Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Friday, March 23, 2007

Lent, Easter, Poetry

After approximately four decades of living as some combination of pagan, atheist, and agnostic, I became a Catholic in 2000. It was an interesting process, and remains so, some seven years later. I never have a good answer for people who ask we why I converted; the changes in my particular case were several. They came as a result of illness, aging, reading, and observing; and not least of all, also as a result of mystery. I've written a few religious poems over the years, although I use "religious" here loosely. The Lenten and Easter seasons may be the most appealing, difficult, and mysterious ones for poets who are Christians, or Christians who are poets. Here is a very famous Easter poem by the 17th Century English poet George Herbert:


Easter Wings


Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.


My tender age in sorrow did beginne
And still with sicknesses and shame.
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.


Here is an immeasurably less famous poem related to Easter. If memory serves, I wrote it about three years ago:


Broken, Amazing, Awful


Everything is broken.

Everything is amazing.

A lot of it is awful.


Among others, Jesus,

who certainly put himself

among others, had a fine


sense, one senses, of

broken, amazing, and awful.

Lawfully wedded to a human


condition, he performed

his rendition of grace. It was

amazing. They broke him.


That was awful.


© 2007





an in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:5
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.10

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.15
With thee
Let me combine,
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.20

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

War Poetry?

It's awfully tempting to write "war poetry," although only those who have been to war can probably write effective poetry that is literally about war. Those who haven't been to war will write poems at least once-removed from war--but that is not to say such poetry is necessarily less potentially good or important. Randall Jarrell wasn't able to become a pilot in World War II, but he did serve, he did observe, and he did write the unique war poem of six lines, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Robert Bly opposed the Viet Nam War and combined surrealism and protest to produce some remarkable poems. A whole website devoted to "poets against the war" sprang up after Bush started the war in Iraq. Not long after the U.S. invaded Iraq, I wrote the following poem, which I wanted to be anything but grandiose, partly because I really had to wonder how effectual or even pertinent a poem could be at that point.


Invasion and Birds

On that particular day, USA was invading

a country again. I didn’t know anything

to think that would change USA. Maybe

I was wrong to observe birds. When

the nation claiming you invades another

nation, all actions, including a glance

at birds, seem either right or wrong but

never neutral. A constellation of starlings

took off from a muddy field. Totality

of beating wings made a single, heavy

sound. One robin was left in the field—

a bird dressed like an old professor:

orange sweater-vest, gray jacket. On

a walkway, two juncos flitted,

plump gray nodes of energy. Observing

birds, I knew for sure USA had taken

a wrong turn. I felt myself to be

sad and politically useless

like a weary angle of lost geese,

jet engines coming their way.



Copyright 2007

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bird Poems


Like love, death, and sunsets, birds seem to almost every poet to require yet one more poem. And like love, death, and sunsets, birds tempt the unsuspecting poet to write something sentimental, or to personify birds, as I just did when I wrote “birds tempt.” Actually, of course, poets tempt themselves to write sentimentally about birds, who have more important things to consider than poets. As with the rest of poetry and the subjects of poetry, a chief rule for bird poems is this: there are no rules. However, before writing a bird-poem, a poet might want to do what a bird-watcher does: observe; and then observe some more. That is, as long as the poet doesn’t rush to the writing with stock images of and prefabricated ideas about the bird in question, things should go all right.

The ultra-famous bird-poems include, of course, Poe’s “The Raven,” Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and Hopkins’ “The Windhover.”

Over the years, I’ve noticed that a fair percentage of students react negatively to “The Windhover,” partly because Hopkins’ sprung rhythm and heavy alliteration create some difficulty, but also perhaps because of the epigraph, “To Christ Our Lord.” Obviously, the poem does have its religious dimensions, but mainly it’s about that hawk up there, gliding, pausing, diving. It's also about the explosiveness of language itself. Even when I was only 17, I took easily to this poem and Hopkins’ work, for some reason. I think I simply sensed that Hopkins was doing in verse what jazz musicians do in music, and so I just found myself enjoying everything he was doing with words and lines, stresses and alliteration. It was pleasurable to me, even on the first reading. I also liked what he was doing with the hawk in the poem. I felt he really was trying to see the bird and to help us see the bird as the bird is. So although I don't try to argue students out of their resistance to the poem, I don't entirely understand the resistance.

