Msr. Coulon & memorization

This post responds to Cleveland Wall, a poet for whom recitation is part of presentation and who reminded me of an old poem of mine I had written in response to a visual image on a postcard. The image and the poem are below, but what strikes me about recalling the work is that it is one of the few poems I have managed to memorize.

Ms. Wall memorizes much of her work and has presented at performances such as slam poetry events and No River Twice shows [Facebook video link below–you can catch a glimpse of me reading here, too.]

 

Alas, I have ever and always been terrible at memorization. In Sunday school, my younger sibling earned points for Bible verse memorizing at probably twice my pace. I enjoyed theater but never learned lines well enough to manage more than walk-on roles. Song lyrics came more easily, probably because the music helped cue me to the phrases.

You would think a poet–a versifier!–could commit her own work to memory. But no. Add that to my numerous failings.

~~

I bought the Louis Coulon postcard in 1980 at a New York City stationer’s. What I did not know then (hey, no interwebs) was that Coulon sat for a number of portraits and was a relatively famous postcard subject at the fin de siecle.

Here’s the poem, first published by the estimable Harry Humes in the now-defunct Yarrow: A Journal of Poetry in 1982.

 

La Barbe

Monsieur Coulon, my grandfather, wore large mustaches and a beard three meters long. He tied it to the bedposts by night to avoid strangulation in his sleep; as it was, he died of fever in 1904, and the beard grew two centimeters more the day after his death. For years I had nightmares, Grandfather silently choking me in the posterbed I’d inherited from his estate. I bobbed my hair before the style became fashionable; Mama said it was scandalous, but the dreams ceased. I left Nievre for Paris and America, to avoid strangulation.

In 1942, I visited Savannah, Georgia, where trees resemble men, their great beards choking ocean breeze. I dream of trees opening gray coffins into a humid night–

                           I am an old woman, now, and waiting–

         ah, listen:

the wind is speaking French, Grandfather, it takes my precious breath away!

~

Louis Coulon, beard

~

P.S.–I have updated my P&W directory entry. Check out https://www.pw.org/directory/writers/ann_e_michael

 

 

Deer metaphor

I think the best poem about a car-struck deer is Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark.

Like Hayden Carruth’s “Mother,” (see my last post) Stafford’s poem is, for me, a kind of zenith–something to which I might aspire, but look, it’s already been done. So why pen my versions of the experience? Especially when I am not the writer Stafford was.

And might a reader accuse me of hijacking Stafford’s imagery when I write about similar incidents? I suppose I do run that risk. Nonetheless, the whitetails occur often in my poems from the past 20 years because I live in eastern Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania has an estimated 1.5 million deer—about 30 deer per square mile–and I suspect that in the suburban-rural zones such as the region where I reside, the number is higher. ann e michael

As a writer, my inclination has pretty much ever been to write about environment and place and to supply anecdote or lyrical narrative. Deer abound in my environment and in my work; and deer get killed on the roads here. The imagery lodges in my consciousness. After so many years observing them, deer have become both subject and metaphor. I may swerve, but I cannot always avoid them.

The following poem is from my collection Water-Rites, and here it is the speaker’s husband who pushes the doe’s body off to the side of the road. The presence of children changes the perspective considerably, despite other similarities to the Stafford poem. Maybe that is all I can offer: a slightly changed perspective, a different closure. I cannot un-moor myself from the images and places that inhabit me.

~

Yellow Forsythia

We glimpsed the doe
trying to rise, and failing,
in the roadside darkness.

“Stay here,” my husband said—
and a moment later,
“She’s hit.” I nodded. I’d seen
skidmarks on macadam.

The doe lay on her side and thrashed
while our engine idled,
thrashed, shuddered;
my husband placed his hand
on her neck.

In the car, our son stared
at the darkness. Our daughter wept:
“He’s frightened the deer.
She’s kicking to get away.”

The doe jerked, paused. “No,”
I said, “Your father is touching it.
Soothing it, so it will not die alone.”

He knelt by the quieting body.
Blood ran from the muzzle.
One ear twitched, I could see it
in the headlights. Death
closed in, a gentle exhalation.

