Category Archives: Poetry

Poetry: T’ao Ch’ien

I came across an absolutely lovely book, The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien in a rather odd way. I first heard of T’ao Ch’ien in John D’Agata’s essay anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, which has a short selection of his called “Biography of Master Five-Willows.” This is only a few paragraphs long, but I fell in love with it. It’s my habit when I read an anthology selection that I love to hunt down a book by the author, so when I checked D’Agata’s “Acknowledgments” section to find out where the T’ao Ch’ien piece came from, I saw it came from his selected poems. It was strange to find a prose piece coming from a volume of selected poems, but I thought I’d buy it anyway. Why not? It turns out that the prose piece was included in the introduction to the poems. It also turns out that D’Agata’s definition of the essay is wide enough to encompass poetry as well as prose, as his anthology includes Christopher Smart’s “My Cat Jeoffry,” one of my favorite poems ever. D’Ataga is perhaps stretching the definition of “essay” beyond recognition, but whatever. I love T’ao Ch’ien’s prose and poetry both, so I’m a happy reader.

T’ao Ch’ien is a Chinese writer who lived from 365-427 A.D. The editor of his selected poems says that T’ao was “the first writer to make a poetry of his natural voice and immediate experience, thereby creating the personal lyricism which all major Chinese poets inherited and made their own.” There is indeed a very natural and everyday voice that comes through the poems, the voice of a person who is wise and wryly funny at the same time.

A little bit of T’ao’s life story comes through the poems even if you know nothing else about his biography; you can tell that he at one time held a post in government service but left it to live in poverty as a farmer. His poems are frank about the poverty, but he celebrates his life on his farm, even with its hard work. When the work is done, he is free to walk in nature, to sit quietly at home with friends, and, very often, to drink wine. There is a strong Buddhist orientation to the poems (although the frequent references to wine don’t quite seem to fit); they celebrate living in the moment and enjoying what one has rather than grasping for more. The poems have a strong awareness of suffering and death, but rather than being morbid, they call for enjoyment of life while we have it.

But mostly the poems are just beautiful, in a peaceful, meditative way. The descriptions of nature are brief — none of the poems are long — but evocative, and his depiction of a quiet life lived in nature and among friends is moving. But rather than trying to describe them, let me just give you one of the poems:

In all its reckless leisure, autumn begins
its end. Cold — the dew-charged wind cold,

vines will blossom no more. Our courtyard
trees have spent themselves: they stand

empty. Dingy air washed clean, clear sky
heightens the distant borders of heaven,

and now mourning cicadas have gone silent,
geese call out beneath gossamer clouds.

The ten thousand changes follow each other
away — so why shouldn’t living be hard?

And everyone dies. It’s always been true,
I know, but thinking of it still leaves me

grief-torn. How can I reach my feelings?
A little thick wine, and I’m soon pleased

enough. A thousand years may be beyond me,
but I can turn this morning into forever.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Poetry: Ted Hughes

I’ve been reading my collection of Ted Hughes poetry very, very slowly, and in spite of the slowness enjoying it very much. My edition is one of the lovely Faber anniversary editions, and although I don’t like the lack of dates or any other acompanying contextual information, the book looks great and the poems themselves are wonderful. I’ve read Hughes before, for a grad class or two, but it’s been a while, and this is the first time I’m reading much beyond the usual anthology inclusions.

Although I’ve read only the first 35 pages out of 140 or so, it’s clear that Hughes’s main topic is nature and often animals. Among the titles of poems I’ve read so far are these: “The Thought-Fox,” “The Jaguar,” “The Horses,” “Hawk Roosting,” “The Bull Moses,” “View of a Pig,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar.” Other poems have animals in them even if the title doesn’t mention it, and of the poems without any animals in them, most are about nature. Other titles include “Wind,” “October Dawn,” “Mayday on Holderness,” “February,” “November,” “Snowdrop,” “Pike,” “Thistles,” “Fern,” and “Full Moon and Little Frieda.”

What’s striking about the poems is the way animals and nature are not sentimentalized or romanticized. The poems have a dark, almost harsh tone to them, and while they are beautiful, it’s a stark kind of beauty. Often we get a purely exterior view of the animal in question, such as the haunting “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” which describes a jaguar pacing relentlessly in a zoo. “View of a Pig” is about a dead pig in a wheelbarrow that the speaker thumps “without feeling remorse” because “it was too dead. Just so much / A poundage of lard and pork. / Its last dignity had entirely gone. / It was not a figure of fun.” The poem is about the changes that death brings, the way it transforms a being with dignity — because even a pig can have it — into a lump of flesh. It’s a harsh reality, but that’s exactly what these poems are about.

When we get an imagined interior view, as in the poem “Hawk Roosting,” which is written in first person from the hawk’s point of view, the voice is remote. The poem ends this way: “The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this.”  The hawk rejoices in its ability to kill: “I kill where I please because it is all mine. / There is no sophistry in my body: / My manners are tearing off heads.” The voice is otherworldly, speaking from a place and perspective that feels entirely different from the one we know. Humans don’t exist in that world.

In “The Bull Moses,” Hughes tries to imagine what goes on in the bull’s mind, and he does it by imagining what’s not there: “He would raise / His streaming muzzle and look out over the meadows, / But the grasses whispered nothing awake, the fetch / Of the distance drew nothing to momentum / In the locked black of his powers.” The calmness, the complete disinterest in the natural world that is moving all around him is mysterious and haunting, and there’s nothing to do but watch it and marvel.

While the animal poems describe the otherness of creatures and captures their least “human” moments, the poem “Thistles” personifies the plant, describing the thistles as men fighting feuds. However, while the thistles may be like people, they are like people at their harshest, ugliest, and most frightening. I’ll close with this poem in its entirely, to give you a fuller taste of Hughes’s voice:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst

Of resurrection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.

They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.

Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.

Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,

Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.


Filed under Books, Poetry

That’s the Way the Music Sounds

A friend of mine, Laurel Peterson, recently published a chapbook of poetry called That’s the Way the Music Sounds, and I’m so pleased to say that it’s a gorgeous book and the poems are beautiful. It’s so much fun having friends who are writers, as I enjoy reading their work and seeing another side of them than I might otherwise, and it’s especially fun when the work is so good. The poems in this book take up a lot of different subjects and the voice varies in each one, but there is an elegance that runs through them all, coupled with a quiet, but powerful emotional charge, as though the persona could say so much more than she actually does, and you get a glimpse of the depths underneath. It means an intense reading experience, which is the way reading poetry should be, I think.

