The Literalists of the Imagination

Saturday is the last day of April, which makes this my last National Poetry Month-themed post.  So, here are a couple poems about poetry.  It’s always fascinating to see how many poets write poems that examine, discuss, and sometimes defend the art and impulse of writing poetry.

“Poetry” – Marianne Moore 

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond 

all this fiddle. 

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one 

discovers in 

it after all, a place for the genuine. 

Hands that can grasp, eyes 

that can dilate, hair that can rise 

if it must, these things are important not because a 

/ 

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because 

they are 

useful. When they become so derivative as to become 

unintelligible, 

the same thing may be said for all of us, that we 

do not admire what 

we cannot understand: the bat 

holding on upside down or in quest of something to 

/ 

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless 

wolf under 

a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse 

that feels a flea, the base- 

ball fan, the statistician– 

nor is it valid 

to discriminate against “business documents and 

/ 

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make 

a distinction 

however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the 

result is not poetry, 

nor till the poets among us can be 

“literalists of 

the imagination”–above 

insolence and triviality and can present 

/ 

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” 

shall we have 

it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, 

the raw material of poetry in 

all its rawness and 

that which is on the other hand 

genuine, you are interested in poetry.

/

“Anyone Can Write a Poem” – Bradley Paul 

I am arguing with an idiot online. 

He says anybody can write a poem. 

I say some people are afraid to speak.

I say some people are ashamed to speak. 

If they said the pronoun “I” 

they would find themselves floating 

in the black Atlantic 

and a woman would swim by, completely 

dry, in a rose chiffon shirt, 

until the ashamed person says her name

and the woman becomes wet and drowns 

and her face turns to flayed ragged pulp, 

white in the black water. 

He says that he’d still write 

even if someone cut off both his hands. 

As if it were the hands that make a poem, 

I say. I say what if someone cut out 

whatever brain or gut or loin or heart 

that lets you say hey, over here, listen, 

I have something to tell you all, 

I’m different. 

As an example I mention my mother 

who loved that I write poems

and am such a wonderful genius. 

And then I delete the comment 

because my mother wanted no part of this or any 

argument, because “Who am I 

to say whatever?” 

Once on a grade school form 

I entered her job as hairwasher. 

She saw the form and was embarrassed and mad. 

“You should have put receptionist.” 

But she didn’t change it. 

The last word she ever said was No. 

And now here she is in my poem, 

so proud of her idiot son, 

who presumes to speak for a woman 

who wants to tell him to shut up, but can’t.

/

And now, to wrap up the week and the month, here are a few interesting links worth taking a look at.  A few are related to poetry, a few are about writing in general.

Charles Bernstein’s “Against National Poetry Month As Such”

“Forgetting the Words” from the blog Cross-Ties by xties

“Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me That Writing Your First Novel is Terrifying?” from Occupation: Writer by carrie m

“Book Review of Giveaway: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” from Jess Witkin’s Happiness Project

One final note: I will most likely not have internet access next week, so I can’t promise that I’ll be able to get my scheduled posts up.  On top of that, next wed I’m going to an Arcade Fire concert, and next fri is my birthday.  So even if I get a hold of wifi, I might not get posts up in time.  Just to warn you…

Angels, Love, and Old Men: A Quick Review of ‘Heavy Lead Birdsong’

In honor of National Poetry Month, I have tried to offer readers a few options for poetry that I believe is worth reading.  Obviously, this is a very subjective kind of thing, but I have tried to suggest poets who I admire, who are interesting and touching, and who may be somewhat accessible for the general reader who is perhaps not ready or not interested in more complex, dense poetry.

The poets I have mentioned so far (Stephen Vincent Benet, Adrienne Rich, and Hugo Williams, along with a couple others in passing) are all older, established, well-known, well-loved poets.  However, today I would like to suggest one of the U.S.’s new poets – a poet who will, I believe, one day be as well-known and well-loved as the others I’ve discussed.

His name is Ryler Dustin, and his book of poetry, published in 2008, is Heavy Lead Birdsong.

In favor of full disclosure, I should tell you that I know Ryler.  He is a student in the MFA Creative Writing program at University of Houston, where I was in the MA Literature program (and will soon be in the PhD program).  We have taken a few classes together, and know each other enough to say ‘hi’ in hallways and on facebook occasionally, but we are not, strictly speaking, “friends.”  Nor did Ryler ask me to promote his book in anyway (I don’t think I ever even told him I BOUGHT his book).  Therefore, this recommendation is based purely on my belief that Ryler Dustin is a fantastic poet who is worthy of your attention.

