Favorite poems

In my last post, when writing about reading poems of grief, I mentioned Robert Pinsky–former US Poet Laureate. When Pinsky was Laureate, he promoted the program now called “The Favorite Poem Project.” The concept was to demonstrate that poetry appeals to a diverse audience; there are so many styles and types of poetry, on so many topics, that anyone can find a poem that appeals. Teachers, plumbers, teenagers, soldiers, business executives, mail carriers, truckers, grandparents, schoolchildren–anyone who had a poem that had special meaning was invited to say a bit about why or how that poem meant so much and then to read the poem aloud to an audience. Pinsky’s project included favorite poem reading events, and videorecordings of such events, now archived at the site…and a book.

This year–this past Tuesday, to be quite exact–I took part in a favorite poem reading at the college where I work. I find these readings rejuvenating. Sometimes the stories that surround the poem choice are heartwarming, sad, or funny. Some readers tell an anecdote about a favorite teacher, relative, friend, or book; it’s wonderful how those stories “work” with the chosen poem. The director of information technology related the story of how, when her mother was in labor with her, her mother was taken to the hospital by hearse because taxis in the south did not serve her “black neighborhood.” A dance professor offered the romantic story of his long-distance courtship with his (now) wife via letters and poems…and Neruda. An instructor spoke of his fascination with attics and his father’s estrangement from the family and then read Stanley Kunitz‘s amazing poem “The Portrait.”

The poem I read was also a Kunitz poem, “The Snakes of September,” one of his later works. I am not sure this is my favorite poem–indeed, I would be hard pressed to come up with one only, and I might choose Ben Johnson’s “On My First Son” or Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” or Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift” or…well, there are dozens. I just chose one I thought would suit the evening, a poem with a garden in it, and an allusion to Eden, and the lovely phrase “the wild/braid of creation/trembles.” It speaks to me.

Look for poems that speak to  you. Keep them near  you, on the fridge or by your desk, in a notebook by your bed, or in your heart. Share them if you feel the urge; you will be doing good.

Blessings for National Poetry Month and always.

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“The difference between Despair/And Fear”

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Events such as the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, devastating earthquakes or hurricanes that result in high death tolls, industrial accidents that destroy communities—these seem impossible to control and blame is hard to place, even in the latter case. News coverage in such situations tends to focus on damage and recovery efforts, then shifts to the next drama. Tragedies wrought by specific human perpetrators, however, become media spectacles here in the USA. The same few seconds of terrible footage repeatedly fill television and computer screens; viewers feel drawn into the activities of SWAT teams and reporters and the compelling speculations of forensic psychologists, terrorism experts, social commentators, politicians, witnesses. There are heated exchanges on social media forums.

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I’m beginning to believe societies get the popular culture they want or, alas, deserve (late Rome’s “bread and circuses,” anyone?). The circuses give us what society’s members, apparently, want to consume. Art, however, offers what they need, whether or not they want it. During times of media frenzy, when the culture in which I live seems numbed by “infotainment” and nonstop visual and audio coverage of tragic events, I find myself turning to art—usually poetry—for grounding, for solace, for affirmation of the human spirit and for a way to confront human truths.

~

I do not suggest that poetry necessarily comforts. Often, it wears me ragged, forces me to wrestle with ambiguities, to question my values. Sometimes, art brings me to tears.

I do not consider these results to be negative results. These reactions are human reactions; I am reminded of my humanity through my engagement with art.

A good little anthology for times of grief is The Handbook of Heartbreak, edited by Robert Pinsky. Pinsky’s selections cover the human spectrum of sorrows: broken romances, dead pets, war, disaster, family and social losses and the desolate emptiness of depression, sorrow that is concrete and existential, spiritual and personal and cultural.

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Speculation is something inquisitive minds do well, but it is easy to believe our speculations, to forget they are merely imaginings that may or may not be valid. When a crime becomes a widely-broadcast web of information blips, the suspect is forejudged in the court of public opinion; I feel concerned about our nation’s commitment to the concept of innocent until proven guilty in a court of law (how on earth will that be possible?). What irks me most about media coverage of the Newtown, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Tucson, Boston Marathon, Columbine and other killings is the retreat into a kind of contorted deductive reasoning based on imaginative constructions of human intent and purpose—the search for motivation that drives the forensic end of these crimes becomes a news story led by experts who imply they can get to the truth. But can we ever know the truth? Each human being is unique and ultimately unexplainable, and often the way we are best reminded of that fact is through art: fiction, theater, paintings, poetry. On his New Yorker blog, Adam Gopnik notes:

Experts tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen; poets and novelists tell us the meaning of what they haven’t seen, either, but have somehow managed to fully imagine. Maybe the literature of terrorism, from Conrad to Updike (and let us not forget Tolstoy, fascinated by the Chechens) can now throw a little light on how apparently likable kids become cold-hearted killers. Acts of imagination are different from acts of projection: one kind terrifies; the other clarifies.

~

We need clarity.

