Hello, Reader. Please take a moment right now to make sure you are still breathing. Because sometimes we forget to breathe at this time of year, right? I just checked, and while I might not have been breathing just before I checked I’m definitely breathing now. It’s good to check.
Now on to the roundup:
fantasy holiday letter This week, I actually wrote a draft — two drafts — but I’ve also been writing a fantasy holiday letter in my head. At the most wonderful time of the year, I sometimes have to laugh at our custom of sending out glossy photos and good news bulletins. I think the world would be a better place if we all told the truth:
The children are pretty average. They often argue over stupid things and forget to take out their laundry. I’d include a photo but I’m not up to the effort of making sure everyone has clean — let alone color-coordinated — clothes on all at the same time. I keep writing my poems and sometimes even send some out to lit mags. Usually, they get rejected. In other news, I am sick to death of allergy, orthodontist, pediatrician, urology, sports doctor, radiology, rheumatology, and sundry other appointments. As for D., no promotion this year. In fact, the job he moved us here for disappeared last spring. Luckily he found another one fairly quickly, and only occasionally does he have to travel to Malaysia, which doesn’t make me nervous at all #theplane. In this joyous and wonderful time of year, I often think of the last recorded transmission from the Edmund Fitzgerald: “We are holding our own.” Love,
Seriously, though, no complaints here. We are some of the luckiest people on the planet. It’s just the rebel in me that’s tired of reading glossy-mag versions of life in holiday letters. I offer you this one for comic relief.
“and the task reveals itself” Last night I finished the novel Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Which I loved. For so many reasons — the writing, the story (or, in some ways, the lack thereof), the gut-punch ending. Here is a passage that reminded me of how it feels to write poetry:
“… I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form… .”
Although my father is not a poet, bless him, I think of all I’ve learned by observing and trying out the gestures of other poets. And I think of how it feels when a poem is really coming into the world — “the task reveals itself and grows visible” — and how the body is somehow, mysteriously a part of that. Yes.
I love that god is not omniscient in this poem, that “he had to make sure.” I love how it plays with the Christian sacred text of the creation story, and how the poet grabs onto that phrase (and word) from it: “this was good.” Oh, and all that amazing sensory detail. When I grow up, I want to write a poem this… well,… good.
Hope everyone has or is having a wonderful holiday season. Thanks for reading.
I was going to write about feeling quiet, about uncertainty over when to speak and when to stay silent.
I was going to write about Eric Garner’s eyes.
I was going to write about Adrienne Rich’s poem “Frame” and those lines at the end: “What I am telling you / is told by a white woman who they will say / was never there. I say I am there.”
I was going to write about Mary Ruefle saying “you might say fear is the poet’s procedure.” Because we know we probably won’t get it right, we so seldom do. Because we know words are never quite enough.
I was going to write about how Beethoven is known as “one of music’s great strugglers” (this according to the announcer on my local classical station). How his patron gave him the thumbs down for the first try at his Leonore Overture. A “great struggler.” Beethoven.
I was going to write about how poets become, somehow, known to us through their work. “You see a few lines in a magazine;” writes David Orr, “you get an impression of a sensibility; you feel an obscure connection, or an equally obscure disconnection.” About how our bookshelves bear the weight of lives and graves.
I was going to write about starting to cry when I read this in the Sunday Times:
“THE police killing unarmed civilians. Horrifying income inequality. Rotting infrastructure and an unsafe “safety net.” An inability to respond to climate, public health and environmental threats. A food system that causes disease. An occasionally dysfunctional and even cruel government. A sizable segment of the population excluded from work and subject to near-random incarceration.
I was going to write about feeling powerless. Even betrayed.
I was going to write about how Larry Levis is the poet laureate of oblivion.
I was going to write about how poetry connects us. About how I went and taught poetry in Kindergarten, and a boy named B. wrote a poem about his dog. About how later his mother approached me, asked about my poetry, told me of a book that had saved her in a time of bottomless grief.
I was going to write about how we all have wounds.
I was going to write about privilege — about how lucky (yes, privileged) I have been in this life. How sometimes that makes me think I have no right to speak about some things. Or write about them. About how saying “I am there” doesn’t feel like enough, and sometimes even feels inaccurate: the speaker in Adrienne Rich’s poem was not actually in the same “there” as the girl who was arrested.