Heavy Lead Birdsong is about many things – love, family, religion, death, desperation, the things we leave behind and the things we hope to leave behind when we’re gone, art and beauty.  It is at its essence a song cycle to life – every part of it, the beautiful and the ugly.  Ryler moves effortlessly from the joyous, to the elegiac, to the whimsical, to the hilarious, and back again.  He manages to speak from his specific life experiences, while simultaneously speaking from a place that is recognizable (sometimes painfully so) to everyone.

The poems of this collection contain deep, often heavy, layered metaphors.  Yet the overall effect of these poems is one of openness, straight-forwardness, and clarity.  Ryler does not try to obfuscate or over-complicate.  He does not simplify what is rightly complex, but neither does he turn the simple things into a tangle of dense, cerebral language games.

I am not stating it too strongly to say that Ryler is one of those poets I wish to God I could be – he speaks of things that I feel, that I too have experienced, but he relates them in ways I could never hope to.

I think providing a few examples from the collection may be the best way to win you over, however.  So I’m going to hand the rest of this blog over to Ryler’s poetry.  Two of my favorite poems from this collection are too long to quote in full here, unfortunately.  “Blackbirds” is about angels; the narrator states:

“If I ever decided to believe in angels,

I’d believe in street wanderers

watching us from alleyways

and the sides of greasy dumpsters,

They’d communicate with each other

through the curling graffiti

that most of us assume is the work of some gang

They’d be fighting with shadows like schizophrenics.

They’d be sending us desperate blessings

from barrel-fire séances…”

And in “My Old Man,” the narrator tries to keep control of the old man ‘love’ that’s inside him:

“I took away his typewriter because the keys

     kept me up all night.

But now he scratches poems on the inside of my tongue.

     I don’t know how he gets up there.

He writes poems to strangers

     just to fuck with me.

He’s more like a leprechaun than a cupid.

     He falls in love with buildings.

     He falls in love with what people leave behind them:

         new hairpins and old architecture and apple cores.

     He hoards apples in my chest

         and now my chest is full of apples.

                My chest is growing into a tree…”

Finally, here is one whole poem for you.  The second-to-last poem in the collection, and one of several “birdsong” poems.

“Oak and Sunlight Birdsong”

When they cut me open,

they’ll find whole novels I swallowed too fast

so I could go back to playing video games.

They’ll find too many mirrors,

some filled with my face,

some with the reflections of strange birds,

most of them filled with the faces of girls

who have deep circles under their eyes.

/

Maybe because of my mother, overworked women

have always looked beautiful to me.

/

Inside the back bedroom of my spine,

they’ll find a lopsided movie projector

replaying a game of tag in a trailer park.

/

In my skull they’ll find a chair

by a sunlit window

and a bottle of spilt win

pooling like a black eye.

/

They’ll find a field beyond the window

and a book left fluttering on the sill.

/

They’ll never know if I left before finishing it,

or if I was just going back,

reading over all the parts in the story I loved.

It’s probably obvious by now that these are not the kinds of reviews you’d find in a literary journal, or even in a newspaper.  For one thing, in keeping with the brevity preferred in blogging, these “reviews” aren’t really long enough to do the books justice.  Second, I have tried to avoid all the usual sorts of philosophical and literary theory lingo one usually finds in a review, particularly because this blog is not really meant for an academic audience.  So, I worry that as “reviews” these posts have been somewhat useless.  However, I hope that my personal appreciation for these poets, and the inclusion of some of the poems from the collections, have done you some good.  In the end, I’m not trying to offer a critique, I am merely hoping more people will read the poets I love.

I hope this leads at least some of you to go and buy this book and support a young, new, hopeful, struggling poet who really deserves the chance.

“All Those Moments That Haunt Us”

Today, I would like to offer up one more of my own poems for your perusal.  I think this will be the last poem of my own that I post, at least for now.  I said at the beginning that I had 4 poems published a few years ago by my undergraduate fine arts journal.  I’ve decided that I would only post those poems because I have hopes on having a few of my others published in the future as well and many publications consider blog-posts as being “previously published” and therefore disqualified.  I know, some of you are saying, “but this will only make #3.  Where’s #4?”  Well, over the last couple years I’ve realized that #4 was NOT in fact ready for publication, and I sometimes wonder how it did get published in the journal.  So I’m not going to post that one.  Sorry.

