Saturday, December 18, 2010

Happy Holidays!!!

The holiday season is upon us and winter is in full swing here in the Washington D.C. area. For some reason I've had a keen eye towards differences lately. It seems every day that we discover more differences in our world. We find differences in the way we think, learn, celebrate, dance, exercise, compete, and eat. Yes, human beings are strange creatures, but our uniqueness is one of the things to love about us. Even amongst our differences, there is one common thread that I think all people could agree on: peace. We all could use peace in our lives and around the world. As we move toward Christmas, I wanted to wish everyone a joyous and peaceful holiday season (no matter what you personally celebrate!). Here's a brief movie featuring Alfred Lord Tennyson's classic Christmas poem Voices In The Mist. You can also check it out on my youtube channel at:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

No tricks, just a little treat...

Yes, we are still months away from National Poetry Month and the start of my fourth year of blogposts, but in the interim I wanted to share something that I thought everyone would enjoy. In a graduate course that I'm currently taking we had an assignment to create a video to use in the classroom. The video I came up with brings to life Gary Soto's poem Oranges, which I wrote about in the first year of this blog. Check this video out! I hope to make more of them to post here (assuming I have time to make them!). Let me know what you think.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let Evening Come --- Jane Kenyon


Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

--- Jane Kenyon

Jane Kenyon's Let Evening Come:

A long time ago I settled upon this poem to end the third year of my National Poetry Month Blog. It is the type of poem that you read and cannot forget. The images enter your brain and suddenly the natural world is inside of you. The light, the cricket, the moon, the fox, the wind, the bottle and the oats, and the evening---all of it comes together to deliver a simple truth: there is beauty in this life of ours and even though life will certainly end the beauty will remain with us, just in another form, in the comfort of faith, family, and friends. I read an interview with Jane Kenyon pertaining to this poem. A woman who battled the demons of depression, Kenyon has written some of the most startling and honest verse about the pain and paralysis of mental illness. This poem stands in contrast to her others, working as a harbinger of hope and goodness amidst the many horrors we must endure. As Kenyon said in the aforementioned interview, "How, when there could have been nothing, does it happen that there is love, kindness, and beauty?" I honestly don't know, but thankfully we have poets like Jane Kenyon to explore this question for us.

As the poem starts it is made clear to the audience that this is a poem about the balance of what is coming next and what is happening right now. The conflict between the present and future is fascinating to me: the inherent lineage between what you do now and what you will do next. "Let the light of late afternoon / shine through chinks in the barn" is an opening that serves many purposes. Utilizing a command is a very distinct way to set the poem's tone. In the images, we notice that afternoon is slipping off toward night because it is late, but also we can see it tangibly in how the light is escaping through rough spots in the barn. The metaphor of an aged body of a person who's light---I mean life---is fading is unavoidable. Are we to read something extra into the contrast of the light "moving / up the bales as the sun moves down"?

Kenyon continues the commands, this time advising the cricket to find its call. She compares the cricket to a "woman tak(ing) up her needles / and her yarn." Again we have a comparison that evokes age, but also evokes an earnestness and purposefulness. While knitting might be associated with old woman, the fruits of their labor---hats, scarves, gloves, and other items---serve important purposes to warmth and preservation in cold seasons. The second stanza ends with the first appearance of a refrain that drives the poem and will predictably become the final line of the poem: "let evening come."

We are building to the arrival of evening, just as a well-lived life builds to its end. But the essence isn't in the beginning or the ending, as cliched as it may sound the essence of life is in the living. It is in the dew, but more so in the hoe being used to produce and labor, rather than being "abandoned / in long grass." It is in the stars and moon's "silver horn" because there should be a certain time in all of our lives where night does not signal a stiff ending to our day, but rather a period of discovery and activity. But in this instance, Kenyon uses the stars and the moon as further signals that the close of day is also the close of life's rhythms and essential movements. "Let the fox go back to its sandy den. / Let the wind die down. Let the shed / go black inside. Let evening come." The list is a progression of life, in its many forms, taking natural paths towards closure. Even when closure has occurred in one form, there are other objects and elements of like that remain. Kenyon illustrates this beautifully in the penultimate stanza. For the bottle, useless after its liquid is drunk; for the scoop, useless without a hand to operate it; for the air soon to be expelled from the lungs, these are the items most lonely and prone to loss, still she urges them to "let evening come." But why does Kenyon do this?

Most people are afraid of death, they just choose not to talk about it. I can respect that. Morbid conversations about death are not particularly endearing and even amongst the closest of friends it is a topic that is likely to induce some level of unease and discomfort. What I've come to discover is that while most people are afraid of death, they are more afraid of the unknown and of losing control, the things that death ultimately represents. The unknown is only frightening if you allow your mind and soul to stray from your faith and belief in fellow human beings, in a sublime sense of goodness and balance in the universe, and/or in a higher power. And what is there to fear about losing control, in fact I would argue that we are often at our best when we do not hold total control over a situation. Jane Kenyon's answer and her testament to faith is present in the poem's final stanza: "Let it come, as it will, and don't / be afraid. God does not leave us / comfortless, so let evening come."

There's a certain magic to the fact that many people near death can hold on just long enough to say final goodbyes, as if they have a minuscule amount of control over their mortality, enough to hold out for the little things that are most important to them. Similarly, I find the presages of the gravely ill as to when they will die to be shocking in their accuracy. In our age and experiences we come to know the rhythms of our bodies, just as well as the shortcomings that undo us. We come to see, feel, and hear the world around us, all of it. Some may say we come to know these vital details when all is lost already, when it's far too late for practical use. Jane Kenyon shows us this is not what we should be concerning ourselves with; we should let go and "let evening come" because "God does not leave us / comfortless." I take great comfort in this poem and I hope you do as well.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Nothing Twice - Wislawa Szymborska

Nothing Twice

Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice.

Even if there is no one dumber,
if you're the planet's biggest dunce,
you can't repeat the class in summer:
this course is only offered once.

No day copies yesterday,
no two nights will teach what bliss is
in precisely the same way,
with precisely the same kisses.

One day, perhaps some idle tongue
mentions your name by accident:
I feel as if a rose were flung
into the room, all hue and scent.

The next day, though you're here with me,
I can't help looking at the clock:
A rose? A rose? What could that be?
Is it a flower or a rock?

Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It's in its nature not to stay:
Today is always gone tomorrow.

With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we're different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.

----Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak

I first encountered this poem in graduate school when I was studying Eastern European poets, specifically Polish poets. Wislawa Szymborska stood out among her male counterparts. Her talent was unmistakable, but the hopefulness and playfulness in her language was what differentiated her from other poets from Eastern Europe. Nothing Twice is a sterling example of Szymborska's spirit as translated by the equally talented Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak. We know that there is no magic pause button when it comes to life; we can't rewind the good moments and fast forward through the tragedies and atrocities. We live and life is unforgiving, for better or worse. But in its exactness, life has the unique partner of memory. We remember what we did in the past when we encountered a similar situation and hopefully we adjust our behavior and expectations accordingly. Still, memory can be useless, for example when we step outside of our comfort zones to experience new things. There is an exhilaration that comes with the sense of fear you feel when experiencing something new, mostly because you are letting go. Not in control, you rely on the world around you and are open to all it has to offer. In Nothing Twice, Szymborska is urging us onward to days of meaning and worth, rather than days that end leaving us wondering where they went.

"Nothing can ever happen twice." The poem begins with this statement, a statement so strong that we can do little more accept it as fact. Deja vu aside, Szymborska is spot on with her initial point and she follows it with this related analysis: "In consequence, the sorry fact is / that we arrive here improvised / and leave without the chance to practice." The tone, at this point, is matter-of-fact and a little disappointed by the merciless nature of life. I'm reminded of a line I've referenced a few times in this blog, even once earlier this month: If only I knew now what I knew back then…It is a great philosophical dilemma—are we meant to only possess essential knowledge after the moment it could have been most useful to us? Who knows, and more importantly is that even the question we should be asking? Without a lively and adventurous spirit we'll lack those experiences anyways, which is why Szymborska takes a different, more humorous approach to drive home the same point as before in the second stanza. "Even if there is no one dumber, / if you're the planet's biggest dunce, / you can't repeat the class in summer: / this course is only offered once." I love how seamless the rhyme scheme and tone weave together to infuse humor into the poem. You can't help but laugh when you read those lines and picture yourself wearing the dunce cap.

