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Emperors of Ice Cream: Sense, Non-sense and Silliness in American Poetry.

DOES IT MATTER WHAT POEMS SAY, or only how they say it? American poetry workshops avoid such questions, focusing on whether poems "work" rather than on what they mean. But to judge by the claims American poets make in craft lectures, book blurbs and award acceptance speeches, most believe that what poems say matters quite a lot, that though, as William Carlos Williams claimed, "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/ ... men [and presumably women] die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there."

If the meaning of poems matters, then it seems reasonable to ask whether poetic assertions make sense. The problem is that since the modernist poetic revolution of the early twentieth century, poetic language hasn't had to make sense. Robert Frost seems to have beaten his avant-garde contemporaries to this realization, writing in 1913 that "the raw material of poetry" was not sense but "the sound of sense," the sense-suggesting tones one gleans "from voices behind a door that cuts off the words." As Ezra Pound demonstrated through his context- and connection-slashing edits of an early draft of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," modernist poetics transformed making sense into choice rather than necessity, a local effect rather than a standard operating procedure, one of many ingredients bubbling in the semantic soup.

Readers of American poetry have been accustomed to seeing the sense made by a line dissolve after a linebreak, of reading poems as walkabouts among songlines of never-quite-consummated meaning. Since the modernist revolution, sense-optional poetry has become almost as ubiquitous as free verse; even poems that mostly make sense often slip into the sound of sense.

Sense-optional poems sashay and shiver between sense and various degrees of non-sense; meanings flare, dance and dissolve like will o' the wisps. These days, poets tend to write such poems by feel, without a clear sense of the sense they are or aren't making, But the American pioneers of sense-optional poetry--Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, Williams--wrote out of and against nineteenth-century conventions in which poetic language was expected to make sense. However far their language wanders beyond it, sense remains the foundation of their poems, as you can see when you read revisions of "The Waste Land." Moreover, those poets counted on their readers to try to make sense of their poems, to strain to hear the meanings cut off by the half-opened door of modernist poetics. Even John Ashbery's post-modern gabfests, in which tone, pronoun and perspective shift too fast to construe, play on his readers' sense-making habits, giving us snippets of language that are just recognizable enough to suggest a sense we know can't possibly be there. (1) Such language isn't nonsense--that is, it isn't patently silly--but it is non-sense, language that is defined by the ways it resists our efforts to make sense of it.

The modernist pioneers and their post-modern successors freed American poets from the need to make sense. But sense-optional poems only work when poets and readers are alert to the sense that they are or aren't making, because only then can we appreciate--and revise or criticize--their semantic dalliances, dramas and dances.

Of course, for some contemporary American poets, such as former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, sense, however complicated, generally isn't optional. Take this excerpt from Ryan's poem "Patience":
   Who would
   have guessed
   it possible
   that waiting
   is sustainable--
   a place with
   its own harvests.
   Or that in
   time's fullness
   the diamonds
   of patience
   couldn't be
   from the genuine
   in brilliance
   or hardness. 

Neither of these highly enjambed sentences would raise manyinterpretive eyebrows if they were written out as normally punctuatedprose:
   Who would have guessed it possible that waiting
   is sustainable--a place with its own harvests?
   Or that in time's fullness, the diamonds
   of patience couldn't be distinguished from the
   genuine in brilliance or hardness? 

The sense here is complex, nuanced--but it would hardly qualifyas heresy to paraphrase Ryan as promoting "Patience" as a"sustainable" and rewarding virtue and practice.

But even the most sensible poetic language is always touched bynon-sense. Everything that marks language as poetic--sound patterning,allusions, similes, archaisms, high-flown rhetoric and so on--make itharder to make sense, distracting us from what words say to how they sayit. Even in the most prosaic, plainly spoken poems, linebreaks ensurethat sense is regularly interrupted by the white wordless space beyondthe right-hand margin: Linebreaks are non-sense made visible, blankspace where language, in prose, would normally be. The steeper thelinebreak, the less it corresponds with syntactical, rhetorical orlogical boundaries, the greater the amount of non-sense it injects intothe text. While linebreaks can correspond with sense-making punctuation,as Ryan's demonstrate, linebreaks in themselves are purenon-sense: they have no meaning, and they stand outside the semanticsystems that give meaning to commas and such. (2) The paraphrasablesense of the prose rewrite of "Who would have guessed itpossible" is rendered unparaphrasably mysterious by Ryan'ssteep linebreaks.

