Saturday, April 30, 2011
We've reached the end of another April. I've tried desperately to keep up as I've posted a new poem or poetry related feature every day this month, but life has gotten in the way a few times. Still, I hope you've enjoyed the new poems, found something fresh in the old poems, and taken insights and questions away from We Convince By Our Presence this year. It is my intention to continue on a for a fifth year in 2012. I will occasionally post new content (probably more of these movie versions of poems) throughout the year. As always, your comments and ideas are greatly appreciated. Here's to the many ways that poetry makes our lives better!
Friday, April 29, 2011
YOU READING THIS, BE READY
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life---
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
William Stafford's You Reading This, Be Ready
I, like the other 7 billion people on earth right now, have moments where life dazzles and delights me, where I'm in awe of everywhere, everything, and everyone around me. These are the moments I live for...but these moments are special because they are rare. They naturally arise without expectation or anticipation and they just as naturally recede into the minutiae of routines and normal daily life. After reading William Stafford's poem You Reading This, Be Ready, I noticed that the greatest trait we, as human beings, can possess just might be contentment. To be content, truly content, requires a sense of awareness, purpose, and focus that for most people is unattainable. Contentment is hard work! You have to assess your life and the metrics of the world with the most honest vision. This quest takes us into our greatest desires, hopes, and dreams, and while these possibilities can be invigorating the honesty part is certainly a buzz kill. For example, contentment means accepting that because I'm 5 feet 8 inches tall there is very little chance that I'll ever play power forward for the Chicago Bulls. Coming to grips with this realization and other far more traumatic ones is the hard work of finding contentment. The grind continues when you take stock of the good in your life, because conversely you must consider the horrors you've avoided. I might have gripes about my apartment, my car, and my job, but at least I haven't weathered the atrocities of civil war, battled against malaria without proper medicine, or suffered through tsunamis and hurricanes that wiped all I'd accumulated in this world to the bottom of the ocean. I'll repeat it because it bears repeating: contentment is hard work. So what is the payoff? If you asked William Stafford that question I'd bet that this poem would be his answer. Contentment is "sunlight...along a shining floor" and "the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now." Contentment is the peace that Stafford implores us to hold onto, the peace that he wants to breathe through us and fortify our souls. It is fresh and new, it is sparkling and joyous, and because it is these things and so much more, Stafford's words should stay with us: "carry into evening all that you want from this day. This interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life." It would be easy to let this calm cover your surface and because it is easy most people will ingest it in this way. But remember, contentment is difficult, even the pay off is difficult. The payoff, if you accept the challenge, will overwhelm you. The payoff happens when no one is looking "when you turn around." I say all of these things as if I'm an expert, but I've just as guilty of the surface contentment as the next guy or gal. Maybe I should take up the hard work of contentment, maybe it's time to ask Stafford's question: "Starting here, what do you want to remember?"
Thursday, April 28, 2011
A MAN IN HIS LIFE
A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.
A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
takes years and years to do.
A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.
And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.
He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
SONNET OF THE SWEET COMPLAINT
Never let me lose the marvel
of your statue-like eyes, or the accent
the solitary rose of your breath
places on my cheek at night.
I am afraid of being, on this shore,
a branchless trunk, and what I most regret
is having no flower, pulp, or clay
for the worm of my despair.
If you are my hidden treasure,
if you are my cross, my dampened pain,
if I am a dog, and you alone my master,
never let me lose what I have gained,
and adorn the branches of your river
with leaves of my estranged Autumn.
---Frederico Garcia Lorca
Sonnet of the Sweet Complaint by Frederico Garcia Lorca
With some of these essays I try to provide back story on the poet, the poem, or the technique(s) exercised in the poem. This will not be one of those essays. No, in fact, I've included this poem with no knowledge about it. I know a smattering about Lorca and have read about his time in New York, but overall I'm also undereducated on him, compared to some of the other poets featured on We Convince By Our Presence. So, then, the question is why have I included this poem and poet? Sometimes it's refreshing to stumble upon a poem that dazzles you in the moment and engages your own consciousness in a way that is devoid of context. Sonnet of the Sweet Complaint is one of those poems that seems to have refreshed my poetry palette.
The first stanza rings my comparison alarm bells and fills my mind with images of Apollo and his archaic torso, as described by another triple-named poet (Rainer Maria Rilke). The life-like statute that, in it's solid state, still convinces Rilke that he must seize his own fate and change his life is slightly more intense than the "marvel / of your statue like eyes." Still, Lorca is clinging like Rilke, to a "hidden treasure" of a love that allows him to avoid being "a branchless trunk...having no flower." Lorca's testament to love, in the form of powerful metaphors, sweeps through his fears and regrets, only to reach a unique kind of promise.
"If you are my cross, my dampened pain, / if I am a dog, and you alone my master," this litany of burdens and pains that seem to rule and control Lorca is a confusing mixed metaphor if I've ever seen one! Sure, a hidden treasure is a compliment, I guess, although hidden implies an understated quality that could also be seen as downplaying or diminishing his beloved's appearance. Then he compares his love to a cross and dampened pain. It's tough to argue that a cross is a positive comparison, but I'd venture to say that dampened pain implies an easing of pain where it has once been excruciating. And as if it wasn't confusing enough, Lorca caps the stanza off with a strange dog to master analogy that I might expect to see on an old SAT question. Viewed en mass, these comparisons construct a clear mixed message that Lorca hints at in the title of the poem with the ironic choice of "sweet complaint."
Lorca concludes in a continuation of his ironic, wishy-washy style that just might be the most impressive portion of the poem. The metaphors he built into the bedrock of the poem now have a chance to support each other in what appears to be a winding mess, but is actually a carefully orchestrated stanza of chaos. After a tercet of "ifs," if you are like me then you are expecting Lorca to launch into a pretty big "then" to wrap things up. Instead, he issues something that falls between a request, a prayer, and an ultimatum. "Never let me lose what I have gained," transfers the power back to the loved one who he fears might leave him a branchless trunk with no fruit or fauna for his worm of despair to wallow in. Instead, he wants a presence on the branches of his love's river, a presence that is perplexing and illuminating at the same time. The word choice of "estranged" as a descriptor of his Autumn is a fantastic mind bend and one final twist to send us reeling, just as Lorca himself is throughout this poem. The Sweet Complaint is unnerving and disorienting, not just for Lorca, but also for his audience. Interestingly, his most skillful accomplishment in this poem is creating this unnerving and disorienting pendulum that he himself is feeling in the minds of his readers.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Over the last decade, actually even further back, there have been numerous public initiatives to increase the visibility and viability of poetry. Some of these attempts were commercialized and rather artificial tries to stave off the oft proclaimed death of poetry. Other attempts rang true because they were natural and encouraged everyone to embrace poetry, not just the upper crust of the poetry world. One of the programs that I would like to bring some attention to is Life Lines through the Academy of American Poets (http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/339#rfros). A cross section of accomplished poets and attentive readers of poetry, Life Lines are fun to read and provide many personal connections to poems we know and love, as well as poems we might have never encountered before.
