Thursday, April 30, 2009

Origami - Greg Williamson

ORIGAMI



The kids are good at this. Their nimble fingers
Double and fold and double fold the pages,
Making mimetic icons for all ages.
The floor of the school is littered with dead ringers:

Songbirds that really flap their wings, rare cranes,
Bleached bonsai trees, pale ghouls, two kinds of hats,
Dwarf stars, white roses, Persian copycats.
Small packet boats, whole fleets of flyable planes.

Some of the girls, some of the older ones,
Make effigies of boys and…”Goodness sakes!”
They ask what I can make. “I make mistakes.”
“No, really, Mr. Greg!” They don’t like puns.

I tear out a page and say, “I’ve made a bed.”
They frown at me. I’ll have to lie on it.
“See, it’s a sheet.” But they’re not buying it,
And seem to imply (“You’re crazy!”) it’s all in my head.

I head for home, where even more white lies
Take shape. The page is a window filled with frost,
As unformed thought, a thought I had, but lost.
The page is the sclera of someone rolling his eyes

As it becomes (you’ll recognize the trick)
Tomorrow morning, laundry on the line,
The South Pole, circa 1929,
The mainsail of the Pequod, Moby Dick,

The desert sand, the shore, the arctic waste
Of untold tales, where hero and author together
Must turn, out of the silence, into the whether-
Or-not-they-find-the-grail. Not to your taste?

The page is a flag of surrender. I surrender
To the rustle of programs before a serious talk,
The sound of seashells, seas, the taste of chalk,
The ghost of snow, the ghost of the sky in December,

And frozen surfaces of ponds, which hide
Some frigid stirring, something. (What have I done?)
It’s the napkin at a table set for one,
The shade drawn in a room where someone died.

The pages keep on turning. They assume
More shapes than I can put my fingers on.
A wall of silence, curtains, doors, false dawn,
The stared-at ceiling of my rented room.

“You crazy, Mr. Greg.” The voices call;
the sheet on the unmade bed is gone awry.
I sit at my little desk in mid-July,
Throwing snowballs at the Sheetrock wall.


---Greg Williamson


Greg Williamson’s Origami

One of the exercises I used to give my students was to summarize a whole poem into a single sentence. It’s a bear of an assignment, but it forces you to read, think, analyze, and then take the product of your thoughts and filter it into a strong and brief statement. It didn’t matter if the student was looking at one of their own poems or one of Shakespeare’s, this assignment shocked the hell out of them. They figured that one sentence would be a piece of cake. They’d read the poem once, then write a one-line summary and they’d be done. As Lee Corso says, Not So Fast, My Friends. With an assignment like this, requiring an economical use of words, the expectations are high and the margin for error is slim. All of this talk about what I’ve come to call the Smushed Poem Assignment has me motivated to try it today. Let’s take a look at Greg Williamson’s wildly creative Origami and hopefully by the end of our examination I’ll have a good solid sentence for the poem.

You’ve heard countless phrases about first impressions so I won’t dare giving you another, but I will ask you this: what’s the first thing you noticed as you read this poem? If you’re a smart ass then you’re chomping at the bit to tell me you noticed the title first. That’s not what I had in mind. The detailed descriptions of the kids creating their origami creatures and items are well written in the first few stanzas, but almost immediately I noticed the rhyme scheme. The rhymes are nearly perfect throughout the poem and quite often they are end stopped. This is a recipe for formulaic and metered verse that might drift off into the droll of Old English drinking songs and nursery rhymes. But Greg Williamson avoids the fate of conventional rhyme schemes by balancing the rhymes with a healthy blend of varied images, lively characters, and fresh, true dialogue. These features are very difficult to pull off in a poem that is constructed with a rhyme scheme, yet when they fit a poem organically they propel the reader through the poem.

Combining the poem’s title with the first stanza, Williamson wastes no time giving readers the necessary particulars to immerse themselves in the poem’s world. There are a group of children folding the paper to make origami figures. Paper litters the floor from failed attempts and some stirring successes. Williamson devotes the whole second stanza to providing a great list of the imaginative things the kids have created. We find ourselves endeared to Williamson for the way he treats the failed attempts as something unique, and thus a masterpiece in its own right:

Songbirds that really flap their wings, rare cranes,
Bleached bonsai trees, pale ghouls, two kinds of hats,
Dwarf stars, white roses, Persian copycats.
Small packet boats, whole fleets of flyable planes.

In the next two stanzas Williamson introduces dialogue in the form of a short interchange between himself and some of the children. His answers are witty and self-deprecating, the type of thing an audience might love. “They ask what I can make. ‘I make mistakes.’ / ‘No, really, Mr. Greg!’ They don’t like puns.” Letting his mind do the work, as opposed to his hands, Williamson responds to the children’s prodding by ripping loose a single sheet of paper. He holds it before them and says “I’ve made a bed.” If they didn’t like his line about making mistakes then it should come as no surprise that Williamson is greeted with frowns. It doesn’t bother him though; he resolves to take this “bed” he’s made and “lie on it.” With one last attempt he says to the kids “See, it’s a sheet. But they’re not buying it, / And seem to imply (“You’re crazy!”) it’s all in my head.” This will be an important link to the rest of the poem, a point of departure into Williamson’s constantly churning imagination.

We often think of children as possessing untouched and limitless minds, but in this poem it appears to be Mr. Greg who is tapped into a steady stream-of-consciousness. After working with the children, our speaker returns home where “even more white lies.” He won’t be folding this white to resemble a spear or a one-legged crane, but he will be laboring just as hard to get words onto the page. The blank page is daunting; he sees it as a “window filled with frost, / As unformed thought, a thought I had, but lost.” And this is where he begins to pick up steam, next the page is someone rolling their eyes, which seamlessly shifts into “Tomorrow morning, laundry on the line, / The South Pole, circa 1929, / The mainsail of the Pequod, Moby Dick.” Are you beginning to see what I mean about stream-of-consciousness? One image segues into the next, sometimes with strong connections, while others are lucky to have a mere flicker of similarity. Realizing that it might be a little difficult and disorienting at first for readers, Williamson gives us a small bit of encouragement, telling us “you’ll recognize the trick.” The writing style keeps readers swimming within their minds, trying to keep up with the poem’s path, but boy is it fun, nearly as much fun as the children seemed to be having with their origami earlier in the poem. Dare I say Williamson is crafting poetic origami in this poem.

One of the things that differentiates this poem from others that are swept up with the creative spirit is how Williamson is caring and attentive to his readers. We just made note of his aside to readers that they’ll recognize his trick and how he constructs his links of images, but he also tries to give us variety to appeal to a wider audience. As the poem moves into a realm “Of untold tales, where hero and author together / Must turn, out of the silence, into the whether- / Or-not-they-find-the-grail,” Williamson quickly follows this up with a question to his readers: “Not to your taste?” This allows him to make an abrupt turn and pull back in the readers he might have been losing. He takes the poem more introspective with the white page as his surrender, as “the napkin at a table set for one, / The shade drawn in a room where someone died.” Ultimately, it is not surrender that overcomes Williamson, but a sense of the awesome depth of imagination. He acknowledges the pages and their images “assume / more shapes than I can put my fingers on.” There exist an infinite web of connections within the world, all waiting for a writer to pluck them free and toss them onto the page. When this happens then “the pages keep on turning.” We’ve been in the outer limits of Williamson’s wide open mind, but the journey is coming to an end, returning to his own house where all of this thought originates from: “The stared-at ceiling of my rented room” where he hears again “You crazy, Mr. Greg” as he notices “the sheet on the unmade bed is gone awry.” His day¾events, words, thoughts, gestures¾is stringing itself together like hands reaching out to each other to be held. With these forces pulling together, with this wonderful synergy, Williamson sits down at his “ little desk in mid-July, / Throwing snowballs at the Sheetrock wall.” He is ready to dismantle impossibilities, he is juiced with creativity.

Having reached the end of our deep reading of the poem and having originally promised a tightly constructed and well thought out sentence to summarize the poem, here is my best effort (it’s a little long winded :)) to fulfill that most difficult assignment: The genius of creativity is that it follows no rules except for those that you create, and even those are your personal sense of how best to coax awareness so that in seeing a sheet of paper you look beyond its physical form and see ten thousand things no one else could spot.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How It Is - Maxine Kumin

HOW IT IS



Shall I say how it is in your clothes?
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.
The dog at the center of my life recognizes
you've come to visit, he's ecstatic.
In the left pocket, a hole.
In the right, a parking ticket
delivered up last August on Bay State Road.
In my heart, a scatter like milkweed,
a flinging from the pods of the soul.
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.

I think of the last day of your life,
old friend, how I would unwind it, paste
it together in a different collage,
back from the death car idling in the garage,
back up the stairs, your praying hands unlaced,
reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish
into a ceremony of sandwich,
running the home movie backward to a space
we could be easy in, a kitchen place
with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.

Dear friend, you have excited crowds
with your example. They swell
like wine bags, straining at your seams.
I will be years gathering up our words,
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.


---Maxine Kumin


Maxine Kumin's How It Is


Desperation—which at its base is fear—motivates us to do things we normally wouldn't even consider. Rational thought scurries away like a child's ball disappearing down a street sewer. Limits shrink and everything is possible...at a cost. In Maxine Kumin's How It Is the cost has already been charged and the poem's speaker, unhinged by grief, is desperate to revisit a recently deceased friend. The sorrow and longing are so intense that she resorts to trying on her friend's clothes. We do strange things when we lose someone we love, but they're not strange within that moment. These desperate acts are what we have at our disposal; they may not bring our loved ones back, but on some level we gain comfort—and if we're very fortunate—understanding.

