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Between the Lines

June 21, 2018

The amazing poet Terrance Hayes was just on npr, talking about his new book, American Sonnets for my Once and Future Assassin. I heard him read some of these strange, powerful poems in Seattle last year and I’m looking forward to the book. But what’s on my mind now is a phrase he used about how a poet is always trying to activate the space between the lines. I hurried to write that down: activate the space between the lines. The idea is one I think about all the time, but have ne’er so well articulated. I try to point to it when I talk to students about the rhythm of the line, about tautness rather than slackness, about making a poem rather than saying something.  What I’m getting at is how  those lines create a force field in the spaces between them.

I think these force fields exist in metric poems and free verse, in parts of long poems (you know them when you come to them in Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example) and some whole shorter poems. I think it’s what took the top of Emily Dickinson’s head off. Poems that have this can be translated, but they can’t be paraphrased. I can’t offer a more specific definition, but here are some examples of the electricity I mean, the sparks leaping across the white space.

First, this familiar early 16th century lyric:

O Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!

 

***

 

FLY
W. S. Merwin

I have been cruel to a fat pigeon
Because he would not fly
All he wanted was to live like a friendly old man

He had let himself become a wreck filthy and confiding
Wild for his food beating the cat off the garbage
Ignoring his mate perpetually snotty at the beak
Smelling waddling having to be
Carried up the ladder at night content

Fly I said throwing him into the air
But he would drop and run back expecting to be fed
I said it again and again throwing him up
As he got worse
He let himself be picked up every time
Until I found him in the dovecote dead
Of the needless efforts

So that is what I am

Pondering his eyed that could not
Conceive that I was a creature to run from

I who have always believed too much in words

***

IN THE EVENING
Jean Valentine

In the evening
I saw them

their little
open boats

carrying us
across the blood water

their invisible company
their invisible company

you beauty I never
did not know

no time
no place

you beauty
little ferryman

***

ETYMOLOGICAL DIRGE
Heather McHugh

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

Calm comes from burning.
Tall comes from fast.
Comely doesn’t come from come.
Person comes from mask.

The kin of charity is whore,
the root of charity is dear.
Incentive has its source in song
and winning in the sufferer.

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

Rilke Translations

June 4, 2018

I was just looking at some again recently for my poetry group discussion.  We read the first two Duino Elegies in translations by Stephen Mitchell, David Young, Gary Miranda, and Edward Snow.  When I came into the poetry world, all my teachers spoke of Rilke as one of the presiding poetry gods, so I tried to read the poems–in translation, that is, since I have no German.  I don’t know whose versions I read then, but I found them impenetrable.  I took it on faith that Rilke was important, but thought to myself, “I don’t get it.  Why does everyone think he’s so great?”  The first time I had any sense of his poems as poetry was when I read David Young’s translation of the Duino Elegies, published originally in Field, and then as a collection by Norton in 1978.  His don’t have the square and solid look of the originals and other translations–they’re indented triplets. First Snow’s, with typical lines, then Young’s:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence….
Edward Snow

If I cried out
…………who would hear me up there
………………..among the angelic orders?
And suppose one suddenly
…….took me to his heart
…………….I would shrivel
I couldn’t survive
……….next to his
………………..greater existence.
David Young

For the first time, I could see and hear music in the poems. And the extra white space made the poems seem less heavy and dense, and also slowed down them down to a speed at which I could follow them.

Since then I’ve read many translations of Rilke, and taught some of them in comparative translation classes, but I hadn’t looked at Young’s in quite a while. Now I find them distracting and oddly broken up (though as I typed them above, all that beauty I felt the first time came back to me), only because I’m so much more familiar with the contents. But I’m forever grateful to them for giving me a way in to the Elegies, for conveying the poetry of them for the first time.

The Miranda translation is the one I came to most recently, and I think of it as another great introduction to the work. His version is spoken by something close to a first-person speaker, and has a clearer through-line and forward pull than any other version I know–and probably than the original. It makes for a kind of immediate emotional connection, but loses what Robert Hass describes as Rilke’s omnipresence: “It is as if, not having a place to stand, the author of these poems is everywhere. Really, they are the nearest thing in the writing of the twentieth century to the flight of birds. They dive, soar, swoop, belly up, loop over.” (From his introduction to the Stephen Mitchell translations.)

The two I find myself most drawn to now, of the ones I know, are those by Stephen Mitchell and Edward Snow, and as I read them side by side I like one better here and one there. Whenever I’ve taught comparative translation we’ve all concluded that for those of us who don’t know the original language, one translation is never sufficient, no matter how good it is. We need several so we can triangulate, and we need the original on facing pages to remind us of what we’re missing.  And different ones at different times in our reading lives.

In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us:
they are weaned from earth’s sorrows and joys, as gently as children
outgrow the soft breasts of their mothers. But we, who do need
such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often
the source of our spirit’s growth–: could we exist without them?
Stephen Mitchell

In the end, those torn from us early no longer need us;
they grow slowly unaccustomed to earthly things, in the gentle manner
one outgrows a mother’s breasts. But we, who need
such great mysteries, for whom so often blessed progress
springs from grief–: could we exist without them?
Edward Snow

Close Encounters with the Poem Itself

March 29, 2018

I had a very interesting conversation with two writer friends yesterday that eventually led me to an insight about what I want from poetry and other arts–in the very same way that working on a poem leads me to discover my own thoughts and feelings.  The discussion began with the recent flood of revelations about the sexual misbehaviors of many male writers, and the response by some to boycott their work.  I strongly disagree with that response–it strikes me as censorship and a moral litmus test–but I understand what triggers it.  I was appalled by the sexism of the poetry world I stepped into in about 1970, and saw a lot of offensive behavior, then and afterwards, by poets whose work I admired and loved.  Sometimes I took a break from reading their poems, but I always went back eventually and found a way to focus on the work rather than the life of the writer.

