Synthesis

“The current moment” has a way of inserting itself into poetry I write, not just these past weeks but always. I look at my poems written in the wake of the 9/11/01 attacks and can see reflected in their pacing, tension, or imagery some aspects of the anxiety of those days. Not that I wrote much poetry that employed that current moment as a topic or narrative…just that the numb dread, surprise, and confusion managed to enter in. Poetry can contain and convey those hard-to-describe emotional tensions. Ambiguities. Conflicted feelings. Multitudes.

Poetry, by its nature, requires synthesis. For example, metaphor is one type of synthesis. In Carl Sandburg’s poem “Good Morning America,” he famously says that “Poetry is the achievement of the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” (But then, he also says “Poetry is a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes./ Poetry is a sky dark with a wild-duck migration./ Poetry is the opening and closing of a door,/ leaving those who look through to guess about what is seen/ during a moment.”) Make of it what you will.

A few posts back, I mentioned my dad has been showing up in my poems recently. That’s still occurring. This one doesn’t have a title yet, as I’m still mulling it over and will probably revise the whole poem down the road. The initial impulse for the poem had nothing to do with my father or the war in Europe, and we do not have any daffodils in bloom right now. But there they are.

~

[Verge]

On the road’s verge, geese stand looking unctuous,
	vaguely irritable as I pass them
going 50 on the route I’ve taken for decades
and this time I recall two years back, when my dad
	was failing, how eagerly I sought any sign
of seasonal change—
	early-flowering witch hazel, or crocuses, quince,
swells in daffodils’ green emergence 
while inside myself the slow emergency of his dying
	began to open from probable to imminent.
I drove south idly; through the windshield I 
	looked forward to nothing, as my mother
talked of nothing when he floated in his haze of pain
and Dilaudid while holding one hand over his head
	as though he could, with his fingertips, pull
the ache from his left ear over his head and into the room
	where it might exit.
Now, the exodus occurs elsewhere, in refugee waves
of people whose minds and bodies lug their different pains
	across other kinds of borders.
My father’s experience of earth has ended,
	his baptism complete. His birthday was in April.
	See there, along the roadside? Daffodils.


~~

Relevant, possibly

~~

Of note: I’m happy to have a poem in Scoundrel Time, a journal I enjoy reading for work that’s relevant to the contemporary moment. Here it is; please read it, and read the other wonderful poems in Scoundrel Time: “A Brief History of Kyiv.”

~~

This poem also came to mind, for different though possibly related reasons. It will appear in The Red Queen Hypothesis when that book (my second full-length collection) gets into print. I was writing many poems in various forms at the time. The poem’s story is second-hand, the we a personified plural community of human beings, one repeated line taken from, you’ll recognize, A Tale of Two Cities–there’s a reason for the allusion as well.

Somehow, may all be well. Somehow, may each of us find some happiness.

~~

Variations on a Line of Dickens
			(Belarus, 1985)

It was the best of times, it was the worst
of times, when nothing seemed to go our way,
though happiness is what we wanted. First

we stood in endless queues, outside, and cursed
the lack of cheese or bread; our pals would say
it wasn’t the best of times, it was the worst.

We’d swill cheap vodka, harshening our thirst,
highlighting deprivations of each day,
when happiness was all we wanted. First

we’d press our bodies close enough to burst
the paper bag of lack. Kisses could not stay
our own best times, but it was the worst

thing to let go. Our lips still pursed,
the tastes of sex would linger and relay
that happiness is what we’d wanted; first

times were the best, solid, immersed
in flesh and heat—forget the fray—
those were the best of times, and yes, the worst.
Happiness was what we wanted first.

~~





Sir John Tenniel, of course.

What poetry says

My dad was a newshound. Always had the radio on and newspapers: New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Camden’s Courier-Post. I grew up watching the Viet Nam War on the 6 o’clock nightly news. I am fortunate enough not to have lived through war in my own country, but I read a good deal of fiction–and wars supply natural conflict for plots, either as background or foreground. I found it a little too easy to put myself in the situations of the characters in novels.

Also, I was of a Cold War generation. The threat of nuclear warfare loomed, and we drilled for that eventuality in our school hallways the way children today drill for active shooters.

Dread. I get it.

Many friends and colleagues have been posting poems on social media the past week, as poems about the useless pain of war can be recycled generation after generation without becoming irrelevant. Really, that fact alone ought to teach us that armed conflict offers nothing but suffering; but when have governments ever listened well to what poetry has to say?

What follows is a work of the imagination, a poem I drafted in 1990, if my records are correct, and revised last in 2008, after which it was published online in a now-defunct literary magazine. Reading it, I realize that with a few changes, it could become a poem about a pandemic as easily as about a war.