There's no beating around the bush in this poem; Kumin makes sure we know the path she'll follow with a definitive first line: “Shall I say how it is in your clothes? / A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.” Eerie and indeed desperate, the poem's speaker puts herself into her friend's physical confines as a means of conjuring her, or at least a fleeting connection. When the speaker's dog recognizes these clothes and grows “ecstatic” we see his enthusiasm as innocent and lively—the exact emotions our speaker lacks. The nuances of life—“In the left pocket, a hole. / In the right, a parking ticket”—may appear minuscule, but they startle us out of our grief with pressures of reality. Before moving forward, Kumin is sensitive to her heart, feeling “a scatter like milkweed, / a flinging from the pods of the soul.” This grief will not go gently and so she pushes herself with the untamed fuel of desperation. “My skin presses your old outline. / It is hot and dry inside.” Kumin describes the action with the emotionless precision of a scientist writing a lab report.

After one stanza of trying on her friend's clothes, and essentially trying on her former life, our speaker unravels more of the intricacies of her friend's life. She starts with her final day, thinking “how I would unwind it, paste / it together in a different collage.” As counterintuitive as it might seem to soften death, which normally is as malleable as cement, Kumin slices scenes from her friend's final day as if they are warm slices of pie. This way she is able to create art in dying. Her friend doesn't end in “the death car,” but starts with it “idling in the garage.” Her “praying hands unlaced” find themselves put back to work “reassembling the bits of bread and tuna fish / into a ceremony of sandwich.” The good parts of life return in “a space / we could be easy in, a kitchen place / with vodka and ice, our words like living meat.” Never has there been a more fitting adjective than “living;” just as meat is the dead flesh of an animal taken in by humans for sustenance, it provides new life to Maxine Kumin. Undoubtedly what she finds is not real life, but remember that Kumin is desperate for any more time with her friend, any at all.

By the time we reach the final stanza Maxine Kumin has gone to great lengths to measure how life was for her friend. With this fresh knowledge, she presses on with a message for her deceased friend—a gritty tribute born out of experience. Kumin declares “Dear friend, you have excited crowds / with your example.” Because of their friendship, Kumin knows “I will be years gathering up our words, / fishing out letters, snapshots, stains.” Their time together has left her with an immense collection of emotion, a mansion of moments that she'll explore for the rest of her life. If these treasures aren't enough to stir her memories to vividness, we already know that she is not afraid of desperation. If all else fails we can expect to find Maxine Kumin “leaning my ribs against this durable cloth / to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.” Who can blame her? To have one more moment with a lost loved one nothing seems outlandish or crazy; desperation actually seems sane.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

To Be In Love - Gwendolyn Brooks

TO BE IN LOVE


To be in love
Is to touch things with a lighter hand.

In yourself you stretch, you are well.

You look at things
Through his eyes.
A cardinal is red.
A sky is blue.
Suddenly you know he knows too.
He is not there but
You know you are tasting together
The winter, or light spring weather.

His hand to take your hand is overmuch.
Too much to bear.

You cannot look in his eyes
Because your pulse must not say
What must not be said.

When he
Shuts a door—

Is not there—
Your arms are water.

And you are free
With a ghastly freedom.

You are the beautiful half
Of a golden hurt.

You remember and covet his mouth,
To touch, to whisper on.

Oh when to declare
Is certain Death!

Oh when to apprize,
Is to mesmerize,

To see fall down, the Column of Gold,
Into the commonest ash.

---Gwendolyn Brooks


Gwendolyn Brooks' To Be In Love


Working against our expectations is one of the more devious and creative paths a poem, or for that matter any piece of art, can follow. We believe, and because of those beliefs, formed out of our experiences, when a situation arises with familiar circumstances and characteristics we know what will happen next. But when our expectations are shattered, when our truths melt like chocolate on a hot day, we are lost. Uncomfortable and distressing, in these moments we are put in a position to learn a great deal about ourselves. This is the practical side of surprise, taking the suspense and mystery and melding it into a significant lesson. Gwendolyn Brooks gives us a chance to learn about ourselves with her unusual poem To Be In Love.

“To be in love / Is to touch things with a lighter hand.” Brooks begins the poem with this beautiful couplet. It's a simple way of describing the euphoric state of being in love, and yet it fits. A softer, gentler touch allows for more sensation, a deeper feeling. Being in love brings about this growth: “In yourself you stretch, you are well.” It changes you in a profound way—you become a better version of yourself, more in tune to the world because looking after the happiness of another person has become your lifework. It is your masterpiece. “You look at things / Through his eyes.” Brooks presents a proactive view of being in love, a view that looses us from the confines of our own bodies and allows us inside the intimate sections of our loved one's mind and soul. The sustainability of this connection seems natural and without fail. “He is not there but / You know you are tasting together.” Of course we will have impediments separating us from those that we love, but because we are in love we share a connection that can travel the distance that separates us. We expect that love harbors and fosters these uber positive conceptions. As Gwendolyn Brooks delineates poetically the virtues of being in love, we read and nod along. We remember our own unrivaled highs of being in love. This is how she establishes the grounds for surprise. This is how the first act is written and ends.

Surely if I gave you a choice you would choose love over loss. As we revel in the delights of being in love we are a breeze, a footstep, a mere hiccup from the hellacious lows of losing it all. What once was special and gave us goosebumps will just as soon be the most painful memory, keeping us awake at night, morphing us into a version of ourselves we don't like and can't control. “His hand to take your hand is overmuch. / Too much to bear.” Brooks catapults us between the natural landscape of love and loss with a seamlessness that is a testament to her velvety smooth poetry. But even as her poetry itself is smooth, the subject matter is rife with bumps on our way down to the lowest point. Life is difficult in the shadows of love. Brooks warns us “You cannot look in his eyes / Because your pulse must not say / What must not be said.” Grown of pride, this declaration focuses on the body's ability to betray the heart. It could be something as simple as a lifted eyebrow, a forced smile, or a slow gulp for air. These are enough to say, in body language, what pride prohibits us from saying; we must not give any satisfaction to the source of our pain. It is macho (although not limited to men), it is stupid, and it is unavoidable. And to think just moments ago we knew the joyous nature of being in love. And to think we thought we were reading a poem about love and being touched “with a lighter hand.” Now, “When he / Shuts a door— / Is not there— / Your arms are water.” Just as love loosed us and allowed us inside the mind of the one we love, we are also loosed when love deserts us—our body, including our heart, exists beyond our control.

So what comes next? After highs and lows how do we rebound to a normal existence? Stuck within an emotional turbulence that we helped create, we “are free / with a ghastly freedom.” In this moment of the poem we are a millennium from the opening lines that laid out the beauty of being in love like a warm quilt covering our whole body on a snowy night. When Gwendolyn Brooks gave us the chance to be in love we took it, assuming and expecting it would be romantic. We didn't take into account the terrible aftermath of loss and the stages of love that none of us want to travel. Suddenly, we “are the beautiful half / Of a golden hurt.” My eyes fill with tears and my heart slows to its gentlest beating when I read that line. It touches me like few others I've ever read and it remains with me like those inexplicably persistent random memories from childhood. I'm overcome by the line's duality: soul-altering beauty and mind-shattering pain. Are we to “remember and covet his mouth, / to touch, to whisper on,” if doing so will blanket every millimeter of our bodies with dread? In that moment of utmost pain we very well might wish our pain out of existence, saying I wish this had never happened. I wish I'd never been in love. Once again we prove how foolish and prone to emotional swells we are. These words are not a spell reversing time, cleansing our hurt, and restoring our deep wounds to before they knew such sorrow. What these words represent is the ultimate lesson embedded in the middle of surprise: we admit defeat by love and that we want no more of it, still we live on in search of love. The process will begin for each of us again. This is an expectation, not a myth; not the “Column of Gold” but the “commonest ash.” Made of what is common, we earn and savor the touches of gold that come our way.

Monday, April 27, 2009

How Things Work - Gary Soto

HOW THINGS WORK



Today it's going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother's violin.
We're completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won't let go
Of a balled sock until there's chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.


--- Gary Soto


Gary Soto's How Things Work:

We have control over our attitudes, over how we approach each day, over how we interact with others, over how we exercise our minds and bodies. Certainly, we have some mechanisms of control in our lives, but these pale in comparison to the large bulk of unknowns each of us encounters. We don't have control over the price of milk or which way the tides roll. We can't control when the sun rises or when we will receive a letter from a friend. These, and many other, surprises appear in our lives and we must adapt. The adaptability of human beings is fairly underrated. Yes, we've all heard about how we resist change, but if we absolutely must make changes then we do it. The smoothness of these transitions are attributable to analytical skills. If we can see the bigger picture then we just might understand why changes need to be made and why we must be flexible. Gary Soto flexes these all-powerful analytical skills in his poem How Things Work, explaining to his daughter (and all of us readers) how the economy works on a very personal level. Thankfully Soto doesn't bog down in a detailed cost-benefit analysis or burden us with high economic jargon; he goes to the root of our human interactions with money, the necessities for survival and the items that make life livable.

