

    What do you think? Is it verse? Do we need a poetry compliance team to check and tell us ye or nea?

  • On July 11, 2009 at 3:55 pm Thomas Rees wrote:

    There is certainly a group of practicing poets who have written for the stage, and groups that allow for these plays to be produced. The Poets Theatre activities of Small Press Traffic in San Francisco was wildly successful this past winter, with some excellent plays by all manners of poets and writers. Not to toot my own horn, but I designed the sound for Bhanu Kapil’s “Rabbit Butoh, Bunny Butoh,” a multidisciplinary play that was published in chapbook form by Trafficker Press.

    Also, I feel like some of the work of more sound- and performance-oriented poets (like Tracie Morris, etc) is theatre of some sort…but that might just be me.

    For my own part, I am working on a creative thesis that involves audio sampling, soundscapes and poetic monologues, to be performed live using synthesizers, performers and so on…

    (As a side note, I’m quite surprised that no one has brought up Helen Adam’s “San Francisco’s Burning” yet. I am acquainted now with Warner Jepson, who wrote the original score for the play- a score that Adam hated- and he scored dozens of plays, ballets and operas in his heyday.)

  • On July 11, 2009 at 8:11 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I thought I had gone for good, and here I am in my second coming!

    But I’m sure you’ll agree I’m entitled to another small turn after such an attack.

    I love the poems you post, John Oliver Simon, magnificent translations of poetry from a world of passion and magic inaccessible to me in Asia. Indeed, I always feel very annoyed when Thomas Brady does a send up of one of them, but then whatever you think I’m not my brother’s keeper.

    And your little children—how they sing, John. How they raise the spirits!

    So why can’t you see who I am too, with my old voice like a child’s? Why are you so threatened?

    And why can’t you, of all people, deal with my metaphors? The “cow pat” one which so beautifully illiustrated the ambiguities of Robinson Jeffers, for example, or my “hammer” that softened some blows on the same thread? Why are you so angry at my poetry?

    I talked quite a lot about something on the Robinson Jeffers’ thread, having one Faith. An individual human being is so lucky to grow up in one Faith, I said, and be fulfilled within a single tradition. Nothing could bring greater happiness than that. Yet the unexamined life is not worth living, I also said, and nothing brings greater unhappiness than smashing the tribe and its idols.

    Have you read all that poetry and not yet realized that?

    And yes, I did recieve one of those letters, indeed from the same officer who mocked my “cowpatty hammers” on the Keep the Spot Sore thread. And yes, Harriet does have to do some hard thinking.

    And yes I am Thomas Brady, I confess I am. Indeed, I’m utterly exhausted at the stunt and that’s why I’m getting rid of this old guy sock-puppet. I mean, can you imagine what it takes to keep Christopher Woodman up day by day, and at the same time keep Desmond Swords convincing?

    Christopher

  • On July 12, 2009 at 9:34 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Desmond, Thanks for this tip! The language you excerpt seems to me highly musical, and I think you point to another potential clue as to how we might codify a definition of contemporary verse drama: its use of language–as opposed to, though not to the exclusion of, plot, narrative, sets, costumes, etc.–as the primary means of “holding” the audience.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 9:38 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    Thanks for these tips, Thomas. Kapil and Adam are new names to me; I look forward to learning more about them. Morris is certainly a performer, but when I’ve seen her those performances have seemed to me more lyric than dramatic; I think she has more in common with music than with theater; but those are just half-formed notions offered on the basis of limited experience and before coffee. 

  • On July 12, 2009 at 11:25 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Christopher,

    Your sweet and lyrical posts are not threatening. What pissed me off was Brady’s obsessive wrenching every thread into the only thing he can talk about, so that over and over Bishop, Jeffers, whatever, all became Warren & Brooks vs. Poe. Your adulatory comments on his behalf have indeed raised my suspicions that you are all the same guy: fellow sock-puppets, or more generously, heteronyms. What a field day the various selves of Pessoa would have on this board! On the Internet nobody knows you’re an Andalusian Dog. In any case, the Management seems to have set healthy limits.

