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STANLEY PLUMLY

April 17, 2019

STANLEY PLUMLY, who died last week at 79, was one of my first poetry teachers in graduate school.  He taught workshops of course, but the class that had the most impact was a seminar, Long Poems and Poem Sequences.  We read many published examples, including Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon and Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer,” from his second book, Praise. We discussed those poems in class, but were also writing our own versions.  Doing that changed the way I wrote.  Until then, I had assumed I would write one poem about my grandmother and one about evolution, one about New England, and one about art.  I wrote slowly, a line at a time squeezed out like toothpaste and then fretted over, before I went on to the next.  Working on a group of poems, I realized that I had just a few obsessions I would write about over and over, that one poem led to another, and that I needed to get down the arc of thought and feeling before it faded–I could go back to the details later.

Stan was also the first one to encourage me to send my poems out and to suggest specific places.  I believe his recommendations were behind the quick acceptance of my first two books.

The deepest lesson I took away from watching him and my other teachers was that being a poet goes beyond writing poems–though that was the written evidence–that it’s a way of living in and moving through the world.  It’s not just something you do, but something you are.  Stan’s absorption in and devotion to poetry were a model of what I aspired to.

He was, of course, a wonderful poet, with more than a dozen collections.  He also published a beautiful prose book, Posthumous Keats, An Intimiate Biography, about the poet he loved best; and The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb.  Both of these are as vividly written as novels, and allow us to eavesdrop on these moments and figures from the past, to see them up close.

The book of his poems I know best is still Out-of-the-Body Travel, published by Ecco Press in 1977.  These were the first poems of his I knew, and I read them over and over.  Two favorites: “The Iron Lung,” a persona poem written as someone who has polio and must live in that little tube forever–but it intertwines his own life with that character’s life so that every line is about two things at once, a shimmering metaphor.  Another is “The Tree,” that layers images like an anatomy textbook’s transparencies: actual tree, genealogical tree, cauliflower, the hand, the brain.

The other poem here, “Wrong Side of the River,” is from the same book.  I’ve always loved the haunting scene, the unexplained mystery of it.  But when I read it right after I learned of his death, it too revealed more layers.

 

THE TREE

 

It looked like oak, white oak, oak of the oceans,

oak of the Lord, live oak, oak if a boy could choose.

The names, like ganglia, were the leaves, flesh

 

of our fathers.  So Sundays I would stand

on a chair and trace, as on a county map,

back to the beginnings of cousins,

 

nomenclature.  This branch, this root…

I could feel the weight of my body take hold,

toe in.  I could see the same shape in my hand.

 

And if from the floor it looked like a cauliflower,

dried, dusted, pieced back together, paper–

my bad eyes awed by the detailed dead and named–

 

it was the stalk of the spine as it culminates at the brain,

a drawing I had seen in a book about the body, each leaf

inlaid until the man’s whole back, root and stem, was veins.

 

 

 

WRONG SIDE OF THE RIVER

 

I watched you on the wrong side

of the river, waving.  You were trying

to tell me something.  You used both hands

and sort of ran back and forth,

as if to say look behind you, look out

behind you.  I wanted to wave back.

But you began shouting and I didn’t

want you to think I understood.

So I did nothing but stand still,

thinking that’s what to do on the wrong side

of the river.  After a while you did too.

We stood like that for a long time.  Then

I raised a hand, as if to be called on,

and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

 

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.

An Embarrassment of Poets

July 14, 2016

This discussion began in response to a cartoon posted on facebook, with poets silently pondering what to tell people when they ask what they do–on a plane, at a party, meeting your partner’s family.  My experiences parallel everyone else’s: if I don’t want to talk I say right off I’m a poet, and that’s the end of the conversation.  If I might want to talk I say “teacher,” ease into “literature,” “poetry,” and finally, “Yes, I write poetry myself.”  I know dozens of poems that convey this sense of embarrassment and apology, from Mona Van Duyn’s “A Vision Test” to Donald Hall’s “To a Waterfowl,” and I’m sure you can all add your own favorites.  I never questioned this posture until I read an interview with the wonderful Russian poet Joseph Brodsky after he had come to America.  He said something like, “Why do all you American poets apologize for what you do?  You should shout it out loud and proud.”  Wow.  What a concept.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right he was.  We American poets live in a country where poetry is marginalized even among the arts–and that’s not our fault.  Maybe it’s no one’s fault, just a fact of our lives.  I joke that I want to come back as a Polish poet, because poetry is a valued and lively part of the general conversation there, and because when the poet Wislawa Szymborska died there the flags flew at half-mast.  I’m not necessarily arguing here that we poets should do something to make poetry more visible. Right now I’m not pondering ways to make it more so.  Those are interesting questions, but I’m thinking instead about how we carry ourselves here as poets, how we live our lives as poets in America, and about how that affects our own and others’ perceptions of what poetry is.  I don’t think for a second there’s a right answer, but I like Brodsky’s advice to shout it out.  I don’t hesitate or apologize anymore, I just say it straight out.  I have a little button I got years ago at AWP that says POET, and I like to wear it sometimes on the subway or walking down the street and let people see it.  Sometimes people look at it and look away.  Sometimes someone asks a question or two.  Maybe if we aren’t embarrassed to say what we do, others won’t be embarrassed to ask us more about what it is and why we do it.