From the very first line, Soto's tone is very matter-of-fact and confident in the poem's subject matter. “Today it's going to cost us twenty dollars / To live.” The items are compiled into a random list with their price tags trailing behind the poetic string of images. Taking the list as a whole—a softball, a book,coffee, sweet rolls, bus fare, rosin for his mother's violin— Soto gives us a rounded picture of who he is a person. It might not be fair, but we can draw certain assumptions based upon the purchases that someone makes. Soto avoids this venue for social debate and sticks within the confines of his poem. This is not to say that later in the poem Soto won't make a clear and powerful argument on socio-economic issues. For now, Soto keeps on track, simply stating “We're completing our task.” Still, Soto demonstrates how completing our tasks has unavoidable and far-reaching impacts. “The tip I left / For the waitress filters down / Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child.” In showing our inter-connectedness, Soto blends poetry with political thought, but unlike some blatant, in-your-face poems Soto's How Things Work is natural. Nothing in this poem seems forced or for effect and for that simple reason I've grown to love this poem.

How Things Work has one clear shift, coming near the poem's middle section. When Soto directly addresses his daughter, he makes readers privy to the reason that he cares about issues much larger than himself. He is not overbearing in his interpretation, instead telling his daughter and readers “As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this.” There's an acknowledgement in that statement that the upcoming ideas are based upon Soto's own experiences and, thus, could be limited. Even so, he doesn't lose much in self-assuredness, moving forward with his poetic-economic theory:

You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.

It makes perfect sense! See, poetry can explain even the most complex topics. I'm getting fired up right now just thinking about the other things poetry could explain and the problems poetry could solve. With poetry we have the control to break down the mysteries of the universe. All right, I might be getting a little carried away.

Soto's zig-zagging path of money takes us through indelible images, ending on a strangely aggressive movie where “laughter / Is thrown into their faces.” This is the one image in this poem that I struggle with. Is this a critique of modern, popular entertainment and it's skewed focus on poor people? Rather than answer that question I'll provide an alternate view: I'm reading too much into this image. The laughter could very well be thrown in their faces because the movie has a cheesy laugh track and doesn't allow viewers their own freedom to decide when they want to laugh. The forced laughter is not the poem's endpoint. Soto provides a few more examples of his poetic-economic theory: “If we buy goldfish, someone tries on a hat. / If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.” We cannot escape our connection with the well-being of our neighbors here and halfway around the world. I considered highlighting this poem earlier this month in my blog because it seemed apt with the state of our local, national, and global economy. I chose to save How Things Work for the end of the month because it provides a positive message in showing how simple and human our problems and solutions are. We hear commentators use large words about the economic meltdown and we hear them debate the merits of varying levels of bailouts. The words these knowledgeable and intelligent people use are nuanced to economic theory, they are designed to prescribe the climate within our economy, yet they serve to exclude, confuse, and complicate matters. Gary Soto has a large vocabulary and he very easily could have exercised it in How Things Work, but he didn't. He used control and restraint to achieve a bigger impact by reaching the largest audience possible. That's not to say he doesn't dazzle us with masterful poetic skill in this poem. Gary Soto uses poetry to explain how things work, to explain that ultimately “things just keep going. I guess.”

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eating Together - Li-Young Lee

EATING TOGETHER



In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

---Li-Young Lee



Li-Young Lee's Eating Together


I find it interesting to look at this poem with Li-Young Lee's Eating Alone. They are clearly different poems, and yet I feel, in some ways, they serve as companion pieces. We get the struggle of loneliness and loss full force in Eating Alone, while Eating Together has slivers of compassion and the family dynamic. Strangely enough, Eating Together is the poem that proves the necessity of sharing meals with others; the family gathers to eat in the aftermath of losing their patriarch. Lee's father, who we already know a good deal about from Eating Alone, makes more than a ghostly cameo in this poem. He is the powerful figure influencing their dining habits even after he's left the earth. That's a sure sign of someone who has left an impact!

“In the steamer is the trout / seasoned with slivers of ginger, / two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil. / We shall eat it with rice for lunch.” Well okay, Li-Young Lee has me hungry, anyone else? It's a straightforward description of a delicious meal. In reading these lines I can sense the precision in the food preparation. The exact number of sprigs of green onions, the carefully sliced slivers of ginger, the washed and cleaned trout. I also enjoy how Lee strongly calls us to the table: “We shall eat it with rice for lunch.” It's matter-of-fact and invites no questions, almost a father would say to his picky children. And who is being called to lunch? “Brothers, sister, my mother who will / taste the sweetest meat of the head.” Lee doesn't use fanciful adjectives or drawn-out phrases, but he still supplies readers with a clear picture of his family. We know there are a good amount of men in the family, as well as a lone sister. We know the hierarchy of the family, with the mother finding the sweetest meat, the most prized part of the meal, on her plate. And when she eats this meat the poem's hidden subject is revealed: her husband, the children's recently deceased father.

It is in the way that the mother eats her food that she invokes memories of her husband. “Holding it between her fingers / deftly, the way my father did / weeks ago.” Some people say that over time husbands and wives start to dress alike and they even start to look alike; maybe they start to eat alike as well. Lee has already shown us in his other poems that the littlest things can trigger much grander memories. His mother's eating habits are the launching pad for confronting the reality of the situation. They are gathered, as a family, to share a meal for one of the first times without an integral member of their family. In his absence they see his immense impact on themselves. Lee is careful not to go down that sentimental road, instead he steers the poem directly toward the father and away from his surviving family members. When Lee writes, “Then he lay down / to sleep like a snow-covered road / winding through pines older than him, / without any travelers, and lonely for no one,” he is giving his father a poetic burial, a eulogy that guides him through peaceful images to a final resting place. Certainly it is heartbreaking, and yet I can't help but see the blatant love in these lines. It is a love that sprouts from simple roots, just as the food they are sitting down to eat arrived on their plates. And this love was fostered in moments like the one they are sharing in this poem: all of them gathered together to eat and talk, to capture their days and commemorate the people and times they have lost.

Oops...I missed a day.

This weekend I made an out-of-town-trip. It was fantastic! I thought I had done all the preparation necessary to still post my blog remotely this weekend. Unfortunately, I ran into some technical difficulties that made it nearly impossible for me to post a blog entry on Saturday. As a result I am one day short on my blog entries for the month. To offset this shortcoming I will be posting one more entry on May 1st.

All the best,
Matt

Friday, April 24, 2009

Eating Alone - Li-Young Lee

EATING ALONE



I've pulled the last of the year's young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can't recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way—left hand braced
on knee, creaky—to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

---Li-Young Lee


Li-Young Lee's Eating Alone

Sharing meals with others is common practice for humans. So common, in fact, that eating alone carries a stigma of social awkwardness. Look at that guy at a table by himself—he must be lonely. Where is his family, his friends, anyone who knows and cares about him? Why has everyone deserted him? Alright, maybe I'm being a little melodramatic, but there definitely is a tendency to look at someone dining alone and consider that person to be unhappy and worthy of pity. If you can get over the initial weirdness of eating alone—lifting your head and putting down your fork to describe a funny moment from your day, only to realize there's no one there to listen—then you'll come to understand valuable lessons about yourself and life in general. You'll be better calibrated to your natural instincts and the routines that you follow, and in Li-Young Lee's case you'll recognize the ghosts of memory milling about in your life waiting for you to notice them.

Stacked upon each other like stones forming a rough wall, the images in the first stanza are unyielding and cold. “I've pulled the last of the year's young onions. / The garden is bare now.” His hands are in the farewell to the warmth and bounty of the growing season. He ushers this time of the year out with his final act of gardening. There is sorrow and loss in this is goodbye and our speaker seems to be unable to capture the things around him before they slip away. “What is left of the day flames / in the maples at the corner of my / eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.” Lee creates the blink-of-the-eye departure of the cardinal with a speedy and choppy sentence construction. The comma that separates “I turn” and “a cardinal vanishes” acts as a jump cut does in movies and television. The poem's speaker looks for signs of life—the cardinal, the day within the maple tree, the onions—yet when he senses they are with him he tries to acknowledge their presence and in doing so he scares them away.

Moving into memory, the second stanza takes us “years back” to a time when our speaker “walked beside” his father “among the windfall pears.” I must pause and mention how beautiful an image that is: father and young son walking together silently among pears blown from the tree limbs. With these lines, Lee has crafted a very photogenic scene within the poem. It is the father and son's togetherness that matters. Lee “can't recall” if they shared any words, but he does remember his father leaning down “to lift and hold to my / eye a rotten pear.” The little things we commit to memory are fascinating, how they remain in our minds even as we lose large and more traditionally useful pieces of information. This scene stuck with Lee because in the pear his father presented to him “a hornet / spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.” Like Lee at the end of the poem, the hornet was eating alone. He was intoxicated, possibly infuriated, by the pear, a lovely treat to satisfy his base urges.