Here's an example of lines from a poem I've previously featured on this blog (Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost) with the corresponding mini-essay coming from a poet I've previously featured on this blog (B.H. Fairchild):
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
—from "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost
One night late on my way home from college for Christmas, I was caught in a blizzard without the company of an intelligent guide (I was driving, instead of a horse, a '62 Buick Special). I had passed through the last small town and was halfway between nowhere and Dodge City, Kansas when the road vanished beneath snow and my little car foundered badly. Realizing that no one was going to be passing by until the next day, I got out and started walking. Nothing. Nobody, no thing anywhere. At last the distant light of a farmhouse appeared, the only one, I discovered later, within miles. And if it hadn't been for the family inside that farmhouse, I might simply have frozen to death. As I was walking toward it, I thought of this poem, and I knew that I would be able to keep my promises, and I felt ecstatically liberated. Never have I seen these last lines in "Stopping by Woods" read as liberating rather than duty-bound. So boring for students: oh, this is a little lesson about obligations and responsibility. No time to ski, you've got chores to do before sleep, and you always will, and that's the way life is, suck it up and live with it. But the misunderstanding here is not in the specific explanation; it's in the very attempt at explanation. I hope they continue to teach in high schools the most over taught poem in America; I just wish they would stop explaining it.
Monday, April 25, 2011
FOUR CIVIL WAR PAINTINGS BY WINSLOW HOMER
"...if the painter shows that he observes more than he reflects, we will forget the limitation and take his work as we take nature, which if it does not think, is yet the cause of thought in us." ---The Evening Post, New York, May 31, 1865
(A Union sniper in a tree)
Some part of art is the art
of waiting---the chord
behind the tight fence
of a musical staff,
the sonnet shut in a book.
This is a painting of
waiting: the sharp crack
of the rifle still coiled
under the tiny
percussion cap, the cap
poised under the cocked
curl of the hammer,
and this young man among
the pine needles,
his finger as light as a breath
on the trigger,
just a pinpoint of light
in his one open eye,
like a star you might see
in broad daylight,
if you thought to look up.
Ted Kooser's Four Civil War Paintings by Winslow Homer (1. Sharpshooter)
I'm cheating a little bit by only including this one section of Ted Kooser's examination of four Winslow Homer Civil War paintings, but I'm including this specific section for a reason. Like Ted Kooser, Winslow Homer's Sharpshooter painting spoke to me. Years ago I encountered the picture at the top of this blog post. It was frighteningly real, made all the more unsettling because Homer was observing this soldier waiting for his next kill to wander into sight. Homer's eye for detail made the painting vivid, but also cemented in my mind that he watched this soldier steady himself in his perch and patiently do his job. My mind raced when I stared at this painting, and even now I'm still swimming in backstories for this soldier, the soldier he will shoot at, and their combined families. Homer captures the situation in the midst of the action, filled with tension that only grows as the sharpshooter is always on the ready. I tried my hand at writing a persona poem of Winslow Homer's sharpshooter and I still think the poem is pretty good, but Ted Kooser beat me to it by a bunch of years. If I'm being honest with myself, Ted's poem is probably a little bit more stirring than my own. Why is that so? Well let's see...
With his hard enjambment of the first line producing a symbolic pause and wait for the next line, Ted Kooser launches us into the world of Winslow Homer's Sharpshooter. Homer took his subject and perfectly depicted him at his patient and focused best; Kooser provides examples where similar waiting must take place in the world of art: the musical chord hidden behind a pause and the sonnet trapped in a book waiting to be opened and explored. Just as the action is supposed by Kooser, Homer has taught him how to do this with his Sharpshooter painting. Kooser notes this in a list that builds sequentially backward from the "sharp crack of the rifle" to the "young man among / the pine needles." At this moment, after all the planning and setup, Kooser delivers the goods. He describes the soldier's finger "as light as a breath / on the trigger." This simile folds into another that is so intricately constructed that it comes off as natural as the breath Kooser just described. "A pinpoint of light / in his one open eye" is filtered from Homer's canvas through Kooser's mind to become "a star you might see / in broad daylight, / if you thought to look up." This is such a clever, fitting, and abrupt ending. Notice how Kooser has kept us aware of the event in the painting and the art of capturing this action, but now he finally shifts the readers into the minds of the prey. We are left as the soldiers walking along the path home or the path to the next battle, only to meet our swift demise. Kooser knows there is beauty in the Sharpshooter's eye, that is why he compares it to a star. Still, the Sharpshooter and his eye are also elusive, a quality that is essential to his survival and success. Purposefully, Kooser has kept our vision focused on the Sharpshooter up to this point, but in the end he shakes us with the final line of "if you thought to look up." This disorienting closure throws us back into the role of the soldiers walking the trail. We have just studied the hunter and now, without warning and not by choice we become the hunted. It is primitive and painful, it is masterful and measured, it is emblematic of many struggles that develop in war, but most of all it is great art rising from the carcass of our country's greatest prolonged tragedy and spurring on a chain of great art in years to follow.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
LOSING THE GAME
On the face of this midfielder,
a saint’s passion.
Sweat brilliantines his hair
flat as a seal pup’s fur.
Thorns rake one knee, and fatigue
is a train whistle that never quits.
In his mind, the falcon of defeat
slips off its own hood
and sails into the vapory cold December,
hangs like a crucifixion over the field,
then slants down the wide thermal
of his shame. Today 2 + 2 is algebra,
and nothing will transmute
his base metal to gold leaf.
When crowd and players have gone,
he watches the sun set
under a tumultuous bruise of sky,
below the empty grin of the bleachers,
deep into the valley,
a ghastly, yellow bile draining out.
Diane Ackerman's Losing The Game
I've always found it inspiring to see young athletes expose so much of their physical and emotional selves in order to perform to their best ability. You've probably heard the same sports cliches that I have, phrases like "you can't win 'em all," "give it your best shot," "there's no I in team," and "leave it all on the field." Notice that last phrase, "leave it all on the field," and think about how those six simple words can propel teenagers to sacrifice themselves for the good of their team. Just this past week I watched a piece on ESPN's E60 that showcased a girls high school cross country team in the San Francisco area. This team is a perennial powerhouse and is coached by a highly respected leader in the field of running. Unfortunately, this gentlemen has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and he is slowly losing his body to the disease. For a man who is used to running miles every day, it's now a struggle to walk step-by-step. His team of young women, realizing this might their last season with their coach, performed exceptionally this year, especially at the State Championship Meet. The E60 piece honed in on this meet and how the team's championship hopes hinged on the team captain's finish. With less than a 100 yards to the finish line her body shut down and with less than 10 yards to the finish she collapsed on all fours. Displaying that aforementioned trait of "leaving it all on the field" the young woman crawled the remaining yards with other runners passing her by. Severly dehydrated, she finished and placed high enough for the team to win another state championship for their ailing coach. It's stories like this that reinforce the thrill of victory and the epitome of why we compete. Diane Ackerman's poem Losing The Game is not about the thrill of victory. The agony of defeat is just as much a part of why we compete. If there is a winner then there has to be a loser. Learning to lose is just as important to savoring a win. The lessons gained from losing might not be immediately applicable, but with the distance that time provides we can gain much from our unsuccessful experiences.
