4 posts

“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:


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.

Jane Hirshfield as Scheherazade


In education, lectures are vilified with good reason. They are boring. They are so much bombast. They are inflicted by vainglorious pontificators on passive victims who must endure or find ways to daydream through it all.

What happens, though, when a speaker is so knowledgeable, silver-tongued, and interesting that the restless audience (or reader) begins to sit up and pay attention like the Sultan before Scheherazade? That’s what happens when I read a collection of Jane Hirshfield essays on poetry, last year Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and these past few days Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

The poetic title points to the ten essays, here as chapters titled “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Basho, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image,” “Thoreau’s Hound: Poetry and the Hidden,” “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty,” “Close Reading: Windows,” “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” “What Is American in Modern America Poetry: a Brief Primer with Poems,” “Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears,” and “Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.”

As you can see, Hirshfield covers a lot of poetic turf in this collection, my favorite being the lengthy section on the enigmatic but interesting 17th-century haiku master, Basho. Buddhism is a Hirshfield specialty, and if anyone can rescue haiku from American elementary school classrooms (where it is being held for ransom), raising them to the adult art form they were and still are, it’s Jane Hirshfield.

Equally compelling is the essay with the intriguing title “Thoreau’s Hound.” As a fan of Henry David Thoreau (my poetry collection features as an epigraph his famous line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”), I wondered where this would doggone lead.

Turns out, the essay is based on another Thoreau line from Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken to concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

Hirshfield pairs this with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir tree.”

The point? Mankind, as Jane Hirshfield points out, “wants to know,” yet there is an equal attraction to mystery, to not knowing, to the chase and the journeys such pursuits entail. This, too, is a province of poetry, which is forever looking at the intangibles of mystery and trying on various concrete forms. With metaphor and imagery comes the hunt for le mot juste, the baying of hounds on the scent, the nearness of capture… and  yet, and yet, despite not finding our quarry, we are often grateful for the closeness, the magical proximity, we enjoy when reading a good poem.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Hirshfield’s essay collections is the number of poems, both complete and excerpts, she introduces as concrete examples of her abstract points. Among these I find new poets, new poems, new possibilities to explore. One of my favorites in this book was an excerpt from Jack Gilbert’s “Going Wrong.” I found one line–about the eyes of dying fish, of all things–that led me to the entire poem online. I leave it for you to enjoy. The line “the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes” is worth the price of admission alone. Only a poet could conceive of the sea as “grand rooms” captured in the eyes of the fish who live there.


by Jack Gilbert

The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes,
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rocks and silence.”  The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Knopf, 1994)

Walking the Thin Line: Nostalgia vs. Sentimentality

No matter how long it has been since you sat behind a school desk, you carry that school desk with you throughout life. For better or worse. With memories good and bad.

For teachers, the bittersweet memories consist of two pasts harmonizing fitfully: a student past first and a teacher past second. Perhaps no poems nails the teacher past as nicely as one of Edward Hirsch’s appearing in the September / October issue of The American Poetry Review.

“Days of 1975” treads on tricky territory. We’ve been here before. Some call it sentimentality (negative connotation) and some nostalgia (positive). Totally avoiding the former and going lightly on the latter is one of the tougher tasks a poet can undertake. Take a look at how Hirsch handles it here:


Days of 1975
by Edward Hirsch

It started with the tattered blue secret
of Bashō, that windswept spirit,
riding my back pocket for luck.
It started with a walk
through the woods at dawn,
mud on my new shoes,
high humming in the trees.
I was not prepared for the scent
of freshly turned soil
to pervade the empty classroom
or the morning to commence
with a bell that did not stop
ringing in my head.
So many expectations filed
noisily into the room–
I was ready to begin.
From the tall windows
I could see a storefront church
opening on the other side
of the polluted river.
I remember walking past the rows
and rows of bent heads,
scarred desks,
and gazing up
at the Endless Mountains.
In those hopeful days of 1975
I drove the country roads
in honor of radiance.
O spirit of poetry,
souls of those I have loved,
come back to teach me again.


Starting with an invocation to one of the greatest masters of haiku gives Hirsch immediate leeway. Both the Japanese and the Chinese poets were masters of brevity, imagery, nature, the senses. More still, they were masters of the unstated, which plays no small role in Hirsch’s poem.

Thus, the luck of Bashō in the back pocket of this (probably young) teacher beginning his journey; thus, the walk through the woods before school and the smell of mud under new shoes in the classroom. The spirit has entered!

