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For my fellow misfits at The Nervous breakdown

 

To belong? What’s it mean? Is it creature of tense? Is it active or passive?
Is it cold set in bone, magma oozing to plate ocean floor, or explosive
Crackling reaction, plume clearing to flesh jacked into the massive?

My parents were wartime romance. “There was something in the air that night,
The stars were bright, Fernando…” For liberty indeed, and ten years prior, NOT
Fernando; to ditch the justice of the peace and priest’s decree of might makes names right;

They’d fought the Queen so that Gerald could be Uche, raised on Nigerian playgrounds
But when ancient wounds opened and national grass ran red, they fought for…Biafran greens.
Never thought that they could lose so they stitched their winnings into my ten birthweight pounds.

Dry pod full of jumping seed, my parents burst into staggered menage.
Tied on mother’s back, I soaked in English, Igbo, Umon, Efik,…On to Cairo, badinage
In broken Arabic and shards of Europe; rickety tower for a babbler to manage.

Camoflage tongue can get into trouble on any patch; bored in Cleveland school,
Smart-alec kid fresh from England lights a life-long beef with teachers in snotty fuel,
Acting like: “You chalkboard jockey, I’m too crazy-smart for you to fail.

“My Dad’s a rising superstar engineer and who the hell might you be?”
So they worked the kick-that-badass hustle on my grades, and Dad came by
To mop up.  Off to St. Ann’s; nunnery license to ruler-smack if I dared disobey.

Private tuition sits heavy on new immigrants, so when our move to Gainesville
Gave me a clean rap sheet, a Thurgood Marshall bus ride would soon reveal
That this was no Biafran playground: “Uche? Your parents called you that for real?”

“You related to Kunta Kinte? Go steal me a bird from Chicken George
I ain’t got no money for KFC.”  Didn’t take much chameleon sense to judge
That I had about no time flat to crack the social code; find a signature to forge.

My best friend and neighbor, bright, Jewish fellow-misfit struggling to conform
Tempted me to cruelty, showed me enough of the outline for me to frame,
To serve him, quick vic for sly betrayal when it came time to step up my game.

I’d learned too smart was mistake, so: “Dad, do I have to go to gifted class?
Two times a week right before recess?  That shit’s going to mend my ass!”
But I knew deep down that was straight up bitch. I had my could-be-worse case…

Hussein’s family had fled Iran in retreat from the Ayatollah muhajideen
But became the yard’s only-good-one-is-a-dead-one once the hostage crisis went down.
Hussein had seen worse than punk clique kids.  He was like: “Bring that shit on!”

Tetherball terrorist, he ruled any game, throwing down on even eighth grade fools.
I wanted some of that juice, but I dared not cross the line—I knew the rules.
Even from across the yard, Hussein taught me the kind of misfit that keeps it real.

My instinct turned to Hussein, but wasn’t ready; I’d become part of the colony.
Any chameleon can color redneck.  I cranked Charlie Daniels and AC/DC with the boys,
Bumped Sugar Hill Gang and Jackson 5 when there was no one to report the felony.

Shot BB guns and wrist rockets, learned karate, skateboarding, whatever fit the bill,
Decorated the float when the Hurricanes came to town (Gator pride, y’all.)
Explored sewers by Hogtown Creek; pretended them Cowboys were kings of football.

“Bam!”  I don’t even remember the goodbyes, the flight, just a blue-green streak
Then Jimmy Cliff singing “this is the land of my birth” on the car radio speakers
As we crossed the river Niger into the halved yellow sun, and I mixed back into my stock.

But not quite.  Hope, pride and industry crackled from every radio, TV and politricks bullhorn;
Attitude to match from every soul I met: “USA?  That’s where you’ve been?
Watch and learn.  In a few years you’ll find God’s country right where you were born”

“Ajebutta” was the pidgin for someone returned from where common sense and life skills
Run in short supply.  I was Ajebutta supreme.  All that work to tip the social scales
In Gainesville. Now this.  I was tired. I gave up, played it Hussein, and straight off the rails.

Even this was not Biafra.  The enthusiasm and intensity told in my parents’ proud exile
Were ruthlessly watered down into “One Nigeria”.  We’d waited, but we couldn’t exhale.
Uche was a common name, but I couldn’t pinch myself into the common style.

Seniors beat me up for insolence; prefects gave me hours of menial fag
I brushed it off and stood hard! B-boy! no matter how many times I got flogged;
Lied, stole and skyved, hunchbacked, lugging my removed self in a dirty bag.

A bag that became my bastion, piled high with books beyond curriculum.
Nothing more important than craft of self expression, writing a column
To future brethren of taste and trait, distant twin souls of raffia and vellum.

When your eyes learn to look beyond state, to peers beyond infinity,
Okigbo, Villon, Pound, Plath, sometimes you forget that misfit can grow to vanity.
I’ve come to grow into readiness for company, the scent and crinkled space of shared humanity.

Collage is completion from gestalt-spackled gaps, pieces that never fit, that itch.
These rub away their corners into the circle of the whole.  They don’t match,
They mate; their seed elaborates the daisy chain, fit and unfit bait and switch.