That being said, this third and last poem of my own is definitely my favorite of the 4 that were published.  I’m very proud of this poem.  It was written in 2008.  I’ve actually written two different versions of this “story” – once in this poem, and once in an odd memoir-ish short prose piece (which uses much of the same imagery but also adds a lot in the way of context and explanation).  I may, at some point, post that as well if people are interested.  In the mean time, please enjoy this last poem and feel free to tell me what you think.  I enjoy feedback, even if its less-than-glowing feedback.

"North Bridge Night" by Fergus Ray Murray (CC)

“All Those Moments That Haunt Us”

—  for my brother

It’s midnight and we’re walking again.

The mottled clouds are flowering

into petals etched with gray and black;

the dark sky is showering us in

shards of glass that slice your skin

and pound heavy on my bowing back.

/

Like hunters, we are stalking –

(sleep is an elusive thing we chase to our beds) –

denying to ourselves that memory chases us instead.

/

So we stroll down the side of the road.

We wave at cars passing by.

We talk and laugh and sing and wonder why

our voices come back to us from the

darkness – bouncing off invisible walls.

/

I’m content with this:

my hands stuffed low in jean pockets,

my long stride, the dark pressed against my side

to hold some things in, to keep others out.

But you are always hungry;

you cannot silence your ravenous shout.

/

You are eating the green glow, red glare,

of stoplights; drinking up the sounds

of sirens; swallowing rain-hung trees

and chunks of pavement whole –

trying to feed your starved, distended soul.

/

The boundaries of your skin are splitting,

and I want to wrap you in white ribbon,

force the calm back into your bones, beg you

to understand that exploding does no good.

/

You should know, you’ve exploded before –

often enough to have learned to ignore

the building pressure within your bones and veins.

You’ll learn, I whisper, you’ll learn to keep still.

But you stare at me, and refuse to believe

I have ever known that slow burn, that restless chill –

that electric-organ screeching high-high C

in your arctic, tv-static brain.

/

So I turn the pressure valve loose by singing:

laughing, you join in and the steam is releasing,

you’re drowning out the screeching in your head,

gathering up your flayed and worn-out skin,

and screaming at the empty sky instead.

/

But what of all those moments that haunt us?

No amount of singing or screaming ever

chases them away – those beer-bottle ghosts

wreathed in cigarette smoke, those moments

filled with the thunder of clenching throats

and the pounding clamor of a mother’s tears.

/

What are we to make of them, my brother?

What are we to do with all that silent pain?

Awake, asleep, or dreaming, they chase us.

And we run.  Every night.  At midnight.  In the rain.


Quick Personal Update: My demon hunter WIP is still in progress.  It’s going slower than I had hoped, but any progress is better than none.  I’ve just finished Ch. 24 and I think I need 4-5 more chapters to reach the end (I hope).  In other news, I have officially accepted a Doctoral Teaching Fellowship at University of Houston, where I will begin my course work for a PhD in American Postmodern Literature in the Fall, while teaching Freshman Composition classes, as I did while working on my Master’s.  Right now, I’m The Master.  In five years’ time, I’ll expect people to start calling me The Doctor.  Just to warn you. 😀  Finally, my birthday is two weeks from today, in case anyone wants to get me a present… (j/k, I swear!)

Also, Happy Easter to those who celebrate.  And to those who don’t: have a lovely weekend!

That’s all folks.

Poetry By Way of Apology, and Do Lyrics Count?

First off, my apologies for the lateness of this post.  I spent the day at a symposium on Feminist Pedagogies: Interdisciplinarity, Transnational Practices, and Production of Knowledge.  Two of my favorite things in academics are feminist theory and pedagogical theory, so I was really looking forward to the talks.  It was highly enjoyable, extremely enlightening and informative, and very very exhausting.  I am always amazed how tired I can get when essentially all I’m doing is sitting around listening to people talk.  But it is extremely mentally draining.

Anyway, I had hoped to get a post up last night, or early this morning.  But as you can see, neither of those things happened.  So, by way of apology I am offering up another one of my poems as a sacrifice, as well as one of my favorite poems by a brilliant poet.

