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.

 

THE WAKING

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.

 

 

*

 

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,

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

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

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

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

*

ALLEGRO

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.

*

 

BLOOD LIGHT

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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More on Poem Endings

July 19, 2022

  I want to continue our discussion of poem endings this week, and I’d like to focus specifically on how the last lines function.  Poems have an anatomy that includes not just their shape on the page, but the arc of their thoughts and feelings.  One ending might be a kind of summary of what’s come before, a summing up and deepening.  If that shape is a container, a box, then another kind of ending is one that adds a new twist, a surprise, a leap.  Another might seem to hover in paradox and ambiguity, rather than providing any kind of resolution.  Does it leave us in the world of the imagination, or does it lead us back into the world of daily life?  What categories of poem endings can you come up with?  When you read through the examples here, what do you see?  Do a little looking up: read about the Argument from Design for the existence of god, and about heroic similes and Kurosawa.  I assume you’ll remember the plot of Hansel and Gretel.  I’ve included three poems by Louise Glück as examples of the same author using  different kinds of endings in different poems.  Look back at the poems for last week with the same question: what kinds of endings do you see?

Please post your comments here rather than emailing them to me–just click on the subject heading on the side and scroll down.  I’m looking forward to our Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link on Friday morning.

 

COMPOSED UPON WESTMINSTER BRIDGE, SEPTEMBER 3, 1802

William Wordsworth

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

*

DESIGN

Robert Frost

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

*

HEROIC SIMILE

Robert Hass

When the swordsman fell in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
in the gray rain,
in the Cinemascope and the Tokugawa dynasty,
he fell straight as a pine, he fell
as Ajax fell in Homer
in chanted dactyls and the tree was so huge
the woodsman returned for two days
to that lucky place before he was done with the sawing
and on the third day he brought his uncle.

They stacked logs in the resinous air,
hacking the small limbs off,
tying those bundles separately.
The slabs near the root
were quartered and still they were awkwardly large;
the logs from the midtree they halved:
ten bundles and four great piles of fragrant wood,
moons and quarter moons and half moons
ridged by the saw’s tooth.

The woodsman and the old man his uncle
are standing in midforest
on a floor of pine silt and spring mud.
They have stopped working
because they are tired and because
I have imagined no pack animal
or primitive wagon. They are too canny
to call in neighbors and come home
with a few logs after three days’ work.
They are waiting for me to do something
or for the overseer of the Great Lord
to come and arrest them.

How patient they are!
The old man smokes a pipe and spits.
The young man is thinking he would be rich
if he were already rich and had a mule.
Ten days of hauling
and on the seventh day they’ll probably
be caught, go home empty-handed
or worse. I don’t know
whether they’re Japanese or Mycenaean
and there’s nothing I can do.
The path from here to that village
is not translated. A hero, dying,
gives off stillness to the air.
A man and a woman walk from the movies
to the house in the silence of separate fidelities.
There are limits to imagination.

*

Three poems by Louise Glück:

ALL HALLOWS

Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:

This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

*

THE WILD IRIS

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

*

GRETEL IN DARKNESS

This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
are dead. I hear the witch’s cry
break in the moonlight through a sheet
of sugar: God rewards.
Her tongue shrivels into gas . . .

Now, far from women’s arms
and memory of women, in our father’s hut
we sleep, are never hungry.
Why do I not forget?
My father bars the door, bars harm
from this house, and it is years.

No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
summer afternoons you look at me as though
you meant to leave,
as though it never happened.
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaming kiln–

Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
Am I alone? Spies
hiss in the stillness, Hansel,
we are there still and it is real, real,
that black forest and the fire in earnest.

 

 

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Last Lines

July 10, 2022

  This seemed like a natural follow-up to last week’s topic, First Lines  There are obviously as many and varied kinds of endings for a poem as there are beginnings.  A poem might sum up an argument the poem has been making–maybe with a twist–like a Shakespearean sonnet.  It might end with the satisfying click of a box, or the end of a scene or story.  Some sustain ambiguity and paradox, some end with questions.  Some end with images that remain vivid in our minds when we turn from the page, some with a satisfying rhyme.  Some return to the title, and repeat it or offer a variation.  Some are bangs, some are whimpers.  Or whispers.  When I was beginning to write, the ending of the first poem here, “A Blessing,” was often used as an example of the kind of leap an ending could make.  So was the Hugo poem, which he recited magnificently as he paced back and forth across the stage.  I couldn’t resist following it with the Plath poem, as a kind of response–the ferocity of its ending takes my breath away every time.  I include it even though the Nazi/ Jewish references that appear at one point still seem wildly inappropriate to me.   I also admire the ferocity of the Clifton poem, the self-knowledge and self-accusation of the Merwin, and the double-take of the McHugh.

