June Christy sings the Gershwins' classic:
It is late when I am writing this. But you are reading it tomorrow. Or today, this morning, as the case may be. You may be drinking coffee. Right now, last night, I am having a slice of pepperoni pizza and a beer. The beer is called “The Poet.” It is an oatmeal stout, and it has a picture of a raven on the label. I want to show it to you but I can not find a good image on the Internet and I am too tired to take one. So I am showing you an image that comes up when you google "time flies."
The beer was a gift from my friend, Lucretia, who gave it to me to cheer me up because I am working so hard of late. I made the comment the other day that I need “chocolate and beer" to keep me going. And so, to fuel my efforts, she surprised me with both. A friend who is listening is certainly the best gift of all.
My week has finally caught up with me. It is a lot to work all day, take two classes, and then come home and try to write. I miss the days when a weekend meant I could chill. But, it is all my choice and I really should not complain. Tonight, last night, the wind is/was blowing so hard. It is the kind of wind that makes me afraid that a tree might fall down on my house. But, at least I have a house, a job, my health, my son. I am safe. I am just tired. Sleep would be a good idea right now.
And so, since I have nothing in particular to say, I am going to give you a poem by a poet who I admire a great deal, the Polish Nobel-prize winning poet, Wisława Szymborska. (I am happy that my computer would make the “l” with the line through it. Computers are amazing things, they are.)
Here is the poem for you for today, from my friend, Wisława. If she we here with me tonight, we would have another slice of pizza. We would drink another Poet. We would listen to the wind. We would not write, but we would tap the keys, dreaming. We would wish each other good night and good morning. (Sorry about the stanza breaks.I have been trying for 45 minutes to fix the formatting but I cannot do it.)
I give up, my apologies to Wisława for mangling the look of her poem. So much for my admiration of computers. Sometimes, they can be very infuriating.
(Translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh)
When you begin the study of psychopathology, you don’t get very far before you encounter a severe looking tome that is large enough to prop open a very heavy fire door and brick-like enough to knock unconscious a medium-sized lab rat.
The book is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fourth Edition Text Revision), or in the vernacular of therapists, the DSM-IV-TR. It is the Bible of diagnosable mental disorders. Every psychopathology student must bow before it or, at the very least, become familiar with it.
It is organized in groups called “axes.” These are not things you use to chop wood, but rather, the plural of axis. There are five of them in the DSM and they go like this:
Axis II: Personality Disorders
Axis III: General Medical Conditions
Axis IV Psychosocial and Environmental Problems
Axis V: Global Assessment of Functioning
I’m just getting started in my studies here, so I’m not sure yet what all these things mean. Two seasoned therapists have told me that once I read the DSM more carefully, I will recognize myself in many of the conditions it describes. Oh boy. I can’t wait!
When the first edition of the DSM appeared in 1952 it contained 86 pages. In the year 2000, when the fourth edition was released, the page count had blossomed to 943. The number of disorders increased from 106 to 365. Wow. Either we are getting more disorderly or we are getting more excited about giving these things names. I would say it is probably the latter. In fact, this phenomenon is known as “the social construction of psychopathology.”
Here is how this works: we see a pattern, we give it a name, we give it an acronym (like ADHD or OCD), we create drugs to cure it, we get insurance companies to cover its treatment. If we stopped at “see a pattern, give it a name,” we might be closer to creating poetry than new strains of mental illness.
But hey, we live in a culture with 47 different kinds of toothpaste. We like variety, apparently, not only in our toothpaste but also in our mental disorders.
“Once the ‘disorder’ has been socially constructed and defined, the methods of science can be employed to study it, but the construction itself is a social process, not a scientific one. In fact, the more ‘it’ is studied, the more everyone becomes convinced that ‘it’ really is 'something.’” (Maddux and Winstead).
Sounds like the emperor’s new, disorderly clothing to me.
If you have “a preoccupation with a defect in appearance” that causes “significant distress or impairment in…functioning” (p. 507) you have Body Dysmorphic Order. I don’t like the fact that I am bow-legged, but it does not keep me from wearing shorts in summer when it is hot, so I guess I cannot say I have this particular problem.
If you drink too much coffee, you may develop Caffeine Intoxication (Starbucks, beware). If you are a cigarette smoker, you have Nicotine Dependence. If you rub yourself against someone on a crowded bus to stimulate yourself sexually, you suffer frotteurism. There is schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, eight different disorders related to inhalants. The list goes on. I’m skipping around here to give you a taste. All this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is overwhelming and you have to read it for yourself to believe it.
The DSM-V-TR will appear in 2013. It is already causing a buzz in the psychotherapeutic world. Each section is worked on by a team of MDs and PhDs. There is the Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder Work Group and the Delirium, Dementia, and Amnestic and Other Cognitive Disorders Work Group. Each different work group gets to recommend what is in and what is out. I'm not clear yet on who makes the final decision. I will ask my professor tonight.
Once upon a time, homosexuality was listed as a mental disorder in the DSM. It was removed in 1973. Thank God.
The word on the street is that in the new revision, we may lose narcissism as a personality disorder. I guess it is becoming normal to be grandiose and lacking in empathy. We may, however, gain hoarding as separate from obsessive-compulsive disorder. That seems useful. Some people barricade themselves in their homes with mountains of useless stuff and therapy might help them. Interpret that as you wish.
The one possible change that seems completely and utterly insane to me is the proposed removal of pedophilia as a mental disorder. My professor mentioned this on the first night of class and I was so disturbed by it, I had to do some investigating on the Internet. The argument being, as far as I can gather, that pedophilia can be thought of as simply another in-born tendency of human nature. Ah...so can murder. That doesn’t make it okay.
While I can cave on narcissism, and will allow the Personality Disorders Work Group to do what they think is right, I will get down on my bow-legged, bended knees and plead with the Sexual Disorders Work Group to use some common sense when they assess pedophilia. (In fairness to the mental health profession, the effort to de-pathologize pedophilia seems to be coming from, yes, you guessed it, pedophiles! Not the therapists. So please don't go around saying that this is a done deal. It is simply that the question is on the table at this time.)
No one can make the argument to me that engaging in sexual acts with a child is just one more aspect of human nature. And if someone does make that argument work for them, then, our world really has gone haywire. Please, get us all to a lobotomist, stat.
Terence Patrick Winch and Dan Gutstein at Bridge Street Books (D.C.)
Thursday, Sept. 29th, 7:30 pm
Bridge Street Books
2814 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest
Washington D.C., 20007
For more info: www.dcpoetry.com/events/733
Terence Winch’s most recent book is a collection of poems called Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor (Hanging Loose, 2011).
Dan Gustein is the author of non/fiction (stories, Edge Books, 2010) and Bloodcoal & Honey (poems, Washington Writers’ Publishing House, 2011).
Rachel Eliza Griffiths at Poet's House (NYC)
Friday, September 30, 7 - 10 pm
10 River Terrace
NY, NY 10282
Book release and signing for Rachel Eliza Griffiths' new collection of poetry, Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose). Also at this event poets will read prose passages from their favorite literary novels featuring women characters they find unforgettable. Sure to be a fun night at Poet's House!
