In Suzanne Gardiner's Sarah Lawrence poetry essay class sometimes people like me (but this time it wasn’t me) would turn in newspaper clippings and articles about poetry instead of essays. I did it because I couldn’t navigate a book of essays for the life of me. Others did it for whatever reason and I’m thankful in hindsight because it gives us a break from academic blather. And I like that too, but sometimes you need a refreshing contrast.
This article was in a 1995 issue of The Washington Post Magazine, “A Narrow World Made Wide” by Walt Harrington. It’s a profile of then-U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove.
Harrington follows Dove around for a few days while they talk poetry and she rewrites a poem then-called “Sweet Dreams” that eventually becomes “Sic Itur Ad Astra.”
They start by discussing her bewitching hour for writing which is midnight to 5 am, but she admits she can’t do this any longer with kids and a day job. This reminded me of writing in High Schoo and at UMSL in my St. Louis bedroom and at Sarah Lawrence in my Yonkers basement apartment. My sweet spot was 10 pm to 4 am. And I had particular parts of my room or apartment that were most conducive to creativity, somewhat like a vortex although I have never felt a real vortex so that’s just conjecture.
Harrington and Dove explore her new one-room writing cabin behind her house. She has a small stereo there where she plays records while she writes. This made me think of the one-room she-shed behind my house that a former owner blew glass in and then another made local, award-winning beer in. I’ve turned it into a Cher She-shed. Maybe it should have been made into a writing cabin. Messed-up priorities, huh?
The poem Dove is rewriting originated from a line in a notebook dating back to 1980. “For 15 years, she had looked at those lines every couple of months and thought, ‘No, I can’t do it yet.’ She wrote 300 other poems instead. But just seven weeks from today, [she] will consider [the poem] done—with a new title, new lines, new images and a new meaning the poet herself will not recognize until the poem is nearly finished.”
“It will be a curious, enlightening journey: one poem, one act of creation, evoked from a thousand private choices, embedded in breath and heartbeat, music, meter and rhyme, in the logic of thought and the intuition of emotion, in the confluence of the two, in the mystery of art and the labor of craft, which will transform random journal notations, bodiless images, unanchored thoughts, orphan lines of poetry and meticulously kept records of times and dates into something more. Words with dictionary meanings will become words that mean only what the experiences of others will make of them, words no longer spoken in Rita's voice but in whispering voices heard only inside the heads of those who pause to read her poem.”
The author traces her inspiration back to a line in the German book Das Bett and Dove’s love of the sound of German words and “the cadence of thought.” She says, “the sentence said something beautiful and it sounded beautiful: ‘And that is the essence of poetry.”
They start with her first draft that had a line I loved but which was lost to the next rewrite immediately: “we’ll throw away/the books and play/sky-diver in the sheets—” Dove decides she doesn't want the poem to be a “joyful, childlike poem.” The poem would transform itself to be about her ideas on fame instead, her “yearning to travel to the stars and her irritation with daily life.”
They talk about Dove’s unique filing system where she files poems “by the way they feel to her,” like if they contain violence or are introspective or are about her daughter.
She continues to edit the poem: “Rita now enters a strange and magical place in the creation of her poetry, as she begins to carry on a kind of conversation with her poem, as she tries to actually listen to what the poem she has written is trying to tell her, the poet. And the poem begins to create itself.”
What I like about journalistic pieces about poets in contrast to academic essays is the power of the journalist's observation brought to bear on the subject. Non-academic writers seem to be able to step outside of their own heads and look at things objectively, especially when they’re writing about the thought process itself.
“Some people's minds run from point A to point B with the linear determination of an express bus roaring from stop to distant stop. Theirs are minds trained to avoid detours, to cut a path past the alleys and side streets of distraction. Rita's mind is more like the water of a stream swirling randomly, chaotically and unpredictably over the stones below as it still flows resolutely downstream: "It's hard to describe your own mind, but I am really interested in the process of thought. Sometimes I catch myself observing my own thoughts and think, Boy, that's kinda strange how that works.' " Rita is not like those who see tangential thoughts as distracting digressions: "I'm interested in the sidetracking."
Again, this reminded me of my inability to tell a story straight through and avoid tangentials (especially verbal yarns) without going off into sub-stories and eventually losing track of the main point. Losing the thread. And how getting lost is remarkably fun.
“When I write, I feel like I am learning something new every second. But I'm also feeling something more deeply. You don't know where you've been. That's the mystery of it. And then to be able to put it down so that someone else can feel it! I feel incredibly alive."
She makes a million judgements as the poem progresses from draft to draft. She wants the poem to be a collage of fleeting images like a dream. She likes a line but takes it out to use someday maybe in another poem. Invoking food seems too earthy, corporeal. Another part is too surreal. Another part is “not believable.” Another word is too narrow. Some words are just “place holders for the poem’s cadence. New words will come.” Another word is “’too thick,’ not simple enough.” She plays with enjambment “looking for meanings that she didn’t see at first.” She wants more “intriguing, surprising metaphors” and to “imitate the clarity of children’s literature.” Does a line add anything? Does it add nothing?
When she gets stuck, she turns to work on another poem and that cracks the code of the poem she has put aside. “Distractions cleared a path.”
This is a great blow-by-blow feature on the writing process, the end of which discusses a poem's physicality, “…it must also look clean and pure on the page. The idea is to reach people not only through words, ideas, images, sounds, rhythms and rhymes, but also through the pattern of ink their eyes see on the page.” Finally, she gives a nod to Paul Valery’s infamous line when she says, “A poem is never done. You just let it go.”