“It was my father I saw this morning / waving to me from the trees.” We were with Lee in the morning, this was the poem's first stanza. He certainly appeared a little unnerved and spooked, but enough to have seen the ghost of his father? I'm not one for solving poems as if they are old fashioned capers—it's preposterous to believe that you must approach a poem like Sherlock Holmes. Still, I want to examine some of the possibilities in Lee's reflection that he saw him father in the morning. 1. He simply could have seen some thing or things that eerily reminded him of his father and he is taking it a step further to assume his father was with him. 2. His attempts to capture what was slipping away—the day, the cardinal, the remainders of the growing season—was actually an attempt to conjure his father. 3. He looks at the cardinal as his father. Just when he sees the bird it “vanishes.” 4. This one is similar to the first idea, but he is in the same place, same time of the year where he walked with his father and he can't escape his father's presence, feeling it still resides here and inside Lee. A fifth and final explanation comes later in the third stanza itself. “I almost / called to him, until I came close enough / to see the shovel, leaning where I had / left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.” Lee's father could have been a mirage; from afar Lee saw the shovel against the tree and believed it to be his father. All of these explanations illustrate the depth of emotion that this poem contains. As teachers are known to say, there is no right answer, but we can draw a conclusion: Lee misses his father, most of all when he is farming and eating the fruits of his labor. The tasty list of food that ends the poem is punctuated by a stinging self critique: “And my own loneliness. / What more could I, a young man, want.” Earlier I mentioned the merits of eating alone; Lee has discovered much about himself through eating alone. That doesn't mean he has to be happy with this discovery.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

To The Roman Forum --- Kenneth Koch

TO THE ROMAN FORUM



After my daughter Katherine was born
I was terribly excited
I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark
We—Janice, now Katherine, and I—were in Rome
(Janice gave birth at the international hospital on top of Trastevere)
I went down and sat and looked at the ruins of you
I gazed at them, gleaming in the half-night
And thought, Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.
While I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by
I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm—
I thought I'd look at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.
Next day I saw Janice and Katherine.
Here they are again and have nothing to do with you
A pure force swept through me another time
I am here, they are here, this has happened.
It is happening now, it happened then.


---Kenneth Koch


Kenneth Koch's To The Roman Forum

Without motive or expectation, without distortion or distinction, sincerity is fresh as the cool morning air. Sincerity is so difficult for some folks because it requires vulnerability, and thus it requires trust. Who is to say that in being sincere you'll not be taken advantage of, or judged, or made to feel bad about yourself? Fear of being sincere is rarely talked about, and yet it drives so many of us to create versions of ourselves that are fabricated, versions with stiff hearts that limit expressions of emotion, versions of ourselves that have built protection to weather the harsh cruelties that life, and our fellow humans, will most certainly supply us with. It takes courage and resolve to be sincere, to open yourself up to the world and to let others into the tender parts of yourself. Sincerity is natural early in life, and then it fades as a concurrent side effect of growing up, but some adults retain it. Kenneth Koch retained, and possibly rediscovered, his sincerity with the birth of his daughter Katherine. He documents this amazing moment in his life in his poem To The Roman Forum. Filled with overwhelming joy and attempting to digest the gravity of his new situation, Koch retreats for a respite at the ruins of the Roman Forum. His sincerity as he ponders what the moment means and what it will come to mean later in life is magical. I hope to someday have children and when those moments arrive in my life I also hope to have a moment to myself like Kenneth Koch does in this poem, a moment of wonder and serenity, and absolute sincerity.

Every time I read this poem I'm struck by how honest this poem is. You read the poem and feel like you're inside Kenneth Koch's brain, navigating the curves and straightaways of life with him. This unfettered access is a product of his sincerity. Pretty soon I'm going to get sick of using that word, sincerity, over and over again in this essay, but not yet. Koch is excited and honest in the first few lines of the poem, sharing with readers the root of his excitement (his daughter Katherine's birth) and how it made him feel and act (“I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark”). The espresso comment also serves to set up the poem's location, which we learn is Rome in the poem's next line. As if we are friends or family members, Koch informs us of the exact hospital and location where Janice, his wife, gave birth. We feel included and invited into this important event in the Koch family. It is such a personal event, but somehow Koch beckons us in without being showy or artificial. And we accept, moving with him to “the ruins of you,” Koch's clever way of linking the poem's title: To The Roman Forum. We might assume that the poem would be addressed to his wife or new daughter, but Koch addresses it to the ancient and crumbling Roman Forum. It is where his epiphany takes place and so this spot acquires a gigantic significance in his life. Koch gazes at the ruins “gleaming in the half night” as he thinks “Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.” Koch's is a special joy, a kind I've been told is without comparison.

The poem impresses me with a strong command of voice, so strong that Koch is able to transcend grammar within parts of the poem. The lines themselves are distinctly long at times and could easily use periods between them, but Koch does not utilize periods, instead allowing sentences early in the poem to exist as separate, yet linked entities. Where he really gets the voice thumping along is when Koch's sculptor friend passes by. The conversation they share is embedded within the poem without quotation marks or clearly delineated speech passages. Koch uses voice and sentence structuring to convey this conversation in a very clear manner. Take a second look at this passage within the poem, paying attention to how the short sentences imitate the pauses and the back-and-forth in this brief conversation:

I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm—
I thought I'd look at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.

Yes, he does mark of some of the spoken words with “said” as a way of attributing phrases to our two speakers in the conversation. Still, it's an impressively succinct way of writing this exchange with no cumbersome extra words or phrases. The end result is that this part of the poem moves fluidly into the end. After looking at the remains of the Roman Forum, Koch determines, as he returns to Janice and Katherine, that “they have nothing to do with you (Roman Forum).” He concludes “a pure force swept through me another time” and that there is immense personal and larger history in this place and this moment, that “I am here, they are here, this has happened. / It is happening now, it happened then.” Opening up in the last two lines is a daring way to end the poem. It shows Koch's new sense of vision, possibly gained in his reflective moment on becoming a father. He is casting out his net and hoping to tug in something to keep him in this moment, to retain the joy and love that have made this moment swell with warmth and amazement inside of him. His sincerity will collect the many pieces comprising this moment and carry them within him throughout the rest of his life. This is one of the positives of being sincere: with sincerity the moments of beauty you create will never escape you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Nightingale - Rose Auslander

MY NIGHTINGALE



My mother was a doe in another time.
Her honey-brown eyes
and her loveliness
survive from that moment.

Here she was---
half an angel and half humankind---
the center was mother.
When I asked her once what she would have wanted to be
she made this answer to me: a nightingale.

Now she is a nightingale.
Every night, night after night, I hear her
in the garden of my sleepless dream.

She is singing the Zion of her ancestors.
She is singing the long-ago Austria.
She is singing the hills and beech-woods
of Bukowina.
My nightingale
sings lullabies to me
night after night
in the garden of my sleepless dream.


---Rose Auslander



Rose Auslander's My Nightingale


Last night we looked at Dylan Thomas writing about his father; tonight we shift to Rose Auslander writing about her mother. Parents serve as emotionally charged and deeply reflective topics for poems. Besides giving us life, they infuse our lives with subtle characteristics that evolve significantly as we grow in mind and body. But Rose Auslander's My Nightingale is about more than a mother's continued presence, even after death, in her daughter's life. This poem came to me by way of Edward Hirsch's majestic Poet's Choice. Author of How To Read A Poem, and quite a talented poet, no one writes about poetry better than Edward Hirsch. Honestly, it's not even close. He is blessed with the ability to bring any poem—no matter how complex—to all people. The idea for my blog came after reading Edward Hirsch; I model my blog entries after the tightly written essays collected in Poet's Choice. Hirsch is a genuine student of poetry, searching every inch of the globe and trekking back deep in history to reveal great poems. His focus on women and war lead him to Rose Auslander and her poem My Nightingale, which Hirsch places on his “shortlist of the most radiant mid-twentieth century poems.” Who am I to argue with my idol, I agree.

What makes this poem radiant? The ghostly images that float through the poem bouncing from dreams to the harsh reality of WWII Germany. “My mother was a doe in another time.” Such a beautiful opening image. I see Auslander's mother as a doe stopping to lick the morning dew from grass in a fertile valley, even before “her honey-brown eyes / and her loveliness / survive from that moment.” The diction ending that first stanza is ominous; “survive from that moment” foreshadows tense times ahead. But first Auslander revisits memories to round out the description of her mother. “Half an angel and half humankind— / the center was mother.” The mother as a center is an idea that many of us can associate with. What Rose Auslander comes to find is that at her mother's center is “a nightingale.” This was the reply when Rose “asked her once what she would have wanted to be.” I find this answer to be very imaginative, almost with the unbridled imagination that children possess. As life goes on our minds fill with logic and statistics, striping the power of creativity from our minds and in its place inserting burdens. Just from that answer I know that Rose's mother was a fun woman.

“Now she is a nightingale. / Every night, night after night, I hear her / in the garden of my sleepless dream.” Beautifully haunting, those lines delicately combine conflicting images. Curiously, it is a dream that is sleepless and not a nightmare. Just as perplexing is the idea of a garden of sleepless dreams. Gardens, where life grows, has also become the spot where Auslander's mother resides as a nightingale. And just what is this nightingale singing? She is singing her family history and journeying through the sorrows that have befallen them, “singing the Zion of her ancestors.” These songs reverberate in Rose Auslander's garden of her sleepless dream. These songs keep her family alive. Sincere, yet strained with longing, these are not songs, Auslander terms them “lullabies.” But unlike lullabies putting children gently to sleep, these songs keep Rose Auslander awake. Now I see why her dreams are sleepless; who amongst us would be able to sleep with our deceased mother singing to us “every night, night after night.”

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night - Dylan Thomas

DO NOT GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT



Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


--- Dylan Thomas


Dylan Thomas' Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Take a guess at the year this poem was written? 1865, 1910, 1727, 1643...For those of you who cheated and googled Dylan Thomas to get the answer you already know that all of those guesses are incorrect. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night was published fifty-seven years ago in 1952, a year before Thomas himself would “rage against the dying of the light” and succumb to alcohol poisoning on the streets of New York City. I mention the year to show that this poem really wasn't written that long ago, although formally the poem is much older. Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is a villanelle—a poetic form originating in 16th century France. Last year in this blog I wrote about another of my favorite villanelles, Elizabeth Bishop's One Art. The villanelle is without a doubt the most difficult poetic form to pull off with conviction and sincerity. Requiring multiple refrains, the villanelle operates on a strict scale of repetition and rhyme. The initial stanza sets the poem's groundwork, with the first and third lines not only rhyming, but serving as refrains throughout the rest of the poem. The second line in the initial stanza is also integral to the poem's design, with its end word providing the rhyming template for all other second lines in the poem. If all of this poetic shop-talk is confusing and you're a visual learner take a look above at the poem we're focusing on today. Dylan Thomas is not necessarily a poet I'd associate with formal mastery, but Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is a flawless villanelle, both for its formal components and the overwhelming emotional buttons it pushes with an unrivaled ferocity.