    I like your fish story. Brady’s recasting into a straw-man Creeley says more about his own tin ear than it does about its intended target.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 11:48 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    So it’s not me, then, John Oliver Simon? Well, why didn’t you say it? Look back over your comments and you’ll see it’s always me, me, me, and now you want to say it’s Tom?

    Did you know I’m under an interdiction? Did you know I can’t post anything wthout waiting for 4 or 5 hours for permission?

    I’m sure this won’t pass the censors, but if it does you’ll know where I’m at.

    Christopher

  • On July 12, 2009 at 11:52 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    And I don’t even like Creeley that much.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 12:36 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Me neither–boring after you get beyond the fantasy, or your lesson plan. How many modern poets are not revered because they make great classes? Me too–I started teaching “At A Station in the Metro” in the 60s, and convinced not only generations of students but myself that it was great. And is it? Really?

    Only if you think that literary history makes something great, which it does but only momentarily. In the light of history “At A Station in the Metro” is just a minor footnote on our momentary needs and momentarily dependant tastes.

    Which is always Tom’s point, and why I tolerate his excesses. He’s a Jeremiah calling out from light years hence. He drives me up the wall, destroying all my pressed violets, crumpling up my lip-stick stained handkerchiefs and despoiling all the most private certainties I share with no one. I hate him for what he does to me everyday, and that’s why I love him!

    Can’t you see that? Who else is like him?

    Christopher

  • On July 12, 2009 at 12:43 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    My ‘obsession’ as you put it, is what we talk about when we talk about poetry, if you hadn’t noticed:

    “Pound, of course, was never satisfied with what these magazines achieved, feeling that Harriet Monroe was consorting with vulgar company in printing the populist poets (Sandburg, Lindsay, Masters, et al.)”

    –H.T. Kirby-Smith, “The Origins of Free Verse”

    John, with all due respect, I believe you are ‘obsessed’ with YOUR personal disagreement with me, since by reducing me to ‘Brooks v. Poe,’ YOU ignore my thoughts on Millay, Eliot v. Shelley, Modernism v. Populism, Monroe v. Pound, and the list goes on, a list consisting of highly pertinent and highly significant aspects of poetry, connecting with all sorts of questions in all kinds of ways. for instance, the question, ‘does progress just happen, or is it entangled with personal ambition?’ You reducing my comment which I just made to Christopher re: Creeley and his fishing experience with his son, etc etc to ‘Brooks v. Poe’ shows YOUR ‘obsession’ in operation.

    I’m happy to have you disagree with me (to my face or behind my back) on any issue under the sun: the Fugitives, free verse, Eliot, Romanticism, Plato, Aristotle, Women’s poetry, Flarf, Bishop, New Criticism, Shelley, Rothenberg, Silliman, Woodman, but I don’t see how you can do that particularly well if you insist on indulging your own reductive obsession. You are unable to counter my comment to Christopher re: Creeley except with an insult: “tin ear.” Where I come from, the person who is reduced to insult, LOSES.

    Reductiveness is a common and powerful rhetorical strategy, and we all do it in discussing all sorts of topics, and often the witty do it–it’s part of their arsenal of tricks–so I suppose your view of me is a perfectly ordinary response; but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

    If you can’t speak to me, or about me, without insult, I kind of wish you’d simply ignore me. But ultimately, for the sake of my own curiosity, and for the sake of truth in general, I do want you to do anything you wish.

    Thomas

  • On July 12, 2009 at 1:21 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    He’s right you know, dear John. You’re the noblest poster on the whole of Harriet, and when I read you I never fail to wai you as we do here in Thailand. But you just let Tom become a single little bee buzzing round your head inside your bonnet (ask Terreson about that one!), and you lose all your grace and Andalusian poise, all at once. And it’s such a shame, because you do have such poise, you do have such grace. And then you stumble because Tom goes on and on and you let him get you.

    What you have to realize is that Tom is trying to establish a whole new history for us, he’ s trying to rebuild all our building blocks from scratch. That’s why he’s so repetitious, simply because we don’t have in our intellectual assumptions any of the building blocks he needs to start rebuilding. He has to bring all his baggage with him every single post, the whole kit and kaboodle right from the start—because we don’t know anything, and what we do know is all contaminated and badly scrambled up.