Somewhat serendipitously, the essay we are up to in the David Rivard class packet is also a journalistic piece, although one written by Robert Pinksy himself from The New York Times in 1994 with the somewhat laborious title, “A Man Goes Into a Bar, See, And Recites: The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained.” This is a good piece about the technology of poetry as it relates to memory.
“POETRY is, among other things, a technology for remembering. Like the written alphabet and the printing press and the digital computer, it is an invention to help and extend memory. The most obvious examples are mnemonic verses ("Thirty days hath September. . . .")… Poetry, a form of language far older than prose, is under our skins.”
Pinsky lists all sorts of masterful forms and rhymers, from nursery rhymes to 'naughty limericks' to Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan (Nobel prize winner!), David Byrne (not a Nobel Prize winner), Salt-n-Pepa (it was the 1990s), Johnny Mercer and Mitchell Parish, hymns “some of which are excellent poems.”
Then he talks about the benefits of asking students to memorize poems and how when people do recite poems, we hear a “quality of attention” or a “peculiar quiet” from the listeners.
He talks about how many people know lines from T.S. Eliots “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and how “getting something by heart in an intuitive, bodily event” that fills “some peculiar human appetite.”
Unfortunately, I am terrible at memorizing things. In high school theater I had no stage freight but complete line blackouts that other actors had to rescue me from. It also explains why I was so lousy at learning French. Although later when I tried to learn Spanish, the French popped out unceremoniously to the chagrin of my Spanish teacher, which indicates a retrieval malfunction instead of a storage one. Probably the only thing I was ever able to memorize is Joni Mitchell’s “The Last Time I Saw Richard” and once at Sarah Lawrence Jean Valentine made us memorize a poem for her workshop class. I memorized Charles Baudelaire’s “Spleen.” I read it again recently and it’s like I’ve never read the poem before. It must be completely archived in some sub-basement of my brain's catacombs.
But while I was searching for the poem online last week I found this wonderful page of "Spleen" translations by different translators (https://fleursdumal.org/poem/161) with links to various editions of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal. I tried to read these line by line so I could understand each translator's unique word choices and I kept getting lost. So today, I created this mashup of each writer's line in a stanza, side by side, one at a time. Of course, reading it this way you lose each writer's momentum, particular atmosphere and rhyme scheme. But you can always go back to the fleursdumal.org site to read them separately again.
Actually, the translation I memorized for Jean Valentine, the Penguin edition translation by Joanna Richardson, is nowhere to be found online. I still think its the best translation but that's a discussion for another day.
When, like a lid, the low and heavy sky
Weights on the spirit burdened with long care,
And when, as far as mortal eye can see,
It sheds a darkness sadder than nights are;
When earth is changed into a prison cell,
Where, in the damp and dark, with timid wing
Hope, like a bat, goes beating at the wall,
Striking its head on ceilings mouldering;
When rain spreads out its never-ending trails
And imitates the bars of prisons vast,
And spiders, silent and detestable,
Crowd in, our minds with webs to overcast,
Some bells burst out in fury, suddenly,
And hurl a roar most terrible to heaven,
Like spirits lost for all eternity
Who start, most obstinately, to complain.
And, without drums or music, funerals
File past, in slow procession, in my soul;
Hope weeps, defeated; Pain, tyrannical,
Atrocious, plants its black flag on my skull.
Pinsky claims “The pleasures of having a poem by heart, if not necessarily always greater than those of analysis, are more fundamental.” It does feel like an accomplishment if you can get one completely into your head.
While I was working on last week’s Adrienne Rich essays, I found more Rich essays and letters. I wasn’t going to blog about them but there were some eerie and important critiques around narcissism worth revisiting.
The New Yorker had a great piece recently on the wellness industry, the quicksand of which I am not extricated personally but when I read Rich's comments about female self-actualization from March 2001 it resonated. She talks about early 1970s feminism and personal self expression.
"Personal narrative was becoming valued as the true coin of feminist expression. At the same time, in every zone of public life, personal and private solutions were being marketed by a profit-driven corporate system, while collective action and even collective realities were mocked at best at at worst rendered historically sterile” …in “mainstream public discourse, personal anecdote was replacing critical argument, true confessions were foregrounding the discussion of ideas. A feminism that sought to engage race and colonialism, the global monoculture of United States corporate and military interests, the specific locations and agencies of women within all this was being countered by the marketing of a United States model of female, or feminine, self-involvement and self-improvement, devoid of political context or content."
That's exactly why beauty products have co-opted political messages.
In August 1997, Rich wrote this:
Like so many others, I've watched the dismantling of our public education, the steep rise in our incarceration rates, the demonization of our young black men, the accusations against our teenage mothers, the selling of health care--public and private--to the highest bidders, the export of subsistence-level jobs in the United States to even lower-wage countries, the use of below-minimum-wage prison labor to break strikes and raise profits, the scapegoating of immigrants, the denial of dignity and minimal security to our working and poor people. At the same time, we've witnessed the acquisition of publishing houses, once risk-taking conduits of creativity, by conglomerates driven single-mindedly to fast profits, the acquisition of major communications and media by those same interests, the sacrifice of the arts and public libraries in stripped-down school and civic budgets and, most recently, the evisceration of the National Endowment for the Arts. Piece by piece the democratic process has been losing ground to the accumulation of private wealth.
