(art is “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” from wikimedia)
Be afraid. Love. Be true. Gnaw. Be brave. Clot. Be real. Scream. Hush. Listen. Womb. Sleep now. ‘Be still. The Hanging Gardens were a dream.’
(art is “Hanging Gardens of Babylon,” from wikimedia)
Be afraid. Love. Be true. Gnaw. Be brave. Clot. Be real. Scream. Hush. Listen. Womb. Sleep now. ‘Be still. The Hanging Gardens were a dream.’
Dear Reader, it’s Friday. The world we live in and life in general have me feeling quiet and half-hearted, but here I am.
[Editing to say that this image ===========> which I can’t get WordPress to let me label today is called “The Spider” by Nikolas Gysis, via wikimedia.]
I’ve been reading My Poets by Maureen McLane, a really lovely, super smart volume of what I’d call meditative criticism. In a variety of styles and from a variety of vantage points, McLane writes about the poets “who, in possessing her, made her” (quote is from jacket text). She does this, many times, through close reading of poems, but—unlike a lot of literary criticism—her close readings take into account the way these poems and poets have moved through her life as scholar, poet, and human being. It has become a VIB for me (Very Important Book). I recommend it wholeheartedly.
I’ve also been reading Fanny Howe:
Come, tinkers, among droves of acorn trees
Be only one third needful, O
Name things whereby we hope
Before the story scatters. A cardinal
Is red for fever where you passed
(from Introduction to the World ; sorry for linking to the Death Star, but could not find it anywhere else)
I’ve been remembering Buson’s poem (short enough to memorize, therefore no need to read), one of my all-time favorites, on this second day of autumn:
(Robert Hass, trans.)
I’ve been writing, early mornings, earlier than ever, actually, since high school starts at 7:10 (!) and I now have a high-schooler (!). The world’s on fire, and there are some amazing world’s-on-fire poems circulating out there, and I would like to write some amazing world’s-on-fire poems. But I’ve been writing poems of the interior: mindscapes, emotional landscapes, questions of how to live. Sometimes I wish there existed a switch I could flip—turn off poems of the interior, turn on poems of public life. Alas, no switch. Still, yesterday I was comforted reading this interview with MacArthur Fellow, Maggie Nelson. In it she says,
“At the end of the day, maybe I’m old-fashioned in thinking that you just don’t get to choose what you’ve got in you to give. You’ve just got to do what each book demands.”
Or what each poem demands.
She also says:
“(T)he work eventually tells you what needs to be in it for it to work, and it has to have what it has to have.”
We know this already, right? But it’s nice to have a reminder. And from a MacArthur Genius at that.
Here’s a poem, a masterful conceit, a world’s-on-fire poem, a necessary poem, a heart-breaking poem, by Nikki Giovanni:
Happy weekend & thanks for reading.
Dear reader, I am up with the birds stealing a few moments at my desk. My desk which I will likely not see again until August. It will be a summer of transience—some time at my parents’, some at my aunt’s and uncle’s, maybe some camping(?)—as we wait to get into our new house, do a bit of necessary work, then finally move in.
The thought of this for a homebody such as myself is a bit overwhelming. But books and blank notebooks have a way of saving us (me), so I have sent some ahead to be kept out of the moving van and storage. Let’s not think now about how I will have to haul them hither and yon all summer as we make our wanderings from place to place.
The books that have been saving me this week are these:
I have always loved early C. D. Wright (Translations..). The Poet, the Lion &c. is brand new, and I feel it should be required reading for all human beings. You could say it’s a poetic poetics. You could say it’s one, long ars poetica. You could say it’s a road map for how to live.
Here are some lines that have kept me going this week, from “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World’s Biggest Retailer”:
That the poems we snatch from the language must bear the habit of our thinking.
That their arrangement strengthens the authority on which each separate line is laid.
That they extend the line into perpetuity.
That they enlarge the circle.
That they awaken the dreamer. That they awaken the schemer.
That they rectify the names.
That they draw not conclusions but further qualify doubt.
That they avail themselves of the shrapnel of everything: the disappearance of cork trees and coral, the destroyed center of Ramadi, the shape of buildings to come, the pearness of pears.
That they clear the air.
That they keep a big-box sense of humor at the ready (like an ax in a glass case).
That they bring the ship nearer to its longing.
That they resensitize the surface of things.
That they will not stand alone.
This is our mind. Our language. Our light. Our word. Our bond.
In the world.
And now I’m off to gather bed linens and take them to the laundromat for washing (because I cannot even with the thought of used bedsheets of teenaged boys sitting in an un-air-conditioned storage unit all summer).
