Thursday, December 01, 2011

Revision and Rehearsal

I have a poem I'm struggling with. I like it, but I look at it, I read it. I know it's not done, but I don't know where to go next with it. I've marked the changes in red, they are small but I feel like the rhetoric isn't as solid as I want it to be. I don't want to be (*gasp*) the death of all poetry and be obvious, but I also want to bring the idea home, make the connection without telling what it is outright. (I hate it when poets do that). Below is my embarrassing recording of the first version.  I've decided I don't like the changes, and I need to sit with this and think about it more.

Unmarked Marker

It’s in fluffy, bunchy
dark brown curls.
In the company I keep
when I set my knife
and fork to four o’clock.

A furrowed brow
because I can’t say
“The train hasn't come.”
in Spanish.

No one ever says
what they think of you
they just treat you that way.

There are just opinions.
Whether or not
I am enough.

Enough Black.
Enough White.
Enough Latina.

It takes others to be included.
What I know about myself
is what I’m not.

(revision #1)
Unmarked Marker

It’s in fluffy, bunchy
dark brown curls.
In the company I keep
when I set my knife
and fork to four o’clock.

A furrowed brow
because I can’t say
“The train hasn't come.”
in Spanish.

No one ever says
what they think of you
they just treat you that way.

There are just opinions.
Whether or not
I am enough.

Enough Black.
Enough White.
Enough Latina.

It takes others to make definition
to be interpreted,
to be included.
What I know about myself
is what I’m not.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tying Up Clouds

First of all, I want to say how frustrating Tony Hoagland can be sometimes. You'll get halfway through his essay, believing his argument is going in one direction and he veers right off into another. It's fustrating because I don't know where he stands, may times he just makes an arguement with himself, representing both sides like a bit from The Colbert Report.

Formidable Opponent - Business Syphilis

I suppose though, in this case, it is an appropriate tactic. The examination of elliptical poems warrants this approach, because in a way, they do that. They shoot off in a number of directions, or at least, that is what it seems like they mean to do. I don't understand some of the reasoning for calling one method of creating poetry better or worse than another; usually when it's done well, when it's done right, the quality of the poem expresses itself beyond the fashion it may belong to. I love First Person Fabulous. There are points in they essay I question, and given the culmination of Hoagland's essay, "Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment", I'm not sure there is a clear answer except that there's room for everyone and remember to see the forest and examine the trees.

The poem that I found the most interesting was Cloud by Louis Aragon.

A white horse stands up
and that's the small hotel at dawn where he who is always
   first-come-first-served awakes in palatial comfort
Are you going to spend your entire life in the same world
Half dead
Half asleep
Haven't you had enough of commonplaces yet
People actually look a you without laughter
They have glass eyes
You pass them by you wast your time you pass away and
   go away
You count up to a hundred during which you cheat to kill an 
   extra ten seconds
You hold up your hand suddenly to volunteer for death
Fear not
Some day
There will be just one day left and then one more after that
Then that will be that
No more need to look at men nor their companion animals
   their Good Lord provides
And that they make love to now and then
No more need to go on speaking to yourself out loud at night
   in order to drown out
The heating-units lament
No need to lift my own eyelids
Nor to fling my blood around like some discus
Nor to breathe despite my disinclination to
Yet despite this I don't want to die
In low tones the bell of my heart sings out its ancient hope
That music I know it so well but the words
Just what were those words saying

It was one of the poems that Hoagland points to as an example of elliptical, which I don't dispute. It's beautiful and sad. What I challenge is that there is no narrative here. I would argue that the narrative is psychological, yes, but also literal. It's a musing, a contemplation on life, the potential pain and isolation one can experience, and like the modernists, a study of  the dismal, apathetic attitude of nature and or god. It's existential. What I think elliptical or angular poems bring to the table is that they are able to reveal some greater insight or truth of something, by showing us the "root system" of life. You don't see the tree in these poems, it's implied though, and you see more than that, you see how the tree is connected to a buried 50 year old aluminum bottle cap which it's roots have grown around, underground where no one else has looked. I also want to say something about the 'removal' of the reader. Is a poem effective if it doesn't make a connection?  Poems are meant, not to rot in books but to be shared and read and read aloud and live and be vibrant; if you intentionally remove the reader, I think that is detrimental to the work, no one likes a poem they have to write a thesis about first to understand and make connection. It's as silly as trying to tie up clouds.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Hot Hot Thought

