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writing poetry

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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The Invention of Free Verse

March 27, 2022

This week I want to follow up on our last discussion of poetry as a different language from prose, and its emphasis on music.  Whenever I say music in this context I mostly mean rhythm, though of course it includes everything from alliteration and repetition to sentence cadences.  Meter is a specific kind of rhythm, one that groups accented and unaccented syllables into feet.  In metrical poetry, the music is a given, what the poem begins with.

The defining characteristic of free verse poetry is a negative: it’s not metrical.  For centuries, poets writing in English had heard only metrical rhythms–all of them variations on which kind of metrical foot was used, and on the number of feet per line.  But by the late 19th and early 20th century, a number of factors made American poets want to find rhythms outside that system–something that reflected American rather than British speech, something that captured the rhythms of contemporary urban life.  It still astounds me that they were able to do it.  There were two defining characteristics of poetry in English: it was in meter, and it rhymed.  Poets had already begun to rely less on rhyme, but that was relatively simple.  Hearing another rhythm after centuries of meter, something that was in their bones and their muscle memory and their ears–how did they do that?  I sometimes think the invention of free verse was on a par with the invention of the wheel, in terms of the possibilities it opened up.

Many poets had a hand in the invention, but the primary figure here is William Carlos Williams, who more than any other found a way to hear new rhythms and to capture that on the page.  He began with lines that were too short to lapse into prose or into meter.  Once the line length is no longer determined by meter and feet, the poet has to listen for other reasons to end it–maybe a more syncopated rhythm, maybe a way for the line by itself to convey one meaning and the sentence another.

Poets writing in free verse have just a few basic tools, but they can use them to create infinitely varied combinations:  1.  Line length–is it short, medium, or long?  2.  Line endings–are they end-stopped or enjambed?  3.  The way the lines and sentences intertwine.  That’s it.  Simple.  Except that when you write in free verse you have to invent the form and the content simultaneously, and that’s really hard to do–especially if you don’t come to it with a background in metrical poetry.

Here are a some poems that for me have a strong free verse rhythmnot meter.  Free verse is also not prose in short lines (remember Koch’s essay).  When you read free verse, see each line as a unit–just as you would see a metrical line–and pause slightly at the end of it.  For this week’s Fridays at 4, please bring free verse poems you think have a strong rhythm.   The zoom link is on the Events pages, but I’ll send it again on Friday.

 

TO A POOR OLD WOMAN

William Carlos Williams

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

Comforted
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her

 

**

LANDSCAPE WITH THE FALL OF ICARUS

W. C. Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

**

 

from HOWL

Allen Ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats
floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angel staggering on tenement roofs
illuminated…

**

 

I KNOW A MAN

Robert Creeley

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,–John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
Christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.

 

**

from THE FISH

Marianne Moore

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

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

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

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

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Marvin Bell

December 16, 2020

Marvin lived and breathed poetry. He published…well, I just tried to count how many books of poems, but I couldn’t quite, given collected and selected and hybrids.  The inside cover of the last book published during his lifetime, Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems, lists 25 items under Also by Marvin Bell, including books of poems, a children’s book, two books of essays on poetry, letter poems written with William Stafford, collaborative poems with Christopher Merrill, collaborations with musicians, painters and photographs.  Poetry was his skin, his senses, the lens he saw the world through.

Marvin taught thousands of students, at the University of Iowa, Pacific University, and dozens of conferences and residencies around the country.  He taught in workshops and seminars, and he taught by the example of his own poems.  I learned how important it is to get words on the page without judging and censoring–just get them there.  I learned how to write a whole poem, not just pieces.

And then I had the good fortune to become friends with Marvin and Dorothy, friends for life.  For a few years we lived in the same town, another great gift.  Walks, lunches and dinners, all of them filled with stories, everything somehow connected to poetry.  His generosity was as much a part of him as his poetry.  When I started telling friends about Marvin’s illness a few months ago, everyone who had ever visited me in Port Townsend said, “Oh yeah, I met Marvin there.  He and Dorothy took us to lunch/ dinner/ on a tour of the town or the peninsula.  I still remember things he said.”  Of course they do, because Marvin was totally present in every moment–there, engaged, listening and talking.

He was also a rescuer.  Of students in despair, on the verge of suicide, broke, heartbroken, lost, on drugs, confused, in jail.  He kept me in grad school when I was about to leave.  When we were all in Port Townsend, Marvin and I were talking on the phone, my phone died.  Before I could plug it in to recharge it, he was pounding on my door to see if I was ok, Dorothy watching from their car window in the driveway.  When he came in I saw the baseball bat he was holding behind his back.