~~

DURING WARTIME

First we lose
our certainties
and some of our trust.
The rest depends on events,
our nearness to the front.

Cities feel it earliest,
a dry panic, rations,
the irrational becoming
stuck, continually,
in our throats.
We practice
not being hysterical,
learn to live without
bacon, or oranges.
On worship days,
silence and weeping.

Life in hills and farms goes on
more quietly than before,
difficult situations held
as they usually are
like a straw between teeth.

The last things lost
are nonetheless changed:
a bounty of curls
on the pillow of a once-shared bed
turns grey. 
Linen closets, kitchen cabinets,
the child’s pale room
have altered, become simpler,
more desperate.

When infrastructures fail—
rails, roads, electricity— 
we are merely afraid;
it’s when simple things leave us
we have lost all our wars.


(1990/2008) Ann E. Michael

What war does

Shocks us. Even when we expect it.

Rattles the cages of the ordinary.

We made friends with several Ukrainian folks when my husband worked there years ago. We keep in touch; ever since the seizure of Crimea in 2014, we have been worried despite our friends’ apparent unconcern. But life was normal. On Monday, Y. called to discuss a recent job offer; should she take the position with a big corporation? On Thursday, she called at 9 pm (pre-dawn in Kyiv) to say she could hear bombing over the city and was thinking of hiding in the woods near her suburban house.

Now, she’s trying to get to Poland.

What rattles me is the way this reminds me of September 11, 2001, when things were initially so mundane and typical and then…not.

Here’s a poem from a visit we made to Lavra-Kiev in more peaceful, warmer, sunnier times. May such times return to all of us, and soon:

https://aboutplacejournal.org/issues/the-future-of-water/praise/ann-michael/

That need to publish? –eh…

The hazel’s buds are about to open, first yellow of the season; red-winged blackbirds have returned; this morning, several flocks of snow geese in Vs high above me. Then, a brief but crazy-wild snow squall. Yes, it is February.

What I find myself assessing lately is “the need to publish” thing. I feel a reckoning coming on, personally, in which societal changes are implicated–and my age, as well.

Let me backtrack.

When I first started writing poetry seriously (reading, studying, crafting, workshopping), publishing was a paper-only endeavor that involved typing and retyping poems, sending them with SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) to various literary magazines and journals both Major and minor, and waiting for up to a year for rejection or acceptance. The acceptances were necessary if I wanted a book publisher to take my work seriously, or to have an academic institution consider me as worthy of hire, or to apply for higher-stakes literary grants and opportunities. The game, as it were, operated on those hierarchies: journal publications, chapbooks, solo collections, college stints.

I did a bit of that, though not enough, I suppose. I got my chapbooks and solo collections (see books here) and a fair number of poems in actual (and, now, virtual) print. But ambition ain’t exactly my middle name; my college work has not been tenured and doesn’t fall under the creative writing category–I run the writing center at my university, where it’s all about grammar, spelling, documentation, essay structure. I enjoy the work, but it is not poetry.

Back to poetry publication: the new assessment is about whether I care anymore.

I’m theoretically close to retirement, though academia lets us continue to our dotage if we wish. [See The Chair.] Will further publications, or higher-status publications, enhance my position at the university? No. That ship, as the saying goes, has sailed. Anyway, it was more of a daysailer than a cruise liner. And will further publications, online or in print, keep me in royalties in my retirement years? You jest, my friend! Poetry adds little to the income balance sheet.

Furthermore, the current state of literacy requires social media presence; virtual journals abound, and many of them are fantastic (seek them out! read them!). Their editors respond slightly more rapidly than lit mag editors did in the 1980s, and though there’s sometimes a submission fee, the price has not escalated much more than postage has (and is in some cases lower). But submitting to journals even online nonetheless consumes a sort of energy and time commitment that not all of us have. Or are willing to make to keep ambition going.

So. My current assessment suggests I’m past the point where it matters much where the poems appear, although I personally love poetry BOOKS and will continue to get my books in print if I can. This assessment allows me to say, “I hereby forego Submittable, etc., for the most part and will send out poems to journals if asked, and otherwise…” Hmmm. Otherwise, what?

Maybe post them here? As I did two years ago during National Poetry Month. I could do that again. Something to consider. Since I no longer have much to gain, I could at least continue my audience here.

photo: Hernán Gonzalo Pereira Palomo

Readers, if you want to weigh in on this concept, I’m all ears.

Psalms, Job, & poetry

I have been learning much and enjoying Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Poetry; as much as I found his texts on biblical narrative intriguing, this book appeals to me more not just on the levels of scholarship, history, and explication but because he clearly loves and understands poetry. Which cannot be said about every scholar who writes about the Old Testament books (and they are many).