1997 she wrote that! Pretty amazing. She goes on to say:
And what about art? Mistrusted, adored, pietized, condemned, dismissed as entertainment, auctioned at Sotheby's, purchased by investment-seeking celebrities, it dies into the "art object" of a thousand museum basements. It's also reborn hourly in prisons, women's shelters, small-town garages, community college workshops, halfway houses--wherever someone picks up a pencil, a wood-burning tool, a copy of "The Tempest," a tag-sale camera, a whittling knife, a stick of charcoal, a pawnshop horn, a video of "Citizen Kane," whatever lets you know again that this deeply instinctual yet self-conscious expressive language, this regenerative process, could help you save your life. "If there were no poetry on any day in the world," the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, "poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger." In an essay on the Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire, Clayton Eshleman names this hunger as "the desire, the need, for a more profound and ensouled world." There is a continuing dynamic between art repressed and art reborn, between the relentless marketing of the superficial and the "spectral and vivid reality that employs all means" (Rukeyser again) to reach through armoring, resistances, resignation, to recall us to desire. Art is both tough and fragile. It speaks of what we long to hear and what we dread to find."
In October of 1996 she wrote that we "go on searching for poetic means that may help us meet the present crisis of evacuation of meaning."
"In the America where I'm writing now, suffering is diagnosed relentlessly as personal, individual, maybe familial, and at most to be "shared" with a group specific to the suffering, in the hope of "recovery." We lack a vocabulary for thinking about pain as communal and public, or as deriving from "skewed social relations" (Charles Bernstein). Intimate revelations may be a kind of literary credit card today, but they don't help us out of emotional overdraft; they mostly recycle the same emotions over and over."
Adrienne Rich signed a book for me once at the Dodge Poetry Festival around this time. She gave me a withering stare when I handed her my copy of her book An Atlas of the Difficult World as if to say, "you haven't read any of my books yet, have you." Like a statement, not a question. And I hadn't. But I didn't take it personally. I had my whole life ahead of me. But that state was more intense than the Cher stare!
But now I've come to really appreciate her comments and it grieves me somewhat that so few of us were listening to and registering her warnings. That deserves a Cher stare if anything does.
I've read one other Jimmy Santiago Baca book before, seen him read live at CNM, am a big fan of his biopic. But I hadn't really had an a-ha moment with his poems yet.
Part of this had to do with when I read what I read. Timing is important. I had meant for this book to be included in the New Mexico set I recently blogged about. But I didn't finish it in time. But when you think about New Mexico poets (and poets writing about New Mexico), Jimmy Santiago Baca is a big deal. He's one of the most successful exports we have in poetry. And I don't think I appreciated his scope and vision until I read this collected set, which ranges from his first prison writings through his greatest hits.
Years ago I did a review of an anthology of poems about sex that were surprisingly unsexy in hindsight. Although duly noted everyone wants something different in their sex poems. But I was also disappointed in Erica Jong's collected poems (and what was sexier to passionate teen girls in the 1980s than 1970s Eric Jong novels?).
Anyway, this is all to say there are some prison letter poems that begin this anthology in "Excerpts from the Mariposa Letters" that are crazy, NSW sexy. Probably because they were part of prison letters and no-holds-barred desire. The fact that Jimmy Santiago Baca can merge ideas of lustiness and the New Mexico landscape is also appreciated. If you're at all squeamish about explicitness, skip this section. But if not, here's my dogeared copy.
This poet has been through a lot, and he's particularly good at investigating his own hardness and anger. "Looking" is a good example of this: "I feel something in me/move--/one movement in particular/crawls out of the dark in me,/a dead hand on bloody drugged knuckles/unfolding/coming to life."
A good example of the landscape/love intersect is the poem "My Heart" - "A hungry river basin/at the wind's edge/my desires sleep/like hot sunstones,/until the rain/awakes them." He's very good at creating a very particular physicality for emotions like this example are these excerpts from "The Dark Side,"
falls like a black oak tree cracked by an ice storm.
It stares up with a skull's nightmare grimace
of cruel suffering on its frozen face.
I draw the curtains of my life shut,
a silent stranger to myself
chewing on the maddening, shredded remnants of my heart.
Accepting it as part of me, loving it,
not afraid of feeling its pain, understanding
how I always contradict myself,
I succumb to passion,
roar my loss and abandonment,
bell-bellow my cathedral soul..."
Wow. "Bell-bellow my cathedral soul." Good stuff. He's also good at this sort of purgatory of feeling, like in these lines from "Your Letter Slips Through the Opening in My Heart,"
"I pause home again: you are not here.
I pick warm left over words from your letter,
like last crumbs scraped from the dinner table,
place them in a tattered cloth
and fold in in my coat pocket.
I turn and close the paper, shut the envelope,
and walk down a dark hallway,
past sleeping rooms and down endless stairs
until my feet pause, and I stand staring at your address."
There are lots of New Mexico moments, "In the Foothills" which starts at the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Sandia poems like in "It's an Easy Morning" where he is "exhorting me to write/as real as the sand my feet print."
There are poems that are full life sweeps, like "With Paz By the Fire Last Night" and "Set This Book on Fire!" that trace his experiences as a reader and writer and issues of class in academia.
There are also some great social justice poems here, full Ginsberg-like sprays of issues of the day and the suffering caused by those in power. "With My Massive Soul I Open" is a good example and the long poem "This Disgusting War!"
The long poem "Rita Falling from the Sky" is another good example of the literal trek for justice. It's also full of horny toads, coyotes, weather, cacti, agave hearts, chili powder, cedar, juniper, cottonwoods, sage, mesquite, tortilla, corn, beans, maize, quelites, an exploration of what thirst for truth/thirst for water is.