The thousands of people whose lives Marvin touched will all have their own Marvin stories, and I wish they could be gathered in one place–but it would take a much bigger book than Incarnate’s 325 pages, which he described as a doorstop. They’re endless, and I’ll post a few more here over time.  I hope some of you will add yours here.   And of course there’s no way to count all the people who never met him but have been moved by his work.

For now, here’s a poem of his I love–set in yet another piece of Marvin’s life, his time in the Army.  In one more example of his endless generosity, he gave it to me to publish in WaterTable, a magazine I did just one issue of before I realized I didn’t have the time or energy or money to keep doing it.  If Marvin had been editing it, it would still be going.

HE SAID TO

crawl toward the machine guns
except to freeze
for explosions and flares.
It was still ninety degrees
at night in North Carolina,
August, rain and all.
The tracer bullets wanted
our asses, which we swore to keep
down, and the highlight
of this preposterous exercise
was finding myself in mud
and water during flares. I
hurried in the darkness–
over things and under things–
to reach the next black pool
in time, and once
I lay in the cool salve that
so suited all I had become
for two light-ups of the sky.
I took one inside and one
face of two watches I ruined
doing things like that,
and made a watch that works.
From the combat
infiltration course and
common sense, I made a man
to survive the Army, which means
that I made a man to survive
being a man.

Marvin Bell

Here are some links to more Marvin stuff:

tribute from his friend David Hamilton:

https://www.facebook.com/david.hamilton.9212301

tribute from Christopher Merrill, his friend and collaborator:

https://www.writinguniversity.org/blog/a-world-right-here-in-memory-of-marvin-bell?fbclid=IwAR0IaQAfTVcyNuVw80iKkBkb-XnZR53jiOuHInGBou9-hE4V9hqbbxWoXeg

Review of Incarnate: The Complete Dead Man Poems.  Marvin said, incredulously, “It sounds like he read every one of them.”:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/151337/can39t-keep-a-dead-man-down

celebratory reading of Marvin’s work sponsored by Prairie Lights Bookstore, with stories of his life, him reading at the end:

https://www.facebook.com/postcocious/posts/3850092431692093

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Emily Dickinson Had a Dog

September 14, 2020

Sometimes we first connect to poets–really connect–not through their poems but through something small, personal, almost incidental. I was teaching a class in Boston on American Women Writers, and one of the paper topics I suggested was an essay on a visit to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Not long after that one of the students came into the classroom–almost ran, breathless, smiling, and said, “Emily Dickinson had a dog!” This was a student who seldom participated–she was taking the class to fill a requirement, not engaged by the material. The trip had sounded easier than the other topics, a lark with a friend. She’d read some Dickinson poems but never been moved by them, never been interested. Her sense of Dickinson was the stereotypical one passed along by so many teachers who should know better: she was an odd recluse, not very well educated (those dashes), a sad spinster. A ghost, not a flesh and blood person. But then, in the little museum, the student had learned about and seen pictures of Dickinson’s big floppy dog Carlo, a curly-haired Newfoundland given to her by her father. And that changed everything. The student also had a dog she loved, and Dickinson took on human form. She went back to the poems and read them, from that point of view, with great pleasure. Seeing that light go on is one of the greatest pleasures of teaching.

Here’s a lovely poem about the ghostly and fleshly Dickinson. I too once held up that white dress once, when I visited the house probably in 1970, before there was any sort of museum. Someone lived there, and writers would arrange visits for when they were out. The dress was on a hanger in the closet, not even a plastic bag over it. I picked it up, held it in front of me, looked at the intricate stitching, and put it back, amazed.

The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

Sometimes the weather goes on for days
but you were different. You were divine.
While the others wrote more and longer,
you wrote much more and much shorter.
I held your white dress once: 12 buttons.
In the cupola, the wasps struck glass
as hard to escape as you hit your sound
again and again asking Welcome. No one.

Except for you, it were a trifle:
This morning, not much after dawn,
in level country, not New England’s,
through leftovers of summer rain I
went out rag-tag to the curb, only
a sleepy householder at his routine
bending to trash, when a young girl
in a white dress your size passed,

so softly!, carrying her shoes. It must be
she surprised me – her barefoot quick-step
and the earliness of the hour, your dress –
or surely I’d have spoken of it sooner.
I should have called to her, but a neighbour
wore that look you see against happiness.
I won’t say anything would have happened
unless there was time, and eternity’s plenty.

Marvin Bell

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