In "Patience," the difference between the sensethat the poem is making and the "poetic" elements thatcomplicate or distract us from it (most notably the linebreaks) isclear--so clear that we can readily separate sense from non-sense, as Idid when I rewrote Ryan's lines as prose. But in sense-optionalpoetry, sense and non-sense are as interdependent as bird wings inflight:
   We are used to being reviled as makers of
   And feared. Men have accused us
   Of witchery, they've accused us of receiving
   Visitations and crafting
   Transmutations; we are blamed
   For changes, the more precise the more
     terrifying. But fate is
   Down everyone's alley, in everyone's line,
   Though fulfilling it is involuntary,
   It follows
   What follows ... 

Like Ryan's "Patience," the first twosentences of this excerpt (the opening lines of section XI of LynHejinian's sequence "The Saga") would attract nospecial attention if they were arranged and presented as literary prose.The syntax is complete, the punctuation and diction fairly standard, theverbal music muted--a textbook example of the "chopped-upprose," much reviled in the early twentieth century by bothoutraged traditionalists and free-versifiers worried about maintainingpoetic standards, that has long been a staple of American poetry.

But unlike Ryan's poem, in which the sense of thesentences remains intact despite the steepness of her linebreaks, sensebegins to morph into something more complicated by the end ofHejinian's first line. Hejinian's linebreak, placed at theend of a phrase that could easily have ended with a period; isn'tvery steep, but when our eyes relocate to the beginning of the next line("And feared. Men have accused us"), the sense we returnto isn't quite the sense we were making before. The initial capis distracting, drawing unwonted attention to the modest conjunction,and heightening the impression that "feared," which wouldhave seemed like semi-automatic parallelism if paired with"reviled" in the previous line, is slightly out of place,as though betraying emotion buried beneath the prosy detachment.

This modest push-back of non-sense against sense seems hardlyworth noting; such minor semantic shoving matches have long been staplesof free-verse American poetry. (They occur in prosodically organizedverse too, but tend to be upstaged by the sense-complicating effects ofsound patterning.) However, the slight mismatch between the sense of thefirst and second lines signals the intimate, shifting relation betweensense and non-sense that is the hallmark of sense-optional poetry, andwhich becomes hard to ignore by Hejinian's second and thirdsentences:
   ... Men have accused us
   Of witchery, they've accused us of receiving
   Visitations and crafting
   Transmutations; we are blamed
   For changes, the more precise the more
     terrifying. But fate is
   Down everyone's alley, in everyone's line,
   Though fulfilling it is involuntary,
   It follows
   What follows ... 

The sense of the assertion that "Men have accusedus" grows harder to make as the sentence is broken into fivelines, approaching the limits of paraphrase in the final clause,"the more precise the more terrifying." The"But" that follows promises a clear connection between thesense of this sentence and the sense that will be made in the next.Instead, the poem offers "But fate is," a syntacticallycomplete but semantically empty formulation--the sort of High Non-Sensein which Stevens specialized--that echoes feebly in the linebreakblankness. Since this phrase says little in itself, we turn to the nextline to find out what's being said about fate and its relation tothe defamation of which "we" have been complaining. Whatfollows, though, are two parallel idioms, horizontal spatial metaphors("everyone's alley," "everyone'sline") that seem promisingly concrete until the next lineabandons them for abstract rumination. Though we keep trying to make it,sense has become a will o' the wisp, dissolving as we approachit, flickering always out of reach.

This effect--language that crackles with sense'sworld-defining authority without defining anything--is what Frost meantby "the sound of sense." When sense becomes the sound ofsense, words are used not to mean but to engage our meaning-makinghabits, an effect elegantly displayed in the authoritative but emptyepigram "It follows/What follows," in which the repetitionof "follows" frustrates the sense it prompts us to make ofthis assertion about "fate."

