How Poems Travel

July 25, 2022

  One of the most interesting things in poems is how they travel from one place to the next–from beginning to end, and all the twists and turns along the way.  What are the transitions–some subtle, some obvious–from one thought to the next, one image to the next, one emotion to the next?  We say that poems transport us–they take us somewhere.  We enter with the title and first line, move through the world of the poem, and are shown out at the end.  What was that ride like?  Where did it speed up and slow down? What would a map look like?

Thinking of transportation reminded me of one of the most magical versions I know: the cat-bus in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated movie My Neighbor Totoro.  This was my introduction to his films, and I think I’ve watched almost all of them now, including his best known, Spirited Away.  Reading some poems can be like getting onto the cat-bus.  Here’s a link to the cat-bus arriving to pick up passengers.

So how would you describe the transitions in the poems below?  Post your thoughts here, and plan to join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link later this week.



Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.






Marianne Moore

through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.



Tomas Tranströmer   (translated from the Swedish by Robert Bly)

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;
rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house
but every pane of glass is still whole.




Natalie Diaz

My brother has a knife in his hand.
He has decided to stab my father.

This could be a story from the Bible,
if it wasn’t already a story about stars.

I weep alacranes—the scorpions clatter
to the floor like yellow metallic scissors.

They land upside down on their backs and eyes,
but writhe and flip to their segmented bellies.

My brother has forgotten to wear shoes again.
My scorpions circle him, whip at his heels.

In them is what stings in me –
it brings my brother to the ground.

He rises, still holding the knife.
My father ran out of the house,

down the street, crying like a lamplighter –
but nobody turned their lights on. It is dark.

The only light left is in the scorpions –
there is a small light left in the knife too.

My brother now wants to give me the knife.
Some might say, My brother wants to stab me.

He tries to pass it to me – like it is a good thing.
Like, Don’t you want a little light in your belly?

Like the way Orion and Scorpius –
across all that black night – pass the sun.

My brother loosens his mouth –
between his teeth, throbbing red Antares.

One way to open a body to the stars, with a knife.
One way to love a sister, help her bleed light.






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  • Reply Anne Pitkin July 25, 2022 at 3:47 pm

    It appears to me that these poems mostly start with a specific (except the Roethke poem) and swell out toward the strange in a process that makes the strange believable. I always love Transtromer, by the way, whose believable strangeness suffuses his poems from beginning to end. “The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.”

  • Reply maryjanewhite July 27, 2022 at 1:27 pm

    Roethke’s poem is a villanelle, so it travels by a well-worn formal path, obsessively, but in a thoroughly modern, near therapeutic, diction. It travels by questions toward affirmation of some fairly sad truths.

    Moore’s poem also travels formally, in its repetition of syllabic stanza. The formal stanza constraints require re-thinking and re-writing. One’s first thoughts rarely fit by just falling into place easily, as they are wont to due in free verse. The rhyme imposes a further constraint on the usual “prosy” voice emerging from most syllabics. The final unrhymed line of each stanza supports the illusion of simply observant prose. “All / external / marks of abuse are present on this / defiant edifice—” marks a “volta” or turn from careful observation by the eye inward to a turn of mind. I wonder what the date of the composition of this poem was, relative to WWII in Europe, and to Moore’s age?

    Bly’s translation of Transtromer sounds as much Bly’s poem as Transtromer’s. Again, I wonder what the date of the translation was. How close to the era of Vietnam war protest? The translation travels in couplets, each of which is closed upon punctuation—a carefully observed constraint. Otherwise, the form is free verse, it seems. The governm’nt don’t enter in to explain the “black day” of the first couplet until the mention of “Caesar” in the third. The acts to remain calm are deliberate, and as transparent as the unbroken glass of the glass house of Hayden’s music.

    Diaz’s poem is more exotic to me, as I know little (actually failed) Spanish. So, “alacranes” Googles into scorpions—as I suspected, with Diaz using a technique that Sandra Cisneros uses so often in her lyrical prose—translating the Spanish word afterwards for her monolingual readers. “Antares” is Greek, for the dying red giant of a star, again per Google. So, this poem is all over the place. Thank goodness for Google, FB and all the rest of social media! For me, this poem travels surreally (not my favorite voice or form of imagery; for me, it is too tricky, too jumpy and too difficult to interpret—so demanding it crowds out the development of empathy—my personal failing as a reader, and often, as a person. My constraint, and I’m not interested in widening it much.) The poem—so overtly dramatic, so all over the place, so little elegant—fails to engage me very much, I’m afraid. For someone with greater experience of violence, I imagine this poem might land with greater power.

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