So I’ve grown to spread peacock tail.  I choose you—not to match, but to mate.
I’m your Gregor Mendel muse, your chameleon genome hot date.
Witness the fitness.  Witness the sticky space where misfits meet.

TAGS: , , , , , , , , , ,

Uche Ogbuji UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards.

To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

60 responses to “Growing up Misfit”

  1. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Warning: this version is changed in a few places from the version I read on Friday. I knew there were some bits I needed to tighten up, and I didn’t make it all the way in time for the reading, but certainly I’ve changed nothing in the essence of the poem.

  2. Judy Prince says:

    Positively powerful, Uche. How many coats can a person put on and take off and yet remain strong and stable? A wonderful testament and testimony.

    These words page-jumped for me: “the scent and crinkled space of shared humanity.”

    “Collage is completion from gestalt-spackled gaps, pieces that never fit, that itch.
    These rub away their corners into the circle of the whole. They don’t match,
    They mate; their seed elaborates the daisy chain, fit and unfit bait and switch.”

    I view these as the fine strong bases for your Self-birthing, Uche.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Judy., That means a great deal coming from you.

      I remember, before your own appearance on TNB, we discussed my poetic style. You pointed out that my tendency to let the images and words come in a torrent can be a bit much, and hinted that it might be off-putting. I think I responded that it was a fair warning, but that I am pretty much incapable of anything else. That is how words, images, concepts, abstractions, fragments of meaning and sensation assail me when I’m creatively poised. If I ever try to stem that flow, the results always end up stilted, artificial.

      I hope this poem perhaps gives some insight into why I seem to be constructed that way. I guess that having grown up and formed my perceptions of the world in a maelstrom, I can never express that world any other way. I’ve come out of everything a very happy person, I daresay, but there is little that makes me as happy, as overwhelmed with joy, as the feeling I get when I look back at what I’ve written and realize that I have been able to distill a draught of all that intensity on the page.

      I’m certainly aware of the fact that I might never have much more of an audience than myself, at least in my lifetime, and I accept that possibility, because I have had so much to enjoy, even from the solipsistic stage.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Well, Uche, your inimitable style still often blows my hair unsettlingly back with all the packed punches—but this poem enables me to see *you* so well, the moves and places and people that have brought you to those punches.

    I have always loved your enthusiasm! And I soooo ditto this: “. . . there is little that makes me as happy, as overwhelmed with joy, as the feeling I get when I look back at what I’ve written and realize that I have been able to distill a draught of all that intensity on the page.”

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Good, Judy. You know I want it frank and plain. If I ever start a movement, you’ve inspired me to dub it “poet-boxers on meth”. And hey, I wonder whether the martial arts has any bearing? I’ve always liked the hard styles, and my favorite, American Kenpo, is famous for its relentless flurry of blows coming from every angle. Hmmm.

      Anyway, to take the conversation a little deeper, when I think of the poets who have affected me the most, not just as an influence in my writing, but as a refuge, I think I find what draws me is a mixture of intensity and intellectual breadth and depth. One of these alone won’t do. I need the lot. But first a step back to the word “refuge”. I don’t use it idly. I started memorizing poetry in FGC Okigwe, the secondary boarding school where I had the greatest trouble in all my life fitting in, because that was where “I was tired. I gave up, played it Hussein, and straight off the rails.” It was what left me with “A bag that became my bastion, piled high with books beyond curriculum.” Some portion of that was memorized poetry, which I could carry around with me, and even while enduring hostility or punishments, I could just recite it to myself in my head to help remove myself from where I did not want to be. To work in such intense circumstances, the poetry itself had to be intense, so I memorized a lot of Hopkins

      But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
      Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
      With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
      O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

      And Pound:

      And, out of nothing, a breathing,
      hot breath on my ankles,
      Beasts like shadows in glass,
      a furred tail upon nothingness.

      Lynx-purr, and heathery smell of beasts,
      where tar smell had been,
      Sniff and pad-foot of beasts,
      eye-glitter out of black air.

      BTW, I loved Canto II. I loved the story of the boy who was kidnapped by a bunch of uncouth, rough mariners, and who turned out to be the god Bacchus, and who punished them all by turning them into wild beasts of land and sea. Can you imagine why I loved that?

      Anyway I remember there was also always much to take from Plath:

      So I never could tell where you
      Put your foot, your root,
      I never could talk to you.
      The tongue stuck in my jaw.

      It stuck in a barb wire snare.
      Ich, ich, ich, ich,
      I could hardly speak.

      It took until I went off to University to appreciate African poetry (I needed perspective). University does not appear in the poem, because that is where I emerged from the squalor and learned, not how to fit in, but how to properly exist on my own terms. But anyway there I fell in love with Okigbo

      WHITE LIGHT, receive me your sojourner; O milky way,
      let me clasp you to my waist;
      And may my muted tones of twilight
      Break your iron gate, the burden of several centuries,
      into twin tremulous cotyledons …

      And once I had a chance to hone my reading French, I quickly tended towards old French, and ran headlong into Villon:

      Joncheurs, jonchans en joncherie,
      Rebignez bien où joncherez;
      Qu’Ostac n’embroue vostre arrerie,
      Où acollez sont vos ainsnez.
      Poussez de la quille et brouez,
      Car tost seriez roupieux.
      Eschet qu’acollez ne soyez.
      Par la poe du marieux.