Because we respond to the sound of sense as though it weresense, it is common for critics and other readers to unconsciouslyrewrite it into sense which is then projected back onto the poem, asthough the sense we have made is the sense the poem is making. Forexample, when we fill in the gaps and untangle the twists inHeijinian's third sentence, it seems to propound a theory of fateas coherent as Ryan's theory of patience:
   The retrospective sense that events are fated
   comes to everyone when they reach the end of
   a series of events (the end of the causal "alley"),
   because as human beings it is our habit and our
   business (our epistemological "line") to arrange
   events into patterns, even though to do so we
   sacrifice our own volition to the sense of fate we
   have imagined, imprisoning our understanding
   of our own lives in the empty tautological cage
   of a fate that doesn't lead or guide us, but simply
   "follows" conceptually whatever "follows"
   in terms of event and happenstance. 

Perhaps Hejinian hoped her words would stimulate this sort ofphilosophical meaning-making; perhaps she hoped that the non-sense ofher assertions would prompt us to recognize the emptiness of ourconcepts of fate. But whatever Hejinian was thinking, the notion thatthis sentence presents a coherent assertion about fate is a fantasystimulated by the flickering lights and shifting vapors of the sound ofsense.

Critics have concocted such fantasies in response to Americanpoetic non-sense for a good 70 years, since the 1920's boom inacademic interpretations of the "Waste Land" launched theacademic-poetic industrial complex that has kept American poets onpayrolls and syllabi even as the percentage of poetry-readers shrank toa sliver of the population. I don't mean to be dismissive of suchreadings: American poetic non-sense fulfills Pound's injunctionto be news that stays news, because every serious reading makesbrand-new sense of it. But these readings are like the rainstorms orrunning horses or narratives of emotional turmoil viewers find inJackson Pollock drip paintings. They can be sincere, subtle, compelling,even revelatory, but at bottom they are projections onto (or, asLANGUAGE and other critical theory might argue, active readercollaborations in re-writing) the non-sense of poetic language likeHejinian's.

Hejinian's sentences showcase the peculiar dance ofsense and non-sense that is the basis of sense-optional poetry. Butsince the modernist revolution, sense-optional American poets have oftencomplicated the play of sense and non-sense by stirring in a third formof language: silliness) Silliness is language that makes syntacticalsense, but the sense it makes clearly, and risibly, doesn'tcorrespond to reality. As Wallace Stevens demonstrates in hisoft-anthologized "The Emperor of Ice Cream," when properlydeployed, silliness can add a surprisingly expressive dimension to theplay of sense and non-sense:
   Call the roller of big cigars,
   The muscular one, and bid him whip
   In kitchen cups concupiscent curds....
   Let be be finale of seem.
   The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream. 

From first line to last, "The Emperor of IceCream" is unabashedly silly, tossing out orders from no one to noone in a triumphant spoof of linguistic authority. Much of the sillinessderives from the specificity of Stevens' language, the insistencethat dessert must be made not by any cigar-roller but only "theroller of big cigars,/The muscular one," and only with"curds" that meet the standard of concupiscence--averitable mountain of conditions that points up the implausibility ofthe commands. The sentences make sense, but it's clear thatreality doesn't correspond with the sense they make. Noone's going to speed-dial cigar rollers; concupiscent curds inkitchen cups will not be served. In short, the orders are silly.

But unlike, say, the silliness of Maurice Sendak's"Chicken Soup with Rice," Stevens' silliness, hereand in many other poems, is used to complicate the play of sense andnon-sense, to confect language that is both and neither. The string ofsilly orders relaxes our vigilance to the word-world relationship onwhich both sense and the sound of sense depend, enabling Stevens tosneak in a little heavy metaphysics ("Let be be finale ofseem") under the cover of good clean fun. In another context,this line would either be read as sense (a presumably aspirational callfor appearance to give way before reality); or as the sound of sense(given a steep linebreak or two, such as "Let / be be / finaleof/seem"); or as silliness (since poets are neither theacknowledged nor unacknowledged legislators of reality). Stevens makesit sound like all three at once: another in a string of silly orders;evocative but not-quite-construable metaphysics; and, thanks to theshift in diction from comic over-specificity to grand abstraction, aserious statement about the relation of semblance to being. In otherwords, the silliness in "The Emperor of Ice Cream" defusesthe usual tension between sense and non-sense so that language which issimultaneously both and neither becomes, briefly, possible.

