Journal

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UPDATES ON A FREE VERSE LIFE

Talking to a Trumpy Who Watches Fox “News”

 

This could go south (as in Dixie) very fast

knowing as I do he watches the American News Agency Tass

a.k.a. Putin’s Propaganda Arm in the Formerly United States

a.k.a. Fox Air Quotes News

but really I want to try

to change my ways, to not refer to rich rightwing Rupert’s Fox as

Bug Juice Mixer for the Kool-Aid Krowd

and not wonder why it’s always “Don’t Tread on Me, I’ll Tread on You”

(personal freedoms being “Me,” community concerns being “You”)

with those snaky yellow flags.

I really don’t want to have to stand between my beautiful blue line flag

and my beautiful Black Lives Matter flag

to make the obvious point: “I support good cops everywhere and the safe neighborhoods

they help create and enforce, and it certainly goes without saying

(but I’m going to say it, anyway) — that Black Lives Matter As Much As Others, not More Than Others!”

No, I don’t say any of these things. Not today.

Instead I tiptoe around the trigger topics we know so well.

I play it safe and say it’s a beautiful day and, score! We’re in agreement

that the sun is still in the sky and still shines warmth on the lot of us

because no conspiracy theory or rogue letter from the alphabet

has said otherwise and it’s a start, I’ll tell you, meaning

I am on a roll like ham and cheese,

so I take a slight chance and go there (I know, I know — there are so many “there’s”)

into 2nd Amendment land which was seized from the poor minutemen and other state militias

somewhere along the line, but hear me out, I say any day people can go

to the movies Friday, the grocery store Saturday, and church Sunday

without hearing the sound of rapid gunfire is a good one because,

damn it, bullets kill red as well as blue, young as well as old, citizen as well as militia,

my loved ones as well as yours

and the Trumped One is nodding, yes, in agreement, and we’re two for two

so I say what the hell, go for baroque, and mention

I want a better America for my children,

want them financially secure with more affordable

roofs over their heads and food in their stomachs,

want them healthy and to be able to afford both medical visits and prescriptions.

And while I’m wanting stuff, I want them safer than we are,

want them to be able to breath cleaner air and drink cleaner water than we have

because that’s what people should be blessed with in God’s World (conveniently

leaving out partisan gods assigned to a country),

and he’s liking the big-time credit (world class) I gave God there

and he has kids, too,

and they’re polite kids like mine

and they know right from wrong like mine

and we don’t like it when they lie to us so we know what the hell truth is

deep down, no games, because it’s personal in that case, see,

and when it’s personal we see quite clearly and we don’t truck in these reindeer games

(Fox and Friends again)

and we’re in agreement, red nod and blue nod

merging to purple nods with the sun setting behind purple mountains majesty

and the wind blowing fresh, pine-scented air

and me wishing him goodbye and talk again real soon because, you know what,

there’s even more common ground

to be traversed — much, much more — and when you talk about

personal things on a common sense level, seeing eye to eye

feels pretty good for once and yes, there’s always this —

it’s nice, damn nice, to talk outside an echo chamber 

because I’ve been inside this media bunker too long

and am beginning to tire of this pandemic

of hatred led by partisan politicians of division

who care more about power (theirs) than country (ours),

so who can blame a guy, right?

Or left.

 

 

Hemingway on Good Poetry: “There Won’t Be a Hell of a Lot”

Sure, Ernest Hemingway was no poet, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t read poets or lack opinions on poetry in general. While reading the third volume of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway (Cambridge University Press), I came across this amusing aside written in a letter to Ernest Walsh on 15 January 1926:

“And finally I don’t think that good writing or good poetry has anything to do with our age at all — makes no bloody difference…

“To me it’s not a question of Keats and Shelley having been great and we having changed since then and needing another kind of greatness. I could never read Swinburne, Keats or Shelley. I tried it when I was a kid and simply felt embarrassed by their elaborate falseness. But of real poetry, true poetry, there has always been, rymed (sic) and unrymed (sic), a very little in all ages and all countries —. That’s another large statement. I don’t know about all countries etc. All I can say is that I believe there has always been good poetry and with a little luck there will always be a little. But there won’t be a hell of a lot.”

What, exactly, are examples of good poetry to the 26-year-old Hemingway? In the same letter, he cites “Andy” (as he calls him) Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and a couple of poems by the much-revered poet, Anonymous: “O Western Wind, When Wilt Thou Blow” and “I Heard Twa Corbies” (“twa” being anonymous for “two”).