Dylan Thomas wrote “My poetry is, or should be, useful to me for one reason: it is the record of my individual struggle from darkness towards some measure of light.” Certainly there's plenty of darkness and light in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Right off the bat we learn this poem is about the close of life, a time when “Old age should burn and rave at close of day.” Thomas does not preach an easing into the afterlife; his philosophy, before all is said and done, will apply to wise men, good men, wild men, grave men, and the one man this poem is explicitly for, Thomas' own father. The poet has the same message for all of these people: “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Keeping in mind what Thomas had to say about his poetry, I can't help but believe this poem is not only his struggle with the impending loss of his father, but also his realization of his own mortality.

Examining the types of folks who Thomas invokes will help us to better understand the ideas that drive Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. First we have the wise men, who “at their end know dark is right.” They have the vision to know that the end is coming and their power to change the result is insignificant. But “because their words had forked no lightning they / Do not go gentle into that good night.” The good men lament “how bright / their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay.” They see their lives in terms of the nature's beauty and the cycles of the sea, but like the wise men before them they “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Of course the wild men will fight their fate; heck, they even “caught and sang the sun in flight.” What a massive undertaking that would be! But this strength is tempered by knowledge arriving “too late” in life and so they too “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Even the grave men, who already have their thoughts shifting to death and “see with blinding sight,” they “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” These men are indicative of different temperaments and stages in life, yet they all approach the end of life with the same passionate attempt to squeeze every last moment, to prolong the one life they each have. And prolonging life is exactly what Thomas implores his father to do in the final stanza. Even if he can't do the impossible and live on through the dire stages of illness, Thomas wants his father to fight, to “curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.” It might be selfish because he cannot imagine a world without his father and it might be a futile pep talk to an already weakened man, but Thomas takes an all-too-real situation that each of us will face and filters it through poetry to create one of the most impassioned and forceful poems in the history of the English language.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Loneliness - Tomas Transtromer

LONELINESS

I.

One evening in February I came near to dying here.
The car skidded sideways on the ice, out
on the wrong side of the road. The approaching cars---
their lights---closed in.

My name, my girls, my job
broke free and were left silently behind
further and further away. I was anonymous
like a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.

The approaching traffic had huge lights.
They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew---there was space in them---
they grew big as hospital buildings.

You could almost pause
and breathe out for a while
before being crushed.

Then a hold caught: a helping grain of sand
or a wonderful gust of wind. The car broke free
and scuttled smartly right over the road.
A post shot up and cracked---a sharp clang---it
flew away in the darkness.

Then---stillness. I sat back in my seat-belt
and saw someone coming through the whirling snow
to see what had become of me.


II.

I have been walking for a long time
on the frozen Ostergotland fields.
I have not seen a single person.

In other parts of the world
there are people who are born, live and die
in a perpetual crowd.

To be always visible---to live
in a swarm of eyes---
a special expression must develop.
Face coated with clay.

The murmuring rises and falls
while they divide up among themselves
the sky, the shadows, the sand grains.

I must be alone
ten minutes in the morning
and ten minutes in the evening.
---Without a program.

Everyone is queuing for everyone else.

Many.

One.


---Tomas Transtromer, translated by Robin Fulton


Tomas Transtromer's Loneliness

There is something to be said for the unexpected. Experiences and instincts are often reliable and because of this reliability when a surprise arises we are unsure of the situation. What we know to be true is proven false. This might lead us to doubt ourselves and question the world around us. When the unexpected occurs in a poem it can be disorienting, but it can also be refreshing. Tomas Transtromer's poetry is riddled with the unexpected. Characterized by jolts of imagination, Transtromer's images are more unique than any other poet I've ever read. The similes and metaphors that populate Loneliness are fitting examples of Transtromer's startling sense of comparison. The unexpected lives quite naturally within the poetry of Tomas Transtromer; how else could we explain a poem about loneliness, a state associated with sorrow and deprivation, that ultimately shows how life is lacking without time spent by ourselves.

Loneliness is a poem of two distinct parts. The first section describes a frightening near-death car accident: “One evening in February I came near to dying here.” Through this viewpoint, the poem's speaker is alone with his mortality. This version of loneliness, in which the speaker finds himself powerless, is terrifying. “The approaching traffic had huge lights” and as it closes in on our speaker we clearly come to identify these cars as agents of death. On a more elementary and nostalgic level Transtromer compares the speaker's situation to being “a boy in a playground surrounded by enemies.” How this fear is articulated is one example of Transtromer's gift with crafting wondrous similes and metaphors. With the lights of the fast charging cars upon him, our speaker is alone in his fight to steady himself and his own automobile. He jerks the wheel “in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.” Comparing the fine line of life and death to something as delicate as an egg white is amazing, but the simile acquires its genius when we realize that the egg white comes from an egg. He's taken this fear over death and aligned it with the flimsy center of something meant to give new life. How wonderful is that? It's such a deft touch that we almost feel an unexpected calm in our speaker's moment of disarray. But our speaker feels this as well, admitting that “you could almost pause / and breathe out for a while / before being crushed.” And just as it appears our speaker is destined for a horrible fate, “a helping grain of sand / or a wonderful gust of wind,” something minuscule allows the car to break free and “scuttle smartly right over the road.” This section, which documents the horrible alone that we face at the end of our lives, concludes with our speaker in a trance of “stillness” and bystanders braving the “whirling snow / to see what had become of me.”

The second section of the poems flips the coin to show readers an utterly different side of the same emotional state. Loneliness is not laced with fear in this part of the poem, but instead it focuses and centers our speaker. He needs time alone to become the best version of himself. Transtromer begins the section by taking a walk through desolate frozen fields where he has “not seen a single person.” It would seemingly be a desolate loneliness, but as we learned earlier Transtromer loves to splash the unexpected in his poems. He tells us “In other parts of the world / there are people who are born, live and die / in a perpetual crowd.” This sincere stanza reverses the poem's tone. Where others would have been a great comfort to our speaker in the first part of the poem, now they are “a swarm of eyes.” Away from “the murmuring,” Transtromer declares that he “must be alone / ten minutes in the morning / and ten minutes in the evening. ---Without a program.” He wants to break from the “many” to find his himself as “one.” It is a simple desire vested in the clarity that accompanies simplicity. He seeks out his loneliness, viewing time spent with himself and no one else as sustenance.

So what are we to think of loneliness? Tomas Transtromer has given us two opposing views, both presented with imagination, emotion, and sincerity. Our expectations have been toyed with and if you're like me you're scratching your head. I'm not sure we are meant to decide on one part of the poem as being superior to the other. Instead, I'm comfortable thinking that Transtromer intended to show the complexity of loneliness, to surprise us yet again by proving that it's more than an emotion of sadness and longing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Twenty One Love Poems, Poem #2 - Adrienne Rich

TWENTY-ONE LOVE POEMS

II.

I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.
Much earlier, the alarm broke us from each other,
you've been at your desk for hours. I know what I dreamed:
our friend the poet comes into my room
where I've been writing for days,
drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere,
and I want to show her one poem
which is the poem of my life. But I hesitate,
and wake. You've kissed my hair
to wake me. I dreamed you were a poem,
I say, a poem I wanted to show someone...
and I laugh and fall dreaming again
of the desire to show you to everyone I love,
to move openly together
in the pull of gravity, which is not simple,
which carries the feathered grass a long way down the upbreathing air.

---Adrienne Rich



Adrienne Rich's Twenty-One Love Poems, Poem II

Since the inception of poetry there have been a handful of topics poets have gravitated towards, foremost among them love. It makes perfect sense, right? Not only have pop-songs and happily-ever-after romances indoctrinated us into the world of love-conquers-all, but if we're blessed enough to have a caring family when we enter this world then we are very quickly introduced to the transformative beauty of love. It takes a brave soul to write a love poem. Trying to capture something as restless and free-spirited as love seems like an impossible task at first glance, yet throughout history some of the best pieces of writing, including poems, have been motivated by love. Adrienne Rich's second poem in her sequence Twenty-One Love Poems is another link in the astounding chain of love poetry, a chain that includes Shakespeare, Whitman, and, without a doubt, Pablo Neruda. Rich's contribution is all her own: part ars-poetica, part love poem.

“I wake up in your bed. I know I have been dreaming.” This straightforward first line of the poem includes a few things worth focusing on. Rarely is the impact of a single word on a whole poem as visible as Rich's usage of “up” in this initial sentence. 'I wake in your bed' is a quick moving way to begin the poem, almost hurried. This start also evokes a somewhat archaic tone, a voice that echoes long ago. “I wake up in your bed,” might not seem much different, but the inclusion of the word “up” has positive connotations. These good vibes stretch to the next sentence where “dreaming” represents a wonderful way to usher in a new day. But there was a separation of these two lovers “much earlier” when “the alarm broke” them from sleep and “each other.” The lover of the poem's speaker has been at “a desk for hours,” working through the early morning, while the speaker dreams love through the lens of poetry. She has been “writing for days” when their friend, the poet, “comes into the room.” This room is a beautiful in a way that only a writer can appreciate: “drafts, carbons, poems are scattered everywhere.” This is pretty much the opposite of writer's block. Amongst this mess of productivity, there is a single poem that our speaker wants to show off. She declares “it is the poem of my life.” And just when she is poised to give this lifework up to an audience, she freezes, or as Rich puts it “But I hesitate, / and wake.” At this moment when a personal triumph is averted by fear, notice that Rich's speaker doesn't “wake up,” instead she “wake(s).” That might be the best piece of evidence for the point that I began this paragraph with.