We can only register such effects when we are alert to thedifferences between sense, non-sense and silliness. When we stop tryingto determine whether poetic utterances make sense or not, it'shard to tell the emperor from the ice cream, poetic profundity fromprofound stupidity, the sound of sense from the sound of senselessness.I am not advocating a return to nineteenth-.century-style finger-waggingover the moral or other content of poetry. But sense-optional poems canonly be read and written competently when we recognize when they are andaren't making sense, and understand what sort of non-sense theyare making.

This old-fangled attentiveness to meaning is even moreimportant in our current age of hip non sequitur, when distinctions between sense, non-sense and silliness seem to bescrambled as a matter of course, if not principle. Rebellion in general,and rebellion against academic distinction-mongers in particular, havebeen hallmarks of poetry's Young Turks at least since Rimbaud,perhaps the first to spin being a smartass into poetic gold. Americanpoets were a little slower, but since the start of the twentiethcentury, many cohorts of Young Turks have sassed and snarked their wayto poetic recognition. For example, part I of "Howl,"Allen Ginsberg's career-making elegy to his own Young Turkcohort, equates genius (the best minds of his generation) with throwing"potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism." But though"Howl"'s torrent of hip non sequiturs seems tomirror the anarchic rebellion it celebrates, formal analysis revealsGinsberg's careful juggling of sense, non-sense andsilliness:
   who cooked rotten animals lung heart feet tail
     borsht & tortillas dreaming of the pure
     vegetable kingdom,
   who plunged themselves under meat trucks
     looking for an egg,
   who threw their watches off the roof to cast
     their ballot for Eternity outside of Time, &
     alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for
     the next decade,
   who cut their wrists three times successively
     unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to
     open antique stores where they thought they
     were growing old and cried ... 

"Howl" translates the ecstatic Beat rebellionagainst social order into syntactical form, presenting its flood ofimage and anecdote as a single mind-bogglingly extended list thatignores syntactical and rhetorical norms. But this grand gesture ofrebellion conceals the orderliness, even tidiness, of"Howl"'s parts. As in the ecstatic Whitmaniansentence-lists that served as Ginsberg's model, each of"Howl" 's anecdotes is self-contained, bothsyntactically and in terms of content; we don't have to relateone to another, or synthesize them, thank God, into a larger sentence.This paratactical structure frees and forces us to focus on the sense ofthe individual anecdotes, and because each anecdote is syntacticallycomplete (even when, as in the first anecdote quoted above, parts ofspeech are omitted), to register the way Ginsberg tap-dances along thecrowded border between sense ("who cooked rottenanimals"), the sound of sense (who dreams of "purevegetable kingdom," the cooks or their ingredients?), andout-and-out silliness ("alarm clocks fell on their heads everyday for the next decade").

"Howl"s simple Whitmanian approach to structureenables the poem to distinguish and shift between sense, non-sense andsilliness without compromising the poem's stance of anarchicspontaneity. These days, the norm-defying sentences we find in hipnon sequitur poetry, in which tone, focus and grammatical subject Shift from clauseto clause, tend to fudge such distinctions. Take MatthewDickman's appealingly playful "Bougainvillea,"featured in the July/August 2012 issue of American PoetryReview:
   I like the inner lives of the silverware; the fork,
   the spoon, the knife. I appreciate
   how they each have a different reference toward
   god, how the fork is Muslim,
   the spoon, like a stone, is Buddhist, how the
   is Roman Catholic--
   always worried, always having
   a hard time forgiving people, the knife kneeling
   down in Ireland and Africa. In San Francisco
   my lamp has become a temple.
   Every time I turn it on the light moves out
   the room like a meditation,
   like a bell or a robe
   the way it covers everything and doesn't
     want to
   kill. Light is the husband
   and everything it touches is its bride, the floor,
   the wall, my body,
   the bronze installation in Hayes Valley
   its bride. The lamp chants
   and my clothes, my hat thrown in the corner of
     the room
   chants back: nothing, nothing. In my next life
   I'll have no fingers, no toes. In my next life
     I'll be
   a bougainvillea. A Buddhist monk
   will wake up early on Sunday morning and not
     be a fork
   and not be a knife, he will look down at the girl
   sleeping in his bed like a body of water,
   he will think about how
   he lifted her up like a spoon to his mouth all
     night, and walk
   into the courtyard and pick up the shears
   and cut a little part of me, and lie me down
     next to her mouth
   which is breathing heavily and changing all the
     dark in the room to light. 

