Ken Craft

722 posts

When “I” Becomes “Us,” the Poet Wins

Only Walt Whitman could get away with a poem called “Song of Myself.” Thing is, it wasn’t really about himself. It was about yourselves, too (the “you” in “yourselves” being anyone who reads and enjoys the poem).

In that sense, the pronoun “I” is Romulus to the pronoun “you’s” Remus. They suckle from the same breast.

Gregory Orr, in his book Poetry as Survival, is all in on the pronoun I, a topic I have written about before, though not as well as he does. He quotes William Carlos Williams who, in the preface of his book, Spring and All, writes, “In the imagination, we are from henceforth (so long as you read) locked in a fraternal embrace, the classic caress of author and reader. We are one. Whenever I say ‘I’ I mean also ‘you.’ And so, together, as one, we shall begin.”

Of course, sidetracked from WCW’s train of thought is the niggling details of connection and identification. If your “I” does not compel and fascinate in some way, then your “I” is not “me” after all. It’s just “you” looking foolish in front of a mirror.

Not that Williams had to worry on that count. He was busy eating cold plums, just as his readers were: “So sweet and so cold.”

Back to Orr’s defense of the pronoun “I”: “I’m talking now not about the ‘great’ poems; that is, poems we are told to admire by teachers and authorities. Instead, I mean poems that we personally love deeply. The poems that matter enormously to us and that help us live. Through these poems, we recognize ourselves in an ‘other.’ Through these poems, we are brought to thresholds inside us we might never approach without their help.”

Thinking like so, we can be assured that our solipsistic obsessions with self (I, I, and more I) can work to our artistic advantage, but only if we make room for others. Only then will the pronoun of self be coopted by readers who become the new “I’s” in an author’s poem, a transaction every artist should be more than willing to make. Writing for a reader called yourself and yourself alone, after all, is for the birds. And Emily Dickinson. Who, it turns out, was writing for all of us despite herself.

Paradoxically put, then, the successful “I” is one that is “everybody,” or at least an awful lot of bodies—squatters ready to move in and settle down for good. Once that happens, your first-person point of view poem can safely be called a success. Maybe even “art” if you’re lucky.

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.

Donald Hall’s Unusual Memento Mori

In the summer of 2018, we lost another writer of note in Donald Hall, a New England poet and essayist whose roots ran deep into the hills of New Hampshire. Hall and Jane Kenyon, as husband and wife, made for one of the most prolifically poetic marriages you could imagine. Sadly, Kenyon’s production was cut short by leukemia. Hall, on the other hand, lived to 89–long enough to have his say in poetry and even to jump genre ships by experimenting a bit with essays.

I recently purchased his book, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, which features “My Son My Executioner” as its lead-off batter:

 

My Son My Executioner
by Donald Hall

My son, my executioner,

I take you in my arms,

Quiet and small and just astir

And whom my body warms.

 

Sweet death, small son, our instrument

Of immortality.

Your cries and hungers document

Our bodily decay.

 

We twenty-five and twenty-two,

Who seemed to live forever.

Observe enduring life in you

And start to die together.

 

It’s a rather succinct and unexpected look at one of literature’s universal themes: death. Here it is embodied in the unusual swaddling of life. Not only life, but life at its earliest incarnation, when it seems most beautiful, most sweet, most immortal.

Hall uses this little package of wonder as a startling memento mori, which is an old Latin term for reflecting on your mortality. In the medieval Christian church, it might take the form of a human skull. Consider, for instance, the many artistic renditions of St. Jerome, almost always at his scholarly work with a skull on his desk. As Exhibit B, I give you  Act V, Scene 1, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the protagonist holds a skull aloft and proclaims, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

Hall pulls the rug from under his readers by exchanging the narrator’s son for tradition’s skull. If, as husband and wife, you just gave birth to a beautiful boy, it’s yet another milestone marking the shortening wick of your life. Another tick on the clock of mortality.

In stanza two, we get the unusual word pairing of “Sweet death, small son” followed by “our instrument of immortality.” Children, then, as reminders of where we came from and where we will go. If they embody immortality, how can we claim to be the same when we are so different?

