Getting to Know a Poem

January 9, 2023

  Here again is the post from two weeks ago, when something went wrong with the zoom link.  Fingers crossed that it will work this time.

This week I want to try something a little different.  Most of the poems I’ve posted here are ones I know well or at least know a little.  But what I’d like to talk about this week is that first encounter with a poem–what it looks like and feels like, how you decide to keep reading or skip it, how the poem take you in and you take it in.  So I’ve picked a few poems without reading them, and I won’t post them here, just share my screen during this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussion, and we can take them on together.

For me, the first reading is usually a kind of blur, a first encounter, a necessary beginning.  At first glance I know only what it looks like on the page–long or short, block or stanzas, long, medium or short lines.  When I begin to read I know almost nothing–maybe I can tell  whether it’s free verse or meter, what the voice sounds like, a little of what’s happening, and any vivid images.  As brief and superficial as that first reading is, I’m not going to read the poem again unless something pulls me in–the poem’s music, an image, a compelling speaking voice (voice of the poem, not the poet), language that sparks, lines that are taut, not slack (whether it’s meter or free verse), a surprising thought.  If I don’t find any of that, if the poem is spouting clichés, if it feels plodding rather than energetic, I’m already on to the next.

If something does grab me, I’ll read more slowly the second time, noticing the title and thinking about how it might connect to the poem as I go.  I’ll be paying more attention to the images, and to what the poem is actually saying.  Then I’ll read it another time or two, trying to get it whole in my mind.  Next I’m going to pay attention to where it takes place–in the speaker’s head, or in an external scene?  Does it stay in one place or move around?  And where is it in time–in present tense, a few moments?  Or  does it move from the present, to memories of the past, then back to the present?  Is it a sort of fairy tale or fable, where time is irrelevant?

Somewhere in here I’m going to look up any words I don’t know, or that I have a sense are used in a particular way in the poem.  And I’m going to look up other elements of context I think might be helpful.  Every time I do I’m going to read the poem again, seeing how the new information illuminates it.

Then I’m going to read it again, and read it aloud again, and probably read the book it’s a part of, and maybe everything that poet has written.  But for now let’s stick with one poem at a time.

So there are no poems here as examples.  Just think about your own reading of a poem, and maybe make some notes.  I’ll bring 4 or 5 poems I haven’t read to this week’s discussion, and we’ll trying going through these steps as we read them a first time and a second and a third.  I’ll send the zoom link on Thursday.

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Some Recent Poems

January 2, 2023

It feels like time to look at some new poems–but new is a relative term.  Most of these are recent, but some are just new to me, poets whose names I’ve known but haven’t read at all or haven’t read closely.  Poems from recent books by poets whose previous work I do know.  New ways of seeing and hearing, of taking in the world and giving voice to it.  Most of these are new to the blog.  Poets are always torn between reading new work and re-reading long time favorites, and of course we do both, shuttling back and forth between them, sometimes resisting the ones new to us, arguing with them, then seeing what they mean, all that they open our hearts and minds to.

I hope you’ll take time to research a little context for ones you don’t already know.  Feel free to add your comments here and bring them up at this week’s Friday discussion.  Please note that this week only it will be two hours earlier, at 2 eastern time.

Here are two poems from Rick Barot’s book The Galleons.  In the first one, the person described is the speaker’s grandmother.

THE GALLEONS, 1

Rick Barot

Her story is a part of something larger, it is a part
of history. No, her story is an illumination

of history, the matchstick lit in the black seam of time.
Or, no, her story is separate

from the whole, as distinct as each person is distinct
from the stream of people that led

to the one and leads past the one. Or, her story
is surrounded by history, the ambient spaciousness

of which she is the momentary foreground.
Maybe history is a net through which

just about everything passes, and the pieces of her
story are particles caught in the interstices.

Or, her story is a contradiction, something ordinary
that has no part in history at all, if history is

about what is included, what is made important.
History is the galleon in the middle

of the Pacific Ocean, in the middle of the sixteenth
century, swaying like a drunk who will take

six months to finally reach his house.
She is on another ship, centuries later, on a journey

eastward that will take weeks across the same ocean.
The war is over, though her husband

is still in his officer’s uniform, small but confident
among the tall white officers. Her hair

is marcelled like a movie star’s waves,
though she has been too sick with the water’s motion

to know that anyone sees her. Her daughter is two,
the blur of need at the center of each day’s

incessant rocking. Here is a ship, an ocean.
Here is a figure, her story a few words in the blue void.