    To tell you the truth, I’m not really interested in most of the things that Tom says. I’m too old to change, and just scroll down to Gary. But I know he’s right to hammer on like I do on my old blue-grass guitar, the jumbo Gibson which I play here in Chiang Mai and love so much. Every note I play is exactly the same each time, exactly the same position and timing—like Tom, and if I get it right at last that makes it great at last!

    Christopher

  • On July 12, 2009 at 1:26 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Tom, I will ignore you or not as I please, and I trust you will do the same.

    To be specific, your piece isn’t even a Creeleyesque poem. You didn’t catch his tone or method. It’s just Christopher’s prose broken into lines. Creeley would have omitted more, charged the syntax with offhand dysjunction, linebreaks working towards a melody against meaning. I open For Love at random:

    After that, silence, silence.
    On the floor, the hands
    find quiet, the mouth goes lax.
    Oh! Look forward to get back.

    Oh wisdom to find fault with
    what is after all a plan.

    And, as I say, Creeley is not exactly — as we’d put it south of the border — a saint of my devotion. I think For Love is incandescent, but he got lax as he got older and let the calculating adulation of the langpo movement carry him.

    I’d rather give you a poet you haven’t heard of: Donald Schenker (1930-1993). Schenker is invisible except to certain deep-rooted friends in Northern California who treasure his work, because after a lifetime of practicing his chops, he only caught fire when he was given a terminal diagnosis at age 55. Don lived eight more years, writing fiercely. Here he is:

    Money

    At dusk the dark moths
    flutter like folding coins.
    They have come to buy the oaks
    at the per leaf price.

    At dawn the phones are ringing
    in the woods. Woodpeckers.
    It is money.
    Do I want some.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 1:50 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I get you, John, and even if he doesn’t admit it I’m sure Tom does too. I’ve never met him, and indeed I don’t even know where he lives, what he does or what his age is. I just know that if I badger him enough he always does come round, he always sees the beauty. And then he always surprises me by saying it another time much better than I ever did before.

    I wrote a 12 page summary of a dialogue between us 18 months ago, and was so pleased with it I submitted it to APR. Of course I’ve had at least a dozen rejections there over the years, always with that nice little hand-written note from David Bonano. This time I was sure David would say yes but still didn’t–I guess our political baggage was still just a bit too much.

    I dearly hope I’ll get it published somewhere some day, it’s a treasure. And then you’ll know who Thomas Brady really is—or Monday Love, at least, his name on that precious dialogue I called Fee Fii Foetry. I mean, what you’ve missed!

    Let him go, John, let him do his stuff. Some need it even if we don’t!

    Christopher

  • On July 12, 2009 at 2:29 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I have to say—anyone who has actually read Creeley would have to say—it’s hard for me to imagine a less Creeley-like poem than the one the person above created out of someone else’s posts (their very names are like a bell, so I avoid them).

    Creeley is one of my favorite poets, as he is of several Harrieteers, but you don’t have to like him to recognize that as a stylistic parody of his work, the aforementioned is a failure so dramatically off that it simply confirms widely held suspicions about the inability of the person in question to read well.

    Xmas Poem: Bolinas

    All around
    the snow
    don’t fall.

    Come Christmas
    we’ll get high
    and go find it.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 3:51 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    So the young Indian boy asks his father: “Father, is it true that in our tribe we are named after the first thing our mother sees when we are born?”

    “This is true my son.”

    “And this is why my brother is named Soaring Eagle?”

    “Yes, my son.”

    “And why my sister is named Running Deer?”

    “Yes, my son, but…

    why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking?”.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 4:30 pm thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    Thanks for your interesting reply.

    I have a certain sympathy for the formalists.

    I don’t think poetry EVER requires line-breaks to BE poetry.

    The irony here is that free-versers are the real ‘formalists,’ for they place such importance on the formal arrangements of a poem on the page, whereas the formalists don’t care what shape the poem on the page is so long as it strikes the strings of the mind with the harmony of poetry.

    My turning Woodman’s prose into a ‘Creeley poem’ would seem to find me at odds with my philosophy; why didn’t I simply exclaim, “Christopher, that’s poetry!” Why did I feel compelled (perversely?) to ‘show’ that it was poetry by line-breaking it?