First, here’s one of my poems.  I’m not going to go into any background on this one, except to say that it was written in 2007, and is one of the few I’ve written that is essentially the same from first draft to end result, except for a few words here or there.

“Death Wish”

angry screaming over pounding bass

guitars screeching through a million notes

that is how your life has always been

riding whining motorcycles

hair catching the wind in a golden net

fierce eyes gleaming silver in the sun

as you grin, playing chicken with Death

cling to your smiling nonchalance

wield your flashing knives and razor tongue

kneel and kiss their barren graves –

the family that you couldn’t keep –

and wonder why you never cry

but don’t tell a soul that you’re bleeding

search for answers in half-smoked cigarettes

and empty bottles of tequila

in the end, Life’s a vindictive bitch

and you laugh and dare her to prove you wrong

and as the jello shots and cigarettes

fade from your blood, and your sleek, fast bikes

weigh down your wings more than they set you free

you yearn more than ever to feel

the earth fall away beneath you

weep then at their bitter graves

for the first and only time

and smile for the taste of Death is sweet

a high cliff on the blue horizon

is attractive to a troubled soul

go ahead and jump…  I’ll bet you can fly

And now, a poem by a brilliant poet, one of my favorites.  I’ll tell you who it is after you read it (though some of you, no doubt, will know right away).

“Famous Blue Raincoat”

It’s four in the morning, the end of December

I’m writing you now just to see if you’re better

New York is cold but I like where I’m living

There’s music on Clinton street all through the evening

/

I hear that you’re building your little house

Deep in the desert

You’re living for nothing now

I hope you’re keeping some kind of record

/

Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair

She said that you gave it to her

That night that you planned to go clear

Did you ever go clear?

/

Ah, the last time we saw you, you looked so much older

Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder

You’d been to the station to meet every train

And you came home without Lili Marlene

/

And you treated my woman to a flake of your life

And when she came back she was nobody’s wife

Well, I see you there with the rose in your teeth

One more thin gypsy thief

Well, I see Jane’s awake, she sends her regards

/

And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer

What can I possibly say?

I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you

I’m glad you stood in my way

/

If you ever come by here for Jane or for me

Well, your enemy is sleeping and his woman is free

Yes, and thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes

I thought it was there for good, so I never tried

/

And Jane came by with a lock of your hair

She said that you gave it to her

That night that you planned to go clear

So, yes, for those who knew and those who didn’t, this “poem” is actually a song by Leonard Cohen.  On top of the many albums he’s produced, he’s published books of poetry, which include many of his songs as well as poetry written strictly AS poetry.  As I mentioned once before, songs – at least SOME songs – definitely count as poetry.  Some of it is, in fact, extremely beautiful and powerful poetry.  And Leonard Cohen is an absolutely brilliant poet, whether he’s writing strict poetry or music.  I highly suggest going online and just looking at some of his other songs/poetry.  Everything he writes is gold.

So, do you think songs count as poetry?  What musicians/song-writers do think of as poets?  Any particular song/poems you’d like to share?

A Review: Adrienne Rich’s Tonight No Poetry Will Serve

Adrienne Rich is one of my favorite poets, though I did not discover her until my second year of college (shocking, I know!).  I found her a little late in the game, I admit, but I have done my upmost to catch up since then, and I have bought/borrowed/read 15 of her publications so far (that includes both her poetry and her essay collections).  She is not only a magnificent poet but a staunch supporter of all the arts, and an important activist for anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements.  I admire her greatly not only as a writer but as a person.  Therefore, I would like to offer up a very quick review of her newest volume of poetry, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve.

To give just a little background: Adrienne Rich (b. 1929) had her first volume of poetry, A Change of World, published in 1951 when it was picked by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award.  She married Alfred Conrad in 1953 and had three sons.  In the ‘60s she joined anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activism.  During this time, she grew increasingly dissatisfied with her marriage.  She and her husband split in 1970, and in October of that year, her husband shot and killed himself.  A year later, Rich came out as a lesbian, and became one of America’s most vocal and prolific feminist activists and writers.