      I still have only a vaguely guessed idea of what one of ten of those words mean in that Ballade, but oh the tight music, the rush of high and low language, and the jumbling of sense!

      Anyway, that pleasure in intensity stretches beyond my own work.

      • Judy Prince says:

        Hey Uch, oh Poet-Boxer!

        “Memories
        fold-over-fold free-furrow
        mingling old tunes with new.
        Tidewash…..Ride me
        memories, astride on firm
        saddle, wreathed with white
        lillies & roses of blood…..” (Christopher Okigbo)

        First a message from dear Rodent who’s at the moment in his stripped-bare house, in two days to turn in the keys at closing, then moving house up to Darlington, near the Scottish border. From him to you:

        “Ask Uche if he knows Henley’s translation of a part of _The Testament_ into 19th C London cant — “Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves”. And if the poem he quotes is one of the coquillard ballades.”

        and, further, Rodent sez:

        “(Like Uche, I started reading Villon before I could properly understand regular contemporary French. And now, god help us all, I’ve published quite a few translations of passages from him. *Not, however, the actual 15thC French cant poems!)”

        BTW, Uche, I love that particular Pound! Oh and GM Hopkins has never staled for me since uni years—-the passion, the rolling rhythms, the charged-with-all-vitality syntax!!

        Here, a glorious excerpt from Derek Walcott (in Jan/Feb 2010 The Atlantic, just published from his WHITE EGRETS):

        “And then there was no more Empire all of a sudden.
        Its victories were air, its dominions dirt:
        Burma, Canada, Egypt, Africa, India, the Sudan.
        The map that had seeped its stain on a schoolboy’s shirt
        like red ink on a blotter, battles, long sieges.
        Dhows and feluccas, hill stations, outposts, flags
        fluttering down in the dusk, their golden aegis
        went out with the sun, the last gleam on a great crag,
        with tiger-eyed turbaned Sikhs, pennons of the Raj
        to a sobbing bugle.”

        You did it AGAIN, Uche—made me just nuts to talk poetry! Wanna have a group like Rodent experienced at U of Glasgow under the awesome eye of Philip Hobsbaum—just after he had weaned Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon et al in The Group at QU in Belfast!?! wotta mentor, that one!

        • Rodent says:

          To be precise, it was the *first Glasgow Group I was most involved with (and in a sense, Philip inherited that rather than actually starting it).

          It’s the *second Glasgow Group that Philip ran, that everyone remembers, with Liz Lochead (who I never met till later), Alasdair Gray, Jim Kelman, Black Angus and Anne Stevenson, to name a few. While I went along when I was there, by then I was mostly at York trying to pretend I was a Serious Student Academic. Didn’t work but, hell, they gave me a living allowance and didn’t charge me fees, so who was I to complain?

          Those were the days, my friend …

          Hey, Uche, you live long enough, you become part of history, even if only a footnote in someone else’s autobiography.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Rodent,

          Oh yes, I’ve always felt the extraordinary depth when interacting with you. I’m not surprised you’ve had such illustrious company. I would be honored to be part of any group in which you were involved. Judy, do I wanna have a group like…? Do I ever? That is what I have been starving for since I left Nsukka (where we made up in energy what we lacked in chops).

          I did once read at least part of Henley’s “Villon’s Straight Tip to All Cross Coves”, and found it a delightful work in its own right. I remember I heard of it first in Wyndham Lewis’s idiosyncratic volume on Villon, and I found the Henley in a library, but I can’t now remember which library that was, though. I’ll have to investigate where I can buy a volume containing that.

          And yes, the bit I quoted is the beginning of the Fifth Coquillard Ballades. It was actually “Ballade des Pendus” and “Ballade pour prier Nostre Dame” that I think I encountered first, but Coquillards was one of my favorite discoveries.

          I’ve also tried my hand at translating Villon. It’s a very enjoyable exercise.

          Judy,

          Hopkins and the rest of them will never be stale for me. For one thing I still recite “The Windhover” and “Carrion Comfort” while getting drilled by the dentist, among other times of stress 🙂

          Ooh. That is new Walcott on me. I’ll have to go read the whole thing.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Oh, I forgot to mention Rodent, mind the ghosts as they rush in to fill the spaces left by the furniture; and best of luck with the move-out and move-in.

        • Zara Potts says:

          The Windhover is my favourite thing ever written. EVER. Period.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          The Windhover! Isn’t it just breathless and scintillating? I also do a rendition of it in 21st century Def Poetry Jammy style that I’ve used once or twice to have some fun with the unsalted bread fare at local poetry readings. I should record that for a TNB podcast one day 🙂

        • Zara Potts says:

          Breathless and scintillating are perfect descriptions. I have loved it since I was fifteen. Nothing else compares. I don’t know what it is about it but it just strikes something in me.

