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.
So, I have this friend… Seriously — I do have friends! We’ve been friends for more than 20 years…21? 22? A long time, in other words. And we’ve done a lot of cool things together, and seen each other through job shifts, illnesses, promotions, and all the daily events that close friends share. At one point, we were even in a writing group together. Friendship, in other words.
But we live nowhere near each other these days, and haven’t spent quality time together in years. Because she lived where I worked, I didn’t have strategies in place that would remind me I had to make more of an effort when I retired. Sure — she came to the annual Girlfriends Holiday Tea. And I tried to see her when she came to town. But it wasn’t like before, when we dropped in on each other’s office.
She’s one of those friends that somehow manages to encourage you to move forward. I have a couple of those — it’s great. This one seems to always know the right book for the right moment. The right joke when you’re ready to slit your wrists. The right lunch when you can’t face another day of writing. Mostly, though? She’s funny, and smart, and kind, and just my very dear girlfriend.
But like I said, we haven’t had much contact in a while. So she messages me on FB, and asks for my address. Okay, I figure: maybe she has a new book? Or just a card...? Then the mail comes, and it’s… The Poet Tarot!! How cool is THAT?? And how the heck did she know I’ve been returning to my old hippie roots, and had bought several tarot decks as I try to find out which one suits me in this very different chapter of my life…? And that the one she sent me — where e.e.cummings is the Fool, and William Carlos Williams the Magician, and Denise Levertov the World — would be so totally perfect??
That’s the power of real friendship, folks: the ability to listen to someone you love, and give them not only what they want or need, but what will help them grow. As I make time to pick up grandsons, cook for family, clean this beautiful new house, plant seeds to grow into 4 o’clocks my mother loved, water birds, and DO THINGS, I haven’t been writing. You noticed, right?
But this way, with these beautiful new cards (Lucille Clifton, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Emerson…), I can think of writing completely differently. More like what I used to tell students: a kind of practice. Meaning, I don’t have to worry so much about getting it ‘right.’ Much less perfect!
The sheer diversity of writers — Emily Dickinson & Edgar Allen Poe! — is freeing. If all of these wonderful, amazing poets can overcome slavery (Phyllis Wheatley), insanity (Poe), depression (Robert Lowell), and more, I can find my way home to writing. I can do this!
Thanks, Becky. Once again, you nailed it. And I’m so very happy you did!
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’s NaPoWriMo prompt was totally new to me: Skeltonic verse. Never heard of it. Never wrote it. Don’t even remember dipodic verse (which is what Skeltonic verse is written in: two heavy stresses per line). And you’re talking about someone who read pretty much the entire Princeton Encyclopædia of Poetry…
I ADORE finding new poetic strategies & forms. They don’t all work for me (for anyone), but they’re like windows into other ways of being. Kind of like reading poetry from other countries & cultures, they offer this writer, at least, new tools. Who knew I could write a poem I’m not horrifically embarrassed to share that had six or fewer words in a line?? Not a tanka (which friends know is a form I love dearly), but a Western form I never knew before tonight.
What I also learned is that I seem congenitally unable to write funny poems. This is supposed to be a ‘fun’ poem. Sigh… This is, apparently, about as fun as I get. I apologise in advance!
Here’s the prompt:
Today, I’d like to challenge you to write a poem using Skeltonic verse. Don’t worry, there are no skeletons involved. Rather, Skeltonic verse gets its name from John Skelton, a fifteenth-century English poet who pioneered the use of short stanzas with irregular meter, but two strong stresses per line (otherwise know as “dipodic” or “two-footed” verse). The lines rhyme, but there’s not a rhyme scheme per se. The poet simply rhymes against one word until he or she gets bored and moves on to another.
And here’s what I ended up with:
A broken heart
May be the start
Of the good part
Of life, where art
(At least if you’re smart)
Is more than hobby
Food we should lobby
With gristle & bone
We eat. Alone
We turn from the stone
Behind us deceiving
Tears, years of weaving
Hope to thieving
In a road wending
Away from us
So write it down
Words a crown
Of thorns, redbrown
On a paper gown
And we ride away
(That first day)
In disarray ~
Afraid that life
Is a blade, a knife
Prompt 6 on the NaPoWriMo site stumped me, I confess. Obviously, not all prompts work for everyone. But this one was more difficult because it felt vague. Also? I ADORE the Stevens’ poem referenced, & its several riffs. All beyond my skill set! Oh well, I tried. Here it is:
I’d like to challenge you to write a poem that looks at the same thing from various points of view. The most famous poem of this type is probably Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. You don’t need to have thirteen ways of looking at something – just a few will do!