The poem begins a shift from the conceptual to the concrete in the third stanza with the mention of specific kisses. Sure, "No day copies yesterday" is a valid and valuable line, but for the line and idea behind it to have the greatest impact an individualized emotion connection needs to be established. By inserting the word "precisely" in front of kisses, Szymborska dares you to flip through your catalogue of kisses and pull out some of those fun, sensual, surprising, and even embarrassing ones. These are the moments that have made you who you are today, because no two were "precisely" alike you begin to see the parallel that she is attempting to convey about days. If the kiss isn't enough, Szymborska presents the example of an "idle tongue" that "mentions your name by accident." Invoking a lost love, the poet is further casting out her nets to yank in the readers by their hearts. The mere accidental mention of her love's name fills her with the beauty of a rose, "all hue and scent." Even when the love is present with her in the next stanza, the poet moves from the wondrous rose to the tireless, painful ticking of the clock. It's a jarring shift, but highly effective in reminding us that time is unrelenting and carries on with the same "precision" that we earlier saw attached to the far more attractive feature of kisses.

In the final two stanzas Szymborska returns to the style and tone that made the beginning of the poem so strong. She supplies a rhetorical question about fear of time, which fits nicely on the heels of the shift of the previous stanza. Szymborska also provides a quasi rhetorical answer: "It's in its nature not to stay: / Today is always gone tomorrow." Yes, that is true, but a large part of me feels I knew that already, in fact I feel like Szymborska told me that already. At this point in the poem, I need a stronger ending; thank goodness there is one stanza left! Up to this point most of the poem has focused on the nature of time and our reaction to it, showing how no two days are the same so we must live them fully. This is a great message, but to reiterate this again would steer the poem into a predictable zone that the poem wouldn't be able to recover from. Instead of cruising, Szymborska opts for the bumpy path and this change-of-direction works like a charm. We are the ones on display in the final stanza, our nature is examined and the ultimate similarity is revealed: just as each day, each moment is different than the next, we, too, possess this same level of uniqueness. I am unlike any other human being who has ever existed, who currently exists, and who will ever exist. When you take this individuality and combine it with the same individuality of days in our lives then you see the pristine opportunities we have before us in pretty much every moment we are alive. It's a shame we waste so many of these moments with the stupid fallacy of operating under what others think of us.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hatred - Gwendolyn Bennett


I shall hate you
Like a dart of singing steel
Shot through still air
At even-tide,
Or solemnly
As pines are sober
When they stand etched
Against the sky.
Hating you shall be a game
Played with cool hands
And slim fingers.
Your heart will yearn
For the lonely splendor
Of the pine tree
While rekindled fires
In my eyes
Shall wound you like swift arrows.
Memory will lay its hands
Upon your breast
And you will understand
My hatred.

---Gwendolyn Bennett

Gwendolyn Bennett's Hatred:

With all the poems I've featured that centered on love, you had to expect I would eventually balance them out with a poem or two about something not as pleasant. I don't enjoy turning toward pessimistic and negative topics, but such detours are sometimes refreshing, and other times they are downright necessary. If you're asking why hatred or anger are necessary, then, by all means, let me explain why. Think for a moment of the man who bottles up his anger, never letting even the smallest smidgen of disapproval or disgust seep from his tightly controlled body. Or consider the woman who puts on a happy face every day, even though her daily life is plagued by inequities, degradations, and abuse. Believe me, I could provide you a long list of examples, but that's not what's important. We all face moments that prove how severely unfair life (and the people in our lives) can be. To deny that these moments exist is wrong, just as it is wrong to deny that moments of sheer brilliance and love exist. In fact, a lifetime of denial only clears the way for a monumental, and sometimes deadly, explosion. The raw emotions contained in anger and, yes, hatred are direct relatives to the similarly powerful emotions that accompany love. It goes without saying that love and hate are intertwined, but Gwendolyn Bennett offers today's poem as further proof.

"I shall hate you / Like a dart of singing steel / Shot through still air / At even tide." Never has hatred been more poetic and beautiful than in those initial lines from Gwendolyn Bennett's poem Hatred. Working against our expectations, Bennett eschews our typical ideas about hatred being a snarling, unrefined emotion. Sure, the venom is still present in abundance, but Bennett presents a notion of hatred that is polished and premeditated. The dart she compares her hatred to is made of "singing steel" rather than rugged, rough metal. When the dart is "Shot through still air / At even-tide" the poet has, indirectly, become a calculated sniper with her hatred, aiming and firing away at the "you" character the poem is addressed to. Still, this represents just one incarnation of her hatred; she has more in her repertoire than deadly force. Her hatred will also be doled out "solemnly / As pines are sober / When they stand etched / Against the sky." For some the violent hatred might be the most frightening, but for others this stoic hatred that resolves to grow regardless of the elements around it is far more terrifying. This second hatred is resolved and thought-out in a manner that indicates a change-of-mind is nearly impossible.

Just when I said it was impossible for Bennett to reverse her hatred for the "you" character this poem is addressed to, she threads the needle and draws the first stitch towards forgiveness when she asserts that "Hating you shall be a game / Played with cool hands / And slim fingers." Her joy in hating this person is actually, I believe, a good sign. That she can derive some happiness from this activity is indicative of the depth of her emotional connection with the person…or it's indicative of how horribly she was wronged by the person, which, come to think of it, would be a very bad sign for any chance of forgiveness. This indecisiveness is a nutshell example of why this poem is excellently constructed, and a further example of the poem's brilliance is on display when Bennett reasserts her dominance: "Your heart will yearn / For the lonely splendor / Of the pine tree / While rekindled fires / In my eyes / Shall wound you like swift arrows." She will decide how this hatred will arrive upon him and what brand of hatred it will be. You can bet that Bennett will opt for the most painful and lingering form of hatred.

If you're like me then by this point in the poem you were chomping at the bit to find out what it was that this person did to Bennett. I promise I'm not a gossip hound, but with these tour-de-force descriptions of hatred it's hard not to wonder what generated them. Bennett employs a technique common in come of the best horror and suspense films ever made: she doesn't show us the root of her hatred, instead offering just enough to let our imaginations run ferociously wild. "Memory will lay its hands / Upon your breast / And you will understand / My hatred." These lines essentially say "You know what you did," and while some readers may view this as a cheap ending, I'm not one of those readers. It is a private ending to a very public poem, but by turning inward Bennett opens the poem back up to her audience. We all have ghosts traveling with us from past indiscretions we'd rather forget. These reminders can be suppressed, but they always find a way to break free, whether it is a familiar scent from that moment or a word that was spoken that day. Our present is not immune to our past; if we were wrong, someone still possesses a memory of it, even if you are the one with the memory, even if you are the one unable to forgive…yourself.

Friday, April 23, 2010

I Walked Past A House Where I Lived Once - Yehuda Amichai


I walked past a house where I lived once:
a man and a woman are still together in the whispers there.
Many years have passed with the quiet hum
of the staircase bulb going on
and off and on again.

The keyholes are like little wounds
where all the blood seeped out. And inside,
people pale as death.

I want to stand once again as I did
holding my first love all night long in the doorway.
When we left at dawn, the house
began to fall apart and since then the city and since then
the whole world.

I want to be filled with longing again
till dark burn marks show on my skin.

I want to be written again
in the Book of Life, to be written every single day
till the writing hand hurts.

---Yehuda Amichai

I could mention the hippocampus and other parts of the limbic system. I could drone on about the importance of the cerebral cortex. Heck, I could even diagram how a memory is formed and retained within your brain. It would be nice to understand why we fixate on certain memories, while others rush away like rain water toward a sewer. Even a cursory understanding of the biology and psychology behind memory won't better help us understand Yehuda Amichai's poem "I Walked Past A House Where I Lived Once." No, this poem is most accessible to those of us who have lived, lost, and live with the memories of what we once had. The loss could be as simple as a favorite pair of shoes that were completely worn down and needed to be tossed out. The loss could be as grand as a person, a loved one you couldn't imagine life without. In the case of this poem, Amichai's loss is a composite of many things he no longer has, but it all starts with his house.