Awakened by kisses, our speaker tells her beloved “I dreamed you were a poem, / a poem I wanted to show someone...” For most poets, the idea of displaying a poem in its early form is terrifying. We want to polish up the rough edges before unleashing it on the world. It's motivated somewhat by ego; we don't want anyone to think less of us or our writing ability because of a poem released prematurely. And it's also motivated by a quest for perfection: the perfect word, the perfect voice, the perfect line break and form. We believe that if we pour all of ourselves into writing and revising a poem that our sweat will earn a tiny taste of that perfection we're striving for. I'm not saying any of these ideas are right, but to better understand the actions of Rich's speaker it is important to note these things. When she wants to show this poem of her lover to someone it is an astounding tribute of love. From laughter she returns to dreams, but now that she has confronted the truth of her feelings she can elucidate them further. She has “the desire to show you (her lover) to everyone I love, / to move openly together / in the pull of gravity.” The weight that accompanies gravity “is not simple,” as Rich's speaker acknowledges, but she commits to this undertaking. It's a commitment built by love, an emotion as natural as “the feathered grass” and “the upbreathing air.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

This Is How Memory Works - Patricia Hampl

THIS IS HOW MEMORY WORKS



You are stepping off a train.
A wet blank night, the smell of cinders.
A gust of steam from the engine swirls
around the hem of your topcoat, around
the hand holding the brown leather valise,
the hand that, a moment ago, slicked back
the hair and then put on the fedora
in front of the mirror with the beveled
edges in the cherrywood compartment.

The girl standing on the platform
in the Forties dress
has curled her hair, she has
nylon stockings---no, silk stockings still.
Her shoulders are touchingly military,
squared by those shoulder pads
and a sweet faith in the Allies.
She is waiting for you.
She can be wearing a hat, if you like.

You see her first.
That's part of the beauty:
you get the pure, eager face,
the lyrical dress, the surprise.
You can have the steam,
the crowded depot, the camel's-hair coat,
real leather and brass clasps on the suitcase;
you can make the lights glow with
strange significance, and the black cars
that pass you are historical yet ordinary.

The girl is yours,
the flowery dress, the walk
to the streetcar, a fried egg sandwich
and a joke about Mussolini.
You can have it all:
you're in that world, the only way
you'll ever be there now, hired
for your silent hammer, to nail pictures
to the walls of this mansion
made of thinnest air.

---Patricia Hampl


Patricia Hampl's This Is How Memory Works

Each of us has moments that we'd like to live again, moments where all facets of life join in a seamless communion providing a scintillating taste of perfection. We live through monotonous days and struggle through sorrow's depths for the moments we'd like to live again. Of course, some of these banner moments are inherently tied to large accomplishments and achievements: graduations, weddings, births, job opportunities. Yes, these events are tremendous and noteworthy, but we can see them coming; there's prior warning. I'm partial to the moments that arrive unexpectedly like a forgotten ten dollar bill in the pocket of an old coat. With a tinge of mystery, the instant when all things converge into one is beyond any description I could offer. Instead of analyzing the moment with incisive language, Patricia Hampl's This Is How Memory Works takes readers into the moment. She equips us with the little details that we seem to remember, even as we wonder why we remember them. Hampl makes it clear that memory is fluid and we have the vision to look into our past and breath life back into it, plucking out the glances, the spoken words, and the everlasting emotion. As we learn in This Is How Memory Works, “You can have it all: / you're in that world,” but are memories completely adequate in transporting us back to the original moment, do they give us all of that world?

From the get-go, we are in the moment. It's not an “I” character in the poem, but a second person “you.” This empowers the reader to become the poem's main character. It is a tremendously forceful, although somewhat dangerous way to begin the poem. By making this decision to thrust readers into the poem, Hampl must fully immerse us in the place and time. She does this quite skillfully with sensory specifics. She has us notice “the smell of cinders” and “a gust of steam from the engine swirls / around the hem of your topcoat.” From holding a “brown leather valise” to slicking back “the hair and then put(ting) on the fedora,” our hand becomes a focus. We, as readers, are given tasks that we just performed. We are given possessions, a “mirror with the beveled / edges in the cherrywood compartment.” It is not a mirror with beveled edges, but it is a mirror with the beveled edges---a specific mirror that has some significance to us. Some readers might this sly and want to rebel against being molded into a character by the poet, but Hampl makes it work. She sells out (that's a compliment) and doesn't even think about going back.

After the first stanza plunks us into our character, the second stanza begins to establish the parameters of this moment. We come to see why this memory is special and remains with us. There is a “girl standing on the platform / in the Forties dress.” We remember details about her clothes, although it doesn't come easily: “she has / nylon stockings---no, silk stockings still.” The time and place become an even larger area of emphasis, with the train station looming as a site of reunion. Knowing we're in the forties and with mentions of her “sweet faith in the Allies,” the puzzle pieces are finding their grooves quite nicely. Hampl delivers the line “She is waiting for you” almost as sweeping final brush stroke. Our character is a man, presumably a soldier returning from WWII, to the woman he loves. Because it is a memory saved over years, we might also assume the woman would turn out to be the love of this man's life. That is certainly not fact, but there are hints to lead us in that direction. Another important line is the second stanza's final line: “She can be wearing a hat, if you like.” Hampl is issuing a directive that some of the details in memories are up to us, that we can shift them to our liking, that truth is contained in the essence of the moment, not in the minutiae. I struggle with this idea, particularly because it was the sensory details in the first stanza that pressed us into our character.

With all of the set-up out of the way, we arrive at the moment in the third stanza. It's written in such a way that I see it clear as a scene on a towering movie screen. “You see her first” triggers the man to stand tall and peer through the crowds until he spots her. This right here is the moment, how he gets a glance of her before she realizes. We're allowed into this moment he owns, realizing with him that his private view of the woman he loves, seeing her first, well “that's part of the beauty: / you get the pure, eager face, / the lyrical dress, the surprise.” I'm in awe of these lines and how they simply and wholly capture a once-in-a-lifetime moment; Hampl does a superb job writing this memory back to life. And because of the moment's importance in our character's life, he remembers the quotidian elements surrounding him: “the steam, / the crowded depot, the camel's-hair coat, / real leather and brass clasps on the suitcase.” It is his memory; if he wants he “can make the lights glow with / strange significance.” The lights are already lit, but he (and we as readers) can decide if they take on some lasting meaning. It's almost impossible to believe, but we have some control over our memories.

The poem concludes with a focus on this idea of control over our memories. “The girl is yours” and “you can have it all: you're in that world.” Still, whatever control we have over our memories is inconsequential. We can alter some of the minor details or draw conclusions about how something small was ultimately a symbol of things to come. This is the equivalent of sending a soldier off to war with a bee-bee gun. Largely powerless and ornamental, “the only way / you'll ever be there now” is in the necessary task of remembering so as not to forget. Hampl has us take a “silent hammer” and “nail pictures / to the walls of this mansion / made of thinnest air.” It's a fitting metaphor to end the poem: memory pictures within the house of our minds.

When you strip everything extraneous away it's not a question of if memories can take us back to those joyous moments that passed by like moon rockets, but more so it's a question of if we have anything else at our disposal. There is nothing I know of besides memories that allows us to relive events gone by. And as we age, even our memories that we hold tight become frayed around the edges, discolored and disfigured at certain parts. It's been said before, but I'll say it again: no one is immune to time. Knowing this, we embrace what we do have: the majestic bittersweet construct of memory.

Friday, April 17, 2009

His Running My Running - Robert Francis

HIS RUNNING MY RUNNING


Mid-autumn late autumn
At dayfall in leaf-fall
A runner comes running.

How easy his striding
How light his footfall
His bare legs gleaming.

Alone he emerges
Emerges and passes
Alone, sufficient.

When Autumn was early
Two runners came running
Striding together

Shoulder to shoulder
Pacing each other
A perfect pairing.

Out of leaves falling
Over leaves fallen
A runner comes running

Aware of no watcher
His loneness my loneness
His running my running.

---Robert Francis


Robert Francis' His Running My Running

Lately I've become prone to hitting the snooze button once or twice each morning. This means that I eat up precious minutes with extra snippets of sleep. Twelve minutes, hit the snooze, then another twelve minutes. Before I know it the time I'd allotted to my morning run is completely gone. It's a damn shame when this happens. Scientific studies have proven that morning exercise stimulates us and improves our moods, giving us energy for the rest of the day. When I'm not lazy I roll from bed, get dressed, grab my Ipod, and lace up my running shoes. Pitch black and stiffly cold, I shake, stretch, and then launch myself into the morning, pounding one foot after the other. Running is therapeutic, allowing me to erase whatever happened before and whatever will happen later. It is time reserved strictly for myself and sometimes, when running, I feel perfectly in-sync with who I am and who I want to be. This connectedness is built upon rhythm. Just as a poet seeks out rhythm in combinations of words, so does a runner search for their natural rhythm. Robert Francis knew this well, sharing the rhythm of writing and running in his poem His Running My Running.