All of my early readings of contemporary poetry were encounters with the poems themselves, because I knew nothing of the poets’ lives.  I first read Sylvia Plath’s poems before I’d ever heard her name, let alone anything of her life and death, for example.  The same was true for Elizabeth Bishop, and many others, and I’m grateful that I started with the work.  My first literary approach to reading a poem was New Criticism, which reinforced my own focus on the poem itself, not the life of the poet.  I’ve added some layers to that in the years since, but that will always be my foundation and primary lens.  I’m as susceptible to curiosity and juicy gossip as anyone else, but I think what I learn about a writer’s life gets between me and the work far more often than it illuminates the work.  It becomes a kind of noise I have to tune out.  Of course there are exceptions–Colm Toibin’s On Elizabeth Bishop brings in snippets of the life to make insightful comments about individual poems, and especially the power of what she leaves out of them.  The biographies I’ve read of her don’t do that, and instead fill my head with irrelevancies I have to wash out when I read the poems.

Because what I want when I’m absorbed in a poem–and this is the heart of the matter–is an uncluttered encounter between me and the work of art.  I turn to art to leave behind the noise of everyday life and get in touch with something deeper, an experience that lets me return to daily life changed, enriched, challenged, seeing things in new ways.

Robert Frost was my first poetry love, and an enduring one.  When I read him as a child and then a teenager, what spoke to me was the darkness and loneliness: “My sorrow when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be….”  And especially, since I lived in a desert landscape, “Desert Places”:

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
WIth no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The last line took my breath away: How did he know?  How did he know?

When we were college seniors, a friend and I decided we were going to make a pilgrimage from Utah to New England to meet Frost the following summer.  Even though it was a fantasy, I was devastated when he died that January, before I could meet him.  It was only years later that I realized what a disaster it would have been if we’d managed to make the trip, somehow find him, and try to introduce ourselves to the man himself.  I think that’s a perfect example of the point I’m trying to make here: my deep connections were with the speaker of the poems, not the writer of them.  They were powerful, and touched on something true and real, things we did indeed have in common that would only have been obscured by the realities of daily life.  I want a tryst, a téte à téte, not with the poet but with the poem itself.

Breathtaking

March 6, 2018

I was talking to a friend about moments of magic in poems, a kind of conjuring that goes beyond craft and is inexplicable.  The first example that came to mind was the ending of Frank O’Hara’s’ “The Day Lady Died,” which brings tears to my eyes and makes me suck in my breath every time I read it.  It’s something about the way past and present are simultaneous, but it’s more than that, more than the sum of the parts.  Then I thought of an Alice Oswald poem, “Body,” that does something similar.  I was going to add two or three more poems that leave me awestruck, but then I noticed that both of these poems are about the border between life and death and I decided to include just the two of them in conversation with each other.

I hope you’ll add poems whose magic takes your breath away, whatever their topic.

 

THE DAY LADY DIED

Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

 

***

 

BODY

Alice Oswald

This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition

bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully finding themselves floating
but that badger

still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted
was shuffling away alive

hard at work
with the living shovel of himself
into the lane he dropped
not once looking up

and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase
towards him
with the grin like an opened zip
(as I found it this morning)

and went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

 

Ross Gay’s Unabashed Gratitude

February 18, 2018

The first time I remember laughing and feeling joy after the dark night of the 2016 election was at a Ross Gay poetry reading in Seattle.  The exuberance of his latest book title, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, was a first clue to the evening’s theme and tone.  The poems expressed it, and his body enacted it: he never stands still.  His energy and passion were audible and visible–and contagious.  And his sentiments are saved from sentimentality by being hard won.  They choose joy from a menu that also offers grief, rage, and despair–not by ignoring darkness, but by acknowledging it.  In “Spoon,” dedicated to a friend, it’s only after he’s spent six pages drawing a loving portrait that he says, “I swore when I got into this poem I would convert/ this sorrow into some kind of honey with the little musics// I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts/ of our desolation….”  And then, four couplets below, “After Don was murdered I dreamt of him….”

I often find myself giving into hopelessness in recent months, feeling as if our country and so many things I value have tipped irretrievably off a cliff.  But just yesterday a friend reminded me that hopelessness is self-indulgent–and indeed, I can feel the relief when I throw up my hands and decide there’s nothing to be done: great, it’s not on me to solve it.  But then I re-read Ross Gay’s “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning my Shirt,” and take in his pleasure at such a small thing.  And his celebratory odes, “To the Mistake,” and “To Sleeping in my Clothes.”  Maybe my favorite opening is the first couplet of “The Opening”: “You might rightly wonder what I am doing here/ in the passenger’s seat of this teal Mitsubishi….” Among the many passages I wish I had written is this one from “Feet”: “But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet says/ I am trying to do this/ or I am trying to do that./ Sometimes it’s a horseshit trick. But sometimes/ it’s a way by which the poet says/ I wish I could tell you, truly, of the little factory/ in my head: the smokestacks/ chuffing, the dandelions/ and purslane and willows of sweet clover/ prying through the blacktop….”  I am tempted to quote the book’s wonderful last lines here, but in case you haven’t already read the poems I’ll let you discover them for yourself.