friday roundup: the first fact of the world, exile, and the only warm thing for miles

Winter_in_de_Scheveningse_bosjes_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-2433

Happy Friday! It’s “ski week” in the Peninsula Town, so I haven’t spent much time at my desk this week. A hike in the foothills, a trip to the city, many hours snuggling on the couch reading The Tale of Despereaux, and—let’s be real—settling arguments amongst siblings, reminding people to take out their laundry and put their dishes in the dishwasher… this is how I’ve spent my week. No complaints. Now on to the roundup:

the first fact of the world  I’ve slowly been making my way through Robert Hass‘s essay collection, Twentieth Century Pleasures. I’ve read some of these essays before, but it’s been a while and a re-visit seemed needful.

I’ve also been reading poems (Larry Levis, James Wright, Frances Leviston, Chase Twichell) with an eye to trajectories: What is the journey of this poem, and how is the journey implemented?  What are its structures and formal properties?

In Hass’s “On Form,” he writes: “The first fact of the world is that it repeats itself.” He argues that, from our earliest days, “we are clued into the hope of a shapeliness of things”—hunger felt, then satisfied; the school bus coming along right on time.

But what is form in an era of poetry dominated by free verse? It’s so much harder to define than a certain number of lines, with a certain metrical pattern, and a certain rhyme scheme.

Hass defines it this way: The form of a poem is “the shape of its understanding”; it “exists in the relation between its music and its seeing.”

Not exactly a step-by-step guide for finding a poem’s best form, but worth thinking about… .

exile  n. 1. the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. 2. a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion.

I’ve also been dipping in and out of Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry by Paul Goodman. Regarding why he writes poetry, Goodman says:

“I am in exile. Like everybody else, I live in a world that is given to me—I am thankful for it. It is not made by me—and that too is very well. But it is not my native home; therefore I make poems.”

Goodman writes of a spiritual exile, of course, and I’m not entirely comfortable with using the concept of exile vis-a-vis art-making in a world when so many people are in actual, physical exile, and/or are risking their lives to achieve it. But his words resonate with me, and have me thinking about of poetry as a means to reconcile ourselves to the world, to ourselves, and to each other.

Each poem a little bridge, a little patch, a little healing, a little closer to home.

the only warm thing for miles  Speaking of home, it’s that time of year when those who live in winter climes are beginning to doubt that spring will ever arrive. While I’m leaving my house in a light sweater and enjoying the earliest-blooming trees, I remember well that slightly crazed doubt, and I miss the way the sharp edges of changing seasons can mirror our inner lives. A friend sent me this poem by Danez Smith; you could call it an argument for winter:

*

I’M GOING BACK TO MINNESOTA WHERE SADNESS MAKES SENSE by Danez Smith

 

O California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for him? I’m bored with the ocean

I stood at the lip of it, dressed in down, praying for snow
I know, I’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.
I know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

Have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you

& it’s so sad, you know? You’re the only warm thing for miles
& the only thing that can’t shine.

(originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review)

*

Stay warm, Reader, stay warm. And thanks for reading.

 

friday roundup: more silence

 

Hello, Reader and happy Friday. I am still on my silence kick… #sorrynotsorry. Here goes the roundup:

what silence can do   This week I’m in the process of reading several texts on silence:

These are all very academic texts and, while fascinating, they don’t speak to what I want to know about silence. What I want to know is this: Philosophy aside, aesthetics aside, linguistics aside, what can silence do in a poem?

Rae Armantrout has some answers for us in this essay. She writes that silence can (and I am paraphrasing):

  • admit mistakes
  • concede personal limits, or finitude
  • indicate the presence of the ineffable
  • concede the presence of another
  • wait for an unknown response
  • hover at an edge or boundary
  • straddle the border of statement and non-statement, consequence and inconsequence

Quoting Max Picard, she notes that silences in poetry can ” ‘leave a clear space into which another can speak’.”

She also argues that what she calls “the lyric format” (as opposed to prose or prose-like , declarative poems) has a greater potential for evoking silence, then looks closely at several poems and how their particular silences are achieved: for example, by minimizing grammatical connections, ending lines abruptly or unexpectedly, deliberately creating the effect of inconsequence, and/or using white space strategically.