The last stanza hoists the narrator and his wife’s delusions on their petards: “We twenty-five and twenty-two, / Who seemed to live forever….” Mid-twenties, it would seem, is as far from death as two-hours old. But holding a newborn is proof that one generation cometh so another can passeth (I’m getting all Ecclesiastes on you now). We fool ourselves by acknowledging death (of course) while supposing it is something that happens to others, not ourselves.

What I like about Hall’s poem is its simplicity. Its theme is directly stated. The power comes from its crying, burbling surprise looking up at his daddy: not so much, “It’s a boy!” but “It’s a reminder!”

The generations grind on, and with them, our days….

The Special Day We Don’t Know (Yet)

From an early age, we are attuned to our special day, our birthday. We remember nothing of that perilous journey, of course, but our mothers will be happy to fill in all the missing details.

Over time, birthdays devolve into a familiar ritual of well-wishes, birthday gifts, and a fiery cake accompanied by a monotonous ditty. They also become reminders of the approaching other.

Think about it. Each year we lap another special day on the calendar, our birth date’s dark cousin (a. k. a. “the other”). Each year it smiles as we pass, nodding its head in that knowing way. This would be that patient trickster known as our death day.

After both are revealed, commemorating one special day over another can be a problem. The Kennedy family, for instance, would prefer that people not remember President John Fitzgerald Kennedy by the date of his assassination: November 22nd. They’d prefer people celebrate JFK’s life on his birthdate: May 29th. Unfortunately, people of an age (read: “old”) only think of the man on 11-22 because of ’63.

W. S. Merwin wrote a poem about the special day allotted to each of us — the one we choose to ignore. It is called, appropriately enough, “For the Anniversary of My Death.”

 

For the Anniversary of My Death
W. S. Merwin

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

 

The first stanza is the living speaker, the second the speaker familiar with his formerly secret “deathday.” Stanza one offers some alliteration (“will wave” and “Tireless traveller”) as well as a rather oxymoronic contrast via simile: “Like the beam of a lightless star.”

I like how silence is depicted as a tireless traveller happy to never break its silence for eternity. If you’ve ever been frustrated by the dead’s refusal to yield up their secrets, you can identify.

In the second stanza, we get the wonderful metaphor of life as a “strange garment,” which makes sense given we exist for an eternity before birth and will exist again for an eternity after death. Clearly non-existence is the more familiar of garments.

As for life, it’s the mere blip between. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, a man attuned to his approaching secret day, pounds away at this fact of death (you thought I was going to say “life”?).

Merwin remains in the abstract with the “love of one women” and “the shamelessness of men” (something news readers and students of history can relate to). Then he shifts to the concrete with the last three lines.

Here we have three days of rain. Here we have a wren singing and “the falling cease / And bowing not knowing to what.” The word “falling” is nifty in that it ostensibly refers to the aforementioned rain but works just as well for the more Biblical falling of man. You know, the broken contract, wherein Adam & Eve lost their franchise, The Garden of Eden, and got stuck with this problematic death thing along with a host of other woes. Thanks, Adam & Eve.

As for “not knowing to what,” that brings us around to the great mystery again, the driving force behind all great literature: death. And yes, death will have its day.

Anyway, it’s a small outing for Merwin written in his characteristic, no-punctuation style, but I like how it reminds us of the thing we prefer to ignore, especially in modern day. Death was more a part of living in olden times. People were waked in the living room (ironically) of their homes, then buried by family.

Now the dying are hustled out of sight into nursing homes and hospitals. Funeral parlors are paid outrageous sums to take care of everything so the living can continue to pretend that they are immortal, even though they logically know they are not.

Birthday, Deathday. We should all wish ourselves a happy one of each and remind ourselves we’ll be blowing out the candles for good come “the other.”

 

The Fraught Question of a Poem’s “Meaning”

What does this poem mean?

Now there’s a question. The kind of question with dangers on each side of it. You know, like the proverbial rock and a hard place. Or Devil and the deep, blue sea. Or, for you classical gases, Scylla and Charybdis.

It’s a question oft heard in schools. Does a poem have a specific meaning? Well, yes, of course. Only one meaning? Well, yes and no. Can it mean whatever I want it to mean? I hope not. But what if there’s more than one meaning? Depends on the reader.

As an example, I give you a poem and a meaning that could get a knight grailing “meaning” in trouble.