There's also a moving poem about a transvestite prostitute in "Smoking Mirrors" created for a project with James Drake's photography.
The long poems in the back are all impressive, the life-sweep of "Julia," the elegiac "Singing at the Gates," the final moment with "Against Despair," a beautiful poem about enduring the attacks against your poetic and spiritual voice. A perfect ending to the collection. Watch Zach Czaia read the poem along with a great introduction as part of his Poetry Lockdown series.
We’re back to the essay bundle from David Rivard’s Sarah Lawrence Class. And I'm to the Robert Pinsky essay, “Poetry and Pleasure” which was from the book Poetry and the World (1992). You can also catch the essay online.
So Robert Pinksy: very respected as a critic of poetry, even among those who dislike poetry criticism. A few times I’ve tried to enjoy his essays (particularly in The Situation of Poetry) but I have always failed pretty hard. He’s so dry and stuffy, I always thought.
He begins this essay talking about a poem he loved as a child and its essential physicality, “what I could feel the consonants and vowels doing inside my mouth and in my ears.”
He talks about Yeats and “the idea of pleasing…[the] sense in which a work of art is a gift, a gift of pleasure which some of us aspire to give.”
He then talks about magazine and workshop poems and even “one’s own poems” that fail, “they are not interesting enough to impart conviction. Most of them fail to be surprising or musical or revealing enough to arouse much interest.”
Then he goes on to say the most interesting poems for him have the same quality as songs, jokes and personal letters “which embody for me the qualities of physical grace, lively social texture and inward revelation.”
You could easily say this about many other cultural artifacts so his short list is a little curious, but I like these things too so why quibble.
By physical grace he says he means “the counterpoint of their music and their sentences…..something that approaches actual song." He says, "Here is Ben Jonson singing” as he introduces the Jonson poem “His Excuse for Loving.”
Jonson “defeats the predictable” Pinksy says and “the elements that delight us appear to grow out of the swelling sense that he will sing, even though expectation and age threaten to hold him back.” It is an achievement of “personal expressive rhythm” Pinksy says.
“As to jokes” he continues, it is their structure. And here I have to say this really warms me to Pinsky, his explications of comedy is this serious way.
“I think that the idea of ‘good jokes’ and ‘bad’ ones reflects a misconception; the timing and social placement of the joke, and the textural pleasures of its telling, matter far more than the mechanical burning of a narrative fuse toward the little explosion of a punch line.”
“The joke about the one-armed piccolo player might be right for a certain moment after a picnic, but not for the car ride home. …People naïve about jokes fail to see this enormously social, contextual limitation to the form, and are bewildered when the Jewish parrot joke that caused tears in one setting invokes only polite smiles in a slight different one; moreover, such a teller exaggerates the importance of ‘how’ it was told, while underestimating the original teller’s sense of precisely when to time the joke.”
Doesn’t this explain where we are today? The tragic internet-is-everywhere drifting of jokes into social areas where they were never meant to drift and causing high offence?
He goes on to talk about a joke’s “charm of texture," touches of joke-telling that “establish context and conviction, make up the living body of a tiny work of art, for which the punch lines is merely the graceful closure.” What we call "‘taste’ or ‘timing’ or ‘tact’ or ‘wit.’"
A problem poets and comics have in common, he says, is “how to arrange and dispose a feeling—how to put something first, something else second, and so forth. The silliest joke, too, must solve this problem...The skill…of presenting the joke is in presenting the dance or tension of the two elements, ordinary and bizarre.”
Pinsky finishes by talking about “music’s grace” being “the most basic aspect of a poem’s appeal” but that the social contextual sense is the next “profound pleasure….by revealing to us the inward motion of another mind and soul.”
He explains his love of letter -writing in this regard because he can go “a little further into myself than I might in conversation; the element of planning or composition seems to strip away barriers, props, and disguises, rather than to create them.”
Did I even realize this before he said it? What is a blog if not a long letter into the self?
He illustrates this idea of self with Walt Whitman’s poem “Spontaneous Me” where Whitman does a quick inventory of his momentary self and ends cavalierly with
“And this bunch pluck’d at random from myself,
It has done its work—I tossed it carelessly to fall where it may.”
“Such movement cannot be affected or faked. It comes from conviction: confidence in the power of rhythm; trust in the social generosity between artist and audience; belief in the movement of one’s own thoughts and feelings. Convincing movement is what commands interest. (Boredom appears to be a response to tunelessness, timidity, or weak faith in the work of art, a sense that the soul is standing still.)"
He ends with Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Incantation”
“Human reason is beautiful and invincible.
No bars, no barbed wire, no pulping of books,
No sentence of banishment can prevail against it.
And poetry, her ally in the service of the good.
As late as yesterday Nature celebrated their birth,
The news was brought to the mountains by a unicorn and an echo.
Their friendship will be glorious, their time has no limit.
Their enemies have delivered themselves to destruction."
Pinsky says, “It is good to read a poem that suggests that poems are supremely important…[that] promises vital, unsuppressible knowledge…[with] the most pleasurable ways of knowing.”
Great essay. Maybe it was me who was dry and stuffy.
But it's been making me want to abandon all my glumpy little bottles of mascara forever.
A perfume sampler just arrived and one of the samples is from, I kid you not, Commodity Fragrances, LLC., who presents this new cologne called Book.
It's tiny cover describes its scent like an entry from a dictionary: Book, noun.
