poetry

677 posts

The Seven Best Poetry Books of 2021… Maybe

T’is the season for “Best of” lists, and yes, even poetry gets in on the game, at least if the playing field is as large as The New York Times, where the Book Review’s poetry columnist Elisa Gabbert selected seven favorites from 2021 only to be pounced on by readers.

One named “to each their own taste” commented “The NY Times carries great authority, yet this list is so arbitrary and slants so steeply toward poets who are not widely known. How can any round up being called the year’s ‘best poetry books’ not include even Kaveh Akbar’s “Pilgrim Bell,” let alone the Louise Glück book seemingly ignored exactly because it’s by a Nobel poet. Does being better-known disqualify?”

I couldn’t disagree more. I mean, I get it. Having read both Nobel winner Louise Glück’s wonderful Winter Recipes from the Collective and Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell: Poems, I can understand why they might merit consideration for a “Best of” list. But really, do Nobel winners and familiar names like theirs even need the attention? And isn’t that a little too easy for an expert like Elisa Gabbert?

Unlike “to each their own taste,” I favor slants “toward poets who are not widely known.” In fact, I think The Times’ Gabbert could slant even more. Two of her seven selections were choices of a Brooklyn bookstore’s poetry subscription series – one I myself receive. And while I’m in the confession box, I’ll state here that one of those two choices struck me as ordinary while the other I abandoned (though now I may give it a second go, to see if it’s me or Gabbert). In any event, keep slanting, Elisa! Make the widely unknown a little bit more known and trust that the famous can fend for themselves!

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SHORT TAKES

I’ve been reading Michael Ignatieff’s short essays, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, and so far have most enjoyed the pieces on Marcus Aurelius and Michel De Montaigne. Poor Marcus Aurelius. Like Bartleby the Emperor, he would “prefer not to” do anything Roman emperors had to do – rule, lead battalions against barbarians, entertain fools. Yet he slogged on, writing his Meditations to reprove himself (for lack of Stoic discipline) as much as others.

Montaigne, though he lived in the 16th century, struggled with the party (read: religious) line on consolation. He was too busy writing essays about himself as a human mind and a human body. How 21st century of him!

“I renounce any favorable testimonials that anyone may want to give me not because I shall deserve them but because I shall be dead,” he said, neglecting that little business of an after-life. As he lived in a time of Catholic vs. Protestant bloodshed in France, one can see why he loathed religious zealots.

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Care to sample a few poems from my book online? In the Miracle Monocle out of the University of Louisville, you’ll find “A Boy, A City” (originally written as an ekphrastic poem to go with a photograph) and “Loyalty,” one of my favorite short poems in the book.

You can also find one of the “lost brother” thematic poems, “My Brother’s Bedroom,” in Jacar Press’s poetry publication, one, Issue 21.

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Speaking of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, my thanks go out to Steve Penkevich from Reader’s World Bookstore in Michigan, who published this awesome-isn’t-the-word-for-it review of my book on Goodreads.

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Am I the only one who thinks the scariest bit in the news these days is the slow taking down of our Republic? In this sense, the good news of Donald Trump’s defeat may turn out to be the bad news. If not for his legitimate defeat in the 2020 presidential election, none of this perfidy would have been turned loose.

Ever child-like and narcissistic, Trump denied losing and insisted it could only happen if he was “robbed.” His slavish minions in countless key states with Republican majorities in their houses and senates have taken this lie as an excuse to blatantly gerrymander voting districts so the GOP can’t possibly lose future elections.

Couple that with voter-suppression laws designed to favor voters registered with the GOP and the purging of any election official (Republicans as well) who had the integrity to stand up to Trump’s lies, and you get a recipe for one-party rule, much like you see in, say, Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China today. Elections may occur in those countries, but they are little more than bad jokes with outcomes a preordained given. Is that what we want for the formerly United States? To see Trump succeed where Jefferson Davis failed?

I’m not sure why Republicans and Democrats alike in states like Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina are not up in arms over this breach of citizens’ rights. Why are they OK with some American voters counting more than others? Is it patriotic to acquiesce to electoral systems used in Fascist and Communist (small difference, as both are built around cults of personality in a single leader… sound familiar?) countries today? I’m looking for ways to fight back, but it’s difficult when you don’t live in one of the states that are betraying basic precepts of the Constitution, all while cloaked in a false flag of patriotism.

