Browsing Category

teaching

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.

Wislawa Szymborska

August 6, 2016

simic_1-122211No poet gives me more sheer pleasure than the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska ( Vee-shwava Zhim-borshka). The poems’ surfaces have a deceptive simplicity that opens onto bottomless depths.  Great clarity combines with humility–the title of her Nobel lecture was “I Don’t Know.”  No matter how dark the subject–“Hitler’s First Photograph,” “The Terrorist,” “Funeral”–a love of life shines through, an abiding affection for humans in all their imperfections, a rueful embrace of mortality.  The cover of her book Here features a photo of a younger Szymborska smoking, her eyes closed and a blissful smile on her face.  She had to have chosen this after she had been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would kill her, and I take it as an extension of the spirit that pervades her poems: embrace life, pains, pleasures and all.  Sorrow but not guilt.  Joy and humor in the face of loss.

I first came across Szymborska’s work years ago in Czeslaw Milosz’s Postwar Polish Poetry, and it was love at first read.  Over the years, more and more of her poetry became available in English.  I read her only in translation, and the best translators by all accounts are Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.  I hesitated a little before I taught her work the first time–would my twenty-year-old American students connect to an ironic intellectual Polish poet?  The answer was a resounding yes.  The voice engaged them immediately, and the humor, the surprising questions and unusual takes on every day life.  And then, before they knew it, they were drawn into the poems’ depths.

Years ago I heard Ed Hirsch give a talk on poetry and photography.  Before he spoke, a black and white photo was shown on a screen onstage: a baby in what could be an old-fashioned christening dress.  Because it was a baby we all oohed and aahed and smiled.  And then Ed read Szymborska’s poem “Hitler’s First Photograph.”  I’m not posting it here, but you can find it online.

I joke that in my next life I want to come back as a Polish poet.  When Szymborska died it was front page news, and flags around the country were lowered to half-mast.  Poetry there is a major part of the conversation, along with philosophy, politics, science, and the other arts.  I dream of making ways for more of that to happen here, but we’re a long way from that now.

In addition to Szymborska’s poems, there’s a wonderful collection of short prose pieces, Nonrequired Reading.

Here are a couple of my favorites, both translated by Cavanagh and Baranczak. Feel free to add your own, and your thoughts about her work.

 

IDENTIFICATION
   Wislawa Szymborska
It’s good you came—she says.
You heard a plane crashed on Thursday?
Well so they came to see me
about it.
The story is he was on the passenger list.
So what, he might have changed his mind.
They gave me some pills so I wouldn’t fall apart.
Then they showed me I don’t know who.
All black, burned except one hand.
A scrap of shirt, a watch, a wedding ring.
I got furious, that can’t be him.
He wouldn’t do that to me, look like that.
The stores are bursting with those shirts.
The watch is just a regular old watch.
And our names on that ring,
they’re only the most ordinary names.
It’s good you came. Sit here beside me.
He really was supposed to get back Thursday.
But we’ve got so many Thursdays left this year.
I’ll put the kettle on for tea.
I’ll wash my hair, then what,
try to wake up from all this.
It’s good you came, since it was cold there,
and him just in some rubber sleeping bag,
him, I mean, you know, that unlucky man.
I’ll put the Thursday on, wash the tea,
since our names are completely ordinary—
MAYBE ALL THIS

Maybe all this
is happening in some lab?
Under one lamp by day
and billions by night?

Maybe we’re experimental generations?
Poured from one vial to the next,
shaken in test tubes,
not scrutinized by eyes alone,
each of us separately
plucked up by tweezers in the end?

Or maybe it’s more like this:
No interference?
The changes occur on their own
according to plan?
The graph’s needle slowly etches
its predictable zigzags?

Maybe thus far we aren’t of much interest?
The control monitors aren’t usually plugged in?
Only for wars, preferably large ones,
for the odd ascent above our clump of Earth,
for major migrations from point A to B?

Maybe just the opposite:
They’ve got a taste for trivia up there?
Look! on the big screen a little girl
is sewing a button on her sleeve.
The radar shrieks,
the staff comes at a run.
What a darling little being
with its tiny heart beating inside it!
How sweet, its solemn
threading of the needle!
Someone cries enraptured:
Get the Boss,
tell him he’s got to see this for himself!

 

 

First Loves

June 6, 2016

41ZFN5K8D5L._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_Sometimes I start a class with a book that takes me straight to the heart of wanting to write poetry: First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems that Captivated and Inspired Them, edited by Carmela Ciuraru (Scribners 2001). If you don’t already know it, I’d recommend the amazon page review for a sense of what it’s like. Ciuraru asked a wide range of contemporary poets to choose a poem that inspired them early on and say a few words about it. Every time I read around in the book I’m taken back to some of my own sources, and the same thing happens to students when they read it: a direct line opens to those original urges. The book is full of surprises: Robert Creeley chooses Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Wanda Coleman picks Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” for example.

 

A number of experiences made me fall in love with words: my father asking “What’s black and white and red all over?” I was stumped. “A newspaper.” What? Oh! Read! That language could do that. Or my grandmother writing out “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and little lambsy divey” after she’d sung it. Later it was Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and—like Creeley—the galloping “Highwayman.” But it was Frost’s ability to see through tranquil surfaces to the depths below that resonated with something in me, from the opening of “My November Guest” (“My sorrow, when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain/ Are beautiful as days can be….”) to the horrifying “Out, Out—,” where a young boy is mortally wounded as he’s sawing lumber. But one in particular seemed to speak directly to me, where I lived in Utah’s arid 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.

 

I’m curious to hear about your first loves. Please add your own thoughts and choices to The Poetry Conversation.