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Cover Story: The Secret Language of the Modern Age Poets reconstruct the poetry of meaning

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By Kathy Y. Wilson · April 20th, 2005 · Cover Story
Honoring Each Wod
Sean Hughes

Honoring Each Wod

Unless your appetite runs to poetry so inventive it can't say what it is or language with its pockets hanging inside-out, then Aralee Strange, Don Bogen and Tyrone Williams are working poets you've probably never read, heard or even heard of.

Quiet, please.

For centuries poetry's been a kept secret between its writers and lovers, like a high, inaudible whistle heard only by ears pricked to its pitch. But with a month dedicated to its exploration and celebration and with mics and slams slaughtered at its altar and laureates designated to resuscitate it, poetry remains as subjective and as elusive as the day it was born.

"It's like a secret language," says Strange, whose Alabama accent still lilts after all these years. "It's reinventing the language. Each word is so carefully chosen, and it's so perfect for that."

Strange is trying to put her finger on why poetry works so well when it does, on why -- after Chaucer, Shakespeare, Brooks and Baraka -- poets still rise every day to add to the pantheon of what's already been said.

"Poetry is something unto itself, and the words become unto themselves in that poem," she says. "Poetry is a way of honoring each word. That's important to me, because language is all we've got. If it turns to a big gobbledygook, then we can't talk to each other. Language is galloping ahead of us, and it's the poet's job to grab it."

Strange has had to do some grabbing herself.

Though not known primarily as a poet, she's one of those artists who must use and intertwine different genres to articulate themselves.

At the inauguration of Writers' Day 2004, Strange woke up the house with "Spelling It Out," a poem about creative processes assembled from strips of written texts.

In "Genesis," she turns her love for reading the Bible and her anger at the modern manifestations of its antiquated directives into an Old Testament mantra, only by a prophet with a lightning bolt tattooed to her right cheek.

A name became the son of name

whose name begat name begat name

begat, begat, begat and be got and got nameless names of unnameless women who bore in great pain

names first, second, third and so on

and these were the kings that reigned

and their names whose nameless concubines named their bastard sons name

and thus, it came to be when each name who reigned died, his name reigned

on and on and so forth and so on

until the least one's son of a name born maimed and crazy

was named more fit to reign than any woman

and when the last name was laid dead a new name reigned

and the name of the land was his name

and the names of the wives were his name

and of course his children forever in the name of names

ah, men

"Old Jehovah was such a patriarch," she says.

Strange is perhaps better known for her theater work writing An Evening at the Sad Cafe in 1995 and The Chronicles of Plague in 1992. Radio heads know Strange as the writer, producer and editor of Etta Stone: A Film For Radio, her 1990 novel-cum-radio play about a woman based loosely on the persona of Gertrude Stein making a film about World War I.

Strange says the piece morphed from a novel and the experience deepened her appreciation for language, which enriched her poetry.

"Actually, I thought I was writing a novel, I was so involved with the language," she says. "It wasn't a novel. It ended up being a radio drama. It was a play. I was having these characters speak this poetry. It taught me a lot about my use of language. What I learned was you can take these huge ideas and use people. The language is always there and sometimes it's poetry, sometimes it's poetic."

Jim Palmerini, a friend and fellow poet, was the first person who heard poetry in her prose.

"Then I understood," she says.

She experienced another, equally significant linguistic epiphany years earlier growing up in Birmingham.

Bob Dylan.

"That's when I started realizing there was a whole different way to write," she says. "The poetry of those early Folk singers resonated with me. It wasn't too far to Rimbaud. Once I find someone I like, I like to read whom they've read."

This Boswell in reverse led Strange to so admire the New York literary intellectuals of the 1950s like John Ashberry, Frank O'Hara, Paul Blackburn that she eventually moved there in the early 1970s before moving to Athens, Ga., in 1982 and to Cincinnati in 1985.

"When I was (growing up) in Birmingham, I knew it was going on and I wanted to be there even though I was 12 years old," she says of the New York scene. "I saw the pictures in Life magazine. I felt connected to it."

Bogen's poem to that era, "Cocktail Party, 1953," is so tightly wound around details of the day it could be a prelude to a John Cheever novel or itself a passage from one.

In it, quiet devastation pools in the bottom of long-ago martini glasses.

Now he loosens his tie

and paces among the suits

and stiff bras, past the buffet,

the ash trays on chair arms

and end tables, blurred drops

spattered across blond curves.

His brain is a jewel in flames

revolving, pulsing light

long after the nation's asleep.

His heart is an underground test,

his drink missile fuel.

The best minds of an age are sparring here.

Bogen, a professor at the University of Cincinnati since 1976, teaches creative writing, modern literature and directs dissertations. In the publish-or-die arena of academia, Bogen has published After the Splendid Display (1986), The Known World (1997) and Luster (2003), all by Wesleyan University Press.

They are all wholly assessible, elegant yet meticulously structured and intelligent collections of Bogen's own brand of classically modern poetry.

A man who lives in his car bathes in rainwater from "Rain" seems overtly obvious, but in Bogen's hand it's a gem for its juxtaposition of unspoken filth to natural cleanliness and also for its bluntness -- a byproduct of the homelessness to which it eludes.

Wanted solitude, feared it from "Run" mimics the blinking flash of images and the up-and-down elevator of emotion runners must experience in the pound of a pavement.