For more info: Rachel Griffiths
Big Apple BAP/Fall Edition: NYC's Best American Poetry Poets w/Host David Lehman (NYC)
Thursday, Oct .6, 2011, 6:30pm
One and One Bar & Restaurant (downstairs Nexus Lounge)
76 East 1st Street (corner of 1st Avenue)
Cover Charge: $15 ($7 for those with valid student ID)
The Inspired Word proudly presents this SPECIAL EVENT: Big Apple BAP/Fall Edition: NYC's Best American Poetry Poets. It is a night celebrating this city's finest poets, whose poems over the years have been honored with inclusion in the highly respected annual anthology. The lineup includes a stunning array of accomplished poets: Truck Darling, Patricia Smith, Matthea Harvey, Julie Sheehan, Kimiko Hahn, Marilyn Nelson, Marc Jaffee, Anna Ziegler, Jason Schneiderman, Cornelius Eady, Timothy Liu, and Gregory Pardlo. Hosted by the founding editor of Best American Poetry series, David Lehman. Each poet will read the poem or poems appearing in BAP, as well as something new.
For more info: http://nycbestamericanpoetry.eventbrite.com/
Rae Armantrout at Mills college (Bay Area, CA)
Tuesday, October 4, 5:30pm - 6:30pm
5000 Macarthur Blvd
Oakland, CA 94613
Free, Open to the public
Pulitzer Prize winning poet Rae Armantrout reads from her collections Veil, Versed, Money Shot, and many others. Come, mingle with snacks, and hear one of the nations most interesting poets!
For more info: Mills Writers Series
Manifest Reading Series (Bay Area, CA)
Sunday, October 2, 6:00pm - 9:00pm
The Tender Oracle
531 22nd Street (at telegraph) near 19th street BART
The Manifest Reading series is an initiative to bring visibility to younger poets living in and around the Bay Area. This inaugural event kicks things off with three readers from University of Michigan, Mills College, and University of Texas, respectively. It's sure to be the first of many revivifying recitations from new mouths, and you're so invited!
“You asked me about the connection between Detroit and New York,” Mr. Joseph said. “Detroit is the great modern city. And it becomes metaphorically the great industrial city. Céline writes about two cities when he comes to America in Journey to the End of the Night: New York and Detroit. Why? In 1932, when he writes perhaps the first great international novel of the 20th century, why does he choose New York and Detroit? What are your central metaphors internationally in 1932, when you’re going into a Depression? The center of the United States was Detroit and New York.” He slapped the table. “And I’m aware of that. Is Detroit still the center? It doesn’t matter. Detroiters will tell you that it is. And the world seems to think it’s pretty important.”
For the rest of this New York Observer interview, click here.
I wish Levis would roll credits at the end of these commercials so that those watching would know they're hearing Charles Bukowski's "The Laughing Heart,"(one of my favorite poems), or Walt Whitman's "O Pioneers!"
Anything that takes itself so seriously is likely to invite parody. Here's one, with Bukowski's "Dinosauria, We."
While cooking dinner last night, I heard a fascinating story on public radio about Dr. Alfredo Quinones, an internationally-known neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Dr. Quinones, or Dr. Q, as he is called affectionately by colleagues and patients alike, has just written a book, Becoming Dr. Q, My Journey from Migrant Worker to Brain Surgeon (University of California Press, 2011).
Dr. Quinones was born in a small, dirt-poor village outside of Mexicali in Baja, California in 1968. At age 18, he “jumped the fence,” and managed to run from the border and into a new life in the U.S. He spoke no English at first, and worked in the fields of central California as a migrant worker, then as a welder. He went to community college, learned English, and eventually made his way to Harvard and onto the path of becoming a leader in brain cancer research.
Along with a team of scientists under his direction, he is looking for a way to replace knives and cutting with non-invasive stem cell therapies that could conceivably destroy tumors and repair damaged tissue. “I don’t want my children to have to undergo the same barbaric ways of treating brain tumors as we do,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong—I love what I do. But the brain is a sanctuary, for God’s sake! It wasn’t meant to be violated! What I did today—entering the brain, illegally—it’s against nature. We need to find a better way to treat this disease.”
Dr. Quinones’ story is timely. In a recent Republican debate, Rick Perry accused those who oppose educating the children of illegal immigrants of having "no heart.” This did not win Perry points with his brethren.
When Dr. Quinones was asked what he thought of this debate in light of his own life experience, he hesitated, trying to find words. He said, “Well, as you know, I always tell people, I wish I was a poet or a Nobel laureate in literature and I could express my thoughts and articulate them more eloquently, but the truth is, honestly, I am just a simple brain surgeon and a scientist. I am not an expert on immigration. I only know about my own experience.”
He admits that his story is unusual. Not every illegal immigrant is going to become a neurosurgeon. But, he noted that the world needs not just successful brain surgeons, but successful carpenters, plumbers, and teachers. I think his point was that all people deserve a decent education to reach their highest potential. The world needs people who do lots of different jobs exceptionally well.
In an article in Hopkins Medicine Magazine online, Dr. Quinones said, “you can’t succeed in today’s world without being open, without having feelings….You can literally train a monkey to do what we do. The challenge in what we do is not in the surgery—it’s in the emotional connection you form with the patients.”
I like this man, Dr. Q. If I ever need to have my head opened up, I would want it to be by someone like him; someone who knows not only what he is doing, but also what sacred place he is entering past the bone of my skull and in the soft tissue of my brain. I would want this person, this doctor, to be aware of what he is feeling about himself and about me when he goes in there.
“I wish I was a poet.”
In my opinion, that is a rather amazing thing for a brain surgeon to wish to be. Listen to the full radio broadcast here.
Note: Information and quotes used in this blog-post come from a story by David Dudley in Hopkins Medicine Magazine online (Winter, 2007).
Last but not least, if you have four and a half more minutes, check out a video interview with Dr. Quinones from bigthink, "a forum where top experts explore the big ideas and core skills defining the 21st century." I was having trouble embedding the video here, but if you copy and paste this URL into your browser, you can see and hear Dr. Q talk about growing up and his memories of his grandmother who was a curandera.
Time, so they say, flies when you are having fun. Does that mean it goes excruciatingly slow when you are sad or suffering? I would have to say that the answer to this is a resounding yes.
A good friend of mine recently told me that when she feels sad, she feels really stuck. Every aspect of her life feels absolutely lousy: failed relationships, dwindling finances, unsatisfying employment. At those times, the whole ball of wax that is her life is one big, sticky, yucky mess. And the worst part of it is that—when she feels this way—it seems as though that general yuckishness is simply her natural state of being. In those moments, she is pretty much convinced that life is going to feel that way forever.
Then, she gets some sleep, dreams a little dream, wakes up, takes a shower, goes for a nice bike ride, has coffee and a sweet roll down by the lake, listens to something on the radio that makes her laugh. The next thing she knows, she feels good again. She remembers that she has many things for which to be grateful. Then, she feels even happier. Suddenly, time’s pretty ponies speed up. The race is on. Just like the wind, time again flies.