And what can you, gentle reader, take from Hemingway’s frank talk on a trade he didn’t traffic in? That it’s cool to not like revered big shots like Keats and Shelley if their writing does nothing for you. But it’s not cool to make generalizations about poetry as a whole. For every reader from every age, there’s something out there that appeals. You just have to beat the bushes to see what comes out.

Who knows? Maybe a corbie or twa.

Funeral for a Poem

Sea-Joy-by-Jacqueline-Bouvier-690x490

Sometimes you meet poems in the strangest ways. I still remember how I met C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka.” It was in reading about Jaqueline Kennedy-Onasiss’s funeral. The poem was read at the service by her longtime companion, Maurice Tempelsman.

Some don’t know that Mrs. Kennedy was a great champion of poetry and even wrote her own (read “Sea Joy” in the photo above). Her daughter, Caroline, would grow up to be an admirer of the genre as well, helping to put together a collection that is now out of print but garners high marks on book review sites.

I’ve since explored a lot of Cavafy’s work, but nothing seems to strike me the way this poem does. Using Homer’s Odyssey, the extended metaphor works perfectly. We are all headed toward our own separate Ithakas, and none of us is terribly intent on arriving at our home port. This poem captures the essence of that thought. “If not the journey, what?” it seems to say.

Here it is, to cheer up your Wednesday. The translation is by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard from C. P. Cavafy/Collected Poems,(Princeton University Press, 1992):

 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon — don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind —

as many sensual perfumes as you can,

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her, you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

 

The Sorrow of Horses

horses

As a kid reading Jonathan Swift’s classic, Gulliver’s Travels, I marveled not so much at the Lilliputians as at the Houyhnhnms, that society of horses blessed with reason—a society far above the Yahoos, Swift’s derisive name for humankind.

It all came back to me as I read Ross Gay’s wonderful poem, “becoming a horse,” in Tracy K. Smith’s collection, American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time.

It contained lovely ideas, such as the poet becoming “a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw” or “a fly tasting its ear.” It contained lovely concepts, such as the poet coming to know the world as a horse knows it: “the sorrow of a brook creasing a field,” “the small song in my chest,” “the slow honest tongue.” All that from the simple act of “putting my heart to the horse’s.”

Empathy. The world through another’s eyes—even another creature’s eyes. More than anything, it teaches us the sorrow of being human. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

 

becoming a horse
by Ross Gay

It was dragging my hands along its belly,
loosing the bit and wiping the spit
from its mouth made me
a snatch of grass in the thing’s maw,
a fly tasting its ear. It was
touching my nose to his made me know
the clover’s bloom, my wet eye to his
made me know the long field’s secrets.
But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know
the sorrow of horses. The sorrow
of a brook creasing a field. The maggot
turning in its corpse. Made me
forsake my thumbs for the sheen of unshod hooves.
And in this way drop my torches.
And in this way drop my knives.
Feel the small song in my chest
swell and my coat glisten and twitch.
And my face grow long.
And these words cast off, at last,
for the slow honest tongue of horses.

 

As a writer, you might try it yourself: becoming a dog, a red fox, an owl—whatever stirs the wonder and sadness in you. It is an exercise in empathy and beauty.

How To Give Feedback on Another Writer’s Poem: A Guide

feedbak

Critiquing a poem isn’t rocket science. For starters, don’t use clichés, like “rocket science,” but know what a cliché is, because spotting them will come in handy.

Before we get started on how to critique a poem, though, let’s start with how NOT to critique one. This assumes, of course, that the poet (or fellow student) is offering up a first draft and genuinely seeks ways to improve it.

First, the “Not-ty” List:

