Dec 26, 2012

"Elegance" by Linda Gregg

Here is “Elegance,” another Linda Gregg poem. At first I liked it more than “Winter Love” (last post), thought it had more to say; now I’m not so sure.

Elegance by Linda Gregg : The Poetry Foundation

The whole issue of elegance interests me—what is it and who or what has it?  Also, I like Gregg’s finding it in nature and in things worn down by natural processes. “All that is uncared for,” that’s what’s elegant. Having a thesis sentence in a poem might seem odd or simply wrong; ditto for arriving at a conclusion about elegance in the first line. But I like the way the immediacy and challenge of the line give us something to bounce off of right away.

I hope the comparison between manmade art and natural beauty never goes away as a topic for discussion; there can be no winner, but we’ll understand both art and nature better by seeing them in the light of each other—as foils, I suppose.

Gregg narrows all this even further to the question of what’s elegant, and her choice of nature, which decays and causes decay, creates a compelling strategy. I’m also fascinated by her choice of accuracy as a factor in perceiving what’s beautiful, especially as a companion to “unexpected,” which might seem too spontaneous to go with the exactness of accuracy. It helps that she follows up with “rattling/and singing.”  “Rattling” is a bit raggedy and out of control, like “unexpected,” while "singing" conjures the mathematical precision of music and seems a natural partner to “Accurate.”  Then again, it also calls to mind the song of wild birds.

We are having our first significant snow in southern Michigan today. The photos show a cardinal whom the wind and snow might turn into “a door off its hinges” or a thing “Raw where/the tin roof rusted through.”  But is he elegant nevertheless? I wouldn’t argue against it, especially if the alternative is my probably comic arrangement of fruit for an asymmetrical still life.  

Elegance by Linda Gregg : The Poetry Foundation

Dec 23, 2012

"Winter Love" by Linda Gregg

Winter Love by Linda Gregg : The Poetry Foundation

 Because of the season, I wanted to post a poem that was pleasant but not mindlessly dripping sugar, the way so much of the holiday oozes syrup and celebrates noise and stuff-gathering .

I came across Linda Gregg’s “Winter Love,” a quiet and modestly affirmative poem that calls us to experience and cherish small things, like chimes stirred over a heating vent. I also like the opening implication that decorating silence might be a natural human urge, but something essential in the speaker (or all humans?) leads to simplification rather than decoration. Does that process boil down to entropy, or is it a maturing awareness of what is beautiful because it is fundamental and plain?

Christmas nest-featherers and pile-builders—we’ve heard it before:  listen up and pare down. We should savor what’s left of our tea. We can look at the gifts already in the room and just outside the window, even if they’re not the perfect strength or temperature. That’s the way to pad the odds for Happy Holidays.

Red-Tile Roof

Little Birch Tree

Winter Love by Linda Gregg : The Poetry Foundation

Dec 14, 2012

Robert Frost's "The Wood-Pile": Karma, Monuments, Warmth and Decay

The Wood-Pile by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation

Yesterday on my walk in the woods, I tried to get a glimpse, and maybe a photo, of a noisy woodpecker high up in a birch. She wasn’t shy, yet she kept the tree between herself and me. 

female Downy
Just yesterday I wondered who first told me that birds hide that way. Did I believe him? Even yesterday I wondered how much of it might be an old wives’ tale, though it makes sense that an animal, even a jackhammer like a woodpecker, would have that much strategy for survival—plus plain old, inglorious fear, or at least wariness, of some inelegant, leaf-stomping Other.

With our absence of snow in Michigan this year, and daytime temps in the 40s, I’ve also decided to stop protesting the bareness of stripped winter and to start noticing more the rich variety of wood and the patterns of branches, plus the few colors that do remain, muted but present.
So I go to Poetry Foundation, again, and “google” wood. They offer Frost’s “The Wood-Pile,” which I haven’t read for several years. In spite of its quiet understatements, one after another, I like it all over again. But when I get to the small bird (around Line 10), “careful/To put a tree between us when he lighted,” I remember the woodpecker, and there’s a whiff of my old suspicions about destiny, or some such thing, though the two atheists among my Sunday breakfast buddies chide me for such musing.