Tonight No Poetry Will Serve (2011), Adrienne Rich’s 29th publication to date, is a stark, passionate-yet-controlled exploration of a society that has been, for better or worse, irrevocably changed in the 21st century.  The subject matter of this collection ranges far and wide, from her continued urgent focus on women’s issues to her reflections on war, from her relationship with language and poetry, to the complications of identity.  It encompasses, as the book jacket states: “partings and reconciliations, solidarities and ruptures, trust and betrayal, exposure and withdrawal.”  What it occasionally lacks in the musicality of Rich’s early works (which I occasionally miss, rightly or wrongly), it makes up for with its sharp, intense tone and its unblinking, unapologetic, honest, analyzing gaze.  The poetry retains the bite that Adrienne Rich has become known for.  And her poetry is, as ever, highly political – charged and daring in a way that few poets are (or were when she began, in any case, more poets dare to be political now than they ever used to).  Even after 29 publications and more than 50 years of writing, her commitment, intensity, and daring have never yet wavered.  And I believe they never will.

Below are two poems from Tonight No Poetry Will Serve:

“Tonight No Poetry Will Serve”:

Saw you walking barefoot

taking a long look

at the new moon’s eyelid

/

later spread

sleep-fallen, naked in your dark hair

asleep but not oblivious

of the unslept unsleeping

elsewhere

/

Tonight I think

no poetry

will serve

/

Syntax of rendition:

/

verb pilots the plane

adverb modifies action

/

verb force-feeds noun

submerges the subject

noun is choking

verb    disgraced    goes on doing

/

now diagram the sentence

*****

“The Ballade of the Poverties”:

There’s the poverty of the cockroach kingdom and the rusted toilet bowl

The poverty of to steal food for the first time

The poverty of to mouth a penis for a paycheck

The poverty of sweet charity ladling

Soup for the poor who must always be there for that

There’s the poverty of theory poverty of the swollen belly shamed

Poverty of the diploma mill the ballot that goes nowhere

Princes of predation let me tell you

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

There’s the poverty of cheap luggage bursted open at immigration

The poverty of the turned head, the averted eyes

The poverty of bored sex of tormented sex

The poverty of the bounced check the poverty of the dumpster dive

The poverty of the pawned horn the poverty of the smashed reading glasses

The poverty pushing the sheeted gurney the poverty cleaning up the puke

The poverty of the pavement artist the poverty passed-out on pavement

Princes of finance you who have not lain there

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

There is the poverty of hand-to-mouth and door-to-door

And the poverty of stories patched-up to sell there

There’s the poverty of the child thumbing the Interstate

And the poverty of the bride enlisting for war

There’s the poverty of prescriptions who can afford

And the poverty of how would you ever end it

There is the poverty of stones fisted in pocket

And the poverty of the village bulldozed to rubble

Princes of weaponry who have not ever tasted war

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

There’s the poverty of wages wired for the funeral you

Can’t get to the poverty of the salary cut

There’s the poverty of human labor offered silently on the curb

The poverty of the no-contact prison visit

There’s the poverty of yard sale scrapings spread

And rejected the poverty of eviction, wedding bed out on street

Prince let me tell you who will never learn through words

There are poverties and there are poverties

/

You who travel by private jet like a housefly

Buzzing with the other flies of plundered poverties

Princes and courtiers who will never learn through words

Here’s a mirror you can look into: take it: it’s yours.

*****

It used to be that poetry was considered an inappropriate place to discuss something as practical and important politics, and vice-versa that politics was an unworthy topic for something as beautiful and important as poetry.  In the last few decades this stance of changed considerably, and now quite a few poets are willing, able, and even eager to take on the subject of politics in their poetry.  But when Adrienne Rich first got started, it was a daring, even crazy thing to do, at least for a woman poet.

How do you feel about the convergence of politics and poetry?  And, more specifically, how do you feel about Adrienne Rich’s poetry – either what you’ve read here, or what you’ve read elsewhere?

“Nisei”: A Poem by Me; Plus, a few by a much better poet

So, I made this little promise on Wednesday’s blog that I would post one of my poems.  Pretty much as soon as I said that, I wanted to take it back.  As sensitive as I can occasionally be about my writing in general, I am far more paranoid about my poetry.  And this is for two reasons: 1) my poetry (like much, but not all) is extremely personal and mostly autobiographical; and 2) I’m just not that good at it.  I am not a brilliant fiction writer (yet…) by any stretch of the imagination, but I do feel that I have some potential in that area that on the whole my fiction writing “isn’t bad.”  My poetry on the other hand… well…

Still, I have a few that are decent, at any rate.  In fact, I had four poems published by my undergraduate university literary journal, so I’m giving you one of those in order to get a feel for my audience.  This poem was written (and obsessively revised) between 2004-2007.  (Note: WordPress screwed up some of the spacing and line-placement, but oh well…)

Nisei

for Grandma

The old mahogany cuckoo clock chimes the hour.