They claim the fragrance is "bound together by a crisp cover" (whatever that means) and that it's "a tip of the hat to the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds of the world, conjuring the warmth of a quiet moment curled up with a good book."
The description ends with the uber-nerdy: "Eg. Get lost in a good book."
E.g.? Really? I don't even think they're using that abbreviation correctly.
And I have to tell you, a tip of the hat to the Fitzgeralds this fragrance is not. It smells like our childhood gerbil cage, I swear to God.
Not necessarily a bad thing. I just had a Proustian moment. So I guess it's really a tip of the hat to the Prousts of this world if we're being honest in advertising.
While showering I often look for good reading material and this is what greeted me on the back of this "shower to the people" cleanser tube:
"one day the world may truly wake up to equality, fairness and justice. but until then, it will just have to content itself with waking up thanks to this all embracing, completely non-discriminatory, slightly left of centre and highly invigorating body cleanser. beware though, you could soon find yourself on the street protesting for the full-sized version."
You don't want to know what I responded back to this tube of body cleanser. It's not very polite.
Don't even get me started on the pretentious lower case; because right now I have to apologize to both Karl Marx and my grandfather who both warned me this would happen someday. Goddammit.
The first two are Adrienne Rich's short five-paragraph essay "As If Your Life Depended On It" and "The Hermit’s Scream," both found in her book What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Poetics. You can also find the book here: http://docshare04.docshare.tips/files/26340/263406179.pdf
The first essay is important because this was a big manifesto when I was at Sarah Lawrence: “You must write, and read, as if your life depended upon it.”
I was always hard-pressed to figure out how to make this edict feel right for me, a spoiled suburban kid. What profession would I have to have to make reading something a matter of life or death? That's kind of why I became an English major. Would it be researching my political speech before a firing squad? A doctor on a desert island with an antiquated Physician’s Reference Guide? See? This is how spoiled middle-class kids think.
It reminds me of how I once approached Algebra II in high school by pretending ,y assignments were decoding military messages like I was in some kind of Pat Benetar “Shadows of the Night” video or something. That trick worked, btw. I got an A in that class. Unfortunately I was taking the class pass/fail. Sigh.
But anyway, that’s not even what Adrienne Rich meant. She goes on to say that it means letting your reading penetrate your beliefs, “the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your…carnal life,” for your reading to “pierce the routines…”
She talks about how hard this is to do, socially speaking. And how scary this idea is…
“To read as if your life depended on it — but what writing can be believed? isn’t all language just manipulation? Maybe the poet has a hidden program — to recruit you to a cause, send you into the streets, to destabilize, through the sensual powers of language, your tested and tried priorities? Rather than succumb, you can learn to inspect the poem at arm’s length, through a long and protective viewing tube, as an interesting object, an example of this style or that period. You can take refuge in the idea of “irony”. Or you can demand that artists demonstrate loyalty to that or this moral or political or religious or sexual norm, on pain of having books burned, banned, on pain of censorship or prison, on pain of lost public funding.”
“Or, you can say: ‘I don’t understand poetry.’”
Good swipe there at ironic distance and academic politics.
The next essay in the set is “The Hermit’s Scream” which starts by describing how Rich was haunted by an Elizabeth Bishop poem, it’s observation and description, “Chemin de Fer” and how subtle is the call to action in the poem: “What teaches us to convert lethal anger into steady, serious attention to our own lives and those of others.”
Then Rich goes on to question what political activism is and how it might be related to making poetry:
“There is still no general, collective understanding from which to move. Each takes her or his risks in isolation. We may think of ourselves as individual rebels, and individual rebels can easily be shot down…”
“Poetry, in its own way, is a carrier of the sparks, because it too comes out of silence, seeking connection with unseen others.”
She then talks about types of anger, non-violent, direct action, what faith means for an activist and how one must fight against unquestioning belief:
“An activist’s faith can never be unquestioning, can never stop responding to ‘new passions and new forces,’ can never oversimplify, as believers and activists are often tempted or pressured to do.”
Was she clairvoyant or what? She even points to the “ominous cult of violence in contemporary cities” [and rural places I would now argue] and the “role of mass media in promoting violence” and “patterns of brutality.”
“’Nonviolence,’ ‘antiviolence.’ The feebleness of the language, however passionate the determination, tells us something. Violence is what looks out at us from those phrases: its expressionless or grinning face is what we see, not what it displaces. War goes on demanding its ‘fatal unity.’ What face has ‘visible and responsive peace’? What does it mean, to put love into action? Why do I go on as if poetry has any answers to that question.”
The essay then goes on to discuss Suzanne Gardiner’s poem “To Peace.” Is this some student kissing up to our teacher?? WTH. But in hindsight I’m glad they did because it’s great revisiting this amazing Gardiner poem, is a conversation between herself and the enemy peace. Some excerpts:
“Peace I have feared you hated you scuffed dirt
on what little of you I could bear near me
Coward I have watched you buckle under
nightsticks and fire hoses…
Where are the stone
lists of those who have died in your name
will I teach my children whom to respect
how to find themselves on a map of the world
when I have seldom seen your face
Tell me Bloodless Outlaw Phantom what is
the work of the belligerent in
your anarchic kiddom Where is my place
Rich says, “There is not a real poet alive today, or for some time past, who would do what Homer did or even if he/she could, or Virgil….the glorification of war an conquest.”