My husband eased the carcass
off the road shoulder. He said,
“She must have suffered awhile.”

“Stupid cars,” my daughter muttered.
Her outrage engulfed our station wagon.

My son watched the white-
throated body, the yellow
forsythia lit by car lights.
He said, “Close the windows, please.”

~~

Poet and blogger Molly Spencer recently posted a lively consideration about recurring and repeating images here: https://mollyspencer.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/the-spider-why-the-spider-or-a-defense-of-recurring-images/

Worth a read, and worth discussion, too.

Begun in reverie

 

wooden fishing boats

Near Aviero, Portugal; photo: David Sloan

Today, I was thinking of Portugal. Nice memories. I went through my digital photographs, found this one, and fell into reverie. It is amazing how images enhance memory or enable us to embellish it. Sometimes, that is where a poem begins.

When my physical body walked upon this sand, beside this bay, the encounter was a mix of new–a place I’d never been before–and familiar or expected: smell of brine and fish, the feel of breezes in my hair and on my skin, of damp sand underfoot. I recall my delight at seeing the vividly-painted wooden boats, though I had certainly seen paintings and photographs of similar fishing crafts, so their appearance was not surprising. That’s because I have a friend who is an expert in wooden boat-making, Simon Watts; he has been around the world examining wooden boats and had told us to watch for these along the coast of Portugal. Simon is a teller of stories, as is his sister Marjorie Watts. So many hours Simon has regaled us with tales of the writing life, the sailing life, the traveling life, the woodworking life, his forays in Portugal…

Back to Portugal. I think of a most pleasant week there, not so long ago. Mind hums with possibilities. With images. With words.

~

This post is an effort to illustrate how image, memory, sensory experience, stories, human connections, and activities bounce around the neurological synapses while a person experiences reverie.

It isn’t reverie, of course, because I am writing; true reverie seldom includes much activity. Let me suggest the paragraphs and picture are somehow analogous to the reverie process, which often leads to imagination.

~

Next stop: Imagination! train 1And perhaps even a draft for a poem.

 

Poetry Month & Simic’s prose

I have read and enjoyed a great deal of Charles Simic‘s poetry over the years. How did I miss his prose?

I just picked up The Life of Images (2015) and find myself delighted indeed. This book makes a wonderful read for National Poetry Month, despite its subtitle “Selected Prose,” because so many of the pieces in this collection are about poetry or act as prose poems–a form Simic is well-known for.

Every other paragraph or so I find myself wanting to write down a glorious sentence, or a quote I should share with my poetry students, or a concise description that fits perfectly, such as Simic’s observation about Buster Keaton‘s persona in his silent movies: “Bedeviled by endless obstacles, Buster is your average slow-thinking fellow, seeking a hidden logic in an illogical world.”

9780062364715.jpg

Being of a philosophical bent myself, I was thrilled to read and then re-read “Notes on Poetry and Philosophy,” with its foundation of Heidegger and Simic’s sly and humorous references to Hegel, Schroedinger, Shakespeare, Dickinson, Whitman and others. That essay is really a series of prose poems that resemble philosophical puzzles and paradoxes.

His essays here often focus on visual art, as well. Movies, paintings, photographs. The image as metaphor.

“The poet is at the mercy of his metaphors. Everything is at the mercy of the poet’s metaphors, even Language, who is their Lord and master.” Ah, yes. One of many paradoxes surrounding the practice and theory of poetry:

“Everything would be simple if we could will our metaphors. We cannot…It took me years to admit that the poem is smarter than I am. Now I go where it wants me to go.”

“Metaphor is a part of the not-knowing aspect of art, and yet I’m firmly convinced that it is the supreme way of searching for truth.”

~

The usual progression of spring unfurls and blossoms around me, a bounty of images, thank goodness, and Simic has me mulling over my metaphors again.

 

 

 

 

Key images

I had intended to post on Denis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution; and I will (I suppose) at some point, because I enjoyed it immensely. Looking through my files, however, I found the transcripts from the initial interview Karen Jogan and Hernán Pereira conducted with me when they were compiling the book So Far…So Close and realized that my answers to some of their inquiries connect with my last post about poetic voice and Kunitz’s thoughts on key images. (The longer, but edited, version of the interview appears in the book).