If Mona Van Duyn could keep writing poetry after the experience she describes here, so can we all.

 

A VISION TEST

Mona Van Duyn

 

My driver’s license is lapsing and so I appear

in a roomful of waiting others and get in line.

I just master a lighted box of far or near,

a highway language of shape, squiggle and sign.

As the quarter-hours pass I watch the lady in charge

of the test, and think how patient, how slow, how nice

she is, a kindly priestess indeed, her large,

round face, her vanilla-pudding, baked-apple-and-spice

face in continual smiles as she calls each “Dear”

and “Honey” and shows first-timers what to see.

She enjoys her job, how pleasant to be in her care

rather than brute little bureaucrat or saleslady.

I imagine her life as a tender placing of hands

on her children’s hands as they come to grip with the rocks

and scissors of the world. The girl before me stands

in a glow of good feeling. I take my place at the box.

“And how are you this lovely morning, Dear?

A few little questions first. Your name?—Your age?—

Your profession?” “Poet.” “What?” She didn’t hear.

“Poet, I say loudly. The blank pink page

of her face is lifted to me. “What?” she says.

“POET,” I yell, P-O-E-T.”

A moment’s silence. Poet?” she asks. “Yes.”

Her pencil’s still. She turns away from me

to the waiting crowd, tips back her head like a hen

drinking clotted milk, and her “Ha ha hee hee hee”

of hysterical rings through the room. Again

“Oh, ha ha ha ha hee hee hee.”

People stop chatting. A few titter. It’s clear

I’ve told some marvelous joke they didn’t quite catch.

She resettles her glasses, pulls herself together,

pats her waves. The others listen and watch.

“And what are we going to call the color of your hair?”

she asks me warily. Perhaps it’s turned white

on the instant, or green is the color poets declare,

or perhaps I’ve merely made her distrust her sight.

“Up to now it’s always been brown.” Her pencil trembles,

then with an almost comically obvious show

of reluctance she lets me look in her box of symbols

for normal people who know where they want to go.

 

Poetry of Witness

July 4, 2016

786699._UY475_SS475_One of the graduating students in Lesley University’s low-residency MFA Program, Eileen Cleary, gave a moving talk on poems of witness last week.  Examples ranged from Bruce Weigl’s “The Last Lie” to Tadeusz Rozewicz’s “Pigtails” to Yusef Komunyaaka’s “After Ferguson.”  It has made me think about what a complicated topic this is, and I’m pondering two specific questions right now.  One is that we use the term to refer to tragedies, not to celebratory, joyful, or ordinary events–an untroubled birth, the first spring beauties coming up through remnants of snow.  The origins of the word witness seem to be legalistic from the beginning: testimony based on knowing, on having your wits about you.  So it’s witness to a crime, to bad behavior, to tragedy.  It laments injustice and gives voice to outrage and to those who can’t speak for themselves.

But the larger, more complicated question, has to do with point of view: where is the witness in relation to the events being described?  Is the testimony firsthand or secondhand, is it grounded in direct observation or in empathy, in the imagination?  In Bruce Weigl’s poem the speaker is an American soldier describing a fellow soldier’s casual violence–throwing a food canister hard at the forehead of one of the hungry children.  Komunyaaka’s speaker is an American black man raging against racial injustice–we assume he’s felt it himself though he didn’t witness the Ferguson shooting firsthand.  Rosewicz was a Polish poet whose mother had converted from Judaism to Catholicism.  He and his brother both fought the Nazis as part of the Polish underground, and his brother was captured and executed.  The anonymous speaker of his poem imagines the the lives of the girls and women who have left behind “clouds of dry hair.”

So the question I’m pondering is: what’s our relationship to events that move us from a distance: Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Ferguson and all its shameful company if we’re white, a drowned Syrian child on a Greek beach, gays and lesbians targeted at a Florida nightclub.  Not acts of god, but of human rage and savagery.  What ground do we have to stand on and speak from that will make us more than sensationalists, voyeurs, co-opters, poachers?  Shared humanity–and inhumanity?  What poems come to mind?  Have you written poems you consider poems of witness?

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

June 15, 2016

51hnlWJ4w2L._UY250_Auden said that, not as a criticism of poetry but as a defense of it against ideological pressures in the 1930s from both the right and the left that poets take sides.  When it comes to writing my own poetry, I am with Auden, and with John F. Kennedy, who declared that “Society must make the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him [or her].”  And I agree with Yehudi Amichai that “all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.”  Following a number of recent tragedies people have posted Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Try to Praise the Mutilated World,” just as the New Yorker did after the nine-eleven attacks.  He didn’t write the poem to address any specific event, but it speaks to our hearts and minds about many of them.  I’m interested to hear your thoughts about how poetry speaks to tragedy, and whether it’s most moving to you if it does it deliberately or indirectly.