I think about time all the time. I am always trying to jam more things into it. I am always trying to do “one more thing.” As all my friends and relations will tell you, this habit of mine makes me invariably late for things. Furthermore, I do way too much multi-tasking on any given day. On a typical evening when I get home from work, you might find me folding laundry, paying bills, eating dinner, answering emails, checking Facebook, and writing a paper for school all at the same time.
Really? At the same time? Okay, not literally in the very same instant. But I have gotten really adept at sprinkling my instances around. Tonight, a case in point. First, I fold a couple shirts and pair up a few sets of socks. Then, I open a bill and decide if I need to pay it now or can put it on the pile to be dealt with after pay day. Then, I take a bite of the eggplant sandwich I made from left-over roasted eggplant, a slather of horseradish, and two nice, thick slabs of melted mozzarella on an old crust of bread that I almost threw out this morning. But I saved this heel because it had not gone moldy yet and boy, am I ever glad I did. This sandwich I am washing down with a glass of Merlot is making me exceedingly cheery right now. Must be the horseradish.
Email, Facebook. Check and check. I’m not writing a paper for school, but I did a bit of reading and now I’m writing this blog-entry so I can post it first thing in the morning before I go to work. And the race with time will begin again.
I am reminded of the young girl I saw riding her bike past the middle school last week. She was riding fast enough that her long auburn hair was trailing behind her. She was riding no-handed, this because she was texting as she pedaled. She was pretty good at it, too. (When I told this story to a friend of mine, he reported a recent sighting of a teenage boy riding down the street with a pizza box in hand. The young lad, as it turned out, was enjoying a couple of slices of pepperoni and sausage on his way home from football practice.) What has the world come to?
Being that it is now the autumn of the year, I am thinking quite a lot about time passing, and how often I forget to savor it by doing too many things at once. It is now the time of year that an elderly gentleman I know refers to as “sweater weather.” I love this moment, when leaves fall off trees, the air chills, and the world prepares to go dormant for awhile. It is a dying, melancholy time, but it is also the time of Sunday afternoons devoted to the making of soups, to the raking of leaves, and to the anticipation of Halloween, the holiday that marks the beginning of the descent into the year’s bright end.
Well, it is late now, and I should sleep. I will only do one more thing, and that is leave you with a poem. It is by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), and it is one of my most favorite poems about the passing of time. May it remind me, tomorrow, when I wake up and read my blog to myself, not to try to do so much all at once, but rather, to do one precious thing at a time. The best way not to mourn myself is to remember I am still here, and my two hands are always free to do the work that is right in front of me.
Spring and Fall
to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
I’ll be reading on Friday September 30th at the Susquehanna Center for Creative Arts in Columbia, PA with David Mura and Jesse Waters at 6:00 PM. This is part of a continuing series of readings and art exhibitions for The Handprint Identity Project, organized by sculptor Milton Friedly of Elizabethtown College. Professor Friedly paired ten poets with ten fine artists in 2008, asking them to collaborate on the subject of the handprint and its relation to identity. First exhibited in 2009, the Handprint Identity Project continues to grow and exhibit at various venues. If you’re in the area, please come out and look at the exhibit, listen to some poetry, and meet us.
And the James Merrill House is now accepting applications for Writers-in-Residence for 2012. We've added a couple of brief residency (2-6 weeks) options beginning next year, as well as the longer 4.5 month residency. Promising and accomplished writers in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction who receive a James Merrill residency live in a furnished apartment across the hall from Merrill's own apartment (now a museum) in the seaside village of Stonington, CT. The writers-in-residence also receive a generous stipend. For more information and to download an application, go to:
This is a jewel of a residency for a writer or literary scholar looking to make headway on a project in a beautiful, quiet setting, bolstered by a very supportive village populace.
The Best American Poetry 2011 Guest Editor Kevin Young (left) with Major Jackson and Cyrus Cassells. photo(c)Star Black
The BAP 2011 launch on September 22, 2011 was a huge success, with knockout readings by all of the participants. You can read about it here. Following the reading, we repaired to the nearby Cafe Loup where Star Black took pictures. You can view her photographs here. Star Black's most recent book of poems is Velleity's Shade, Saturnalia Books, 2010. She is a visiting assistant professor at Stony Brook University and will be teaching a graduate poetry workshop this spring at Stony Brook Southampton's MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literature.
In Psychopathology: Foundations for a Contemporary Understanding, edited by James E. Maddux and Barbara A. Winstead, I have come across some interesting tidbits during these first few weeks of fall semester that I have been eager to share with someone. How about you, Best American Poetry blog reader, out there?
First, let us consider that pathological behavior is both outside the statistical norm and also maladaptive. By maladaptive, we mean behavior that does not help a person do better. By outside the statistical norm, we mean infrequent in the general population. However, we usually only think of something negative. “To say that someone is ‘pathologically intelligent’ or ‘pathologically well-adjusted’ seems contradictory because it flies in the face of the commonsense use of these words.” (Maddux and Winstead).
This statement, as you can well imagine, got me thinking. What would it mean to be pathologically poetic? What would a pathologically poetic person look like and what would his or her day-to-day existence entail? Would this person speak in iambic pentameter every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, trochees and spondees on Tuesday/Thursday and save the weekend for nothing but speaking in haiku?
Would a poetic psychopath see the entire world in a grain of sand, and metaphorical significance in everything from the delivery of the day’s mail to the mowing of the lawn? How does one who is pathologically poetic deal with such mundane tasks as folding laundry, going grocery shopping, dropping children off at soccer, and emptying the litter box?
Don’t even mention cleaning a toilet bowl or unclogging a drain. Those chores require someone more pathologically inclined toward plumbing. Research in this realm is begging to be undertaken, but funding is scarce for this kind of endeavor.
A poetic psychopath is not able to go anywhere without a small notebook and pen, tools needed to jot down interesting ideas. Those in the real throes of the disease will take to carrying a small digital recorder in which to speak ideas and snippets for poems. This person is marked by an uncanny ability to see connections between all things (living and non-living) and would be able to describe the shortest line between a bride and a waterfall, a tree and a unicorn, a banana and a bayonet.
The pathologically poetic individual will often be found staring out of bus windows, laying in the grass looking at clouds, or whistling in the dark. These types are enamoured of the alphabet, idiomatic phrases, foreign languages, synonyms, homonyms, and oxymorons. They also tend to be gourmands and to enjoy a nice glass of wine with supper.
Last but not least, the poetic psychopath hears the sad note in every happy chord, and sees the beauty in that which is least pleasing to the eye. There is hope for those who are able to get these contradictory thoughts down on paper. For the rest--those who ignore their illness--there is only madness and despair; marked by a feeling of impending doom complete with arsenic lobsters falling from the sky.
If you know such a person, or if you are such a person, the best thing the experts can offer by way of relief at this time is to suggest total acceptance of the situation. Resistance is futile. Do not fall prey to the temptation of medication, unless it is in the form of ice cream. Let be be finale of seem. Find a red wheelbarrow, a summer’s day, or the road less traveled by. Go there, taste it, smell it, embrace it. Trust me, dear reader, that will make all the difference.