So all these ideas about silence—both the lofty and the nuts-and-bolts-y—are rolling through my mind as I continue to be relatively silent at my desk, writing stillborn lines, false starts, and silences.

what haunts  And just in time, just when the stillborn lines, false starts, and silences begin to feel overwhelming, a quote comes along that helps me to reframe and start again. This morning on Facebook, the poet Kelly Cressio-Moeller shared this gem from Rita Dove:

“I don’t want to be looking around for something interesting to make a poem out of. That should not be the impulse behind a poem. That’s not why you do it. You do it because it haunts you, and you write to discover what it has new to say to you.”

The quote is from this interview.

I know what I’ll be doing just after finishing this roundup: I’ll be making a list of things that haunt me.

 

Persephone, with silences  Here is a poem by one of my favorite poets of silence, Jean Gallagher. I hope you enjoy it.

IMG_6274.jpg

Thanks for reading. May you be haunted. May all your silences reach down much further in the dark.

 

friday roundup: silences and hands edition

Hello, reader. This week I’ve been thinking a lot about silence.

silence n. 1. complete absence of sound. 2. the fact or state of abstaining from speech > the avoidance of mentioning or discussing something. v. 1. make silent. 2. fit with a silencer.

From the from Latin silentium “a being silent,” from silens, present participle of silere “be quiet or still,” of unknown origin.

I’ve been thinking about two different forms of silence:

silence the first The first is that silence that sometimes descends upon a writer. I’m in the midst of one of these silences now—nothing’s flowing and the stillborn lines are piling up in my notebook.

How fitting, in this case,  that at its deepest root silence is “of unknown origin.”

These silence are always excruciating, and when I’m in the midst of one I always make sure to remind myself that I’m not the only one who has hit quiet patches. Here’s Louise Glück in her essay “Education of the Poet”:

“I have wished, since I was in my early teens, to be a poet; over a period of more than thirty years, I have had to get through extended silences. By silences I mean periods, sometimes two years in duration, during which I have written nothing. Not written badly, written nothing. Nor do such periods feel like fruitful dormancy.”

I also remind myself of the things I do to keep moving forward amidst the silence and stillborn lines:

  • read, and while I’m reading,
  • write down lines grab my attention
  • work in my lexicon
  • copy poems I love into my notebook by hand
  • keep adding to my lists
  • look back in my notebooks (often I will find a line or a fragment that shakes something loose in me)
  • accept the obstacle in the path as the path: rather than write, revise, send out poems, do other writerly things that are not writing
  • write anyway (I have been this time)
  • read a lot of craft essays…

…which brings me to:

silence the second  The other silence I’ve been thinking about is the silence of the unsaid in a poem. My favorite poems are so often those that don’t hand over everything, that use silence as a tool, that suggest rather than declare. Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snowman” ends with this stanza:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The kind of silence I’m thinking about is “the nothing that is.” A silence that makes itself felt in the poem, a bodied silence. Conveniently, Louise Glück also writes about this kind of silence in her essay “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence”:

“The unsaid for me exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made from this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”

Yes, this is what I want to do with silence in my poems. Not that I know how. Glück also writes:

“All earthly experience is partial.”

If you have favorite poems that employ a felt silence, I hope you’ll share them in comments.

P.S.  Both of the Glück essays referred to are in her book Proofs & Theories.

hands  O, hands. Having a certain, long-standing relationship with inflammatory arthritis (thank you, Lupus), I have a very fraught relationship with hands. Especially my own hands. I will never forget this exchange with one of my doctors years ago:

Him: Do you drop things?
Me: Yes.
Him: Hopefully not the baby!
Silence

But recently I read Aracelis Girmay‘s book Kingdom Animalia. This poet has taken hold of hands, and her hands, and all hands. There are so many hands in her poems, that I began to love hands in a whole new way. I love it when a poet takes possession of something like this. Also: read this book. It is so good. Anyway, one of my favorite poems in the book is called “Portrait of the Woman as a Skein.” It’s a long poem in sections, and sadly I’ve not been able to find a version that’s link-to-able online. So I’m going to give you one section of it, and I think you will see why I love this book:

*

from PORTRAIT OF THE WOMAN AS A SKEIN

Last night, the dream of you standing
in the doorway like a lighthouse
calling for your hands to come back
home, & from a great distance, them
running towards you, two
children or two dogs. What scared you then,
you also called it beautiful—
the way their breath flew out of them like clouds,
the way they reached the dark yard panting & stood
deciding between the body & the woods.

*

Between the body and the woods. Oh my goodness.

