Important

In his recent book Singer Come from Afar, Kim Stafford suggests the difference between great poems and important poems has something to to with the occasion of their relevance. He says important poems “are utterances written as a local act of friendship or devotion, and given to a person, shared at an occasion, or performed in support of a cause.” Such a poem may later be considered a great poem, though more often would be relegated to the status of “an expendable artifact of the moment.” Framing poems as expendable artifacts does seem accurate in many regards. A page, that can be burned or shredded; an oral performance, uttered into time and lost thereafter; a digital event, that can be corrupted or invisibly archived in the “cloud”–those fragments and unfinished pieces we let languish and eventually discard. Perhaps important to us once, these poems are ephemera.

Stafford’s recent collection celebrates the local and the relevant, even the immediate, at the risk of not being lasting, whatever that may mean. Published in 2021, the book includes a selection of pandemic-related poems, many of which appeared on his Instagram feed @kimstaffordpoetry. Few of these poems are “great” in the literary sense, in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean they are not worthy of publication; this reader appreciates the urgency in the pandemic poems, the need to connect with others sharing the predicament of “social distancing.” We should not ignore the value of local, person-centered poems, narratives of the everyday. Not every human interaction requires epics, and really–the majority of contemporary poems address the small important events and metaphors that sometimes resonate with larger aims. My own work tends that way, so I’m not one to talk about greatness.

Besides, there are a couple of poems in Stafford’s book that will hold up well to literary explication, poems I have already enjoyed re-reading, such as “Chores of Inspiration” and “Do You Need Anything from the Mountain” with its lines “Bring me that skein of fire/that hangs in intimate eternity, after//the dark but before the thunder, when/the bounty of yearning in one cloud/reaches for another…”

I guess each of us has the capacity to evaluate what it is we consider important and what we consider great. I happen to like the bounty of yearning in Kim Stafford’s clouds.

~

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.

Slowing time

I cannot recall where I learned of Byung-chul Han, but I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of his books of philosophical essays (The Scent of Time) recently, and seldom has a philosophy text resonated so immediately with my circumstances. In this book, Han argues for contemplative time. He says it is essential for humans and human society and claims the “acceleration” of everyday life robs us of the value of reflective thought and “slow time.”

Raised and educated in Germany, where he now teaches, Han invokes the works of several German philosophers to provide a starting-point regarding the acceleration of time. He draws on Nietzsche, Arendt, Husserl and, to a larger extent, Heidegger…but Derrida, Aquinas, Aristotle, and others as well. He also quotes from quite a few poets, such as Celan, Hölderlin, Büchner, Handke, Ch’iao Chi, and spends two chapters on Proust (but of course…).

Han posits that the point-like, algorithmic availability of information runs counter to knowledge and wisdom, which require experience, which in turn requires duration and connection rather than arbitrary retrieval: “Promising, commitment and fidelity, for instance, are genuinely temporal practices. They bind the future by continuing the present into the future…creating a temporal continuity.” He criticizes the very technology that permits a person like me to learn about his work (I am certain I heard of him online somewhere). That criticism says the faster we go, the further we are from our earthiness–the airplane removes us from earth’s gravitational field as well as from the soil, “estranging the human being from it.” He adds, “The internet and electronic mail let geography, even the earth itself, disappear…Modern technology de-terrestrializes human life.”

Strong opinions, large claims. But oh, I thought at once of Whitman and his long expansive drawling poems when I read, “Instead of leisurely strolling around, one rushes from one event to another. This haste and restlessness characterize neither the flâneur nor the vagabond.” The whizzing about leads to anxiety and a lack of durable relationships. People hover instead of connect, swiping left or doomscrolling, feeling bored–which is a kind of empty-mindedness. I observe this trend of rushing and hovering in my students and among my colleagues. I have not found much Whitman-like lounging in current poetry publications, but a great deal of anxiety appears in contemporary poems. Writers reflect the times. Context shapes us.

But of course, our culture urges us to keep active, as though activity of any kind is valuable and can somehow stave off boredom, loneliness, or death. “Addiction to distractions” and the via activa are the sort of socio-cultural pyschological behaviors Han would like us to slough off. He wants us to leave behind the “Calvinist” (as he terms it) belief that “Wasting time is the worst of all sins.”