A number of poems in the book are about religious experience, or more often memories of religious experiences, and these are among the ones I like best. The tone in these poems is sometimes sad, sometimes angry and regretful, and sometimes thoughtfully critical. The persona in “I Have Come to Return Marbles,” for example, looks back at her childhood spent in church services from the perspective of an adult, thinking about the legacy she inherited from the sermons she heard:

Always I picked the needy ones,

boys who stretched khaki’d legs

out on the church floor

and shot their problems

like marbles

toward me.

On those teenaged nights I sat

in the balcony watching

Jack, in the pulpit,

I thought I’d tuned him out.

But Jack, the preacher, knows that his sermons will sink in anyway, even if the teenagers aren’t listening:

Jack’s voice choes

in this empty nave

where I now sit

surrounded by all those

khaki’d boys — husbands and lovers —

demanding stones for a prostitute,

sacrifice of a mother’s first born,

and quiet, quiet

when men speak.

The persona has returned to the church, trying to return those marbles — the burdens she’s been expected to carry — but Jack’s voice is still there. Another poem describes a panic attack experienced while in a church service on Christmas day, where the persona is suddenly taken back to childhood experiences in the church and has to remind herself that she is not the young, vulnerable girl she once was and that she:

doesn’t need to to say she wants to be a missionary,

that she believes the husband is the head of the wife,

to sing “Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth…”

while pretending her toes don’t bend in red impotence.

But the poems aren’t all about church experiences, and they aren’t all sad. The poem “Late Jazz,” which is where the book’s title comes from, describes a night in New York City listening to jazz, and it’s one of those nights where everything is perfect:

And the way the music sounds is

as if all of New York is on fire,

while ice floes crackle on the Hudson

and the morning falls with ice

and the evening rises with heat

and the sparks fly off the floes

into the burning air…

The poem captures that feeling of exhilaration at a time when New York City is as it should be: glamorous, elegant, thrillingly alive. Another favorite poem of mine is called “Mantra,” and it’s about writer’s block. The persona starts with an empty, clean desk with room for words to move around in, and then the words take on a life of their own, and suddenly they are everywhere, and they are overwhelming. Familiar phrases, song lyrics, and advertising jingles float around and repeat in the writer’s mind again and again, until they begin to lose all meaning and empty out, and soon enough, the writer’s desk is clear again and there is an empty space for the words to move around in. It’s a funny and clever contemplation of what it’s like to try to work with words, to conjure them up and control them, when words are all around us all the time, almost taunting us with their omnipresence.

I’ve described only a few of the poems here, but there are many more that capture something true about experience and do it with that evocative tone I’ve been describing. I’ve been discovering as I read more and more that voice is what I really value in writing — of whatever genre — and it’s the voice in these poems I admire so much: insightful, suggestive, in love with language.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Thoughts for Friday

I just got back from a lovely yoga class and am feeling all … relaxed. This class was a great follow-up to a book group meeting this morning where instead of discussing a book, we watched the documentary What the Bleep Do We Know, a film about quantum physics, spirituality, emotions, the brain, and changing one’s way of thinking. If those things sound at all interesting to you, I recommend the film highly. It really can change the way you think, if you are in the right frame of mind for it, which, at this point, I am.

It also got me interested in reading more books on science, such as Brian Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and Lisa Randall’s Warped Passages and a book by one of the scientists in the film, Joseph Dispenza, called Evolve Your Brain. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ll actually pick up one of these books very soon, but the film was a good reminder that I do want to read them at some point.

Today was a good day for another reason entirely: I received six beautiful volumes of poetry in the mail. I was incredibly lucky and won a contest over at Nonsuch Book to receive these books published by Faber in celebration of their 80th anniversary.


The volumes are by W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and John Betjeman, and each one is gorgeous.  I haven’t read any poetry in a while, and I think it may be time to start again soon. I think I will begin with Ted Hughes.

In other bookish news, I have two books to review, although time is slipping away from me, and it is taking me forever to get to them: Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, and E.M. Forester’s Maurice. I enjoyed both of them, and we’ll see if I can manage to gather my thoughts to write reviews.

The deeper I get into summer, the harder I’m finding it to do anything much at all. However, I did ride 80 miles on my bike yesterday, a ride which started inauspiciously with a downpour that didn’t last long but which left me feeling damp for the rest of the ride. But once that passed, I had a great time riding around the back roads of Litchfield County, seeing some farms and some cows and a few small towns. It left me feeling a little beat today, but pleasantly so.

I now have a bit of catching up in Infinite Jest to do, but only a little, and the other book I’m reading is Richard Holmes’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which I’m loving. Holmes is such an excellent storyteller, Coleridge is such an interesting person, and he lived in such interesting times, that there is no way I’m not going to like this book. I love the way that Holmes quotes liberally from Coleridge’s letters and lectures and poetry so we can really hear his voice, and I love how Holmes does such a good job of situating Coleridge in his context, so I get a sense of what it was like to live in England at that time. The biography is two volumes long, and I expecting to enjoy both of them fully.

I have picked up Gertrude Stein’s novel Three Lives, and it’s interesting, although the truth is, I’m not entirely sure this is the best time to read it. But the truth is also that my opinions change rapidly from day to day, so all I have to do is wait a while, and it will be a good time to read it. I’m not giving up just yet.

I hope you all enjoy your weekend!


Filed under Books, Life, Poetry, Reading

A Wallace Stevens poem

I mentioned a poem by Wallace Stevens the other day that surprised me with its beauty — surprised me because I thought the title was ridiculous and I was afraid the poem might be as well. The poem I’m talking about is “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” Now with a title like that, what would you expect in the poem itself? The title sounded flippant to me, and silly, and like it was the title of a short poem that was full of little but irritating sound effects.

I was surprised to look further and find that the poem went on for several pages. When I read it, I found that it contained serious subject matter, although I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. I’m still not entirely sure how the title relates to the poem itself, and I certainly think it wasn’t a good idea to title the poem that way, but, then again, do I really want to question Wallace Stevens?

The poem has 12 sections of 11 lines each, and it’s loosely about middle-aged love, aging, and disillusionment, but also about the pleasures and consolations of the familiar. It’s got melancholy and exhilaration, vitality and nostalgia — a whole host of emotions, actually, and this is what makes it a little hard to follow. There is no narrative or sense of development; instead it moves back and forth among various thoughts and impressions, creating a mood rather than advancing an idea.

It’s got some lines that I really don’t like — I’ll get the stuff I don’t like out of the way and then talk about what I do like — including these:

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
I wish that I might be a thinking stone.

The only way I’ll accept these lines as anything but laughable is if the last line is part of the self-mockery — I mean, if telling us that he wishes he could be a thinking stone is part of his way of making fun of himself. Because otherwise it sounds too much like adolescent self-pity to me, and the alone/stone rhyme sounds absurd. The poem doesn’t have a regular rhyme scheme, which makes this rhyming couplet stand out.