Have a wonderful weekend, reader, and may all your silences have the power of ruins. Thanks for reading!

friday roundup: hidebound opinions, ‘those beautiful names of horses,’ & ‘the ax that breaks this lock’

Perhaps the only remotely good thing about a poet dying is that we are sent sharply back to her words. And isn’t it true that the words of poets become more weighty after their deaths, because we know there will be no more from them? At any rate, I have gone back sharply and here is what I’ve found:

hidebound

hidebound adj. constrained by tradition or convention; narrow-minded

At poetry group last weekend, the person in charge of the craft talk led us in a discussion of the work of C. D. Wright—who is perhaps the least constrained by tradition or convention, the least narrow-minded poet of recent memory, but who gathered her poetics in an essay called “69 Hidebound Opinions, Propositions, and Several Asides from a Manila Folder Concerning the Stuff of Poetry.”

I’ve been living with the essay this week. All of her little quotes and quips about poetry I’ve gathered over the years in my notebook of quotes are there, along with so much more. Here are a couple of my favorite bits:

“It is poetry that remarks on the barely perceptible disappearances from our world such as that of the sleeping porch or the root cellar.”

*

“It is the quality of omission or suppression I believe which determines the quality and degree of a reader’s participating in the telling—what is latent in the work that the reader alone can render active and integral to it.”

*

(and this one is my favorite:)

“This is the poet’s choice: to attend to a presence no one else is aware of, to spend the better part of a lifetime preparing for an arrival that could not occur but for her attention, that would not in fact otherwise make its blaze on this world.”

You can read the whole essay here.

those beautiful names of horses  Now for another dead poet: Larry Levis. I think of him as the Poet Laureate of Oblivion, his poems ache so with love and loss and the fleetingness of, well, everything. I’ve been reading his work these last two weeks, traversing his long, wandering lines & coming face to face with his ampersands. I’ve been thinking about his ampersands and what they achieve—what does the ampersand do that the word ‘and’ cannot do? Where, how, and why does Levis use them?

Well, someone else has been thinking about Levis’ ampersands, too, and far more cogently and poetically than I have. Yesterday, I read Mairead Small Staid‘s essay “The 27th Letter,” and I fell in love.

The essay looks at the ampersand—its history, what it can do that the word “and” can’t, etc.—and its function in Levis’ work: “Both ways is the only way it is.” Beyond that, the essay is beautiful and poetic and carries its own ideas about why we read and write poetry. Here’s a teaser:

“To list what you love, many-chambered as the heart; to couple one part to the next to the next, forced to give nothing up; to carry what you love, to wear it on your chest, to possess it as fully as you can—this is one reason, at least, to write poetry or to read it, those beautiful names of horses grazing on the tongue.”

You can read the whole essay here. And huge thanks to Sandy Longhorn who linked to the essay on Facebook, which is how I found my way to it.

“the ax that breaks this lock”  About two seconds after I posted the last roundup, I heard the news that the poet Francisco X. Alarcón had died.

Dear Universe, enough with all the poets and artists dying already.

Here is a beautiful love poem he wrote to round out the roundup this week:

*

from OF DARK LOVE
by Francisco X. Alarcón, translated by the poet

I

there has never been sunlight for this love,
like a crazed flower it buds in the dark,
is at once a crown of thorns and
a spring garland around the temples

a fire, a wound, the bitterest of fruit,
but a breeze as well, a source of water,
your breath—a bite to the soul,
your chest—a tree trunk in the current

make me walk on the turbid waters,
be the ax that breaks this lock,
the dew that weeps from trees

if I become mute kissing your thighs,
it’s that my heart eagerly
searches your flesh for a new dawn

*

Happy weekend and thanks for reading!

friday roundup: new year edition

IMG_6162

Snow… outside the village

Hi Reader, and happy new year. We are back from a wonderful trip to Michigan to visit family. There were cousins! There were all sorts of Christmas cookies! There was snow! It was fun, and my joy was doubled seeing how much the kids enjoyed our time with family and the northern Michigan landscape I so dearly love. Now, I seem to be taking my time getting back into a routine (in my defense, the kids weren’t back in school until Wednesday and yesterday was a half-day), but I’m getting there in fits and starts.