 

Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips

My father was trying
to fix something

and I sat there just watching,
like I used to,
whenever something

went wrong.
I kept asking where he’d been,
until he put down a wrench
and said Listen:
dying’s just something

that happens sometimes.
Who knows
where that kind of dream comes from?
Why some things

vanish, and some
just keep going forever?

Like that look on his face
when he’d stare off at something

I could never make out
in the murky garage,
his ear pressed
to whatever it was
that had died—
his eyes listening for something

so deep inside it, I thought
even the silence,
if you listened,
meant something.

 

Clearly the poem has meaning to its author. All poems do. And clearly that meaning is not terribly complicated, though complications, like ghosts, tend to show themselves to some people as opposed to all.

What struck me in reading this is two things: the way the father presses his ear to a “broken machine,” and the way the father’s eyes are “listening for something.” I especially like that twist — having the eyes and not the ears listen — because, taken from the context of the poem, it makes little sense, but appearing as part of the poem’s anecdote, it makes complete sense.

I understand Phillips’ intent, that a mystery of life is being passed down from father to son, but I also like how the metaphor works for me personally.

For me, one superfluous meaning for the broken machine is its similarities to the act of writing poetry. You stare into space, musing. You write and then you listen with your eyes. Is it speaking? Is it working now or still broken? A poet who revises, who solves the puzzle of their creation’s “brokenness,” can bring early words to life, but sometimes he or she just has to walk away. The machine truly is broken, no matter how hard the writer listens.

That, it’s safe to say, was not Patrick Phillip’s intended”meaning when he wrote the poem, but it’s safe to say, as long as you’re along for the ride he created, he’s OK with readers who create shadow rides, as long as they don’t imperiously dictate that their shadows are the one and only “true” meaning, negating even his.

Bottom line: It’s safe to say that most poems have a single meaning, but also multiple meanings. They have a correct meaning, but also other meanings. They have wrong interpretations, but the poet is probably tolerant to some of these interpretations and not tolerant to others.

Like I said: What does this poem mean? Now there’s a question. Turns out,  a fraught one.

The Predator & the Poem

Up until two summers ago, when I heard this ungodly racket from the pine tops around our Maine cabin, I’d never heard the eerie cry of a sharp-shinned hawk. Little guy with a big appetite, turns out. We kept finding feathers of songbirds on the ground, evidence of a swift and final judgment for some innocent celebrating late spring and early summer. Some innocent who became a meal for nesting hawks.

Since then we’ve become accustomed to our new neighbors, but I knew, that first summer, that the sharp-shinned–one of the smallest of all North American hawks–would fly its way into a poem.

Ultimately, it was published in the Winter 2017 issue of Plainsongs, a poetry journal put out by Hastings College in Nebraska. From there, its final perch would be the first poem of the Second Search in my second collection, Lost Sherpa of Happiness. Enjoy!

 

Sharp-Shinned Hawk & the Song Sparrow
by Ken Craft

All spring, the punctured sky collapses blue
beneath the shrill knives of their call.
All day, shriek and talon, eye and hunger
from the heat of a red-black gullet.

They circle overhead, dive under liquid
evergreen, glide through currents of hardwood,
trunk and limb. Nestling, fledgling,
songbird—on ground or mid-flight—
leaving only an orphan feather as changeling.

And here I hear the song sparrow sing
in the narrow interstice between stealth and wait.
Her three notes. Her cheerful trill. Her hesitation
at the wood’s held breath.
Then, song again.
To sun or cloud, maybe. Wind or mate.

She sings to the stillness of quiet’s dull edge.
She sings to not knowing that every joy
in life is answered, eventually.

 

Listening for Poetry’s Breath

Poetry is one of those things people love to pronounce as dead. They officiate over it in most un-poetic sermons. They swing the thurible and diffuse the cloying incense.

But you don’t have to be an Edgar Allan Poe character to realize there’s a heartbeat (and I don’t mean under the floorboards, either). Poetry is written about every subject you can think of—be it ever so humble or not. And, like the sun also rising despite what mankind does to the world, it persists.

On the humble side of poetry, I give you sleep apnea. No kidding. A poem hooked up to a CPAP machine. A poem by that title comes via Nebraska gold, one of my favorite contemporary poets, Ted Kooser.