"I walked past a house where I lived once: / a man and a woman are still together in the whispers there." Am I the only one who thinks that is a haunting start for a poem? And the mystery is not wasted on me; in the poet's former residence the figures could be memories of him and his lover, or possibly his parents, or maybe they are two random strangers living in this intimate space that was once his. I often wonder about the houses I grew up in as a child. How did the families that came after mine see the house? Did they treat it the same way we did? Decorate it differently? Clean it regularly? Some of the questions I ask are foolish, probably because when viewed together they appear to refer to the house as if it is alive. Leaving a house behind for a new location, there is the undeniable feeling that your family is lessened and that something or someone is missing, a void that is only slightly filled by the new house. Amichai offers a clever metaphor of "staircase bulb going on / and off and on again" to demonstrate the emotional tension that comes with moving. The pain is reflected in the physical edifices of the house itself: "The keyholes are like little wounds / where all the blood seeped out." Certainly there is a loss in leaving a place and sometimes an even greater emotional strain in having to start over somewhere new.

While losing a house can be traumatic, there seems to be no greater trauma than losing a person from your life. When a friend, family member, or lover disappears from your life the pain is long-lasting and while its intensity might decrease over time it will never completely be washed from your consciousness. The sight of his old house has led Amichai back to memories of his earliest love: "I want to stand once again as I did / holding my first love all night long in the doorway." Amichai wants to return to a simpler, purer time in his life. He wants to recapture the hopefulness and optimism his younger, more naive self once had. I can't blame him one bit because I know I have felt the same way. When you realize you're mortal and moving past moments in your life that were colored with seminal greatness you want to hit the rewind button and experience them all over again. This desire has to be tied somewhat to the fear that life is passing you by and that you might not have many moments left like the instances of early love Amichai wrote about in this poem. In Amichai's case, once the moment ends that era of his life slams to a close in a dramatic fashion: "When we left at dawn, the house / began to fall apart and since then the city and since then / the whole world." He has tied his well-being in the present to a single night of youthful reverie, asserting that in leaving the house that one night everything in his life, including the house, began to rot before his eyes.

As the poem moves toward its conclusion I find it interesting that Amichai starts his final three stanzas with the phrase "I want." This recurring beginning acts as a familiar, prayer-like chant as Amichai details his physical and emotional desires. The "I want" constructs could be read as forceful demands and a valid case could be made for this, but I would argue that they are battered, desperate pleas. "I want to be filled with longing again / till dark burn marks show on my skin" are the words of a man who already has been burned and bruised, and if he's going to feel that way then he wants the payoff that comes with it. "I want to be written again / in the Book of Life, to be written every single day / till the writing hand hurts" are lines that acknowledge the imperfections of love and memory, and yet Amichai wants those bittersweet moments of life to return to him. Momentum clearly builds as the poem reaches its end and the momentum seems to point to one thing: Yehuda Amichai has had enough of his past memories, he wants to return to making them in the present.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

After Years --- Ted Kooser


Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer's retina
as he stood in the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.

---Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser's After Years

Some people prefer testing attitude with the question 'is the glass half empty or half full,' but I think the moments when we feel curious about our place in the vast, perpetually changing universe are an even better test. The only problem with this alternate gauge of perspective is that these moments are, by nature, spontaneous; a contrived moment of introspection will not tell us anything about ourselves. I don't need someone telling me I'm strange, or destined for greatness, or utterly purposeless; believe me, I will discover these things on my own. In fact, it's imperative that I discover them on my own, just as Ted Kooser does in his perfectly bittersweet poem After Years.

The speaker in Ted's poem stumbles into one of those moments where an internal pause button is pressed on the giant remote control inside of him. He sees a former lover "from a distance" and it literally stops him cold in his tracks. Ironically, while he is physically still, his mind hums along at warp speed through his own personal ecosystem created within his memories. Upon seeing her, Kooser sharply observes "the glittering face of a glacier / slid into the sea." One random near rendezvous seems responsible for, or at the very least connected to, the slow dissolution of the natural world. It's funny how the coming together of man and woman is linked to the separation of nature. Kooser takes this idea further: "An ancient oak / fell in the Cumberlands, holding only / a handful of leaves." At this point it appears the poem is all bitter and no sweet. I know what you're saying to yourself: It has to get better, right?

If you answered maybe to that preceding question then kudos to you my friend. There is no guarantee that this poem will turn sappy and earn itself a spot on the cork board above some lovestruck sophomore's desk. That uncertainty, which is embedded in the natural world and in our dormant human connections, is the central vein of Kooser's poem. It is precisely why "an old woman / scattering corn to her chickens / looked up for an instant," and we are not surprised by this. We accept the woman into the poem because this is one of those spontaneous moments of introspection brought on by a severe case of the what-could-have-beens. Now we may not be surprised by the old woman, but what she sees is rather interesting. Her view propels us into the final third of this poem and constructs an extended metaphor that brilliantly ties a knot with the poem's beginning.

"At the other side / of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times / the size of our own sun exploded / and vanished." Surely this is a big deal. A star sizably larger than our own sun, which is central to our existence, has not only exploded, but it completely vanished. Keep in mind that this colossal event was triggered by the chance encounter between Kooser and his former lover at the poem's start. Strangely enough, it is only a partial connection because it's not even acknowledged that the woman saw Ted. In fact, it's implied that she didn't notice him at all. For a star to blow to smithereens because of this near reunion, well, there must be some serious unrequited love and simmering passion going on. This is the point in the poem where we get to the test on a person's perspective. Let's push on to the poem's end: the star has exploded, "leaving a small green spot / on the astronomer's retina." So what does that have to do with testing to see if you're an optimist or a pessimist? Be patient, let's look at the final lines that follow and check out how Kooser brilliantly twists the poem back to its beginning roots, namely his long held love for the woman he views from a distance. The star's explosion, caused by Kooser's chance viewing of his former love, is viewed by an astronomer who Kooser tells us resides in "the great open dome / of my heart with no one to tell." Some (mostly snooty) people scoff at poem's that use hearts, either the word or the image. Overtly sentimental words or images should never be banned from poems, but they should be used carefully and creatively as Kooser does in this poem's ending. The heart—his heart—is the constant that ties this ending to the poem's other parts. All of these happenings, from the glaciers to the Cumberlands, have occurred within the world of his heart, contributing a depth that is shocking and powerful. Reading this poem, I identify a longing for a lost love that others might view as sad, but I see it is a moment that reminds us of the rare fate of being human.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Poem 1246 - Rumi


The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along.

---Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)

Trust me, featuring a five line poem in my blog is not me being lazy or taking a day off, especially when the poem is laced with emotion as this gem from Rumi, by way of Coleman Barks, certainly is. Coleman Barks is a unique figure in the world of poetry. He has devoted most of his writing life to translating Rumi, an ancient Persian mystic and master teacher. You might find it interesting to know that many of Rumi's "poems" are lines that he spoke in his teachings. That's probably why you can't read a Rumi poem without finding a lesson. With some poets that is a recipe for disaster, but in Coleman Barks' careful and caring hands Rumi appears fresh and fulfilled in his reincarnation in the English language.

What is it about this tiny poem that makes it one of my favorites? Well, there is something to be said for poems that you can memorize. Stored away in the brain, a poem can come in handy in a variety of situations: wedding toast, moment of reflection, perhaps in a stressful situation when you need to gain back your nerves. Yes, it's far easier to memorize a five line poem than the Odyssey, but a poem's length is not directly relative to its impact upon the reader. This poem, #1246, contains the intensity, sweetness and brevity of a Hershey Kiss. For a guy who gave up chocolate for Lent this year, let me tell you how powerful a single Hershey Kiss can be! This poem is all about love, as are so many of the poems this blog has looked at over the years. Still, this poem displays a tone that is calm, yet in complete control of love. Is this strange to anyone else? Along with its polar opposite of hate, love is a perennially unbridled and energetic force. With this poem Rumi seems to have tamed love, but how did he do it?

"The minute I heard my first love story," is an initial line that invites us to join Rumi in his past with a situation we all share and know well. Reading that line, we think of our own introduction to love stories and happily ever afters. They provide us with a set of rules and practices that must be followed in order to secure a lasting, lifelong love. Without question, we accept this quest for love as a path natural as life itself. In hearing his first love story, Rumi "started looking for you." Of course he did, this is exactly what the love story requires and expects, but the next part of the line is surprising: "not knowing / how blind that was." In a quick twist Rumi goes from a naive love-sick boy to a mature love-ready man. He doesn't share the road that led him to this transformation, but he does provide the truth that he acquired along the way: "Lovers don't finally meet somewhere. / They're in each other all along." This idea radiates with a beauty and confidence all its own. The ability to love another is inside each of us developing with time and experience and it flows forth when an opportunity to love presents itself. Coincidentally, the features you will love in another are already in your own character. When someone mentions "sparks" in a romance it is often an indescribable, yet overwhelming rush of feelings. Sparks come from the answers Rumi and Barks deliver in the final two lines of this joyous poem. They are inside us and inside the person we love. They are not easily, if ever, lost. As you remember the origins of love, take this poem with you in memory, it will serve you well.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

December At Yase --- Gary Snyder


You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."