I’ve been reading here and there, working on book reviews, and trying to organize my workspace for the new year. I’m not big on resolutions or fresh starts; I’m just showing up at my desk as usual, and here’s what I’m thinking bout this week:

writing as re-vision  In the new Writer’s Chronicle, I came across a reference to Adrienne Rich’s essay “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” Of course I had to read it, and although it was written in the year I was born, I feel much of what it has to say—about writing, about feminism, and about life (and for me, especially the life of a poet-mother)—still applies. Here are two of my favorite snippets:

“Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”

and

“You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.”

In her essay, Rich was writing about re-vision as a way of understanding the world and one’s self in the world amidst the feminist movement, and about transforming that experience into art. Without detracting from the importance of Rich’s macro-level ideas, I think it’s also interesting to think of these quotes at a much the micro level: while re-visioning poems.

You can find the whole essay here. Thank you, Interwebs.

soothsaying in reverse  I’ve also been reading Marianne Boruch’s essay “The End Inside It.” Thank you, New England Review. Have you read any of Boruch’s essays? They are amazing things: deeply intelligent, lyrical, somehow also philosophical, syntactically astonishing, often wryly humorous, and then also so very attuned to craft. I don’t know how she does it. She says many thought-provoking things in this essay, and takes a close look at endings in several different poems, but the thing that keeps rising to the top of my mind is this bit:

“One of the simple, great things about poems is that for the most part they are small inventions—a page, two pages. That is, we can be there with them; we can hover, literally over them, a few moments for the eye, an ear to them briefly, and how many breaths from first to line to last? Not that many. Which is to say, in reading—as reader—the finished thing, or in its morphing into the revision if we’re actually the writer-thereof, we can enter it again and again until it all becomes a kind of soothsaying in reverse, to stare at a poem (as reader) or its draft (as writer) and note how the ending in fact comes to be, came to be, or could come to be, bringing its most secret life as both earned thing—fashionable to say that now—and as deep surprise.”

No pressure. But how about that: “soothsaying in reverse”!? Let us all be soothsayers.

irrevocable  This poem will be a repeat for those who saw it on Facebook. Sorry, but 1). I cut off a line-end in the photo on Facebook and thus need to right my wrong on the Interwebs and 2). It merits re-reading and has, over the last few days, become for me an utterly irrevocable poem, one that I’ll live with until the end of my days. Irrevocable, as in not able to be reversed or called (Latin vocare) back (Latin re-):

*

GOSSIP IN THE VILLAGE by Larry Levis

I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.
They weren’t even serious about it, at first.
Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.

The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening.
And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,

And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks

From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,
Will be to have no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry.

The morning will be be bright, & wrong.

*

This is from Levis’ posthumous collection The Darkening Trapeze edited by David St. John. I could write pages about Larry Levis, about how he is the poet laureate of oblivion, about his poem “Rhododendrons,” about his lines, his elegies, and the sad fact of his short life. But… but… all this reading? None of it was assigned. And thus I must turn my attention to things assigned and due next week.

Happy weekend and thanks for reading.

 

 

 

roundup, not on friday, after quiet

Field_barn_in_winter_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1728849

Hello, Reader. I am still here, but have been feeling quiet lately (not to mention busy: kids, deadlines, holidays, etc.). Today is the sixth day of a six-day weekend for the kids. Rumor has it there is school tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it.

For now everyone has found their own little corner of the house (or, in one case, yard) and writing a little something seems possible. So here I am.

And here’s what’s been on my mind:

sources  I’m always interested in what poets say about where their poems come from. I’m interested whether they’re talking about it literally or figuratively; whether they seem certain or uncertain; whether their sources strike me as replicable (that is, worth trying) or not.

Earlier today, I ran across a lovely essay by my friend and fellow poet Sarah Pape, who wrote about poem-making in a Hayden’s Ferry Review contributor spotlight.

I’ve been reading and re-reading it all day, thinking about how poems come to me, most often out of the strange alchemy of other people’s poems and silence.

My favorite line from the essay, the entirety of which you must read for yourself: Tell me the places you’ve come from. Help me see.

Here’s the whole thing (and don’t be warned off by the “we’ve moved to a new port” message at the top of the page; scroll down, the essay’s there).

nuts and bolts  I’ve been re-reading Richard Hugo‘s The Triggering Town. I needed a bit of the title essay for a paper I was writing, and then of course had to re-read the whole book. Because it’s that good—so much solid craft advice alongside his deeply felt convictions about what a poet is, what the writing life is all about.