Poetry, as Ezra Pound asserted in an unpublished letter to Sloan, is "elegance in its most aggressive form," and whether this is a phrase charged with meaning or merely a slogan that a car company might want to apporopriate with the terms inverted, the fact is --
"The only work that really brings enjoyment / is the kind that is for girl and boy meant," as Ira Gershwin wrote in the verse lead in to "Nice Work If You Can Get It" --
and poetry is work in that lovely way, elegant when the occasion calls for white tie and tails, aggressive when Marciano, behind on points, lands a crushing right on Jersey Joe's jaw with A J.. Liebling in the crowd to record the shock of the moment.
Kathy Ossip and Susan Wheeler kick off the new KGB season on Monday evening the 26th (85 East 4th Street -- near NW corner of 4th St and 2nd Ave). KGB ringleaders Megin Jimenez and Matthew Yeager have created an elegant program -- which gains a dimension when you take into account that once upon a time Ms Ossip was Ms Wheeler's student. At 7:30. But if you get there at 7 you can hold a Y-shaped glass with a cold clear or cloudy liquid while listening to Bach and grabbing a choice seat.
AND Ben Lerner, on Tuesday evening the 27th, will be the center of attention at a poetry forum hosted by Mark Bibbins at the New School (66 West 12 Street, Room 505). 6:30 PM. You will hear Ben read for thirty minutes or so and then field questions from the moderator and the audience (you) for an equal length of time.
What does the singer pictured at left have to do with any of this? Nothing except that I am listening to her take on "All the Things You Are" as I type up this note. Mention her name (and her birth name) and we'll clink glasses Monday evening. -- DL
Greetings, all. I am happy to be here as your guest blogger starting today and for the coming week. Yesterday was a big day; one I had been planning since April. September 24th was designated by poets the world-over as the day to celebrate 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Were you there?
Poems can change the world, as they point to what is true. Poems can be hammers, splitting rock, or rich ground where we locate compassion. When poets join forces, the energy that is generated leads to amazing things.
Store window in Guerneville, CA, the heart of 100TPC
In helping to organize the 100 Thousand Poets for Change activities these past five months, I made friends on Facebook with poets in Greece, Nigeria, South Africa, and all around the United States. I was reminded very directly in this process that there are many places around the globe where poets cannot congregate and do what they want to do. They cannot simply stand up and read poems in a library or a garden or a coffee house like we did in Sheboygan, Wisconsin yesterday. In some places, poems must be checked by a government agency before being read in public. In Turkmenistan, poetry cannot be read in public at all. As I looked out over the audience yesterday, I felt compelled to remind us that the freedom we have in America to congregate and to "use our words" as we see fit, should not be taken lightly.
The Sheboyan contribution to 100 Thousand Poets for Change was a success from the standpoint of connection. People in our community crossed some lines and got to know one another a little better, all through the reading of poems. We had narrative free versers, rhymers, and straight-up rappers. We had the poet laureate of Wisconsin, Bruce Dethlefsen; we had Karl Elder, Cathryn Cofell, Chuck Rybak and many others. We had children, young adults, and seniors. We had friends and strangers writing poems while they were listening to the open mic, then standing up to share what they had just written. (Actually, there were no strangers. Everyone became a friend in the process.)
We had teenagers lying on couches in the coffee house glued to their iTouches suddenly paying attention. We had a gentleman reading the work of his adult daughter with great pride. We had audience members sharing favorite poems from books. We had small children reading Mother Goose and other verse that spoke to their experience. All in all, I accomplished what I set out to do months ago: to make people fall in love, again or for the first time, with poetry. To fall in love and pay attention.
I woke up yesterday morning to a poem by Oscar Wilde coming through on a website called Your Daily Poem. Panthea is old-fashioned, yes, I know. There are words I did not at first recognize, “hymeneal” (of or pertaining to a wedding or marriage) and “daedal-fashioned” (made by Daedelus, the legendary artist and inventor, the builder of the Labyrinth). Then, there were other lines that came in loud and clear, sounding very 21st century to my ear: “…all life is one, and all is change.”
All pathetic fallacies aside, when I practiced the poem at 7:30 yesterday morning and I got to these lines, “The yellow buttercups that shake for mirth/At daybreak know a pleasure not less real/Than we do…” I welled up with tears. I hate when that happens. Crying while reading a poem. What the heck? I thought perhaps it would be a bad idea to read a poem at an open mic if it was going to make me bawl in public; especially over something as cornball as recognizing how myself and a flower are, at some atomic level, one and the same.
But, I did read the poem, twice. Once at the open mic at the library, and much later in the day to a different crowd at the coffee house. At neither point did the offending words make me cry. However, when I looked out at the audience, I saw wet eyes, closed eyes, longing eyes, bright eyes. In that moment, I knew that the world was in good order. Poetry slows us down to look with our eyes, inward and outward, to pay attention, to revel in what is important. A poem can threaten a despot, shake a woman to her core, or touch a man’s heart. A rhyme can delight the ear of a child, no matter if the child is 3 or 93. The energy we put out into the world matters. And it does not go away. Wilde put it well when he said, “The Universe itself shall be our immortality.”
What do we want our immortality to look like? From Wall Street to whatever streets we live on, change is upon us. You may be a buttercup or a hammer. You may be ears or eyes or both. If you are like me, you are a poet. And as poets, we will be here.
This week we welcome back Lisa Vihos as our guest blogger. Lisa is the director of alumni relations at Lakeland College in Plymouth, Wisconsin, where she is also pursuing a Masters of Counseling degree. She is an associate editor of Stoneboat and just published her first chapbook, A Brief History of Mail. She has been busy of late helping to organize the mega-event, 100 Thousand Poets for Change. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and has been recognized by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. You can read her poems here.
In other news . . .
Monday, October 3, 2011 6:30 PM: Poetry Forum with James Fenton, Moderated by David Lehman. The New School, 66 W. 12th Street, 7th Floor. More here.
For my last trick this week, I’m going to write about some ideas I had when at Toad Hall. I think we were talking about Flarf and Language poetry when one of us—or maybe I thought of this after the fact . . . I can’t remember—voiced a unique theory on their origins: so many resources and years and years of traditions and movements had become available to us poets, we suddenly had to dump the excess. That is to say—we had to use the excess, even if it was garbage, because it was there and we could. These movements, then, arose less as rebellion than as corollary. They weren’t commentaries but consequences.
While I appreciate the original Language poets for their innovation and application of theory and politics to political practice, I don’t often love their poems. I enjoy the experiment—and have learned from it—but I find much of the emotion in that poetry stilted, and that’s just not my personal preference. Whether the poems are accessible, so to speak, is inconsequential. Generally I can’t (and shouldn’t) approach an Armantrout piece with the same lens I use for a Collins poem, so I’m not bothered when I don’t get it—anyway that’s rarely the point of any poem. As for Flarf, I think—so what? When things are new, they’re exciting and sharp. Over time, much sloppiness ensues.
At the same time I can’t help but think how wonderful it is we live during these (according to theory) excessive, extravagant years in which movements like Flarf can germinate and be popularized, in which we can grant time for these art forms, to not tax the rich, to have lockouts over the salaries of professional athletes, to afford personal computers in all shapes and sizes and—nearly—in all things, to market almost any extravagantly unnecessary item and, in an ironic twist, deem it a must-have even in these dire times because well—why not? If we want, we need. If we can, we must. It’s a basic, underlying proposition of the United States of America.