Teenage athletes are admirable for the passion they display in their athletic pursuits. We've already mentioned "leaving it all on the field," and this mindset allows student athletes to view games as matters of life and death. In some athletes this brings out the worst, prompting cheating, unsporting behavior, and violence. In other athletes this brings out the best and they display perseverance, sportsmanship, and a selflessness that is rare in society. Older generations sometimes scoff at youthful exuberance for athletics, failing to remember that time in their lives when their team's performance meant the world to them. Yes, there is life beyond my JV soccer team's performance in tonight's game, but the high school sophomore can't see that life. The future is far off and as a result the here and now takes precedence. With that thought in mind, Diane Ackerman constructed an accurate depiction of what it is like to lose a game as a student athlete. There is an epic quality to her poem Losing The Game and if you can't see it, instead viewing the poem as melodrama, then you might be a part of that generation out-of-touch with youthful passion.
Diane Ackerman's poem Losing The Game is carefully constructed to reinforce the high school sporting event as an epic happening. The midfielder's face has "a saint's passion" and his hair is not just matted with sweat, but it dramatically "brilliantines his hair / flat as a seal pup's fur." The athlete, who presumably will go home to study for subjects like algebra and his driving exam, takes on the qualities of a battle weary warrior. As "thorns rake his knee" and Ackerman takes us into his mind, which is a creative and perceptive universe of thoughts, emotions, and reactions. In his mind, the game is not a fixed period of quarters or halves with a final outcome that sends everyone home in their cars to resume their lives afterwards. No, "In his mind, the falcon of defeat / slips off its own hood / and sails into the vapory cold December, / hangs like a crucifixion over the field, / then slants down the wide thermal / of his shame." His mind can't loosen its grip on defeat, but there is a beauty in his downtrodden nature. Passion exudes from his defeated shell, and although he may have lost, Ackerman's athlete equates his game with the more important things in his life. This is apparent in the overarching religious motif, where the athlete has thorns, crucifixion, saints, and a swirling symbolic falcon on his mind. Like many leaders, both religious and secular, throughout history, the athlete in Diane Ackerman's poem reflects in solitude after the "crowd and players have gone." His eyes and heart are open, the defeat has left him exposed and raw. As a result, the sky is a "tumultuous bruise," the bleachers are taunting him with their "empty grin," and the sun is not tinged in gold as it sets but it is a "ghastly, yellow bile draining out." Ackerman captures the mind of a young athlete in the grips of defeat so vividly that she doesn't miss a single truth or nuance. This is the temporary mental paralysis of defeat, but this is also the stage that will allow for life-altering growth. No one wants to lose the game, but everyone wants the long term benefits that come from losing and reflecting on that loss to improve yourself. Even the cross country team and their coach that E60 profiled recently knows they will not win every race, but I would guess that they let the taste of their losses linger in their mouths each time they approach a new race reminding them what could happen if they fail to "leave it all on the field."
Saturday, April 23, 2011
I admire Kenneth Koch and the tireless work he did to inspire joy and foster creativity in elementary school students in New York City. Koch, a talented poet and college professor, tackled the "problem" of poetry's inaccessibility by taking it to children. The question that bugged Koch was how do you teach children great poetry that the world believes is too advanced for them and more likely to be understood by adults? It's a tough question indeed, but answering it thoroughly and thoughtfully could alter the way that a whole population of children approach poetry, and on a larger level, approach all art. In Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, Koch details his experiences teaching the reading and writing of poetry to elementary schoolers. Koch believed that: "The problem in teaching adult poetry to children is that for them it often seems difficult and remote; the poetry ideas, by making the adult poetry to some degree part of an activity of their own, brought it closer and made it more accessible to them. The excitement of writing carried over to their reading; and the excitement of the poem they read inspired them in their writing." If any of this sounds interesting to you, I would highly encourage you to check out Koch's book of the aforementioned title, or at least to check out an excerpt of a related article at this website: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/17152
I'll leave you today with a poem by one of Koch's talented students:
Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see,
Carmen ate the prettiest rose in the world and then
just then the great change of heaven occurred and she
became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.
Lions, why does your mane flame like fire of the devil?
Because I have the speed of the wind
and the strength of the earth at my command.
Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been
born with the despair to walk the earth without
the power of flight and am damned to do so.
Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted
the power to fly? Because I was meant to sit
upon the branch and to be with the wind.
Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power
to slaughter your fellow animal? I do not answer.
-- Chip Wareing, 5th grade, PS 61
Friday, April 22, 2011
I know I'm not the only National Poetry Month Blogger out there. In fact, I derive just as much pleasure in checking out the writing of some of my fellow poetry bloggers as I do in constructing my own essay and entries. One blog I've been checking out recently is The Southern Review's Lagniappe, which has featured entries titled "Poems I'm Glad I Know" from a select group of writers and editors. It reminds me of the playlists that celebrities post on Itunes with their words on why certain songs resonate with them. Sadly, one of the editors and driving forces behind the site and TSR in general, Jeanne Lieby appears to have passed away recently. In tribute, TSR posted Lieby's choices for "Poems I'm Glad I Know." Here is that posting: http://www.thesouthernreviewblog.org/
Here's my five selections for "Poems I'm Glad I Know":
1. Body And Soul - by B.H. Fairchild (This remains my favorite poem. It is mesmerizing like few other poems and pieces of art that I've ever experienced. The images are enchanting, the story and characters are authentic, and the language rolls off the tongue in establishing a folksy, yet all-knowing tone. It might be a long poem, but it's worth every second you spend with it.)
2. One Art - by Elizabeth Bishop (You want to read the perfect villanelle, well here it is. Bishop's pain is on display in this poem and by the end it is a tangible anchor that she takes from her neck and transfers to the reader as a weight they must bear. Like Fairchild, Bishop's mastery of tone and language is spellbinding.)