“In the consumer society, one forgets how to linger,” he notes, correctly. While we may browse the sale rack at a store for many minutes, the pressure is to buy the next new, better, faster, brighter object before we leave. What about sitting quietly, noticing the scent of flowers or incense, taking in the sounds of the world each of us experiences differently, or walking for half an hour as aimlessly as possible–without a phone, or money, without pop music or podcasts, alone or with a companionable fellow stroller? The very thought makes some people uncomfortable; they aren’t at ease with their reflective selves in the world, with human experience. Why is this so? Has it always been so? These questions Han touches on.

I have felt the pressure of filling up my time with lists of things to do, people to see, things to purchase, jobs to fulfill, projects to complete. It’s been hard to make space for dawdling, daydreaming, drafting poems. I haven’t submitted work since July, and so few poems have come to mind lately that this begins to feel like writer’s block. The Scent of Time has reminded me to open up more space in my life for simple experience on the level of daily phenomena, which is the stuff out of which I write poetry.

In awe

I know I’m late giving accolades to this Pulitzer-prize-winning book, but I finished reading Tyehimba Jess’ Olio recently and: wow! This 2016 collection goes on my must-keep-&-read-again shelf (okay, that’s not a real shelf in my house, but it should be).

How to describe the experience of reading this book? The poems are mostly lyrical, largely persona pieces, yet the scope of the book as a whole is encompassingly narrative. It takes readers from the mid-19th century through the late 20th century through poems that imagine the voices of slaves, ex-slaves, singers, composers, musicians, performers: all of them real people. It’s part history, part fiction, interspersed with dynamic prose that suggests interviews and letters and song lyrics; furthermore, the sureness of Jess’ use of classic and experimental poetic craft astonishes.

Plus, the stories are just so compelling. Inspirational? Sometimes. Sad? Often. Entertaining? That, too. The title comes from the term that means an amalgam, a mish-mash, and which was used to describe the various acts of minstrel shows. Yet Jess’ book does not feel like that sort of random “show.” It holds together like a carefully-sawn jigsaw puzzle or a masterful collage.

In the midst of the “entertainers” who voice the poems in Olio, there is the unavoidable pain of Black lives in the United States. It’s depicted clearly in the words of the speakers of these poems, and sometimes more subtly, as in the litany of Black churches burned, bombed, or shot up that appears under the choir poems.

Most awe-inspiring for this reader is the section about the conjoined twin girls Millie and Christine McKoy. What Jess does here, besides a spectacular imagining of the characters of the twins (born into slavery and exhibited in “freak shows,” they sang duets!), is to create sonnets that are twinned, star-shaped on the page, syncopated in meter, rhymed and off-rhymed, and–here’s the kicker–that can be read across each line or on each side, (columns or linearly). How did he come up with that form? It’s so suitable to the lyrical aspect of the pieces, which are interwoven into a kind of unexpected crown of sonnets.

If this is hard to imagine, here’s a reading and article that may explain better than I can. Also, if you can locate a copy of the book, you’ll see that the publisher went out of the way to accommodate Jess’ unusual approach: there are fold-outs, illustrations, changes in typeface, and the book’s size is larger than the standard trade book or poetry collection.

Olio doesn’t fit on a shelf as easily as some poetry books; it’s going to stand out. As it should.

~~

Reading poetry can be uncomfortable; some of Jess’ poems are deeply discomfiting and sad. Nonetheless poetry helps me put the world into perspective, perhaps especially when it forces me out of my personal point of view. So I value it immensely. Times like lately, when I am writing only a little and not submitting my work at all, reading the work of fellow writers reminds me of why we bother to create.

Robert Bly

The recent death of poet Robert Bly brought to mind his book Leaping Poetry; I have this edition of the famous little book, which I bought in Grand Rapids Michigan in 1978.

My dear friend Ariel Dawson recommended this book to me. I have read it many times–my copy’s pretty beat up. A 1975 book of his prose poems influenced my thinking about poetry’s many forms, too; I love my copy of The Morning Glory: Prose Poems. The thing I like most about Leaping Poetry is its open-endedness, by which I mean that Bly embraces ambiguity in poems by suggesting readers–and writers–examine the gaps, the leaps, the surprises that encourage curiosity. Free associations into the unknown can lead to obscure and unreadable poetry; but they may also offer a way in to the unconscious, the emotive, the innate–what, in previous decades, was called the “primitive” and associated with non-Western religion and ritual song-poems. When I was first writing poetry more seriously–as a craft, an art–Bly’s little book helped me to reflect on what I was doing. It gave me new direction.