But many of the poem’s sections are wonderful, like this one, section 8:

Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof.
Two golden gourds distended on our vines,
Into the autumn weather, splashed with frost,
Distorted by hale fatness, turned grotesque.
We hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed,
The laughing sky will see the two of us
Washed into rinds by rotting winter winds.

I like the rhythm of line 3, the way the line, in perfect iambic pentameter sums up the whole story of love, and I also like the short, abrupt sentences of lines 4-5, which state directly and unflinchingly what the lovers have experienced. Line 5 captures the contradictory nature of the experience — it moves from the bloom being gone, an image of aging, to the idea that they are fruit, which sounds full of sweetness and potential. The following lines revise this possibility, however; they are “golden gourds distended on our vines,” “splashed with frost,” “turned grotesque,” and, most amusingly, they “hang like warty squashes, streaked and rayed.” The sky laughs at them. And the speaker sees why the sky might laugh at them: the section’s very first line indicates why — the metaphor is one a dull scholar might produce.

Section 11 is great too:

If sex were all, then every trembling hand
Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.
But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,
That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout
Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth
From madness or delight, without regard
To that first, foremost law. Anguishing hour!
Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,
Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,
Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog
Boomed from his very belly odious chords.

Love, as opposed to sex, is caused by “the unconscionable treachery of fate,” making us not heroic but ridiculous — we weep, laugh, grunt, groan, and shout. The closing image is ridiculous as well: as the lovers are sitting beside a romantic pool watching the stars, a frog is booming “odious chords.”

I’m seeing now how full of the ridiculous this poem is, even though, at the same time, it’s also full of what feels to me like thoughtful sincerity. These two modes go hand-in-hand, in fact. Look at lines like these:

The fops of fancy in their poems leave
Memorabilia of the mystic spouts,
Spontaneously watering their gritty soils.
I am a yeoman, as such fellows go.
I know no magic trees, no balmy boughs,
No silver-ruddy, gold-vermilion fruits.
But, after all, I know a tree that bears
A semblance to the thing I have in mind.

I do not like that phrase “fops of fancy” — it’s too reminiscent of the poem’s odd title — and I think it’s part of the ridiculousness that runs through the whole poem, but I do like the phrase “I am a yeoman, as such fellows go,” the way it quietly contrasts his own modest poetic claims with those of the fops of fancy. He may not know magic trees or balmy boughs, but he does know “a tree that bears a semblance to the thing I have in mind” — he knows, in other words, something that is true.

Here are the closing lines; I’m not entirely sure what they mean, but I think they are beautiful:

A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,
On sidelong wing, around and round and round.
A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,
Grown tired of flight. Like a dark rabbi, I
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,
In lordly study. Every day, I found
Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world.
Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.

Stevens makes me follow advice I give my students, which is that they should read poetry with a dictionary next to them.  The word “gobbet” can mean “a piece or portion (as of meat),” a “lump or mass,” or “a small fragment or extract.”  So I picture the speaker, in his younger version, arrogantly studying human beings, eating them up, so to speak, as he looks around him from on high.  His older self, however, is much more circumspect.  He seeks after knowledge of love instead of assuming he already has it.  But only now does he know “that fluttering things have so distinct a shade.”  I’m not sure exactly what that line means, but it hints at the beauty and mystery of living things.  In the last two lines the speaker seems struck with awe at what he has learned, sorrowful that he didn’t know it before, but grateful that he knows it now.

Okay, so when I think about how the ridiculous and the absurd run through much of the poem, the odd title makes a little more sense.  But I’m still not sure Stevens should have risked titling the poem that way.  I almost skipped it, after all.  I’m glad, however, that I didn’t.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Wasting time

Alan Lightman’s closing essay “Prisoner of the Wired World,” from his book A Sense of the Mysterious, is interesting, although not entirely original in its argument. But it has made me think a lot over the week or so since I finished it, which surely is the mark of a good essay. Lightman opens the essay this way:

Not long ago, while sitting at my desk at home, I suddenly had the horrifying realization that I no longer waste time.

He goes on to describe how connected we all are, through our computers and our cell phones and other forms of technology, and how all this connectivity means that the pace of life is faster and we spend more and more of our time working, at the expense of enjoying the kind of down time that nourishes our souls. He lists what he sees as the unpleasant effects of the wired world (developing each item in a paragraph or so):

1. An obsession with speed and an accompanying impatience for all that does not move faster and faster… 2. A sense of overload with information and other stimulation… 3. A mounting obsession with consumption and material wealth… 4. Accommodation to the virtual world… 5. Loss of silence… 6. Loss of privacy…

The essay is a call to resist this speed and unthinking acceptance of technology; Lightman argues passionately for taking time to be still, doing nothing, and letting our spirits flourish.

I’m drawn by this argument, although suspicious of it at the same time. I find that people who criticize modern technology, especially the internet, rarely take the time to acknowledge sufficiently all the good it can do people. The internet can be a distraction and it can be a way to keep us chained to our jobs (answering student emails, for example) so that we rarely enjoy true leisure, but can’t it also be a place where that leisure can happen, where we can explore our minds and spirits, express our thoughts, and find people who think the same way we do? I find the internet to be an exciting, freeing place, a place where I can take risks with writing and read people doing the same thing. At the same time as I’m writing my blog posts, though, I’m sometimes checking my work email. I suspect tons of people have this complicated relationship to technology, and I wish I found it reflected in the writing on technology I encounter.

That said, I believe strongly in doing nothing and think I should do more of it. I suspect, also, that I should spend less time on the internet, hard as that may be. There’s a restful quality to time spent goofing off outdoors, for example, that I don’t experience goofing off online. But however I decide to do nothing, I hope to be able to keep doing it.

So I’ve been thinking about Lightman’s essay and have been more conscious of moments I allow my mind to drift. One of my favorite moments is in the morning when I have a chance to linger in bed after I’ve woken up. I think about my day, but I also think about … nothing. My mind works this way when I’m walking or riding my bike too. These things don’t feel like work to me; they feel like an escape from work.  A friend asked me today what I think about when I’m riding, and I had a hard time answering her. Sometimes I think about things I’m working on or plans for when I get home, but other times — a lot of the time — I can’t even say what’s on my mind. I like this. I like riding for all kinds of reasons, but one of them is that it gives my mind a break.

So even if I don’t fully agree with him, I’m grateful to Lightman for making me think of all this — for reminding me of the value of doing nothing and wasting time.