I was going to write about all this, but I didn’t.
Sometimes scraps are all we have.
Because I have already tried abandoning poetry, only to have it follow me like a benevolent dog, or sometimes like a hungry wolf, I know I will keep collecting the scraps.
May it be so.
<disclaimer daytime cold/flu medications have been taken </disclaimer>
Could the poets please stop dying?
I understand that the answer is no, of course, and that this is why we write poetry: because life is beautiful and fleeting. And life is tragic and fleeting. And everything and everyone we know and love and long for is beautiful and tragic and fleeting.
(And this is why I cry every year when the brilliant ginkgo leaves get raked up from my yard. Photo: before.)
I am reminded of Mary Ruefle’s assertion that the theme of all poetry is mutability.
mutable adj. liable to change. From the Latin mutare ‘to change.’
And (as may already be clear) I’ve been re-reading Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack and Honey and — great news — we finally know…
…why poetry is hard I mean besides the obvious. That is, craft (Craft! talk about a word that contains multitudes and lifetimes…). I’m not sure how I missed this in my first go-round with Ruefle’s lectures, but this go-round I underlined, exclamation pointed, and “yes”d in the margin of this passage:
“You see, I don’t think there is anything balanced about artistic creation at all, I think it is a lopsided way of being, an obsessive and off-balance way of perceiving and being in the world; I mean, most people when they see a baby fox playing with butterflies don’t have to write a poem about it, especially a poem where the baby fox winds up dead on the side of the road with butterflies gamboling around its splayed intestines.”
I rest my case. Or her case, as the case may be.
Isn’t it a comfort when someone can put words to something you’ve been feeling but didn’t know how to say?
Also, mutability is why we re-read: because we change, so a book is never the same twice. I love this.
the art of Speaking of making art, I’ve been reading The Art of Description by Mark Doty (many of you will know of the The Art of… series by Graywolf, but if you don’t let me heartily recommend it to you). Here’s one thing he says about description:
“What descriptions — or good ones, anyway — actually describe then is consciousness, the mind playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking.”
I have never thought of description as a vehicle for creating a consciousness (of a speaker, for example) in a poem. For me, thinking about description this way enriches its possibilities. Not only does good description engage your reader by lighting up their brain near its emotional centers, it can also tell us about who’s speaking. About how their mind works in the world.
(Here I pause to go back to that word containing multitudes: craft. There is no end to the learning, is there Reader?)
Doty also reminds us of something that we all know but too easily forget: lists must complicate the poem.
I think I need the word “complicate” up on the wall above my desk.
If you haven’t read Mark Doty’s work he is, to my mind, the undisputed master of description.
constellate erasures I have a very vivid memory of being in the Highland branch of the St. Paul Public library, scanning the bookshelf in the poetry section. It was probably a Sunday, late afternoon. This was when I’d sneak away from the house — just two babes then — and go try to remind myself of who I was by reading poetry. On this day, I pulled Claudia Emerson‘s Late Wife off the shelf, and began reading. I found myself in her words. I’m sad that she’s gone, and so young. Here is her poem, “Metastasis: Worry-Moth,” from the December issue of Poetry.
Alas, that coat. That mutable coat.
I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. May the mutability of this life enrich you. Thanks for reading.
We used to be friends. Remember — how I loved your scraped and silvered beauty? You and your bare trees, your lonely moons. Orion low in the sky. That hush just before winter clicks into place.
I mean, I even chose you for my wedding day and, November, you delivered! I recall with such tenderness and gratitude your sun on that day, your warmth, which I took as a good omen even though you quickly turned to ice and snow. That is not a metaphor.
Then, you may recall, we had some rough years together. I won’t go into the details; you know them. Suffice it to say that our friendship cooled somewhat, or at least became complicated.
And this year — really, November? I’ve pretty much had it with your sore throats and sinus infections, your cars needing brake work, clinic visits, pharmacy wait times, and all your extra days off school. Not to mention your long nights which come earlier and earlier each day. And the other day, remember when I finally cried out to you (this was, you’ll recall, after waiting forever at the pharmacy to find out they only had a two-day supply of the second antibiotic, and I’d have to go back the next day for the rest): “That’s it, November! The only way you redeem yourself is if a book of poems shows up on my doorstep, like, now!”