I can think of so many things that I see from varied perspectives. You’ll have to decide if my flight of fancy works for you. Here it is:
The hands of a craftsman
A draftsman An engineer A fisherman
A scholar A father A builder
The hands of a draftsman
A surveyor A pen holder
A line follower
A compassman A sketcher
The hands of a fisherman
A hook baiter Line knotter
Reel tangler Float sinker
The hands of a lover
Scholar & blade
Precise & careful
This is a repost from a blog post I did for my favourite literary journal ~ Nimrod. Nimrod is updating its web. presence, and I could think of no better topic than poetry, and its continued importance in our lives. So here you are, Why Poetry Matters:
Years ago—more than 25, actually—the poet Dana Gioia asked if poetry can matter. Here at Nimrod, which for more than 40 years has published amazing poetry, from poets who continue to stun us with beauty, we know it does. And it should.
Poetry—all art, really—connects us. Offers us the experiences of someone outside us to consider, other experiences sifted through the sieves of imagery and compression. Both reading and writing poetry help us to see better: to observe the details in the world around us and to be more aware of how those details shift when seen through the eyes of another. When we read poetry, we’re invited into another landscape, a kind of liminal space between us and the writer. And when we write poetry? We’re actually creating that landscape ourselves. Each effort—while very different—requires imagination and empathy, so necessary for lives well-lived.
If I go too long without poetry, it’s not like I die. It’s not as critical as water. It’s somewhere up there with . . . vitamins. Sunlight. Sitting outside. Not truly life-or-death, but pretty damn important. Because what I learn is always useful—not simply pretty, or even literary. But useful like food, sunlight, vitamins. Take Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles .” There’s a line (lifted from Ezra Pound) that changed me—“When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off.” Let me explain:
Lately I’ve been feeling stiff. Arthritic, for sure, but stiff in other ways, as well. Like my intellectual, emotional, and physical “muscles” are rusted tight. I can’t think like I used to be able to. And for someone with Alzheimer’s rampant in her family, that’s a bit . . . unnerving, to say the least.
The recumbent bike is twice as hard as it ought to be. I’m cranky. And I often feel . . . well, unnecessary. In the way that American culture is so very good at making the aging feel. But Snyder reminds me that even a discarded axe handle is useful. Is necessary: When making an axe handle / the pattern is not far off. Snyder elaborates, bringing in Pound, who wrote the line, translated from the Chinese of another poet, Shih-hsiang Chen.
I’m at least partially in love with this poem because it includes my beloved Pound, whom I studied so closely, imprinting on him like a poetic duckling, and his Chinese translations. Once, at a Nimrod reading the Pulitzer-winning poet W.S. Merwin gave in Tulsa, he mentioned sitting with Pound at St. Elizabeth’s. I did much of my doctoral work on Pound, and suddenly I was physically connected to my flawed idol, whose work is still so influential to poets, through the man in front of me. I was the latest tiny dot in a line curling back to China. Sitting in the faculty study, I was connected to these writers by lines of poetry. That matters.
The poet Denise Levertov once said that In certain ways writing is a form of prayer. Because poetry is about calling something—a feeling, a thought, an action—into being. Invoking it, really. Poets are the ultimate magicians. Lines on a page become a kind of prayer or spell, as axe handles become safe passage through aging’s dark journey.
Recently, discussing structure and writing with my elder son, I said I couldn’t write with too much structure. That writing is—for me—a discovery process. Structure, I told him, can actually kill my ideas.
Later, as I lay in bed half-asleep, I thought about poetry. And realized that what I said was only true of prose (at least for me). I write poetry most easily (and possibly best) when I have the structure of a form. Sonnet, haiku, tanka, lune—each draws forth the content to fill the form’s structure. They act like scaffolding for the creative process.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized: structure is a kind of mindfulness. It’s almost meditative. Certainly it’s contemplative. If I have to fit inchoate feelings/images/thoughts within a skeletal framework, it’s a kind of magic—following the breath to calm. Letting the poem help me find its voice.
I am more than a discarded axe handle. I am capable of being a pattern, a model. Of still being useful. Of teaching. Of being taught, being what the next axe handle comes from. Of being held within the breath pauses that define the poem’s structure, and becoming part of the poem’s music.
In other words? Poetry still matters. When its raison d’être is to connect, to bring ideas into being. How could it NOT?