    Herein lies the rub. Arrangement on the page is not the key to poetry–it is simply a polite aid to the *reader* of poetry; the moderns turned this nicety, this gallantry, into *law.*

    Hello and a handshake might be a nicety, or, in certain cultures, or with certain people, it might be a ‘law.’ So this is all very complex…

    My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, or emptied some dull opiate to the drains…

    Johnny, do you realize what you’ve done???

    At dusk the dark moths flutter like folding coins. They have come to buy the oaks at the per leaf price. At dawn the phones are ringing in the woods. Woodpeckers. It is money. Do I want some.

    Donald, do you realize what you’ve done???

    Well, of course they realized what they had done. Just as Woodman realized what he had done.

    What I resent is the idea that the Moderns were doing anything significantly different than the Romantics. I resent the idea that Creeley was being consciously different from Keats for some significant cultural reason, or that Creeley is some kind of necessary historical advance. No. Poets write little poems because they feel like writing little poems, or because they happened to read a manifesto by someone who said, simply because they felt like it, and for no important reason, “It’s time to write little poems!”

    I have seen examples where Creeley was more prolix in his poems. My aim was not to create an exact Creeley poem–whatever that is.

    The subject of this thread, ‘the possibility of poetic drama,’ involves the same sort of questions. What IS poetry? How much does poetry depend on certain contexts?

    Thomas

  • On July 12, 2009 at 5:41 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    And still fucking.

    Hee hee. Hilarious.

    Woof!

  • On July 12, 2009 at 9:35 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Woof” says the literary lion?

    Hieronymo’s mad againe.

    What can ail thee, knight at arms,
    Alone and palely loitering?

    Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
    And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows.

    Certainty, fidelity
    On the stroke of midnight pass
    Like vibrations of a bell,
    And fashionable madmen raise
    Their pedantic boring cry.

    Let me not to the marriage of true minds
    Admit impediments. Love is not love
    Which alters when it alteration finds
    Or bends with the remover to remove.

    He did not like my verses,
    So he’ll always get my curses.

    G’nite, Gary.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 10:05 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    That’s a succinct way to describe the situation: ” a damned-if-you-do (it’s not OK to pretend to be able to speak for another), damned-if-you-don’t (it’s not OK to pretend that your personal subjectivity is the sole occupant of center of the universe),” and yes, exactly, it seems that verse drama can act as the knife to cut that particular knot, to make a space for lyric subjectivity without deadening appropriation.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 10:09 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    “Deadening” in that sentence is a participle, not an adjective, btw–so that I meant, “without implicating the poet in a deadening act of appropriation in the process.”

    (I got spoiled by being able to edit my comments on my own threads!)

  • On July 12, 2009 at 10:10 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    I mean, in the original post I meant it as an adjective, not a participle.

    Sheesh. Long day at Stonecoast, time to get some sleep…

    zzzzzzzzzzz
    AF

  • On July 12, 2009 at 10:43 pm Terreson wrote:

    Good on you, Joel Brouwer. Twice now you’ve brought something to table that has produced a twitch in the brain. I look forward to following your threads.

    I’ve been following the discussion not sure if I have anything worth adding to it, which may likely still be the case. Just to be clear on the definitions employed by poetic drama what is meant strictly is verse drama, right? Or dramatic poetry written in verse, usually, but not always, rendered in blank verse form. I believe Brouwer’s point is to ask why more poets do not work in verse drama. And not a few contributors have pointed out examples of poets today still working in verse drama, again usually in blank verse form. So far so good.

    This may be too much of the long view for the discussion but I too have been thinking about the question, whatever happened to the verse drama, for a couple of decades now. The answer I’ve come to, tentatively, is that the shapes of things morph through time. Through time shape-forms change and for a variety of reasons. This is as true geologically as it is true biologically, culturally and socially. In the case of verse drama the reasons for the morphing could be environmental, cultural, and especially linguistic.

    Were I inclined today, this moment, to commit myself to dramatic poetry I would not follow the lead of Shakespeare, Yeats, or Eliot, all of whom worked mostly in blank verse. Instead I would follow the lead of Ibsen, O’Neil, Albee, Osborne, even and maybe especially the lead of Artaud. My reasoning is this: when it comes to impact the latter group is far more effective, far more affecting. As much as I may love the language Shakespeare employed it remains that he placed language between character and the dramatic moment. And it ran interference, drawing more attention to itself, less attention to either character or moment.