 

When Wrong Place & Wrong Time Means Forever

coffee

Gun violence. Poetry. Yes, please, to some sanity. Read Joseph J. Ellis’s book, American Dialogue, where, among other interesting things, he traces the history of the Second Amendment, which was, according to the Founders, all about militias vs. individuals, not that this stops some people in modern-day from rewriting history.

Ellis goes in-depth on how the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia did just that, painting himself, as many others presently do, as a Constitutional “originalist” when he was anything but (that is, if you care, like Ellis, to look at the actual facts from the time of Madison, Jefferson, and Adams).

Once upon a time, even the NRA was a noble organization dedicated to hunting and gun safety. Given the Rambo-style, political leadership that has hijacked it and runs the show today, the NRA of old seems like a quaint fairy tale now, as we read yet another story in the news about senseless shootings in public places.

Why is it that we endure gun violence in society like no other modern nation on earth? Why is it that we endure pain and death and fear? Why is it that we re-elect politicians who offer thoughts and prayers instead of solutions?

The poet Lia Purpura gives these questions some thought in ways that most of us would rather not. We read her poem “Proximities” and realize that we all have lines we could retrace in our every day lives — from last year, last month, or even yesterday at a coffee shop, in a movies theater, at a night club, or in a school.

This is true whether you are a law-abiding gun owner (and I know many) or not. It’s being at the wrong place at the wrong time, a quirk of fate that no citizen, no matter what his political stripes, should be subject to. As Purpura puts it, quite simply, “It’s never a joke / to walk in or out of a shop / unharmed.”

Here’s praying for practical solutions, then, ones that will address the issues while still respecting the rights of hunters and other gun owners who are all about gun safety, not blocking common sense legislation to protect Americans from routine gun violence. It would require profiles in courage from unexpected places (Congress), but I’m convinced it can be done. It has to, or else matters will only gets worse…

 

“Proximities”
by Lia Purpura

A man walks into a coffee shop.
But it’s not a joke.
I bought coffee there
last summer.
Small, with milk.
It’s never a joke
to walk in or out of a shop
unharmed. It’s easy
to forget
you aren’t a person
being shot at.
I’m not.
I wasn’t, though
I was there,
last summer.
Not-shot-at
and I never knew it.
Did not once
think it.
Thinking it now
the moment thins,
it sheers,
and I move back to
other coffee shops
where I never fell, or bled,
and then
I sit for a while
with my regular cup
and feel things collapse
or go on, I can’t tell.

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death

cellar-stairs

Fringe. Niche. Eccentric.

These are words you might hear when people describe poets or poetry in general, at least in the States. Thing is, the joke’s on them (or at least in their mirrors). Why? Because everyone’s a poet, or at least was at one time.

As proof, my favorite 2 minute and 37 second video to share with students is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me.” Before reading a found poem wholly consisting of things her son said when he was 2- and 3-years-old, she shares what William Stafford once said when someone asked, “When did you become a poet?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question. The question is, when did you STOP being a poet? We’re all poets when we’re little. Some of us just try to keep up the habit.”

A little logic tells us, then, that the kid in all of us is the poet in all of us. It’s kind of like Halloween. You never quite get it out of your system. Now #2 behind Christmas in retail sales, October 31st has practically been taken over by adults who want to play dress up and “trick or treat” (without the door-to-door nonsense), too.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a party animal, then, you should take note: It’s the ordinary that should scare you to death.

What if I asked you to write something scary, for instance? Too often, when writers set out to scare readers, they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Fox News talking heads by any measure of time.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child (whether you’re age 50 or 12). As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack little kids have for seeing malevolence in the ordinary, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than a house’s basement.

Don’t believe me? Close your eyes a moment and conjure the basement of the house you grew up in. In my case, there was a rec room of no account on one side and then the unfinished side: concrete floor, washer/dryer, sump pump, oil tank, furnace, and that all important basement prop, “thing that goes bump in the night.” I can recall many a nightmare where various horrors came through the door separating these two sections.

But let’s move on to a good example of how basements tap can into our inner child mentality (and therefore our poetic imagination). It appears in the late poet Thomas Lux’s poem,  “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen. As it’s only three 9-line stanzas, let’s take a look:

      Cellar Stairs
      by Thomas Lux

      It’s rickety down to the dark.
      Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
      on your left and want to slash your throat,
      but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
      On a shelf above, tools: shears,
      three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
      poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
      halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
      you don’t want to fall face first into,

      no, you don’t. To your right,
      a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
      on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
      on a bad. Against the wall,
      on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
      together, no pair, as if the dead
      went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
      which is down these steps,
      at the bottom of which is a swollen,

      humming, huge white freezer
      big enough for many bodies—
      of children, at least. And this
      is where you’re sent each night
      for the frozen bag of beans
      or peas or broccoli
      that lies beside the slab
      of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
      each countless childhood meal your last.