For example, Alter recognizes that trying to categorize biblical poetry into formulaic genres is useful only in the most general way, because the most enduring (poetically ‘best’) verses persist as significant and special because they are excellent poems. Which means they may not follow stereotypical genres or fit the “given conventions of style” of a type of poem. Indeed, he refers to the author of Job’s Voice from the Whirlwind and the prophetic author known as Deutero-Isaiah as geniuses. Then he provides evidence of this genius through explications that rely not only on scholarship and historical sources and contextual information but through the beautiful poetry itself.

Convention gives writers of both verse and prose a solid framework in which to construct their own discourse, but good writers always exert a subtle pressure on convention…remaking it as they build within it.

Robert Alter

Paradoxes and “radical ambiguities” abound in these ancient poems, and the urgent ideas they chose to convey through poetry manage to feel significant even today, thousands of years later. The fictive aspect of poetry–its imaginative spur–appears in the biblical imagery of (imagined) apocalypse, (imagined) utopia, (imagined) peace and bounty. [Non-believers might add: (imagined) god.]

Alter writes with some wit and considerable modesty, though maybe it’s false modesty since he’s clearly attached to his arguments concerning the Masoretic text, translations of biblical Hebrew, and the structure and syntax of these poems. At any rate, his style permits him to write for the non-scholar. Much appreciated by this non-scholar!

Poetry…is a particular way of imagining the world–particular in the double sense that poetry has its own logic, its own ways of making connections…and because each system of poetry has certain distinctive semantic thrusts that follow the momentum of its…habits of expression.

Robert Alter

I gleaned from this book some approaches to writing poetry that remain useful today, things I’ve heard mentioned in interviews with contemporary writers, methods I have employed in my own work without recognizing their long lineage. Then again, I spent many hours in church pews when I was growing up, listened to many an Old Testament reading from the pulpit, and sang hymns with lyrics often drawn from those passages. I suppose the forms have plowed grooves in my brain.

Plow: Akkadian_seal_Agricultural_scene_Louvre_Museum

In which my dad appears

When does bereavement permit the writer to get back to the writing process? I have had quite a few conversations about this topic in the past few decades, and the answer’s pretty obviously “It depends.” I think of Donald Hall writing during Jane Kenyon’s illness and death and afterward–the stunning poems of Without. When my friend David Dunn died, I wrote immediately and often, sorrow emerging through elegies and remembrance. But I was younger then, and less experienced in the arena of bereavement.

During my mother-in-law’s two-year decline toward dying, I found myself writing about the challenges we faced–physical, emotional, communicational (that’s not a word, but I’m leaving it here all the same). Afterward, I could not/did not write. What interferes?

Why my thoughts turn this way: because, lately, my dad keeps turning up in my poem drafts.

I did not write much last year and did not submit any work.* For some reason, though I blogged and wrote long emails to friends and read many inspiring books, I did not feel particularly creative. But I wouldn’t have associated that semi-arid year with my father’s death; I figured my creative void was more about covid and an increase in chronic fatigue symptoms.

To jump start myself this year, I signed up for an online workshop (see this post). It has helped–I’ve drafted more poems in five weeks than I wrote in five months last year. But there’s been a peculiar outcome to these poems: despite widely differing prompts, source poems, and initial processes, my dad or something I connect with him appears in almost a third of the new drafts. I wonder what my subconscious is doing behind my day to day routine. Is this a response to bereavement, or a sign that I’ve accepted his death, or a reminder to self of what a huge loss it has been to me?

Not that I have a definitive answer to any of those questions. I do feel grateful for his appearance, though. He had a good sense of humor and loved to sing–nice things to have in a poem.

~

Thanks, Dad.

~

*Well, almost no work. Thanks to Marilyn Hazelton, editor of red lights tanka journal, I did submit tanka poems in 2021; and she accepted a few for this season’s edition (print only).

Prompted

I have been composing new poems, a welcome development spurred in part by my participation in a poetry workshop (see my last post here). Meanwhile, the college semester has resumed, and my colleagues who teach poetry have been discussing and sharing writing prompts.

For those readers who are not poets: A writing prompt is a sort of assignment in associative thinking or use of a craft strategy that the instructor offers as a form of inspiration or motivation to get creative writing started. There are entire books on this topic. Most writers go through dry spells or low motivation, and teachers need new ideas to keep their students doing the actual practice of writing even when bolts from the blue do not arrive to shake the creative spirit into gear.