Talk about a Midwestern soul. Talk about a guy you might bump into in Aisle 3 at Ace Hardware. Talk about a wizard in Everyman’s clothing, top button of flannel shirt buttoned at the neck. Kooser is it.

Here is Kooser’s poem, “Sleep Apnea,” which is about listening to his thus-afflicted father breathe:

 

Sleep Apnea
Ted Kooser

Night after night, when I was a child,
I woke to the guttering candle
of my father’s breath. It made a sound
like the starlings that sometimes
got caught in our chimney, a chirping
that would gradually, steadily build
to a desperate, flat slapping of wings,
then suddenly drop into silence,
into the thick soot at the bottom
of midnight. No silence was ever
so deep. And then, after maybe
a minute or two, I would hear
a twitter as he came to life again,
and could at last take a breath for myself,
a sip like a toast, lifting a chilled glass
of air, wishing us courage, those of us
lying awake through those hours,
my mother, my sister and I, who each night
listened to death kiss the fluttering lips
of my father, who slept through it all.

 

The poem, like poetry itself, seems to walk the line between life and death, but like news of Mark Twain’s demise, that death is greatly exaggerated. Instead, we get some beautiful descriptions of life in the form of breathing—“It made a sound / like the starlings that sometimes / got caught in our chimney, a chirping / that would gradually, steadily build.”

Then after the hallmark non-breathing pause that distinguishes apnea, Kooser gives us this beautiful metaphor for his fathers’ watchers breathing relief: “a sip like a toast, lifting a chilled glass / of air.” It’s the unexpected that works here, that sipping of a chilled glass of air.

See? Not dead. Still breathing. And very much alive. Poetry.

Revisiting Larkin’s Two-Headed Toad

If you’re old enough to remember the 50s or 60s, Philip Larkin, with his bald head and Coke-bottle glasses, looks a lot like your typical middle-class pharmacist. Or businessman. Or what bespectacled vanilla have you.

His poetry, depressing as Hades, might not be a place to wander during a pandemic, but it does offer insights into our ever shifting love-hate relationship with work. Remember that? Working 9 to 5, I mean?

Many people who railed against work now are taking it all back for a chance to return. And while that day will come once sacrifices for the common good are seen through, it may not be the same for many of us for, like the Bubonic Plague, this pandemic may rearrange the social game board permanently. This could be good news or very, very bad news. It depends on where it all lands.

Let us turn, though, to the word “toad.” It sounds so sluggish and repugnant. A perfect metaphor for work. Larkin wrote two poems about the warty little guys: “Toads” in his collection The Less Deceived, and “Toads Revisited” in The Whitsun Weddings.

In the first stanza of the earlier poem, Larkin wastes no time in serving up that wonderful metaphor: Toad = Work that squats on our life. I imagine most everyone can identify with that, the working day in and day out for all your years until it is time to die and cry, “For what?”

Bummer, yes? Depressing, no?

In the second poem, the speaker walks in a British park on a day off and finds the people who are NOT working to be “stupid or weak.” He looks down on these people. Thus do we get working, the toad that squats on us, and not working, an equally repugnant creature that wallows in the mud of boredom and listlessness. Thus does work come off a little better than previously presented.

Thus, too, do clichés like “you can’t win for losing” and “the grass is always greener” come into being. For Larkin, happiness finds a way to frown no matter what the conditions.

At the risk of warts on our hands, let’s look at the poems side by side:

 

Toads
Philip Larkin

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison –
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folk live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
they seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets – and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too;
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way of getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

 

 

Toads Revisited
Philip Larkin

Walking around in the park
Should feel better than work:
The lake, the sunshine,
The grass to lie on,

Blurred playground noises
Beyond black-stockinged nurses –
Not a bad place to be.
Yet it doesn’t suit me.

Being one of the men
You meet of an afternoon:
Palsied old step-takers,
Hare-eyed clerks with the jitters,

Waxed-fleshed out-patients
Still vague from accidents,
And characters in long coats
Deep in the litter-baskets –

All dodging the toad work
By being stupid or weak.
Think of being them!
Hearing the hours chime,

Watching the bread delivered,
The sun by clouds covered,
The children going home;
Think of being them,

Turning over their failures
By some bed of lobelias,
Nowhere to go but indoors,
Nor friends but empty chairs –

No, give me my in-tray,
My loaf-haired secretary,
My shall-I-keep-the-call-in-Sir:
What else can I answer,

When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.