After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were—
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.

I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.

And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

---Gary Snyder

Recently I was speaking at a conference and I heard one of the fellow speakers mention that he didn't believe in fate or destiny. I'm passing this example along not to be critical of my colleague's beliefs, but to provide a beginning point for an interesting philosophical discussion. Are we fated or destined for certain things in our lives? Where we work, where we live, and who we love---are these all predetermined? If so, then there are two distinctly different outlooks. First, there is great comfort in knowing that no matter what you do or how you do it fate will play a role in your life. If it is meant to be it will be. Others look at this revelation and shudder with fear. With everything being predetermined, why should I even bother living? It's not like anything I do will make a difference anyways. If fate does not exist there is an equally contentious argument that comes into play. The same people who were excited by the prospect of fate are now left disappointed and feeling an empty hopelessness. Those who were terrified by the prospect of fate making their daily lives pointless are relieved to know that they have free will to make decisions without any cosmic interference. I'm not sure it's fair to summarize this complex argument into generalizations, but I see it as the romantic idealist versus the pragmatic realist. When I read and reread Gary Snyder's poem December At Yase I'm overcome by the mystery of fate. What might have been right at one point in life could be completely wrong at another point. You hear it so often, the timing just wasn't right. For such a fickle and interconnected thing, timing, or fate, can exert the ultimate influence over the most essential elements of our lives.

Snyder begins the poem with a breakup scene. It is not overly contentious or emotional, rather he is stoic in his analysis and description, probably because he's had years to think about it and hash through his feelings. The girl's decision is described as "deciding to be free" and she offers the consolation of "Again someday, maybe in ten years." Inherently human beings are selfish so asking for a decade of patience when it comes to love is ridiculous. It's her attempt at softening the blow when in reality it only does more damage by stoking a tiny slice of hope that the poet holds onto. Although he doesn't bluntly say it, the poet clings to the belief that if the timing is right and they are fated to be together that it will happen. But when they run into each other down the line there is no spark, no remnants of what they once had. "After college I saw you / One time. You were strange. / And I was obsessed with a plan." That's certainly the opposite of a pleasant reunion, showing how time, space and life experiences can drastically change people. The most damning evidence that this young love will never be rekindled comes in the following stanza. Snyder points out that the ten year sentence she imposed upon him has expired and while he "might have gone to you / Hoping to win your love back. / You are still single." What is stopping him? She is not attached or married and they once had an intimate connection, a connection that still haunts him today. Could it be his pride? Could he be afraid? Snyder gives us a half answer: "I thought I must make it alone. I / Have done that."

The language in this poem is stripped down even though the emotions being explored are complex and powerful. Notice how the diction and syntax are often simple, but occasionally a line break with pop up that throws us for a loop. Snyder's hard enjambments at the beginning of the second and third stanzas allow the lines to drop into the next, mirroring the dropping feeling that comes with remembering a lost love. This technique is cleverly executed, as is the enjambment on the answering line mentioned in the previous paragraph. When Snyder tells us why he hasn't made the courageous motion to win her back he is focused on himself and this is particularly apparent in his line break: "I thought I must make it alone. I / Have done that." It once was about them, but at some point he turned inward and it became about him, about the "I" instead of the "you" or the "we." Maybe his fate was to live on in the shadow of what could have been. Perhaps "the grave, awed intensity / Of our young love" is fueling and pushing him. Or it could be that all that he had and "left behind at nineteen" is a constant tormentor. Snyder feels "ancient" and is ultimately unsure if the path he's following is the right one. This isn't a poem that unravels the complex riddle of fate and destiny, but in the life experiences the poem reveals we gain a better understanding of how individuals react when faced with fateful challenges. Snyder ends the poem with a question of fate, wondering if he is "a fool / Or (has he) done what my / karma demands." I'm not sure Synder expects an least in this life.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sadiq --- Brian Turner


“It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.” ---SA’DI

It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.

Brian Turner’s Sadiq

A soldier named James recently came to my office with questions about pursuing a college education. He was in his early twenties with the standard uniform of fatigues and a crew cut. A gear pack the size of a small child was propped against his feet and shins as we sat and talked. In the course of our conversation James explained that he had dropped out of high school and joined the national guard. With a wife and two children, James had his GED but now wanted to get a college degree to provide his family with a better life, or at least one where he would be around. Having just returned from a tour in Afghanistan, James recalled multiple shrapnel and bullet wounds, children strapped with bombs, and an ambush that left him carrying his dead Captain from the ruble of their humvee after it exploded. It was tough for James to describe these events, not just because of the emotional depths they stirred, but also because one of his injuries included a gunshot to the head that had left him with a severely debilitating stutter. Although he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, James has already been told that he’ll be heading back on another tour in October. Additionally, James must pay for his own counseling and even had to pay for the pints of blood he received from the Red Cross after one of his most severe injuries. There’s no way around it: James deserves more from his country, he deserves more from this world.

There are many others like James on all sides of conflicts throughout the globe. Brian Turner, the poet behind today’s powerful piece Sadiq, like James, was a member of the United States Army. Spending time in Iraq, Turner experienced the gruesome and unforgettable horrors of combat as an infantry team leader. In his groundbreaking collection Here, Bullet, Turner documents and dissects the images and emotions of war. As I read this collection I was struck by the strange mixture of beautiful and visceral images. Turner's poems are characterized by a merciless tone that reverberates and thumps like rapidly approaching air strikes. With the heyday of the 24 hour news cycle, the distance between the safe confines of one’s home and the battlegrounds of Afghanistan and Iraq have shrunk dramatically. Technology enables us to experience war up close, still Turner’s poetry does far more for me than anything I’ve ever watched on CNN. He pauses to find beauty beside pain, a subtle reminder of how senseless war can be. Yes, there are times when fighting is the only true option; we’ve seen numerous moments throughout history when a moral cause could not reach fruition without bloodshed. We’ve also looked back at conflicts and noticed the horrifying combination of an overwhelming loss of life with no just purpose. If I had it my way I’d require all fresh recruits entering basic training to read Brian Turner’s poem Sadiq, not to discourage them from their chosen path but to reinforce the gravity and fragility of what lies ahead for them.

Largely a set of fierce declarations, Sadiq works because Turner is relentless in his honesty. “It should make you shake and sweat, / nightmare you.” If that first line and a half doesn’t disturb and intrigue you I don’t know what will. The startling beginning could have easily been wasted if the poem veered toward a predictable and drawn out path, but Turner slams forward with his intensely personal instructions. The poem forges past “consequences / seared into the vein” (although the ultimate consequences await in the poem’s ending) to examine the reasons we kill each other, ultimately deciding any rationale is insufficient for such an act. If the thrill is your motive, this is quickly rebuked by “no matter what adrenaline / feeds the muscle its courage.” Maybe you’re fighting for a righteous cause, a religious conviction that guides your every action. Even so, Turner acknowledges there are many paths to God with the subtle diction in the line “no matter / what god shines down on you.” After touching on the biological and the spiritual, the logical last stop is pure, uncontrollable rage. If you shoot to kill because of a thirst for revenge, well the poem has words for you as well. “No matter / what crackling pain and anger / you carry in your fists, my friend.” In the end all of these reasons are flawed because you will be left with a burden you cannot suppress. If it doesn’t destroy a large part of you in the very moment you kill, Turner is wise enough to advise that “it should break your heart to kill.” It breaks my heart to read that line and to think about soldiers like James, but I am also filled with gratitude for them because there are people in the world whose hearts will not break, not even waver, when they set out to kill. These are the folks we all need protection from.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Archaic Torso of Apollo --- Rainer Maria Rilke

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

---Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke

If you've followed my blog the last few years then you know that I'm a sucker for strong endings. A poem that packs a punch at the end is more likely to stick with me than one that fizzles into the ether. Sure, there are instances when a contemplative conclusion is necessary, but far too often for my tastes contemporary poets opt for the quiet fade. I'm not sure why they do this—maybe out of fear that they'll produce a nice tidy ending? In my own writing I often opt for a strong ending because it allows me to better understand the poem and to understand why I'm writing it. Sometimes the initial ending will find another part of the poem more hospitable, but that exercise of crystalizing the poem in some small way acts as the final movement in my creative process. When I'm teaching poetry workshops I often advise students to try a seemingly simple exercise in revision. I ask them to write the gist of their poem in a single short sentence. Striping their writing down to a raw, base level, students often find the extra haymaker their poem seemed to be lacking. There is some belief that wrapping everything up neatly without any questions or doubts is juvenile and not worthy of lasting, meaningful literature. I could not disagree more and offer Rainer Maria Rilke's wonder work "Archaic Torso Of Apollo" as proof to the contrary.

