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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….