~

I might add that in my day job, I work with young people between the ages of 17 and 24, day in, day out. These young adults experience varying levels of frustration, confusion, numbness, fear, anxiety, excitement, need for risk, need for security, withdrawal, social discomfort, and inner turmoil. I cannot look at the perpetrators of recent civilian massacres without thinking of my students. I do not mean that I am wary or that I think one of my students might snap; what I mean is that I feel compassion for the conflictedness each human being is capable of feeling and that I understand all too well that not all of us are capable of contending with that conflict.

Some of us can accomplish through acts of imagination the confrontation with what terrifies or numbs us. These people include our artists. Those who cannot express or embrace the confrontation are at risk of projecting the inner conflict, fear, or insecurity elsewhere, as Gopnik makes clear.

Can art make us safe? We live in the world: not an inherently safe place. I think if we embrace what art offers us we will not be in retreat from the truths of the human experience but will learn to confront truths, even those that are uncomfortable. Art gives us insight, a step toward understanding. Can art grant us clarity? I think so.

Therefore, Emily Dickinson (305):

The difference between Despair
And Fear—is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck—
And when the Wreck has been—

The Mind is smooth—no Motion—
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust—
That knows—it cannot see—

~

 

“The Visionaries” [a poem by a friend]

"Diana" by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; photo by Pete Finneran 2000. Image courtesy of Brookgreen Museum.  www.brookgreen.org

“Diana” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens; photo by Pete Finneran 2000. Image courtesy of Brookgreen Museum.
http://www.brookgreen.org

A poem by Beejay Grob © 2013

The Visionaries

We too had seen the gardens
sculpted by every season now.
A significant collective ‘we’–
myself, and practically anyone
I could target; one-by-one,
rain, autumn, winter night.

The family album holds each
posing sandwiched on a tailgate
flocked outside the aviary;
all standing straight as statues,
shot by the granite Pegasus.
Everyone except you, Muse.

Beneath a hospitality of waving
palmettos, feathering Carolina skies
from here to Charleston,
the stone-silent Visionaries
lean in from their perch,
reflecting in their secret oracle.

I took a stab at it when Orion
hung low over midnight oaks,
a carved moon enlightening Anna:
Why so many huntresses?
I determined her quivering gifts
sighted monumental occasions.

Walk among the springtime
blooms, the lubbers mating openly,
or in summer’s dead heat–
count the times she made a point
to cast herself as Diana,
the female Archer.

~ ~ ~

National Poetry Month, 2013. Many thanks to Beejay Grob, who wrote the poem and who introduced me to the beauty of Brookgreen Gardens in spring.

Brookgreen Plantation and Sculpture Gardens, Myrtle Beach SC

Comparison as analysis

April may be the cruelest month, may be the time of cherry blossoms hung with snow, may be the time to celebrate poetry–as if we could confine it to one month, those of us who love it–anyway, it is also the last full month of the spring college semester. After endeavoring to impart some understanding of the principles of literary analysis of poetry to my students for the past ten weeks, I assigned a short paper that taught me a great deal. Perhaps it taught my students something, as well.

It occurred to me that metaphor–indeed, most figures of speech–are based upon likenesses, direct or analogous or implied. Yet we Western thinkers are taught to observe differences first and foremost. We learn that red is different from blue, that a ball is different from a block; and I am not disputing those differences. When we speak metaphorically, however, we imply similarity instead. My students default to contrast for analysis and to similarity for description.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s very Aristotelian. But what if we turn things 180 degrees? Think of Linnaeus, who classified so many plants and animals; he grouped life forms according to likeness. The differences branched off from the similarities. He described what was overtly or subtly similar, then analyzed for differentiation.

Any two poems have at least a few things in common, so I asked my students to do a comparison-only study, briefly, in a 2-page paper. Initially, they had a great deal of trouble with the assignment. They wanted to contrast. Their interests lay in what was noticeably different about each poem. They genuinely struggled to stay on the topic of similarity, but the outcomes were some of the best papers I have yet had from this class. A student told me that this exercise “really made me think.” Yin-Yang

Fascinating response, really. What does it tell us about our brains, our education, our observational instincts, that we want to stress difference before similarity? Is this a Western civilization thing, or an in-our-DNA-thing? I wonder.

The process that makes a person think, though, is a learning process for certain. Once we can recognize similarities between disparate works of art, we can perhaps recognize similarities between philosophies, religions, human beings. The very differences may become beautiful or intriguing rather than frightening or alien. We may learn to become more comfortable with variety, and more appreciative of it. I know my reading life would be much the poorer if I refused to read, try to understand, or value novels or poems that seemed challengingly “other.” I do not love all of the work I read, but everything teaches me something.

The poems below are very different. In what ways, specifically, are they alike?

Spleen (by Charles Baudelaire, tr. by Robert Lowell)

I’m the king of a rain country, rich
but sterile, young but with an old wolf’s itch,
one who escapes Fenelon’s apologues,
and kills the day in boredom with his dogs;
nothing cheers him, darts, tennis, falconry,
his people dying by the balcony;
the bawdry of the pet hermaphrodite
no longer gets him through a single night;
his bed of fleur-de-lys becomes a tomb;
even the ladies of the court, for whom
all kings are beautiful, cannot put on
shameful enough dresses for this skeleton;
the scholar who makes his gold cannot invent
washes to cleanse the poisoned element;
even in baths of blood, Rome’s legacy,
our tyrants’ solace in senility,
he cannot warm up his shot corpse, whose food
is syrup-green Lethean ooze, not blood.