The Morning Glory poems moved me into researching what poems feel like on and off the page and how poets have used forms in different ways through thousands of years. Haibun, for example.

In subsequent years, I have read persuasive criticisms of Bly’s translations and of some of the concepts in Leaping Poetry; certainly there is much one can criticize concerning Bly–because he wrote so prolifically and took a certain joy, I think, in standing out. I made a point of going to his readings and presentations when I could, just to hear what his latest enthusiasms would be. (I must admit I never liked the way he read his own poems, but I often liked the poems themselves.) I am grateful for his work and have been recalling going to hear him and reading his poems over the years, discussing them with friends.

The book itself is an old, dear friend. I think it’s time to read it again. Each time anew.

Physics, poetry, notes

In a discussion among some of my poetry-reading friends, two readers said they feel “stopped” when they encounter unfamiliar words or terms in a poem. They feel poets should avoid writing work that uses specialized knowledge as metaphor, in imagery, or to establish the poem’s context. Their argument is that when a reader feels stopped by anything in the poem–from an unusual line break or stanza structure to an unfamiliar word–a kind of alienation occurs between reader and text, and that when poets choose to employ the unfamiliar they need to explain somehow/somewhere (notes? prose headings?) to guide the reader. But then they added that referring to notes is, in poetry, distracting.

“Some vocabulary and allusions just make me feel inferior,” one friend says. I don’t think they’ve spent much time with Ezra Pound’s later work but imagine this statement by Sam O’Dell applies: “Now, whether or not Ezra Pound intended to make others feel less intelligent while pulling obscure outside references into his poems and essays is up for debate. The guy seems the type who may have enjoyed making sure others knew he was smarter than they were.” (Read the rest here).

Nerdy autodidact that I am, I rather like those stop-the-reader moments in poems–if there’s a payoff. If I learn something new, and if that thing I have learned enriches the poem’s meaning and also enriches me, then I don’t mind feeling surprised or puzzled or even interrupted. Some poems take more work to read than others, and that’s ok. Some novels prove less easy to read than others, and some movies make the audience-experience fraught, unnerving, or strange. For me, the essential work that artistic endeavor does is open new perspectives, present puzzles, invite inquiry. Make me curious!

Example: Recently I re-encountered the work of poet Daniel Tobin, whose collection From Nothing speculatively examines the life–the interior, intellectual, and spiritual life–of the Belgian priest and cosmological physicist Georges Lemaître. In the process, this series of poems covers war, genocide, the atomic bomb, physics. I haven’t read anything by Tobin since his book The Narrows (2005), and the Lemaître poems take considerably more work to comprehend. That work on the part of the reader is rewarded, I should add, especially a reader with more than a passing interest in cosmology and the cosmos itself. A reader who doesn’t mind a bit of theology or physics or history and quite lengthy notes at the end of the book, and who will actually read said notes. And then refer to her books on the expanding universe theory and Hubble Effect and look up more about Lemaître. [That reader would be me; but Tobin has many readers with all kinds of interests and expectations about poetry.]

In Tobin’s lovely poem “(Origin),” I found the word marver, and while looking up the definition learned that when molten glass is poured onto a slab for cooling, the process is called gathering the glass–and I love that use of the word gather. Maybe it will make its way into one of my poems someday. Even if it does not, I feel happier knowing that little fact.

But most of From Nothing contains allusions to cosmology, to Einstein and Planck, to World War II and conflicts of many other kinds, internal as well as external. I kept being wowed by Tobin’s research into Lemaître and by the poet’s imagination as he plumbs his subject’s complicated world of math, motion, and a conceptual physical universe that could also have room for God. I mostly remembered his earlier work that was so tightly crafted, often rhyming (or employing surprising and delightful assonance). In this collection, I didn’t notice the craft aspect until I went back and did some re-reading. I was too caught up in the complexities of physics and the momentum of the subject’s life-as-scientist/life-as-priest. The lines each have six strong beats, the stanzas are tercets, and there are eight stanzas in each poem. There’s more to the craft than that, but what I like is that–unlike some of Tobin’s earlier work–the craft takes a backseat to the narrative (though I think that’s also true in The Narrows, to some extent.)

