Here is a Map of our Country

October 10, 2017

I just came across a poem by Adrienne Rich that struck me as a description of the present, even though it’s from a book published in 1991.  Or maybe it’s that it could be a map of our country at almost any time in our history.  It’s section II of the opening title poem of An Atlas of the Difficult World:

Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms
This is the breadbasket of foreclosed farms
This is the birthplace of the rockabilly boy
This is the cemetery of the poor
who died for democracy   This is a battlefield
from a nineteenth-century war   the shrine is famous
This is the sea-town of myth and story   when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt   here is where the jobs were   on the pier
processing frozen fishsticks hourly wages and no shares
These are other battlefields   Centralia   Detroit
here are the forests primeval   the copper   the silver lodes
These are the suburbs of acquiescence   silence rising fumelike from the streets
This is the capital of money and dolor whose spires
flare up through air inversions whose bridges are crumbling
whose children are drifting blind alleys pent
between coiled rolls of razor wire
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
then yes let it be these are small distinctions
where we see it from is the question

Unpacking the Poetry Books

September 27, 2017

The postings here have been sporadic lately because I was finally moving into a lovely apartment in Seattle.  I hope this will be my last move, but you never know.   It was exhausting and overwhelming, but one of the rare bright spots was unpacking my poetry books.  I keep them in alphabetical order so I can find things easily   Despite all the shuffling back and forth, it was full of pleasure.  Some poets take up half a shelf or more, with their books and books about them: Ashbery,  Berryman, Bishop, Carson, Dante, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Ginsberg, Gluck, Goldbarth, Heaney, Homer, Levine, Merrill, Merwin.  Plath, Pound, Rilke.  Simic, Stevens, Strand, James Tate, WC Williams.   From Jonathan Aaron to Martha Zweig.  From some of the earliest I read when I was starting to write–Margaret Atwood, Diane Wakowski, Transtromer, Bly, Kinnell, Plath, Stanley Plumly, to recent discoveries–Alice Oswald, Karen Solie, Tim Siebles.  From well known to maybe less so: a collaboration between James Tate and Bill Knott titled Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy?  A beautifully made book, Paul Hannigan’s The Carnation, published by Barn Dream Press in Massachusetts.  I remember where I bought many of the books, or who gave them to me: Jonathan Galassi gave me The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barret Browning when he had recently started work at Houghton Mifflin and I interviewed him for an article on poetry publishing in Boston.  Or my first reaction: reading Wind in a Box–Terrance Hayes can do anything!  Milosz’s Anthology of Polish Poets where I read Szymborska for the first time.  And I notice what’s missing: the little paperback of Stevens’ poems, Palm at the end of the Mind, that fell apart after I carried it everywhere with me for years.  And I don’t see the first anthology of contemporary poetry I ever owned, Poems of our Moment, edited by John Hollander.  As I remember, three of the thirty-seven  poets included were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.  It’s possible I finally threw it out.  Working my way through my shelves is working my way through my life–but in alphabetical rather than chronological order, so there’s a wonderful weaving back and forth between pieces.  There’s a murmur of conversation, whispers and shouts.  More than one mover said to me, “You should get rid of a lot of these books.”  Over my dead body.  I’d love to hear the stories of your poetry bookshelves.

John Ashbery

September 4, 2017

The first time I heard Ashbery read, he had just published a book titled Three Poems–much of it set as prose.  The Viking paperback edition I just took down from my shelf cost $2.25, and some passages that spoke to me at the time are underlined: “the ugliness of waiting”; “For starting out, even just a very few steps, completely changes the nature of the journey as it was when it lay intact and folded”; “But the light continues to grow, the eternal disarray of sunrise….”  I loved the lulling voice, the sprawling sentences, the way the mind moved, the sounds–just as I had when I picked up his first book, Some Trees, at the Corner Bookstore (in the middle of the block) in Ithaca, New York, and was mesmerized by the title poem.  When Ashbery read at Cornell, he sat down at a bare table, read with minimal inflection and without looking up, and left without commenting.  He refused to be a go-between or explicator.  I once heard James Tate respond to a student who said he found Ashbery difficult: “I don’t understand why people say that.  All you have to do is listen.”  I don’t find it as simple as Tate did–I’m often utterly baffled, and read Ashbery most happily when I’m totally immersed in his poems, the music of his mind.  But the music is where it all starts.  Just listen:

 

SOME TREES

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

 

REALLY READING POETRY

July 18, 2017

One of my favorite things is to gather with other poets to talk about poems, poets, and poetry. That’s why I love teaching, and that’s why I started a blog called The Poetry Conversation. But I’m also part of another, in-person poetry conversation that has been meeting once a month since last December. There are eight of us, and whoever hosts chooses the book. So far we’ve read Kevin Prufer’s Churches, Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, Tim Seibles’ One Turn Around the Sun, Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall, Anne Carson’s Nox, and Marie Howe’s Magdalene–and we’re about to discuss Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake.  The group offers so many pleasures I hardly know where to start.  Given the overwhelming number of poetry books out there, it’s a luxury to have someone say, “Pay attention to this one.”  And believe me, everyone pays attention: we come with notes and stickies, and definitions, allusions, translations when necessary.  This is passionate, thoughtful engagement.  It is the way we all dream of being read and almost never are.  We talk about individual poems, patterns, the book as a whole.  We listen to interviews with the poets, and listen to them reading their work aloud if we can.  And we all bring different points of view to the mix.  The poems, and then the discussions, set my mind on fire.  Thinking about one book doesn’t stop when we move to the next–it all accumulates.  It is the richest, deepest, most faceted talk about reading poetry that I’ve ever been part of, and I hope it goes on forever.

Now go start a reading group of your own.

Revision

June 8, 2017

REVISION

I urge my students to think of it as re-vision when they work on their poems: to see it new, from a whole different angle: change the speaker, the verb tense, the order. Blow it up, and see where the pieces fall. I also think this deeper re-vision is one of the great gifts of reading and writing poetry. When we revise our own poems we also revise ourselves, our sense of how we think and feel about something. I’ve often had the experience of a poem turning on me, of resisting what I thought I was going to say because it has something else in mind, something closer to the truth. That’s exactly why I write: to get to those truths only poetry reveals to me. Nietzsche said that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you. I think the poem does that too, and that in that mutual gaze we see what’s false. And hear the false notes in the words we’ve written down. I’m thinking right now of Robert Hass’s beautiful poem “Heroic Simile,” from his second book, Praise. The last line reads: “There are limits to imagination.” I’ve heard that the line was originally, “There are no limits to imagination.” I don’t know if that’s so, but it seems utterly plausible to me—the recognition that the truth is the bracing opposite of our first sentimental thoughts. And to finish the poem, you have to let it say so.

HOMERIC SIMILE

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in the Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.

They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from the midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw’s tooth.

The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days’ work.
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.

How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they’ll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.

Robert Hass