But it’s not that black and white, is it, Rich reminds us because there are “those who have grown up knowing that violent resistance is the only way to stay alive. The questions of the poem need concern all those who condemn violence" "...theatrics can distract us from…the knowledge that at the end of the twentieth century there is no demilitarized zone, no line diving war from peace, that the ghettos and barrios of peacetime live under paramilitary occupation, that prisoners are being taken and incarcerated at an accelerating rate, that the purchase of guns has become an overwhelming civilian response to the perceived fractures in the social compact.”
She then explores the June Jordan poem “For Michael Angelo Thompson,” a chilling poem from an event in 1973 when Thompson was hit by a Brooklyn city bus and was turned away at the hospital and later dies. Rich talks about how her first reading of the poem as a white person was that it was “elegiac, not furious” but this was a misinterpretation of the refrain “Please.” The poem is a requiem she comes to understand.
Rich goes on to quote Audre Lorde’s “Power” which starts “The difference between poetry and rhetoric/is being/ready to kill/yourself/instead of your children" and ends the story of a man pushed to violence and then called a beast.
Rich ends the essay by quoting Lorde in saying that writing “at the edge, out of urgency” opens you up “to a constant onslaught…of possibilities…like meteor shows all the time….constant connections.”
The third essay in the set is only the partial excerpts from An American Primer with no author attribution. Turns out this is Walt Whitman (thank you, google). The book seems out of copyright now so can find some reprint versions around.
This section is about the power of place names: “All lies are folded in names” and we are immediately reminded of the current controversy over using American Indian identifiers for sports team names.
“Names are the turning point of who shall be master. There is so much virtue in names that a nation which produces its own names, haughtily adheres to them, and subordinates others to them, leads all the rest of the nations of the earth. I also promulge that a nation which has not its own names, but begs them of other nations, has no identity, marches not in front, but behind.”
The essay ends with:
“Californian, Texan, New Mexican, and Arizonian names have the sense of the ecstatic monk, the cloister, the idea of miracles, and of devotees canonized after death. They are the results of the early missionaries and the element of piety, in the old Spanish character. They have, in the same connection, a tinge of melancholy and of a curious freedom from roughness and money-making. Such names stand strangely in California. What do such names know of democracy, — of the hunt for the gold leads and the nugget, or of the religion that is scorn and negation?“
“American writers are to show far more freedom in the use of words. Ten thousand native idiomatic words are growing, or are to-day already grown, out of which vast numbers could be used by American writers, with meaning and effect, — words that would be welcomed by the nation, being of the national blood, — words that would give that taste of identity and locality which is so dear in literature.”
Read more about American Primer: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1904/04/an-american-primer/376193/
The final essay in the set is Audrey Lorde’s famous 1977 essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury.”
Lorde’s essay is aimed at women and talks a lot about ancient and hidden possibilities in our non-European, native-mythizing consciousness and it reads a bit vague and dated late-70s feminism.
“I speak her of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean—in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.”
Very strongly worded. But it exposes succinctly the divide between activist poets and academic poets engaging in language play. She goes on to say,
“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”
I have to admit, a lot of Lorde’s essay is over my head, especially sentences like this:
“We can sometimes work long and hard to establish one beachhead of real resistance to the deaths we are expected to live, only to have that beachhead assaulted or threatened by those canards we have been socialize to fear, or by the withdrawal of those approvals that we have been warned to seek for safely.”
I get the point now finally typing it out, but I did get lost in “resistance to the deaths we are expected to live.” Live through? In any case, it speaks to a harrowing existence. I get that.
What I like about Audrey Lorde's essay is the vulnerability she mixes in with her headiness. This is something Adreinne Rich lacks. And Lorde's transitions are natural and fluid, unlike the second Rich essay which jumps from one short section to another with little connective tissue.
I read Poems of Paul Celan as part of an email inquiry last year. Celan is one of Germany’s most famous poets today, although he was controversial when he was alive due to ongoing post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Both of Celan's parents were murdered by Nazis and Celan’s very cryptic poems have often been read as a way of his dealing with his tragic losses. This collection, translated by Michael Hamburger, is a great meditation on the translation process itself and the relationship between translator and poet, and the challenge of trying to move these more obscure poems into English.
from "The Years From You to Me"
"Your hair waves once more when I weep. With the blue of your eyes
you lay the table of love: a bed between summer and autumn.
We drink what somebody brewed, neither I nor you nor a third:
we lap up some empty and last thing.
We watch ourselves in the deep sea’s mirrors and faster pass food to the other:
the night is the night, it begins with the morning,
beside you it lays me down."
Here's the full link to the poem "Assisi."
“And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up round the little
crystal dressed in the style of your silence.”
From “Zurich, The Stork Inn”
I know and you know, we knew,
we did not know, we
went there, after all, and not there
and at times when
only the void stood between us we got
all the way to each other.”
And this unnamed one:
“It is NO LONGER
lowered at times with you
into the hour. It is
It is the weight holding back the void
Like you, it has no name. Perhaps
you two are one and the same. Perhaps
one day you also will call me so.
Celan is arrestingly cryptic. Hamburger describes it as a case of "minimal words, halting speech rhythms, the bare bones…”
The autobiographical final poem is heartbreaking. The final essay, "On Translating Celan," is probably the best thing I’ve read yet on translating.
Duende de Burque by Manuel Gonzalez, the former Albuquerque poet laureate, is also a book of of therapeutic poems intended to dispel the pressures of trauma, in this case incarceration. Much of Gonzalez's project in this book is explaining his methods of teaching prison inmates to use poetry as a way of exploring their inner lives.