Maybe this “difficult” book appeals to me because I like difficult books. Maybe it appeals because it reminds me of my father, a person invested in the world of reason and fascinated by science…who yet believed there can be faith, that god exists. Here’s an excerpt of Tobin’s “(Cinema)”:

You, who chose two ways equally at once, circuit 
the conferences, meetings fueled by enigma, mixing 
with the eminent and their sidereal regard,   

your morning Masses before library and lab.

~

My dad was not a Catholic, but the balance between faith and reason was one he wrestled with, too.


			

Cycles & theories

The Chinese lunisolar calendar puts us between 立秋 lìqiū, or start of autumn, and 處暑 chùshǔ, or limit of heat. Certainly the heat here lately has felt limiting, but the term more likely refers to the end of the hottest days of the year. My backyard world fills with haiku imagery for waning summer and impending autumn: katydid and annual cicada calls, birds starting to flock, morning glory and goldenrod, ripe pears, apples beginning to redden, hosts of butterflies. I watch as a hummingbird visits sunflowers, cannas, buddleia, corn tassels, and zinnias. Ripe tomatoes and zucchini weigh heavily on their vines.

Yesterday, a doe nibbled pears while her late-born twin fawns wove between her legs and the Queen Anne’s lace beneath the tree. The air hangs so humid, even the monarch butterfly’s wings seem to droop. A sense of waiting.

And I prepare for the fall semester. Cycles continue: that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

~

Therefore, to engage my intellect when my expressive ability with words seems sparse, I’m reading about theory. Specifically, the theory of the lyric in Western poetics, which turns out to be abstract and scholarly (no surprise, really–theory tends to be scholarly). My guide for this outing is Jonathan Culler’s book Theory of the Lyric. This text manages to be relatively readable despite its terminology; and as the terminology for the lyrical poem encompasses a long history of definitions, rhetoric, explanations, subgenres, and antiquated jargon, the going occasionally gets tough. I’m learning a great deal, however, about poetic experimentation over the centuries.

I now recognize that I have subsumed the idea of lyricism as it came down to American writers through Romanticism (see Hegel). It’s just that the concept of subjectivity in the lyric, and inward-turning emotion and the poet as speaker, has been so pervasive in Western poetics and pedagogy that it seemed a basic premise. Yet it was not always thus, and certainly other cultures employ lyricism differently and view it differently. It’s never an easy task to view from outside what is inherent in one’s own culture, but that’s where books like this one enlighten and challenge.

Besides the theory and historicity of poetry and the task of poetics, however esoteric and abstract, theory texts often elicit from me the urge to move to something more concrete, more creative.

I can only hope.

Fallow me

Blogger/poet/bookmaker Ren Powell recently suggested going fallow for awhile “to see what comes of it.” I tend to go through fallow periods quite accidentally. Used to call them writer’s block, but I don’t view them like that anymore. Fallow strikes me as a more accurate term for a number of reasons, some of them etymological. In current agriculture, a fallow field remains uncultivated purposely, to rest and improve the soil’s fertility. That seems more accurate to my current state of mind than “dry” or “blocked.”

Consider the field left fallow: plenty goes on there. Weed seeds germinate and sprout, annelids and arthropods, insects, and beetles, in their various life stages, multiply and move about. Voles, mice, toads go a-hunting. Bacteria do their thing. It’s not a lifeless place, the fallow plot.

But I haven’t been writing.

The publisher of my next book (The Red Queen Hypothesis) says yes, it’s still on her docket and will see the light of day–and print–next year, but that heartening news has not kicked me into gear on the writing front. And yet, by the time that collection comes out, the newest poem in it will be 6 years old. Some of the poems are almost 20 years old; it will not feel like a “new book” to me! Where, then, to put the newer work? What to do with the two half-completed, partially-revised collections of newer compositions that lie next to my desk and languish on my computer’s hard drive? Where is the motivation to finish the work or to start fresh?

I don’t know the answer to that just yet. But here’s an off-the-cuff haiku I dreamed up this morning that reminds me a bit of Issa’s poems.

