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.
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.
Terrance Hayes is a wonder. He is also a POET in every cell of his body. Poetry isn’t a compartment of his life, it IS his life. But that doesn’t mean he’s writing poems in isolation. He’s a husband and father, teacher and activist, using poetry to think and feel his way through the world. I just saw him at Hugo House in Seattle, talking about Linda Hull’s poems and reading some of his own, and it was electrifying to listen to him. Even though he’s a virtuoso, he isn’t after a gleaming finished product, something static. All his poems are a process: asking questions, thinking aloud, making hypotheses, trying out possibilities. Everything is at stake, and he’s willing to try on one possibility after another, to get it wrong, to fail. He’s a master craftsman, and it was a pleasure to hear him focus on that. He’s devoted to working hard–something that comes in part from his days as a basketball player. I came home energized, challenged, rededicated to working harder and better. Read him, listen, watch him online and in person.
Here’s the first poem of his I read that set me on fire. Makes me think of Frost: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the capet–. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood: by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This name. This blood
and wonder. This box. This body in a box. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.
You’ve all had those Emily Dickinson moments, when you read a poet for the first time–or the first time paying attention–and not just the poem but the poet’s sensibility blows the top of your head off. Recently Elizabeth Austen, poet teacher, and former Washington state Poet Laureate, recommended Tim Seibles’ work. I knew the name, but not much beyond that. A few days ago I started reading his book One Turn Around the Sun (etruscan press, 2016). And then I kept going, couldn’t put it down. The voice seeps into every nook and cranny–his life, the reader’s mind–and lights them up. It reminds me of reading CK Williams for the first time: here’s a whole new thing in the poetry universe. New to me, I know I’m late to the party. Do you already know and love his work? What are your favorites? Here’s the opening of the first poem in the book: I dare you to read it and not be desperate to find out what comes next:
ODE TO YOUR MOTHER
Do you remember yourself
six months after conception?
Far from the egg, your heart
chirping like a hungry chick,
those unwalked feet—fat crickets
kicking around, eyes blind
as buttons: cell by cell,
rod by cone, getting ready
to call up the colors and lights….
I’ve been fascinated by voice and point of view in poems since I started to write seriously. When I first began to read contemporary poetry, I was disappointed by how much if it was spoken by an I that stood between me and everything going on in the poem. Disappointed because the older poetry I’d read drew on a much wider range of point of view, including third person. I felt as if I should be using that I since everyone around me was, but I couldn’t do it then–every poem I started that way got stuck until I changed it to she. Eventually I found an I I could live with, but once I did I got bored and went back to trying other pronouns. Now I don’t think about it–the poem speaks, and I listen. But I notice as much as ever when I read, and I especially love voices that seem to come out of nowhere. Here are a couple of my favorites. Please add your own favorite poems that don’t use a first person singular speaker.
These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods —
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.
September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.
She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,
It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac
on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.
It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.
But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.
Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.