I’m pretty sure the dark-eyed juncos are staying around longer this year—I suppose because it’s warm. So I’ve had more time to appreciate how unexpectedly, humbly gorgeous they are. They’re almost a simple black and white, but their topsides are a kind of slate color, with a trace of blue in certain light, rather than simple chickadee black. And the white on the juncos’ bellies is creamy, not chickadee white. The division of color between their dark backs and off-white bellies is strangely precise, but it's also a soft, forgiving, subtle boundary. Juncoes make me think of some miraculous, downy version of porcelain. 
Except for the tails when they fly!  There are some crazy white feathers in the bottoms of those tails, but they appear only in flight, and the flash of them still surprises me every time.

Then comes Frost’s bird, with “a feather— / The white one in his tail.”  How many events do I have to chalk up to mere synchronicity or banal coincidence before I can start trumpeting Karma, Karma, Karma—and tell my more empirical friends to go sit on a log?

Or make it a wood-pile. Abandoned. A monument, discovered quite by accident, which causes a pretty wise, articulate old New Englander to wonder about it. Then wonder some more.

The wood-pile is peculiar; it seems to be all about decay—or the preposterous proposition of its warming the frozen swamp. With what? No fire is lit; the wood’s been idle for at least two years. 
 Maybe it’s a human warmth—which is implied in the monument’s very existence, plus the human labor that went into building it. Maybe it’s a ridiculous, futile, yet affirming act; maybe warming a frozen swamp is a gesture of defiance. I will die; this wood will die. But I have made something here, whether or not I get back to it, or anybody sees it, or thinks it’s fine. I’m a maker, and that’s better than decaying without creating and thereby protesting mortality. 

And finally, another human, a stranger, has discovered the monument,  stumbled onto it, pure dumb luck.
Or is it destiny? Or Karma, Karma, Karma? Whether or not that’s the right word, the music of it wins the day.   

The Wood-Pile by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation

Nov 30, 2012

Franz Wright, "Postcard 2": Son and Father

Last August 15 and 27 we discussed Franz Wright’s impressive poem, “To Myself.” Here’s “Postcard 2,” a darker work from FW, in Poetry (May 2012):

Upon reading “Postcard 2” I found myself wondering (again) how much public, confessional condemning of parents is worthwhile. Even if the accused is guilty, how dirty should the laundry be when you’re asking others to share, care about, find meaning in it? Then again, dirt sells. "Yay, dirt,” we seem to say quite often. Dirt is a disproportionately large part of what we want to know about each other, and here we have one Pulitzer Prize winning poet offering some dark topsoil about his Pulitzer Prize winning father, the major, major American poet, James Wright. Surely we’re delighted.

And surely you can hear my skepticism. But keep reading.

I also wonder about T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”—does Franz Wright (hereafter, FW) give us enough simple, objective information (and action, observable behavior) to correlate to his emotions and cause us to share, or at least understand, his angst?
However, a few factors in the second half of the poem raise it above the mean, vengeful self-indulgence it seemed headed for, or some overwrought competition with Plath, Sexton, et al, over who had the worst parents ever, the worst life ever.

First, there are the touches of irony and humorous hyperbole in “Postcard 2” as FW raises the possibility that he was “to blame” for his father’s flight; he was the straw that broke the camel’s back after his father’s ill-fated marriage to that “raving bitch,” FW’s mother. I don’t think FW believes that, unless he means that his father indulged in the flight from paternal responsibility to which so many men succumb. When FW says, "I am the reason he left, actually. I am the one to blame. And yet he did his best; he did all that he was capable of doing," I hear a sarcastic speaker. He knows it was only as any child, not as Franz Wright, that he was such a nuisance his father took off (and became bipolar, depressed, alcoholic, the victim of multiple nervous breakdowns, and dead of cancer at 52). 

