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.