 

FLEA

At a certain point I stopped and asked
what poems I could write, which were different

from the poems I wanted to write, with the wanting
being proof that I couldn’t write those poems, that they

were impossible. What I could do
was different from what I wanted. To see this

was the beginning of work that could be work,
not simply pursuit after pursuit that was

bound to fail, yearning for qualities that were not mine
and could not be mine. Aiming for a muscular

logic that could be followed by a reader’s mind
like an old stone wall running along a landscape, I got

nothing so solid or continuous. The authority
I wanted dissolved always into restlessness,

into a constant gathering of images whose aggregate
seemed like things that had come to settle

inside a glove compartment. I had no faith
in my flaws, but I had a grudging faith

in the particular. There was the actual stone wall,
its mongrel irregular blocks harmonized into use, rich

and ordinary as a soul. There was the flea
that landed on my forearm one night as I sat reading.

The black speck of it, then the outsize sting.
The flea that is an insect, has no wings, can jump

vertically seven inches and horizontally thirteen inches.
The flea that looks, through the magnifier,

like the villain spaceship from a science-fiction movie,
that can live for years in good conditions, and lives

by drinking the blood of animals and birds,
in a practice that is called, by science, hematophagy.

 

*

from Obit, Victoria Chang’s book written about her many losses surrounding her father’s illness and her mother’s death.  It includes prose poems and lined poems.

OBIT [Language]

Victoria Chang

Language—died again on August
3, 2015 at 7:09 a.m. I heard about
my mother’s difficult nights. I hired
a night person. By the time I got
there, she was always gone. The
night person had a name but was like
a ghost who left letters on a shore
that when brought home became
shells. Couldn’t breathe, 2:33 a.m.
Screaming, 3:30 a.m. Calm, 4:24
a.m. I got on all fours, tried to pick up
the letters like a child at an egg hunt
without a basket. But for every letter
I picked up, another fell down, as if
protesting the oversimplification of
my mother’s dying. I wanted the night
person to write in a language I could
understand. Breathing unfolding,
2:33. Breathing in blades, 3:30.
Breathing like an evening gown,
4:24. But maybe I am wrong, how
death is simply death, each slightly
different from the next but the final
strike all the same. How the skin
responds to a wedding dress in the
same way it responds to rain.

 

from OBIT [The Blue Dress]

The Blue Dress—died on August 6,
2015, along with the little blue flowers,
all silent. Once the petals looked up.
Now small pieces of dust. I wonder
whether they burned the dress or just
the body? I wonder who lifted her up
into the fire? I wonder if her hair
brushed his cheek before it grew into a
bonfire? I wonder what sound the body
made as it burned? They dyed her hair
for the funeral, too black. She looked
like a comic character. I waited for the
next comic panel, to see the speech
bubble and what she might say. But her
words never came and we were left
with the stillness of blown glass. The
irreversibility of rain. And millions of
little blue flowers. Imagination is having
to live in a dead person’s future. Grief is
wearing a dead person’s dress forever.

 

 

 

*

AN ISSUE OF MERCY, #1   from Jeffers’ book The Age of Phillis, poems about Phillis Wheatley

Honorée Fanon Jeffers

Mercy, girl.
What the mother might have said, pointing

at the sun rising, what makes life possible.
Then, dripped the bowl of water,

reverent, into oblivious earth.
Was this prayer for her?

Respect for the dead or disappeared?
An act to please a genius child?

Her daughter would speak
of water, bowl, sun—

light arriving,
light gone—

sometime after the nice white lady
paid and named her for the slave ship.

Mercy: what the child called Phillis
would claim after that sea journey.

Journey.
Let’s call it that.

Let’s lie to each other.

Not early descent into madness.
Naked travail among filth and rats.

What got Phillis over that sea?
What kept a stolen daughter?

Perhaps it was mercy,
Dear Reader.

Mercy,
Dear Brethren.

Water, bowl, sun—
a mothering, God’s milky sound.

Morning shards, and a mother wondered
if her daughter forgot her real name,

refused to envision the rest:
baby teeth missing

and somebody wrapping her treasure
(barely) in a dirty carpet.

Twas mercy.
You know the story—

how we’ve lied to each other.

*

 

FLOATERS

Arthur Sze

Driving past a phalanx of white tombstones

along a south-facing slope

 

I recall, “No one hates war like soldiers,”

from a mechanic replacing

 

an oil pump to a Fiat engine; then another floater

appears when I blink—

 

peach blossoms on flowing water

into the distance—

 

and, as I ponder how a line written in 740

stays present tense—

 

a curved thrasher nests in a cleft of spined cholla—

a man, on ayahuasca,

 

types with his hands, and his hands disappear;

he types with his hands,

 

and his hands disappear—shimmer the words

as his hands disappear.