It's tough to read this poem and overlook the form. Francis is noted for his tight and precise poems, often driven by natural rhythms. In His Running My Running, Francis repeats not only words within the same line (Mid-autumn late autumn / At dayfall in leaf-fall), but he also creates lines with repetitive sequences of syllables and stresses (How easy his striding / How light his footfall / His bare legs gleaming). The repetition of words and phrases combines with the sporadic end rhymes to form a loose, yet concentrated structure. This structure mirrors the whole body engaged in the cycle of running: churning legs, pounding feet, heavily beating heart, contracting lungs, fuzzy head, spasming muscles. I'm not going out on any limbs here, but I believe Francis intended the poem to read like a good, long run: rising and falling repeatedly, balanced and measured, but as a whole one long breath, in then out.

In Francis' portrayal, running is not a social activity. The runner at the center of the poem “Emerges and passes / Alone, and sufficient.” In this accomplishment there is not a sense of joy, but a subtle pride. The runner doesn't seek out others, but instead settles into solitude and in this state finds satisfaction. It wasn't always this way. The poem's speaker, the lone runner, reminds us “ When Autumn was early / Two runners came running / Striding together / Shoulder to shoulder / Pacing each other / A perfect pairing.” I find it very interesting that Francis drops this “pairing” just as soon as they are introduced. They've unexpectedly been separated without explanation, yet they exist together in memory. He's created the mystery of the runner's partner and where this integral person has disappeared to, why this person has disappeared leaving our runner alone.

Ultimately, the poem returns to the lone runner “Aware of no watcher.” The poem's speaker sees so much of himself in this lone runner: “His loneness my loneness / His running my running.” Their kinship is remarkable. They share the poem's rhythm, a rhythm we previously established as emblematic of the act of running. I see how a poet could equate writing and crafting a poem to running. Both are lonely activities completed in solitude, but with the world all around you. Both bring you close to others---whether it is your audience, fans, or other poets and runners---only to pull you back to your own private world. And both activities are invigorating, stirring your consciousness so that you, alone, consider the largest issues: how far you can go, what you can sustain, all that you are capable of, and if you've made the impossible possible. Yes, poets and runners are the same breed and maybe we didn't need Robert Francis to illustrate this for us in His Running My Running, but I'm sure glad that he did.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

We Are Virginia Tech - Nikki Giovanni

WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH


We Are Virginia Tech. We are sad today and we will be sad for quite a while…We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning. We are Virginia Tech.

We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly. We are brave enough to bend to cry. And sad enoughto know we must laugh again. We are Virginia Tech.

We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it. But neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS. Neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory. Neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water. Neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy. We are Virginia Tech.

The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open hearts and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think, and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibilities.

We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies!

We will …prevail! We will prevail! We will prevail! WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH

---Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni's Speech We Are Virginia Tech


It's hard to believe it's been two years. Two whole years since that bleak and numbing April day. In my line of work I've read thousands of essays by high schoolers trying to describe the most important event in their lives. Often these students describe a painful loss, and yet they struggle to go beyond the obvious. I can't fault them. Suffering an unexpected and unwanted loss paralyzes us. We feel angry; we feel the world is unfair; we feel God wronged us; we feel hopeless; we feel powerless; we feel unbearable sadness; we feel guilt; we feel unsure about what we thought to be true. Having our beliefs tested is one of the things that makes us human. That might be a pessimistic view of life, but at some point each of us will arrive at a moment where what we believed---the central tenants of the way we have lived our lives---will be shattered. In the aftermath, there is no shortage of things to analyze and dissect. After all the stages of grieving have taken their course we are left with ourselves and what we believe.

I'm not going to break down Professor Giovanni's speech as a poem. It's more than a poem, so much more. Clearly, she wrote as a poet, threading metaphors and similes, listening to her language, digging for difficult images, and crafting a resounding and stirring refrain. But I can't dissect this piece of writing. What she wrote about is personal; what she wrote about is me. I am Virginia Tech, and I know thousands of folks who that phrase applies to. Together, we are Virginia Tech. And all of us that are a part of this global community, stretching far beyond our beloved Blacksburg, needed her words two years ago. I've never seen the power of the written word, the power of poetry, like I did in Professor Giovanni's speech. What courage and strength it took to speak for our whole community, to remind us in a line echoing Whitman that “we are better than we think, and not quite what we want to be.” For those out there who believe poetry is dying, notice that Professor Giovanni, a poet, delivered her words and coaxed our community to feel pride and togetherness, to remember who we were and what we were together capable of. It's often said, sometimes in a derogatory manner, that poets are dreamers---Let it also be said that when tragedy strikes, poets summarize our grief so that it might be just a little more manageable, and as Professor Giovanni showed us, poets reignite and galvanize our ability to dream.

This past weekend I was in Blacksburg for Easter. Mass was held in the Commonwealth Ballroom in Squires Student Center. Walking around before mass, I went from one glass case to the next, all containing items relating to April 16th 2007. It was a museum of sorts to the tragedy: to the people we lost, to the people who worked to save lifes, to the people who lost someone, to the students, to the faculty, to the staff, to the alumni, to the whole Virginia Tech community. There were quilts. There were beautiful, life-like drawings and painting of all 32 victims. There were cards and banners with supportive wishes and words from around the globe. The only thing I could think as I walked from “exhibit” to “exhibit” was this: I don't know that we'll ever heal, and I'm not sure this isn't how it's supposed to be. I can only speak for myself, and I am just one of many Hokies, but I wonder if it still hurts and it will always hurt because if we completely heal then we might be susceptible to forgetting. To forget the tragic event itself would not be a bad thing, but to forget the people we lost---the shining examples of why our community is so special---well, that would be a travesty. We continue to invent the future and we prevail in so many ways, but these tasks will forever be in-progress. Without a conclusion in sight, not wanting to conclude, we remember and we repeat “We are Virginia Tech.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kevin Young - Boasts

BOASTS


Wouldn’t be no fig leaf
if I was Adam

but a palm tree.

* * *

Once I danced all
night, till dawn

& I---who never
did get along---

decided to call a truce---
my body

buckets lighter,
we shook hands

& called it blues.

* * *

Mama, I’m the man
with the most

biggest feet---
when I step out

my door to walk the dog
round the block

I’m done.


---Kevin Young


Kevin Young's Boasts


It was time for humor on this blog and with Boasts Kevin Young gives us a few reasons to laugh. Last year I focused on how Kevin Young builds an emotional charge, while also rhythmically building the blues in his poem Song Of Smoke. This year we get to see that same rhythmic skill on display, but Young compliments it by flexing his comedic muscles. A boastful and boisterous speaker bombards readers with tales of his physical prowess. It's up to readers to decide how reliable our speaker is in this poem, but it's also up to readers to decide if that really matters. Honestly, would you enjoy this poem any less if you knew the speaker was essentially talking himself up? Boasts is a great example of a poem that doesn't require deep analysis or prodding at hidden meanings to enjoy. All you have to do to enjoy this poem is read it, preferably aloud; trust me, it's a poem that begs to be read aloud. I dare you to read this poem out loud and not break into the cocky voice that Kevin Young so clearly equipped this poem with.

Any doubt about what type of poem Boasts is going to be is answered in the first three lines. “Wouldn't be no fig leaf / if I was Adam / but a palm tree.” Oh, so that's how it's gonna be. I see. The brash voice is unavoidable, and yet it has a strangely attractive quality to it. Not only is the voice blatantly witty and funny, but I find myself attracted to the voice (and the poem) because it's inherently insecure. If these boasts are true then why toot your own horn? Without attention and validation from others, our speaker is not fulfilled. Sure this is shallow, but aren't we all on some level. That human quality grounds the speaker for me, even as he tries so hard to distinguish himself from everyone else.

Showmanship in music is common, especially in the blues, where a level of mystery and mythology validates blues musicians. I've read a fair amount of articles and book chapters about Robert Johnson, WC Handy, Son House, and plenty of other early blues musicians and I can't tell you what in their pasts was truth and what was invented. Besides having funky nicknames, it seems you had to have a murky past to be a good bluesman. Kevin Young allows the speaker in Boasts to create his own past:

Once I danced all
night, till dawn

& I---who never
did get along---

decided to call a truce---
my body

buckets lighter,
we shook hands

& called it blues.

Internal strife and battling oneself is not a foreign concept to the blues, although such struggle is normally preceded by longing for a woman or booze. In this case, Kevin Young steers his speaker clear of those time honored blues instigators. The culprit instead seems to be good old fashioned hubris. A night of challenging himself to dance on through the pain, exhaustion, and “buckets” of sweat ultimately ends in a “truce” that places our speaker on the same level as the almighty blues. To some blues purists this might sound heretical, but to me it appears Young's speaker is offering a tribute to the form.

After a moment of admiration through immersion, the blues gives way to the boasts that led the poem off. Our speaker returns to declaring the dominance of his physical features: “Mama, I’m the man / with the most / biggest feet---” You don't say? Well good for you speaker, but there's got to be some reason Kevin Young has you telling us that, making it nearly impossible to read this poem and not become distracted by the sexual innuendos. The reason for these sexual boasts about his decidedly male body part comes into focus with the poem's very abrupt ending. So this is just my theory and please feel free to disagree with me, but I'm convinced that the end of the poem is Kevin Young's very clever way of metaphorically simulating premature...well let's just say performance. I think you catch my drift. After all these boasts about his parts, the speaker reaches the brief poem's conclusion and ends with a final “I'm done.” Nothing more, just that. Even if it was unintentional of his part, Kevin Young links the poem's form and subject matter in a uniquely human way. I know that the last metaphor about walking the dog around the block could be viewed differently, but I've presented my case and I'm sticking to it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dorothy Parker - Resume

RESUME


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.