The poems that appealed the most to me this week were Denis Johnson's Heat and Susan Mitchell's Rapture. They are both excellent poems and I wouldn't mind having my voice and style as a poet be influenced by either. I feel that they have something that I'm still trying to capture in my own work. I'm trying to find a balance between beautiful allusive language and the accessibility and immediacy I want present in my work. I find that adding the imagery and complexity that I find interesting in poems can be distancing.  It has a "cooling" effect, which is counterproductive for me sometimes because what I want to call upon with that image or this reference is the passion and intensity associated with it. It's lost somehow, between how I think of it and how I manage to present it in the work.

By the same token, I don't want to write things that are trite or banal or overly sentimental. I find that difficult, because the things we all like to talk about and write about and read about have been exhausted. It's hard to find something new to say,  and once you do find something, make sure that doesn't sound like it came from a high school diary. Hoagland's advice in his essay "On Disproportion"  in Real Sofistikashun is a little confusing. It just seems to go on about the value of letting the heart off the leash so to speak, but not really a practical way to keep them in balance. The poets examined already have a grasp on these forces to a certain extent and can play with them. I don't know how to do that yet consistently - I usually just end up sounding vague. Ah well.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Chants, Blues and Incantations

I'm torn on this one. I found a lot to like in this round of poets, but the two I found most interesting stylistically were Sandra McPherson and William Dickey. It's interesting also that they seem farther apart from each other on the spectrum than some of the other poets on the playlist. Dickey has the incantation style. His repetitions are in the diction and in the rhythm of the lines and they are short stanzas. The tone of his work is that of a spell being cast and he plays with repetition on multiple levels. Repetition of phrases, single words, rhythms coupled with the tight short stanzas pulls the reader into the piece and ejects them just as quickly. Your eyes blink - it's a spell.

McPherson on the other hand has the blues song style in her poem. The repetition is on multiple levels here as well, but they are simpler, and the rhythms are clearly founded in the blues music genre. What I like is the application of it to people and a situation it is not usually applied to - white, mid-class woman and her child's shop-lifting incident. The traditions of blues tint this poem and depth to it; it is a way to add emotion and meaning other than in the traditional, more visible methods we have in poetry (diction, rhetoric, image). Both poets imbue their pieces with emotion and energy with these styles of rhythm and repetition, I can't pick one, so I pick both.The traditions of blues tint this poem and depth to it; it is a way to add emotion and meaning other than in the traditional, more visible methods we have in poetry (diction, rhetoric, image). Both poets imbue their pieces with emotion and energy with these styles of rhythm and repetition, I can't pick one, so I pick both.

And now for my attempt at a "blues" style poem...

 In the ground there are things left behind.
All along the ground there are things we leave behind.
They creak and lean, the wind passes them by.
They creak and lean, all those things the wind passes by.
 Well they hold on to our memory.
Ghost stories haunt our small forgotten graves.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Snarky Letter

Dear Neruda,

I'd like to write something gloriously beautiful one day. I feel obsessed with it. I want to fill books with it. Maybe my vision is a bit blurred by the want of it. I want to only see beautiful words and read lines that I can feel - ones have thoughts and work behind them.

A really good poem has to have thought behind it. The selection of words should build, lift the poem up to a height that can be seen beyond one's self. I know that there is talent, that not every poem is meant to be pressed on gilded pages but I also know when I read egotistical bullshit - if we're honest, we all do.

Enough of the false syllogisms, just because you can find an example of it in art doesn't mean that every example of it is art. Because good poetry, poetry worth writing, cause "all the rivers [to] sound/ in my body [and] bells/ [to] shake the sky" when they are read.