There’s also irony, or downright sarcasm, when FW claims his father "did his best." The same line on a postcard every year is no one's best, is not all any father can do, and FW knows that. 

But did you forgive him, FW?  If so, why are you sharing the ugly aspects of him with the world?

However, the italicized line from James Wright is indeed lyrical, subtle, profound, and it’s here that “Postcard 2” turns from puerile petulance (in which we all engage at times) to a grownup speaker’s earned sense of complication and grief. James Wright’s annual line to his son was:  The blizzard I visit your city disguised as will never be over and never arrive.” 

Imagine a father who’s able to say such things—such clever and maybe deep things, such body blows, the same stale, rehearsed, but eloquent punch every year, so that the son has to wonder how genuine it is. How self-pitying and manipulative is the father’s blow, masquerading as affection and regret—and coming as it does from a man who wears a robe of distance and eloquence? The father will not reveal himself, so how is the child supposed to respond?

Those complications also prepare us for the son’s final, powerful two sentences, in which he seems to understand the father’s psyche aching within himself:  “. . . at some point I’d begin to notice I was freezing, wasn’t dressed right, had nowhere to go, and was staggering into a blinding snow that no one else could see. I think he meant, the cold will make you what I am today.” In that final sentence, there's also something of the quizzical Eastern manner of his father's line about blizzards.

I find all of that painful and moving. While I don’t think the information on FW’s parents is enough to provide the emotional content of the poem, I do sense something earned and genuine in FW’s psychological portrait of the coldness, confusion and isolation swelling within him, inherited from a father who spoke from afar, from an intellectual height, in poetic riddles. That is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
And finally we realize that FW has connected to his father.  “I get it, Father. Now I understand the coldness, which was always coming and never arrived; I get the paradox of you. And your presumptuous prophecy was right—your coldness is what I am today. So in a way we are one; you inhabit me—a fact that does not warm me or clear my head, or welcome the past, or soften anything at all.”

That connection between the two poets, son and father, is hardly an ideal way for parents and adult children to bond, but it squelches my initial urge to criticize the son for exhibitionism and melodrama. In the end, I trust the honesty of FW’s inner cold and the coldness of what he knows of his father. 

Nov 23, 2012

Robert Hass, "Meditation at Lagunitas": Ways of Being and Saying

Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation

There are two kinds of language, two kinds of experiencing, two ways of being in the world in Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas.”  The first mode begins in the opening two lines; it’s all about the left brain and analysis, cognition, deduction, intellect, abstraction. The very subject is “thinking” in a meditation that’s the beginning of a comparison essay:

            All the new thinking is about loss.
            In this it resembles all the old thinking.

In this mode, some of Hass’s declarations are downright aphoristic when separated from the whole poem, and, to take a negative view of aphorisms, we might say they’re like fortune cookies or bumper stickers—apparent truths without benefit of discussion or examples and experience from the tangible, palpable world, or the world of intuition, ambiguity, mystery, magic, sensuous delight.

If there’s a positive view of aphorisms, it’s probably based on the way they pin down a piece of Truth in a precise, pithy, and seemingly valid way. Some synonyms or related terms might be epigram, axiom, platitude, maxim. Here are some fairly aphoristic lines from Hass that tend toward elegance, subtlety, complexity and loftiness more than most axioms do: 

            All the new thinking is about loss.
            In this it resembles all the old thinking.

                                                each particular erases
            the luminous clarity of a general idea.

            a word is elegy to what it signifies.

            talking this way, everything dissolvesjustice,
            pine, hair, woman, you and I.

                                                            desire is full
            of endless distances.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Faver-Dykes S.P.,FL

These lines are clearly going for big wisdom and philosophical insight, and they might be faulted for trying too hard. But Hass truly fleshes out the poem with vivid, often gorgeous images of the physical world.