 

It’s as if the narrator has left marriage therapy more happy with his betrothed toad. No longer is it squatting on him. Now it is arm and arm with him, prepared to disappear with him arm in arm until death do they part.

I say “more happy,” but really, only by dint of the alternative. Wasting your life in a job that consumes your years like toads consume flies may be depressing, but Larkin has come back to say that it might just be better company en route to the cemetery of life than nothing at all.

Being out of work and home with the kiddies (a breed Larkin had little regard for) so long might offer a new angle on the reviled toad.

Or not.

Still, good poetry’s good poetry, and they’re fun to read together.

 

“I Will Tell About It”

Exposé. Tell-all. First-person confessional. As Exhibit A I give you one of Sharon Olds’ more memorable poems, “I Go Back to May 1937.”

The title is, admittedly, a bit clunky, but there’s no doubting that readers read on when a poet is going to reveal her mom and dad’s mistakes—starting with herself. Only, according to Olds, it may actually be the one thing they got right. After all, without Sharon, who would be here to explain what went wrong?

So Olds imagines a time before she existed. A time when her parents were in the prime of life during college. But there’s a catch. What works well for a body (youth) may not work as well for judgment: “they are about to graduate, they are about to get married, /
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are / innocent, they would never hurt anybody.”

With the gift of hindsight, however, Olds knows that each is the wrong person for the other, and wonders if, given a time machine, she’d have the courage to tell them as much before it is too late.

This is when selfishness kicks in. This is when the proverbial lust for life enters like a deus ex machina to rescue the poet from her own imagination.

“I want to live,” Olds admits, and so all second thoughts are buried. The advantage of the poem, then, becomes the simple, unfulfilled act of saving the parents from their own indiscretions. The other advantage? This story could apply to many young couples who didn’t know better but did what humans do best: proceed anyway.

Yep. That’s it: Life as procession anyway. Sometimes that’s all she wrote. Only in Sharon Olds’ case, she wrote more:

 

I Go Back to May 1937
Sharon Olds

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

“Lines Feeding on a Crust of Lamplight”

Yesterday morning, I wrote a “little poem.” You won’t find that in a glossary of poetry terms, of course, because “little” is fraught with multiple meanings. Think of a little apartment, for instance. For one prospective renter, it’s “cramped,” and for the next, it’s “cozy.”

In the poetry world, the Kingdom of Little Poetry can be found in ancient China and Japan. Haiku is best-known, sure, but the number of lines and syllables is of little import. The idea is to squeeze the maximum meaning possible from brevity’s wet towel.

The problem with little poetry? It’s much more difficult to judge. It’s “cramped” vs. “cozy” all over again. That is, one reader may find your short poem bountiful despite its economy, and another may judge it as so many empty calories.

These thoughts came to mind as I wrapped up a reading of Jenny Xie’s National Book Award nominee, Eye Level. Here’s an example of what I call a little poem from her book:

 

“Margins”
by Jenny Xie

Water striders on a pond’s surface,
light as calipers:
long sentence for which there are no words.

Indoors, silence travels from west to east.
The house I keep
no monastery.

Tsvetaeva, open on my bedside table.
Lines feeding on a crust
of lamplight.

 

It’s a cliché to say that big things come in small packages, but the truth is that expectations of our readers are heightened with little poetry. If ever there was a writer-reader pact, here it is: the reader is obliged to take what is implied by our few words and, out of it, fashion a house of inference.

As for the writer? His or her job is to judge when “just enough” has been reached. Like salt in Bashō’s broth, too little leaves the poem bland while too much ruins it irretrievably.

And so I look at my little poem again today, and will again tomorrow and many, many more tomorrows, because, paradoxically, little poems take a lot of time to get right.

Do you think Xie hits the right measurements in “Margins”? I only know this: I’m a sucker for famous poets (here, Marina Tsvetaeva) making cameos in contemporary poetry, and I rather like the idea of “Lines feeding on a crust / of lamplight.”

I feed my lamplight, too—nourish it by thinking big while writing little. An occasional “little poem,” that is.