I will admit to mixed feelings about prompts. Prompts can act as shortcuts to the process of composing, but I am the kind of writer who prefers the long haul; for some reason, the struggle of finding something to say, and an interesting way to say it, assists me in writing poems. I’m not in a hurry. I revise frequently. If it takes a long time to get to the finished poem, so be it. Sometimes I’ve followed a prompt and produced quite a nice poem, but maybe the voice or style or approach does not feel like my own. That’s a potential downside to prompt use. I have read poems by other writers that sound like prompt-produced poems. Some of them are fine work and yet…

This isn’t to suggest prompts lead to inauthentic or cookie-cutter poems (though that can happen, especially with inexperienced poets new to the task). I think it depends on how the prompt is presented or written and, in addition, the environment surrounding the process of thinking about writing. What works best for me is a prompt that makes suggestions I have to complete or devise for myself. Ambiguity with specifics, if that makes any sense–or specifics with ambiguity.

The environment in which I’m currently working includes a group of seven people, with whom I had not previously been acquainted, meeting online, and a moderator/leader who makes observations non-judgmentally and asks questions concerning where this poem draft could go next. And yes, there are also prompts. What I like about Elena Georgiou’s prompts is their open-endedness. Because none of us are beginning writers, we feel free to disregard any part of the prompt that doesn’t appeal to us–or to follow it closely to force us out of well-worn poetry habits–depending on our internal environment on the day we happen to be tuning in or trying the prompts. We are a group of independent people who are collectively thinking about writing. That’s something of value.

Winterwords

It wasn’t exactly a New Year’s resolution–I do not bother with those–but I have promised myself to spend more time on poetry again following a fairly long interval, not exactly a hiatus, but…

Serendipity, then, to learn of Two Trees Writing Collaborative‘s poetry workshop that is taking place online in the early months of the year when motivation’s most welcome. As well as a chance to meet other writers where they are as the pandemic limps along. This online workshop is facilitated by Elena Georgiou, who was one of my advisor/mentors when I was in graduate school at Goddard. Feels like old times (not. because modality-virtuality-experience much altered). I have drafted four new poems, and the process is fun though the output has been mediocre so far; well, one must sometimes prime the engine.

I’m also reading Anthony BurgessNothing Like the Sun, wildly Shakespearean rollicking-with-language, a novel that reads like iambic pentameter. I’m thinking of poetic cadence, which is a craft aspect of poetry that has not been much on my mind until renewed by this novel. Not that rhythm is unimportant to my work, but thinking about it hasn’t been foremost. I have been thinking more about lyricism lately, it seems my default mode.

And I’m thinking about winter, and snow.

A photo taken by Claire McCrea, in Colorado, earlier this month. Something about this image says “Winter” to me and conjures Japanese woodblock prints that act as visual haiku.

What I would really like to do: make more time to revise the huge stack of old poems languishing in various boxes. And perhaps submit work to journals again, and send out the most recent manuscript. Patience with self is what I need right now, but also a kick in the derriere.

Reflective spaces

Many years back, I spent awhile researching and pondering the ways time can play out in a poem. I fully intended to spend another couple of years developing theory on space in poetry, but that essay never came about. Life diverted me from literary scholarship and criticism, and that’s alright. I never was very good at scholarship.

The idea, however, returned to me recently in one of those by-the-by moments; I had been writing to a friend about revisions and was re-reading Plath’s Ariel (the version with the facsimile pages and also drafts of the title poem and of “The Swarm”). I noticed that, from her earliest hand-written drafts, Plath chose to write “Ariel” in three-line stanzas–and that was something she did not revise or alter in any of her subsequent drafts.

Interesting. Stanza length happens to be one of the aspects of a draft I am most likely to change when revising. Stanzas being the little rooms of the poem, it seems the spaces between stanzas play, usually, a more than visual role in the best poems…well, that got me thinking about space in the poem and somehow led to thinking what poems offer. Why we read and write them, even in the 21st century.

Explicitly: The poem is a space for reflection. In the space of the poem, a reader can expand perspective or feel resonance, as in a concert hall; or find a mirroring of the reader’s self (reflection); or, in a critical sense, the reader can reflect upon the poem’s topic, context, argument, content, imagery, craft, language, or beauty. The space of the poem urges response and responsiveness. Poems are not rooms built solely by and for the writer but built of the circumstances and for the reader, too.

What poetry means, in terms of reflection, is that the response can be reflective of the reader’s space, as well as the writer’s. I know that I have had different responses/readings of the same poem depending upon the place I was in while reading it (emotional, physical, contextual “place”). Different kinds of mirrors reflect different visual images. The lighting matters. The time of day. The mood. All of those are spaces, metaphorically or actually. Different stanzaic rooms, different poetic rooms–ready for a reader’s exploration.

Photo by Jenna Hamra on Pexels.com