          ‘AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
          Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!’

          I would love to hear that podcast, Uche!

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          OK, it’s a promise. And relevant to what I just responded to Will Entrekin, “The Windhover” is another one of those amazing poems you can read five different ways, each time sounding as if the words on the page must have been written completely differently. And of course each way sounds excellent in its own right. I think Hopkins was a real pioneer in that respect, writing mostly alone, without anyone to dissuade him from what would have been heresy in his day, working out his system of sprung rhythm.

  4. Simon Smithson says:

    Is there video of the recent reading up on YouTube? I’d be very curious to see how this sounds in the flesh, as it were.

    “I brushed it off and stood hard, b-boy no matter how many times I got flogged”

    A nice melange of US and UK there – a strong line among many.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Video is coming. And yeah, mélange of Various US and UK vernaculars, Nigerian English, Nigerian pidgin and bits of other languages, all low slang and high-falutin’ tootin’ seems to be my instinctive way to express myself. Thanks.

  5. What a lovely pidgin of pure rarified poetry and street speak. This was wonderful, Uche.

    Also, those last couple lines:

    “I’m your Gregor Mendel muse, your chameleon genome hot date.
    Witness the fitness. Witness the sticky space where misfits meet.”

    Hot damn! Witness the fitness and sticky space indeed. I’m stuck all over this one.

  6. kristen says:

    Fantastic to hear, fantastic to read. Your words are so densely strung–w/ personal/historical significance, amazing imagery, alliteration, so much. Some favorites: ten birthweight pounds, lights a life-long beef with teachers in snotty fuel, quick vic for sly betrayal, pinch myself into the common style, crinkled space of shared humanity… It’s all so clear and yet beautifully nuanced at the same time. Such a pleasure.

    Curious–who are some of your most beloved poets? And who are you reading now? Just starting to get into poetry, a bit, myself…

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Kristen. In a response above I gave a small flavor of my early influences, and enduringly beloved poets, but I’m not sure I would recommend those to someone just getting into it, except of course Plath.

      I’ll present you with a diverse grab-bag. You probably won’t like all of it, but I’d say poetry, more than any other pleasure, is a very personalized exercise of taste. i think one-size-fits-all is where so many teachers put people off poetry.

      Sylvia Plath is possibly the best place I would recommend you start. She has the intensity as well as the intellectual brilliance, and the easy way with words that I think should be the gold standard of all poetry. A few to look for:

      * Morning Song
      * Mushrooms
      * Lady Lazarus
      * Daddy

      From there I’ll jump to as contemporary as it gets, TNB’s own Erica Dawson. Her collection “Big Eyed Afraid” just blows me away, and I’m not comparing myself to her, but based on some of the flourishes in language you said you like in my work, you’ll love hers.

      Thomas Hardy, for example

      * Drummer Hodge
      * The convergence of the twain
      * The self-unseeing
      * Hap

      X.J. Kennedy, especially “Nude Descending a Staircase”

      Emily Dickinson

      Dylan Thomas, especially “The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower”

      Derek Walcott, e.g. “A Far Cry From Africa”

      Suheir Hammad. Check out her latest collection “Breaking poems”

      Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, even though incomplete, has to be read at least once

      D.H. Lawrence, especially “Snake” and “Humming Bird”

      But that’s just a scattered sampling, and there’s so much more to mention. I think I’ll continue in a full TNB entry 🙂

      BTW, All my recommendations are in English, because I’m not fond of translations. Of course much of the best poetry is in other languages, and I think it’s always better to get the rudiments of the original language, and work it out using glossaries, or at least to use a facing-page translation with the original on one side and the translation on the other. Needless to say that takes a lot of commitment, so easier just to stick to English for now.

      • Kristen Elde says:

        Aw, thanks for this, Uche. I’ve read some Plath, though it’s been a while. Should def revisit. Same w/ Dickinson, that was even farther back. More recently I’ve discovered/become smitten w/ the likes of Sharon Olds, Marge Piercy, Donald Hall, Charles Simic, Billy Collins… (Yes, I clearly have a thing for past U.S. poet laureates. 🙂

        And this guy/poem I learned about just the other day: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=175780.

        Stunning, eh?

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I must say, Kristen, that “A Blessing” didn’t particularly grab me. In general I quite like a few things of Donald Hall and Billy Collins, but I have great difficulty matching my tastes to the rest.

          But the glory of poetry is that nothing matters except what you can use. I pick that word carefully, since I think poetry thrives when it’s used rather than just admired. In my example, I use poetry to give me comfort from stress. You must have found some use for these Poets Laureate (I wonder what you think of Kooser. I have little taste for him, as well) since you’ve sought them out so consciously. In the end that’s what really matters.

        • kristen says:

          Hmm, not so familiar w/ Kooser, though what I have read hasn’t done much of anything (memorable) for me.