On first glance years ago, a poem about an "archaic" statue did not pique my interest. What did I care about the body of an old, dead, mythological god? I still don't blame anyone who sees the title of this poem and decides to flip the page, but this oversight would be a horrible mistake. Rilke makes a boring figure rustle and rumble with life. How Rilke accomplishes this feat is particularly interesting: after surveying the external body, he quickly turns his keen eye to the "brilliance from inside" that Apollo possesses. There is life inside of this lifeless statue, from his "eyes like ripening fruit" to "his gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power." The key to Apollo's presence is the aforementioned "brilliance from inside." Rilke notes that the statue is "suffused" with this brilliance and makes the comparison to a lamp shining forth. Without this inner force that has permeated this sculpture, "the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could / a smile run through the placid hips and thighs / to that dark center where procreation flared." If we can view a piece of art, particularly a human sculpture, and see actual life then the artist has done a remarkable job accomplishing a challenging task. I assume Rilke would agree with that last sentence, but it is merely a launching point for the deeper issues this poem delves into.

The life we see in the sculpture is intrinsically linked with Apollo and his mythology, the sculptor and his artistic vision, the poet and his own artistic vision, and the audience (us) with our varied life experiences. Without all of these features working in unison the "stone would seem defaced…and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur…would not, from all the borders of itself, / burst like a star." Because we have the historic context, the art, and the audience all together in one quasi-community, Rilke asserts a strange consciousness that all parties share. As you read this poem, Apollo has been dead for thousands of years (if he ever actually existed) and the artist has presumably been dead for a while as well, even Rilke is dead. The only ones physically alive are us, the audience, and even when we die this poem will live on for years to come with new audiences. With that bit of contextual information, it becomes undeniably clear that the final two lines of the poem are meant for the living.

On a personal level, I find the ending to contain a grand and clever transformation---in fact, I'll go out on a limb and proclaim it the best ending of a poem that I've ever read. It's the type of ending that storms the reader's soul and conquers doubts, fears, apathies, and any other impurities. If Apollo has his "gleam" inside him, then the end of the poem is taking that gleam and lighting a proverbial fire under our backsides. Still, this isn't your typical Carpe Diem message. After all the descriptions of Apollo and his body, Rilke flips the script in the final two lines and now Apollo is the one viewing us. This inanimate sculpture is staring down each and every one of us in the audience…and it is not a pleasant gaze. "For here there is no place / that does not see you." There is an accountability and responsibility in that line that will terrify most people. If you aren't feeling the pangs of guilt, Rilke uses the final line to demand "You must change your life." If you thought this was a harmless poem about a statue, boy were you wrong! This is a poem about a poet challenging you to live your life and not resort to the comfortable complacency of a statue.

I read this poem often. And even though it has a tightly constructed ending, it is a immensely challenging piece of literature. Wherever you are in life this is a poem that requires you to take a step back, evaluate, and then act. Recently as I've read this poem I've looked at the final line as the beginning of another poem. This has morphed into a fun mini writing exercise that produces different results from day to day. Take the final line of Rilke's poem (You must change your life) as a first line and from there go ahead and produce nine lines of your own. I'm curious to see what you come up with and if this exercise works for you like it has for me. Here's a recent effort that I came up with; it's not anything groundbreaking, but I like it:

(After Rilke)

Charge into the unknown darkness
and crack those useless fears
staking you to the tidy tract,
release the past—people, places, words
you promised you'd never forget—
feel them traveling within you,
sharing your breath, embracing
your most beautiful struggle. Each of us
must discover our joyful purpose;
you are almost there. Go!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Kiss --- Stephen Dunn

The Kiss

"She pressed her lips to mind" --- a typo

How many years I must have yearned
for someone's lips against mind.
Pheromones, newly born, were floating
between us. There was hardly any air.

She kissed me again, reaching that place
that sends messages to toes and fingertips,
then all the way to something like home.
Some music was playing on its own.

Nothing like a woman who knows
to kiss the right thing at the right time,
then kisses the things she's missed.
How had I ever settled for less?

I was thinking this is intelligence,
this is the wisest tongue
since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear,
speaking sense. It's the Good,

defining itself. I was out of my mind.
She was in. We married as soon as we could.

---Stephen Dunn

The Kiss by Stephen Dunn

Oh how I love when greatness comes out of a mistake. Are there any more humble origins for successes than mistakes? A stale, moldy piece of bread trumps countless hours of lab research in the discovery of powerful antibiotics; a misplaced comma or two is the difference between one million dollars and one dollar; a fluttering of wind steers a ship far enough off course that it reaches a new land, America, and not the West Indies. An abundance of world-altering discoveries are rooted in mistakes. Powerful business minds, people like Jack Welch, Bill Gates, even Oprah, are often critical of young students and their fear of mistakes. The fear of being wrong pigeonholes us to a safe tract; what great discoveries have been made from the safe tract? I see what these folks are getting at. Mistakes provide the best learning experiences possible. In fact, our missteps are sometimes not even missteps at all, but mere launching off points for epiphanies. In his poem The Kiss, Stephen Dunn seizes upon a harmless, mindless typo to create a beautiful poem that plumbs the emotional depths a single kiss can accomplish. Someone else's mistake is the catalyst for Dunn's treasured poem.

Before anything else it is funny: "She pressed her lips to mind." Reading that line surely induces a chuckle, as it should. Mistakes are funny because they are unexpected and goofy. It would be simple to stop at that and move on, maybe telling someone about the typo over coffee later in the day. Dunn doesn't take the simple path. Pressing lips to mind is a fascinating image, both scientific, spiritual, sensual, and strangely comforting. This realization is where the poem begins, asking "How many years I must have yearned / for someone's lips against mind." Yes, he's having a little fun with a pun of his own, but again this is just the beginning. He imagines "Pheromones, newly born, were floating / between us," and with that we are transported to a new world where "there was hardly any air." This breathlessness gives an immediacy and magic to the world and to the kiss.

"She kissed me again, reaching that place / that sends messages to toes and fingertips." Wow, that is some deep kiss, but it makes sense that lips upon mind would achieve such a cerebral connection. This melding of mind and body, of the physical with the intellectual, seems indicative of the purest love. How many times do you hear 'I love her for her personality' or 'He has an exquisite mind' and question the validity of these statements? Dunn is showing us a true representation of loving someone's mind with your body; a kiss to the mind, a transfer of the physical, emotional, and intellectual at the same time. Pardon the pun, but it's mind-blowing. The kiss doesn't just orbit to his bodies furthest points, but it probes inward "all the way to something like home." While it reaches for his most comfortable and guarded places, Dunn obliges, noting "some music was playing on its own."

I want to pause for a moment from the analysis to look at a few technical aspects Dunn has mastered with this poem. While the poem is eighteen lines in length, I would still contend it is a modified sonnet. The subject matter certainly fits the bill for a sonnet, focusing on a kiss, albeit a metaphysical one, and the romance that accompanies it. Most of the lines are roughly similar in length and syllables. The stanzas are organized into quatrains, with a final couplet at the end. There is also the skeleton of a rhyme scheme within the poem, especially apparent in the middle of the poem. 'Home' and 'own' provide a near perfect rhyme in the second stanza, while 'missed' and 'less' deliver the same in the third stanza. The near rhymes (or slant rhymes, if you prefer) in the fourth stanza and final couplet are a little less obvious, but they are there. It might seem lackadaisical at first, but Dunn has done something very clever with rhyme scheme in this poem. Think about the action that is taking place in the poem and the theme it represents. The rhyme scheme begins to appear in the second stanza when the kiss is first beginning and Dunn has music playing on its own. As he slips into the trance the kiss creates and considers the woman doing the kissing, the rhymes continue in the third stanza. In the fourth stanza he tries to evaluate the kiss, and this breaking free to the rational also represents a departure from the rhyme scheme that was popping up in the poem. Dunn has given us a dashing example of tying all of the poem's moving parts together, without drawing attention to his handiwork.