This brief report on last night's successful launch reading of The Best American Poetry 2011 will be followed in days ahead with some photographic magic from Start Black. It was the eighth straight year the New School Writing Program hosted the event in the spacious confines of Tishman Auditorium on 12th Street. Kevin Young, the guest editor of the 2011 volume, came up from Atlanta. And these contributors to the book joined Kevin and me on stage: Cara Benson, Michael Cirelli, Michael Dickman, Alan Feldman, Farrah Field, Major Jackson, Jennifer L. Knox, Katha Pollitt, James Richardson, Patricia Smith, Gerald Stern, Bianca Stone, Mark Strand, Lee Upton. I concluded my opening remarks by reading "Time Pieces," the late Rachel Wetzsteon's haiku sequence, a tour de force. At my urging Kevin Young read one of his own poems -- the greatly admired "Expecting," which ran in The New Yorker last winter -- as well as two of the poems he chose for BAP 2011: John Ashbery's "Postlude and Prequel" and Erin Belieu's "When at a Certain Party in NYC." The poets then took the lectern in alphabetical order. The poetry on display was wonderfully varied in form (haiku, aphorisms, a crown of sonnets, a pantoum, prose poem, free verse), tone, and subject matter. More than one observer noted that the poets prepared the audience, with admirable pith, for what they were about to hear. They read their poems with verve and conviction. The effect, in Leah Iannone's words, was a "subdued awesomeness." You could hear the audience listening.
Dominique Nabokov was there with her camera, and other cameras were in evidence. We will post Star Black's photos of post-reading revelers anon. -- DL
Many artists and writers gather their strength by opposing the established order, but sooner or later the successful ones are assimilated into the culture (Allen Ginsberg, the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco). Usually it happens belatedly but with hyperbolic claims as if to compensate for years of indifference or inattention. There are even times when the lag between rejection and celebration vanishes to nothing, as Gertrude Stein wrote in her brilliant lecture "Composition as Explanation." When the culture swallows the fashionable anti-establishment poetry of the moment, the result may be a mild case of indigestion. A good example is anti-war poetry of the 1960s, which was immediately accepted and glorified and is of absolutely no interest today.
The poet who has resisted assimilation longest and most strenuously is Charles Bukowski. Bukowski is the real thing, like Mexican Coke, a simile he would not have embraced, being a man who sets store by bourbon, whores with good legs, and the twenty-dollar window at the track. His poetry resists the mainstream as, say, even the radical Ginsberg of the 1950s doesn't. Bukowski is as enamored of himself as anyone else but he takes himself less seriously as a literatus. He keeps his brain in the post office where he labors as one of the proles. This humility is one reason he appeals to readers, and he has genuine and ardent readers. Bukowski has long led the league in one important catgegory: more of his books are stolen than those of any other author, an enviable distinction.
Read "The Continual Condiiton," the most recent of Bukowski's posthumour collections, and you will see how he manages to make the reader feel that what he is saying really happened and in just the way described. He uses his artistry to conceal his artistry. He depicts himself, in such poems as "Rejected" and "The Theory," as emphatically ugly -- and at the same time he insists upon his virility. In the former, an editor rejects a story on the grounds that "to infer that an ugly man your age / had sex with four women in one day / is simply infantile day-dreaming." So what dsoes Buk do? He spends the rest of the poem fleshing out this very situation.
About poetry Marianne Moore wrote, "I, too, dislike it." Bukowski would revise that to read "I, too, shit on it." He had an outstanding bullshit detector, and his poems in scorn of the Beats and other celebrated authors (""Ginsberg was / brought in / petted and / dismissed. / Burroughs was / still o.k. / but hardly / interesting / anymore. / Mailer, well hell, / that's big publishing, and / Olson, you know, well, / those breath pauses were / out of date / but meeting him / was nice") are funny and, well, nice.
Bukowski's power lies in the fact that he acknoweldges he is no better than anyone else and yet he remains the hero of his own life. His poems seem raw but are tighty controlled and secretly much more in the know than you might think. (Li Po and Catullus make sneak appearances in "as Buddha smiles"). I intend to write more about this fascinating personage but for now will leave you with these lines, the opening lines of a poem, which arrest your attention and won't let it go: "the god-damned ants have come marching here / and are climbiing into my wine, / I drink them down." -- DL
The Chicago Marathon is just around the corner on October 9. My brother and his wife will be running it. I think they’re crazy. But, because my plans to hear Charles Alexander of Chax Press talk about Emily Dickinson last night fell through, I find myself thinking about running and not about Dickinson. I was thinking of writing about Carl Philips, Kay Ryan as inheritors of her poetics, of maybe linking that to last night’s aforementioned The Big Read kickoff, but alas. I’m thinking instead of marathons.
The closest I’ve come to running a marathon was this summer when I ran a half-marathon on the Douglas Springs Trail in Saguaro National Park. To the springs and back is just over 13.1 miles with a net elevation gain of over 2,000 feet. I was pretty impressed with myself. I got a Jamba Juice afterward.
But what I wish to say about it is that my brain did a strange thing during that run: it shut off. Usually when I’m jogging (a normal distance), my mind wanders all kinds of places, writes all sorts of incredibly, wonderful poems later to be forgotten, composes music, etc.—it’s a meditation (you can read a related article about exercise and creativity from the Creative Research Journal titled “Aerobic Exercise and Creative Potential: Immediate and Residual Effects” by going here http://www.ric.edu/faculty/dblanchette/exercisearticle.htm). But on that long run up to the springs and back, my brain more or less went silent. I remember thinking how weird it was. I was cognizant of the quiet…but couldn’t instigate thought much beyond the empirical observation of it—of its absence. And when I say thought—I truly mean thought. Other than thinking about placing my feet solidly on the trail, watching for rattlesnakes, and telling myself how much my legs didn’t burn or how thirsty I wasn’t feeling, I don’t remember thinking about much of anything. Certainly no incredibly, wonderful poems were being written. All my energy must have gone to my legs, leaving only that reptilian machinery of my brain fully functional.
Initially I was worried. Was my lack of mental music a sign of age? Was I out of practice? Had the physical demands of the run simply taxed more of the mind than usual, reappropriating available resources? That must be the case, I’m sure. Regardless, this experience has me wondering about the mind-body connection, about—specifically as a writer—how what I do on the corporeal end of things affects how I am on the cerebral end of things. It seems obvious that true physical demands can and will overtake those needs of the conscious, wandering mind, but I’m curious about more subtle activities, the small demands like eating and drinking that many of us—in a fit of writing—can take for granted and, thus, forget. At some point we meet them with a trip to the fridge or the grocery store or what-have-you (if you are a “starving” artist, I implore you to reassess your priorities), but is it possible such habits—such things as routine exercise, diet, routine sleep patterns, and so on—can affect not only our ability to imagine but also our ability to write? They must, but—I mean—what if there’s a recipe for good poetry, and it includes things like—50 sit-ups and push-ups daily, preferably before breakfast, which should be comprised of 1 mango and a cup of Greek yogurt, preferably with a drop of honey, and one 8 oz. cup of medium roast coffee, preferably a single-origin bean from Latin America, all of which should be consumed within 12-15 minutes for optimal imaginative prowess, and so on, and so on throughout the day, each ingredient and the ingredients in tandem resulting in a specific mental effect. What if—worse—that recipe is like a baking recipe, which can’t really be fiddled with or you’ll the ruin the cheesecake, the custard, what-have-you. I know there’s a growing science on creativity and on how genes and the environment interact and on how such interaction affects the brain. What if these researchers discover a formula for the muse? The diet-exercise plan for sonnets? The Shakespeare diet? The Billy Collins Diet? The Ashbery Plan? What if the success of your craft was as dependent on the other mental processes as it was on those related to poetry?