3. Tonight I Can Write - by Pablo Neruda (I've long wondered if anything new can be written about love because Pablo Neruda seemingly wrote it all! In what might be his most famous poem, Neruda exposes his longing, love, and loss with such bittersweet truth that well after reading the poem Neruda's words will still ring through your body like the tattering on cymbals during a drum solo. And if you ever want to hear this poem read dramatically, then you should search for the soundtrack to Il Postino, where Andy Garcia gives a powerful reading.)
4. Oranges - by Gary Soto (The snap, sway, and sweetness of youth is nowhere more evident than in this poem from Soto. Image driven and fueled by figurative language, Soto's poem, like the young boy who serves as the central character, "knows what it's all about." Read this poem and you'll be swimming in memories from childhood, possibly of your first crush, first kiss, and first love.)
5. Song Of The Open Road (Section 5) - by Walt Whitman (This poem could very well be my private prayer and the mantra I live by. Whitman's words are like a heartbeat challenging us to beat along with it, to never give up or deviate from who we are and who we should be. I repeat this poem to myself when I need to center myself or be reminded of what I can do to make the world and myself better. I can hear the words now..."I am larger, better than I thought, / I did not know I held so much goodness."
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Why don't we cruise
Times Square at noon
enjoy the jam
I'm not immune
to your deft charm
in one stalled car
I'd like to take
you as you are
TAXI by Elise Paschen
Before anything else, our first impulse is to understand. In our search for answers, we often carry our own baggage with us and put it to work. With our baggage in tow, we attempt to find depth, or create depth where it doesn't exist. What a mistake this can be! Because we want something more, something more literary, something more high brow and challenging, we miss out on the art right before our eyes. It's like showering the prom queen with attention, but ignoring the girl-next-door who's loved you forever.
Taxi by Elise Paschen is a perfect example of a small, but powerful poem that loses some of its truth and beauty when we try to read more into it than actually exists. In this poem, Paschen has fun with words and their sounds. There are rhymes and slant rhymes all in a neat package of eight lines, each containing four syllables. Paschen establishes pace very deliberately with the structure and she's chosen. It's a single image of the poet and a friend, or presumably a lover, in a midday Times Square traffic jam that sets the poem in motion. There's irony in the poem rumbling to life with a traffic jam. But the traffic slows the outside world so that the world inside the car takes center stage. Paschen takes this deliberate moment to highlight that she is "not immune / to (your) deft charm / in one stalled car." She knows it is charm and there could be pretense behind it, but she also knows that it works on her. In fact, it works so well that she understands herself and what she wants. She'd "like to take / you as you are." Yes, this poem has clever line breaks and a fun rhyme scheme. I could break these down and show how Paschen creates something truly great in the short course of eight lines, but sometimes you just have to pause, take a breath, and remind yourself not to complicate a piece of art that is already great without me and my baggage.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
R & R
The curve of her hip where I’d lay my head,
that’s what I’m thinking of now, her fingers
gone slow through my hair on a blue day
ten thousand miles off in the future somewhere,
where the beer is so cold it sweats in your hand,
cool as her kissing you with crushed ice,
her tongue wet with blackberry and melon.
That's what I’m thinking of now.
Because I’m all out of adrenaline,
all out of smoking incendiaries.
Somewhere deep in the landscape of the brain,
under the skull’s blue curving dome—
that’s where I am now, swaying
in a hammock by the water’s edge
as soldiers laugh and play volleyball
just down the beach, while others tan
and talk with the nurses who bring pills
to help them sleep. And if this is crazy,
then let this be my sanatorium,
let the doctors walk among us here
marking their charts as they will.
I have a lover with hair that falls
like autumn leaves on my skin.
Water that rolls in smooth and cool
as anesthesia. Birds that carry
all my bullets into the barrel of the sun.
R&R by Brian Turner
Everyone needs something to look forward to, a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel that keeps us focused and fuels us through our most challenging moments. Goals are what make the process worthwhile. For a soldier, like Brian Turner, the lack of a goal can be deadly. Without opportunities, possibilities, and the joyous love waiting at home, soldiers might be overtaken by the darkness around them. The rest and relaxation that Turner describes in R&R might be an illusion, but some illusions are necessary to the preservation of reality.
In a quiet moment away from the dangers and rigors of combat, the speaker in Brian Turner's poem R&R thinks of "the curve of her hip" where he'd "lay his head" and "her fingers / gone slow through (his) hair." The curve of his love's hip could just as well be the curve of his gun handle, but he needs an outlet from the violent world he resides in. That outlet, even though it's "ten thousand miles off in the future somewhere," is a peaceful place that resembles a utopian reward "where the beer is so cold it sweats in your hand, / cool as her kissing you with crushed ice, / her tongue wet with blackberry and melon." Turner's outlet is familiar, refreshing, and sweet, but he only seeks the outlet because he's "all out of adrenaline, / all out of smoking incendiaries." Crashing from his rough current reality, he seeks a comfortable place in a previous world that he hopes to visit again in the future.
Turner can thread images of joy together, but even he acknowledges they are "somewhere deep in the landscape of the brain." They are figments, but somehow they seem so real. In fact, they are imbued with such reality that Turner must confront the idea of lunacy. He knows how it looks and declares "And if this is crazy, / then let this be my sanatorium, / let the doctors walk among us here / marking their charts as they will." He doesn't care how it looks and he doesn't care if he truly is crazy because this diversion from the pain of his real, war-torn life is the key to his survival. It is the R&R that allows Turner to so beautifully tell the world, and remind himself, that he has "a lover with hair that falls / like autumn leaves on (my) skin." She is the goal, the reason, the reward. She...and the water...and the sun...and the world where evil can exist, but where beauty, truth, hope, and love are prone to "roll in smooth and cool."
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
GOOSE POPULATION GAINS HIGH LEVEL
Headline (New York Times)
Besides pollution and erosion
We now must face a goose explosion.
A glut of geese can play the devil
With national life on every level,
Especially in politics,
Where geese and government intermix.
This solemn thought I introduce:
The higher the level, the bigger the goose.
Goose Population Gains High Level by Ogden Nash
Oh, how I chuckle nearly every time I read an Ogden Nash poem. It's often a challenge to fuse poetry with humor, but Nash embraced the challenge and made a fairly successful career out of witty words. Of his many worthy poems, I chose this one from Nash because I share his strong dislike for geese. Having worked at golf courses growing up, I've had my fair share of run-ins with these evil creatures. The angry hiss of a hard charging goose is one of the more aggressive displays I've seen in my life. Not only are geese mean, territorial animals, but they seem to procreate disproportionately and they have a propensity to poop everywhere. With those character traits in the back of his mind, Nash constructs a fitting metaphor between our political leaders and geese. Admittedly, I don't have much to say about this poem from a technical perspective, but I still think it's a fabulous poem and funny detour during this National Poetry Month. In fact, I bet you'll think of this poem the next time you step into a pile of slimy, sticky dark green goose poop.