          As far as “use,” I like this way of considering it–and I agree. I suppose that for me, poetry, at the top of its game, makes me feel connected to greater humanity in a way that defies/transcends language or concrete explanation, which is probably related–at times–to your “comfort from stress.”

          Thanks again for these poet-leads. Adding them to my list.

      • Kristen Elde says:

        Oh, and Raymond Carver’s poetry! How could I have forgotten.

        I love his poetry as much as I love his fiction. You familiar? Here are my faves: http://plagiarist.com/poetry/5976/ and http://waterboyz.biz/2010/03/waterboyz-literary-series-presents-raymond-carver/.

        Sigh. Beauty.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Ah, that’s more like it, at least for my personal taste. I knew of Carver as a fiction author, but not a poet. I like both poems you linked, and thanks for leading me to the discovery.

  7. Mary says:

    Jeeze, man. Why don’t you post more often? Where can I read more of your work? This is amazing.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thank you, Mary. Actually your encouragement is most of what I need to warm up to posting more often. To be fair there is also the fact that the day job has been pretty hectic lately, and requiring a fair bit of travel.

      I do need a better pointer for folks who ask “how can I find your work?” Right now it’s scattered all over the place. I’ll see if I can’t bang something up this evening.

      Thanks again. It really means a lot to me.

      • Mary says:

        You’re quite welcome. This piece was just really powerful to me, and it had me tearing up at my desk at several points. Really great phrasing, and great subject matter. And I do sympathize about the old day job. I go through periods of not reading or writing much at all because work is busy and exhausting, but it’s always good to come back to TNB and to the writing life.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Yes! That is it exactly. For the longest time it was just easier to skulk through my entrepreneur/engineer career and not even think about how I would re-engage the literary spark I craved. TNB has been a marvelous draw back into the writing life.

  8. Slade Ham says:

    “I’m too crazy-smart for you to fail.”

    I had a similar attitude my senior year. Believe me, they’ll still try, though in the end they really couldn’t.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yeah, the back-story of that passage is patched up form my hazy memories and my Dad’s recollections. My father had always taught me science and maths and all that, and I’d always read it at an advanced level (I do remember reading basic Nuclear Physics, structure of the atom and all that when I was 8 or 9). My public school teachers must have had a nightmare dealing with me. Not only was I a huge smart-alec (I remember that clearly), but I also worked on problems in ways they were not really prepared to assess. I started getting very bad grades in addition to the “refuses to listen” and “talks too much in class” annotations.

      My father, who is a pugnacious sort, confronted one of them at a PT meeting. He said: “maybe you’re boring him”. She shot back: “maybe he’s not as smart as you think he is.”

      My father, being as much of a smart alec as I am, and happening to be a very well-regarded Ph.D. student at Case Western Reserve University, arranged to get me tested for IQ. (The lasting irony of that is that as an adult I’ve become extremely hostile to traditional IQ tests.) Apparently the scores were such that my father went straight to the principal. He’d proved his point.

      But what teacher wants to be shown up like that? I do remember that life in those classrooms just got harder, and eventually My parents moved me to the only private school they could afford, via subsidy. It was the Catholic school St. Ann’s.

  9. Zara Potts says:

    God I love your work, Uche. It is stunning.

  10. Brandy says:

    This is beautiful. A mish-mash of colorful thoughts and precise insights to living. I love the beat to this. Reminds me of Jack Kerouac..

    ““The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

    • Brandy says:

      –and I also adore Sylvia Plath. 🙂

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Brandy.

      And nice Kerouac quote, but here we come to a sticky subject. I resent the Beat Poets intensely. I know, I know. I’ve been told many a time that I overlap their spirit to some extent, but it’s complicated. Kerouac was a great natural chronicler and a keen observer of the human element, and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were great, natural, poetic talents. But I get the sense that Kerouac pushed them to completely do away with focus in their work. The results were not so terrible in the case of the immediate circle because these had actually been immersed in craft before their Beat days. Unfortunately, I think too many who came afterwards felt that they could just get straight to the unfocused grandstanding without putting in the hard work to hone craft. I feel as if the Beats in effect spawned an age of self-indulgent, empty poetry.

      Considering how many folks whom I respect are Beat aficionados, I guess I probably have the kernel of another TNB piece. That should bring in some interesting discussion 🙂

      • Brandy says:

        I agree with you. I think in every art medium whether it’s literature, poetry, painting or sculpture, people tend to mimic their heroes before finding their own niche. Their piece lacks the passion that drove the Original.

        Have you read ‘Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay” by Nancy Milford?

        Interesting discussion is always welcome. I look forward to reading more of your work.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Yeah, I think the pale imitation phenomenon you mention is a normal and natural part of artistic development, and the trick it to grow out of it. I suppose some of my anti-Beat resentment is unfounded because I’m sure every significant age had that weaker echo, and we’re just so close to the 60s that the weak echoes from that time still nudge our shores.

          I don’t think I’ve read that particular book, but good call on ESVM. Some of her work is a good addition to my list above, although she has produced a good deal that is pretty thin. What are your favorite poems by her?