Dawn.

The thin light filters in through thick curtains,

casting shadows on the walls.

I rock softly in Grandpa’s recliner,

my legs curled to my chest, my eyes closed.

Grandma is on the phone,

greeting her brother’s voice across

a million miles of wire – “moshi moshi…”

Her words, like puzzle pieces,

spread out wide before me.

She will not teach me Japanese:

Manzanar taught her the value of silence.

She has her back to me, facing the kitchen

as if her entire life were contained there –

a passive prisoner in a curtained cage.

When she hangs up, she will turn to me,

and pretend she’s surprised I am there,

though I am always sitting in the dim light,

listening.

She’ll smile at me, and her wrinkled face

will glow beneath a shock of

coal-black hair that still refuses to gray.

Her small black eyes will squint

beneath heavy eyelids,

and I will know that she is happy.

I can imagine her making California rolls

for lunch, because my brother begged her.

I’ll watch her cut the cold crab,

cucumber, avocado, seaweed,

and her hands, like spiders, will roll out rice.

Rice…

I can hear her walking in the kitchen,

still chattering in Japanese,

as her feet pad across linoleum floors –

feet an inch-thick with dry, hard calluses,

from working in rice paddies, to support her brothers,

when she should have been in medical school.

Suddenly, her history stretches out before me:

Manzanar and marriage,

her dead Daddy, her disappointment,

Hiroshima, children, that

placid, implacable smile –

all these pieces refuse to fit.

So I sit here in Grandpa’s chair,

and I let her voice wash over me.

The puzzle remains inscrutable.

In the tradition of poetry anthologies everywhere, here are a few footnotes that might be necessary:

1)     “Nisei” – a Japanese term meaning second generation; refers to the children of Japanese immigrants who were born in the new country.

2)     “moshi moshi” – a Japanese term that does not have a specific meaning but is the traditional term used when answering the phone.

3)     Manzanar – one of the ten U.S.-controlled internment camps Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in during WW II, located in California.

My grandmother was ten years old when she and her family were placed in Manzanar.  Four of her brothers and sisters died in Manzanar.  Her family was originally from Hiroshima and returned there after the war.  She was accepted to medical school at the age of 16 and returned to Los Angeles to begin college.  Then her father died from cancer, most likely caused by the radiation in Hiroshima, and she was forced to quit school and work to support her family.  She married my grandfather at the age of twenty.  She refused to teach her six children Japanese because she feared that it would mark them as it had marked her as child.  Thankfully, in the last few years this has changed.

Now, to wrap up, I would like to send you off to read a few other poems.  Because I mentioned him in one of the comments I responded to on the last blog post, I would like to start with Stephen Vincent Benet (1898-1943).  He is most well-known for his epic poem John Brown’s Body (which covers the history of the American Civil War) and his short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “By the Waters of Babylon” (which I first read in 10th grade, in one of the Prentice Hall Literature textbooks.  It is, I believe, the only thing by Benet still taught in schools.)  He is, sadly, not much regarded these days.  I’m not entirely sure why, though one MFA student I spoke too called him “melodramatic.”  But he is one of my favorites.  Here are a few of his better poems (in my humble opinion), which were published in his collection Young Adventure in 1918.

“Nos Immortales” which beautifully expresses what I believe are probably common thoughts on death.

“Winged Man” which is a poem about Icarus, one of my favorite Greek myths.

“The Quality of Courage” which is about exactly what it sounds like, though perhaps not in the way you might think.

I hope you enjoyed the poems – either mine or Benet’s, or (in my perfect little world) both.  I would love to hear any thoughts you have on either.  I swear I will not be offended if you didn’t like mine.  I am my own worse critic; you can’t possibly say anything I haven’t told myself a million times.  If you have any poets you’d like to share, please do so!  I read a lot, but there are far more poets than I can possibly discover on my own.  And others who read this might be interested as well.