More than Strange and in ways different than Williams, Bogen adheres to form without sacrificing function. His poems aren't so scientific or constricting that their meanings become mired in difficult symbology.

He defines a verse epistle and a villanelle as easily as he connects slams to Rap to rhythm.

"There's a range of different kinds of popular poetry," Bogen says in his tiny UC office with its wall of neatly stowed magazines and spiral notebooks yellowed and curved with age. "With slams and Rap, the engagement with language and the rhythms of language is wonderful. It's got different conventions. I'd never be able to do bragging or put-downs. People who are good at that may very well start reading past their own worlds.

"It's really important for anybody to know from Shakespeare and Chaucer on up belongs to all of us."

Bogen's Everyman approach to poetry's wider appeal extends to Cincinnati's literary community, one he appreciates for its literal distance from the superficialities of the literary circles in other cities.

"One of the things I like about Cincinnati is that there are a lot of poets but there's not the hierarchy like there are in other cities," he says. "These library readings (at the Main Library's Garden Poetry Series), there are poets from all different backgrounds. It seems really diverse and democratic. Tyrone's work is widely diverse from mine. Maybe it's because nobody's running around with a Nobel Prize."

Or maybe it's because poets here support one another in ways that competitive artists working in other genres do not.

At a recent reading organized at Xavier University by Williams for Bogen that attracted six students, most of them Williams', Bogen took great care to talk about his creative process.

"It's like falling off a horse," he says about when to stop writing a poem to a political science major teetering toward a writing career. "I can feel it. I can feel when it's horrible and just stop. Part of a poem is saying something that surprises you."

Then Bogen riffs poetically about making poetry.

"A lot of it is music," he says. "I have to hear it. Sometimes you get tired of how you used to sound. I'm also really oral. I can't write in a crowded room because I have to speak the lines over and over."

Shaped like a promise and a threat, a covenant/shaped like a promise and a threat, a covenant reappears in Williams' "I Am Not Proud to Be Black," each time meaning something more or less than before. The phrase should serve as signposts to this fact: Williams likes to flip phrases and play on words until their new meanings obliterate stale contexts.

But it isn't hocus-pocus, cut-and-paste. Williams, like Bogen and Strange, works at his poetry, devoting time, solitude and professional development to the craft.

"I put myself on a schedule during the summer," Williams says in his Xavier University office. "This summer, I'll end up coming to Xavier, not to this desk but to the library to get a room with no windows and just work. Most of my poems are assembled from images and lines and ideas from journals, and I sit at the table and go back trough and assemble them.

"It's a factory. It's literally manufacturing."

Williams, the chair of XU's English department for five years, has taught there 21 years and is the author of c.c. (Krupskaya, 2002). He's been a judge at the rowdy, long-lamented slams sponsored by 144,000 and InkTank at The Greenwich but, like Bogen, reads publicly across the country alongside some of America's formidable working poets.

The nearly classist chasm between self-made and formally taught poets built along accessibility's fault line is one Williams says isn't new.

"Poets have been arguing about that for centuries," he says.

His office walls are covered with framed posters advertising the exhibits of an obscure artist. Fliers touting Williams' readings from other cities are taped up. A bookcase jammed neatly with titles by Hurston, Hughes, Murray, McMillan, Wright, Achebe and other literary classics covers one wall. There are past issues of Poets & Writers, Transition and Chicago Review.

A weight bench taped with grey electrical tape and several big weights are jammed behind a cabinet over Williams' shoulder.

"Sometimes, accessibility can be the equivalent of going to the market or selling out," he says. "It's the difference between going to McDonald's or cooking your own food. I've written some things that are accessible because occasionally I like to go to McDonald's" -- he stops himself to laugh long and hard -- "but I also like to cook my own food."

Moving freely from sustenance to truth began with Vietnam. The war turned Williams from science to English.

"I knew that if I worked (in the sciences) I would be facilitating the war in some way, which I did not want to do because I disagreed with it," he says.

Earlier than that, Williams says he wrote a short story in junior high because "the teacher was cute and I wanted to impress her."

Does this sound like a poet, whatever image the term might conjure?

"I hate telling people I'm a writer or a poet," Williams says. "Invariably, people will say, 'I've always liked Shakespeare,' or, conversely, 'What kinds of poetry do you like?' What they really mean is: Why poetry?"

Bogen thinks the reading public embraces poetry more now than in years past.

"There's more engagement of poetry than it used to be," he says. "People can make fun of National Poetry Month, but people are reading it, trying to write it."

Strange, who's excelled in many written forms, says poetry for her is a demanding form that requires unprecedented discipline.

"I do consider it formal discipline," she says, "and it is a discipline you have to work at every day. Even though I'm not formally educated, I have picked up the proper tenets of poetry. That's why it's close to spirituality.

"If you don't practice it every day, you're just a Sunday writer or a Sunday painter. You live or die by it."

UPCOMING LOCAL POETRY EVENTS include the George Elliston Poetry Foundation and UC's Department of English hosting Louise Gluck (sponsored by the Public Library) at 7 p.m. April 27 in Great Hall in Tangeman University Center, Andrew Field at 8 p.m. May 5 in 127 McMicken Hall and Lynn Emanuel at 8 p.m. May 19 in 127 McMicken Hall. The Main Library's Literature and Languages Department hosts featured poets and an open mic session at 6:30 p.m. May 17 in the Tower Room downtown.

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