This post is courtesy of my blogging for Nimrod Literary Journal — a wonderful journal of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, photography, & more. I’ve been associated with Nimrod almost all my writing life, with short hiatuses when I moved away from Tulsa. I adore it. This post began as I tried to get some input from numerous academics, poets, writers, and other literati types on my FB page about what makes a poem great, and who gets to decide. From there, it went to a spirited discussion of the whole literary canon. So here you go, a confusing discussion of an exceptionally confusing topic ~
I watched the most amazing half-hour series yesterday — Poetry in America’s 1st episode in this spring’s offerings. Centred on the iconic Emily Dickinson, and her poem “I cannot dance upon my toes,” it’s one of the few poetry specials I remember to make manifest the links poetry has to other fine arts. Specifically, music & dance.
Yo-Yo Ma ably represents the music side of things, playing the cello as if it was a voice reading. His incredible fingering & bowing turn the simplest rill of notes into something astonishing, much as Dickinson takes ordinary words & creates an image that stuns.
Dancer Jill Johnson, poet Marie Howe, and actress Cynthia Nixon (who plays Emily Dickinson in film) join host Elisa New in unfolding the layered origami of Dickinson’s poetry. It’s astonishing, and so worth watching!
In other poetic business, NaPoWriMo’s prompt today is magick! Seriously — use magic(k) in your poem. It’s good practice! And here’s mine — a fusion of yesterday’s prompt (which I missed!) & today’s:
She finds herself dividing like a cell
Is it mitosis or meiosis ~ she doesn’t
quite remember. Perhaps the brain
is what does not cross over.
Perhaps the cells cannot communicate.
It was never easy.
This cell this one she lives in now
neatly divided borders clean-edged
is the mother the wife the sister/daughter
she from whom the other cells draw energy
That cell the one of brilliant colours
as formless as internal music
pleochroic emerald ruby citrine
is who she might have been
who she is sometimes
in her dreams. Messily bordered
without shape or form.
And somewhere in the middle
is the space that neither one inhabits
that void of becoming
before the words begin.
I am heartily sick of the political disaster this country has become. So I am intentionally focusing today on poetry, my 2nd refuge when the world is too much with me. Tea being the first.
In fact, an afternoon pot is steeping even as I write, and ‘biscuits’ – that lovely English name for cookies that are not the sickly sweet American type, but instead almost a slightly sweet cracker – await, in a ruby glass saucer, next to the bee cup & saucer my niece & nephew gave me. Plus I just added to a long email thread, sent to a dear friend who is working on her MFA, in which we’re discussing (among other weighty matters) why it’s always ‘the poets.’ And why folks think poetry is just not ‘using all your words’…???
Sigh. It’s always interesting to me when folks (especially writing folks…who should know better!!) define poetry as merely ‘fewer words.’ Even that famous ‘compression of language’ definition is — to me, at least — reductive and simplistic. Poetry is about images, and the sound(s) of language. It can also be (as fiction and/or non-fiction often are) about narrative. About story, even about character(s). The dramatic monologue that made Robert Browning so famous.It’s about music, really — even so-called narrative poetry has to have certain beauties & elegances of sound. Poetry has to move, which is why many songwriters also do poetry: music is fine training for a poet.
To see poetry as just a ‘shorter’ version of prose is sooo … well, if I were arguing this in person, w/ an academic colleague, I’d say it’s both reductive & dismissive. And uninformed, as well. (Tell them what you really think…!) Only a non-poet would say that, someone who doesn’t understand either the project(s) of poetry, or poets.
You simply CAN’T do Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’ in prose, for instance. Imagine this with ‘all your words’:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Pound’s poetic project is not simply compression — although yes, of course he’s compressing. It’s also about the fleetingness of the experience, the way the faces flee past. You could do that w/ prose, but you would lose sooo much! The short, haiku-like simplicity of the form captures the briefness of the faces. And the image that perfect image that has stunned poets since Pound wrote it would be sooo clunky if you simply wrote: The fleetingness of faces seen from a railway car are like white petals on a black tree branch. It’s the cadence: wet. black. bough. And the assonance: crowd & bough. It’s the MUSIC, folks!