And you… well, wow, you delivered (again). But did you have to include that author bio? — the one where the poet won a bazillion awards and on top of being a poet is a PhD psychologist in private practice and “lives in [redacted] with her husband and their three young children” — and from the looks of the author photo, all this by the time she was about twelve years old? Sheesh.
But if you think for a minute any of this can get me down
you’re absolutely right you don’t know me at all. Besides the fact that mine are the problems of the privileged — this is forever in my mind — I have my defenses against you, November.
I have tea. With honey.
I have po-friends. Enough said.
And I have Mary Ruefle, who has an amazing mind and writes things like:
“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I want to say'; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”
“(Words) are a bridge that, paradoxically, breaks isolation and loneliness without eradicating it.”
“I would rather wonder than know.”
And I have Gaston Bachelard who spends two pages on a door that is not quite open and not quite closed. TWO PAGES on a door left ajar. I adore that man.
And I have all my November Poems. Such as,
this one, and
this one, and
this one, and
this one, which (sorry – you’ll have to crane your neck or print it), November, I really think should be more readily available to us, but since I’m grateful for the experience of pulling down my mom’s hardbound Complete Poems of Robert Frost, and paging through until I found it, I’ll give you a pass.
And November, I know you think you have me up against the ropes now with two more clinic visits this afternoon and Thanksgiving around the corner and all that cooking. But I thumb my nose at you because my mom and dad are coming. So there.
Lastly, this: I am a sucker for beauty. Which is why, November, even though I’m really annoyed with you this year (not even ONE full week of school all month!!??) and even though our shared past is a bit of a hard road, thank you for the beautiful gold-upon-gold of the ginkgos that line my street. And for teaching me all you have taught me about keeping at it, and scraped/silvered beauty, and the peace of night coming early.
Are you still there? I am still here. I am still juggling, dancing, dashing and dodging, but alas, never balancing. I am still reporting to my desk in its four-foot stretch of wall space with regularity — “as if it were a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos… .” And they do. Intermittently. As one of my first teachers of poetry (and a mother of four) used to say: “Life is very lifelike.”
Anyway, onto poetic thoughts and musings….
walking the plank I am still reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Wow — just noticed the price on that baby. Hunt around. I found it for much cheaper). I am still finding gems page by page, sometimes a whole essay of treasure. After figurative language, line is probably my very favorite element of poetry — both in reading and writing. I like it best when reading or writing a line of poetry is like walking the plank. Here is Catherine Barnett (who I quoted a few weeks back as saying poetry is “a ruin of prose”) on this march-toward-death quality of the line:
“Poetry gives me endless options, and where and how to end the line is, for me, one of the most energizing possibilities, uncertainties, because it holds within it the possibility of beginning again at the next line, and that little vertical fall is fuel, libido, a little vertigo — and because it holds within it the possibility that the line won’t end, not / this / time. Preserving your options is only a poor man’s strategy for forestalling death. A line-break is the same. Mortality confronts you at every line. Is this it? Is this it? Is / this / it?
Let us give thanks for smart poets who write essays and books on craft so that we can read them. Amen.
how to end a poem (insert maniacal laughter here). And lo, it is said, “Endings are hard, man. Like drawing hands.” Yes they are. But I gave a little craft talk on endings at my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and the outcome was a list of strategies for ending a poem. I could kick myself for not making this list ten years ago. Here is the list:
- Bold claim
- Shift to the imperative voice
- Direct address (“Greetings, Earthlings.”)
- Dialogue / something spoken
- Make a list
- Ask (a) question(s) (Personal favorite: Lucille Clifton, “quilting,” “how does this poem end? …”
- (needless to say) Strong image
- Explicit entry (or re-entry) of the speaker
- Big swerve (e.g., description, description, description, statement that seems to have nothing to do with the description but obviously does because it’s in the same poem)
- Change in perspective (a widening or narrowing of the lens, so to speak)
- Return to or break from pattern used previously in the poem (formal, syntactical, metrical, etc.)
These strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They are not offered as The List, just a list. One that I plan to keep adding to as I study poems and their endings. It will not make endings easy, but now you have a list of things to try when you don’t know how to end a poem (or maybe you already had this list and I am late to the party).
when in doubt, art Sometimes the world feels heavy and incomprehensible (most times?). Then it feels like whatever tiny lines we can write on a blank page don’t matter. Because tsunami. Because QSIS. Because the plane. Because the girls. Because school shootings. Because starving children. Because midterm elections. Because “surgical strikes.” And the list goes on. When the world feels too heavy to write about, I often turn to art and write an ekphrastic poem. Art, I feel, is reliable. It always has more to give — more beauty, more comfort, more hope, more humanity. And of course, art is of this world, too — so then I feel better about the world in a roundabout way.