                                                       the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch

            her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
            I felt a violent wonder at her presence
            like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
            with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
            muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver                                     fish
            called pumpkinseed.

                                    the way her hands dismantled bread,
            the thing her father said that hurt her,

In these quotations, I hope the differences between abstract, aphoristic expression and concrete imagery are clear as two different modes of being and awareness.

Moreover, at the center of the poem, Hass offers two lines that encapsulate the two kinds of mental operation.

     talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
     pine, hair, woman, you and I.   
Pike's Pond, Lenox, MA

The first line is general, summarizing, abstract declaration, ending in one of the greatest abstractions of all, “justice.” But immediately the following line plunges completely into the physical, concrete, immediate world, so that a dualism is clear. 

Of course, the most emphatic image of sensuousness, and the victor if there’s been a contest, is the single, italicized, repeated word and physical image, blackberry. Can the “good flesh” continue? 

Hass is too wise to choose between black hats and white hats, but he would like a world and a life in which “numinous” flesh could go on and on, physical and mortal on the one hand, spiritual, mental, and endless on the other. And he imagines a third “numinous” hand, which contains both ways of being—the temporal and the eternal—and thus requires no choice by the human. To try to articulate that world, all he can do, ironically, is repeat a single word, the odd, beautiful center of sensuality:  blackberry.

I don’t mean to force some happy (or haughty) ending about Thanksgiving when I say Hass might be giving us something good to be thankful about—something more elevated and meaningful than gorging on turkey or lining up at 1:00 a.m. to gather more stuff.

Meditation at Lagunitas by Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation

Nov 10, 2012


Sandhill Crane: Waltzing, Drunk and Alone
There was some talk here last time about music and dancing. I’ve never trusted men who could dance. If I were about to hand over my fortune to a Wall Street type, I’d sooner trust men who succeed at the bar scene or church socials than men who are good dancers.

Back in the day I developed a restrained, classic, quasi-inert, sway-and-shuffle style of slow dancing, but that was go along to get along. Even then I found the whole activity absurd.

If dancing is foreplay for women—and several women have affirmed that it is . . . .  Actually they said, "What did you think it was, Dumb Ass?"  Interpretation: the male is required to forego his Randolph Scott dignity and fall into a foolish boogie-seizure while waiting for the female to get in touch with her animal self.
Downy Woodpecker: The Female Idly Snacks

Downy Woodpecker, Red-Head Male Fuels Himself

Am I the only one who’s stood in astonishment as women walk into a room with music and immediately start wiggling and wriggling, clapping hands and snapping fingers?  They lapse into exotic facial expressions, eyelids and brows squeezed into a pleasure-pain grimace, lips curled into an ecstatic-tragic oooohhhh. . . ?   I’d as soon learn French as indulge in such antics.

So. Dancing is foreplay for women—freeing up their bodies, feeling a rhythm, getting in a groove—while my limited, ever-ready gender is doing jumping jacks in a wheat field.

That’s all old news, of course, so we should not be, and maybe we no longer are, surprised that dating, courting, and mating make such a rough ride—rolling down Rt. 66 one minute—top down, wind blowing all friendly-like—and the next minute we’re flossing teeth or picking lint from lapels.

Munching, not breeding
How many hours do Mr. and Mrs. Sandhill Crane spend strolling and nibbling goodies in the grass, compared to the time they spend in outrageous lust? Sandhill Cranes look so lazy it’s a wonder they’re not extinct. I know, I know, their epic migration, oh, the heroic endurance, blah blah.  Some humans are dumb enough to run marathons, and most birds are dumb enough to chase a certain kind of bug for thousands of miles twice a year. Jesus, can't you just change your diet a little? Look at the sparrow. The sparrow will eat any damn thing.
Red-Tail  Chase

So Near, Yet So Far
One day last April Mr. Red-Tailed Hawk was howling for the Missus in a woods where I go to walk. I heard the high-pitched flute of Mister’s voice before I saw the two of them. Then I watched as he chased her for 20 minutes, waltzing on currents up there toward the sun, until, exhausted, they rested side by side on a high branch, transformed by fatigue to Platonism, to brother and sister. After a few minutes of catching their breath, they took off again, in another dance-chase across the sky, away and out of sight.  