      “Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. Heck with masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, people are killed every day by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs.

My advice, if it’s scares you’re after? Put down your remote and channel your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job — as a writer, as a poet, and as an aficionado of Halloween — is to make them thrum. Basements, attics, crawlspaces, closets, the one room people tend to avoid.

After that, scare yourself even more. Try reading some poetry. Or scare ME by writing a short poem about your cellar and sending it my way. I promise it will not be shared here or any other place, like behind the furnace.

See you later. I’m going to the cellar for a ball-peen hammer and some ideas I’ve been toying with.

 

Leaping Poetry, or When Poems Make Like Frogs

frog

The sedentary reader is often moved by his discoveries. Recently I learned about a style of writing Robert Bly referred to as “leaping poetry.” In 1975, he defined it as “a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

This sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who went there and back again, but Bly took his inspiration from the works of such French poets as Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Antonio Machado. Bly also cited ancient Chinese poets who spoke of “riding on dragons,” a term defining moments of “inspiration,” of leaps between planes of thought.

If you read Bly poems that demonstrate “leaping poetry” nowadays, you might not even notice the leaping. Our modern sense of metaphoric leaps seems to fill the bill quite nicely, thank you, but here’s an example anyway. Can you guess which stanza makes like Mark Twain’s Calaveras County frog and leaps?

 

Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River by Robert Bly


I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

 II 
The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

 III
Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.

 

If you chose stanza #3, you are correct. The turn comes with the word “suddenly,” and although some imagery anticipates it in the first two stanzas, in stanza #3 Bly leaps to a more emotional, subjective lens to describe sights seen on this drive.

As I said, leaping is less exercise than you thought, so you need not worry about training so much as freeing your mind to the possibilities.

Here is another Bly poem that leaps. Like the last line of haiku, a leaping poem might first focus on a concrete image (in this case, some lovely description of a humble mushroom) and then finish on an imaginative metaphor, such as the trip our migratory souls prepare for near the end of life. By the end of the poem, you might wonder what “A” has to do with “B” but, skillfully done, leaping poetry makes the transition not only reasonable but seemingly obvious.

Leap well done, in other words!

 

The Mushroom by Robert Bly

This white mushroom comes up through the duffy
lith on a granite cliff, in a crack that ice has widened.
The most delicate light tan, it has the texture of a rubber
ball left in the sun too long. To the fingers it feels a
little like the tough heel of a foot.

One split has gone deep into it, dividing it into two
half-spheres, and through the cut one can peek inside,
where the flesh is white and gently naive.

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.
There must be travellers all around us supporting us whom
we do not recognize. This granite cliff also travels. Do we
know more about our wife’s journey or our dearest friends’
than the journey of this rock? Can we be sure which
traveller will arrive first, or when the wedding will be?
Everything is passing away except the day of this wedding.

Cheating Death (Sort Of…)

jack gilbert

The old axiom has it that writers can cheat death if their words live on. I’m not terribly impressed with the formula because my words don’t experience the five senses as well as I do. If they live on, a lot of good that does me, in other words. And yes, you might say words (and plots and characters and Muses) have a mind of their own, but that’s like arguing that a computer has a mind of its own, too. It sounds good, but it’s a pleasant and popular fallacy.

When I read Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, it was on a train (I always remember books read on trains, especially) and, as you might expect, I felt like I knew the guy quite well. Immortality, right? Cheated death (asterisk, wink, fingers crossed), right? But poor Jack doesn’t know any better. He died in 2012 after 87 good years.

Anyway, back to the book. It was a loan from the Worcester Library and contained a sacrilege. When I reached page 350 (of 384) with supplies and water running low, I noticed a page cleanly ripped out of the book.

Who does such things? What kind of person? Going to the table of contents, I find the answer. The missing poem, starting on the now-ghost page of 351, is called “The Answer.” So someone found an answer, all right, but apparently couldn’t memorize it, so they stole it, and the devil take the rest of us, apparently. The rest of us who are left with “The Question.”