I enjoy Larry Levis's poetry more than Williams.  His poems have such striking lines in them, they stick inside of me like a splinter. What is great is that his style seems like a merging of poetic rhetoric and common speech. The diction isn't dense or vague, it's beautifully simple and the narratives are powerful. One of the lines that has stuck with me is from Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire:
                   "No," I said, "But what about Murder Two? Isn't that just . . .
                    The same thing done with a lot more feeling?"

You laugh, you pause and think about it.  It doesn't have fantastical allusions or figurative language or even very powerful images and yet it works, it's outstanding. I think it is because of the poetic rhetoric and the conversational tone that makes these lines both real and also an insight into the human condition.  Our struggle with making sense of the world.  It's true, the end is the same, someone is dead, but it's also true that some deaths are considered more heinous than others.  Some acts are graver than others, even if ultimately, they are both just transgression of the law. This is all from just two lines of a long poem! It's like the philosophical moments in Mad Men. The good good stuff, not the slap-on-the-ass-drink-before-noon-everyone's-into-misogyny-stuff.  (although there may be an argument for that in this poem...) Williams just didn't have the same effect on me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Strings Strung Together

Juaréz by Elaine DeKooning

This is the  attempt to make a fragmented poem with stolen lines from this week's poets, spliced with my own prose in places.  It's a mess, hopefully a beautiful one. *sigh* Speaking of beautiful messes, I think this picture by  Elaine DeKooning is a great companion to the ideals of beauty, fragmentation, and abstraction. _______________________________________________
A Vision

Anybody with twenty dollars can have a vision.
They can buy new moments
that seep in -
pulse beneath the skin.

Without the sun to interfere
shadows, red and orange lights 
poke through windows, like stone wings 
and they don't fit into little pretty places.

You taught me to exist without gratitude. 
Conceit leaps back into me on your wet kiss.
Bright stars in your eyes when I cut
someone down, their feelings 
would drain from their face and pool
at their feet.

I thought it was because we
were righteous. Because
I am goddamned fuckin’ beautiful.
And you saw me.

But the walking dead don't 
make me laugh. They tell me those stars
are named woodworm.
The room, this bed, and the bones of my arms,
have been found out.
I am sick in solitude, in the rain, and in the roads. . .

Last night I'd been trying my best to explain
something important. It seemed boring to apologize 
to weeds and insincere as well.
Years later, I can bring blood closer 
to the surface of my skin.
It’s a beautiful wound.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Fragments, Strange & Experimental

Fragmentation and strangeness and experimental poems, I confess, are not typically my cup of tea.  I can appreciate them, but they aren't what I'm drawn to as a reader or writer of poetry. I didn't connect with many of these poems we've read for this section. I am intrigued by the associative qualities of these poems. I like the possibilities for exploration of association and the greater role the reader takes in creating meaning.  Some leaps, however, are too great. Without the guidance though the poems that stronger rhetoric and more closely associated images impart, the poems felt a bit haphazard and removed. There wasn't the satisfying feeling of seeing what the poet is pointing to and for me, it leaves a big hole. People can go on and on about them, but I feel like they are missing something essential - the crafting of language into expression of human experience. It's all art and no substance for me. Chaotic and jumbled is interesting to a certain extent, and there is definitely a place for it in poetry but it doesn't hold the same power to reveal ourselves and our world the way more directed poetry does. This expression embedded within poetry provides one of the ways in which we share our vision of our environment and our self observation; it is the inward and outward exploration of life. 

I did enjoy Katie Ford's poem Last Breath in Snowfall.  I like it because I think it effectively creates these beautiful images and leaps, but doesn't let the reader fall through the cracks. There is a level of rhetoric that directs the reader. Simultaneously, the loose associations in it create a space for the reader to  be more actively absorbed in the poem. The imagery is beautiful, it is the main element that keeps me reading it though to the end. The fragmented nature of the language also parallels the content of the poem, reinforcing the ideas of thought, disjointed - life frozen and ending. The diction of religious iconography and imagry also support these themes. Finding the connections and elements in this poem is satisfying. Her poem demonstrates the incorporation of rhetoric and diction within the stylistic choice of fragmentation to create something intriguing and expressive without being completely opaque.