~~

  1. What colors or aromas remind you of your childhood?

Cinnamon toast, mown grass, onion grass (wild garlic), lily-of-the-valley, cedar-water and pine trees, the scent of a muddy river in summer, wintergreen, play-dough, school paste, steam-irons, fresh peaches, campfires, burning leaves, talcum powder, Pepto-Bismol, air-dried clothes and linens, mimosa blossoms, roses, strawberries.snowdrops

  1. Describe yourself as a child.

I wonder from whose perspective I should attempt to answer this question. I know from others that I was considered to be shy and polite, talkative when comfortable, imaginative. I certainly felt uncomfortable among groups of people, preferring small groups of friends with whom I played make-believe. I made up stories which I told my sister and brother, and when I was old enough to write I made little children’s books that I illustrated and bound in cardboard.

My sister was my best friend, but I spent a good deal of time all by myself. When alone, I walked my dog, climbed trees, played on the swings, sketched and painted, and read books. I really was a bookworm and spent many happy hours with books and in libraries. Being alone was, and still is, deeply satisfying for me—it helps me regain creative energy.

  1. At what moment in your life did you begin to write?

I don’t remember when I began writing. My storytelling began early, and I suppose the writing developed from there. The first story I recall writing down was about a princess; I was in second grade. I felt proud of myself, even though the story was only about three sentences long. Apparently, the poems started when I was about nine. I don’t remember writing poems then, but I recently found some that I had composed and typed up (I was fascinated by the typewriter), and my mother’s notes said I was nine when I wrote them. What I really wanted to be was an artist, but writing seemed natural to me. I started keeping a journal when I was ten…

9yroldpoems010

Rhyming and typing and illustrating and bookmaking– at nine years old.

  1. What influences have been important to you?

Other writers, naturally, but first of all, visual art. From the time I was very small, I’ve loved paintings and sculptures and architecture. Church hymns and Bible verses and nursery rhymes were influential to me, as well as folk music and the lyricists of popular music when I was growing up. I am also influenced by non-fiction work, especially in the sciences, and philosophy. My early poetry influences were Donne, Shakespeare, Blake, and the King James Bible; but then I fell in love with contemporary women writers, then surrealist poets, then Latin American writers, then Asian poetry, then contemporary lyric poems…it goes on and on. It might be easier to say what I have not found particularly influential!

~~

With further reflection, I could go deeper about early images that have become, for me, “key” aspects of my writing voice…a particular landscape, the feeling of an empty nave, bees and birds, milkweed, cloud patterns, my parents singing, my little sister beside me in our shared bed, the sound of a symphony. They may not appear in my poems as such, but these images connect with me in ways I probably don’t understand. What do such keys unlock, I wonder?

~

Voice

I follow the Women’s Poetry Listserve (Wom-Po), and recently there was a discussion there concerning what poetic voice is. Can it be defined clearly? Does it differ, and if so how, from style? Is it personal, belonging to the writer herself–an attitude? Is it distinct from the creator of the poem, as the “speaker” of the poem arguably is in the case of poetic voice/persona?
A listserv member offered this quote from Kunitz:
“One of my convictions is that at the center of every poetic imagination is a cluster of key images which go back to the poet’s childhood and which are usually associated with pivotal experiences, not necessarily traumatic. That cluster of key images is the purest concentration of the self, the individuating node. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat.” … from Stanley Kunitz‘s 1975 lecture at the Library of Congress, “From Feathers to Iron.”

A constellation of key images may seem to be imagery, not voice at all; but Kunitz’s decision to connect distinctive voice with a recognizable beat and images, and to further suggest that these mesh to in the compositions of a poet who is writing with clarity and authenticity (my interpretation of what he means by “working at their center”), indicates that voice is a critical component of poetry. I have read the above-mentioned lecture, but Kunitz does not there elaborate on whether he means the writer’s personality, style, or attitude or whether he means, instead, persona. It seems to me, though, that he wasn’t talking about persona (the “speaker” or mask the writer uses in an individual piece). I interpret that the key constellation of images, the “individuating node,” would have to be personal experience of the actual writer–Roland Barthes be damned.