Of course, curiosity piqued, I had to look the missing poem up on the Internet. Why couldn’t the mad ripper have done the same? Is printer toner that expensive? Anyway, here’s what I (and all readers of this library’s book) was missing:

 

“The Answer” by Jack Gilbert

Is the clarity, the simplicity, an arriving
or an emptying out? If the heart persists
in waiting, does it begin to lessen?
If we are always good, does God lose track
of us? When I wake at night, there is
something important there. Like the humming
of giant turbines in the high-ceilinged stations
in the slums. There is a silence in me,
absolute and inconvenient. I am haunted
by the day I walked through the Greek village
where everyone was asleep and somebody began
playing Chopin, slowly, faintly, inside
the upper floor of a plain white stone house.

 

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Immortal Jack. When people say, “You don’t know Jack,” they’re wrong. I got to know his eternal soul well. He likes one-stanza poems. A lot. Mostly on one page, though occasionally on two. None as far as three. So if long poems drive you to distraction because your attention span is shorter than a Dachshund, check out Jack.

Frequently, Jack discusses past loves — wives divorced (Linda Gregg… a poet, too) and wives died (Michiko). He also is a well-traveled guy. Like Virgil, his ghost gave me more than one tour of towns and villages in Greece and Italy and Japan and New England. Also big cities like San Francisco and New York City. Pittsburgh as well. Jack is a Pittsburgh boy, after all.

Like the ancient Chinese and Japanese, he’s heavily invested in nature. And women. Fixated on nipples, too — a word that makes frequent cameos in his work. And life and death, anticipating his immortality, as in the final poem in the book:

 

“Convalescing” by Jack Gilbert

I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
in those stone processions.
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.

 

Jack doesn’t think he has much of a sense of humor, but he’s being modest. The man who totally lacks a sense of humor is rare, indeed (though he sometimes gets elected to the highest public office in the land). Some of the poems have a bemused tone, the kind of thing you hear in any work where writers are trying to figure life out (a poetic pastime). He also writes about writing on more than one occasion. For those who try to write poetry, there’s this “insider” poem:

 

“Doing Poetry” by Jack Gilbert

Poem, you sonofabitch, it’s bad enough
that I embarrass myself working so hard
to get it right even a little,
and that little grudging and awkward.
But it’s afterwards I resent, when
the sweet sure should hold me like
a trout in the bright summer stream.
There should be at least briefly
access to your glamour and tenderness.
But there’s always this same old
dissatisfaction instead.

 

For true immortality, some might say, you need to reach the level of the Bard and such. And remember, some writers seem shoe-ins for immortality when the moods of Fate turn against them. Famous today, not so much tomorrow. T. S. Eliot is famous, but how much is he read anymore? Longfellow was a Victorian giant, but try to find him now.

On a local level, Jack Gilbert is now famous to me. With this many poems read in this fast a succession, you’re bound to find quirks and holes (e.g. if poems are supposed to be “cut to the bone,” then many of Jack’s dodged the butcher’s poetic blade). But overall, it was a man that began to take shape beside me as I read on the train and, later, on the patio under the spring-break sun. It was a life revisited in a world where very few remain.

Immortal? Cheating death? Of a sort. In a way. But it’s the best a writer can do, so let’s celebrate the lie and leave philosophical arguments for the academics.

Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

phaethon

In Maine we are going through another hot and humid stretch. In town, people will complain of the heat. But on Saturday, the high is forecast to be 68. In town, there are bound to be people who will complain of this coolness in August. 

Contrasts. They’re everywhere and, as a catalyst, they generate interest and irony.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Charles Simic:

 

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Achilles
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard

 

Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love? And, if not, what are you waiting for?

What a contrast the songs of the morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.

Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers

hugo

Rules. More rules. Sometimes rules are good, if they’re “of thumb,” I mean. Unlike compulsory ones, rules of thumb can be treated like Pied Pipers or given the Roman emperor thumb.

Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing features essays both memoir-ish and poetry advice-ish, making it catnip for poets at all levels.

Which brings us to “Hugo’s Rules of Thumb for Poetry Writing” (my term for them). Here are a few selected ones from his book. See what you think:

  • Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
  • Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is.
  • Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  • Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.
  • Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.
  • End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.
  • Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.
  • Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” (I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.
  • Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
  • No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
  • Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
  • Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
  • Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence. 
  • The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.