Filed under Books, Lists, Poetry

Wednesday whining and some poetry

This semester is dragging along, as slowly as it possibly can. I really don’t like wishing for time to pass by, as I feel like I’m wishing my life away, and that can’t be a good thing, but still … I’m longing for summer when I’ll have more time to read and sleep and ride my bike and go to yoga class and walk and read blog posts without feeling rushed. My semester, unfortunately, goes all the way through the middle of May and then some, so I have over a month left. Not that I’m counting or anything (okay, I have 4 1/2 weeks, dozens of classes to teach, hundreds of meetings to attend, and thousands of papers to grade, or something like that).

Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a reading rut too, as I’m not enjoying Rosamund Lehmann’s novel The Echoing Grove as much as I thought I would. I loved Lehmann’s A Note in Music and thought I’d like anything she wrote. But The Echoing Grove hasn’t captured my attention and imagination as much as I’d hoped. It’s slow-moving and narrow in focus, but neither of those things is a problem for me, as I generally like that sort of book. It’s about relationships and love and family, and I generally like books about those topics. But in this case the characters haven’t grabbed me. I’m having trouble figuring out what to make of them, and I’m not finding myself very interested in their fates. Surely this is a bad thing. It was quite the opposite when I read A Note in Music, as I found myself responding emotionally to the characters and the situation. I’m not going to give up on Lehmann, though; I’m convinced I’ll like her other work. It’s just this one that’s not working for me.

I did begin a book of poems, which I’ve had a hankering to do for a while; I picked up Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poems. I’m not expecting to read through the whole collection, as it’s quite long, but I thought I might try to read the first section, his 1931 collection Harmonium, and then decide where to go from there. So far I’m enjoying the poems, although they are not yet knocking me off my feet. When I find one that does, I’ll post it here.

As for poems that do knock me off my feet, though, there is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poet we covered in my class today. I’m not a religious person these days, but Hopkins almost makes me wish I were. How can you read a poem like this one and not be tempted to believe in God?

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Praise him.

I love the way Hopkins uses sound in the poem, for example, the alliteration that appears in nearly every line: Glory/God, couple/colour/cow, fresh/firecoal/falls/finches, plotted/pieced/plough, trades/tackle/trim, fickle/freckled, swift/slow/sweet/sour. This is a poem that simply must be read out loud to be fully experienced (true for most poetry I suppose). Hopkins likes to use alliteration and other sound effects because they reflect the design he sees in the world around him — the design created by a God taking great care of the world he’s made. Hopkins also likes to write lines that are difficult to read out loud, lines with odd rhythms and strings of words that you have to work hard to spit out: “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings” or “with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim.” As you are reading it, you are forced to slow down, which makes you linger over the words and perhaps take more time to consider their meaning. Reading a Hopkins poem out loud makes the words feel like physical things themselves; you can almost feel them in your mouth as you read.

And if I were to believe in God, I’d want to believe in one like Hopkins describes — one who has created and sees the beauty in “all things counter, original, spare, strange; / whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).”


Filed under Books, Fiction, Life, Poetry

The language of dance

Last night Hobgoblin and I went to see a dance performance in New York City. This was a new experience for me as I’d never been to a professional dance performance before.  We went with a colleague of mine and her husband; she is the one whose class on creativity and the arts I am sitting in on this semester in order to teach it myself in the future. Part of the training process I’m undergoing is for my mentor and I to attend some arts event of our choosing, which the school will pay for. So I decided I wanted to see an art form I’m not terribly familiar with, hence our trip. 

We saw a performance by the Stephen Petronio Company; there were two dances in the first half of the show, the first one loosely telling a story about a woman at a beach who meets a sexy but amusingly ignorant man. The second one was more abstract; it had music by Rufus Wainwright that used poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson in the lyrics. What stood out to me most was the point when the lyrics began repeating Dickinson’s line “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”; the entire dance was performed in simple costumes with nothing on the stage and lighting that would change with different sections of the music, and at the point where Dickinson’s line began, the light warmed to a bright orange color and the dancing was exuberant and acrobatic – hopeful – with lots of leaps and pirouettes. After an intermission a longer piece was performed with five sections, each one with different music and a different concept. I didn’t quite figure out how all the pieces fit together, but each one had, if not its own story, then an idea or a feeling that the dance communicated.

I have trouble when it comes to describing the dances themselves, though; I have a much easier time writing about costumes, lighting, and music. These things seem more concrete to me. In my colleague’s class we are talking about terms with which to analyze dance, terms such as line, stage use, symmetry and asymmetry, geometrical patterns, and form. I was able to pick out some of these elements in the dances; I noticed now and then the use of the canon form, or I’d see how the bodies were symmetrical or the use of line was particularly effective or the choreographer was using space of the stage in an interesting way. 

But when it comes to dance moves themselves I don’t really know what to say; I recognized some moves that come from ballet, but there was much more going on and I have no vocabulary with which to describe it. I watched some of the more intricate scenes, and I couldn’t imagine how the choreographer could possibly think all this up. I know there must be a dance language, a vocabulary of moves and a tradition of how to put these moves together – a syntax I suppose – but I know nothing of the language and so feel speechless.

We talked about this after the performance and I found others felt similarly uncertain, and it reminded me of how some people feel about poetry and the challenge of analyzing a poem. Readers don’t need a critical vocabulary to respond to poetry, but without it they can feel at sea and so shy away from attempting a response at all.

What was interesting for me, though, was the degree to which I was comfortable with knowing I was not fully getting it, knowing that while I was appreciating the beauty of the dance there was so much communicated through it that I couldn’t understand. I think I am much more comfortable dealing with not getting it in dance than I am in poetry, an area I have much more experience with; when I come across a poem whose meaning I feel I can’t penetrate I can get frustrated because I feel I should get it, whereas with some of the more obscure dance sequences I didn’t mind feeling lost. There was something freeing about not having the expertise to fully understand what was going on. I could relax and just let it happen. That’s not to say I would ever want to give up what expertise I have in order to approach a poem with that freedom, but I did appreciate how experiencing something new forced me to find the pleasure in being a beginner.


Filed under Life, Poetry

Kate’s poetry challenge

Kate has an intriguing challenge for April: post something critical about poetry once during the course of the month. She notes that while she often sees poems on book blogs, she doesn’t as often see writing about poetry, and so wants to challenge herself and others to do some critical — meaning analytical — writing about the genre.

I’m up for that, I think. Over the last couple years I’ve taken to reading poetry more often than I did before and I’ve loved it; I’ve discovered some new (meaning new to me) authors such as Jane Kenyon and Mary Oliver, and I’ve reread some old favorites, like Keats. Over the last couple months I’ve been reading one particular poem, Paradise Lost, but I decided early on that I wasn’t going to post about it, so I haven’t mentioned it. All I’ll say about that experience is that I loved the poem and am in awe of it. Kate writes about feeling uncertainty when it comes to voicing an opinion about poetry, and this is exactly what I felt when faced with Milton’s poem. I didn’t want to challenge myself to write about the poem; instead I preferred simply to enjoy it. (And I decided to leave the insightful writing to Imani, who has a great series of posts about Paradise Lost).