Why People Should Read Poetry

In 1991, nationally acclaimed poet and critic Dana Goia published his essay “Can Poetry Matter?” in The Atlantic Monthly.  A year later, following a enormous out-pouring of responses from critics and poets, Goia published a book under the same title (which can be found here), which collected his original essay and a number of essays written in response.  The essay and book discuss the state of American poetry in modern society – lamenting that poetry has become a subculture generated, fed, and followed almost entirely by poets, academics, and administrators, with little-to-no attention paid by the general public.  Newspapers no longer review poetry, even Pulitzer-prize winning poetry.  The only non-poets who still might read poetry are those high school and undergraduate students who are forced to for one or two Literature classes.

What is perhaps most ironic is that in this time, as the attention paid to poetry by the general public has declined to almost nothing, avenues for exploring poetry have exploded into numbers never before seen.  As Goia states, there have never before been so many new books of poetry published, or so many literary magazines and anthologies.  As of 1992, there were several thousand college-level jobs for teaching creative writing, and many more at the primary and secondary level.  And Congress had even institute the position of “poet laureate,” and as of this writing, 40 states also have a poet laureate or writer-in-residence.  There are also thousands of prizes, fellowships, and programs set up for writers in general and poets specifically around the country.

And yet, so few people read poetry anymore.  Many writers (of any genre) will still read poetry, but the general public of readers seem to have forgotten poetry exists, and read only fiction.  Part of the problem is that, as the group of American poets have become a subculture, they have more and more written only to themselves, thus making it more and more difficult for the public culture to access what is being written.  However, as no one reads poetry anymore, who else do poets have to write to other than each other?  It is a vicious cycle.

So the trick is two-fold: convincing people, once again, that poetry has intrinsic value and is worth reading; and finding a way to make at least some of what is written more accessible to the general reader.  So, why should people read and be interested in poetry?  Goia offers two major reasons.

“The first reasons involves the role of language in a free society.  Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning.  A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it – be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.”

As Ezra Pound warns: “Good writers are those who keep the language efficient.  That is to say, keep it accurate, keep it clear.  It doesn’t matter whether a good writer wants to be useful or a whether the bad writer wants to do harm… If a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays.”

Goia’s second reason is that poetry is not the only art that has been pushed to the margins of society.  Most serious arts have declined into a “subculture of specialists” who have no choice but to only write/perform for each other (this includes, for Goia serious drama and Jazz among other things).

However, I believe the question of why poetry is important is about more than the political power wielded by language (such as when George Orwell says: “One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language”) or rescuing any and all art from the margins (though these are two very important reasons).  Poetry should be read because it is first and foremost the language of the people.  Before there was fiction, or biography, or news editorials, or religious texts, or anything else, there was poetry.  I include song in with poetry, as they are essentially the same in many regards – and, having said that, the argument could be made that people “read” poetry all the time through the absorption of songs.  But while many music does in fact fit the bill, that should not excuse people from ignoring the enormous wellspring of poetry that pours out of this country every year.  Because poetry is the deep and powerful expression of the human condition; it encompasses all emotion, all modes of living; it can be mourning or celebration, song or scream, revelation or denial, acceptance or resistance.  And sometimes all of these at once.  Poets are some of the first voices to protest social and political injustices; they are some of the first to mourn losses, cultural and personal; and they are some of the first to rejoice in the wonders of the living in and for the world.

Having discussed some of Goia’s and my own reasons for reading poetry, I will wrap up by offering Goia’s six “modest proposals” for poets and poetry teachers/administrators to help bring poetry back to the public.

  1. When poets give public readings, they should spend part of every program reciting other people’s work – preferably poems they admire by writers they do not know personally.
  2. When arts administrators plan public readings, they should avoid the standard subculture format of poetry only.  Mix poetry with other arts, especially music.
  3. Poets need to write prose about poetry more often, more candidly, and more effectively.  Poets most recapture the attention of the broader intellectual community by writing for nonspecialist publications.
  4. Poets whole compile anthologies – or even reading lists – should be scrupulously honest in including only poems they genuinely admire.  Anthologies… should not be used as pork barrels for the creative-writing trade.
  5. Poetry teachers, especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance.  Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism.  Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed.  The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized.
  6. Finally, poets and arts administrators should use radio to expand the art’s audience.  Poetry is an aural medium, and thus ideally suited to radio.  A little imaginative programming at hundreds f college and public-supported radio stations could bring poetry to millions of listeners.