Other fine bird poems include William Everson’s “Canticle of the Water Birds,” which I heard/saw Everson read several times; Robinson Jeffers’ “Hurt Hawks"; Emily Dickinson’s poem about the sparrow and the twig; and Ted Hughes’s book-length work, Crow. Dickinson also has the one that begins “A bird came down my walk.”

Karl Shapiro wrote an interesting poem in which he depicted a bird counter-intuitively in terms of a mechanism, a machine, and he wrote another one about having been attacked by a crow in Chicago. They’re both in his Collected Poems from Random House, published in the late 1970s.

At the risk of committing literary heresy, I'll admit that I believe Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" to be a hugely over-rated poem--and a problematic one, insofar as it glorifies rape, but also insofar as it's a bit silly. I know geese and swans can get mean, hiss, and bite, but if one really attacked a woman like Leda, I think Leda would simply wring its neck or kick it. The whole scene has always seemed a bit unintentionally comic to me. If Zeus appeared in the form of a lion, that would we one thing--but appearing as a large bird, but not even an eagle or a vulture? I mean, really. And finally, the question, "Did she put on his knowledge with his power?" seems not terribly pressing, and I've always wanted to answer, "Who cares? The woman was raped by a bird!" A more basic question might be, "Can a swan really have sex with a human?" Or: "Who does this lousy bird think he is--Zeus?!" It's one of those myths that I wouldn't mind a parodist like Mel Brooks retelling on film. . . .

. . . . In an homage to Dickinson, whom I regard as one of the great literary observers of nature, I played off “A bird came down my walk”:

Homage to Emily Dickinson


A bird came up

My mental walk.

It pinched a Dickinson

Scholar in half.


In my scrappy hometown,

I knew weirdos like you,

Liked them. They

Lived their lives,


And just their lives.

How rare that is

I began to know

Even at age six.


Your poems are prim

Graffiti scratched

On the back of Piety’s pew.

Good old you.


Your poems know more

Than ever they let on,

Were postcards sent

From privacy, anon.


© 2007


I also wrote a poem not just about a wren--but a Bewick’s wren (now that's specialization):


Wren


A Bewick’s wren landed on a fence-rail,

presented its image to my surprised view.

All of natural history had contributed

to this bird’s mere form, gray-brown


finish, up-slashed tail, and quick

departure into an atmosphere that is

no longer visible to us. When I saw

a Bewick’s wren today, I sensed


spirits nearby smiling wryly

at my mere thimbleful of awe.

© 2007

And here’s a link to “An E-Anthology of Avian Poems”:

http://birding.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?zi=1/XJ/Ya&sdn=birding&cdn=hobbies&tm=6&f=00&su=p445.92.150.ip_&tt=14&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//www.usd.edu/%7Etgannon/bird3.html

Happy birding.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Words and Land, Land and Water


Rita Dove has a wonderful poem titled simply "Ö." The title of my poem below seems elaborate by comparison: "Őland." Poets are notoriously imperfect at interpreting their own poems, so with that caveat, I'll just note that I think the writing of this one came from a seam or crevice that many if not most poets explore, where the mysterious connections between land and language (and "land" is language) seem to reside.

On a more basic but still poetic topic, I'll mention that, to English-speakers, the Swedes refer to the commercial trip from Sweden to Őland as "the booze cruise," a nice rhyme.

The people who live on these island consider themselves, culturally, to be and, linguistically, are Swedish. When Russia "annexed" Finnland, it grabbed Åland, too, and when Finnland became independent again, Őland stayed with Finnland, at least officially.

* * *


Őland


(the group of island east of Sweden)


We sail past rocks. Glaciers rubbed

them round, so the story goes—round

heads of old monks, slick heads of seals

sleeping on black boulder-islands.


We’re sailing to a land that belongs

to water, a semi-nation of Swedes

governed by Finns, its very-own flag

whipped by unconquered winds.


Three old Swedish men, drinking beer

this early morning, mutter

stories of boats, ships, water, and things

that go wrong. “Panama,” they say.

And “Gävle.” Titta,” they say: Look,

and we pass the rocks past Őland.


The rocks pass us, looking. Things can’t

go wrong with rocks but can go

wrong on them. White swans

fly by. Earth never stops whirling—

so the story goes. Ibland,” the men

say. Sometimes.

Å is oh, and oh is water. In Waterland, land

becomes a sought-after afterthought:

“Oh. . . . Land.” Ibland. Åland. Őland.

