Archives for category: Nathan McClain

Dearest A,

It’s been weeks since last you wrote.  I read your letter to the soft noise of a Seinfeld rerun, the canned laughter of studio audience members who probably relayed the episode to work colleagues the morning following the taping.  Then, they stopped talking.  My roommate was thumb-mashing the Diet Coke-stuck buttons of an old model cell phone at the time.  Everything is now touch-screened, you know.  Interfaced.  If you cradle an iPhone long enough, its supposed to warm your hands.

Yours,

B

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Dear A,

Billy Collins, I read in a recent interview, said “A poem is the most intimate form of communication, in that it is one person communicating to another person.  Nothing else you read is addressed in such a personal way, except maybe for the letter, but then that’s not something that the whole world is reading.”

What’s weird is that I could swear I’ve heard lines from my letter in the mouths of complete strangers. Well, complete strangers to me.  How long do you know someone before they’re not strange to you anymore?  It’s strange to think of who you’ve been speaking to, strange that I’m not embarrassed.

Should I be?

Write back,

B

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Dear A,

Someone said Elizabeth Bishop was coming to Los Angeles next Thursday.  Then they corrected themselves — “in a way.”  I laughed, and tried to imagine Elizabeth Bishop as a zombie.  She’d maybe sit onstage, crumple and eat each poem after its reading.  Honestly, I don’t think I’d have the heart to jam a wooden stake into Elizabeth Bishop’s brain.  Could you even read for an hour like that without getting sick?

She’d be one hundred years old this year.  I say “she’d be” as though we ever stop being what we are.

Please write,

B

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Hello A,

Bishop, in a letter to a friend, once wrote “I sort of see you surrounded by fine-tooth combs, sandpaper, nail files, pots of varnish, etc. — with heaps of used commas and semicolons hand, and little useless phrases taken out of their contexts and dying all over the floor.”  I wouldn’t know what to say you were surrounded by anymore — a romantic might say you’re surrounded by ocean water, washing bottle caps and the sharp music of pelicans ashore.  Wait, do pelicans sing?

My point is that people write letters all the time.  See?

B

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A,

Space.  Not the clusters-of-stars or orbit space, but space is the reason we write letters, right?  To close space, pull two people closer?  I like to imagine letters bridge a certain chasm we may not normally possess the tools or materials to close.  My hands splinter at the thought of wooden planks, nails, a sledgehammer.  But what about when one of us needs space?  What then?

Or maybe letters are the closest we’ve come to actually touching the departed again, the closest we’ve come to speaking with ghosts.

I think I’m haunted.

B

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Since my previous post closed on a reference, a Sylvia-Plath-laying-her-head-inside-an-oven reference, to be exact, I thought I might pick up where that thought left off—consider these:

Fourscore and…,” “You had me at…,” “Life is like a box of…,” “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for…”

(please tell me you can complete these because) either my memory is slipping or I’m making the point that there are few things sweeter than two people meeting at the street lamp of a familiar reference.  (Yes, few things.)

Adam Kirsch, senior editor of the New Republic, recently published an article which briefly discusses “Literary Allusion in the Age of Google.” In the article, Kirsch remarks on the remarkable intimacy created “when two people—a captor and a prisoner, or a couple of friends or (most often) a writer and a reader—can share an allusion.” He ultimately concludes that in our present day, the rise of such entities as Google actually work to close any distance an allusion (regardless of how obscure or familiar) might present between writer and reader. (Just think, you no longer have to master Latin or Greek to trace the genealogy of some poem’s allusion to its late father, or mother.)

But Kirsch also raises valid concerns. Exactly how safe is the writer who makes a classical allusion anymore, and if so, how far into history’s backseat is the writer allowed to reach? Does he risk a reader’s lack of understanding or connection to said poem? And furthermore, has the technological age in which we live limited the scope of our allusions? Narrowed our frames of reference? Billy Collins, in his poem “The Trouble with Poetry” ruminates on when “the day finally arrives / when we have compared everything in the world / to everything else in the world, // and there is nothing left to do / but quietly close our notebooks / and sit with our hands folded on our desks.” Do you ever wonder, in an age overrun with iPhone apps, Droids, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, what have we left to talk about?

(Here’s where the ecstatic infomercial host frantically flails his arms in front of the television camera, “But there’s still hope!”) To answer my own question: people. Us.

Despite technological advancements, and despite the manner in which language continues being truncated and compressed (“OMG, How r u?” —actual message, I’m sad to say), poets are constantly discovering innovative methods of exploring our most classic themes of love and loss, of investigating the human condition by placing the best words in the best order (even in the most modern of situations). Yes, new verbs like “friend,” “tweet” and “google” are being introduced into not only the English lexicon, but into Contemporary American Poems themselves. And yes, social networking has redefined the manner in which some choose to construct a poem. And sure, we’re further challenging the limits to which we can compress language through the entrance of such literary journals like Cell Poems, through which you can even have issues beamed directly to your cell phone. (Talk about convenience, right?)  But aren’t we still talking about the same thing?  Aren’t we still speaking the same language?

I’d like to believe so.  As much as we may have seemed to changed, I’d like to believe we ultimately haven’t, that we’re still concerned about the same dilemmas, encountering similar experiences. In one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld, during a business transaction (to make a long story short) between Kramer and Earl Hafler over Cuban immigrants, a discrepancy arises as to whether the two men are referring to the cigars or individuals. The bit closes as Hafler asks, “We’re talking about people, right?” I think so. I think we still are.

One of Robert Frost’s definitions for poetry is that which “gets lost in translation,” but leave it to Google to ask “really now?”  Meaning the company is presently at work on a program to do just that, in adapting its translation qualities to translate poetry.

I know, “the horror.”

Google’s new program (at least in the early stages) primarily focuses not only on the words of the poems themselves, but also rhyme, and meter (Here’s where the amped-on-five-Red-Bulls infomercial host flags an available camera “Just think, you can have your very own English-speaking Jabberwocky!“).  And according to software engineer, Dmitriy Genzel, currently the software behaves very much like a flesh-and-blood poet — working too slowly, and trying out a variety of lines to see which fit best.

Of course, the odds of success with Google’s plan to aid in the takeover of machines is slim, but it does raise interesting notions and issues, as to the state of American poetry and why this program would so gloriously fail.  On the other hand, one has to appreciate Google’s suggestion of poetry as another language, one that, as with any language, requires a commitment to practice, to repetition, and also sheds new light on every poetry workshop student who crinkles his forehead, or shrugs at your poem.  “I don’t get it.” Read the rest of this entry »