Last Breath in Snowfall
                  --Katie Ford

I loved one person do you see the evergreen there in fog
   one by one
I was taught to withdraw firts fro him do you want to
   know how

the mind works under extreme cold ice forming on the
   eyelid or wind thrown
at me I felt every needle felt every breath I've seen a vision
   of you I was told and

in it disobedience in it nakedness you have not surrendered
   have not torn his letters
liken yourself therefore to the messenger who broke the

take the letters and bring them but it is cold out our God is
   a jealous God and so I
did street warmed from beneath dark sky dark hands took
   the photographs the letters twine-

bound tore them let them down through the grate what
    now I said just instruct
I have emptied am the earthen vessel no mementos no

make straight the way of the Lord they said letters soaked
   with rainwater drifting
towards the city and twine a new twine binding me

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Solo Performance of Louise Glück

I like Louise Glück the best of the "three tenors" listed in Hoagland's book. I found it interesting that I tended to like the earlier stages of each poet's craft.  I found something interesting at all stages, but I like the idea of keeping poetry generally accessible and not venturing too far into "art of the initiated" territory. That is why I appreciate Louise Glück. There are shifts in her work but it doesn't become obfuscated by the development of her work.

I love allusions and layers of meaning in poetry, when they are present and clear, a thousand tangents spring from them and you tap into the associations that those allusions have, the possible readings ripple forward from them. I also like the idea of taking on the voice of something that doesn't have one, like flowers. It has a rich possibility to it, it affords a transformation of perspective that you can't necessarily achieve when you put on the face of someone else; a being comes with a built in personality, perspective, and bias. Maybe flowers do to, but maybe they don't and that is what makes the perspective interesting because it can become what the poet pours into it.This is what makes Louise Glück awesome and her poem Witchgrass amazing. 


Beginning lines of a poem of place in the style of Glück

Dry oak and earth propelling upward,
will swell in tandem with hot updrafts these days.
It will rage along golden grasses and collide
face first surprised to find it's ambition isn't alone.

Another pours in
cool salt surf insisting,
clothed in marine fog. 
Temperatures bow before the chill.
Beautiful battle lines rendered in shore line.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Self-Consciousness aka I Hope Everyone is *Well* Impressed

Comic by Toothpaste For Dinner

I'm becoming a fan of Billy Collins. He's witty and funny in the work I've seen so far and I like that.  I think it's difficult to do - difficult to be funny in a poem and have it express the humor genuinely and not come off too jokey, of limerick proportions. What better place to look at self consciousness, right? 

Billy Collin's poem Workshop is an excellent example of humor and self consciousness done right.  The poem itself is about the act of critiquing one's own work and the work of others. It is incredibly clever, with lines in it that reveals some of the truth of the process of critiquing using humor as a tool.  The first few lines set the rhetorical tone for the piece: "I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title./It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now/ so immediately the poem has my attention". 

I was grinning right away because even though I may not have heard this exact phrase before, I know I have in some form or another. The diction in this is important as well because it reinforces the rhetoric by lending a  "common" voice to the speaker of the poem - it is clearly meant to be a person in a workshop critiquing a poem. From the perspective of self-consciousness, the choice of this person as the speaker of the poem is important; the tone of the poem with this content changes dramatically with changes in the speaker.

The trope of a student/work-shopper continues throughout the poem. Lines like the following ones again bring humor and rhetorical perspective: "I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges/which gives me a very clear picture."

What I found interesting in this line though is that is was one of the strongest, image-wise, but it still doesn't diverge from the rhetorical stance that the poem has created.  It also is hilarious. I can hear someone saying this in class and if I'm honest, it's one of those comments that makes me feel like maybe we bullshit each other a bit too much at times. On the other hand, it reveals the literal self-consciousness that students of poetry share.  We aren't experts, and for the most part, we're just responding to what we like. This thread is picked up again and again in this poem, tying various levels of self-consciousness, the figurative, in the perspective of the speaker and the literal in the diction of the poet, which is especially illustrated in the fifth stanza:
             Maybe it’s just me, 
            And what’s an obbligato of snow? 
            Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets. 
            At that point I’m lost. I need help. 