Unlike "Howl," which presents all its anecdotesas defining examples of "the best minds of my generation,""Bougainvillea" doesn't have a rhetorical structureto connect its hip non sequiturs to some larger subject. However, the poem's assertions share twocommon denominators: they are all focused on the speaker, and they alldirectly or indirectly touch on religion. Like"Howl"'s, many of these assertions are patentlysilly. It's unlikely that anyone devotes much time to savoring"the inner lives of the silverware," and when the speakerclaims to identify fork, spoon and knife with different religioustraditions, he's clearly counting on us to laugh at thispreposterous approach to theology.

But when "Bougainvillea" isn't simplybeing silly, it's hard to tell whether the poem'sassertions represent sense or non-sense. For example, the secondsentence presents a cluster of charmingly homely silverware metaphorsfor different religious traditions' "referencetoward/god." Unfortunately, the phrase "referencetoward" isn't clear enough for us to tell whether thespeaker is still being silly, or whether the poem has shifted fromsyntactically complete silliness to syntactically deficient sound ofsense. Such distinctions become more urgent when the speaker assertsthat "the fork is Muslim." Islam is a passionatelymonotheistic faith, and while the idea of religiously inclinedsilverware is inherently silly, the three-tines-in-one-implement imageis so much more apt for Catholicism that it is hard to tell if themetaphoric mismatch represents the silliness of the speaker, thetheological sloppiness of the poet, or the sound of a sense the poemisn't making.

Before we can consider such questions, the rapidly associatingsentence has moved on to the next religious tradition. Here thesilverware metaphor ("the spoon ... is Buddhist") issupplemented by a parallel metaphor ("like a stone"), thatthreatens to erase the distinction between silliness and the sound ofsense. Does "the spoon, like a stone, is Buddhist" mean"this particular spoon is Buddhist, as is any old stone,"or "this spoon is like a stone in that it is Buddhist," or"spoons and stones are equally Buddhist"? Thesepropositions are equally silly, but which, if any of them, is thespeaker asserting? Unlike Ginsberg's assertion that "alarmclocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade," thesyntax of this statement can't be resolved to a definite, andthus meaningful, silly statement. Though silly, Ginsberg's alarmclock assertion contributes to the poem's parodic but admiringportrait of the best minds of his generation, attesting to theircontrarian relation to the alarm-clock-driven time of the 1950's,their preoccupation with temporality in general, the cumulative sensethat their sufferings (those alarm clocks must have hurt) paradoxicallyreflect their hipper-and-more-intense-than-thou relationship withexistence, which doesn't bother to torment us the way ittormented them. By contrast, the indeterminate "sound ofsilliness" of "the spoon, like a stone, isBuddhist" says nothing about Buddhism, spoons, stones, or thespeaker's understanding of them.

When poems present us with the sound of sense, theindeterminate syntax generates interestingly multiple possible readings,such as those suggested by Hejinian's assertions about"fate." The indeterminate "sound ofsilliness" represented by "the spoon, like a stone, isBuddhist" suggests readings that are too silly to be interesting,or even worth construing--and the poem doesn't give us time toconsider what "the spoon, like a stone, is Buddhist" mightmean, because it is already rushing on to the next religion/silverwareequation. When syntax goes as slack as it does in"Bougainvillea," the result is neither sense, the sound ofsense, nor silliness. It is meaninglessness masquerading asmeaning.

Such semantic masquerades are an inevitable byproduct of thewriting process, throat-clearing between bursts of inspiration. But theless we attend to the sense of poetic assertions, the more oftenmeaninglessness will masquerade as meaning in poems that are finished,published and praised--because without careful attention, thedistinctions between sense, non-sense and silliness that generatemeaning in sense-optional poetry collapse:
   Every time I turn it on the light moves out
   the room like a meditation,
   like a bell or a robe
   the way it covers everything and doesn't
     want to

Though a vague high-lyrical sense prevails through "likea meditation," with the third line, and the second analogizing"like," the meaning slides into meaninglessness. What are"a bell or a robe" being analogized to, exactly? Themeditation? The light? The motion of the light? The likeness of thelight to meditation? Is this two similes or one? "Or"suggests that it makes no difference, that the bell and the robe areequivalently like whatever they are like--but what likeness could thatbe?