That was a spectacular half-hour, but it left me once again wondering what animals are thinking and feeling. Most seem to be all about foreplay—eternal, spectacular rituals, displays and chases, fights with rivals—for a coupling that lasts about two seconds.

Love's Exhaustion
So. Are dancing and sex matters of the mind or the body? Is that one question or two? Or two thousand? Is it even a question? And in  
that transition from mind to body, where’s the tipping point? To understand, where should one begin?


Nov 4, 2012

Music: Bill's Seafood; Crooked Still, "Look On And Cry"

 Crooked Still - Look On And Cry - YouTube

I wish Aoife O'Donovan's voice (or just her microphone) were bigger, but I find the banjo and cello combo in the video completely new and amazing, even though I'm something of a stick-in-the-mud who, in his ignorance, is suspicious of any kind of fusion. Even the lightning banjo work of the beloved Steve Martin is too . . .  intellectual? . . .  for me.

The photos show a senior trio at Bill's Seafood in Westbrook, Connecticut a few weeks ago. You stumble into a place, hoping the food's edible and the service compassionate. On top of that you get first-rate live music to boot. For lunch!

Except for the servers, don't expect to find teenyboppers at Bill's . . . .

Oct 29, 2012

"Ativan" by Laura Kasischke

I’m not at all confident that I have a handle on Laura Kasischke’s  (Ka-SHISH-key) “Ativan,” but I like its emotional intensity and vivid, evocative imagery. It has the density and precision I’m always arguing for—when I’m dissatisfied with talk-y, prosy “poems”—so I’ll stick my neck out on its behalf.   
Maybe the poem proposes that we take tranquilizers like Ativan because we cannot escape our awareness of the fact that we are doomed by mortality—just as all small, delicate beauty lives in the shadow of a gallows tree and a hanged man’s boots. What’s your take on the poem’s title, as wel as its overall content?   

I hope everyone hears the poem, so please excuse this reminder about meter and music:  an “anapest” is a metric foot whose three syllables are:  unstressed, unstressed, stressed, as in “to a HANGED . . .” bah bah BOOM.  A few anapests in proximity are sometimes called a waltz rhythm. If you weren’t already Strauss-ing around the room, you may now begin.

In the first stanza of “Ativan,” I’m charmed by the musicality of the anapests at the center. It started with a somewhat hard iamb in “That dream” (which could come across as an even harder, stronger spondee (two consecutive stressed syllables), and we finish the stanza with two more iambs:  “-lows TREE.”  But in the middle are some softer minuets, which we can hear as the vulnerability of the cricket:

            in the DARK            of the NIGHT
            at the FOOT
            of the GAL-  lows TREE.

A cricket’s noise might be perceived as somewhat musical, and the poet brackets that little three-four tune with a harder, sharper beat in the iambs of “That DREAM” and “the GAL-lows TREE.”
Red-Bellied Woodpecker, male
Can we conclude that Kasische’s rhythms reflect, and even help to create, the central conflict in the poem:  the perception of delicate beings surrounded and threatened by our awareness of death, which we try to soften with Ativan, among other antidotes.

Like the speaker, we’re likely to identify with creatures like crickets. Like her, we might even call them “virtuous” and “hopeful” and “heart-faced.”  Although science tells us that crickets (and cockroaches and other bugs) will succeed us on the planet, we see the singers as profoundly sweet and profoundly vulnerable—or maybe doomed, more than vulnerable.
(As a FWIW aside, in Kasischke’s phrasing and music, I hear an echo of Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale”:  

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

Kasischke seems at least half in love with her subject, nature’s most fragile creatures; but of course it’s the tiny living things she loves, not the hanged man. Still, I’ll cling to the notion that Kasischke is half in love with crickets and her unconscious might have heard Keats rummaging around in her attic—Wait!   I can’t say that. I’m a quasi New Critic!).