I guess the bottom line is that I know what my writing routine is—up before 4AM, write until the kids are awake or it’s time for work, squeeze in poetry (and other writing/reading) later when I can—and I know how exercise typically affects my brain in the immediate sense, which is positively, but I don’t know how the rest of my day impacts my creativity. And I’m not talking about the anomalies we can’t predict. I’m talking about the routines, the habits, the procedures we engage in daily, that we take for granted. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a daily-living coach out there who could align our habits with our ability to create—and not just create but create well? A coach who knew the equation to highly effective poetry writing with regard to physical activity, eating habits, driving habits, cell-phone etiquette, and so on? Then we could advocate good MFA programs—or at least quality MFA profs—for teaching their students how to live rather than how to write.
Or maybe the good ones already do that. I don’t know (I do know, actually). Currently it’s 5:09 AM, and my 16 month old boy with an ear infection is waking between his fits of cough. I sense a disturbance in the morning force. Time for that mango and cup of yogurt. And so on. And so on. Keep on trucking.
(Ed. note: This is the final installment of Brian Bouldrey's three-part interview with Jane Hirshfield occasioned by her just-released collection Come,Thief. Kevin Young selected Hirshfield's poem "The Cloudy Vase" for the Best American Poetry 2011. Go here for a schedule of Jane's upcoming readings. Go here for Part 1 of this interview and here for part 2.)
Brian: I know you’ve been developing over the past couple of volumes something you call “pebbles," very short poems that seem influenced by both eastern and western traditions. Can you describe the growth or emergence of the pebbles?
Jane: The first book I ever purchased, at age eight, was a Peter Pauper Press book of Japanese haiku. I co-translated (with the indispensable help of Mariko Aratani) both Japanese tanka poems (the 31-syllable form that preceded haiku), for The Ink Dark Moon (Vintage Classics, 1990), and more recently haiku, for The Heart of Haiku, an extended essay on Basho and haiku that was brought out earlier this summer as a Kindle Single. But for my own writing, as I said, I felt I needed to find my own form, rather than practice the traditional ones, and after a while I began to name them “pebbles” in my mind, taking the title from Zbigniew Herbert’s famous “Pebble.” They are not haiku, but they are short, slightly intransigent poems that require some response in the mind of the reader before they are finished—as Herbert describes his pebble as inescapably warmed by the hand that holds it. I became much more conscious of these very short poems’ nature and means after writing an essay about them, “Skipping Stones,” for Stephen Berg’s anthology, My Business is Circumference: Poets on Influence and Mastery (Paul Dry Books, 2001). In the book that followed, After (HarperCollins, 2006), I grouped a series under a kind of basket title “Seventeen Pebbles.” Each is meant to be read as an individual, free-standing poem, but putting them in a series seemed more polite to the trees, rather than have 17 pages of a book with only a few lines on each. There’s a similar series, “Fifteen Pebbles,” in Come, Thief. A pebble isn’t just a “short” poem, and while it resembles other brief poems, it’s not quite the same thing as an aphorism, a haiku, an epigram. They have their own flavor, for me. Here are two— Mountain and Mouse Both move. One only more slowly. Opening the Hand Between Here and Here On the dark road, only the weight of the rope. Yet the horse is there. After I’d published After, someone told me that Herman Melville had written short poems he also referred to as “pebbles.” They were hard to find, and didn’t resemble mine much, but I was pleased to discover I shared something with the author of Moby Dick. Brian: Poetry, for so much of human history, has covered all the modes—love letter, persuasive thinking, discourse, argument, storytelling—and in many ways, much of that variety has died off. Not so for you: I feel as if there are all these things and more in your poems. I’m especially enamored of the way you place story or tale or anecdote or fable into your poems, because, while these seem the realm of prose, they are decidedly poetry in your hands, even back to Of Gravity & Angels. I’ve memorized the encounter on the road between the messenger and Giotto, from “A Plenitude,” in The October Palace. Can you speak to your claims over storytelling within poems? "A poem wants to tell something telling, wants the telling detail, wants the slip of incident that holds a world. It wants the 'tell' in poker: the gesture that reveals more than the player would choose to show, yet can’t quite conceal." Jane: Well, that’s what I love about you as a reader, Brian—you see what’s actually there. No one has ever categorized me as a story-telling poet before now, I don’t think; they usually save that for the confessional, Southern, or narrative poets. But one reason for poetry’s existence is that it expands what’s possible to be said, what’s possible to be comprehended, and also expands the ways a person has of doing those things. Stories are part of that, and also the adjective “telling”—that holds some of the intention I think you’re seeing here. A poem wants to tell something telling, wants the telling detail, wants the slip of incident that holds a world. It wants the “tell” in poker: the gesture that reveals more than the player would choose to show, yet can’t quite conceal. You hear a story that feels “telling” in that way, or learn some fact that stays with you, and it waits for its poem the way certain seeds wait for a fire before they can germinate. “Heat and Desperation,” in Come, Thief, for instance, tells the story of the invention of the wildfire-fighting technique of backfiring by a smoke jumper caught in the 1923 Mann Gulch Fire. I read that poem up in the Yosemite Meadows Poetry Festival, and a Forest Service firefighter who was there asked for a copy to bring back to his crew—that was confirming. “Left-Handed Sugar,” right next to that one in the book, came straight from a scientific article. I just looked through Come, Thief, and you’re right, there’s a leaf litter of story running right through those poems. They often also point toward a narrative able to be intuited from behind what the poem explicitly offers—a technique that runs through the Japanese tanka poems but is rarer in the briefer haiku. I think, though, you were probably talking about “borrowed” stories in your question, stories that come from something I’ve heard or learned? The clearest example of that I can think of is one of the pebbles from After. Something I read reminded of a story from the history of Australia: when Captain Cook first arrived off the coast, the native people did not react at all to his ship. It was outside the conceivable, and so they simply did not see it. As soon as smaller ships were launched to bring sailors to shore, the aboriginal people responded with great alarm. I wrote down that story in four lines, I could feel the poem in it. But it wasn’t a poem yet—it was just an anecdote, or as you say, was prose, until I could find another pole of meaning to attach it to. A string hung from a post is just a string. Tie it to another pole, tighten it, and you have the beginning of something, depending on what it’s made of—a stand up bass, a tie-line for a horse, a telegraph wire. It becomes useful. So I wondered, what was the second post, what was the new use I was feeling in this story? I carried the question for days, and then, I thought—global warming. I have never understood how anyone could deny climate change and its disastrous consequences—don’t they have children, grandchildren? When I put this story next to it, I understood. And so the story turned into this: Global Warming When his ship first came to Australia, Cook wrote, the natives continued fishing, without looking up. Unable, it seems, to fear the too large to be comprehended. The point of telling this at such length has something to do with my own relationship to stories in poems. A poem can be, as a whole, a single story—and I love many poems that are like that—but mostly mine use a story as one post for the string. And the string goes from post to post, a phone wire able to carry many stories, all of which lead toward something of ultimately untellable proportions.
