Saturday, April 29, 2017

Just Overhead

Well, my "What Is Poetry" talk of course could not live up to its name, promising more than it offered...but it got us thinking about all the ways to attempt to use words to describe this process in which we use words to describe these moments we feel may offer meaning.

A moment of transition, a moment of meaning, a moment of wonder, a moment wherein something is named...

...that's as close as we get.

***

just overhead
one more small hunger
called sping

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What Is Poetry?

A poem is a small but powerful interval of a world, characterized by order and beauty, with grief made small enough to hold in one's hand. 

That's one of my radical assertions (well, mundane suggestions) that I'll be offering and supporting with numerous examples in my presentation this coming Friday, April 28, 2017. You are invited! Yes, you! Because of course, if you are reading this, you want to know what poetry is, and why poetry is, and how poetry is. 

Please join me at Sussex County Community College in Newton, New Jersey, in the Atrium of the Performing Arts Center (that's Building A). I'll begin at 1:00 and we can go until 2:30, with (I hope) lots of questions, fueled by the cookies that will be provided!

I will have books for sale, and we'll celebrate Poetry Month and everyone will leave newly inspired.

See you there!    

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Bright Impossibility

It has been a little over five months since I began this blog, which has given me so much more satisfaction than the website it replaced, calling me forth on as many mornings possible to add a thought or two about poetry and the creative process. Is it time for a taking stock, a what-have-I-learned moment? If it is, I have no easy response, feeling that, if I have learned anything, I have surely forgotten it. Every day seems new, in a perverted way, in these dark times; every day a wonder at the degradation of the human mind feeding on its own capacity for stupidity. It's a wonder that artists persist. And that may be the lesson, after all.

"Such sumptuous—Despair—" mused Emily Dickinson, as she pondered why we need art, why we are drawn to its "bright impossibility." What an oxymoron, "bright impossibility"—what a perfect description for these times of hope-bred-from-despair, of why some of us keep getting out of bed every morning, to teach, to read, to think, to create something that may outlast this current incarnation of Ozymandias.

Onward we go.

(The above quotes are from Emily Dickinson's poem that begins, "I would not paint—a picture—" which is poem #505 in the Johnson anthology.)

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Flint unto this Day

We met as Sparks—Diverging Flints
Sent various—scattered ways—
We parted as the Central Flint
Were cloven with an Adze—
Subsisting on the Light We bore
Before We felt the Dark—
A Flint unto this Day—perhaps—
But for that single Spark.

***

Emily Dickinson and her imagery of stone and minerals. Here she and the one from whom she is parted are chips of flint, which at one time met and created a spark (and the meeting of flints that produce a spark is not soft, but sudden, hard, one may almost say a violent event). And except for those brief sparks, the two are cold, hard, lifeless flint for eternity.

To me, the further metaphor is that of poems from a flint. And for that, the flint must be alone, must be by itself, striking air, and from the nothingness it strikes appears the poem. What a vision of the artist as a little God, creating, in a shower of sparks, a world from the void.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Haven

A poor — torn heart — a tattered heart —
That sat it down to rest —
Nor noticed that the Ebbing Day
Flowed silver to the West —
Nor noticed Night did soft descend —
Nor Constellation burn —
Intent upon the vision
Of latitudes unknown.

The angels — happening that way
This dusty heart espied —
Tenderly took it up from toil
And carried it to God —
There — sandals for the Barefoot —
There — gathered from the gales —
Do the blue havens by the hand
Lead the wandering Sails.

***

A fascinating poem, filled with potential symbolic readings (is that death in the first stanza, the "Ebbing Day," "West," "Night"...). That "torn" and "tattered heart" is still "Intent upon the vision / Of latitudes unknown" — Heaven, if one continues with the pattern of symbolism. If one does, then the word "havens" in the final stanza makes one pause: Did she mean "heavens," and (as we often do when writing) accidentally omit a letter and not notice her "typo"? Or did she intend the unexpected yet beautiful "havens," the word itself a latitude unknown until experienced? Is "havens" here another word for "angels"—quite unexpected, that!

As she worked out her world view in her poetry, she seemed determined to avoid cliches. This relatively early poem (#78 in the Johnson anthology, identified as circa 1859) is a wonder of craft, technique, and attention— itself a haven soothing one's poor, torn, tattered heart. (The book I would love to write would be titled An Atheist Talks to Emily Dickinson.)


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Within My Reach

Within my reach!
I could have touched!
I might have chanced that way!
Soft sauntered thro' the village —
Sauntered as soft away!
So unsuspected Violets
Within the meadows go —
Too late for striving fingers
That passed, an hour ago!

Wow, how did Emily Dickinson in that poem know how I felt yesterday morning as I waited for the day to warm and the bloodroot blossoms to open? I had to leave about (I'm guessing) thirty minutes before the ones in the warmest spots in the woods were fully open. Just missed.

Just missed. It would break our hearts, to know all that we just missed. It would also inspire billions of poems, for this "just missed-ness" of life is the key to poetry (perhaps music, too)—more so, it seems, than any other of the arts (although dance would capture it, as well).

Is every poem, in some way, about what was "just missed"? What was within reach but not reached out for; what was there but passed by, overlooked, taken for granted? What was seen once and then searched for again, a lifetime's desire never seconded?

The rare bird at the feeder. The wildflower on the forest floor thirty minutes from fully open to the sun. The thing you saw an hour ago, or almost saw...

...The thing you missed while looking...

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Identity

I have been thinking of the topic of identity this semester, as I teach Modern Poetry. There's a balance one sees in a successful poem, a balance between what the poet reveals of him/herself and how the poet recedes in order to allow the reader to see him/herself in the poem. Even a poet with a strong, distinctive, unmistakeable voice, such as Emily Dickinson or Elizabeth Bishop, is able to allow the reader some space.

(And now that I have written that, I wonder if it's true: Can one say this about Emily Dickinson? I think so, even if she didn't care [and one feels she may not have cared a whole heck of a lot] about giving the reader space. But space there is, if only for a reader to discover him/herself trying to find common ground with this uncommon poet—and that's a pretty remarkable space. So.)

Modern poetry certainly did not begin as confessional poetry: think of Dickinson; think of Whitman who, for all his frankness, did not "put it all out there"; think of Eliot (another strong, distinctive, unmistakeable voice)—all of whom remain "hidden" in a sense (in many senses) and yet whose words we read again and again, returning to the words, returning to them, the ones who are hidden and yet who reveal so much. The idea that poetry is a means of self-discovery is a modern one; the truth of which "self" one is discovering as one reads (or even as one writes) is what makes it so deeply and infinitely interesting.