If I had a picture of a cricket, I’d post it. Today’s photos are an attempt to capture additional “Little, hopeful, insistent things,” whether or not their faces are heart-shaped or “lit up by the moon,” and whether or not they knowingly sing to a “hanged man’s boots.” I’m pretty sure the red-bellied woodpecker and the milkweed have not taken the Ativan, yet they seem hopeful enough.

As for the big trees with overhanging branches, let’s not talk about them, neither the autumn orange nor the stripped bare version. 

Oct 15, 2012

"The River" by Gregory Orr and the Villanelle as Form

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Farmington River, Connecticut
I was looking for a poem to go with my kayaking photos and came across Gregory Orr's "The River," an impressively natural-sounding poem in a very demanding French form. The villanelle comprises five tercets rhyming aba and a concluding quatrain rhyming abaa. Mind you, that's two rhyming sounds in 19 lines, while the supposedly muscular sonnet has by contrast five or six rhyming sounds in 14 lines--wimpy child's play by comparison.

But wait! There's more. The villanelle also demands an exact- or near-repetition of Line 1 in Lines 6, 12, and 18, plus a repetition of Line 3 in Lines 9, 15, and 19. Most villanelles also follow a roughly iambic pentameter, which adds to the very musical effect of the whole (rhyme added to cadence tends to produce a sense of song). Next time you have five idle minutes, give it a try. Be sure you've got refills on all your meds.

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Villanelles, sonnets, ballads, sestinas--there are various kinds of cages poets build for themselves as a way of creating added tension between form and intellect on the one hand and passion on the other. The passion is surging like river rapids, trying to break the banks and smother us with the absence, or even the opposite, of thought and restraint. The brain says all that free-flowing turbulence won't do; there must a balance and blend of reason and passion. T.S. Eliot called it "Felt Thought."

If most of us tried to write about swimming naked with a lover in a river, near rapids, wouldn't we likely end up with soap opera or porn or some other hyper nuisance? Where would brain, judgment, analysis, restraint, decorum and good sense be if we let it all hang out?  I don't much want to read anyone's uninhibited emotions. In fact, I have, many times, and they are consistently puerile and narcissistic, not deep.

Gregory Orr has struck a nice balance in "The River." The demands of the villanelle keep a rein on his feelings, without strangling or sterilizing them. Beyond that, there's the content of the poem, irrespective of form, in which the speaker tries to understand as well as relish the natural, sensual delight he's presented.

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Oct 9, 2012

Pick a Favorite: Tony Hoagland, Andrew Hudgins, Franz Wright

I suppose this smacks too much of the classroom, but I'm doing it anyway. I hope you'll take your time and enjoy it. I'm already interested in responses, but no, I'm not lurking in a dark corner, wielding an oak cudgel with the right answer burned into it. My own jury is where it usually is:  lunch.

Here are two Tony Hoagland poems. Which do you prefer and why?

At the Galleria Shopping Mall by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine   

Personal by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine

White-Breasted Nuthatch 8/18/12:

“I took it all quite personal—//
the breeze and the river and the color of the fields . . .
And I cursed what hurt me//
and I praised what gave me joy”

Compare  either of the Tony Hoagland poems to the Andrew Hudgins and Franz Wright work recently discussed here:

 Praying Drunk by Andrew Hudgins : The Poetry Foundation

To Myself by Franz Wright : The Poetry Foundation

Which of the four poems is your favorite and why?

A different question:  which one of the four do you admire most and why?

Near Romeo, Michigan, 10/7/12


Lovers' Lane