Monday, April 18, 2011
A few years back, Billy Collins devised a rather simple, yet wholly substantive way to reintroduce poetry to the mainstream. He looked at the public school calendar and realized there are approximately 180 days in the school year. At that point he set about collecting 180 poems to be read (some of them aloud) in classrooms by students on a daily basis. The poems would need to be humorous, interesting, intelligent, touching, and fun; after all, they would be for a very difficult audience of school aged children and teens. Collins collected a diverse set of poems into his first collection for Poetry 180. It is a stunningly addictive book that I would recommend to any poetry lover. Collins followed this first collection up with a second 180 poems to use in the classroom. Speaking of the classroom, I have used Poetry 180 with students and have noticed it to be quite engaging and stimulating. Students seem to respond to the relevance of the poems Collins has selected; instead of flowery, archaic verse, Poetry 180 delivers the in-your face modernity that students need to find poems to be real. If that isn't enough motivation for you, then I'll mention this: many of the poems featured on this blog over the last four years have come from the Poetry 180 collections. I encourage all of you to check out Poetry 180, and those of you who are teaching I would advise you to find a way to include it in your classrooms. You'll thank me, and Billy Collins, later!
Sunday, April 17, 2011
As the falling rain
trickles among the stones
memories come bubbling out.
It's as if the rain
had pierced my temples.
the reedy voice
of the servant
telling me tales
They sat beside me
and the bed creaked
that purple-dark afternoon
when I learned you were leaving forever,
a gleaming pebble
from constant rubbing
becomes a comet.
Rain is falling
and memories keep flooding by
they show me a senseless
but I keep loving it
because I do
because of my five senses
because of my amazement
because every morning,
because forever, I have loved it
without knowing why.
Rain by Claribel Alegria
Isn't it funny how rain stirs memories and gives us reason to pause and think. We've had torrential storms here in the Washington D.C. area these last few days, yet I've found time to open my windows and sit in the dark silence listening to the clip clap of heavy raindrops thumping the ground. I'm left, like Claribel Alegria, thinking and sifting through the memories that "come bubbling out." The "pierced temples" that Alegria speaks of are not so much an immediate pain, but more so a tunneling into the past that we hold in our fragile minds. In these gentle containers of time gone by, we carry "tales of ghosts." For Alegria the ultimate tale is when she learned her beloved was leaving forever. This pain reminds her that "a gleaming pebble / from constant rubbing / becomes a comet." In this example that serves as a much larger metaphor for what happens in life, the pebble is striped of it's gleam and beauty by the constant pressure and pain, only to find new life in a form of even greater beauty, strength, and rarity. The trade off is that the comet can't be touched, can't be predicted accurately all the time, and is perfectly distant in it's beauty, almost as a mythical creature is. A transformation like this is bound to remind Alegria, and all of us readers, that memories point out what we don't want to acknowledge about the world: that it can't be figured out. The "senseless world" is "abyss / ambush / whirlwind / spur," it's a place of confusion, disillusionment, and longing. Still, the world, with all its faults is also spread full with goodness, with reasons for holding those memories that can unlock our pasts we would rather keep hidden. Alegria enumerates these reasons the world is good when she closes the poem by saying "but I keep loving it / because I do / because of my five senses/ because of my amazement / because every morning, / because forever, I have loved it / without knowing why." The world eludes our understanding, even though the rain stirs memories and begs us to find purpose and clarity in our past and present. We may continue to seek understanding and we may continue to be frustrated as our quest leads us to dead ends, but there is a greater message. Do not lose the love of life, do not forget to greet each day with your senses that make something like rain so enchanting and mesmerizing, do not lose the ability to be amazed, do not lose the fresh starts of new days, and do not lose the past, even if it is tinged with pain, because all is prelude to now, and now you are ready to live.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
Time heals most wounds, but it leaves a sliver of what existed before the pain. Tragedies come in all shapes and sizes, impacting individuals and whole nations worldwide, regardless of class, race, religion, and any other classification you can produce. No one survives a tragedy unscathed; all of us with some connection---even a thin, seemingly minor connection---are left to cope with the silence of lost voices, the vibrant lives so abruptly and unfairly taken from us. It doesn't help to wonder what could have been and there's only little comfort in remembering what was. The only positive we can take from tragedy is the rising triumph of the human spirit. Together, we acknowledge our sorrow and pain, but we also acknowledge the selfless strength of character our community possesses. Why am I offering this treatise on rememberance and tragedy? Because four years ago today a horrific tragedy occurred at Virginia Tech, my beloved alma mater, my favorite place on this planet, and the community that I most identify with. Today, I'm remembering the 32 lives that were taken violently and senselessly from our community and our world. I'm also remembering the triumph of the human spirit that circulated amongst us Hokies and all who joined us in support and prayer.
Here's a reposting of Dr. Giovanni's galvanizing chant poem that still shatters, then builds me back up every time I read or hear it.
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!
Friday, April 15, 2011
As we reach the middle of National Poetry Month 2011, I figured some words from the legendary Pablo Neruda might be a nice halfway marker. 1971 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, a cancer stricken Neruda accepted his prize in Stockholm, but would die a short time later. Here are some of Neruda's words delivered during his Nobel Prize lecture. Few poets have enjoyed the process of writing and helping others to delight in words as much as Pablo Neruda. Let's see what he had to say...
"Ladies and Gentlemen, I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I , in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight...Because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me, not in order to be petrified in my words, but in order to explain me to myself..."
"And I believe that poetry is an action, ephemeral or solemn, in which there enter as equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to oneself, the nearness to mankind, and to the secret manifestations of nature."
Thursday, April 14, 2011
IN PRAISE OF MY BED
At last I can be with you!
The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped,
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.
In Praise of My Bed by Meredith Holmes
Meredith Holmes gives us a praise poem in the tradition of Pablo Neruda's odes to common things. Like Neruda, Holmes delights in a simple, yet essential act: sleeping. But not just any slumber will do; Holmes wants her own bed and she wants it now! I can sympathize with her. This is one of my own busier seasons of the professional year where I'm traveling around the country and often longing for my own bed, as well as the friends and loved ones that can't travel with me from city to city. And to make my connection to this poem even stronger, I would put clean, crisp, sheets on my bed at the top of my list of favorite things in the world. There is a certain comfort that I feel nowhere else when I'm tucked into those fresh sheets of my own bed, laying back for a snooze and hoping for memorable dreams to last beyond my first few moments of wakefulness in the morning. Ben Franklin would tell us that "Fatigue is the best pillow" and this might be true, but like Meredith Holmes I still want my own pillow and my own bed.