Here are a few of my favorite Hugoisms:

“It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.” (from “Writing Off the Subject)

“(W)hen you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.” (also from “Writing Off the Subject”)

“(O)nce language exists only to convey information, it is dying.” (from “The Triggering Town”)

“So you are after those words you can own and ways of putting them in phrases and lines that are yours by right of obsessive musical deed.” (also from “The Triggering Town”)

I had all but forgotten about his essay “Nuts and Bolts” which is full of very practical tips (“Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.” “No semi-colons.” “When the poem starts, things should already have happened.”) and things to try when you’re stuck. Thanks to the Interwebs, it is available to all of us for free at this link.

the last poem I loved  And now, as usual, a poem. Here is the last one I loved; it’s by Kevin Goodan, from his book In the Ghost-House Acquainted, which is worth its cover price just so you can study his amazing titles (but the poems are excellent, too):

*

SNOW ANGELS by Kevin Goodan

The barn is a story we’ve taken refuge in,
the one where the ghosts never arrive.

We wait anyway
since the weather demands it.

Strike a match and nothing disappears,
nothing leaps out, either.

Snow is a verb with certain ideas in mind,
it settles on the fringe of your coat.

Give me your hands.
The wind has a way of saying things

no longer self-evident.
Since the barn does not repeat itself

I will. Your hands,
they are remote and necessary.

With the temperature this close to zero
everything is at risk.

This is not a story
we can leave untouched.

*

May all the stories you can’t leave untouched find a home in your poems. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: did you work today? did you eat? did you love? edition

Hello, Reader. It is Friday, and I’m afraid there has been more laundry than poetry this week. To wit:

IMG_5750

Ah well, some weeks are like that.

did you work today? But there has been some reading and writing, too. I have a deadline coming up for my MFA program, and I’ve been thinking about (yet another) Stanley Plumly quote:

“If tone is one way, historically, of describing the voice within and of a poem, then rhetoric is the way tone of voice is achieved. Rhetoric ought to be no more or less than the presence of the poet, made manifest, in his poem.”

That’s from Argument & Song again, which has taken over my life. I mean that in the best possible way.

Anyway, so I have been reading poems and poets, trying to identify the locations of “tone of voice” and the tools of rhetoric that create it. I have been scribbling notes like: “diction: spectrum from spare <——->lush”; “particularity vs. anonymity”; “structure of progressions: accumulation vs. leaps (also consider sound)”; “use of the appositive as means for discovery”; “entrances into poems: the utterance vs. the set scene.”

I have no idea whether I will succeed in coming to conclusions that could constitute an argument for a paper. What I do know is that flailing around is my process, and that there will be more flailing before it’s all said and done. What I do know is that even if all the flailing is for naught and I have to switch topics three days before the paper’s due, I will still have learned something about what Plumly calls “tone of voice.”

Same with poems. All the failed (and flailed) attempts are for learning. They will never desert you. They will make of the ruins of themselves the poem that actually works, perhaps many years hence. Nothing is wasted. (I am reminding you of this, but really I am reminding myself, so thanks for indulging me).

did you eat?  As I’ve said many times before, reading is my creative nourishment. None of  my poems would exist without the poems I’ve read and studied before writing them. And so even when I’m flailing around for paper topics and writing only a little, I am always reading.

I’m still reading Laura Jensen, this time her third book, Shelter. I’m still in love with the strangeness of her poems. Hers are poems in which the presence of the poet is made manifest. Here is a poem that has captured my attention this week; it made me think of that quote by D. W. Winnicott: “It is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”

*

CHILD HIDING by Laura Jensen

The sun just now when it was hidden
was like a child in white behind the fish tank
and a breath of rain that was plummeting
nearly brushed my face. I must have moved

my head momentarily to protect my glasses,
then the cloudburst eased and came to the stop
it makes, eaves yet in the wet dim marbled way
they drip. I never saw such sunlight

in the yellow-green leaves of the cherry,
in its velvet black trunk. The lustrous
sun and the lustrous shades on the grass blades.

The sun was moving back of the wet white
clouds and the color through or inside
everything was where and what it wanted to be,

and wanted to emerge from laughing. May every
one of us come running out glad. That prayer
depends on such a light, depends on life
going well, and right. So often we are saddened

like a child that leaves off hiding when he sees
it never mattered, his hiding place. To know
and to come away is what I would finally have to
learn, to suddenly grow chilly and close the door.