Jane: The first book I ever purchased, at age eight, was a Peter Pauper Press book of Japanese haiku. I co-translated (with the indispensable help of Mariko Aratani) both Japanese tanka poems (the 31-syllable form that preceded haiku), for The Ink Dark Moon (Vintage Classics, 1990), and more recently haiku, for The Heart of Haiku, an extended essay on Basho and haiku that was brought out earlier this summer as a Kindle Single. But for my own writing, as I said, I felt I needed to find my own form, rather than practice the traditional ones, and after a while I began to name them “pebbles” in my mind, taking the title from Zbigniew Herbert’s famous “Pebble.” They are not haiku, but they are short, slightly intransigent poems that require some response in the mind of the reader before they are finished—as Herbert describes his pebble as inescapably warmed by the hand that holds it. I became much more conscious of these very short poems’ nature and means after writing an essay about them, “Skipping Stones,” for Stephen Berg’s anthology, My Business is Circumference: Poets on Influence and Mastery (Paul Dry Books, 2001). In the book that followed, After (HarperCollins, 2006), I grouped a series under a kind of basket title “Seventeen Pebbles.” Each is meant to be read as an individual, free-standing poem, but putting them in a series seemed more polite to the trees, rather than have 17 pages of a book with only a few lines on each. There’s a similar series, “Fifteen Pebbles,” in Come, Thief. A pebble isn’t just a “short” poem, and while it resembles other brief poems, it’s not quite the same thing as an aphorism, a haiku, an epigram. They have their own flavor, for me. Here are two—
Mountain and Mouse
One only more slowly.
Opening the Hand Between Here and Here
On the dark road, only the weight of the rope.
Yet the horse is there.
After I’d published After, someone told me that Herman Melville had written short poems he also referred to as “pebbles.” They were hard to find, and didn’t resemble mine much, but I was pleased to discover I shared something with the author of Moby Dick.
Brian: Poetry, for so much of human history, has covered all the modes—love letter, persuasive thinking, discourse, argument, storytelling—and in many ways, much of that variety has died off. Not so for you: I feel as if there are all these things and more in your poems. I’m especially enamored of the way you place story or tale or anecdote or fable into your poems, because, while these seem the realm of prose, they are decidedly poetry in your hands, even back to Of Gravity & Angels. I’ve memorized the encounter on the road between the messenger and Giotto, from “A Plenitude,” in The October Palace. Can you speak to your claims over storytelling within poems?
"A poem wants to tell something telling, wants the telling detail, wants the slip of incident that holds a world. It wants the 'tell' in poker: the gesture that reveals more than the player would choose to show, yet can’t quite conceal."
Jane: Well, that’s what I love about you as a reader, Brian—you see what’s actually there. No one has ever categorized me as a story-telling poet before now, I don’t think; they usually save that for the confessional, Southern, or narrative poets. But one reason for poetry’s existence is that it expands what’s possible to be said, what’s possible to be comprehended, and also expands the ways a person has of doing those things. Stories are part of that, and also the adjective “telling”—that holds some of the intention I think you’re seeing here. A poem wants to tell something telling, wants the telling detail, wants the slip of incident that holds a world. It wants the “tell” in poker: the gesture that reveals more than the player would choose to show, yet can’t quite conceal. You hear a story that feels “telling” in that way, or learn some fact that stays with you, and it waits for its poem the way certain seeds wait for a fire before they can germinate. “Heat and Desperation,” in Come, Thief, for instance, tells the story of the invention of the wildfire-fighting technique of backfiring by a smoke jumper caught in the 1923 Mann Gulch Fire. I read that poem up in the Yosemite Meadows Poetry Festival, and a Forest Service firefighter who was there asked for a copy to bring back to his crew—that was confirming. “Left-Handed Sugar,” right next to that one in the book, came straight from a scientific article. I just looked through Come, Thief, and you’re right, there’s a leaf litter of story running right through those poems. They often also point toward a narrative able to be intuited from behind what the poem explicitly offers—a technique that runs through the Japanese tanka poems but is rarer in the briefer haiku. I think, though, you were probably talking about “borrowed” stories in your question, stories that come from something I’ve heard or learned? The clearest example of that I can think of is one of the pebbles from After. Something I read reminded of a story from the history of Australia: when Captain Cook first arrived off the coast, the native people did not react at all to his ship. It was outside the conceivable, and so they simply did not see it. As soon as smaller ships were launched to bring sailors to shore, the aboriginal people responded with great alarm. I wrote down that story in four lines, I could feel the poem in it. But it wasn’t a poem yet—it was just an anecdote, or as you say, was prose, until I could find another pole of meaning to attach it to. A string hung from a post is just a string. Tie it to another pole, tighten it, and you have the beginning of something, depending on what it’s made of—a stand up bass, a tie-line for a horse, a telegraph wire. It becomes useful. So I wondered, what was the second post, what was the new use I was feeling in this story? I carried the question for days, and then, I thought—global warming. I have never understood how anyone could deny climate change and its disastrous consequences—don’t they have children, grandchildren? When I put this story next to it, I understood. And so the story turned into this:
When his ship first came to Australia,
Cook wrote, the natives
continued fishing, without looking up.
Unable, it seems, to fear the too large to be comprehended.
The point of telling this at such length has something to do with my own relationship to stories in poems. A poem can be, as a whole, a single story—and I love many poems that are like that—but mostly mine use a story as one post for the string. And the string goes from post to post, a phone wire able to carry many stories, all of which lead toward something of ultimately untellable proportions.
David and I rarely dine out, in part because in New York City even a casual meal in a neighborhood restaurant can be quite expensive but mostly because I like to cook. It helps that the availability of great ingredients, especially from farmers' markets, makes cooking at home a real pleasure.
It's precisely because I love to cook that I'll be dining out this Sunday, September 25. Many of the farmers whose produce I love experienced devastating losses when Hurricane Irene tore through New York State. My good friend, the writer, editor, and Food Network program judge Gabriella Gershenson has spearheaded Dine Out Irene, an all-day fundraiser for which she and her colleagues have enlisted dozens of restaurants to donate up to 10% of their day's proceeds to organizations dedicated to helping farms get back on their feet. The list of participating establishments is long and growing and includes many of our finest restaurants. I'm having a hard time deciding where to go. Maybe it will be a three-meals-out day. Care to join me?
Learn more about Dine Out Irene here. And make your reservations!