And we can of course look at the first and last lines as pairs–are they closely connected, or is there no way you could have predicted that last line?  We talked about entering a poem with the first line.  How does the ending return us to the world?

I’d also recommend we look back at the endings of the poems we talked about last week, and for that matter any others that occur to you.  Feel free to include any of those in Comments on the blog.  If you’d like them to be available to look at during Fridays at 4, please post them or email them to me by Thursday, or have them ready on your desktop for screen share.

A BLESSING

James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

*

DEGREES OF GRAY IN PHILIPSBURG

Richard Hugo

You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.

Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.

*

LADY LAZARUS

Sylvia Plath

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash—
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

*

[POEM]

Lucille Clifton

cruelty. don’t talk to me about cruelty
or what i am capable of.

when i wanted the roaches dead i wanted them dead
and i killed them. i took a broom to their country

and smashed and sliced without warning
without stopping and i smiled all the time i was doing it.

it was a holocaust of roaches, bodies,
parts of bodies, red all over the ground.

i didn’t ask their names.
they had no names worth knowing.

now i watch myself whenever i enter a room.
i never know what i might do.

*

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 eye that could not
Conceive that I was a creature to run from

I who have always believed too much in words

*

LANGUAGE LESSON, 1976

Heather McHugh

When Americans say a man
takes liberties, they mean
he’s gone too far.  In Philadelphia

today a kid on a leash ordered
bicentennial burger,
hold the relish.  Hold

is forget, in American.
On the courts of Philadelphia
the rich prepare

to serve, to fault.
The language is a game in which
love means nothing, doubletalk

means lie.  I’m saying doubletalk
with me.  I’m saying go so far
the customs are untold,

make nothing without words
and let me be
the one you never hold.

*

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First Lines

July 6, 2022

   Continuing our discussion of Shape and Structure in poems, I want to look at first lines this week. So much depends upon them: the poem’s voice and tone, its point of view, maybe its verb tense.  The title provides a clue about what we’ll encounter, but often the meaning of it isn’t clear until we’ve read and re-read the poem.  But the opening line is a momentous threshold we cross, from our world into the poem’s world.  It might be a small step, or a plunge:  “Whose woods these are I think I know….”  (Frost), or, “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad…..”  (Larkin).

As you read these examples, think about how the opening lines bring us into the poem, how they set the stage for what follows, and how starting elsewhere or otherwise would have changed the poem.  You could do the same thing with last week’s poems, or for that matter, any poems you find on the blog, or on your own bookshelves.  Feel free to post some of your own favorite first lines here, with or without the poems they’re from.  We’ll of course discuss these at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).  I’ll send the link on Friday morning.

 

THE PARTIAL EXPLANATION

Charles Simic

Seems like a long time
Since the waiter took my order.
Grimy little luncheonette,
The snow falling outside.

Seems like it has grown darker
Since I last heard the kitchen door
Behind my back
Since I last noticed
Anyone pass on the street.

A glass of ice-water
Keeps me company
At this table I chose myself
Upon entering.

And a longing,
Incredible longing
To eavesdrop
On the conversation
Of cooks.

*

WORDS

Sylvia Plath

Axes
After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Echoes traveling
Off from the center like horses.

The sap
Wells like tears, like the
Water striving
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock

That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens.
Years later I
Encounter them on the road-

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
While
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.

*

WIND IN A BOX

Terrance Hayes

This ink. This name. This blood.  This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet–. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood: by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This body in a box. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.

*

POEM

Frank O’Hara

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
lana turner has collapsed!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

*

AND SOUL

Eavan Boland

My mother died one summer—
the wettest in the records of the state.
Crops rotted in the west.
Checked tablecloths dissolved in back gardens.
Empty deck chairs collected rain.
As I took my way to her
through traffic, through lilacs dripping blackly
behind houses
and on curbsides, to pay her
the last tribute of a daughter, I thought of something
I remembered
I heard once, that the body is, or is
said to be, almost all
water and as I turned southward, that ours is
a city of it,
one in which
every single day the elements begin
a journey towards each other that will never,
given our weather,
fail—
the ocean visible in the edges cut by it,
cloud color reaching into air,
the Liffey storing one and summoning the other,
salt greeting the lack of it at the North Wall and,
as if that wasn’t enough, all of it
ending up almost every evening
inside our speech—
coast canal ocean river stream and now
mother and I drove on and although
the mind is unreliable in grief, at
the next cloudburst it almost seemed
they could be shades of each other,
the way the body is
of every one of them and now
they were on the move again—fog into mist,
mist into sea spray and both into the oily glaze
that lay on the railings of
the house she was dying in
as I went inside.

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