        • Brandy says:

          I think many writers and artists wish to be passionate, but passion comes from deep emotion and strong convictions. We cling to fading echoes because really, what do we rage for here? Some of the best writing and artwork I’ve seen recently was done by inner-city kids. Their writing is not polished, but they have something to SAY.

          I think one of my favorites by ESVM would be ‘Interim’. It wasn’t typical of her.

      • Becky says:

        Well, the confessionalists were contemporaries of the Beats, more or less.

        I mean, if self-indulgence is your concern, look no further.

        And I think it’s incorrect to say that they lacked craft. Kerouac’s poetic “trademark,” if he had one, was the haiku, one of the more demanding and restrictive types of formal poetry, if only for its brevity. Certainly a long way from rambling catharsis.

        And Ginsberg…if you want to find his primary formal (in the sense of “related to form”) inspiration, it’s 100 years before him in Walt Whitman.

        Kerouac was an idea man…an ideals man. A space cadet and a bit of a tender soul. Kind of the spiritual and theoretical heart of the group, but not an arbiter of style, to the best of my knowledge. I was just watching a video of Gregory Corso the other day, and he was railing against much of what you are in no uncertain terms.

        Blaming the beats for craftless poetry is sort of like blaming Henry Ford for your car accident. If you’re looking for someone to blame, I’d look to the “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude and the “democratization” of art, an attitude that spun off of postmodernism, not the Beats.

        • Brandy says:

          Not so much blaming the beats, but for those who came afterward. The beat movement deconstructed the poetry of the day, made it gritty and real. I don’t know that I would blame the writers, they were just reflecting a change in society. The counter culture movement of the 60s and 70s were born from this angst.

          As a society nowadays I feel that our complaints tend to border whiny, and a great portion of the poetry is flimsy.

        • Becky says:

          I didn’t mean you. I was referring to Uche’s comment. TNB nests in misleading ways.

          But, as I said, the reason so much poetry that is flimsy continues to get press, publication, is that there is an idea that poetry writing is something just anyone can do. A resistance to or rejection of what is often characterized as Ivory Tower elitism and that sort of thing. I don’t think you need to be an MFA to write poetry. But I think you do need to be a student of craft.

          But the permissive attitudes towards “what is art” and endless relativism when it comes to what is “good” art is an issue of the prevailing socio-political theory which, though no doubt influenced by the Beats (these kinds of things tend to interconnect), shouldn’t be held against them any more it should be held against Walt Whitman for first inspiring them.

          • Brandy says:

            “But I think you do need to be a student of craft”. Yes! A poet who has worked hard at their craft worships words. Each one belonging and carrying their own connotations. I love to write and do it often, but refuse to put it out there on the grounds that I haven’t sharpened my skills to that level yet. One day. I go through periods where I devote myself to my painting and writing wholeheartedly, but I realize I’m a rank amateur. Hah! In the meantime I shall enjoy the wordsmiths on TNB…

        • Judy Prince says:

          Brandy, I find it fascinating when wordsmiths are painters, as well; and it’s not unusual. Surely this is the case with other kinds of artists—poet-composers or sculptor-novelists, for example. Sometimes the artists feel confused about which art form they should primarily focus on. What do you think about that? I hope one day soon you’ll let us read one of your writings.

        • Brandy says:

          I think that artists are driven by something latent inside of them. They are called. There are times when I feel that I can express myself more clearly with written word, and not. I also work in clay, watercolor, ink, nude and cemetery photography. But art drives art. If I’m actively painting, oftentimes I’m also actively writing. For the past year I haven’t touched any art. I haven’t felt driven, and this is okay. I know that when I’m feeling inspired it will be there.

          I have a blog that I play at http://findingbrandy.wordpress.com/. I’m not writing a lot due to a crazy school semester but there are a couple of entries.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Becky, I agree that the confessionalists were a greater actual menace to poetry than the Beats, but the reality is that the latter are the ones to whom so many more since then have aspired, and unfortunately much of this aspiration is not to the poetry, but to the lifestyle. The beats carried enough of a self-indulgent germ to trap the unwary, and they had more unwary to trap.

          I think you must have missed the part of my comment where I clearly said that Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti had a base of craft. I’m not sure why you sound as if we disagree on that point.

          I don’t know who Gregory Corso is, and I don’t think I care, unless perhaps you actually give me reason to care. And as for his railing against what I am (whatever that may be), as you can tell, It’s OK when people are railing against me. They are unlikely to be any worse than what I’ve already experienced. So I hope that you at least gained some relaxation from all that autonomously repetitive sharpening of a stick, because the pointy bit passes right through me.

          And the less said about your analogy of Henry Ford, the better. Analogies are treacherous ways to make a clear point, and I won’t soon find a better example of that fact.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Judy, I agree there is a synaesthetic quality to craft. I expect it’s that the same attention to detail that becomes a habit when confronted with any artistic medium, assuming basic facility.

        • Judy Prince says:

          Now that’s a thought-provoking take, Uche: “I expect it’s that the same attention to detail that becomes a habit when confronted with any artistic medium, assuming basic facility.” Me thinking about that. Yes, it matches my feeling whether writing or drawing or painting or making jewelry.