CH Chucrch

Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological approach to poetics and, to some extent, psychology, appears to jive with Kunitz’s pivotal childhood images. It is easier to recognize one’s own key images in one’s work, of course…and I cannot help but recognize that Kunitz has nailed it for me, at least, if not for all poets (writers, artists, musicians, etc.). My own cluster of images, drawn from childhood, include the church. Also the beat of hymns and responsive readings and the King James and RSV Bibles. Also the bleat and wail of diesel engine horns, the progression of fields and trees and flowers, the hum of highways, the sluggish flow of certain rivers. To mention but a few that stay with me.

I am not an adherent to any particular style or form of literary critique, and I am not a whole-hearted phenomenologist, either–but I have to admit that these concepts (the individual’s key images, the individual voice and the persona voice, the rhythm or beat of a writer/speaker) intrigue me. I find them well worth exploring, mulling over.

See Dave Bonta’s Via Negativa post here for a mini-photo-essay that illustrates what I mean.

Paz and poetic image

“The image is the key to the human condition.”

“Poetry is entry into being.”  ~Octavio Paz

All quotes in text below are from Paz, The Bow and the Lyre

~

Octavio Paz says all great works of art arouse in the spectator (or listener) “constellations of images” which “turn all works of art into poems.” In addition, what we find in the poem is something we already have within ourselves; we could not encounter it otherwise. What would that something within ourselves be? What do all of us possess in common, unique as we are? Paz doesn’t opt for a concept such as “soul” or “spirit” to define what all humans possess within ourselves. His answer is more mysterious but I think more accurate… “Poetry is nothing but time, rhythm perpetually creative.”

Some of us may protest we are not “creative.” But creative in this sense doesn’t mean that one has the ability to create art. It means one has the ability to create the imagined sensation, emotion, or context. All of us do this: the human concept of time, for example, takes considerable imagination–yet we all seem to have an understanding of time in our daily lives, even if our individual perceptions, or cultural perceptions, of time may vary a good deal. Give that idea of time, whatever it may be, a rhythm fueled by “rhythm as transformative change,” and perhaps that would be the origin of art. To encounter and be changed can only occur when something unexpected occurs through the experience.

~

“The image shocks because it defies the principle of contradiction: the heavy is the light. When it enunciates the identity of opposites, it attacks the foundations of our thinking. Therefore, the poem does not say what is, but what could be.”

“Since Parmenides our [Western] world has been the world of the clear and trenchant distinction between what is and what is not…Mysticism and poetry have thus lived a subsidiary, clandestine and diminished life. [As a result] man is in exile from the cosmic flux and from himself.”

(Here, I might suggest that Whitman made a significant attempt to bring those distinctions down.)

~books

Heidegger was still alive and writing when Paz was composing these essays, and Paz suggests that Heidegger had been no more able to reconcile the fact that “Western metaphysics ends in a solipsism” than were Husserl or Heraclitus. Paz adds: “Now, as some of his [Heidegger’s] writings show, he has turned to poetry,” and claims that “in losing our way in the world we have become estranged from ourselves. We have to begin again.”

And how to do so–except via image/imagination?

~

Well, we might examine Eastern thought, which “has not suffered this horror of the ‘other,’ of what is and is not at the same time…in the most ancient Upanishad the principle of the identity of opposites is plainly stated… ‘That art Thou.'”

Image as opposition, reconciled and unreconciled, inferred and stated, heavy and light: “of itself, language is an infinite possibility of meanings.”

This may be why writing good how-to instructions is as challenging as writing good poems. Yet according to Paz, “There are many ways to say the same thing in prose; there is only one in poetry.” Which brings us to a lovely seeming-paradox with which I will end this post:

“The poetic experience cannot be reduced to the word and, nevertheless, only the word expresses it. The image reconciles opposites, but this reconciliation cannot be explained by words…thus, the image is a desperate measure against the silence that invades us each time we try to express the terrible experience of that which surrounds us and ourselves. The poem is language in tension.”

(I might add that Emily Dickinson’s work provides excellent examples of the above.)