“…as on those Sundays, when the first blessing was we were blessed,
and the second, we knew we were blessed.”
–Galway Kinnell from his poem “Kilauea”
When the kids were all tiny I used to joke that I delivered half my brain cells with each of them. Which, you know, if it were true, would be a problem — there are three kids.
And lately I feel like I’ve been doing almost everything by half-measures. Last night I made half a dinner. I’m halfway through this month’s class work (with less than half a month before it’s due). I half-heartedly went on a field trip with someone’s class this week, and left halfway through because the bus had been late, and they started later than planned and I had somewhere to be. Many times lately I’ve had an idea for a blog post, but never got to the second half of actually writing it. And of course, the kids have yet another extra half-day of school today. So there’s that.
So I hope you enjoy this half a roundup.
Half because I am just going to point you to a couple things here (yes, I am rounding up from 1.5). And one I already pointed to on Facebook this week, but oh does it ever keep.
world and word Lucia Perillo has a little piece called “World and Word” up at Kenyon Review online (It’s one of their series of “Credos,” which you can read more about if you visit the link.). I’ve only half thought about it yet, but she talks about the theory that language must precede reality (I think she does not agree) and what happens to a world of things when technology intervenes and puts great distance between them, and/or makes them so easily replicable. You can see why I need to think more about this. But I love what she says about:
“(T)he first responsibility of poets is to wrestle with the world, the actual world that is out there, boiling.”
and also that
“(T)he poem pulls the world closer… .”
You can read the whole thing here and maybe you can even use your whole brain to think about it. That would be very lucky indeed.
“Greetings, Earthling” Now, here comes the poem that I already shared on Facebook this week, but Reader, oh my goodness. This poem has such scope, facility, and power. I would someday like to write a poem half this good.
At this point, no more halves. I wholeheartedly wish you a whole entire weekend of whatever you enjoy most.
Reader, GREAT NEWS: this time the laundry is not mine!
(not that there isn’t some laundry in the vicinity…)
Since the last roundup there have been two trips to the mall. It’s a miracle that I’m still here to tell the tale — that’s how much I hate the mall.
On to poetry:
ruins I’ve been reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, recommended to me by one of my po-friends. The essays are short, therefore manageable, and often inspiring (although a few I’ve classified as trying-too-hard-to-be-clever). Here are some highlights:
From Kasim Ali:
The line is a means by which we “explore the fleetingness, uncapturability, and pure tragic drama of a single moment that passes and has to pass.”
“To proceed line by line means not to feel yourself forward in the dark but to throw yourself with abandon into the arms of darkness.”
From Scott Cairns:
“A sufficiently textured line (that is a troubled and troubling line) is the poet’s best defense against the tyranny of syntax.”
“… (E)ach line, in turn, avails a momentary opacity that can extend, or complicate, or otherwise enrich the syntactical overlay of meaning… .”
And, my personal favorite, from Catherine Barnett:
“…poetry is a ruin of prose…”
!!! “a ruin of prose” !!! I swoon.
ars poetica I wrote a short ars poetica this week. It goes like this:
Then I read an ars poetica by Anne Hébert: her poem “Mystère de la Parole (The Mystery of the Word).” It is actually much more inspiring than mine, especially the last two stanzas:
“Oh my blackest brothers, all feasts secretly carved; human breasts, calabash musicians where captured voices clash
Let the one who’s been given the work of the word accept you like an extra dark heart, and don’t let him stop until he has justified the living and the dead in a single song at dawn among the grasses.” –Anne Hébert
!!!! “An extra dark heart” !!!! I swoon again.
I STOP WRITING THE POEM
to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.
I love how the poet widens the lens just a touch at the end of this poem in order to complicate it (something to try for your next ending, perhaps). If you read the collection, you discover that someone actually has died, and that “watching to see how it’s done” at the end is even more devastating.
And now, I must gird my loins for attending the costume parade. In the rain. I hope you have a spooky day and a spectacular weekend. Thanks for reading.