Copyright 2007

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Stood Up

Stood Up

The fiction and poetry of British writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) often projects a bleak, dour attitude toward experience, not unlike the attitudes represented in the works of A.E. Housman and Robinson Jeffers. Of course, those who favor a Hardy/Housman/Jeffers worldview might quibble with the word “bleak” and suggest replacing it with “accurate.” Even so, “dour” seems an especially good word to situate near Hardy, partly because it apparently shares etymological DNA with “duress” and “endure.”

Hardy could be a delicate writer, too—delicate in the way a jeweler, or a diplomatic envoy during a crisis, is paid to be. Consider the love poem, of sorts, “A Broken Appointment”:

A Broken Appointment


You did not come,

And marching Time drew on, and wore me numb.

Yet less for loss of your dear presence there

Than that I thus found lacking in your make

That high compassion which can overbear

Reluctance for pure lovingkindness’ sake

Grieved I, when, as the hope-hour stroked its sum,

You did not come.


You love not me,

And love alone can lend you loyalty;

--I know and knew it. But, unto the store

Of human deeds divine in all but name,

Was it not worth a little hour or more

To add yet this: Once you, a woman, came

To soothe a time-torn man; even though it be

You love not me?



(The first and last lines of each stanza are supposed to be indented and centered in relation to the rest of their stanzas, but the blog won't let me save the text that way.)

I find so much to like in this poem. Uncommonly, it explores a common experience, that of waiting for someone we care about and whom we want to believe cares about us, only to realize the person has chosen not to show up.


I admit the syntax in stanza one is front-loaded; that is, we must wait quite a while for that verb, “grieved.” Why did he grieve, however? The answer is delicate, discerning. He grieved not because he longed for the person, or because he was wounded by rudeness or abandonment, but because he realized the person’s character ("make," as in "makeup" or "constitution") lacked “high compassion.” The person lacks something that Hardy attempts to capture in a word that welds together two words: “lovingkindness”; the person’s character seems not to include a crucial type of kindness.


Delicately, Hardy writes “You love not me,” instead of “You love me not.” I take “You love me not” to place the emphasis on the speaker’s not being loved. “You love not me” is more detached, less self-centered; it states that the person expected at that appointed hour does not love the one waiting but no doubt loves another or others. In this chosen phrasing, I hear an echo of "that's the way it goes," of "c'est la vie." The phrasing also suggests that this situation is not a surprise to the one waiting. Incidentally, after we have waited for 13 lines, we learn for sure the person is “a woman.”


The poem appears to conclude with a rhetorical question, a kind of question we often ask when we are hurt or angry. A well worn example is, “What were you thinking?!” The one in the poem is more delicate. Indeed, I’m not sure if it expresses, rhetorically, disappointment and anger, or whether, in fact, it may not be entirely rhetorical. That is, perhaps the speaker actually wants to know whether the woman may not have found some worth in showing up and soothing him, the worth one finds in doing the right thing. That the question might function dually pleases me.


The speaker seems not to have expected an expression of love or an indication of loyalty. Basically, he just wanted her to show up, bringing with her a kind word.


I need not but will point out the deftly handled form: iambic pentameter, book-ended in both stanzas by iambic dimeter; an intricate scheme of rhyming; a tone of voice—at least insofar as I interpret the tone—that is, certainly, formal but also conversational. But who talks like that? That’s a fair question. A person who has worked out an elaborate but firm notion of good character may talk like that, and perhaps also an educated person born in 1840 and still alive a decade after the Great War.


Finally, I must mention "the hope-hour," from the penultimate line in stanza one. Haven't we all experienced "the hope-hour," in which, like the people stuck in Casablanca, we "wait . . . and wait. . . and wait"?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When A Love Poem Isn't

When A Love Poem Isn’t

In Anglo-American culture, William Shakespeare’s sonnets are conventionally thought to represent the best in love poetry. Sometimes a love poem isn’t a love poem, however, and sometimes its not being a love poem makes it, paradoxically, a better love poem, or at least a more surprising one. Consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometimes declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives live to thee.

You have to like almost any poem that begins with a simple question. Rhetorically, the question opens the poem like a well-made key.