  • Do not read the poem and respond with generalizations, positive or negative. Avoid, “Boy, does this need work,” or the equally unhelpful “I love this. Great job!” Negative generalizations without reasons or suggestions are worthless. Complete affirmation of early drafts is equally bad. Serious poets who market work may well wonder, after collecting multiple hosannas from critical readers, why dozens upon dozens of poetry editors reject their work during the submission process. Similarly, student poets may wonder why, if all her readers loved it, the poem turned in received less than an “A” from the instructor (setting aside, for now, the advisability of grading poems in the first place). Wonder no more!
  • Do not confuse revision critiques with editing critiques. Revision deals with diction, semantics, ideas, techniques, word choice. Editing digs into the nitty-gritty of spelling, grammar, and mechanics. Sure, these are important, but they have a place and that place comes after revision. That said, it is OK to mention quickly if editing problems lead to confusion issues (which ties into content). From there, move onto the marketplace of ideas for revision.
  • Do not be lazy. Give others’ work the same amount of attention and effort you’d like to see extended to yours. Annotate. Look up words. Jot down ideas. (See list below.)
  • Do not subscribe to the “all interpretations are equal” theory. They aren’t. Ideas are arguments that need backing with textual evidence. Therefore, if you want to push an interpretation you’re seeing, be sure it fits the whole poem, from title to final line. Going off on tangents or seeing symbolism in every word is not only unhelpful, it’s insensitive and, in some cases, just silly (only no one’s laughing).
  • Don’t rewrite the poem for the writer. There’s a fine line between suggestion and hijacking. Your criticisms should be tools to work with, not a project taken over and finished by a contractor.
  • Don’t feel insulted if the writer chooses not to act on your ideas. Often some of your ideas will be used, but seldom will they all be adopted. And if none are and you did your job, know that you have provided what was asked of you. Ultimate agency lies with the writer. That is as it should be.

 

Now, the “Do It Right” List:

  • Have a pencil and dictionary (or dictionary website) on hand before you read your fellow writer’s work.
  • Have a quiet atmosphere. Just as mushrooms prefer a dark and damp area, so do poems prefer a setting where everyone can focus and give their undivided attention. If there is a talking phase for feedback and the room is divided in groups, speak under your breath such that nearby groups would have to work hard to make out what you’re saying.
  • Be honest but empathetic. They make a great pair. It might help to remember that writers, no matter how thick their skin, are vulnerable in unique ways. A person wrote this piece and is taking down the walls in sharing it, so be kind (it will feel good, trust me).
  • If you can, ask the poet what type of advice she is looking for. Everything? Mostly the opening or closing? Word choice? Some poets will tell you their poem is about where they want it to be already. They simply want “fine tuning” tips. Others will say, in so many words, “Help!” Any advice welcome. There’s a difference! If you offer wholesale changes advice to a poet who needs only fine-tuning, you’ll be wasting a lot of time (and, perhaps, insulting the writer). On the other hand, if you offer a few tidbits to someone who needs big-time help, they’ll feel shortchanged. Welcome to the world of critiquing!
  • Ready to go? Read the poem a few times. Place a check mark near any words, lines, or stanzas you might want to comment on.
  • Look up words you don’t know. This is basic respect. It will also inform your response, especially if no definitions of the word seem to match up with the poet’s intent. Either say so or ask a question for clarification. (Depending on agreed upon ground rules, this could be in the form of writing or speaking or, as I like it, first writing in silence and then, once everyone has written something, speaking in turn.)
  • Start with what you like. Maybe you don’t like anything, but something in this poem has possibility. It is not a violation of your oath of honesty to show the writer where the greatest possibilities exist.
  • Be specific. This cannot be stressed enough. Direct the writer’s (and other readers’, if this is a group setting) attention to specific stanzas, lines, and words. You can annotate this with “S” for stanza and “L” for line. Thus, you might write, “In S2, L5, I like how you used the word…,” etc., which, in speaking terms, would be, “In Stanza two, Line five, I like how….”
  • Pretend the writer is a little kid who will always asks why after you speak. That is, anticipate this by offering your reasons. Every constructive criticism, positive or negative, is rooted in reason. To not explain yours is to leave a job half done. It’s sloppy.
  • Speak in the language of poetry. Embed your critique in terms new to you or well-known to you, e.g. “In S3, L1, I really like the metaphor (read it) because (explain why).” If this is a classroom, all the repetition of terms will be like dropping Spanish language learners into Madrid for a month. Immersion works!
