Sunday, November 22, 2009

Useful Ambivalence

Good news! The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture since 1900 has chosen my extended critical essay, "Useful Ambivalence: Adventures in Lyric Essay Land," to be part of their 2010 conference. I will present the paper at the University of Louisville in February of 2010.

Here is the abstract for the paper (see below). I'd love to hear from anyone who has been working in the form. Why do you choose to make use of the dual possibilities of the lyric essay? What challenges does it present?


This essay, “Useful Ambivalence: Adventures in Lyric Essay Land,” explores the blurring of boundaries between poetry and essay, as well as the interstitial space between them where magic sometimes happens. What is a lyric essay? Why do writers seem to choose hybrid genres more frequently now? Are clear demarcations between genres meaningful? Can a lyric essay exist apart from its words? What is the role of Truth in this genre?

This work will examine the apparent interdependence of form and content in lyric essays. It will also seek to establish a working definition of the term “lyric essay,” look briefly at its origins, and closely examine three examples in the genre: The Body by Jenny Boully, “The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto” by David Antin, and selections from Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the close readings, I will examine elements common to essays that have been termed “lyric,” either by the authors or by editors who anthologize their work. Excerpts of each of the aforementioned works appear in John D’Agata’s seminal anthology, The Next American Essay; a self-proclaimed lyric essayist, D’Agata will frequently serve as a guide throughout this study. This essay shall also posit explanations for the recent proliferation of works that resist categorization, i.e. what is to be gained from blurring the lines?

“Useful Ambivalence” will also investigate the craft of the lyric essay. How do the aforementioned writers use juxtaposition, negative space, jazz, narrative, and other techniques to render meaning? Finally, the study ends with an envoy addressed to readers and writers who might wish to continue investigating the form of the lyric essay.

Happy Thanking,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Realizing Social (In)Justice in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Pink Dog”

Perhaps because it is one of Bishop’s travel poems, “Pink Dog” immediately caught my attention with its vivid, colorful imagery, playfulness, and conversational tone. I love the speaker’s initial observation of something so mundane as a hairless dog contrasted with the sights and smells of Rio De Janiero. The rhyme scheme, which is constructed with three end-rhymes in each tercet, (aaa bbb ccc…), is at first almost child-like in its simplicity and playfulness. Similarly, the speaker’s surprise at the sight of the dog, in its simplicity and honesty, achieves a conversational tone from the beginning stanza.

All of these initial impressions constitute a kind of lightness which is soon complicated by the speaker’s darker observations of the displaced and poverty-stricken populations of the city: “how they deal with beggars? They take and throw them in the tidal rivers / Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites / go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights / out in the suburbs, where there are no lights” (ll. 14-18). The first effect of such a major shift in tone and subject inherent in the speaker’s juxtaposition of the hairless dog with the city’s poor and displaced is the immediate comparison. While she employs some hyperbole, the speaker recognizes that these people are being treated as if they were unwanted animals.

The poem evolves even further in the final four stanzas when the speaker returns to meditations on the pink dog and proposes that it dress up for the Carnival festival to hide its repellent condition. The speaker concludes by praising the festival which “is always wonderful!” (l. 36), and urging the dog to participate, “Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!” (l. 38). Such praise is tainted, of course, with a cynicism which informs the entire poem. Bishop’s investigation of the city’s treatment of its poor populations is also an investigation of the shallow and meaningless nature of festivals such as Carnival. Just as the pink dog becomes a metaphor for the “idiots, paralytics, [and] parasites” which a city cannot hide, Carnival becomes a metaphor for the ineffectual human endeavor to compensate for such social injustice. Because it is a Christian holiday, Carnival also becomes, in Bishop’s representation, a manifestation of the failure of religion to solve social problems of classism. Just as Bishop’s playful rhyme can only partially hide the dark themes of the poem, Carnival can only superficially obfuscate (and temporarily alleviate) human misery.

--Matthew Vetter


Rio de Janeiro

The sun is blazing and the sky is blue.
Umbrellas clothe the beach in every hue.
Naked, you trot across the avenue.

Oh, never have I seen a dog so bare!
Naked and pink, without a single hair . . .
Startled, the passersby draw back and stare.

Of course they’re mortally afraid of rabies.
You are not mad; you have a case of scabies
but look intelligent. Where are your babies?

(A nursing mother, by those hanging teats.)
In what slum have you hidden them, poor bitch,
while you go begging, living by your wits?

Didn’t you know? It’s been on all the papers,
to solve the problem, how they deal with beggars?
They take and throw them in the tidal rivers.

Yes, idiots, paralytics, parasites
go bobbing in the ebbing sewage, nights
out in the suburbs, where there are no lights.

If they do this to anyone who begs,
drugged, drunk, or sober, with or without legs,
what would they do to sick, four-leggéd dogs?

In the cafés and on the sidewalk corners
the joke is going round that all the beggars
who can afford them now wear life preservers.

In your condition you would not be able
even to float, much less to dog-paddle.
Now look, the practical, the sensible

solution is to wear a fantasia.
Tonight you simply can’t afford to be a-
n eyesore. But no one will ever see a

dog in mascara this time of year.
Ash Wednesday’ll come but Carnival is here.
What sambas can you dance? What will you wear?

They say that Carnival’s degenerating
—radios, Americans, or something,
have ruined it completely. They’re just talking.

Carnival is always wonderful!
A depilated dog would not look well.
Dress up! Dress up and dance at Carnival!

—Elizabeth Bishop

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Pink Dog.” Anthology of Modern American Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. 530. Print

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sulphur Hollow

This is a poem of mine that was recently featured in the Sept. 2009 issue of The Journal of Kentucky Studies. Enjoy!

-Matthew Vetter

Poem at Sulphur Hollow

I don’t need to tell you,
I have claimed the biggest,
moss-covered rock, to sit

with my son and watch
the black and yellow bird
who brought me here

dart from tree to tree.
What does she know,
I wonder, of the back half

of the Ford I found buried
in the hillside, the lock
of its trunk still shining

among the rust and decay.
All around us, mast from oaks
and maples waits to be

scavenged, stored, peeled.
The skin of the oak nut is scored,
divided like the fruit of an orange

into so many sections.
My son wants to gather
as many as he can, wants

to throw them into this small valley,
wants to add one small sound
to the winter roar of wind

blowing against a thousand
dead dry leaves all at once.
Now there’s a low wailing

across the fields, beyond
the tree line that borders
the edge of Sulphur Hollow.

I stand and turn my head.
I want to know the animal
that would cry like that.