But now perhaps it’s time to start writing about poetry again. I’m also in the mood to read more more contemporary poetry — meaning 20th or 21st century poetry, as opposed to works from earlier centuries. I’ve been considering looking into my copy of Wallace Stevens’s Collected Works, or I might take a look at what my local bookstore has and see if something strikes me. I can also write about some of the poems I will be teaching in my classes; I’m about to enter the poetry section of my Introduction to Literature class, and we read poetry regularly in my British Literature class. There will be lots of poems to choose from.

If this interests you, do check Kate’s site out, as she will be offering prizes for participants. I’m hoping to learn about some new poets from everyone who takes part.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Poetry Out Loud

Cipriano wrote an interesting comment on my post about poetry from yesterday; here’s part of it:

Secondly, I too, prefer to visually SEE a poem, rather than hear it being read out loud. Also, I detest reading aloud, any of my own poems, mostly because how they visually APPEAR [how they are lined out] is as important to me, as what they say, and what they sound like.

I generally assume that poetry is meant to be read out loud, that its origin lies in an oral culture and that this origin has shaped the poetic tradition we know today. I know there are exceptions to this idea — that there are poets who prefer to have their work read rather than listened to, just as there are some plays that the playwright didn’t intend to be performed, even though the vast majority of plays are written for the stage. I’m not sure that analogy works, actually, since performance seems more closely related to plays than oral reading is to poetry. But my point is that I do tend to think of poetry as best experienced out loud.

But I do like Cipriano’s point that seeing a poem can add to its meaning. Seeing where a poet ends the lines and breaks up the stanzas matters (although I can’t always tell you why it matters). And certainly the line breaks don’t always (or even often) come through in an oral reading. I’m not quite sure how one should read the line breaks — I mean, whether one should pause at the end of a line or continue on if the phrase or the sentence continues and there’s no punctuation. Is there a consensus on this? I usually compromise on this matter by making a very short, barely perceptible pause at the line’s end if there’s no ending punctuation, and a longer, more dramatic pause if there is. But I’m not sure what the “rule” is, if there is one.

Then, of course, there are those poems that create a specific visual effect like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” a poem that looks like wings on the page (check out the link for a picture of what the poem looks like in a 1633 edition). Or there are poems like this one from Susan Howe where the words are scattered all over the page, some of them sideways and upside down. It’s not clear at all how one could possibly read that poem out loud.

So perhaps I’m too quick to associate poetry, especially contemporary poetry, with the spoken word.  The picture is more complex than that.

By the way, check out this video of a Billy Collins poem, over at Chekhov’s Mistress.


Filed under Books, Poetry, Reading

Poetry Reading

I spent some time this afternoon reading poems by Billy Collins at a library event; the library has a reading series where they have poets come read their work, and then they end the series with a session devoted to some well-known poet, with local residents doing the reading. I’ve become known to the woman in charge of the series because of the volunteering I’ve done at library sales, and so a few weeks ago, she asked me to participate.

I’m glad I did because it can be so wonderful to hear poetry read out loud, and to read it out loud oneself. We were a small group, maybe 13 or 14, in a small, cozy room, and most people knew each other, so it was comfortable. I had chosen five poems to read, and as I read I was surprised when people found the poems funny and started to laugh. Now Collins can be a funny writer, but I don’t laugh out loud when I read his work. But doing a reading with an audience changes things; what’s mildly amusing on one’s own is laugh-out-loud funny in a group.

I knew that poetry is often meant to be read out loud, and that it’s often better experienced that way, but it’s another thing entirely to experience that directly.

It reminds me of the poetry reading that took place at the conference I went to last month; a bunch of us sat around in a room and read 18C poems out loud to each other. It was wonderful to hear poems I’ve known and read on my own being read out loud; they were funnier or more moving when experienced that way.

I’m not particularly good at listening to poetry if I’m not already familiar with the work; I am such a visual person that I have trouble following words if there’s no text. But when I know the work being read, then listening to poetry is a pleasure. Perhaps I should see if my library has any poetry on CD to listen to in the car … I wonder what that would be like.

Here’s one of the poems I read today; it’s one I teach, as it’s a good way to get students to think about the sonnet form:


All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.


Filed under Books, Poetry, Reading

Anna Laetitia Barbauld; or, women in politics

I’ve been reading some of the poems of Anna Laetitia Barbauld (1743-1825) and enjoying them quite a bit; she’s an interesting figure for a lot of reasons (you’ll find many of her works here). She wrote some poems like “To a Lady, with some painted Flowers” with very traditional views of women and lines such as these, comparing the lady to a flower:

Nor blush, my fair, to own you copy these ;
Your best, your sweetest empire is—to please.

Mary Wollstonecraft criticized this poem in a footnote in The Vindication of the Rights of Woman for its stereotypical view of women. But Barbauld also argued for the importance of women’s education and equality. She wrote lines like these:

Yes, injured Woman! rise, assert thy Right!
Woman! too long degraded, scorned, opprest …

She wrote on a range of subjects, including domestic themes, for example in the charming poem “Washing-Day“; the natural world, as in “A Summer Evening’s Meditation“; and pregnancy, in a poem called “To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible.” And she wrote poems and essays on political themes, including slavery and empire. She was known as a political radical, arguing forcibly for the abolition of the slave trade and pointing out the injustices of imperialism.

One of the most interesting things about Barbauld is the story of her poem “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven,” her most famous poem, which argues that Britain would suffer decay because of the sins of imperialism. Of Britain she writes:

But fairest flowers expand but to decay;
The worm is in thy core, thy glories pass away;
Arts, arms, and wealth destroy the fruits they bring;
Commerce, like beauty, knows no second spring.
Crime walks thy streets, Fraud earns her unblest bread,
O’er want and woe thy gorgeous robe is spread,
And angel charities in vain oppose;
With grandeur’s growth the mass of misery grows.

It’s interesting to think that while British imperialism was yet to hit its high point when she wrote this poem, eventually what Barbauld predicted did come true.