*

did you love? Next is an essay on the writing life by David Allan Cates, one of the faculty members at my MFA program. He delivered the essay as a talk on the last day of the residency in August. Many tears were shed. You can read it now for sure, but if nothing else, print out a copy (or bookmark it) and tuck it away for a time when you’re down and discouraged about your writing and/or the writing life. Here’s a little morsel, but the whole thing’s a meal:

Finally: You—We—have got to love this stuff. The aching beauty of the words. How they sound, and then the silence. How our mouths form them from breath. How like our lives they are here, then they are gone. Their vaporous essence should make your skin turn inside out. Because how else to endure what you’ll most likely have to endure as a writer? To stand and look out at the world and to let the bottom fall out of the moment. Let’s face it. This is not a career. 99 percent of you will earn very little money. 99 percent of you will get little acclaim beyond a few dozen, a few hundred, maybe a few thousand readers. You’ll endure what every other human on earth has endured: all the lost, lost things. And you’ll endure it by answering these three questions: Did you work today? Did you eat? Did you love?

May your answers always be: yes, yes, and yes.

friday (mini-) roundup (on saturday): voice and praise

(wikimedia)

Fig tree (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader. Sorry for the lack of roundup yesterday… bodies of offspring, half-days of school, etc. … . And I’m working on the next post on submissions (getting to know lit mags), but it’s not finished yet. Stay tuned.

Today’s roundup will be short and sweet: three quotes on voice and a poem of praise.

three quotes on voice

From Mark Doty:

“(H)ow the texture of subjective perception find its way into speech” and also “(you) sounding like yourself, your unmistakable self.”

Read more in this talk.

From Stanley Plumly (referring to Pound’s idea of absolute rhythm: “a poetry which corresponds exactly to the emotion being expressed”):

“This sense of fullness, of something being worked out and worked through, relative to the length of the passage, relative to the timing of the particulars, is what the voice in free verse is all about.”

Read more in this book.

From Mary Ruefle (always my personal favorite):

SHORT LECTURE ON VOICE

Hello.

Hi!

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!

Out of the murderous innocence of the sea.

Nite-nite.

When students are searching for their voice, they are searching for poetry. When they find their voice, they will have found poetry. When they find poetry, they will live to regret it.

From this classic tome.

I think the Doty and Plumly quotes speak to an individual mind/consciousness making itself manifest on the page. I think the Ruefle quote (actually a whole essay) is hilarious and true.

praise This week’s poem is from Ross Gay‘s book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. I remember first reading it in APR and spending a long time with it. Now I return to it when I need a dose of wonder/praise/gratitude for the world. Here is “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian.”

Also, may I recommend that you get your hands on the current issue of APR so that you can read Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s featured poems? They amaze.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend!

friday roundup: back to the drawing board edition

Vincent's Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing-Wax (wikimedia)

Vincent’s Still Life with Drawing Board, Pipe, Onions and Sealing-Wax (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday. I am nearly one week through a two-week period of half-days of school for the children (insert forced smile here). I’d like to say that poems are dying all over the place because of this, but most of what I’ve attempted this week has been stillborn anyway. Sometimes I think writing actually gets harder as one goes along because one knows more. The more one knows, the higher one’s standards for one’s own work, etc.

Well anyway, what choice do we have but to keep at it? I’ve tried abandoning poetry and it refuses to be abandoned. So every morning, it’s back to the drawing board. Even when it’s painful,

even when every effort is stillborn. Which made me think of this section of Eliot’s Four Quartets:

*

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres-
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

*

Please, to repeat: FOR US, THERE IS ONLY THE TRYING. THE REST IS NOT OUR BUSINESS. I suppose if Eliot felt this way, the rest of us are entitled to as well.

reading, that eternal font  Sometimes I feel the same about reading: that my efforts at it are stillborn. That although I can see the obvious craft in a text, I can think of nothing insightful to say about it. I can read it over and over again, and still have nothing insightful to say about it. I can even LOVE IT, and have nothing insightful to say about it.

(Real-time digression: I’ve many times had the experience of reading a book of poems, having nothing insightful to say about it, but having it somehow get inside me and push my writing into a new space. Although I don’t understand how this works, I am always grateful for it. Perhaps this dynamic is more valuable than having something insightful to say.).

I was reading Seamus Heaney’s essays again this week, and he writes about learning from Eliot (Coincidence? I think not.). He writes about reading Eliot, but “finding it difficult to retain any impression unified and whole in my mind.” I suppose if Seamus felt this way, the rest of us are entitled to as well.