Another big sigh. Time to chill out w/ a hot cuppa, and a biscuit. What do you think poetry ‘is’? How do you know poetry, other than by its shorter length and line breaks? Why would someone choose to write a poem instead of a story, or an essay? And who — besides me & my friend, obviously! — cares??
Today is a brilliant fall day. Following a drizzly, gloomy day. Which is much better than the reverse, right? Everything has a lucent sheen to it ~ light almost halates: there are tiny haloes around pinpoints of sunlight. I’m grateful for that.
And when I went to look for a pic to add to the blog (Creative Commons ROCKS!), I found Nick Saltmarsh’s lovely mural. What a great piece of art! Whimsical, and very Portland (put a bird on it). I’m grateful for this, as well.
In fact, today’s big gratitude is for both found & made beauty. Many of my friends are artists: painters, metal workers, cartoonists, bookbinders, weavers. And more: gardeners, cooks, cabinet makers. People who leave, in their wake, beauty they created w/ their own hands. It’s an amazing talent! And when I’m depressed, it’s a never-fail way to remind me that there is much good in human beings, despite current issues.
Found beauty is another element entirely, and may deserve its own post. But today, I’m grateful for beauty in general, and I’m not really distinguishing between the beauty of sunlight on a refractive surface, and the art of handmade glass. Both fill me w/ content. And I’m very grateful for that.
The Buddha tells us to live in the now of things: that there is only this breath, this moment. And I wonder if part of the ‘now’ is the beauty of each moment ~ the feel of the breeze rounding the deck corner, the bright autumn sky. How the last few leaves sift from the almost naked branches to the vivid carpet below. If I stop, and look around, and breathe, my heart stills, and I forget — for entire minutes! — my grief at a world so very full of hurt.
If I just let go of my hurt, long enough to sit in this perfect now (and yep: I do realise it’s pretty hokey sounding!), I stop hurting. Sure it returns, but never in quite the same searing sharpness.
So go sit where your gaze fall on something lovely, and just sit there, looking. Breathe in, breathe out. It’s enough, I promise. Do it a few times. And I really don’t see how you can avoid feeling grateful. ❤️
In keeping with my focus this month on everyday pleasures (achievable by most of us), today I’m grateful for watercolour pencils. Yes, really. They’re an inexpensive ‘luxury’ (no one ever died for lack of watercolour pencils, I’m sure!), but one that I increasingly rely on.
Most days — probably 4 out of 5 — I ‘draw’ my day. In a small ‘graph,’ I colour the day’s weather, my mood, and then I draw a kind of doodle ~ a variation on a Zentangle. Unlike most true Zentangles, I don’t fill in every millimetre of white space, and I do colour it. With those coloured pencils I’m grateful for. (And fyi: I’m also grateful for the pencil sharpener that keeps them nice & pointy!)
It’s a small moment out of my day, but it’s pleasant to try to distill my mood to colour (or colours). If the limited colours in my two boxes (I have four!) of pencils don’t provide me w/what I want? I can layer colours, then add a wash of water, & I have a colour I may not even have a name for. How cool is that??
Because art — even our own pretty lousy attempts at it! — is the best of therapies. When I colour w/ my pencils, or crayons in a colouring book, I’m lost to stress. All that exists is the colour in front of me, and the one to come. Sometimes the ways in which they relate, too. But not what I ‘should’ be doing, or what I’ve ‘forgotten’ to finish.
Adults do far too little play. We make everything (sometimes even play…) into work. And it’s sad. I love to colour — I even have 2 colouring apps on my phone & iPad. Those aren’t everyday pleasures, I realise, as they require smartphones, which many Americans flat can’t afford. I don’t apologise for my material happiness, but I’m well aware that it isn’t everyone’s good fortune.
Still, coloured pencils aren’t pricey. Not even the watercolour kind (which are MUCH more fun!). And you don’t need a fancy colouring book — you can use a straightedge, and draw a graph, and find ways to fill those neat boxes, one by one.
Try it! It may be the key to helping you relax as we enter an increasingly hectic pre-holiday season. ????