The speaker of the poem doesn’t answer the question directly, however. Implicitly, he answers, “Yes and No.” Yes, I’ll go through the exercise of comparing you, or at least contrasting you, to summer—which he does in lines 2 through 8. But implicitly he also answers, No. That is, he can make the comparison, but the comparison turns out to be no good, because summer has its flaws and doesn’t measure up to “thee”—the woman or man about whom the poem is written. The convention of love poetry is to compare the lover in a way that works. Shakespeare deliberately offers a comparison that falls short. He’s having fun with the convention of comparing; it’s a very jazzy thing to do. One imagines a jazz musician playing and gently mocking a melodic line, both at once. Lines 1 through 8, then, feature the poet flexing poetic muscles—making a comparison and showing the inadequacy of the comparison simultaneously.

“But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” That sounds like a nice compliment to pay a lover, there in line 9. Lines 10 through 14 demonstrate that the speaker is not really complimenting the lover, however. He’s complimenting himself. He’s arguing that the lover’s “eternal summer” and her or his “fairness” (beauty) will last precisely as long as Sonnet #18 shall last, and the prediction is that Sonnet # 18 will last as long as men can breathe, or eyes can see: a very long time, asthma and cataracts notwithstanding.

The speaker of the poem must, we may conclude, like this person very much, perhaps even love her or him. But the poem is mainly self-admiring. First, it shows off ("watch me compare thee to summer and then critique the comparison"). Then it predicts a long life for itself, and it predicts that it this long-lived poem, a kind of monument to the person (thee) will have been built.

Of course, this all makes Sonnet #18 a better love poem, at least a less conventional one, than we might have expected. It’s about love of language and poetry, and it’s about liking someone so much that you’ll set out to write a magnificent poem about her or him. But a straight-up “I love you” poem it isn’t. So much the better. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Well, yes and no, my dear . . . .

And how many poets can predict a long life for their poetry—and turn out to be right? Nicely done, Bill.

A Poem About Eggplant, a.k.a aubergine


I never developed a taste for eggplant, but I always liked the name, "eggplant," and I like the alternate name even more: aubergine. I also like the color, the external texture, and the mystery of eggplant. So I wrote a poem about this vegetable--or is it a fruit? My apologies to fans of eggplant Parmesan. No offense intended. My homage to aubergine:


Aubergine


Eggplant, the bruise-fruit, heals

in a darkroom as photographs

of contusions develop.


Gathered in a farmer’s truck,

eggplants appear ready to travel

into outer space, there to visit

purple planets in our galaxy.


The mayor has disappeared.

He was last seen getting into

a taxicab near the produce-market.

He was accompanied by an eggplant,

which he carried in a burgundy valise.


Shiny, soft, and smooth,

eggplants suggest patent-leather

shoes worn by a species whose feet

differ from ours in certain respects.


Although I dislike eating

its slippery flesh, I pay

aubergine certain respects.


There is eggplant. There

it is—a pliable stone

sitting in purple patience

waiting for us to go away.


© 2006

Why Do We Like the Poems We Like?

Why Do We Like the Poems We Like?

In grade-school, I encountered the poems customarily encountered by my generation: Emerson’s Concord hymn, Frost’s “Stopping By Woods” (which we had to memorize), Kilmer’s “Trees,” and parts of Hiawatha. There was a mixture of the patriotic, the safe, the conventional, and the pleasing (Hiawatha is fun to listen to, especially for children).

In high school, things got more complicated, but not much. English teachers preferred short stories (“Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”), novels (Lord of the Flies), and plays (Romeo and Juliet; Julius Caesar). When I got to college, I finally encountered poems that bowled me over, such as Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” and Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck.” I liked these poems because they surprised me. In a way, they didn’t give me a choice. They insisted that I like them. They presented images of and provided a new language for war, death, and terrible commonplaces like car-wrecks; they did things with poetry I didn’t know, until then, could be done.

I think we pretend to or agree to like some poems because we are supposed to. I think we like others because they remind us of a certain time in life or a certain moment; they help mark a memory. And I think we like others because, when we read them, they strike quickly, they pierce, and they satisfy by surprising. I also believe poetry pierces in ways that novels and plays can’t—even though novels and plays are equally powerful, in their own ways. Nowadays, people—even people who study literature, I might add—don’t like poetry, fear or dread poetry, or otherwise just avoid it. But that’s a different question, one I might take up later.

For now I’ll end by offering this opinion: the poet whose opus is most full of piercing surprises is Emily Dickinson, who may be the most misunderstood or mis-characterized poet ever. I still cherish her wonderfully observed poem, [“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”].