Moving from the Celan book to this one felt a bit like whip lash. Celan's project uses harrowing, difficult and destabilizing language in order to confront the propaganda and lies of the Holocaust. Gonzalez instead works through trauma with a much more straightforward language, similar to journaling and direct self-expression. This poetry is not for everybody. This book was difficult for me in its own way due the juxtaposition between cryptic obliqueness to saying-exactly-what-you-mean sincerity.
Neither strategy is right or wrong, just different people living different lives in different times turning to poetry for different projects.
This book is emotional and psychological writing that is less about experimental craft than it is about locating an alternate self and having the courage to communicate it. Poems in the book take on toxic masculinity and misogyny, and American and Spanish colonization. His generous spirit is very moving. There’s also a great local fragrance about the book and his take on Burqueneos he knows, including his departed musician-father who died before he could know him. There’s also a rich alchemy of Catholicism, Buddhism and mysticism.
There is a bit of language experimentation too, like the wordplay of “Sacred Sweat.” I liked his interludes and introductions describing the ABQ poetry community, the group poems and the workshop prompt at the end. Overall a very magnanimous impulse from this poet.
Different yet again is The Definition of Empty by New Mexico state senator Bill O’Neill who spent time in the past working with similar New Mexico communities as Gonzalez but on the side of the juvenile parole board. Also noteworthy, Gonzalez is an Hispanic slam poet and O'Neill is a white transplant state senator.
O'Neill does a good job trying to check his white, male privilege and constantly recalibrates to speak from his own experience. You could say O’Neill works around the issue of appropriating stories as they say like a politician.
But this is nonetheless an interesting book about New Mexico and the issues that result from New Mexican culture and class structures with a blend of cynicism and hope, Poems touch on what O'Neill calls “an unvisited life” (“Castillo”), the lure of substance abuse (“Cruzita”), and the hypocrisy of the liberal elite in Santa Fe (“Hope House Denied: Unwelcome in Santa Fe”).
There’s a great poem about white privilege called “Hitch-Hiking at 28” where the character hitchhikes with a “strong belief” he's “walking into anything [he] wanted” and another poem called “Suspended from Sumer Prep School” which describes his own permanent file of misconduct.
O'Neill attempts to ID himself in the lives of the incarcerated, finding poignant details in lives of struggle and confusion. He even questions his own role in trying to improve the world, (“Easter Weekend”).
Fountain explores childhood in poems like this one about walking through an indoor mall, “Heaven,” mother-daughter poems like “If Your Mother Was to Tell Your Life Story” and “Mother and Daughter at the Mesilla Valley Mall."
What I didn’t expect and really loved were the historical poems like “El Camino Real” where somewhere in the middle of a breakup/landscape poem, here comes Columbus; or we follow the Coronado Expedition looking for the mysterious lost ocean in the desert of New Mexico in “The Coast.” The book ends on a modern trek of kids to get cokes that reference historical treks in "El Camino Real 3."
There's also this perfect poem called “Want.”
And another great poem called “Purple Heart” about kids causing a break down in a teacher:
….this is the way
the violent gets you: not by coming
for you, but by leaving you behind.”
And this poem about the drownings of two grade school brothers in “Rio Grande”
is filling with water from far away,
cold water from the Rockies, the snows
melting, falling, simple, pulled
down the continent like a zipper.”
Here is an even older book I found at the bookstore in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Poetry from the Fields of Dharma by Thomas Reidy. This is a local Santa Fe book so if you live here you know what that means, every poem is centered on the page and an amateurish feel to the production. It feels very local but that never means it can’t be good.
There also is a plethora of Buddhist/Zen-inspired, retired-boomer Santa Fe poets. Like...a lot. But I keep picking them up because once in a while that particular brand of New Mexico Zen will bloom out of some unsuspecting self-obsession. In any case Thomas Reidy, an architect/builder, does a much better than average job at turning on his guru poet with the requisite modesty, and not just lip-service to humility:
“I will walk with you/for I have fallen enough to know that my perfect self/is dust.”
Here’s a perfect example of his practice in practice from the poem "Rude Attitude"
"Here’s the deal:
Commenting on life
as it appears to you
changes the experience for everyone;
observing the same events
in sacred silence
changes only yourself.
If you can life with the consequent responsibility,
say what you want."
Here’s another from "The Anchor"
“Soul is the true seeker
in the ocean of love and mercy.
Mind is the sea anchor
filled with the tides of karma.
The master changes the anchor
to a sieve.”
There are also plenty of love poems here for his painter wife Noel Hudson, who illustrates the book. Some are very moving and some are a little over the top. But a bit of schmaltz is worth it for moments like this from “The Gift,”
“As I diminish/so does it grow/until, beloved,/I am not separate from any other/and I learn/that what I sought/was surrender itself.”
How often do we most fear what we most want? From “Silence,”
“Nothing is more eloquent/than/the silence of the beloved”
I don't think he's referencing a chatty-Kathy here. I think he means that eloquent silence of speechlessness.
NaPoWriMo 2021 draws to a close and like the year I did poems about my girlfriends I thought this year would be a slam dunk and it was quite an intense experience instead. I mean for one thing I was just going to edit an existing stack of poems. I didn't anticipate as many new poems being required. But some of the old ones were too decrepit (or obscure) to refurbish. Secondly, not a small quantity of poems ended up going to a dark place. I'm just happy I guess that there were as many upbeat ones as there ended up being.