In the midst of this amazing kiss Dunn makes sure to praise the woman for the wonderful gift she is giving him. "Nothing like a woman who knows / to kiss the right thing at the right time." Sure, I could focus on the innuendo in those lines, but that innuendo belies a skillfully buried feature within the compliment. The woman "knows," meaning she has knowledge, not just of the kiss, but of what Dunn loves. This knowing carefully loops back to the poem's beginning when "she pressed her lips to mind." A sign that she is completely knowledgeable, caring, and aware, she "then kisses the things she's missed." I get the sense that she missed things on purpose so that in returning to them there's extra emphasis, but one could easily argue that she doesn't miss anything at all. Either way, Dunn knows, without a doubt, that he is a lucky man, asking about this new kiss, "How had I ever settled for less?"

As with all good kisses, the brain seems to get in the way and force an ending. When Dunn begins to analyze the kiss and thinks "this is intelligence, / the wisest tongue / since the Oracle got into a Greek's ear," he's dooming the kiss to an end. Maybe "dooming" is too strong a word, because as we see the end is a happy one with a marriage, but still his thinking gets in the way of the kiss. Yes, "It's the Good, / defining itself," but this revelation feels somewhat bittersweet, almost like a mistake. We know full well that mistakes might be bad in the short term, but they pay long term dividends that future generations will reap. Maybe Dunn's mistake to end the kiss gave him the chance to go forth and write this poem, to loose her lips from his mind and share with us all that was inside.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Symptom Recital - Dorothy Parker


I do not like my state of mind;
I'm bitter, querulous, unkind.
I hate my legs, I hate my hands,
I do not yearn for lovelier lands.
I dread the dawn's recurrent light;
I hate to go to bed at night.
I snoot at simple, earnest folk.
I cannot take the gentlest joke.
I find no peace in paint or type.
My world is but a lot of tripe.
I'm disillusioned, empty-breasted.
For what I think, I'd be arrested.
I am not sick, I am not well.
My quondam dreams are shot to hell.
My soul is crushed, my spirit sore;
I do not like me any more.
I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.
I ponder on the narrow house.
I shudder at the thought of me…
I'm due to fall in love again.

---Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker's Symptom Recital

Dorothy Parker was one of those immensely talented, yet tortured souls that seem to populate the history of literature. A quick skim of her Wikipedia page (if you accept the validity of anything Wikipedia has to say) reveals a colorful life brimming with brilliance and turmoil. Her mother died when she was a young child and her relationship with her father and stepmother was horrible. She helmed the famed Algonquin Roundtable and was an early contributor to Vogue, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. Ms. Parker has been the subject of numerous movies---and while we're speaking of movies I should mention that Dorothy was a talented screenwriter, as her Academy Award nomination for A Star Is Born confirms. Sadly, Parker experienced failed marriages, a Hollywood blacklisting, severe depression, alcoholism, and the suicidal overdose of one of her husbands. There is much to be surprised about in the trajectory of Parker's life, but the one thing I noticed that surprised me more than anything else was about her collected works, The Portable Dorothy Parker. In the Viking Press Portable Books series there are only three books that have never gone out of print: The Bible, William Shakespeare, and Dorothy Parker.

As much as I'd like to continue a study into Dororthy Parker's fascinating life, we have a poem to discuss and coincidentally it's by Ms. Parker. Symptom Recital is typical Dorothy Parker: impeccably witty, slightly exaggerated, and undeniably raw. The poem is a quick moving and well-rhymed list of all the reasons the poet hates herself and has issues with the world. It's not what many would consider uplifting or positive, until the wry final line turns the poem and its readers completely on their heads. One of the great achievements of this poem is its pacing. Because each line in the poem is eight or nine syllables with a clear AABB rhyme scheme the poem takes on a rhythm that is in unison with the poet's snappy, complaining mindset. From the outset Parker is definitive about the poet's voice: "I do not like my state of mind." I'm not sure there is a more direct first line in all of poetry. Such displays of directness are not always taken well; literary scholars want to be tested, they want a riddle to unravel over the course of the poem. Parker effectively says to hell with that and does it her way in Symptom Recital.

After commenting on her attitude, Parker turns her focus to her physical appearance, her ambition, and her anxieties. "I hate my legs, I hate my hands, / I do not yearn for lovelier lands. / I dread the dawn's recurrent light; / I hate to go to bed at night. / I snoot at simple, earnest folk. / I cannot take the gentlest joke." She does not sound like a fun person to be around, right? Down on herself and down on others, Parker is making a case for being the world's unhappiest and most unlikable person. Out of all the descriptive lines in the poem she might have it spot on when she asserts "I'm disillusioned, empty breasted." Parker's lacing the truth with a little exaggeration because that is the perfect formula to set readers up for her planned twist at the end. Just as the list is beginning to grow stale, the poem speeds up to its grand finale. In this build up the tone subtly shifts; the direct lines that characterized the first half of the poem are replaced by more mysterious lines like "I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse. / I ponder on the narrow house." But this is a mere reprieve from the poem's in-your-face nature. Parker slams the ending upon readers and it works particularly well because of the penultimate line. "I shudder at the thought of me… / I'm due to fall in love again." In a poem that has adhered to strict rhythm and rhyme rules, the variation that caps the poem is the perfect punchline to an intricately crafted joke. All the quibbles she has with the world and all the distresses she has with herself are the human factors that signal she's ripe for redemption by the bittersweet uber-force of love.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Ripening --- Wendell Berry


The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been.
And yet as we know the dead
we grow familiar with the world.
We, who were young and loved each other
ignorantly, now come to know
each other in love, married
by what we have done, as much
as by what we intend. Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know. It was bitter to learn
that we come to death as we come
to love, bitter to face
the just and solving welcome
that death prepares. But that is bitter
only to the ignorant, who pray
it will not happen. Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening. How sweet
to know you by the signs of this world!

---Wendell Berry

Ripening by Wendell Berry

As I "ripen" and the "signs of this world" present themselves in a variety of unpredictable ways I find myself repeating a common refrain: If I had knew then what I know now…To have the knowledge I do now, when I could have used it sooner is absorbing, tantalizing, and slightly mischievous. Yet again fate seems to have the upper hand, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. Maybe, as Wendell Berry shows us in his poem Ripening, there is nothing more natural than taking the bitter with the sweet, using our lives and taking risks rather than allowing our days to expire routinely toward inevitable death.

"The longer we are together / the larger death grows around us." Yep, now that's an uplifting beginning to a poem; I can almost feel the sunshine, smell the fragrant flowers in bloom, see the rainbow, and hear the sweet notes of a harp. It may not be fun or comforting, but Berry's blunt first lines plant us squarely into the mindset he wants us to be in. Those of us that are lucky to live long enough will have a moment where we look around and see tangible clues that death is venturing toward us. Maybe death is still a long ways out, but it's clear that his itinerary includes a visit with us. You see it in the friends and family that are no longer with you. When your bones ache, thoughts of death are not far off. When you can't remember the name of the restaurant you ate at on your first date with your spouse, death will remind you exactly what it is you're forgetting. These are just some of the "costs of having been," but as Berry reminds us the collection of these costs coincides with refreshing discoveries. Similar to those aha moments I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, as we "grow familiar with the world" we lose some of our ignorance and "come to know / each other in love." With our accomplishments and motives mixing, Berry notices that we carry sparks of passion and long suffering dreams, contained and "bearing the seed / of what we know." He compares our gray and thinning hair, falling off and away to those seeds of ourselves scattering amongst the world. I'd like to think this image, this metaphor, is a little late. We give these pieces of ourselves once we realize, with confidence, that what we have to give is worth any sacrifice we might incur. Berry assumes this moment arrives later in life, but this is where I beg to differ.