(Ed. note: This is part two of Brian Bouldrey's three-part interview with Jane Hirshfield, occasioned by her just-released collection Come,Thief. Kevin Young selected Hirshfield's poem "The Cloudy Vase" for the Best American Poetry 2011. Go here for a schedule of Jane's upcoming readings. Go here for Part 1 of this interview.)
Brian: So much of the music, the poetry of your poems rises from the subject. I don’t know how often you are quizzed about prosody, but because the audience for Best American Poetry is made up of fellow poets, I wonder if we can talk a bit about form and meter and working in and around tradition. Perhaps we could start with an extreme—the prose poem “Left-Handed Sugar”, which does NOT have line endings. What made you decide to make this a prose piece (I am reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s rainforest pieces)?
Jane: It’s a choice driven wholly by music, by tone. Prose poems for me arrive inside the music of “sentences” and “thinking,” rather than in the more lyrical music of “poetry.” Yet they’re still poems—so what’s there as a vessel to catch them is “prose poem.” I always know when I’m writing a prose poem from the first phrase—it comes in that set of sounds. “Left-Handed Sugar,” with its account of a failed experiment in engineering a new diet sugar, is funny; it’s also talky, prosaic. Any form, in poetry, is woven from a set of poetic conventions and expectations. Mostly they’re learned by experiencing other poems in the same form. You get a feel for prose poems the way you get a feel for how the hips move in salsa, by seeing and by doing.
I think of a poem’s physical unfolding on the page as a kind of musical notation system, a way to conduct tone, pace, and mood. Line breaks in free verse are sometimes difficult for people, because sometimes they are an eye-pause rather than an ear-pause, but they also fundamentally signal “Read this as a poem, that’s the kind of attention that’s here.” That’s why it matters that a prose poem is a prose poem—you read it differently than you would if it were simply another prose paragraph in the middle of a magazine article. It is, first, a poem.
"A prose poem arrives inside the music of thinking."
Brian: What other elements of form—meter (or rhythm, meter’s prosaic cousin), rhyme, stanzas, figures of repetition—have you been playing with here in “Come, Thief?”
Jane: In any poem, there’s always some formal, musical mandate—sound awareness conveys feeling and intelligence, and also evokes them. Awareness of music catalyzes increased reach—you feel more, you think things you wouldn’t otherwise find. Poetry, someone once said, is “thinking with the whole body.” There are some poems in this new book in which prosody is more heightened. They’re in what I think of as “wandering rhyme”— rhymed poems, but not regularly rhymed. Though no one has yet invited me into a New Formalist anthology, I’ve done this kind of poem in each of my books, from the beginning. Just as a prose poem arrives inside the music of thinking, the wandering-rhyme poems arrive in a carriage pulled by the horses of sound—the music is their First Cause, so to speak. This is true of “A Thought,” “Suitcase,” “It Must Be Leaves,” “Three-Legged Blues,” “Pompeii,” “One Loss Folds Itself Inside Another,” “I Ran Out Naked in the Sun”—a whole run of the poems that come late in the book are rhyme-made… I put them together partly to give the reader more of a chance to notice. Formal, rhymed, “traditional” poems are closer to “experimental” poetry than they are to free verse, you know—closer, that is, to poems with Dada-ist roots, or poems that have been run through a specific instrument of accident or distortion. In both traditional form and, say, poems whose cut up lines have been pulled from a hat, what’s said is the result of some accidental, outer introduction. What could be more arbitrary, really, than looking for a word that sounds like “beach” or “frustrate,” and then saying something that’s been magnetized by the coincidence of consonants and vowels?
Brian: One poem in the book stands out here, because it’s written in a traditional form—“A Hand Is Shaped for What It Holds or Makes.” Can you talk about that one?
Jane: Every poem I write bows toward prosody, one way or another, even if it’s the faintest slap of water against the hull of a boat. If the ear and breathing aren’t awake and engaged, for me, it’s not a poem, it’s just jottings. I don’t know quite why certain poems take that on more strongly, but it does seem to me that certain forms are engines for certain kinds of thought and feeling. There are three villanelles I’ve long loved—Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking.” Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” It seems to me a form not to enter into lightly or arbitrarily; you have to wait for something that requires this particular pattern of return and discovery to work itself through. This poem did that—it arrived inside villanelle’s music, and the music then shaped what it went on to become. It is, you probably noticed, a loosened and skewed villanelle—only the last words of the line repeat exactly, not the full lines, and one stanza has an extra 2/3rds of a line tucked in. But every departure from strictness in the poem is there for a reason, and I was aware of those reasons even while writing the first draft. The over-running line is about a former love’s face: “the lines have ranged, but not the cheek’s strong bone.” It does what it speaks of, ranging, while under it, the form keeps its structure.
A Hand Is Shaped For What It Holds Or Makes
A hand is shaped for what it holds or makes.
Time takes what’s handed to it then—warm bread, a stone,
a child whose fingers touch the page to keep her place.
Beloved, grown old separately, your face
shows me the changes on my own.
I see the histories it holds, the argument it makes
against the thresh of trees, the racing clouds, the race
of birds and sky birds always lose:
the lines have ranged, but not the cheek’s strong bone.
My fingers touching there recall that place.
Once we were one. Then what time did, and hands, erased
us from the future we had owned.
For some, the future holds what hands release, not make.
We made a bridge. We walked it. Laced
night’s sounds with passion.
Owls’ pennywhistles, after, took our place.
Wasps leave their nest. Wind takes the papery case.
Our wooden house, less easily undone,
now houses others. A life is shaped by what it holds or makes.
I make these words for what they can’t replace.
Brian: I am mindful, with every conversation you and I have, of the poets you admire and call into the conversation—your recommendations have always sent me running to the shelves (Richard Wilbur, Kay Ryan, long before she became widely known, etc.) Are there poets that have influenced your writing—and perhaps more dangerous a question, are there poets that you feel you had to write yourself out from under the influence?
Jane: I am utterly promiscuous in my loves, a sponge for so many influences it’s almost impossible to name them. Not just the usual American and English and Irish influences, though all the obvious ones are in me, not only the Western and Eastern classics, from Horace and Li Po to the more modern “classic” international writers like Pessoa, Cavafy, Milosz, Neruda, Borges, and Szymborska. But I might fall in love with one poem by a Dutch poet I’ve not otherwise heard of, and three years later write a poem that carries that poet’s fingerprint. I might fall in love with a medieval Sanskrit poem of erotic courtship. The one influence I have actively skirted is at the same time one of the strongest in my development—the strength is why I had to be wary not to fall entirely under the spell: traditional Japanese poetic forms. These poems shaped my sense of poetry from the start, but I’ve felt a kind of taboo about writing in their exact modes. I also avoided writing in the style of San Francisco poetry that was prevalent when I first moved West, in 1974—I didn’t want to imitate the Beat poets, or take on the coloration of the local scene, though I love and learned from what they did to break open the possibilities of how Americans write. Years later, I learned this was Basho’s advice to his students: “Don’t imitate me, don’t be the second half of a cut melon.” He also quoted a much earlier Japanese poet, Kukai: “Don’t settle for what the old masters found, seek what they sought.”Part 3
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.