I’ve been writing a bit about how women writers were relegated to women’s subjects — love, domesticity — and when they wandered into other territory — politics, for example — they were sharply criticized. Well, Barbauld obviously stepped over a line with this poem because the reviews were vicious, and they were gendered in their viciousness. One review by John Wilson Croker has this to say about “Eighteen Hundred and Eleven”; in this passage he refers to some of Barbauld’s earlier writing for children:

But she must excuse us if we think that she has wandered from the course in which she was respectable and useful, and miserably mistaken both her powers and her duty, in exchanging the birchen for the satiric rod, and abandoning her superintendance of the ‘ovilia’ [lambs] of the nursery, to wage war on the ‘reluctantes dracones’ [struggling lawgivers], statesmen, and warriors, whose misdoings have aroused her indignant muse.

We had hoped, indeed, that the empire might have been saved without the intervention of a lady-author … Not such, however, is her opinion; an irresistible impulse of public duty — a confident sense of commanding talents — have induced her to dash down her shagreen spectacles and her knitting needles and to sally forth …

and it goes on in this vein for quite a while. In other words, the reviewer is saying, get back to the nursery where you belong and stop meddling in politics.

This, unfortunately was a common response to women who wrote about “male” subjects. It hit Barbauld particularly hard, though, and although she kept on writing, she chose never to publish anything again. I suppose one could say she should have let the controversy wash over her and kept on publishing, but with a long, long history of such misogynistic criticism, it would be extraordinarily difficult to do so.

So there’s a double bind going on here — how could women experiment and write about dangerous topics when the wrath of the publishing world could fall on them (although many did this anyway), and how could people learn how to read and understand the things women were writing when aesthetic standards are defined by men?


Filed under Books, Poetry

Books, etc.

So much for celebrating walking — Hobgoblin and I went on a three-hour walk today and about halfway through I could feel one of the muscles in upper back/shoulder area tighten up into an ugly knot, and now I can’t easily move my head. I’ve had trouble with tight muscles and knots and pinched nerves in my upper back for quite a while now. I’m pretty sure this began shortly after my first rather disastrous backpacking trip for which I carried a backpack that was much too heavy and which apparently did a lot of damage.

Funny, as much as I’m loving reading The Walk, it hasn’t yet talked about how much walking can hurt, and yet, much as I love walking, it quite often hurts very badly.

Anyway, just a couple quick notes on books — I finished Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies recently and thought they were extraordinarily beautiful. They cover so much it’s hard to describe what they are about, but it seems like they are about everything important — birth, death, angels, lovers, time, beauty … rather than try to describe the book, I should simply give you a couple quotations:

Who has turned us around this way so that we’re always whatever we do
in the posture of someone who is leaving? Like a man
on the final hill that shows him his whole valley
one last time who turns and stands there lingering —
that’s how we live always saying goodbye.

How we squander our sorrows gazing beyond them into the sad
wastes of duration to see if maybe they have a limit.
But they are our winter foliage, our dark evergreens
one of the seasons of our secret year — and not only a season
they are situation, settlement, lair, soil, home.

If you are looking for some great poetry to read, I highly recommend this.

And I’ve begun Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out; I’m excited to be reading Woolf again, and so far I’m enjoying it — I was particularly pleased to see Richard and Clarissa Dalloway appear as characters here; I’m curious to learn more about why Woolf used these characters multiple times and how they develop from one novel to another. Fortunately, I have Julia Briggs’s book Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life on hand, which perhaps will explain some of this for me.


Filed under Books, Life, Poetry

Rilke in translation

I’m now halfway through Rilke’s Duino Elegies, and am loving the experience of reading it. In an effort to understand it better, I’ve begun to check out other translations online when I’ve finished a section from the book I own, translated by David Young. I haven’t decided whether I like or dislike Young’s translations, not really knowing enough to make a judgment, but I discovered that I could understand the poem much better when I looked at more than one translation. I have the original German too, which I’ve been reading after I read the English a few times, but my German’s not good enough for me to judge translation quality. And, yes, these elegies are complicated enough to require a number of readings (they are relatively short, and this doesn’t take long). I am finding them beautiful and rich and mysterious — they touch on death, love, consciousness, relationships, loneliness, isolation, the world of the mind — they are about everything important, it seems like.

But to show you what I mean about the translations, here’s a short section from the Fourth Elegy, as translated by David Young:

But we, when we’re fully intent on one thing,
can already feel the pull of another. Hatred is always close by.
Aren’t lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other
they who promised themselves open spaces, good hunting and a homeland?
As when for some quick sketch a contrasting background
is made with great care so we can see the drawing. No effort is spared.
We don’t know the contour of feeling, we only know what molds it
from without.

The meaning of the first part is clear to me, and I like the idea — that we have trouble focusing on one thing, on the present moment, and are always in pursuit of what’s next. The bit about the lovers is interesting — they expect infinite possibilities from each other and are disappointed. The next four lines have an image that took me a while to get, but once I got it, I liked it; the artist took pains with the background of the drawing to make the drawing itself clearer, although the drawing itself is only the work of a moment. Somehow, this is like the way we experience emotion; perhaps emotion is like the sketch, which remains fleeting and mysterious; all we can know about emotion is what shapes it — the thing that molds it, like the carefully-prepared background. What’s confusing about this passage is the way the fifth line (“As when …”) seems at first to relate to the image of the lovers, not the lines about emotion. It’s only by thinking through the images carefully, that I can figure out the image of the sketch and the ideas about emotion go together.

Here’s the same passage translated by Robert Hunter:

But we cannot focus on
a single object without
worrying about another.
Conflict is our essence.
Aren’t lovers always
crowding one another,
despite mutual longing
for wide open spaces,
homestead and plentiful hunting?
As when a canvas is carefully
stretched and primed to receive
a spontaneous sketch,
the better to offset it,
we do not observe the
background of emotion,
only what is splashed upon it.

The passages are similar — but not the same; the meaning of each one seems different. Isn’t “hatred is always close by” different from “conflict is our essence”? It’s the difference between something existing outside us but easily available and something that is in us and a part of us. And then there’s the difference between “Lovers always coming to sheer drop-offs inside each other” and “lovers always crowding one another.” These are two very different things, aren’t they? It’s the difference between finding something inside the other — some emotional or mental attribute — and bumping into the other’s body. And in the second translation the sketch is clearly connected to emotion, as it forms one sentence, instead of the three sentences of the first.

And here’s another, translated by John Waterfield:

We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,
are vexed by shimmering alternatives.
Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always
come upon fences in each other’s souls
where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?
Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast
comes into focus, carefully prepared
for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)
We do not know the contour of our feeling:
only the thing that moulds it from without.

Now the lovers are encountering fences in each other’s souls — the place of conflict, the soul, is a more clearly defined, and we have a fence instead of a drop-off. And in the parentheses, some mysterious “they” gets introduced; I notice now the other versions used passive voice (“a canvas is carefully stretched,” “a contrasting background is made”). Who is this “they”?