---Dorothy Parker


Dorothy Parker's Resume


As we approach the middle of the second year of my National Poetry Month blog I'm beginning to notice myself evolving as a blogger. One thing in particular is bothering me: how long will I be able to keep this going. Sure, I have enough poems to write about to complete this year and I probably have enough to start next year's blog, but what about after that? At what point will I run out of poems that I consider to be my favorites? When will I start including poems that I kinda sorta like, poems that I'd halfheartedly check the “YES” box to if a note was passed my way during class asking if I'd read them? Thankfully that's a problem for another day. Today's problem is no less complex: as I write this essay that will eventually delve into Dorthy Parker's Resume, I'm wondering about your expectations, as an audience, for these daily blog entries. Do you expect to log on and be greeted with a poem you've never read before? Do you expect my analysis to unlock the essence of the poem for you? Do you hope that I'll write less about the technical side of poetry and more about the emotional side?

At some point all artists wonder about their audience and this can be a very dangerous thing. Breaking it down to the ground level, I'm not painfully worried about the questions I posed in the previous paragraph. I know what's at the heart of this blog; I know the reasons I'm writing these essays. Part of me feels like it's a cop-out to choose Resume or The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock because they are enormously famous poems with loads already written about them. If you're expecting something original from my blog and you see one of those poems featured you might be disappointed. At the same time, these poems are very, very good; that's why they're in countless anthologies and that's why they're being studied in classrooms all over the world as I type this very sentence. I might not always unearth the newest, grandest poem for you. In fact, I might issue some poems you've read a handful of times, poems you consider to be stale and unimaginative. In that case, I hope I've done enough over the course of the blog's history to implore you to read on, if for no other reason than to understand why I have a crush on the poem.

In the mold of intelligent, quick-thinkers like Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker had a way with turning witty phrases. Books have been filled with her quotable words, spoken and written alike. I'm fascinated by Wilde, Twain, Parker, and thinkers like them; their brains seem wired to snap out phrases that will resonate into eternity. In our modern world of press conferences and pre-written statements anyone can be made to sound articulate and moderately smart, but still only a select few rise above with effortless and natural responses. Dorothy Parker was one of those originals and, although it's a poem that could have been revised thoroughly before publication, what we have with Resume is eight lines of tightly constructed rhymes, powerful images, and one witty and startling turn at the end.

There's an unfortunate tradition of suicide among poets. The list is so long in fact that I'm afraid I could fill a whole page with talented poets who left the world by their own hands. I'm not sure why poets have seemingly been more prone to mental illness and depression than other careers. Surely someone has studied this trend and written about it before. I'd be willing to bet that Dorothy Parker is one of the first people to write a good poem about suicide with gallows humor. She takes the topic of suicide and dissects it by examining the deficiencies of all the ways a person can kill himself or herself. Some of her reasons are logical: “Razors pain you,” while others are far-fetched: “Rivers are damp” and “Guns aren't lawful” (why exactly would a woman who wants to kill herself care about the legality of it all or that she might get a little wet?). In reality, the first and last lines of the poem might be the most logical, while the others in between are where the absurdity accumulates. Dorothy seems to be asserting what's the point in forcing death to come, when it will naturally come for us some day.

Taking a closer look at the technical aspects of the poem illuminates why this poem works so well. Obviously the poem is very ordered with end rhymes, syllables counts, and subject then verb lines. The stiffness of the form could easily make the poem itself seem stiff, but Parker avoids this fate by infusing voice and pace into the poem. A driving pace moves the poem through the list of ways to kill yourself, ultimately reaching a final line that makes the poem brilliant and brings to light the poem's voice at the same time. Before “You might as well live,” the poem is a puzzling list of harmful agents, but with that final line everything ties together. It is the cliched missing piece. Read the poem without the final line and you have nothing but a depressing list of ways to kill yourself. Knowing that the final line is key to the whole poem, let's look a little closer at the key to the final line: “might.” You might as well live. It's not you “have” to live or you “must” live. It's not a passionate call to live; instead, it's a nonchalant, almost indifferent resignation. Since you've got nothing else better to do and since the alternative is downright hideous, well, I guess you might as well live. It's a very sly bit of reverse psychology on Dorothy Parker's part, the same type of sly wit that characterized her entire writing and speaking career.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What The Chairman Told Tom - Basil Bunting

WHAT THE CHAIRMAN TOLD TOM


Poetry? It's a hobby.
I run model trains.
Mr Shaw there breeds pigeons.

It's not work. You don't sweat.
Nobody pays for it.
You could advertise soap.

Art, that's opera; or repertory―
The Desert Song.
Nancy was in the chorus.

But to ask for twelve pounds a week―
married, aren't you?―
you've got a nerve.

How could I look a bus conductor
in the face
if I paid you twelve pounds?

Who says it's poetry, anyhow?
My ten year old
can do it and rhyme.

I get three thousand and expenses,
a car, vouchers,
but I'm an accountant.

They do what I tell them,
my company,
What do you do?

Nasty little words, nasty long words,
it's unhealthy.
I want to wash when I meet a poet.

They're Reds, addicts,
all delinquents.
What you write is rot.

Mr Hines says so, and he's a schoolteacher,
he ought to know.
Go and find work.

---Basil Bunting


Basil Bunting's What The Chairman Told Tom


Ezra Pound wrote of Basil Bunting that he “simply will not melt himself into the vile patterns of expediency.” That's far better than “he was a good guy.” I'm pretty sure Pound used expediency with a specific definition in mind: actions in the interest of self gain as opposed to what is just and right. If that's true then Pound was paying Bunting quite a compliment, a fitting compliment when viewed in the context of “What The Chairman Told Tom.” The poem is a bitingly sarcastic take on the vocation of poetry. A successful, albeit staid and uncreative, businessman is the character at the center of the poem. His voice―the Chairman's voice―challenges poor Tom and his love of writing poetry. The challenge hinges upon the belief that poetry is not serious business, it's merely a release, an escape from the real world. This Chairman character is a misguided fool and I imagine he would've been prone to fits of expediency.

“Poetry? It's a hobby.” Sure, this opening line is true. For some folks writing and reading poetry occupies the extra minutes that would stack up unfavorably in their lives without a solid hobby. And for others poetry is essential, a day without it would be cause for illness and despair. I can't imagine anyone feeling that way about a day without model trains or breeding pigeons, the hobbies the Chairman compares poetry to in the poem's first stanza. Maybe that's an unfair assertion on my part, particularly because I've never bred a pigeon or collected model trains. That na├»vete is valuable and I will use it moving forward, starting right now. The Chairman's views on poetry are attributable to his lack of experience with poetry, very similar to my views on pigeon breeding and model train running. He assumes poetry is “not work” because “you don't sweat” when writing it or reading it. In looking at other art forms, such as opera, he sees no threads of commonality. When these arguments and analysis are exhausted, the Chairman turns to fearful name-calling and stereotyping: “They're Reds, addicts, / all delinquents.” But for somebody who lacks experience, the Chairman has one thing right about poetry: “Nobody pays for it.”

So the question that Basil Bunting indirectly raises is this: how does a person like the Chairman come to detest something he barely knows? More importantly, how can we get him back on the straight and narrow, reading poetry and appreciating it for all it has to offer? Let's tackle that first question. His hatred for poetry could have started at a young age. In class he could have had an assignment to read and interpret a poem, only to find the assignment impossible. The words were strangely placed,the punctuation was odd, the lines weren't broken as they are in every other book, and there wasn't a clear story. The poem was indecipherable, but this statement diagnoses the problem for us. Poems aren't meant to be deciphered. It's fulfilling to understand poems, but they can just as easily be enjoyed for displays of imagination, figurative language, and the types of things that resist explanation. That provides us a natural segue way to our next question. Old habits are tough to break. Changes are never easy to embrace. For someone like the Chairman who values the bottom line, poetry must provide a tangible assets. It must be worth his paying “twelve pounds a week” and not feeling like he's wasted his money on a shoddy investment. I'm not sure I can produce a blockbuster profit with any poem, but I can show how poetry is one of our oldest art forms and how it is at the root of communication and story telling, how without poetry many of our histories would be lost, and how some of the greatest minds to ever live turned to poetry to soothe their souls.

Would this argument be enough to change the Chairman and others like him? I doubt it. People who resist trying something like poetry will remain steadfast in their reasons until they seek poetry out on their own. They can hide behind their “three thousand and expenses, / a car, vouchers,” for only so long before they come face to face with what they're afraid of. In the case of the Chairman, he encounters poetry and his reaction is predictable: “What do you do? / Nasty little words, nasty long words, it's unhealthy.” These insults give way to my favorite line in the poem, a line I imagine Bunting viewed as the crown jewel of this poem: “I want to wash when I meet a poet.” Considered to be somewhat of an outsider himself, Bunting knew what it was like to have a stigma associated with being a poet. From stringy haired dreamers hopped up on drugs to beret and turtleneck wearing coffee drinkers with fingers ready to snap, these are out-dated and inaccurate stereotypes. Poets are hard workers, so hard in fact that they might spend a lifetime crafting a single poem or collection of poems, just as Walt Whitman. Creativity is not a synonym to hard work. So when the Chairman tells Tom at the end of the poem “Go and find work,” the horrible irony is that Tom found his work long ago in poetry, even if something else pays Tom's bills.