  • Offer ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. That said, you should always ask the writer up front (or agree before beginning as a group) how she wants them. Some poets love specific ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. Others find such specificity invasive. They prefer that you just point out strengths and weaknesses without sharp examples of possible changes. They don’t want to be influenced by them, in other words. Others like the specific ideas because it leads them to their own specific ones, similar to but different from the reader’s.
  • Know that all critiques are food for thought. Writers may later sample them by returning to the written annotations, then either moving on the ideas or choosing not to. Again, agency remains with the writer. She owns the poem. That cannot be stressed enough.
  • It is OK to say what the poem means to you as a reader. This meaning may surprise the writer. It may also illuminate flaws to the writer, who will realize that her lack of clarity has lead readers astray. Alternately, as is only appropriate in the reader-writer agreement, alternate readings may delight the writer, who actually can learn something about herself and her writing from such responses. Remember, though, that all interpretations must be rooted in evidence from the complete poem. Without that, it is nothing but a chasing after the wind (Biblical for “a worthless enterprise”).
  • Compliment the writer for taking risks, even if it doesn’t quite work yet. Explain why and how the risk might work with changes or a different direction. Some writers, especially in school settings, play it overly safe and follow the example of professionals or exemplar texts too closely. Such vanilla mimicry does not invoke the Muse, it invokes the grade. Writing poems with a good grade in mind through safety and mimicry is an assault on everyone’s sensibilities. If you see it as a reader, offer ideas on how the writer can free herself, have fun, be creative, take risks!
  • That said, if the poet writer is genuinely trying ideas seen in professional writers’ works (or studied in class) but making it walk to the beat of her own drummer, encourage that and explain why it is working or why it is not quite there yet. This might be one of those poetry terms everyone is immersing in or it might be as simple as unusual word pairings that have been noted in other poems.
  • Remember to gently warn writers off the habit of unintentional plagiarism. This happens when students accidentally insert a key word or phrase, idea or concept, seen in an exemplar. One way to say this is, “Although this allusion to Eden is cool, it’s too similar to what Frost did in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’ See if you can write about lost innocence in a different way, one you think no one has thought of before. What does it look like to you, lost innocence? Using your own experience might be a starting point for revision.”
  • Share what’s important to you and should be to the writer. The title. The “turning point,” if it exists (or if it should exist). The all-important ending. The consistency and effectiveness of the poem’s theme throughout. What you care about is infectious. It will help the writer to care about it, too.
  • Use the language of ethos. Be understanding, helpful, respectful. “I see what you’re trying to do here and it could lead to good things. For me, however, it’s not working yet because ______________. I think it might work if you use more ___________ or try to _____________.  To think of ways to do this, you might ask yourself ____________.”
  • Words and terms that should be heard early and often: specific nouns, active verbs, imagery (the five senses), unusual word pairings, alliteration, similes/metaphors, sound devices (specify), rhetorical devices (specify), unity, theme, importance, allusions, clarify, elaborate, economy of words, clichés (as in “toxic effects of”), assonance, consonance, mixed metaphors, anaphora, etc. These words / terms will be the same in most settings, but in a classroom setting may be unique to the instructor / mentor’s points of emphasis.
  • Explain why any language specific to the writer must also be universal to readers. The balance is important, so point out where that balance is working and where it isn’t (adding reasons).
  • End with on a positive note. Then, always extend an invitation to the writer. “Do you have any questions for me (us)? Is there anything I (we) said that you don’t fully understand?
  • Know that poetry criticism as a reader will, in the long run, improve your poetry as a writer. Done correctly, the marketplace of ideas fills everyone’s shopping bags equally.
  • Thorough and effective critiques are inspiring. When writers see that their works have been afforded the time and effort necessary to good criticism, they will respond in kind, roll up their sleeves, and really get to work on Draft #2. It’s the fact that there are readers out there, people who care, that makes a difference. What, after all, is a poem without a reader? A tree falling in a forest with no humans to hear it! Audience is essential, and writers should always have it in mind as they write. You may think you’re writing for yourself, but the human experience is both unique and universal, meaning, if you’re doing it right, readers will relate.