There is an underlying dark humor to Holmes' poem. She pokes fun at herself from the very beginning, noting that "At least I can be with you!" in reference to her bed. It's humorous, but it's also quite dark and reveals an undertone of lonely sadness. Still, the humor is far more distinct early in the poem than this darkness. Holmes exaggerates the stresses of being human, such as "working my opposable thumb, / talking, and walking upright." After facing these challenges, Holmes has the reward of her bed. First, before seizing her reward she must perform that time honored tradition of the undressing, or in her case "unclasped, / unzipped, stepped out of." And now she can settle into that cloud-like apparatus that knows exactly how she likes it. Likes sleep, that is :). The poem ends with the same dark humor that it began with. Holmes pauses in her moment of sheer joy to "close my eyes, hear myself / moan, so grateful to be held this way." Her bed just might be better than any other companion, or she doesn't have a companion so the bed is taking his/her place. Either way, Holmes has constructed a poem that praises, describes, builds, and pays off, similarly to the way a good bed can. I can feel the bed Holmes melts into like a pad of butter on a warm scoop of mashed potatoes and I can hear her gentle moan because I've had it tumble slowly from my own mouth before.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
JUKE BOX LOVE SONG
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue buses,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem's heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
Juke Box Love Song by Langston Hughes
In Juke Box Love Song, Langston Hughes skillfully crafts a poem that showcases his love of a woman and his love of their home. It's difficult, but do-able to write a love poem to a person. It's also a challenge, but possible to write a love poem to a place. Figuring one challenge wasn't enough for him, Langston Hughes combined the two focuses and wrote himself a love poem that glorifies his beloved Harlem and his beloved woman at the same time. The poem is so organic in it's construction and flow that it probably seems like it was easy to write, but that would be the genius of Langston Hughes.
From the beginning, Hughes intertwines his woman and his city, proclaiming "I could take the Harlem night / and wrap around you." There is a slightly odd attraction about this image of Hughes clothing his love in Harlem, but the weird factor decreases as other parts of Harlem join the mix. "Take the neon lights and make a crown, / Take the Lenox Avenue buses, / Taxis, subways, / And for your love song tone their rumble down." She, like Harlem, is glowing in neon, and her song is a low "rumble" that has power, but prefers smoothness. At this point, Hughes introduces himself into the poem, not to create a love triangle, but instead to provide the perfect compliment. Listening to "Harlem's heartbeat," Hughes takes it to "make a drumbeat, / Put it on a record, let it whirl." Using Harlem as their soundtrack, and dare I say aphrodisiac, Hughes tells his beloved that he will "Dance with you till day— / Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl." I could read this poem a hundred times and I think it would be a fifty fifty split as to who this love poem is addressed to. Harlem is just as prominent as the girl in this poem, so prominent that the two are inherently linked in Hughes' mind.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
*For some reason Blogger has been non-functional over the last few days when I've tried to post to the blog. I'm not sure what the root of the problem is, but rest assured I'll continue to try to find ways to post daily for the rest of the month. Back to our regularly scheduled programming...
There are plenty of great features on the Academy of American Poets webpage. I often lose an hour or five when I wander over to their page. I guess that's what happens when you immerse yourself in a community of like-minded poetry lovers. Speaking of loving poetry and the Academy of American Poets, one of the current National Poetry Month features on their webpage is for the Poem In Your Pocket Day (April 14).
Here's the website: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/406
So the question to ask yourself is which poem would you carry in your pocket? Hmmm, let me think about that one...
Monday, April 11, 2011
Here's another installment in the movies I've been making of favorite poems that I've previously featured on this blog. Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye naturally lends itself to this visual media format with all of its distinct images. My one regret is that some of the photos are grainy, while others are of fantastic quality, providing an uneven feel to the images. Still, I urge you to check this movie out and let me know what you think!
Sunday, April 10, 2011
In the world of literature, and poetry in particular, inspiration is omnipresent. The best bits of inspiration are grounded in a truth that aches with reality. These following three quotations fit the bill and are some of the more humbling and simultaneously uplifting ideas about poetry. I have them tacked above my desk and sometimes I find myself lost in the challenges they present.
"Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." --- Robert Frost
"Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking." --- William Butler Yeats
"A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times." --- Randall Jarrell
Saturday, April 9, 2011
So here's a little break from the tough questions, enthralling poems, and entertaining movies. One of my current favorite time-wasters is the website Sporcle (www.sporcle.com). Do I recommend it? Yes...well, only if you have ample time to spend taking quizzes on a variety of subjects ranging from Jersey Shore Cast Members to Countries of the World. With that in mind, here are links to a few of the poetry based quizzes on Sporcle. The gauntlet has been dropped, the challenge has been laid before you, try them if you dare!
Friday, April 8, 2011
SPEECH TO THE YOUNG, SPEECH TO THE PROGRESS-TOWARD
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
“Even if you are not ready for day it cannot always be night .”
You will be right.
For that is the hard home-run.
Live not for battles won.
Live not for the-end-of-the-song.
Live in the along.
Speech to the Young, Speech to the Progress-Toward by Gwendolyn Brooks
Ms. Brooks was one of those rare poets who you could count on for equal parts style and substance. This unusual, yet highly palatable balance made her poetry easy on the ears and challenging to the mind. Speech to the Young, Speech to the Progress-Toward is just one of those poems. Like some of her other poems, most notably We Real Cool, Brooks establishes a cadence in this poem that propels it forward. This driving rhythm doesn’t come at the cost of a theme. Brooks implores herself to stir the complacent and misguided youth by speaking to the “down-keepers,” “sun-slappers,” “self-soilers,” and “harmony-hushers,” and delivering a firm, yet hopeful message. It doesn’t matter if you are set on oppressing others or you oppress yourself with your laziness, Brooks has words for you. She wants you to know that “even if you are not ready for day it cannot always be night.” Change is coming, whether you like it or not. She knows the change is coming and this is why she “will be right.” In this instance, her vision of what is to come is “the hard home-run,” it is the winning play, but even if she does not win or hear the message in the final notes of her favorite song, Brooks is not content with settling for a courtside seat to her own life. Like Gwendolyn Brooks, we should all strive to “live in the along.”
Thursday, April 7, 2011
OCEAN OF GRASS
The ground was holy, but the wind was harsh
and unbroken prairie stretched for hundreds of miles
so that all she could see was an ocean of grass.
Some days she got so lonely she went outside
and nestled among the sheep, for company.
The ground was holy, but the wind was harsh
and prairie fires swept across the plains,
lighting up the country like a vast tinderbox
until all she could see was an ocean of flames.
She went three years without viewing a tree.
When her husband finally took her on a timber run
she called the ground holy and the wind harsh
and got down on her knees and wept inconsolably,
and lived in a sod hut for thirty more years
until the world dissolved in an ocean of grass.
Think of her sometimes when you pace the earth,
our mother, where she was laid to rest.