The concept of "self-consciousness" is very evident in this poem.  Diction choices like "obbligato" and "decaffeinated" show an attention to detail in this poem but also points to the pit-falls of over-working. It proves that there is a place for it and that it is effective when not over-done. I think if it were written without out it, it wouldn't be as effective because it takes attention to detail and consistency of voice in this poem for the humor and rhetoric to be successful. Otherwise it could turn into pure absurdity, flat and uninteresting, or come of as heavy-handed and condescending.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Image, Diction, Rhetoric - Analyzing Grandma's and Oranges

        --Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickle in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn’t say anything.
I took the nickle from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady’s eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Soto's poem, like so many others, is a combination of image, diction, and rhetoric.  The diction in this maybe the weakest as it doesn't call upon much beyond the actual meaning of the words, but it doesn't detract from the poem, it is what allows the rhetoric and the images to do their work.  Image and rhetoric are on even keel with one another, supporting each other.  Soto's images are vivid, they are truly the first element that is seen in this poem.  Soto uses colors and rich sensory language to craft his images.  Similarly, he crafts images that work like diction works - images that evoke nostalgic responses in the reader that have far reaching historic values ascribed to them.  By partnering image and rhetoric in this way, Soto creates a potent and absorbing poem; one that is familiar to the reader, even if they have not experienced this scenario themselves.  Soto uses image and rhetoric to tap into our shared cultural experience of young life and love.

The Morning Baking

--Carolyn Forché

Grandma, come back, I forgot
How much lard for these rolls

Think you can put yourself in the ground
Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you
Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?
Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue
You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

I'll tell you I don't remember any kind of bread
Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep
The stars on your silk robes

But I'm glad I'll look when I'm old
Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

Copyright © 1976 Carolyn Forché. All Rights Reserved.

Forché's poem takes a similar approach, in that she combines each of these elements, but in this case, I see each of these elements working in tandem, at the same time. I like this because it allows me to see which element is most potent, with all parts being equal.  With words like "plain" she calls upon the iconography of the midwest, but also the words other meanings - unattractive, straightforward, a field of land.  This is just one of the many brilliant moments of diction in this poem.

The imagery is also very vivid.  Lines like "your wavy loaves of flesh/Stink through my sleep" are born in an instant in the minds eye; like Soto's poem, the picture is painted clearly and one is able to identify and call forth the image even without direct experience, because we share it already. Imagery is the most immediate and powerful vehicle a poem can utilize and this poem uses it effectively.

Though images are powerful and diction adds complexity and layers of meaning, it is rhetoric that guides the reader though the poem, though the experience and points to what the poet wants to share through the poem.  Without rhetoric, the poem can often be just an exercise - a game of language. For me, rhetoric is what elevates a poem from a cathartic exercise to an observation of the human condition, something that allows us to express the sensations of life that can't merely be said, but can only be pointed to.

The when image, diction and rhetoric are used like this, they add extraordinary complexity and layers of meaning that make poetry a wonderful well that can be drawn from again and again.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Notes on Kinnell's “Sheffield Ghazal 4: Driving West”

                                    ---Galway Kinnell
A tractor-trailer carrying two dozen crushed automobiles
   overtakes a tractor-trailer carrying a dozen new.
Oil is a form of waiting.
The internal combustion engine converts the stasis of
   millennia into motion.
Cars howl on rain-wetted roads.
Airplanes rise through the downpour and throw us through
   the blue sky.
The idea of the airplane subverts earthly life.
Computers can deliver nuclear explosions to precisely
   anywhere on earth.
A lightning bolt is made entirely of error.
Erratic Mercurys and errant Cavaliers roam the highways.
A girl puts her head on a boy's shoulder; they are driving west.
The windshield wipers wipe, homesickness one way, wanderlust
   the other, back and forth.
This happened to your father and to you, Galway -- sick to
   stay, longing to come up against the ends of the earth,
   and climb over.