I don’t know when I’ll be back here, but I’ll check in when I can. Meanwhile, read on, write on. Meanwhile, let’s remember: You can quit anytime. Why quit now?
Precious little reading, precious little writing, precious little time for anything but mothering and moving. But words are precious little things, small enough to fit in here and there, and a few have lodged in me this week. Here they are:
what kind of silence?
“The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” —Adrienne Rich
what poems ask of us
From Jame’s Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry. Callimachus was an ancient Greek poet who resisted the then-current fashion of writing long epics; “(K)eep your muse slender,” he wrote.
Happy Friday, thanks for reading, dashing off to wake my precious littles…
Photo credit here.
Reader, one of my friends on Facebook wrote that there are negative amounts of poetry in her life this month.
Here I raise my hand.
And yet, the Universe (well, okay, social media) keeps reminding me that making art is not about production or results.
So in lieu of a roundup, I’m going to share a few things that have kept me relatively calm amidst the negative amounts of poetry in my life so far this month.
#1 the pitch drop experiment My genius, biochemist older brother told me about this years ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. In the pitch drop experiment, a scientist set up an experiment to see how long it would take for pitch—which seems quite brittle in some ways, and indeed can be chipped off itself at room temperature, but is in fact viscous—to form a drop, and for that drop to fall. That process takes about a decade. I haven’t verified this independently, but my brother told me that when the first drop of pitch finally did fall, the scientist who set up the experiment was not there to witness it.
#2 the paint that is still drying My genius, poet-artist friend Kelly Cressio-Moeller does this cool thing on Facebook: Every Friday she posts a piece of art and a little something about it. This week she posted a still life by the artist Dick Ket. From wikipedia:
“As a result of his technical experimentation with different formulations and additives to the glaze medium, some of his paintings are not completely dry after six decades.”
#3 the open channel Yet another friend posted an inspiring quote from Martha Graham about the role of the artist vis-a-vis her work (and specifically vis-a-vis evaluating her work):
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
I think all three of these things speak for themselves. I wish you blessed unrest.
becalm v. [with obj.] leave (a sailing vessel) unable to move through lack of wind. From be- a word-forming element with a wide range of meanings, and calm from Latin cauma “heat of the mid-day sun” from Greek kauma “heat” (especially of the sun), from kaiein “to burn.”
It’s not hot, but I’m feeling becalmed. Between meeting a deadline just now, and the loss of three singular artists this week, and it being Friday in general and no food in the house, and not even having peeked at the laundry that I’m sure has piled up while I’ve worked on my deadline, I’m just sitting here, my sails flagging, wondering what to do first, next or otherwise.
So here is a small thing that many of you may have already seen circulating on social media, but which I’m holding onto as a rallying cry for making art fiercely and always, becalming be damned. From C.D. Wright’s “Cooling Time”:
“I believe in a hardheaded art, an unremitting, unrepentant practice of one’s own faith in the word in one’s own obstinate terms. I believe the word was made good from the start; it remains so to this second. I believe words are golden as goodness is golden. Even the humble word brush gives off a scratch of light.”
brush n. an implement with a handle, consisting of bristles, hair, or wire set into a block; a slight and fleeting touch. From Old French from Old French broisse (Modern French brosse) “a brush” (13c.), perhaps from Vulgar Latin *bruscia “a bunch of new shoots.”
Happy Friday and thanks for reading.
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.
It’s Friday. Today there is no pink eye, no late start (for two out of three children), no half-day (for the remaining third of the trio). My house is quiet, my desk is clear.
Don’t tell the Universe.
I’ll get right to the roundup:
dictionaries It’s not very often that I need to have a dictionary nearby while I’m reading. But this week I’m reading Stanley Plumly’s essays in Argument & Song: Sources & Silences in Poetry, and I’ve been keeping my dictionaries right nearby to do things like…
…look up mimesis for the 100th time in my life (I can never remember what it means): “imitative representation of the real world in art and literature”
…try to determine whether there is any meaningful difference between suasive and persuasive (for all intents and purposes, no)
…learn the meaning of prolixity: Quality or state of being prolix, or unduly protracted in duration; specifically, a stylistic quality resulting from verboseness, diffuseness, and confusing or tedious copiousness of detail
Pro tip from Stan: No prolixity in your poems.
And thank you to my three favorite dictionaries:
sources Here’s another pro tip, related to that old saw “write what you know”: Plumly writes, in his essay “Words on Birdsong,”
“Of the many sources of poetry, experience tied to time is fundamental, and, finally, archetypal.”