~ ~
Arrival (by William Carlos Williams)

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom–
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !

~

(These poems are shared under the Creative Commons and are copyrighted by the estates and/or publishers of these poets)

Judging poems

During National Poetry Month, a local newspaper (Lehigh Valley Press) sponsors, with a local public radio station (WDIY), a poetry contest for children ages 6-17. This year I was one of seven people, most of us educators, on the judging panel.

Judging poetry is always a rather fraught endeavor, and when one is reading the work of novices–particularly very young ones–setting standards can be challenging. What were we looking for, exactly? How could we decide whether the writing of one 14-year-old was “better” than the work of another? How to assess the poetry of 8-year-olds?

Our coordinator and organizer began with such questions and by asking us to describe what each of us seeks in any poem–not poems by children, but any good poem. Would children’s work feature any of these attributes? Successful attempts at poetic strategies or craft, for example–we may be able to determine that a 10-year-old’s work shows signs of poetic craft. Imagery that moves beyond the expected or clichéd? Young people often prove quite capable of that part of writing.

We are experienced in the classroom, too, and can usually tell when a child’s work shows signs of being ‘overly-coached’ by a well-meaning adult. Alas, all too often an adult’s interference deadens the imaginative if occasionally grammatically-incorrect approach children take. We can also tell which poems come of a classroom assignment when we get submissions of numerous 7-line poems on “snow.” This is not to suggest that none of the poems are worthy of note: an imaginative writer of any age can probably create a lovely piece conforming to the assigned framework. But, as teachers, we found ourselves responding to the assignments themselves (“That’s clever and would work well with third-graders, too;” “They must be studying the Black Plague;” “Looks as though they made a word bank for this one;” and so on). We had to remind ourselves to look at the work itself for the earmarks of imaginative ideas and use of language.

Interestingly, first-place poems seemed obvious and agreement was usually unanimous. This was true for elementary school, middle school, and high school writers: the best work does stand out.

Choosing the second and third place poems was more difficult and resulted in lively conversation about what makes a good poem, what matters more: authenticity of experience? discernible voice? vivid imagery? clear use of craft? emotional expression? imagination? Each of the judges had useful insights that reminded me of the value of thoughtful criticism and the value of poetry-as-art.

It was also heartening to read the work of so many young people who showed a willingness to play with words, to think about aesthetics and feelings and language, and to show their work to others. I’m grateful to the teachers who took the time to introduce their students to poetry and to encourage their pupils to write.

I celebrate myself…

April is National Poetry Month in the USA, and I begin the month with Walt Whitman’s famous phrase and will attempt to duplicate the joyous urgency of his call to celebration. That means I am going to try to post just a little more frequently in April.

Poetry month began this year with a wonderful act of creative largesse on the part of a friend who sent me a poem…dedicated to me. Receiving a gift like this one is humbling; and it has been quite a long time since anyone’s written a piece for me. David Dunn, to whom my collection Water-Rites is dedicated, wrote a few poems for me or inspired (indirectly or directly) by our friendship or my family and surroundings. But he died over a decade ago, and since then I suppose I have had to learn to celebrate myself.

Not that this is a bad thing–celebrating the self–but for some of us it presents certain cultural or psychological obstacles. In this, Whitman has been an important teacher for me. As a great observer, loafer, lover of the world and all its beings, he was able to include himself among the beloved. My background, Protestant, agrarian, modest, surrounded by the biblical entreaty to remain always humble before God, combined with a natural shyness, means that I have had trouble admitting of self-celebration in any form and under any circumstances. I don’t take praise comfortably. The left hand shouldn’t know what the right hand is doing.

However, Whitman seems contented in his skin and in his world and follows a different parable as model: he does not hide his light under a bushel.

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Furthermore, his passion admits of compassion and of aesthetic appreciation for all of the “Kosmos.” Each breath, scent, texture, color, hue, person, idea, object, sentient or non-, living or inert or dead long-past or recently, religious or scientific or imagined comes to life in language through line, syntax, lists, descriptions, words. I think there is a hint of zen-like acceptance in Whitman’s most lasting poetry, the vulnerable willingness to accept all that we experience and to do so non-judgmentally.

Thank you, Beejay, for the poem. I feel inspired anew. And as I celebrate all poets and the valuable, irreplaceable, gorgeous, ancient art of poetry this month, I shall endeavor to embark upon the celebration of myself (davening to ol’ Walt with humble pleasure). Therefore, a reminder:

My book Water-Rites is still in print, and Brick Road Poetry Press sells it (as does Amazon.com, where poetry-lovers can purchase the book in e-book form for Kindle). Dawn Leas reviews it at Poets Quarterly this month. Click for the link here!

May April be full of revelations in the form of poems for you.  water-rites by Ann E Michael