          And, Brandy, I’ve read both marvelous bold, richly descriptive writings on your blog! So much to enter into there. Here are a couple excerpts, the first from “Maui”:

          “I awoke the next morning to a flock of Myna birds singing from the forest. I walked down a red dirt road and out of a gate guarded by giant Indonesian statutes. Before me was the most beautiful view I’d ever seen in my life. Red clay dirt and pineapple plants stretching over hills and down the mountain. A panorama of the ocean and the island of Molokai, the sunlight hiding in and out of deep grooves created in ancient times by lavaflow. It was like Dorothy stepping out of black and white and into technicolor Oz.”

          The second excerpt from “Maui”, later:

          “I sat in my apartment looking out an old window, chipped paint on the frame. I’ve always loved old buildings. They have room for imagination, history. Things have happened here. People have loved, fought and been born under this roof. A little imperfect but romantic, just like me. I like the flaws.”

          “I never thought I’d love the South. It’s a different world down here. A land of Spanish moss, laurel oaks and liquor, old-fashioned manners and plain speak. Tall tales out on the porch, hammocks and Fat Tuesday, twisted literature and women with tempers–I could go on and on.”

          “So many people asked me how I could come back to this.”

          “I was driving down the road today. I saw pine scrub and sand, run-down houses and men sitting on chairs outside their front doors, streets that seem somewhat faded. U2’s “Streets with No Name” was on the radio. Imperfect but romantic.”

          Your second story, “Stars to Fill My Dream”, was equally as magnetic as the “Maui” one!

          Thanks!

        • Brandy says:

          Thank you, that means a lot to me. My punctuation is “creative” and I’m defiant about it. Hah! I have a long ways to go.

        • Judy Prince says:

          I didn’t notice “creative punctuation”, Brandy. Re your having a long way to go, a lot of folks will be enthralled in taking that long trip with you! Forgot to say that yes Maui’s paradise. I wanted to stay there forever; then my son, astutely, said: “Ma, after a month you’d be bored and ready to get back to the Mainland.” Oh but the rush of memories! And you helped bring them back to me.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Copy editors these days have the strangest neuroses over punctuation. Rules are not automatically bad, certainly, but in this case I think you should remain defiant because most of what you find in e.g. the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk & White should be resisted, if you can get away with it. Most of these elaborate systems of punctuation rules have no basis in tradition nor reason. They usually just spring from the idiosyncrasies of a single writer or committee, most of which are so artless that I think it’s OK to prefer your own idiosyncrasies.

          For my rant against what I call megalogrammarians, see:

          http://archives.thenervousbreakdown.com/uogbuji/2009/07/tongue-of-warcraft-part-two%E2%80%94politics-of-language/

          I do need to bring that over from the archives.

  11. Becky says:

    Gregory Corso was a beat poet.

    And “railing against much of what you are” = “railing against much of what you are [railing against]” That is, agreeing with you.

    As far as the emphatic anti-analogy stance, I guess I don’t know what to do with that. Obviously you feel strongly about it. Personally, I fend analogy to be a perfectly valid and effective way of re-contextualizing a theoretical point.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      I see, Becky. I misread that, and it’s perfectly clear in hindsight.

      I really did find the analogy hard to apply usefully, and in general I tend to dislike analogy, unless there really is no better way to make a point. So let me step past all that and point out the source of some of my perspective.

      I live in the outskirts of Boulder, home of Naropa University, and supposed spiritual bastion of The Beats. I have often encountered local poets, and I have often had to recoil from them. I have also often encountered from local poets and educators the idea attitudes against conscious attention to style, and against schooling, not in the sense of formal curriculum, but in the sense of drinking deeply of tradition as a way to hone craft and style. In my experience, that very often goes hand-in-hand with an odd sense of entitlement gifted somehow from The Beats.

      I believed that since it was several of the Beat Poets (Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg in particular, as I recall) who established the curriculum, that they had blessed this nonsense. I might be wrong about that, and if so, I’ll happily stow my resentment of The Beats.

      I’ll be the first to admit that some of that resentment has kept me from a complete education of the school. I’ve read some Kerouac, a lot of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. I didn’t encounter Anne Waldman’s work until Megan mentioned her a few weeks ago, and I checked her out. As you’ve seen I was ignorant of Corso. I’ll check him out as well.

      I will say that those in the penumbra of the Beats already tend to split my taste. I like Creely and dislike Bukowski.

      I’m sorry for the misunderstanding, and I hope to continue the discussion.

      • Becky says:

        I can see how being in such a place could give the impression that that the world is full of poets affecting Beat personae, but oddly enough, my experience up here in Minnesota has been the opposite. Of course there are always those who appreciate or idolize Beats, but here, the majority seems to find them unfashionable.

        And, of course, Ginsberg set his own path as he aged. He, more than many of the other Beats that I’m familiar with, seemed to identify with some of the hippie philosophy that followed on Beatdom’s heels. Communal attitudes and the like. Kerouac would have been mortified, for example.