    So what I am thinking tonight is this: if verse drama has been superceded by other forms of dramatic language, and it has, it is because a different sort of language has proved more effective, more affecting. Somebody upthread mentioned the poetic drama of Lorca. He might just have been the first when it comes to the grounding of verse drama in word impact.

    Terreson

  • On July 13, 2009 at 3:44 am Michael James wrote:

    A verse movie?

    That’d be nice.

    I think The West Wing is the closest we have come to a verse television show. All the dialogue was written in iambicpentameter. (or was it just iambic?)

  • On July 13, 2009 at 12:07 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Tere,

    How do you follow the lead of Ibsen? That’s realism, not verse.

    “Mother, give me the sun” is poetic, but Ibsen will always be thought of as a playwright; poets can’t claim him.

    Shakespeare, however, is a poet, and is the elephant in this room because he’s verse and he’s wildly popular–no one else comes close. S. was such a genius that it’s not certain whether he’s dramatic (and successful) *because* of his verse, or in *spite* of his verse. The link between verse and drama seems to be the key question here.

    Thomas

  • On July 13, 2009 at 8:03 pm Terreson wrote:

    Thomas Brady says: “Tere,

    How do you follow the lead of Ibsen? That’s realism, not verse.

    ‘Mother, give me the sun’ is poetic, but Ibsen will always be thought of as a playwright; poets can’t claim him.

    Shakespeare, however, is a poet, and is the elephant in this room because he’s verse and he’s wildly popular–no one else comes close. S. was such a genius that it’s not certain whether he’s dramatic (and successful) *because* of his verse, or in *spite* of his verse. The link between verse and drama seems to be the key question here.”

    I got two responses to the comment. The first would be, and directed to all poetry critics, stop telling verse what it should be. Ya’ll almost always, damn near always, get it wrong

    Second response. There are those who feed on Shakespeare because his language puts a barrier between them and the raw of experience, the majority of Shakespeare readers. And there are those who draw on, lean on, the existential truths his dramatic poetry expressed. I figure all the great dramatic poets since him have drawn on the latter.

    I guess for some poetry should seduce. I guess for others poetry’s purpose is to reveal.

    Terreson

  • On July 14, 2009 at 1:27 pm Matt wrote:

    “Thomas Brady, Christopher Woodman [...] and other frequent posters bring in many more new readers”

    I find that hard to believe.

    Also, being provacative doesn’t necessarily mean you have anything insightful or interesting to say.

  • On July 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm Eileen Myles wrote:

    Hi Joel. There’s a very flourishing poet’s theater scene flourishing in the bay area. Maybe they have a festival once a year but that reflects how much theater is getting written by poets there. I mean SF is a very good city for poets I think at least for a while. When I came to NY especially in response to our interest in the poets theater in cambridge, and also you know Tristan Tzara and Mayakovsky and whoever else we admired we did a bunch of them, festivals, plays. I still write plays and libretti and plenty of poets in NY do too. I think it’s a lot more fluid than you are thinking. I would also think since it seemed like something as community based as reading scenes that it evolved in all cases I know out of a desire to collaborate, to work in groups and do something other than a reading as a poet. So by writing a play and in showing it in any venue and inviting one’s friends it creates a challenge for them to do more of the same. I’m reading your post as that kind of provocation. Annie mentions Kevin and Carla H as two people who do it and there are many. I’m going to read your post again. Do you write plays? Isn’t it that simple.

  • On July 19, 2009 at 10:14 am Joel Brouwer wrote:

    “I think it’s a lot more fluid than you are thinking.”

    Thanks, Eileen. I think you’re absolutely right. In mulling this subject, I think I’ve committed an error I seem to make quite often: over-conceptualizing and under-executing. Instead of pondering some grand theory of what a poetic drama might look like, I should focus on writing some, and then seeing what they do look like.

    I’m obliged to you for the reality check. Yes, it is that simple.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, July 9th, 2009 by Joel Brouwer.