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Poems for the New Year

December 30, 2022

  I think I was seven or eight, and my parents were having a New Year’s Eve party in our tiny apartment.  There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people, but it was crowded and festive.  I’d been allowed to stay up, and to come to the party to pass around the cheese and crackers and candy, so I was feeling very grown up.  Then someone said, “Well, that’s almost it for this year, ” and I suddenly panicked.  I realized that soon I’d be writing a new year on everything, and that I had only a few minutes to write the old one while it was still true.  I could write it later, but it wouldn’t mean the same thing.   I set down the plate I was carrying, ran into my bedroom to get a pencil and paper, and wrote the year over and over until I’d covered both sides.  I didn’t understand what I was feeling, I just knew it was urgent.  Now I’d say it was an early glimmer of saving things by writing them down.

Here are three poems for the new year.  I hope yours will be full of good fortune.  Fridays at 4 will be back next week.

NEW YEAR ON DARTMOOR

Sylvia Plath

This is newness : every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

*

ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO

Rainier Maria Rilke

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

*

TRY TO PRAISE THE MUTILATED WORLD

Adam Zagajewski, trans. Clare Cavanagh

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

 

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Poems of Happiness

December 11, 2022

   After the intensity of the past few weeks, and given the holidays–solstice, the light coming back, is my personal favorite–I want to talk about poems full of happiness, joy, pleasure.  Not that those are synonyms, mind you.  So many nuances.  As I chose poems I noticed that some of them enact feelings I would call one of those names, while others declare their intentions.  As usual, I came across some I hadn’t seen before–another one of the pleasures (haha) of doing this.  Why do you think it often seems harder to write good poems out of these feelings than out of darker ones?  I’m guessing that it’s easier to resort to clichés with these feelings, and that we treat them as less complex than they actually are.  I’m really looking forward to seeing your own examples and your comments here, and to talking about the poems in this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).

 

THE SHAMPOO

Elizabeth Bishop

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon
—Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon

*

DITTY

Kevin Young

You, rare as Georgia
snow. Falling

hard. Quick.
Candle shadow.

The cold
spell that catches

us by surprise.
The too-early blooms,

tricked, gardenias blown about,
circling wind. Green figs.

Nothing stays. I want
to watch you walk

the halls to the cold tile
bathroom—all

night, a lifetime.

*

MORNING SONG

Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

*

HAVING A COKE WITH YOU

Frank O’Hara

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them
I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together for the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse
it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I’m telling you about it

*

HAPPINESS

Jane Kenyon

There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.

No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.

It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and to the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.

*

HAPPINESS

Raymond Carver

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.

When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.

They wear caps and sweaters,
and one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.

I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.

They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs pale over the water.

Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love,
doesn’t enter into this.

Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

*

ANOTHER OF THE HAPPINESS POEMS

Peter Cooley

It’s not that we’re not dying.
Everything is dying.
We hear these rumors of the planet’s end
none of us will be around to watch.

It’s not that we’re not ugly.
We’re ugly.
Look at your feet, now that your shoes are off.
You could be a duck,

no, duck-billed platypus,
your feet distraction from your ugly nose.
It’s not that we’re not traveling,
we’re traveling.

But it’s not the broadback Mediterranean
carrying us against the world’s current.
It’s the imagined sea, imagined street,
the winged breakers, the waters we confuse with sky

willingly, so someone out there asks
are you flying or swimming?
That someone envies mortal happiness
like everyone on the other side, the dead

who stand in watch, who would give up their bliss,
their low tide eternity rippleless
for one day back here, alive again with us.
They know the sea and sky I’m walking on

or swimming, flying, they know it’s none of these,
this dancing-standing-still, this turning, turning,
these constant transformations of the wind
I can bring down by singing to myself,

the newborn mornings, these continuals—

*

SO MUCH HAPPINESS

Naomi Shihab Nye

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

*

MINNESOTA FATS DESCRIBES HIS YOUTH

Elizabeth Alexander

I’ve been eating
like a sultan
since I was two days old.

I had a mother
and three sisters
who worshipped me.

When I was two years old
they used to plop me
in a bed with a jillion

satin pillows
and spray me
with exotic perfumes

and lilac water,
and then
they would shoot me the grapes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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