        Frankly, I’m not overly familiar with Ginsberg, so I can’t say if the general pedagogical attitude at that school reflects his beliefs very closely or not.

        But Kerouac was a different beast, and Corso something even more different from either of them.

        Corso self-educated himself while he was in prison and was really the only one among the Beats who actually came from the “beat down” background that the rest of the mostly well-educated, middle-class Beats glorified. Corso’s poetry tends to be of a pretty loose form, so you might not like that, but I assure you, it was not out of ignorance. He was very well read and any appearance to the contrary was intentional. More so than other Beat poetry, his was often (though not always) overtly funny–in a gritty, jaded, somewhat cynical way. You might like him. Or you might not. I like him.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          I found and read a few of Corso’s poems. I can’t say I fell to instant liking of his work, but it is definitely not unschooled, and I wouldn’t accuse him of lack of focus nor ignorance of cadence, because, for example, you find a lot of it, a sort of sprung rhythm meets accentual verse in his eponymous “Gregory Corso.” “Destiny” and “I Am 25” also ring with strong cadence. His matter and message tend to be worthy, which is one of the things you rarely find among the massed ranks of poets we’ve all been deprecating. Much of what else I found was a lot looser, and I think suffered for that looseness, but I don’t believe in summary judgments of such things, especially if I’ve seen reasonable evidence for doubt of the judgment. I’ll certainly read him some more.

        • Becky says:

          One of my personal favorites–but also one of the loosest–is called “Marriage.” It’s the first of his that I ever read and one of his funniest. It was the poem that made me curious to know more about him. Very unlike a lot of Beat stuff, both in its self-deprecating humor and intentionally absurdist tendencies.

          Gregory Corso was a notorious womanizer.

          In the case of “Marriage,” the wily form suits the content, so I don’t hold it against him and prefer to see it as a craft decision in and of itself. I can’t see writing the ravings of a commitment-phobic wild man in iambic pentameter. At least not in any kind of convincing way.

  12. That was some really great poetry, Uche. A fine blend of language and image. I – like Simon Smithson – would also love to see or hear this being read.

  13. I’m so happy to be able to read this. The night I listened to you do so, the moment I heard “magma,” I knew it was something I wanted to see in black-and-white. There’s a great rhythm to it. It’s so interesting how your reading of it rendered it more prosaic than the actual structure seems to be, which I think is a testament both to your talents as a poet and as a reader.

    Well done, sir.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Will. Many who are fanatical about free verse feel that there is a lot about 20th century rhythms, conventions, and the “global village” mindset that means all tradition in form should be nuked. I’m not against free verse, and I write it too, on occasion, but personally I prefer form. When I talk about fanatics, I talk about people like Diane Wakowski who suggest that only absolute reactionary right-wingnuts would write in form these days.

      I think a lot of that is overreaction from what I call “The Raven” verse. Poe’s poem delights some, and I think that’s quite fine, but once in college I was asked to record the poem (long story why), and I made this amazing discovery that no matter how hard I tried to bend its meter into something resembling relaxed rhythm, it absolutely defeated me. It almost screamed out to be read in a regimented manner. A lot of Kipling is like that too, as I learned early because my father sometimes recited e.g. “Danny Deever”.

      Anyway, I always felt that there is a middle ground. Form does help make verse memorable, and I think that when it’s memorable, it can actually be used (that strange word upon which I insist), but there is also benefit from an open, flexible style, which allows the reader to adapt the poem to their own sensibilities. So I work very hard to find that balance. One of my favorite examples has always been Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music.” It can be read in a regimented way, because if you really pay attention to it, it’s quite regularly accentual. But you can also read it in about three or four different relaxed cadences, and the audience would swear that each time it was a completely different structure of poem That’s one of my highest aspirations.

      All that is a very long-winded way of stating the importance of what you said to me. It makes me feel as if all that work does serve purpose. Thank you.

  14. Uche Ogbuji says:

    With regard to the broad categorization of “Confessional” poets, I found an earlier essay I’d sought:

    http://copia.posterous.com/quotidie-1

    No less a critical mind than Richard Moore in “Tristram’s Rhapsody” sallies forth swinging in every which direction. In one particular stroke he disparages the cult that has surrounded the suicide-poets of the 20th century, naming Plath, Sexton and Berryman.

    From a critical point of view, it’s pretty silly to lump in Plath with the other two. Plath is one of the great poetical geniuses of the 20th century, and the other two wrote verse that turns your ear to tin and your eye to wax. John Berryman especially is so woeful that I boggle at his popularity within the establishment. Are there really no critics who can sense that there is no music, no keenness with diction, and no intelligence of theme in, say the celebrated 77 Dream songs? Do they really see him as heir to Pound and Carlos Williams? As for Anne Sexton, at least her work is not palpably offensive to the poetic taste, but it is dull and devoid of craft.

  15. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Audio from the event is up, including my reciting of “Growing up Misfit”. I bow to TNB production.

    http://copia.posterous.com/quotidie-48

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