I think that image works hand in hand with the diction of this poem to channel the rhetoric revealed at the end of the poem.  Kinnell writes some excellent images in this poem and uses them to transport the reader to this associative mindscape of beatnik style road-wandering. The images give the narrative interest and strength, they keep the reader reading, even when the associations and the literal meaning of the language doesn't make clear sense.  I think image is especially important here because it is vital to the effectiveness of the diction Kinnell employs and it is also important for the ghazal form, loosely associated images are center-stage in a ghazal, and Kinnell does them well.

This poem is the first example Hoagland gives for his discourse on diction. This poem survives on it, it is the flesh of the poem. The diction is what forges the connection between the images that Kinnell creates and the rhetoric that is to follow. Through the diction in this poem, Kinnell is able to call upon the nostalgia, the sentiment and the mythos of America and American identity, as well as the underside of it - consumerism, the nonchalance of our environmental impact, etc. All of this is conveyed in a few lines and it is done effectively with the diction in this poem. He does it by using "speech that is consciously making reference to the history of its usage" (Hogland, Tony Real Sofistikashun, p. 7).

This is the skeleton on which all of the rest of this hangs. Without the rhetoric, the direction of the poem would be lost and scattered, resulting in a flat, derivative poem instead of the vivid, associative, and interesting poem that "Driving Westward" is. Hogland points to the last few lines as the moment of rhetoric for this poem but I think it occurs throughout.  The lines about oil, the first few on crushed and new cars, all of these lines hold a level of rhetoric in them especially when you consider diction and image.  The combination of them, and the juxtaposition of images gives shape and form to the rhetoric of the poem.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

I Go Back to May, 1937

PBS/The Poetry Foundation - Poetry Everywhere

There are things that I liked and didn't like about Sharon Olds' reading of her poem I Go Back to May, 1937. The poem is excellent and the metaphors are striking. One of my favorites is "the/ red tiles glinting like bent/plates of blood behind his head..." The poem is carnal and violent and tumultuous. A screaming scene of an accident the reader and the speaker of the poem can do nothing about except witness it. Which is what makes it so interesting. Olds reading of it, on the other hand is the opposite. It is calm and measured. There are only small increases in volume or emotion in the delivery of the poem.

She uses what my wife calls "the annoying poetry voice" or the "annoying therapist voice". I don't find the voice or delivery annoying, but in the case of this poem, I don't think that style of delivery serve the poem as well as a more animated delivery might. I think that Olds' delivery distances the listener from one of the strengths of the poem. The immediateness of the emotion and turmoil of the poem's speaker and the intensity of the subject matter. One thing I really didn't like about the reading Olds gives is the slow singling out of the last word. I can't think of why it would be done and I think it, again, represses the energy of the poem.

I do like "the annoying poetry voice" because when done right, it delivers an auditory layout of the punctuation and line breaks of the poem. I like that because it demonstrates the craft of poetry that tends to become somewhat muddled or invisible in readings. I've always been told that line breaks and punctuation have audible expression in poetry, that they have assigned pauses and silences when reading it, but many times, when hearing others read, they aren't incorporated. Olds does a good job of including them, and so I enjoyed that aspect of her reading, I just wish there was more of a happy medium between the stripping of emotional potency of a piece and skilled, clear delivery for this poem.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

What The Dead Bring

 The Dead 

           --Susan Mitchell

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.

Susan Mitchell's poem The Dead was one of my favorites of the second week. It reads as part ghost story, part nostalgic poem. I think a number of things worked for this poem, most notably, the imagery and rhetoric of the piece as well as the inclusion of the ghost/death theme.  It keeps the poem fresh and able to call on the readers emotional responses without being flat, trite, or overly nostalgic. 

I liked it because it uses a combination of imagery and rhetoric to relate the narrative.  There is a sequence of events, but it isn't strictly narrative. The poem is evocative; it pulls on the reader emotionally and intellectually. The connections aren't readily made for you. The language paints the image and Mitchell relies on our natural tendency to create and forge associations between the images and meaning. Sometimes blurring the lines in between.