I guess I’m pointing out something that’s fairly obvious if you think about it, which is that every translation is an act of interpretation. Every translation introduces its own meanings and shades of meanings. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time puzzling out different translations, though, so I’m struck by this idea in a different kind of way, actually seeing the various interpretations in front of me at once.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Rilke’s Duino Elegies

51tv9khwakl_aa240_.jpgI have read only the first elegy of ten from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but already I’m glad I picked up this book; the first elegy is quite beautiful. Rilke begins by asking this question: “If I cried out, who could hear me up there, among the angelic orders?” The poem goes on to describe the speaker’s sense of isolation; since he does not believe that angels will hear him, he asks, “Oh who can we turn to, in this need? Not angels / not people, and the cunning animals realize at once / that we aren’t especially at home in the deciphered world / What’s left?”

To this question, the only answer the poem gives is this: “But listen / to that soft blowing … that endless report that grows out of silence. / It rustles toward you from those who died young. When you went into churches / in Naples and Rome didn’t their fates touch you gently?” The speaker is thinking about death and finds himself completely alone except for the “soft blowing,” the “report,” that seems to come from those who died young. He thinks about how strange death is: “Of course it is odd to live no more on the earth / to abandon customs you’ve just begun to get used to / not to give meaning to roses and other such / promising things.”

I think all of this is beautiful, but especially the very end of the poem when the speaker thinks about the purpose of suffering. He ends the poem with this question:

Is the old tale pointless
that tells how music began in the midst of the mourning for Linos
piercing the arid numbness and, in that stunned space
where an almost godlike youth
had suddenly stopped existing, made emptiness vibrate in ways
that thrill us, comfort us, help us now?

My book’s notes tell me that Linos was “a vegetation god similar to Adonis” and that the one mourning Linos was likely Orpheus, “the legendary first poet and musician.” So music and, by extension, art, comes from grief, suffering, and death. Music has made the “emptiness vibrate.” There is no angelic order to comfort us, and there is nothing but silence and the voices of the dead to help us face death, but there is, in consolation, the beauty of music. All this is a question, though — the speaker wonders if the old tale of Linos and Orpheus is pointless after all.

I’m not doing justice to David Young’s translation, however; he’s decided to break each of Rilke’s lines up into three shorter ones, the second and third sections of the line below the first, and each one indented (I can’t reproduce this on WordPress, or at least I can’t without driving myself crazy trying). Young says he was inspired by William Carlos Williams’s triadic line. Here is his reasoning:

As I began to work on the Elegies I found that the long lines of the original were difficult to reproduce in English (or, more strictly speaking, American). Read aloud, they sounded fine; the listener could follow in the reader’s voice the emphases, hesitations, and variations in speed. On the page, however, the long line did not readily suggest the “living” quality, and was one of the features most likely, I came to feel, to make the poem seem like a museum piece.

Williams’s triadic line worked for him because “a long line made up of three shorter, overlapping units makes an extremely flexible instrument of expression. The more I have worked with it, the deeper my respect for it has grown.” I feel that perhaps I shouldn’t like this because it’s messing so much with the original, but, then, translating a poem necessarily means messing with it, and I do like reading the poem in short lines; it’s got a flow to it that’s a pleasure to follow. Two other translators of Rilke, Edward and Vita Sackville-West, wrote this about Rilke’s lines, that they are like “an immense road, admitting many thoughts and images abreast of one another, and seeming to suggest movement in more directions than one,” and I think Young’s translation captures this well.


Filed under Books, Poetry

What the Living Do

I recently finished Marie Howe’s book of poems What the Living Do, published in 1998. A friend of mine sent me the book for Christmas; she’d described the poems as not terribly innovative with poetic technique, but interesting in their emotional complexity, and now that I’ve read the book, I agree. I thought the collection was powerful. I don’t usually find myself compelled to keep reading in a poetry book; I’m content to read a couple poems and then put the book down, but with this volume, I found myself wanting to read on.

This might be a good book to read if you’re not terribly familiar with or comfortable with poetry but would like to try it — one of the blurbs on the back of the book says that it has “the fierce galloping pace of a great novel,” and it strikes me that a volume of poems with a bit of a narrative might work for people who are most familiar with fiction.

The poems don’t really set out to tell stories, but they are clustered around events in the speaker’s life, so that we get a series of moments or scenes that have shaped the speaker in some profound way. The subject matter of the poems is often harsh; the speaker describes abuse she experienced as a child, the death of her brother and the deaths of two other friends, and her rocky relationship with her husband, or at least some rocky moments in their relationship. This list of topics might make you think the poetry is confessional in the tradition of Anne Sexton, and while I admire Sexton, I’m not sure I would have liked the book if that were true. But the feeling of Howe’s book is different — there’s a calmness to the voice, a clarity and simplicity that I found appealing. Even when she describes terrible events, it’s not anger that comes through; rather it’s something like an urgency to describe as clearly as possible, a desire to understand.

I find myself wanting simply to give you a couple of the poems, so instead of trying to describe them further, that’s what I’ll do. Here are two I liked that stand on their own reasonably well:

“The Copper Beach”

Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,

with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where

I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone.

One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell
darkening the sidewalk.

Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches,
I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy,

watching it happen without it happening to me.

“My Dead Friends”

I have begun,
when I’m weary and can’t decide an answer to a bewildering question

to ask my dead friends for their opinion
and the answer is often immediate and clear.

Should I take the job? Move to the city? Should I try to conceive a child
in my middle age?

They stand in unison shaking their heads and smiling — whatever leads
to joy, they always answer,

to more life and less worry. I look into the vase where Billy’s ashes were —
it’s green in there, a green vase,

and I ask Billy if I should return the difficult phone call, and he says, yes.
Billy’s already gone through the frightening door,

whatever he says I’ll do.


Filed under Poetry

Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise

8528163.gifOver the weekend, I finished Jane Kenyon’s book of poems, Otherwise, a book I’ve been slowly reading my way through for a good five months or so. It’s sometimes hard, actually, to finish a book after spending such a long time with it. I never spent that long with the book when I picked it up — I’d read maybe 2 or 3 poems at a time — but I read in it so regularly that Kenyon became a regular part of my life.

I liked the collection very much, although it took me a while to figure out how to read it — as I suppose happens with every poetry book, and every book really. For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant when they said that a book teaches you how to read it, but now I think I have an idea — each book has its own way of looking at the world, its own way of using language, its own obsessions and preoccupations, and it takes a while to get adjusted to those things.