Mid-month I was concerned enough about not having as many poems as I needed that I re-read The Poet's Grimm, 20th Century Poems from Grimm Fairy Tales, edited by Jeanne Marie Beaumont and Claudia Carlson. I didn't find many ideas there but there were some really great poems so it's worth a read if you like these revisionist tales.
Some notable ones:
Anyway, here is my final list:
It's that time of year again. National Poetry Writing Month starts this Thursday. To be honest, I don't have it in me to write a poem a day all April this year. I'm working on a long HTML project for a class, plus I'm wiped out from the Covid-adventures with my parents and I have guests coming soon. And my brain is fried. But I don't want to miss a year of NaPoWriMo.
So, I figured out a compromise. I've had a set of fairy tales poems I've been sitting on for decades and have had no time to revise them, although I've added a few here and there. Plus, I really don't think they'll ever find a home in a book; it's been done (Anne Sexton).
I could easily revise a poem a day and have decided to use those poems to gather together a set of 30 for NaPoWriMo. Some of them are in pretty good shape but some are pretty rough. Hopefully this will be productive work.
See you on Thursday.
Louise Glück, the recent, much deserved recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, is the author of the next essay in the David Rivard class packet. It's her “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence” essay and it’s very interesting that Rivard placed this essay after Tony Hoagland’s “Disproportion” essay because it takes an opposing stance (just like our previous essay did).
This isn’t one of my favorite Gluck essays. I loved both of her essay books American Originality and Proofs & Theories. But even back when was a young, egomaniacal little poet I wrote at the end of this essay TERRIBLE ESSAY (in all caps like that even).
Hubris, meet me.
Anyway, I can’t say I had a complete turnaround with this essay but it’s a good argument for inconclusion and brevity, stripping it back down, the opposite of all that extra bling and filler Hoagland (and vicariously I) were enjoying in his essay.
Glück is deprecating at first, admitting she has a “tendency to reject all ideas I didn’t think of first…[which] creates an obligation to articulate an argument.” Hey, it's almost as if she was arguing with Hoagland directly.
“I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent deliberate silence….to the power of ruins….wholeness is implied.”
She talks about Holbein’s drawings exhibited in an unfinished state and how they show the “power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial…”
She rejects the “cult of exhaustive detail” and finally declares she prefers “the suggested over the amplified.” This is a preference against flamboyance for subtlety. But unlike the previous essay we discussed, she doesn’t bank in terms like truth or authenticity. She doesn't make a character judgement in other words. This is a choice of craft, she says.
To show examples, she covers Rilke’s poem about the torso of Apollo and how Rilke is the “master of not saying.” She then covers Berryman’s Dream Songs,” the drama of which she says is “the absence of a firm self.” Then she moves to George Oppen and says she tries to read Berryman and Open side by side (interesting project idea).
“Oppen’s clean, austere, dynamic poetry has very few active verbs. No one uses the verb of being better.” And she talks about his silences and pauses. “..very little of the language is vivid….ideas are held in suspension….austerity and a distaste for blather.”
[mmmm….bather….sounds like buttah.]
Glück admits she has a “suspicion of closure” that is common for many post-modernists, who have the luxury of being suspicious of it, I might add. Certain experimental ideas in post-modernism have been labeled privileged and I think for good reason (although I do also like all those experiments). War-torn poets may yearn for closure in a way that middle- and upper-class poets can’t quite imagine. But this is a solid stance of poets of Glück's age and I don’t want to be dismissive of it either….it’s an offshoot of the challenge poet-modernism made to classic Academia and at that time it was very useful.
Glück talks about “the time it takes for information to be absorbed” as we read through a poem. I love this about Gluck, that she thinks this mental process through.
She talks about Oppen’s “characteristic move” of “the idea implied in being dismissed,” how he “defines things by saying what they are not….creation through eradication is, for me, congenial.”
For sure there is something frustratingly heartfelt in the unsaid-but-indicated thing, but I don’t know as I would go as far as to call it ‘congenial.’
“When poems are difficult, it is often because their silences are complicated, hard to follow. For me, the answer to such moments is not more language.”
This is an interesting position for a poet to take, for someone who's currency is language, but not very unlike her own poems. I just would insist again here that neither way is right or wrong, just strategies one prefers.
She calls the “dream of abundance” “all detail and no shape…’gratuitous.’”
She admits “withholding is currently suspect. It is associated with rigidity, miserliness, insufficiencies; with faculties either atrophied or checked. It is a habit not admired in personal interaction, in which realm it is associated with ideas of manipulation, slyness, coldness; it is considered uniformly dangerous in governments, and so on.”
It's hard to argue with any of that, even in our favorite poets. These attributes are human ones, of personal choice. Some miserly, atrophied, manipulative, cold poets are quite good (as the reading goes).
But none of this proves being flamboyant, effusive, forthright, loose and over-explain-y is wrong in any way.
Glück believes the tension “promotes depth” as it is “distilled.”
Now for me, the bang for the buck in this essay comes in her explication of T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” which is really brilliant. She says,
[The poem] “is a poem of pathological delay. The action of the poem is inaction. “Let us go, then, you and I...” But Prufrock puts off starting….nothing in fact, occurs; nothing is ever begun.”
Finally, I get this poem. Thank you Louise Glück.
“The future is impossible, the past lost. And the present a vacuum: non-action….The poem is all wringing of hands...the masterpiece of avoidance. At the poem’s center is the unsaid…”
Since I searched Google a few days ago for Glück, my news page has been posting links to recent articles about her, including these interesting things:
Creepy Google. But thanks.