Mitchell misleads the reader in a way by ascribing attributes to "the dead" that they can't have, such as worry, or burdens, or even the act of drinking. She makes them ghosts, parents, lovers, fortunetellers, but though our emotions, though the mismatch of the dead with things that only the living can feel and do, she makes them us, the readers - the people left behind by the dead. By the end of the poem you realize that it's you drinking and remembering, you seeking out the word crisscross of folds in an old love letter, and you, keeping your kids up, passing on the memories and heartache that will belong to them next.  It gives the poem a level of folk-tale and evokes the tradition of oral storytelling, which is what I think works best for this poem.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Best of Week One

The first playlist of the first week of my poetry class. The list is diverse, but I've been tasked with saying something about three that I like, the ones I like the best. I suppose I should just jump right in.

This poem is mesmerizing. The images it conjures are beautiful and vivid. I can see the half-empty glasses on the tables in the room  and hear Lana Turner and Billie Holiday's voice. I think that it is especially difficult to create images for people that are this vivid when you aren't talking about something contemporary.  I love the allusions in this poem as well as the various elements Komunyakaa manages to weave into the poem.  The allusions themselves add layers of connotation and meaning to  the work. There is a tension of love and violence, of the best of humanity and the violence we can inflict upon one another. 

The poem has so much in it, the themes seem endless. You could make an argument for love, taboo, race, art, sex, etc., the list goes on. It is all there, woven in and smoothly sung out; the lyric quality of the narrative and images parallel the content of the poem. It's just beautiful. Something else I haven't fully teased out but is interesting to me is the choice of having the performers be black and the audience (who are also performers) be white, with the request of "Strange Fruit" to be played. That song in particular, named in the poem has tremendous weight, especially within the context of race relations and I'm not sure of the full implications of it. Here again we see the theme of song in the poem, coupled with performers performing for performers, there is a sense of meta and echo. Echos of time, history, content,  structure and sound. A great line that demonstrates this is "to make brass & flesh say yes."  I like a poem that unfolds incrementally, so that when I read it over, I get something new from it. This is one of those poems, and it was my favorite of the playlist.

Still in the vein of nightclubs and smoky rooms is Billy Collins' Nightclub.  Similarly I am attracted to the imagery here. The "smoke curls" and saxophone that "hangs like a fish" on the neck of a jazz musician. But the thing I liked about this poem was the tongue-in-cheek treatment of the themes of love, desire, seduction, betrayal and loss. It's a funny poem and it turns these themes into something interesting instead of it being sentimental or trite, which is difficult to do in a universe filled to the brim with examinations on love. I also enjoyed the end, which was surprising for me and satisfying.  Just at the end, Collins breaks orbit and elevates his poem to give us more than a treatment of smokey room, jazz music love - he gives us an examination of our nature, our redemption, of ourselves.

Lois Ann-Yamanaka reading, “Boss of the Food”

I choose this poem just because I it was so funny for me.  Similarly to Collins' poem, it uses humor to inform its presentation of it's subject mater: family, relationships, death and power.  It's funny, but it took me reducing the themes in the poem to single words for me to really realize what this poem has to offer fully.  I come from a good size family, there are five of us and I happen to be the first born.  That made me "the boss" of a lot of things, and nothing really either, because we all know that usually adults have the authority.  What is interesting here, besides a very funny and poignant look at sibling relationships is the language and the realistic moments Yamanaka is able to create.  She crafts images that everyone is familiar and her rhetoric is brilliant, taking on the perspective of a kid. Here you just don't witness a squabble, but a glimmer of maturity, one of those moments where the desire-driven instinct is reprimanded by a realization of responsibility for how one acts in the world.  That's a difficult moment to translate, especially in something so condensed as poetry is.  The language also adds other possible elements; poverty and youth.  This isn't the academic voice or adult voice, it's one of a young girl, with a broken, dialectical style of English.  It is very effective for the poem and gives that one moment of awareness even greater weight.