He writes about different ways of making sense of a text. When we couldn’t make sense of Eliot intellectually, he found a way of making sense of the sound of Eliot’s poems.

And he writes of eventually getting it:

“(F)irst encountered as a strange fact of culture, poetry is internalized over the years until it becomes, as they say, second nature. Poetry that was originally beyond you, generating the need to understand and overcome its strangeness, becomes in the end a familiar path within you, a grain along which your imagination opens pleasurably backwards towards an origin and seclusion.”

He says that reading Eliot taught gave him

“..the confidence to affirm that there is a reality to poetry which is unspeakable, and for that very reason all the more piercing… .”

I don’t know about you, but I am taking notes.

And if a day is left to me…  Here is a poem I came across this week that I LOVE, and I could probably even think of something insightful to say about, but won’t, since sometimes I think it’s nice to just let a poem wash over one’s mind and one’s body, and then to sigh pleasurably, and just say, Wow. This is “And If a Day is Left to Me Before I’m Old” as featured at the Missouri Review Poem-of-the-Week.

Happy weekend and thanks for reading.

friday roundup with voice, heart, and a brief for the defense

Winslow Homer, Rowing Home (wikimedia)

Winslow Homer, Rowing Home (wikimedia)

Another Friday, and this week I’ve been reading the old white guys. Mostly Seamus Heaney and Jack Gilbert. Smatterings of Frost, WCW, and Stevens. They may have been old and white but they wrote damn good poems, and prose, and had inspiring things to say about poetry and the writing life. Here’s some of it:

voice  Can we talk about voice? About “finding” one’s voice? There’s a lot of talk about this in writerly circles, but voice seems generally undefined, or ill-defined. I was reading Seamus Heaney‘s essay “Feeling into Words” this week (from this book), and came across his definition of voice which struck me as one of the more helpful definitions I’ve come across. He writes:

“Finding a voice means that you can get your own feeling into your own words and that your words have the feel of you about them; and I believe it may not even be a metaphor, for a poetic voice is probably very intimately connected with the poet’s natural voice, the voice that (s)he hears as the ideal speaker of the lines (s)he is making up.” (parentheses, mine)

How does one find one’s voice? According to Seamus:

“In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else… . This other writer, in fact has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, that in-fluence.”

Which reminds me of the other most-helpful-quote-about-voice I’ve come across, also involving imitation, which is from Kathleen Graber, passed on to me by fellow poet and dear friend Kelly Cressio-Moeller:

“At some point as an apprentice, you realize that you might finally possess enough skills to fashion a reasonably passable imitation of the artist whose work has inspired you, but something other than ability prevents you from achieving the perfect fake. The thing that will keep getting in your way will be your own voice. Ironically, then, in trying to write like the poets whose work I loved, I learned to write like myself.”

Please, to repeat: THE THING THAT WILL KEEP GETTING IN YOUR WAY WILL BE YOUR OWN VOICE.

heart  I can’t seem to stop reading Jack Gilbert for more than a week or so at a time. Then, inevitably, his poems begin calling out to me again and I have to go back despite the fact that I should be reading other things, making dinner, or folding laundry. In fact, sometimes when I’m making dinner or folding laundry, I listen to Jack Gilbert’s Lannan interview and/or reading.

Besides his poems, which are amazing, original, and entirely in his very distinctive voice, I take heart in his approach to life and poetry. He was a fool for love. He eschewed the whole poetry world scene almost entirely (except when he needed money). About this, when asked if he thought it was a disadvantage to spending most of his life abroad and away from American literary circles, he said, “It’s fatal, which is all right with me.”

I re-read his Paris Review interview yesterday and was struck again by his commitment, in poetry and in life, to the heart; the real, human, visceral, vulnerable heart. Or as he called it, the conscious heart:

“The poem is about the heart… I mean the conscious heart, the fact that we are the only things in the entire universe that know true consciousness. We’re the only things—leaving religion out of it—we’re the only things in the world that know spring is coming.”

I find this true, comforting, and devastating. It’s why we write: because we know it all fades away.

a brief for the defense  We know this—that everything fades away—every day, but most days we can gloss over it. Not yesterday, though. I have a list (ever growing) of poems for the grim times. Jack Gilbert’s “A Brief For the Defense” is one of them. “We must risk delight,” he tells us in this poem, “Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world.” You can read the whole poem at this link (you’ll need to scroll down or read through the front matter).

May we all remember to stand in the prow, listening.