I know I’ve talked at you a lot now, and I know I’ve also quoted/paraphrased Goia quite a lot (though my own opinion, I hope, is made quite obvious), but I would really love to hear other people’s thoughts on the issue.

Is poetry, in fact, important?  Should people beyond writers and other poets read poetry?  Are Goia (and I) completely off-base here?  What do you feel are the most important qualities (if any) of poetry? Any thoughts at all would be greatly appreciated.

(Also, please return on Friday, as I will be posting one of my own poems – though the thought kind-of terrifies me a little…)

In Honor of National Poetry Month

Lilacs in honor of T.S. Eliot...

It’s April 1st today.  While most people are dreaming up pranks t o play on their friends, family, and complete strangers in honor of April Fool’s Day, I’m thinking about something else.  (I was never very good at thinking up pranks anyway.)  So, what am I thinking about?  Poetry.  Because April is National Poetry Month.  (For info on how this got started go to the info page on The Academy of American Poets website.)

There is all sorts of speculation about why April was chosen as National Poetry Month.  They probably just picked a month out of a hat, to be honest, but there also seems to be an association between poets and April.  Consider, for instance, what are probably T.S. Eliot’s most famous lines (from The Waste Land):

“April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

Also consider how many poets were born in April: John Wilmot, Robert Browning, William Wordsworth, Seamus Heaney, George Herbert, Mark Strand, and the all-mighty William Shakespeare himself, just to name a few.

So, in honor of National Poetry Month I am going to spend some time during the month of April, talking about poetry.  Maybe possibly even sharing a few poems of my own (though possibly not, I’m still debating that…).  I know my main focus in writing is fantasy and science fiction, but I did warn you that I will delve into other writing topics (it’s even in the subheading – “my love affair with the written word”), and poetry is one of my favorite things.  I write poetry occasionally, though admittedly not very well, and I read it voraciously.  I hope you all won’t mind the slight detour.

To get us started, I thought I would share a poem I absolutely love by W.D. Snodgrass, which happens to be called “April Inventory.”

April Inventory

by W.D. Snodgrass

 

The green catalpa tree has turned

All white; the cherry blooms once more.

In one whole year I haven’t learned

A blessed thing they pay you for.

The blossoms snow down in my hair;

The trees and I will soon be bare.

 

The trees have more than I to spare.

The sleek, expensive girls I teach,

Younger and pinker every year,

Bloom gradually out of reach.

The pear tree lets its petals drop

Like dandruff on a tabletop.

 

The girls have grown so young by now

I have to nudge myself to stare.

This year they smile and mind me how

My teeth are falling with my hair.

In thirty years I may not get

Younger, shrewder, or out of debt.

 

The tenth time, just a year ago,

I made myself a little list

Of all the things I’d ought to know,

Then told my parents, analyst,

And everyone who’s trusted me

I’d be substantial, presently.

 

I haven’t read one book about

A book or memorized one plot.

Or found a mind I did not doubt.

I learned one date.  And then forgot.

And one by one the solid scholars

Get the degrees, the jobs, the dollars.

 

And smile above their starchy collars.

I taught my classes Whitehead’s notions;

One lovely girl, a song of Mahler’s.

Lacking a source-book or promotions,

I showed one child the colors of

A luna moth and how to love.

 

I taught myself to name my name,

To bark back, loosen love and crying;

To ease my woman so she came,

To ease an old man who was dying.

I have not learned how often I

Can win, can love, but choose to die.

 

I have not learned there is a lie

Love shall be blonder, slimmer, younger;

That my equivocating eye

Loves only by my body’s hunger;

That I have forces true to feel,

Or that the lovely world is real.

 

While scholars speak authority

And wear their ulcers on their sleeves,

My eyes in spectacles shall see

These trees procure and spend their leaves.

There is a value underneath

The gold and silver in my teeth.

 

Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,

We shall afford our costly seasons;

There is a gentleness survives

That will outspeak and has its reasons.

There is a loveliness exists,

Preserves us, not for specialists.

Does anyone else have any plans to celebrate National Poetry Month?  Do you have any poems you like (or wrote) that feature the month of April?  Which poets (if any) do you love?  And if you don’t read poetry in general, why not?  (I’d love to change your mind… ^_^ )