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poets

Lost Children

May 25, 2022

Thinking of all the families steeped in grief now, and the rest of us grieving with them.  Two poems, one by the 20th century Cuban poet Gabriela Mistral, in English and Spanish (I couldn’t identify the translator), and one by 17th century English poet Ben Jonson, on the death of his son.

 

CHILDREN’S HAIR

Gabriela Mistral

Soft hair, hair that is all the softness of the world:
without you lying in my lap, what silk would I enjoy?
sweet the passing day because of that silk, sweet the sustenance,
sweet the ancient sadness, at least for the few hours it slips between my hands.

Touch it to my cheek;
wind it in my lap like flowers;
let me braid it, to soften my pain,
to magnify the light with it, now that it is dying.

When I am with God someday, I do not want an angel’s wing
to cool my heart’s bruises;
I want, stretched against the sky, the hair of the children I loved,
to let it blow in the wind against my face eternally!

**

 

LOS CABELLOS DE LOS NIÑOS

Cabellos suaves, cabellos que son toda la suavidad del mundo:
Que seda gozaría yo si no os tuviera sobre el regazo?
Dulce por ella el dia que pasa, dulce el sustento,
dulce el antiguo dolor, solo por unas horas que ellos resbalan entre mis manos.

Ponedlos en mi mejilla;

Revolvedlos en mi regazo como las flores;
dejadme trenzar con ellos, par suavizarlo, mi dolor;
aumentar la luz con ellos, ahora que es moribunda.

Cuando ya sea con Dios, que no me de el ala de un ángel,
para frescar la magulladura de mi corazón;
extienda sobre el azul las cabelleras de los niños que ame,
y pasen ellas en el viento sobre mi rostro eternamente!

*

 

ON MY FIRST SON

Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years tho’ wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scap’d world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask’d, say, “Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.”
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

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First Loves Redux

May 23, 2022

  For the past few weeks we’ve talked about deep reading and allusion–heady stuff, and crucial.  This week I’d like to turn to the heart of poems, the emotions they set off in us.  And in particular, I want to hear about some of your earliest examples of that experience, whether they’re poems you still love or poems you’ve moved on from.  What follows is an earlier post I did on this topic, but it’s been a while, and it was before the Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussions.  Think back to poems (maybe even nursery rhymes) that gave you early glimmerings of the magic that words can create.

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 post your own examples and the reasons you chose them here, and join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) reading and discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link on Thursday.

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Poems You Changed Your Mind About

April 26, 2022

 

All of us who read poetry spend a lot of our time re-reading.  Whether it’s a poem we’re new to or one we’ve known for years, the impact changes from one reading to the next–something comes clear that wasn’t, it means something different to us at different times in our own lives, it thickens as we know more of the historical context, or look up a word or an allusion, see a pattern we’d missed.  Sometimes it thins as we realize it’s all dazzling surface, no depth.  Sometimes it’s just incremental changes, but sometimes it’s a real shift from something we disliked to something we find deeply moving.

One of the most significant examples for me was Wallace Stevens’ poetry.  I loved the words and images, but I could not find a way in, a way to take hold.  I kept reading for the surface beauty, and because all my teachers said he was a great poet.  Eventually something clicked, I started to see and hear them as whole poems, and he became one of my central poets.  I never understood why everyone assigned W. C. Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” until I knew the historical context of imagism and free verse lines.  I loved the music and beauty of his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” without paying much attention to what it was saying, the way I listened to rock songs, until someone mentioned it was about a man asking for his wife’s forgiveness.  Then I liked it even more, for a few minutes, until I re-read the poem and discovered that the speaker ends up forgiving himself.

I liked but didn’t sense the power of Dickinson’s poems until I read them without the reductive punctuation that had been added by editors.  And just last week I came to see how much deeper one of Whitman’s short poems, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is than I had ever thought when I did a little discussion with the poet Kevin Prufer and he drew an illuminating diagram of it.

I mention him specifically because he’ll be a guest at next week’s Fridays at 4, May 6th, and we’ll be talking about something similar.

I’d love to know what poems and poets you changed your mind about as you read, and why. Please post the examples here, and plan to bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4, April 29th.  I’ll send the zoom link Friday morning.

 

#465 (with added editorial punctuation)

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed away my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
could make assignable–and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

 

#465 (as Dickinson wrote it)

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

 

THE RED WHEELBARROW

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

 

Marvin Bell, from his essay “Noun/ Object/ Image,” in Old Snow Just Melting:

“So much depends,” he writes, “upon a red wheel/ barrow,” and then says nothing about what depends upon it.  The poem argues for Imagism, but its method is rhetorical; the effect of the poem depends on the rhetorical beginning of its only sentence and on those expectations which it may thereby establish and frustrate.  From the frustration itself arises the point to be made.  In other words, though one could argue the propriety and advantages of a red wheelbarrow, it could have been something else.”

 

 

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Poems of Place

April 19, 2022

 

Lvov

The first thing I thought of when I saw that the Russians had attacked Lviv was Adam Zagajewski’s poem “To Go to Lvov.”  In fact, the only things I know about Lvov/ Lviv come from his poems, and from his prose  book Two Cities, about Lvov and Gliwice.  Zagajewski was just a few months old when his family was forced to leave Lvov, a beautiful old, cultured town, a World Historical Site, for Gliwice, an industrial German city traded to Poland at the end of World War II.  Zagajewski’s family kept the city they’d had to leave alive with stories, and the poet absorbed their vision:  “My grandfather, despite walking right next to me in Gliwice, was in Lvov. I walked the streets of Gliwice, he walked the streets of Lvov.”  This in turn made me think of poems where place looms large–real places like Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, Frank O’Hara’s New York City, Alice Oswald’s Dart, about the river.  But I also think of wholly imaginary places, like Xanadu in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” or Dante’s vision of Hell in the Inferno, or the metaphorical ship in Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. And then the places in between–actual places summoned up in memory, like Zagajewski’s Lvov.  The place could be as small as a room or a garden, as large as a city or mountain range or ocean–Frost’s “Once By the Pacific.”

 

I’d like to know what poems of place you think of.  Please post them here, and choose one to read at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).  I’ll send the zoom link on Friday.  Let me know if you have any questions about how to post a comment here–just go to the red link on the right, then scroll down–about being on the mailing list if you aren’t already, about working with me privately, or pretty much anything else about poetry.

 

To Go to Lvov

To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green
armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas
of a Venetian café, the snails converse
about eternity. But the cathedral rises,
you remember, so straight, as straight
as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket
full of raspberries standing on the floor, and
my desire which wasn’t born yet,
only gardens and weeds and the amber
of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro.
There was always too much of Lvov, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike
that of the cathedral, the Jesuits
baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew,
grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered
everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills
revolving by themselves, in blue
teapots, in starch, which was the first
formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns
of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater, there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house. My aunts couldn’t have known
yet that I’d resurrect them,
and lived so trustfully; so singly;
servants, clean and ironed, ran for
fresh cream, inside the houses
a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski
came as a visiting lecturer, one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled Why,
dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much
of Lvov, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
returned home, read the New Testament,
slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug,
there was too much of Lvov, and now
there isn’t any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in May, without mercy,
without love, ah, wait till warm June
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
But scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked
diligently, as in a child’s cutout
along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.
Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched,
cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses
of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.
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