The ground was holy, but the wind was harsh
for those who drowned in an ocean of grass.
Lately, I’ve been fond of asking the question ‘What is sacred?’. Each of us is bound to answer this question differently, and on some levels we should. Certainly there will be things that all of us hold dear, but our differences in terms of what we value and place above all else are interesting to explore. The fisherman who holds sacred the still waters of morning when the sun has just woken and begun its rise might not understand why the accountant holds sacred a clean ledger with zero balances, and vice versa. Yes, we hold different things sacred, but we can learn from our differences and better understand others by asking that question about what they hold sacred. Edward Hirsch built a whole poem around that question and a story rolls forth in his modified villanelle Oceans of Grass.
“The ground was holy, but the wind was harsh.” This beginning will serve as one of the key repeating lines in Hirsch’s villanelle rhyme scheme, but it also occupies an important place in the story he tells. The woman in the poem is symbolic of people in general and she identifies her strange, contradictory answer to what she holds sacred. The ground, the earth itself, is holy to her, but an element of that earth, the wind and weather, is destructive. This sets up an inevitable and constant tension that will play out on “unbroken prairie stretched for hundreds of miles,” a disorienting vast landscape that looks like an “ocean of grass.”
I’m fascinated by how Hirsch clips bits and pieces of many storytelling techniques in this poem. He uses a villanelle, a classic poetic form built upon repetition, but modifies it because, I would assume, he places the story above the form. There is not a perfect end rhyming pattern or a middle line rhyming pattern in this poem, but Hirsch’s changes are not glaring because they naturally fit the fable he is telling us. Hirsch also slips in allusions, such as the lonely woman “nestled among the sheep,” that had me vaguely thinking of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, and even The Bible. Beyond biblical and literary allusions, Hirsch organically maintains a reverential tone in the poem toward the earth, the type of respectful mindset that is characterized by early Native Americans. When the woman in the poem “went three years without viewing a tree” I understood how much this affected here, possibly more than other people. When she “got down on her knees and wept inconsolably, / and lived in a sod hut for thirty more years / until the world dissolved in an ocean of grass,” I could feel her loss and I could see the larger picture of what her story means to us today. The woman in this poem and her land of origin might be nameless, but Hirsch cleverly equips the poem with little touches that allows it to connect to many previous, meaningful mediums.
Villanelle’s are known for delivering that final stanza oomph, the masterstroke that stops readers in their tracks and hopefully makes them want to go back and explore the poem again. Hirsch continues this tradition by completely shifting the poem’s focus in its final stanza. Up to this point he’s focused on the woman and her reaction to her “ocean of grass” becoming an “ocean of flames,” but now Hirsch shifts to us, the readers, breaking down that proverbial wall. He instructs us to “Think of her sometimes when you pace the earth, / our mother, where she was laid to rest.” Drawing a line between us and her, Hirsch charts our ancestry for us and forges a connection between her loss and what could potentially become our own loss in the future. Returning to our initial question about what we hold sacred, I’m filled with a bittersweet taste in my mouth by the end of the poem. She “drowned in an ocean of grass,” but this grass was something she held sacred.
Wednesday, April 6, 2011
LIVE POETRY READINGS
It wasn't until college that I went to my first proper live poetry reading. By graduate school I was seeking them out and going to two, sometimes three, possibly even four readings of poetry and fiction in a week. (Austin has a reputation for being the live music capital of the world, but I would contend that Boston deserves the moniker of live poetry reading capital of the world!) Live poetry readings come in all shapes and sizes, from interactive poetry slams with hooting and hollering to live readings in a library with a stark, reverential silence after the poet clicks her tongue over the final word. Why should you attend poetry readings? Well, if you've never attended one before then you are missing out on a fresh experience worth crossing off your bucket list. Live readings are in the same family as concerts; just as you attend a concert to be amongst a group of like-minded fans waiting to hear the music performed live by the musicians who created it, the audience at a live poetry reading hears the poet deliver his or her words exactly as they positioned themselves in his or her brain before being transferred to the page. I always find that live readings make my creative juices simmer then boil over; I'm left scurrying home with plenty of my own ideas to write about. If you are skeptical about live poetry and thinking that it might be a collection of beret wearing, finger snapping, goateed beatniks...well it might, but more likely you'll encounter folks like you'll find on Poetry Everywhere's fantastic Youtube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/PoetryEverywherePTV)
And here's video of part of a live reading just to give you a little taste:
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends⎯
It gives a lovely light!
---Edna St. Vincent Millay
First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay
In elementary school I first encountered this brief and beautiful image driven commentary on how we spend our time here on earth. At that point in time, the childhood version of me didn’t necessarily understand all the complex issues contained in this small wonder. The sounds and cadences in the poem were attractive to my ears and my mind struggled to picture how a candle could burn at both ends and still be in a candlestick holder. Oh, how times change! Years later, I read this poem and turn inward yet again, but now I’m overcome by how I’m spending my candle and the light I’m giving off. In a mere four lines Millay layers the poem with enough depth to literally last a lifetime. Millay’s words are a challenge: are you satisfied with the light you’re giving off?
Monday, April 4, 2011
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
W.H. Auden's Funeral Blues
I’ve been itching to include this poem since I began We Convince By Our Presence over 3 years ago. I find Auden’s command of language, form, and, most startlingly, his emotions, to be rather spellbinding. Part of me hesitated to include this poem so early in the month, and on the heels of another poem about loss, but I couldn’t wait any longer. Funeral Blues is a tour-de-force poem; hundreds of thousands of people have heard this poem recited at funerals, which is rare territory for a poem. In researching for this brief analysis, I purposely did very little research. No, I did not discover the identity of the deceased loved one in the poem. Nor, did I hear the poem sung by Hedli Anderson or any other sopranos who had the poem put to music for them. And I certainly did not find an early first draft of the poem when it was a more satirical, five stanza mocking of the obituary-esque poems for politicians that had become trendy during Auden’s earlier years. Essentially, the only bit of interesting research I did seek out on this poem was about the title. Auden never formally titled this poem; it was often a numbered poem in his notebooks and only took its title in an edited edition of Auden’s poetry a few years after his death. This is interesting to note because without the title, who’s to say if the poem would be nearly as popular at funerals, and as a result who’s to say if the poem would be known worldwide like it is today.