Hugo provides examples and elaboration on some of these rules, but I just wanted to give you a flavor. Interesting, no? And in some cases, almost mathematical in their specificity.

Taking these to my poetry manuscript, you might find some good possibilities and some not-so-good ones. Not using the same subject two sentence in a row? What about anaphora? Maximum sentence length, seventeen words? How will you ever channel Allen Ginsberg? And make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it? In the immortal words of four Beatles I once knew, that’s a hard day’s night.

I do like the idea of posting a poem-in-progress where others can read it, though. On the refrigerator at work, for instance. That ought to get a lot of reads, between the “Who’s hummus is this? It’s been here for two months!” and the “Who took my Noosa black raspberry yogurt?”

Still, The Triggering Town is an intriguing and at times humorous read. Hugo taught at the University of Montana (of all places!). And, sure as his rules seem to be, he is admirably self-deprecating. In Chapter the First, “Writing off the Subject,” he writes:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until your realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go.

Is there a better caveat than that? And so, all thumbs in, one thumb in, or none. As you like it. An advice take-it-or-leave-it guy can do little better than that….

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.

If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting

szymborska

Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

 

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Is Poetry Dead or Just Playing Possum?

Ask any librarian or bookstore owner. The aisle (or Dewey Decimal number) less traveled by is poetry.

Why is that? You would think that readers would love to read all types of books alike — fiction, essays, history, drama, memoir, and poetry.

That’s how it starts, anyway. After all, little kids love poetry. They’re nurtured on Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, children’s song lyrics, Dr. Seuss’s word play. But by the time they reach middle school, the love is all but gone. What happens? 

There’s no lack of theories. Some lay the blame at English teachers’ feet. As Billy Collins once wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:

…all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

By this theory’s logic, teachers “ruin” poems, either by selecting inscrutable works or by making it work instead of fun to read. Thus we have teachers as keepers of the keys to meanings, while kids are left to play a dreary guessing game.

“Why don’t poets just say what they mean?” victims of this game might say. “Why aren’t kids intrigued by a poem’s unique slant on old truths?” an admirer of poetry might respond.

Matt Zapruder, poet and professor, has an idea. He thinks readers — including young people — need only one tool to fully understand poetry: a dictionary. Yes, online is fine. And no, not just to look up words they don’t know. Words they know, too. Especially common words with multiple meanings because, in poetry, words work in mysterious — dare I say “often very cool” — ways. Sometimes definition #8 works better than definition #1.

When a reader of poetry is intrigued like a detective who wants to solve a mystery or advocate for a particular meaning, it’s a new ball game. Poetry isn’t being “done to them.” They are “doing poetry.” The whole scenario is flipped. Both control and motivation is given to the reader.

Couple this with the appropriate selection of poems for each age group, and the situation shifts. Ditto adults. Every topic is fair game in poetry these days, and there’s a voice that will resonate with readers of every taste — if given the chance, of course. If readers who “left” poetry are willing to jump back in. And if they’re willing to mix it up and appreciate that reading poetry offers rewards both similar to and different from prose.

Next newsletter: How reading poetry is different from reading prose, and how it benefits the brain the way aerobic and anaerobic activities complement each other in exercising the body.

 

WHAT I’M READING

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is that rare book that handles both plot and characterization well. Diving into the publishing world, it tells the story of a writer/teacher who takes a student writer’s idea and runs with it. When it becomes a bestseller, he starts to get mysterious messages accusing him of plagiarism. It’s a quiet psychological thriller that Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock would fancy. Book lovers will, too.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

Green, the heralded YA author of such books as Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, takes a different turn with these mini-essays based on a podcast he does with brother Henry. Fans of trivia — and, let’s be honest, knowledge — will savor his quick forays into such disparate and odd topics as Halley’s Comet, Lascaux Cave Paintings, Piggly Wiggly stores, The Yips,” “Auld Lang Syne,” etc.) or, because of his expository efforts, became somewhat the QWERTY Keyboard, and the film Penguins of Madagascar. Like those rare teachers we remember best from school — both fun and entertaining — the book satisfies in 3-5 page morsels. Tasty!

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Fans of narrative poetry that not only embraces the present moment but the history of Black experience in America will appreciate Murillo’s conversational free verse that recounts various episodes from his life and others in his circle of friends and family. The highlight of the book is a strong set of sonnets (Petrarch and Shakespeare need not apply) in the center of the book, each 14-liner going to the heart of America’s social woes from different angles. Thought-provoking stuff!