At this point, the search for sense on which the play of sense,non-sense and silliness depends gives way to boredom. The questionsthese lines raise are both unanswerable and uninteresting. Bell and robeseem like associative throwaways brought up by"meditation," and the poem makes little of either, skatingblithely on to yet another vague suggestion of a simile, "the wayit covers everything and doesn't want to/kill.""Kill," of course, sounds serious, particularly after thatsteep linebreak. Some sense must be at stake, some longing to escape adrive toward murder. But what does "it" refer to? Not"the light," because light never "coverseverything"--and since light doesn't want anything,it's banal to highlight the fact that it "doesn'twant to/kill." The same problems arise when we try out otherpossible referents for "it," bells and robes and themotion of light. Since there's nothing in the sentencethat's capable of desire or aversion but "I," theassertion takes on a vaguely confessional flavor, as though it wereindeterminately baring the speaker's besieged pacifist (ormurderous) soul. But all it is really telling us is that the speakereither doesn't know or doesn't care whether or not he ismaking sense, non-sense, or language that is too vague to be either. Asbored teens say, whatever.

Let's give the speaker the benefit of the doubt, andassume that he has deliberately smeared together analogies and fudgedreferents to confound the meaning suggested by "Every time I turnon the light ..." What purpose would that serve? Could Dickman bemaking some bold LANGUAGE-poetry style effort to overturn the hegemonyof religious discourse? That seems unlikely, because the poemisn't grounded in (or even conversant with) any actual religiousdiscourse. Perhaps he is playing the semantic equivalent of a practicaljoke--but if so, does he want us to mistake meaninglessness for meaning,or does he want us to notice that the chair has been pulled out fromunder us, and thus destroy our trust in his language? Neither seemsplausible. There's no practical-joker meanness in the poem, whichif anything is a bit too eager to charm, and the poem would lose bothits charm and vaguely evocative resonance if we knew that it wasintentionally meaningless.

The poem isn't deliberately undermining meaning. Rather,it seems to have lost sight of the difference between sense, non-sense,and silliness, and the syntactical control necessary to maintaindistinctions and meaning-generating relationship between them. As suchmeaninglessness becomes ever more common in published poetry, readersstop expecting poetic language to have any relation to sense, whichmeans that poets need worry ever less about it. Fusty and tedious as thequestion "Does this make sense" can seem, poets andreaders need to keep asking it, to keep one another alert to the vitaldifferences and complex relations between sense, non-sense, andsilliness--and to keep American poems from dying miserably for lack ofwhat is found there.


(1.) I discuss sense-optional poetics at length inSoldering the Abyss: Emily Dickinson and Modern AmericanPoetry. But that book focuses on the development of modernist American poetry,rather than the challenges of contemporary poets.

(2.) The same can be said of other poetic elements, such asiambic rhythms or alliteration; they may work in conjunction withsense-making aspects of the poem, but they make no sense, have nomeaning, in themselves.

(3.) Not all modernist American poets got that memo. Pound, forexample, presents his pronouncements with deadly seriousness, and, likeall of us, even Moore and Stevens, the most comfortably sillymodernists, sometimes seem to take themselves too seriously.

JOY LADIN is the author of six books of poetry: lastyear's The Definition of Joy, Lambda Literary Award finalist Transmigration, Forward Fives award winner Coming to Life, Alternatives toHistory and The Book of Anna, (all from Sheep Meadow Press), and Psalms (Wipf & Stock). Her memoir, Through the Door of Life: AJewish Journey Between Genders, was a 2012 National Jewish Book Award finalist. She holds the Davidand Ruth Gottesman Chair in English at Stern College of YeshivaUniversity, and has taught in the Graduate Program in Creative Writingat Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, Reed College and theUniversity of Massachusetts at Amherst.
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Author:Ladin, Joy
Publication:The American Poetry Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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