From the beginning, Auden halts life and isolates readers from normalcy with his listing of stilted disturbances. When the clocks are stopped we are separated from time and when the telephones are cut off our ability to communicate is destroyed. The joy we might receive from music is commanded otherwise with “silence the pianos,” and even the dogs are made quiet “with a juicy bone.” In these images, Auden efficiently conveys a sense of immediate dread. He delivers upon this foreboding with the first stanza’s final line: “Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”
The second stanza troubled me after many readings of the poem. It seemed to illustrate a rather bizarre attachment to possibly unnecessary details in the wake of tragedy and loss. Who wants airplanes sputtering above writing “He is Dead” in the sky above about their loved one? Why would anyone put “crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves?” And what compels us to remember that the policemen working traffic detail for a funeral are wearing “black cotton gloves?” The easy answer is to look at the poem’s form and tone, then assume that Auden needed help in preserving the poem’s rhyme scheme and abrupt tone that commands life to shift from its daily occurrences to a focused grief. The more probable answer is that Auden keeps his images public because they bring grieving into the domain where others are still living their lives.
The third stanza in Funeral Blues might be W.H. Auden’s ultimate stanza in his vast collection of poetry. After filing numerous requests to stop, cut off, let, and put the world on hold, Auden delivers an emotional pay off that is ruthlessly heart wrenching. Permanent and tied to direction, the geography allusion that begins the stanza illustrates just how much he’s lost. Beyond the physical geography and sense of direction lacking in his life, Auden has also had the purpose and routine of “working week” and the “Sunday rest” stripped from him. With place and purpose taken from him, Auden also notices that his communication (“talk” and “song”) and the possibility of closure or fresh starts (“noon” and “midnight”) are equally destroyed. “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong,” is the chilling declaration that ends the stanza and leaves readers sharing in the limitless depths of Auden’s loss.
How do you follow a stanza like that? Auden proceeds by giving away the world that he previously commanded to stop and grieve along with him. “Stars are not wanted now” and Auden believes it wise to “pack up the moon, dismantle the sun.” The physical world must be “poured away” and “swept up” because “nothing now can ever come to any good.” The final stanza caps the poem by driving home the concept of cleaning up the world when that person who’s gone was your whole world.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
This year I'm trying something new on We Convince By Our Presence. Every few days I'll take a break from presenting new poems and essays to share an interesting (and hopefully thought-provoking) question relating to poetry. Starting us off, here's a question I've raised before and continues to be worthy of discussion: Why does poetry matter?
Here are two starkly different arguments for why poetry matters:
"But why should anyone but a poet care about the problems of American poetry? What possible relevance does this archaic art form have to contemporary society? In a better world, poetry would need no justification beyond the sheer splendor of its own existence. As Wallace Stevens once observed, 'The purpose of poetry is to contribute to man's happiness.' Children know this essential truth when they ask to hear their favorite nursery rhymes again and again. Aesthetic pleasure needs no justification, because a life without such pleasure is one not worth living." --- Dana Gioia
"A poet's work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep." --- Salman Rushdie
Dana Gioia argues for the sheer pleasure of poetry. He cites children who clamor for their favorite nursery rhymes and the happiness we feel listening to beautiful words. Salman Rushdie takes a more purposeful approach. Rushdie believes that poet's have a responsibility to keep the world around them just and vigilantly aware of notable conflicts and threats. Both of these writers are correct in their assessments, but I think that's the beauty of poetry: it is an all-encompassing art form that allows the silly and the serious to exist together, peacefully, in the same world of poetry.
Saturday, April 2, 2011
THE PEACE THAT SO LOVINGLY DESCENDS
"You" have transformed into "my loss."
The nettles in your vanished hair
Restore the absolute truth
Of warring animals without a haven.
I know, I'm as pathetic as a railroad
Without tracks. In June, I eat
The lonesome berries from the branches.
What can I say, except the forecast
Never changes. I sleep without you,
And the letters that you sent
Are now faded into failed lessons
Of an animal that's found a home. This.
The Peace That So Lovingly Descends by Noelle Kocot
Rarely do I come away satisfied from a poem that disorients me, fills me with a bitter longing, and wraps me in the tattered remains of grief. Noelle Kocot’s The Peace That So Lovingly Descends has a tongue-in-cheek title that ironically juxtaposes with a poem that presents the domestication of tormented loss. I can’t put my finger on it, but something about this poem reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art. Kocot, who slips in a line from Bishop as an epigraph to another of her poems, might like this comparison. Yes, both poems focus on loss, but after that blatant similarity there’s little else I can concretely produce to link the two poems together. Even so, I feel an evolutionary poetic link between them, almost as if the emotional realm of loss is prone to modernity on the surface just like everything else, but it’s core principles remain the same.
So why is this poem a new favorite of mine? An easy answer would be the simile “I’m as pathetic as a railroad / Without tracks.” That is a magnificent piece of writing and upon closer examination of some of Kocot’s other poems, she is a master craftswoman of similes and metaphors. But it’s just a single simile? Okay, okay, I hear you and I understand you want more. Notice the usage of quotation marks in the first line of the poem. Kocot takes a risk to use the equivalent of “air quotes” to smash the readers upside the head with a crucial point: a loved one is gone. And as if that isn’t enough, Kocot’s speaker has felt the effects of overwhelming grief, reverting to a state of primordial savagery. We read of “warring animals without a haven” and when she recalls letters the loved and lost one sent they are “failed lessons / Of an animal that’s found a home.” Heck, she even admits “I eat / The lonesome berries from the branches.”
Upon second thought, there is a key difference between the speaker in Kocot’s poem and the speaker in Bishop’s One Art. Kocot’s speaker has resigned herself to being “pathetic as a railroad / Without tracks.” She knows that “the forecast / Never changes” and the home she’s made for herself in her grief and longing is confirmed by the lonely surrender of a one word final line: “This.” The brief glimpse of life presented in the poem is hers, she doesn’t need coaxing to accept it. This is the point of divergence with One Art, because Bishop’s speaker is guarded and doesn’t mention the lost loved one until her final stanza. It’s in this final stanza that she must urge herself onward: “It’s evident / the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” Whereas Kocot’s speaker has accepted her loss in a far from lovingly descending state of peace, Bishop’s speaker is at odds with herself and the bravado required to brush off the loss of true love as mere skill to be mastered. In both cases, we as readers, are fortunate to have poetry that stretches loss far beyond railroads without tracks.
Friday, April 1, 2011
"Poetry is the alchemy which teaches us to convert ordinary materials into gold." --- Anais Nin
Welcome to National Poetry Month 2011! We have a fun journey ahead of us this month with poetry in many forms. For the next thirty days I'll post quotations, web links, movies, and, of course, poems. In this celebration of the written word I hope you'll find one or two pieces that engage you and make a home in your mind, body, and soul. If we allow ourselves to be open to all art (especially poetry), we'll see the ordinary materials in our lives that we pass by everyday revitalized with a curious golden beauty.
The first poem I featured on We Convince By Our Presence three years ago was Numbers by Mary Cornish. I thought it would be fitting to start this year's incarnation of WCBOP with a multimedia version of the same poem. Check out this movie I made and I think you'll see how poetry can blend very nicely with other media forms.
Check it out!