For teachers, the sad beauty of the poem lies in phrases like “So many expectations filed / noisily into the room” and “I remember walking past the rows / and rows of bent heads, / scarred desks….” Perhaps others don’t know how difficult it is to fulfill the hopes of so many who are at such different levels of skills and who bring into the room so many different metaphorical crosses and satchels from home. But the good teacher must and the good teacher does his best.

The poem’s timelessness is evident when the teacher views the “Endless Mountains” outside those “tall windows” of what no doubt is a huge old brick structure with giant windows of the old style. The endlessness could be interpreted in many ways, whether it is one dealing with nature’s profusion and constant cyclical growth (from Bashō’s time to ours) or with the regenerative nature of students—each year the teacher ages but his students do not. They reappear each September, always in the same grade and always at the same age.

In the end, Hirsch goes where only the ancients and the confident dare tread by using the word (letter?) “O”: “O spirit of poetry, / souls of those I have loved, / come back to teach me again.”

Now the scarred desk is turned. Now the teacher, apparently aged and looking back many years, is pleading for the return of innocence and beauty — the “radiance” — that once filled his being, something he tried to share with his students.

I like how “souls of those I loved” is used as an appositive for “spirit of poetry” here. In that sense, observing beauty and capturing its transient essence in a poem is love. It is also the reason we write.

Joyfully Ambushed


One theme touched on in Matthew Zapruder’s Why Poetry is “associative movement,” a term he rather dislikes as being too “clinical sounding,” but uses anyway because its meaning is so vast that it’s hard to label and shelf as something else. What can it mean? Lots of things, but for my purposes, I’ll call it the feeling readers of poetry get when they are “joyfully ambushed.”

That term itself is associative. When I preach poetry in the classroom, I praise the value of “unexpected word pairings” — words we seldom (or, better yet, never) see together. Our first reaction, when we read them, is, “Wha–?” And our second reaction is, “But, you know what? I kind of get that, now that I think about it!”

The ambush is part one: the jolt, the surprise, the unexpected idea. The joy is part two: the caboose connection, as if the train of the poet’s thought has latched onto you at the last possible moment, and now you feel the pleasure of being pulled along by this new association.

On a larger scale, Zapruder goes beyond words and discusses how many poems “leap” from one thought to another, similar to the “monkey mind” practitioners of meditation warn us about. In this sense, poets are like hydroelectric plants on a river, harnessing the turbulent white water of their minds to create poetic energy.

A microcosm of the “leap” theory is seen in haiku. Never mind the syllable-counting so beloved by schoolchildren’s fingers, the essence of good haiku is line 3, which takes a tiny leap from lines 1 and 2–different, yet the same. A new trajectory, but in the spirit of the set-up. Zapruder uses a Basho as a for-instance:

The cicada.
Nothing in its song reveals
that tomorrow it must die.

And then a Sora:

The coastal wind
disorders above the sea
the seagulls’ wise drawings

Robert Bly even wrote a book called Leaping Poetry. Zapruder shares a quote from that book which discusses leaps from image to image:

In “Nothing but Death,” [Pablo] Neruda leaps from death to the whiteness of flour, then to notary publics, and he continues to make leap after leap. We often feel elation reading Neruda because he follows some arc of association which corresponds to the inner life of the objects; so that anyone sensitive to the inner life of objects can ride with him.

Most people think of daydreaming as the enemy, but in associative parlance it is above all an ally. You need only order these Dionysian delights with a dash of Apollonian “structured mayhem” to find “the inner life of objects,” as Bly puts it.

Metaphor itself provides such associative treats. A is like B? Readers delight in C-ing such novel connections. It’s as if they have been allowed to clamber upon the back of the poet so they can cross a river for the first time and get to the other side–a new place affording a new view and offering a new reckoning on life.

Zapruder’s book is rich with researched gems, quotes that reinforce his lines of thought. I particularly like this one by Roger Shattuck, taken from the introduction to his book The Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire:

I spoke at the start of a criterion applicable to all art: that it should present both clarity and mystery. These terms and the evaluations they permit can now by elucidated. The clarity of a literary work of art lies in its reference to experiences already familiar and available to the reader, which allow him to orient himself within this territory called art. The mystery points toward experience not yet known, to an extension of the consciousness.

Ah, yes. The old “extension of the consciousness” bit. It’s not just our bodies that need exercise, it’s our brains, too, and there is no better fitness coach than a talented poet taking us on associative leaps we’ve never experienced before. Aerobic food for thought. Eating and breathing poetry. Me, I’ll walk knowing I might be “joyfully ambushed” by such clear mysteries (or mysterious clarities) any day of the week.

That’s why I read–and write–poetry.