“Contrivance is endless, a kind of lottery of the imagination. Poets cannot make things up. Poets make things from—from memory; from matter that cannot be changed, only transformed; from the rock of fact that may disappear, eventually, from erosion, but that cannot be willed, out of hand, to evaporate.”
I think what he’s saying is that in order to be compelling, a poem has to have something real behind it: real emotion, real intellectual inquiry, real experience. Something has to be at stake for the poet and/or in the poem. Incredible language, impressive craft—these are not enough. Some would disagree, of course, but the poems that stay with me are those that have it all: incredible language, impressive craft, and something at stake.
bridges A friend sent me this poem via text earlier this week. It’s W.S. Merwin killin’ it again. I love how it begins in certainty (“as I always knew it would be”), then veers into tentativeness and uncertainty. I love that the tentativeness of the poem is what carries it down the page until, BAM!: what’s at stake in five words. Here is…
THE BRIDGES by W. S. Merwin
Nothing but me is moving
on these bridges
as I always knew it would be
see moving on each of the bridges
and everything that we have known
even the friends
lined up in the silent iron railings
back and forth
I pass like a stick on the palings
rises from the marbled river
the light from the blank clocks crackles
like an empty film
are we living now
on which side which side
and will you be there
May this day be a lovely bridge to your weekend.
Hello, Reader, and happy Friday.
I’m a little low on words today, but have found a few gems — some new to me, some not — to share.
Let us commence:
bidden In a letter to his mother 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote:
“Art is a curious command. We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.”
In my experience, sometimes the light lets us see all around a room, or a good way along the path in front of us. Other times, it barely lets us see our own shoes. This week, I needed this reminder — that we must do what we are bidden to do. I think it’s good advice for art and life.
(BTW, have you ever wondered how many possible gems future generations of writers will lose out on because most of us no longer write letters? I mean, my own correspondence exists in the world primarily of texts that say things like: “At dr appt will call after” and “I.cannot.possibly.cook.another.dinner.” But maybe the gems will still be stashed somewhere by poets who are thinking worthier thoughts than I.)
notes on line Line is probably my favorite craft element of poetry because it can do so many different things. This week I went back to Best Words, Best Order to re-read a few things Stephen Dobyns says about line (in section three of his essay “Notes on Free Verse”).
Many times I’ve been in discussions with poets about whether or not line breaks should be “read” — that is, when reading a poem out loud (or in one’s head, for that matter) should one pause where the line breaks, or not? And if yes, for how long? (Full disclosure: I fervently believe that line breaks should be “read.”).
Denise Levertov famously said that a line break is worth “half a comma” — a pause not long enough to think, but “long enough to register something.” No pressure.
Dobyns lightens our load — I mean, how long is half a comma??? — by saying,
“(t)he exact duration is unimportant. It lasts about as long as it takes to move one’s eyes back to the beginning of the next line.”
I feel like I can commit to that.
Here are a few more things Dobyns says line / line breaks can do:
“Where the line breaks can never be a matter of accident since the line break is so much a part of both form and content. Indeed, it is often here that the poet’s most personal rhythms are clearest.”
a little song Last week I started reading Cecilia Woloch‘s new chapbook, EARTH, recently released by Two Sylvias Press. I started reading it, and finished, and started again, and finished again. I keep going back. It’s that good.
This is a lovely book, both object-wise — beautiful cover art, pleasing look and feel — and content-wise. In fierce but lovely language and image, these poems remember loved ones and lost worlds, explore mortality and inheritance, and allow their speaker to claim his/her Self (yes, that’s Self with a capital S). One of my favorite poems from the collection recognizes the reality that one’s Self actually contains a multitude of Selves. Here is:
LITTLE SONG FOR THE ONE AFRAID by Cecilia Woloch
Oh beloved, oh afraid
of the bloodstain, dark spot, ticking clock
of what has shone in your life like luck —
too bright to last — oh fortunate
who slipped the licked stones, glittering
inside your pockets, spread your arms
and dreamt your ghost wings would unfurl
from your bony shoulders — angel bones —
and that the sky would hold you up
and love — a tree from which you swung —
oh branch you called your father’s name
oh bird who sang your mother’s song
oh little sweeper of the world
whose life inside my life has burned.
(!!!”oh little sweeper of the world”!!!)
One of my Selves now must go off and schlepp some groceries for the Feeders of the Wee, Small House. (I think of them as Feeders. As in, “a person or animal that eats a particular food or in a particular manner.” Forgive me.)
I wish you a happy weekend, ample light to see by, a clear bidding from whatever your art might be, and a little song for your one afraid. Thanks for reading.