~

fallow field
even a bird's dropping 
contains a seed 
painting by Jack FIsher

Memento mori

I think I am an amateur naturalist. Maybe my own poetry isn’t so much nature poetry or ecopoetry as it is naturalist poetry. By that I do not mean naturalism as literary criticism defines it–a “movement” belonging to the 19th century. Sean Carroll’s concept of poetic naturalism isn’t quite what I mean, either; Carroll’s approach is more philosophical, though it does get closer to my personal concept. I guess I just mean poetry written by a naturalist.

Such musings arise as I have been reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, which offers a naturalist’s low-down on what corporeal death means in terms of the Earth’s environmental cycles; he views every death as a life or as multiple lives–for, in the animal world (which is, after all, our world), a corpse hosts multitudes of new beginnings. It’s simply recycling, the work of millennia. And sometimes the work of Nicrophorus beetles and other “undertakers.” Okay, maybe not a book to every reader’s taste, but fascinating biology. After having read quite a few books on hospice care and human dying, I can now appreciate the amazing biological processes at work in “natural” deaths that work to improve soil, remove waste, feed numerous animals and plants, and regulate the cycle of life. If we want to get ourselves back to the garden, we need to make ourselves more aware of these valuable cleanup crew creatures.

Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve.

A Best Beloved expressed dismay as the news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis coincided with a few recent worries and bereavements: “Everyone’s getting older and falling apart!” But really, what are our options? Die young and leave a good-looking corpse? Live to 100 and die while sleeping? Probably something on the continuum between those poles. Most humans think about, or endeavor not to think about, their deaths and the deaths of those they love. Grief and death are among the Big Themes of poetry, often hovering in the background of a poem that initially appears to be about something else (i.e. Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson 😀 …). Poets strain experience through words; sometimes we write from the filtered outcome, sometimes we explore the dross that gets caught in the sieve. All of it is life.

“Remember we must die” need not be a call to religious fervor or to pessimistic existentialism. It is merely a fact that we ignore at our peril; for if we remember death is ahead, we can attune ourselves more closely to the lives we do have–and those others with whom we are in relationships. For whether you know it or not, your body has a relationship to Earth and all of its beings. Even, perhaps, the carrion beetle, not to mention billions of microbes and your best friend’s mother.

When I write about death (and I do), I find the tone of the poem depends a great deal on which words or images I use: the clear flow, or the leavings in the sieve. Different purposes, of course. Sometimes the poem wanders in sorrow, sometimes there’s clarity or a lifting of grief. It depends on the perspective (sometimes the speaker of the poem isn’t me), and on where the poem itself decides to go, particularly as I revise. Many readers believe that poems only ever arise from the writer’s experience, but poems are works of the imagination. And they are sometimes informed, or re-formed, by experience or insight that comes later in the writing process.

My own grief? That’s private. I may not decide ever to communicate how that feels. However, having sensed sorrow in my bones and gut and in the empty places in my community of loved ones, I can write about being in the moment of bereavement and the many moments afterwards when the losses make us ache. I like to imagine that memento mori keeps me alert to life. Even when I feel sad.

Until…

We are at the end of an arbitrary, chronological year but still in the midst of a pandemic that will not be going away miraculously when the new calendar begins.

To what must we devote ourselves? I think, for now, just getting by and living through; we can learn much from solving the everyday puzzles life pitches at us. A friend counsels that having a project to do can help–something a bit thorny that offers a challenge but that is not a priority. For now, I am cutting vines–the ones that threaten to strangle the remaining trees in the windbreaks on either side of our narrow property.

Trees that have been weakened by too little and then too much rain, by warmer temperatures and crown die-back that encourage lichen, by insects and the viruses they carry, and by a lack of native undergrowth. The ash trees that ringed the meadow are all dead now, victims of fungus and stress-related illnesses caused by infestations of emerald ash borers.

It’s an ongoing effort for which there won’t be much reward, but it feels a bit like tending something in the dead of winter.

I will cease tending this blog for awhile. My deeper concerns lie elsewhere at the moment. If my next collection is indeed published this year as originally intended (covid protocols have affected almost every endeavor, even publishing, and certainly book launches), then I will likely resume a more noticeable social media presence! Maybe I will have resupplied my energy reserves that have been depleted during the past few months.

Until we meet again, and hoping that we can meet in person down the road…

photo by David Sloan