Yes, it is "bitter to learn / that we come to death as we come / to love," that is to say it is bitter to learn that we are ill-prepared, a little selfish, and undoubtedly afraid. Yet, in both cases, we loosen and allow ourselves to transform, often changing for the better. I've heard friends comment on married couples saying "they help the other person to be the best possible version of themselves." This is not the work of a moment, but rather a gradual learning of each other as they ripen to different places in their lives. When this proverbial perfect couple is afraid of the next step they discuss those fears, they live those fears, and they plan for what those fears might become. What might seem "just and solving" at one point in life changes with perspective. Acquiring experiences seems to shift the prism through which we view our lives and these new vantage points are what allows Berry to surmise that death is "bitter / only to the ignorant, who pray / it will not happen." I don't need to tell you what they say about death and taxes, but still there are people who live in utter denial (and I'm not talking about paying their taxes!). I feel sorry for those people, but I know how difficult their load is to bear. It only dawned on me within the last five years that I would someday die. It took me to my mid twenties to figure out that I was not immortal, when even a child could have told you that simple bit of knowledge. I didn't really pay death much mind and in some ways that was a great thing I can never have back. But when I came to the realization that myself and all the people I care about will one day die, I was immediately awestruck with a chilling, debilitating fear. I would think about it all the time, even in moments of joy when there was no reason to think about anything bad at all, let alone death. I couldn't reconcile the truth with what I wanted to be true. As I've continued to ripen, I've come my own "bitter way to better prayer." By the way, how great is that line! The internal rhyme of bitter and better is genius and there's even a little something going on between way and prayer. The poem's epiphanous conclusion is "the sweetness of ripening" and fittingly it is not given, but earned over a lifetime. I know I haven't completely tasted the sweetness of my ripening, but each time I have a moment where the signs of the world present themselves I know I'm on the right track and it feels as good as bittersweet can.

Monday, April 5, 2010

It Is This Way With Men --- CK Williams


They are pounded into the Earth
like nails; move an inch,
they are driven down again.
The earth is sore with them.
It is a spiny fruit
that has lost hope
of being raised and eaten.
It can only ripen and ripen.
And men, they too are wounded.
They too are sifted from their loss
and are without hope. The core
softens. The pure flesh softens
and melts. There are thorns, there
are the dark seeds, and they end.

---CK Williams


I was introduced to this poem and a few others I will share this month in the Robert Bly edited collection The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. Bly and his fellow editors included this CK Williams poem in a section that began with a scathing essay on American culture and our unabashed perfection of denial. The stirring indictment of practical ignorance was aimed at the United States circa 1992, when the book was first published. It goes without saying that the United States of 2010 is quite different. Think, for a moment, of all the things that have contributed to the maturation of our society since 1992—The OJ Trial, The First Gulf War, Hip Hop, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, CDs, Napster, Microsoft, Ipods, Cell Phones, Iphones, 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, Columbine, Virginia Tech, The Second Gulf War, Hanging Chads, Global Warming, The Internet, Email, Reality Television, Barack Obama, Y2K, Starbucks, Tiger Woods, Big Oil, Modern Medicine, Bernie Madoff. Add in a witty turn of phrase or two and you've got an updated version of Billy Joel's We Didn't Start The Fire. Still, there's a valid and valuable reason for presenting this list. With all that has occurred in the last eighteen years are we still the global leaders in denial? There's no denying that a close look at CK Williams' It Is This Way With Men will provide insight on this topic, and possibly insight on why people insist on perpetuating bad puns like the one at the beginning of this sentence.

The men that populate CK Williams' poem, whether they are CEOs, soldiers, or night shift workers, each face the crippling weight of being a man. They can put on happy faces, hiding their fears, doubts, and anxieties from the people they love, but this will eventually catch up with them. These men attempt to provide, reassure, and protect, even as all redemptive beauty slips away from their lives like seaweed carried out with the tide. Williams starts off with a hard charging analytical simile: "They are pounded into the earth / like nails; move an inch, / they are driven down again." We quickly know that man is not in control; Williams is so forceful that readers cannot deny the inherent weaknesses of man in the face of a world relentlessly pursuing not only his body, but also his soul. If he struggles or rebels, man must be put in his place until "the earth is sore with them." Williams shifts the focus from man to where he is being pounded and struck into painful submission. It is not Earth's fault that man is suffering his horrifying fate. In fact, Earth is a surrogate for much of man's pain, becoming "a spiny fruit / that has lost hope / of being raised and eaten." While it has become common to view humans as culprits in the destruction of Mother Earth, Williams displays the shared futility of human beings and the land they inhabit. Readers could see this as a denial on Williams' part to acknowledge mankind's share of the blame in Earth's deterioration, but as the poem moves denial is sharply peeled away.

What about mankind's culpability? Surely, we are to blame for the evils we perpetuate upon each other and our world? Before assigning blame, Williams begs that we take a closer look at man. Through the poet's eyes men, "they too are wounded. / They too are sifted from their loss / and are without hope." Well if that doesn't make you excited and proud to be a human then I don't know what will! Obviously I'm kidding, but this is a seriously bleak assertion from Williams. First he identifies our scars. They could be our own, they could be from previous generations and handed down to us, or they could be a startling mixture of both. Then Williams notices that we are "sifted from (our) loss." This line puzzled me on my first reading of the poem, but I've come to believe that it represents both a separation from our losses and a marking by these losses. The inability to forget is both the greatest blessing and most painful curse of being human. What we had and lost clearly reminds and remains with us. Finally, Williams concludes that we are hopeless; this is his diagnosis. If we, as a people, are as good at denial as Robert Bly surmises then we must possess hope, even if it is a miniscule sliver of hope. At the root of denial is the faint belief that someway, somehow things will get better. It might be a weak, roundabout philosophical argument on my part, but I'm holding out hope that CK Williams is wrong about us, and I'm willing to accept Bly's ideas on American denial to fortify my argument.

From Williams' viewpoint, the hopeless man decomposes in a clear, biological manner. "The core / softens. The pure flesh softens / and melts. There are thorns, there / are the dark seeds, and they end." It does sound rather similar to the aging process we go through as humans, minus the part about thorns. As the body ages, the physical changes include a softening of the skin, weight gain in the center, age spots on the skin, wrinkles, less energy and strength, even the loss of memory and mental function. But do we lose our ability to feel? If our core is softening then we could assume that Williams is targeting our hearts with that line. The heart is widely accepted as our symbolic emotional center. If our hearts soften then we lose the ability to feel. The implications of such a change on a human being are incredibly wide reaching; no more romance or love of any kind, no more regretting past indiscretions or hurtful words better left unsaid, no more thoughts about the legacies we leave for future generations. All of those results aside, consider that when our "core softens" we also lose the ability to live in denial. There would be no reason to deny anything; we would become robotic. It would make complete sense that we would seems to be swallowed by the ground with our thorns and dark seeds, unceremoniously written off with the line "and they end."

I've given this poem a great deal of thought, so much thought that at times I knew I was thinking too hard about the poem and reading things into the poem, but in the end I couldn't let it go without a fight. Seemingly gritty and simple, the poem is multilayered and imbued with complicated philosophical questions. Like many great questions and like many great poems, we don't need a definitive answer to enjoy CK Williams' It Is This Way With Men. All we need is to draw upon our own experiences, the times when we felt like some forces in the world were pounding us into the Earth like nails, or the times when we took a moment to look around us and see others pushed to their breaking points in dire conditions. The wealth of experiences we carry with us as human beings are not all rosy, but the pain is what makes it all real. We have cultivated the ability to deny many things, but because of the balance of good and bad, joy and pain, we read this poem and realize that there is no denying that at times this poem will be true for us and at times it will be as far from the truth as humanly possible.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, And Where, And Why --- Edna St. Vincent Millay


What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

---Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

In listening to a recent poetry podcast about notable winter poems, I was surprised when the conversation turned to Edna St. Vincent Millay and her poem "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why." The commentators on the podcast discussed how Millay has somewhat of a less than stellar reputation among academic poetry readers. You can take "academic" out of the last sentence and insert snobby in its place if you would like; I was just trying to be polite. For some reason Millay's poetry has not stood the test of time. Successive generations have not only found reasons to dismiss her poetry, but they've seemingly searched for reasons. I'm not in the camp that feels Millay was a temporary curiosity. She wrote countless poems that are just as stirring today as they were in the first part of the previous century. Today we are privileged to look at this wonderful sonnet of regret and bewilderment courtesy of the unappreciated Edna St. Vincent Millay.

