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reading poetry

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 that Grab You and Never Let Go

April 11, 2022

    

We can all think of poems that took powerful hold of us the first time we read them, that we responded to viscerally at the time, and still do whenever we remember or re-read them.  The poem speaks deeply to something in our lives, and our response is as physical as it is mental–these poems live as much in our bodies as in our minds.  The impact is so powerful we often remember not just the poem, but our surroundings in that first encounter–the physical details, and where we were in our lives.

Here are two poems that did that to me, at different points in my life, and still do.  I hope you’ll add your own examples here, and the circumstances.  I also invite you to bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) to read to the group.  I’ll email the zoom link Friday morning.  If you aren’t on the mailing list, contact me through the web site so that I can add you.  As always, invite your friends.

I first read the Frost poem when I was a young teenager, and its opening line registered the astonishment I felt at that touch.  But that was the speaker’s past, and as I went through the poem–carried by its beautiful rhymes and meter–I could also feel the loss of that intensity long before I would ever feel it myself firsthand.  That’s what the imagination can do.  I pictured the speaker as an old man by the end, but Frost was just forty when he wrote the poem–once again, that’s what the imagination can do.  It’s one of the few poems I know by heart–in every sense of the word.

 

TO EARTHWARD

Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air

That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Downhill at dusk?

I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.

I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.

Now no joy but lacks salt,
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain

Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.

 

 

*

I was in my mid-twenties when I decided I was going to write poetry “seriously,” and I started by signing up for a class in Contemporary Poetry.  The book assigned was Poems of Our Moment, edited by John Hollander.  I didn’t recognize any of the names in the Table of Contents, and couldn’t seem to take hold of the first few I tried to read, so I decided to start with the poems by women.  That’s when I discovered that out of thirty-seven poets in the book, just three were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath–names that meant nothing to me.  I could at least follow the Swenson poems, and admired the ones by Rich–little steps forward.   And then I read “The Bee Meeting.”  It was one of those moments that divide our lives into before and after.  It took me over completely, mind and body, as if I’d been abducted not by aliens but by someone who knew deep things about me that I didn’t yet know myself.  I felt as if I had  to write to her, to connect.  And then I turned to the Contributors’ Notes and discovered she was already dead.  Elation, then devastation.  But at least the poems were still there.

 

THE BEE MEETING

Sylvia Plath

Who are these people at the bridge to meet me? They are the villagers——
The rector, the midwife, the sexton, the agent for bees.
In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection,
And they are all gloved and covered, why did nobody tell me?
They are smiling and taking out veils tacked to ancient hats.

I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?
Yes, here is the secretary of bees with her white shop smock,
Buttoning the cuffs at my wrists and the slit from my neck to my knees.
Now I am milkweed silk, the bees will not notice.
They will not smell my fear, my fear, my fear.

Which is the rector now, is it that man in black?
Which is the midwife, is that her blue coat?
Everybody is nodding a square black head, they are knights in visors,
Breastplates of cheesecloth knotted under the armpits.
Their smiles and their voces are changing. I am led through a beanfield.

Strips of tinfoil winking like people,
Feather dusters fanning their hands in a sea of bean flowers,
Creamy bean flowers with black eyes and leaves like bored hearts.
Is it blood clots the tendrils are dragging up that string?
No, no, it is scarlet flowers that will one day be edible.

Now they are giving me a fashionable white straw Italian hat
And a black veil that molds to my face, they are making me one of them.
They are leading me to the shorn grove, the circle of hives.
Is it the hawthorn that smells so sick?
The barren body of hawthorn, etherizing its children.

Is it some operation that is taking place?
It is the surgeon my neighbors are waiting for,
This apparition in a green helmet,
Shining gloves and white suit.
Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?

I cannot run, I am rooted, and the gorse hurts me
With its yellow purses, its spiky armory.
I could not run without having to run forever.
The white hive is snug as a virgin,
Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

Smoke rolls and scarves in the grove.
The mind of the hive thinks this is the end of everything.
Here they come, the outriders, on their hysterical elastics.
If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley,
A gullible head untouched by their animosity,

Not even nodding, a personage in a hedgerow.
The villagers open the chambers, they are hunting the queen.
Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever.
She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it.
While in their fingerjoint cells the new virgins

Dream of a duel they will win inevitably,
A curtain of wax dividing them from the bride flight,
The upflight of the murderess into a heaven that loves her.
The villagers are moving the virgins, there will be no killing.
The old queen does not show herself, is she so ungrateful?

I am exhausted, I am exhausted ——
Pillar of white in a blackout of knives.
I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch.
The villagers are untying their disguises, they are shaking hands.
Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold.

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