Kenyon’s poems are typically about the spaces and objects in her house, or the natural world, or perhaps about her dog — she has several wonderful poems about dogs — and often about death. I got the feeling, reading through this book, that she had many encounters with illness and death, and I know she herself died quite young from leukemia. She writes about hospital visits and insomnia and bedside conversations with the ill and dying. She has a number of gripping poems about depression, which I think could only be written by someone who has first-hand experience of it.

Going through a list of the topics one might find in her book doesn’t really do the book justice, though — in fact, hearing that a poet writes nature poems might turn me away from the book if I were reading someone else’s review. There’s a lot of poetry about nature that I like, but to set out to read “nature poetry” sounds kind of dull. What’s most engaging about the book is Kenyon’s voice, the personality that comes through the poems, the sensibility that’s filtering the world for us. Sometimes she writes poems that are largely descriptive, perhaps evoking the feeling of a season or a walk in winter, and at other times she tells stories, of conversations, maybe, or of encounters with fellow townspeople, and either way her language is simple and clear; these poems are by no means difficult to follow or dense, and sometimes I wondered what, exactly, is poetic about them. But I think it’s the sharpness of observation and the often melancholy but always honest voice that makes them poetic; she writes with the kind of simplicity and clear-eyed vision that seems easy to imitate — until you actually try it.

I suppose what I look for when I read poetry — and Kenyon offers this without a doubt — are poems that make me look at the world in a different way, or even poems that make me look at the world, period. I’m well aware that there are those who say poems should make you look at poems differently — that the point of poetry is to say something about aesthetics and art and not to reflect on the world outside the poem — but I just don’t read them that way. I don’t like poetry that’s didactic or easily sentimental, but I do look to poetry for wisdom.

Here’s one of those wonderful poems about dogs, called “Biscuit”:

The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.


Filed under Books, Poetry

Poetic inspiration

The Hobgoblin posted on what it’s like when his unconscious mind takes over in the writing process, and then I came across this poem by Jane Kenyon, entitled “Who”:

These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans ….

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep’s hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

She’s talking about the same thing the Hobgoblin is, I think — what it’s like when another part of the writer, the unconscious mind perhaps, takes over. Oh, and I just remembered that this same thing happened to the main character Ka from Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow. Ka is a poet and periodically throughout the novel he’ll feel a poem coming on, like a sneeze, so he’ll stop whatever he’s doing and write. He writes a whole book of poems this way.


Filed under Books, Poetry, Writing

A Jane Kenyon poem

After doing the poetry meme yesterday, I’m inspired to give you a Jane Kenyon poem I read recently and really liked. It’s also appropriate for the upcoming season:

Depression in Winter

There comes a little space between the south
side of a boulder
and the snow that fills the woods around it.
Sun heats the stone, reveals
A crescent of bare ground: brown ferns,
and tufts of needles like red hair,
acorns, a patch of moss, bright green ….

I sank with every step up to my knees,
throwing myself forward with a violence
of effort, greedy for unhappiness —
until by accident I found the stone,
with its secret porch of heat and light,
where something small could luxuriate, then
turned back down my path, chastened and calm.

I like this poem because it reminds me of how wonderful it is to walk in the woods in winter — to notice little things like the thawed space near the rock Kenyon is describing, and to see green things here and there, as a reminder that spring will come soon. The Hobgoblin and I have done a lot of winter hiking, sometimes involving laboring our way through several feet of snow and occasionally involving temperatures barely in the double digits. There’s nothing more exhilarating than a tramp through the snow and nothing nicer than coming home again and warming up with a hot shower and some food.

But Kenyon’s not talking about that kind of walk — the poem also reminds me of how well a walk in the woods can transform my mood. I never come home feeling the same as when I left. I think I know what Kenyon means by being “greedy for unhappiness” — I get like that sometimes: mildly depressed and doing my best to stay that way. And a walk will almost always break me out of that rut; whether it’s seeing something beautiful like Kenyon did in the poem, or whether it’s the movement and exercise that does it, I don’t know, but I rarely come home from a walk unhappy.

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Cam’s poetry meme

The Hobgoblin tagged me to do Cam’s poetry meme, so here goes:

1. The first poem I remember reading/hearing/reacting to was…. Surely nursery rhymes were among the earliest. This question makes you think about what a poem is, doesn’t it? I remember nursery rhymes, songs, chants from when I was a kid. I remember reading Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” for school. Oh, yeah, and I remember reading Ogden Nash early on too.

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and…….. I wasn’t forced to memorize poems in school until I got to college, and then only one professor required it. That’s quite a shame, really, because there’s no better way to learn about poetry than memorizing it, I think. You get an intimate feel for how a poem works. I memorized W.H. Auden’s poem “Under Sirius.”

3. I read/don’t read poetry because….I read poems because I enjoy it and want to figure out more about how poems work. I only began reading poetry semi-regularly early this year, so I still feel strange calling myself a poetry reader. I read poems when I was in college and shortly after, but then I stopped for a long time. It’s not that I didn’t want to read them, I just never figured out a way to fit them into my life. Now I have a volume I keep on my shelf next to my reading chair, and I read a few poems a week. It’s not much, but it gets me through a book in a couple months.

4. A poem I’m likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is …….I’d have to name poets rather than poems, as favorite poems don’t come to mind. Favorite poets? Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson.

5. I write/don’t write poetry, but…………..I don’t write poetry, although I can’t say I never will. But I just have no idea how to write one. I mean, what constitutes a poem? What should it be about? I have no idea. And I have little idea, to be honest, about what makes a good poem. As someone who teaches poetry now and then, maybe I shouldn’t admit that, but it’s true. It’s easy to teach older stuff because it’s generally accepted as good, but newer stuff, I have a hard time saying. That’s one reason I’m curious about reading more poems, to get a feel for how they work and what makes a poem great.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature…..I don’t really get poetry. My students sometimes say that and they mean it negatively, but I’m not being negative here. I don’t really think there’s anything to “get” about poetry, actually — that makes it sound like there’s a key or code to understanding it, which there isn’t beyond being familiar with tradition and form. I just mean I find it rather mystifying — and that’s part of what makes it fun.

7. I find poetry….. well, mystifying. In a good way. Sometimes enlightening, often beautiful.

8. The last time I heard poetry….The local coffee shop has an open mic on Wednesday nights and last February they had a day where people could bring their love poetry/erotic poetry to read. A lot of people showed up to read and to listen, and there was a lot of good energy in the room. It was fun.

9. I think poetry is like….Litlove wrote in a comment a while back that a poem is like a dream, and I’ve found that idea useful. I was initially resistant because I generally don’t find dreams and dream interpretations all that interesting, but the analogy does work; a poem often has loosely connected images that fit together in some shadowy half-known way, just as a dream does. A poem can get at truths in that sideways way a dream can.

I tag … whoever wants to do this great meme!

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