 

 

Is there a poetry reader in your life (perhaps in the mirror, even)? Check out the BOOKS page, where my three poetry collections are now on sale for the holiday gift-giving season. It’s bibliophile-friendly!

 

“Poems Hide”

barn

The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”

One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”

Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
 
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

 

In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.

 

Consider a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I once started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!

 

If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:

 

“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:

 

The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.

 

“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:

 

From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.

 

“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:

 

Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.

 

I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:

 

You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.

 

You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.

 

Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.

The Most Precious Gift: Declamation

roth

These days, gift-giving is too much about cursors and clicks to cart. Material goods bought with plastic shipped to porches by UPS.

You don’t need to be a poet, however, to give a better gift to someone you love: declamation. This came to mind while reading the May 2020 issue of The Atlantic. In a piece called “Being Friends with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor, the latter mentions Roth’s 74th birthday party.

Apparently Roth turned to the assembled guests and, casual as all get-out, asked if anyone cared to recite a poem from memory. As if that was still done. As if each guest had brought a poem gift-wrapped in their brain pan.

To kick things off, Roth recited a Mark Strand poem: “Keeping Things Whole.” According to Taylor, Roth “then looks at me as if to say, ‘Your serve.'” Luckily, Taylor was able to return volley. He recited Robert Frost’s lesser known poem “I Could Give All to Time.”

Roth was so impressed that he brought it up on the phone the next morning: “Those rhymes!” he said to Taylor. “It’s as if nature made them.”

And, at the time, I thought, how cool. Shouldn’t this happen more often? Not just between writers of poetry, but between readers of poetry, too?

Anyway, it was enough to set me to the task of memorizing both, starting with the easier—the Strand piece. So here’s to Philip and Benjamin.

Oh. And Mark and Robert, too!

 

Keeping Things Whole
Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

 

I Could Give All to Time
Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Allusions R Us

bukowski

I’ve noticed, reading published poetry, that it doesn’t hurt to use allusions, whether subtle or direct. If you have a keen literary interest in a famous writer, artist, philosopher, or historical figure, etc., allude away! Use quotes. Use interesting facts. Just use them Yoda-like, blending them into your poem’s purpose and its art until you have an allusion smoothie.

Here’s an example from a poet who is not known for his subtlety, Charles Bukowski. But then, I’ve always suspected Bukowski’s rebel act was just that and only partly true. He did, in fact, take his writing quite seriously. You can’t have that much of an output while constantly drinking and lazing around, after all!

Here Bukowski is alluding to the greatest American poet of all time, Walt Whitman. OK. Maybe not the greatest poet in everyone’s minds, but certainly the bearded poster boy for American poetry.

 

a song with no end
Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”

I know what he
meant
I know what he
wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.

 

A twofer! Allusion and the universal preoccupation of poets everywhere, death! You might even make it a threefer if you deem it aphoristic, as in a wise man’s teaching, to boot.

Really. Charles Bukowski as prophet and sage. And all because of a stiff drink of Whitman-infused allusion.

The Wake of Li Po’s Little Boat

li-po

From across the ages and continents, Chinese poet Li Po is still inspiring. What a delightful surprise to find him on p. 26 of W.S. Merwin’s penultimate collection, Garden Time.

When reading poetry collections, you live for these moments. No collection is filled to the gunwales with wonders, but good ones hit you with a few along the way — about all you can ask from a full book of poetry.

Merwin’s homage to Li Po is one of those good poems. At least its smallness spoke to me in a big way. Sure, I’m a sucker for poems about time, the enduring and the fleeting, and this one touches all those buttons, but still… in only nine lines! Whew!

Take a look-see yourself. Whether a fan of Li Po’s or Merwin’s, you’ll enjoy, I’m sure:

 

“River” by W.S. Merwin

Li Po the little boat is gone
that carried you ten thousand li
downstream past the gibbons calling
all the way from both banks and they
too are gone and the forests they
were calling from and you are gone
and every sound you heard is gone
now there is only the river
that was always on its own way

 

Sometimes personification, the little stepchild of figurative language, can work in unexpected and subtle ways. This would be one of those times. Catch my drift?

Bird Is the Word

grackle

From The Best American Poetry 2017 comes one of those poems that has a line jumping off the page. OK, in honor of its topic, maybe flying off the page works better.

The poem, “Grackle” by Meg Kearney, originally appeared in The Massachusetts Review. Read it and see if you notice the same line I did.

Grackle
by Meg Kearney

What a grackle is doing perched on the rail
of her baby’s crib, noiselessly twitching its
tail, she doesn’t wonder. The way this baby
gleams he’s bound to catch a grackle’s
eye. Besides, birds have flit in and out
of these baby dreams forever. Sapsucker,
blue jay. Sparrow, kingfisher, titmouse.
She just likes to say grackle, a crack-your-
knuckles, hard-candy word. In the dream,
her baby’s black as a grackle, meaning
when she holds him to the light he shines
purple and blue, a glittery bronze. Silent
and nameless. Sometimes he is a she but
always the dream-baby is hers. That is
the miracle. Her nights of nursery rhymes
and sorrow. Of yellow quilts and song
birds. Enough to break a bow. Enough
to fell a cradle.

 

I call them “Price-of-Admission” lines. You know. The ones that are so good they alone make a good poem worth the price of admission. In this case, the line I am loving is “She just likes to say grackle, a crack-your- / knuckles, hard-candy word.”

Well, shoot. Now I like to say it, too. Not “grackle,” but “a crack-your-knuckles, hard-candy word.”

Poetry. It never ceases to amaze….