From the beginning this is a poem of questions…and equally a poem where answers are absent. Starting with the image of the lips she has kissed, the poet launches back into memory asking what, where and why. Almost immediately she responds with uncertainty: "I have forgotten, and what arms have lain / Under my head till morning." Millay's syntax is worth a closer look. Notice how she admits her ignorance and lacking memory, only to resume the list with another concrete image of lovers arms under her head as she sleeps. By breaking up her initial list to admit she has "forgotten," Millay infuses the poem with a back and forth tension. Admittedly, the syntax also must work in congruence with the sonnet's rhyme scheme. Honestly, the end words that compose the infrastructure of the poem's rhyme scheme are far from exotic, yet this is a poem where the rhymes are organic and unassuming. When a poem can execute a rhyme scheme this seamlessly without sacrificing the poem's tone, diction, or theme it is a masterwork and worth studying. The natural rhyme scheme also enables the poem's tense inner struggle to move forward by moving backward into the past: "the rain / is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh / Upon the glass and listen for reply." The ghosts of past lovers in the cold, damp evening rain fall upon our poet, who claimed to have "forgotten." Millay uses rain as a transformative force to evoke the past and rustle the ghosts from the tidy spots where each of us tucks them away. When something—anything—triggers your past and you are presented with long buried memories of former love how real does it feel?

Millay's trip through her past is not that of a valiant hero returning home. Her heart "stirs a quiet pain / For unremembered lads that not again / Will turn to me at midnight with a cry." The fact that Millay will hear their cries at midnight implies that she is anxious and sleepless over the disruption of her present life with echoes from her past. At this particularly tense moment the poem turns again, this time shifting to a "lonely tree" in winter in a very clear metaphor. Like Millay who forgot her lovers, the tree does not know "what birds have vanished one by one," but the distance from herself afforded by the metaphor allows her to use the tree to admit that it "knows its boughs more silent than before." It is a metaphorical revelation that sets up the poem's sharp and emotion laden ending. At the point where traditionally a sonnet turns, Millay succumbs to the truth: "I cannot say what loves have come and gone, / I only know that summer sang in me / A little while, that in me sings no more." The identity of the lovers, the specifics of their features, is ultimately not what she, or any of us, need to concern ourselves with. Even though details are crucial to reality, the end impact is something that can't be replicated: emotional recall. Where Millay's emotional state was balanced at the beginning of the poem, she is certainly fatigued by the end. This fatigue isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does bring with it an honest pain. Admitting to herself that the full warmth of summer that we associate with being in love has long ago left her is very brave. Millay's courage exists in making herself vulnerable and sharing her unfulfilling truth with the world by writing and publishing the poem. The next time a poetry blueblood stoops to disparage Edna St. Vincent Millay I hope he or she will pause and remember this poem and numerous others where Millay crafts startlingly powerful lines and images.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Changed Man --- Robert Phillips


If you were to hear me imitating Pavarotti
in the shower every morning, you'd know
how much you have changed my life.

If you were to see me stride across the park,
waving to strangers, then you would know
I am a changed man—like Scrooge

awakened from his bad dreams feeling feather-
light, angel-happy, laughing the father
of a long line of bright laughs—

"It is still not too late to change my life!"
It is changed. Me, who felt short-changed.
Because of you I no longer hate my body.

Because of you I buy new clothes.
Because of you I'm a warrior of joy.
Because of you and me. Drop by

this Saturday morning and discover me
fiercely pulling weeds gladly, dedicated
as a born-again gardener.

Drop by on Sunday—I'll Turtlewax
your sky-blue sports car, no sweat. I'll greet
enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors

with a papal largesse. It's all because
of you. Because of you and me,
I've become one changed man.

---Robert Phillips

The Changed Man by Robert Phillips

In those carpe-diem moments where the past and future stretch out nicely and the present slows to a standstill, seemingly with the whole wide world waiting on you to make a decision, one key element is so often neglected. Whether we seize the day or let it slip away, far too often we fail to express gratitude. There is so much to be thankful for: the moment, the experiences that lead you there, the skills and talents you possess, the good weather, the bus being on time, the free ticket to the concert or game or museum where you'll bump into a long lost friend or a soon-to-be love of your life. Along the way there are many features that factor into our stations in life, particularly the people who nudge us in the right direction and help us to see elements of ourselves that we couldn't see on our own. Robert Phillips is "The Changed Man" because he decided to make changes to his life, but he would never have made those changes without a catalyst, someone who supplied him with a small amount of courage that would grow fearless inside of him. This poem is about thanking those who help us along the way, not just by saying thank you but also by living our gratitude.

We must start with the poem's tone. Comfortable and conversational, the poem speaks in such a direct and intimate manner that readers cannot do anything but assume the role of Phillips' "you" character. The tone of the poem levels the playing field immediately by breaking down the distance between readers and the poet's influential "you." Of course he is writing this poem to his beloved, but we are given an all-access pass. How else would we know he imitates "Pavarotti / in the shower every morning" or more importantly, why he does this? Because the tone is utterly personal, the emotional reveals in the poem slap readers with tremendous, yet subtle force. There is nothing remarkable about "striding across the park, / waving to strangers," and yet this comparison to Scrooge is heartwarming on the surface, but unwittingly complex. "Feather- / light, angel-happy, laughing the father / of a long line of bright laughs" and somewhere in this description it ceases to describe Scrooge and the image of our poet-speaker rounds out in the minds of readers. I would argue the images pack such a punch because of how they interact with the poem's tone. A veritable tidal balance is at work here with the personal tone pulling us in, while the quotidian images and actions push us back to the universal, only to tug us back again with underlying emotional significance. Still, this current is anything but choppy, in fact it feels perfectly natural.

Just when we're thinking the homage to A Christmas Carol is running a bit thick, Phillips abruptly shifts gears with a mind-numbing, soul-rocking compliment. "Because of you I no longer hate my body." For the depressed and the weak, for the fearful and the ashamed, for the sick and the guilty, sometimes the incarnation of all they hate about being alive is the vessel they are traveling the world in. It is too painful to ask you to put yourself in these places of these fellow human beings, although some of you may know their plights very well---hell, some of you might have been in these stages in the past or are in them now. Take a deep breath and imagine what it is like to love yourself…completely…without judgement. It is a beautiful thing, possibly the most beautiful thing. This is the blessing his beloved has given Phillips; no wonder he would proclaim the role this loved one has played in his immense transformation. "Because of you I buy new clothes. / Because of you I'm a warrior of joy. / Because of you and me." There's an earnest vigilance to the poet's joy, a commitment that isn't ostentatious but runs distinctly through his bones and his whole being as something immeasurable and outside the bounds of science, yet just as sustaining as breath and water.

Yes, there are religious and spiritual undertones in this poem. Bells should toll within the cathedral of your soul when you read the lines "dedicated / as a born-again gardener" and "I'll greet / enemies with a handshake, forgive debtors / with a papal largesse." But these religious issues could fill a whole essay on their own. Instead, I'm turning my focus to how the end functions as a final movement sailing swiftly upon the poem's tidal balance. The poet asks the person responsible for his changes to "Drop by / this Saturday morning and discover me." He goes on to also recommend a chance visit on Sunday, almost as if he anticipates it might be challenge getting his beloved catalyst for change to visit him. This part of the poem is mysterious and I'm quite curious about the distance it assumes between the poet and his beloved. In fact, it makes me wonder if I've assumed things all wrong. Is this person responsible for his change an actual representative of romantic love? Could it be a mentor? A father figure? A young soul rejuvenating his old tired one? As the questions shuffle us further from certainty on the relationship between the poet and his "you" character, we have that saving current, once again, pulling us back to the poem's clear depth. The gardening and the car waxing are by-products of a life and attitude change that the poet is unabashedly living out with each passing day. Recognizing how he arrived at such a path, he must share with the person most responsible, but he also shares with all of us, that "It's all because / of you. Because of you and me, / I've become one changed man."

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

And so it begins...National Poetry Month 2010

Tomorrow I'll post the first of 15 poems and essays and in doing so I'll kick off the third year of We Convince By Our Presence. Yes, you read that correctly---only 15 poems this year. Real life has caught up to me and I just don't have it in me to post 30 brand new, high quality essays to go with my favorite poems for every day in April. It's a little disappointing, but I realize this will benefit the blog in the long run. I plan to post a new entry every other day. We'll explore some exciting, thought provoking, and emotional poems by an amazing collection of poets including Rainer Maria Rilke, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Ted Kooser. Please join me on this great journey through the beautiful and stirring art of poetry.