Jul 29, 2012

Tony Hoagland, Stephen Dunn, and What's Memorable

Let me begin with something I said in the Visitor Comments last time. I find Stephen Dunn’s work unusually consistent, especially for a poet so prolific. I'm not sure I've ever seen work by him that I thought was bad, though I have of course liked some poems better than others.

On the other hand, I can't offer a single Stephen Dunn title off the top of my head. Some of the poems feel important and powerful as I read them or hear him read (two or three times), but I'm not called back to them the way I am to many poems, and I don’t know why that’s the case. Is it a comment on the poems or on me?

Here is the popular Tony Hoagland's "Don't Tell Anyone," which might be comparable to Dunn’s “Here and Now” in looking at love in maturity—unspectacular love in an unspectacular situation, but also love that becomes spectacular because it continues to discover something new, important, alarming and sad, while remaining grounded in the everyday.

Don’t Tell Anyone by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine
If I end up remembering Hoagland’s “Don’t Tell Anyone” better than Dunn’s “Here and Now,” that alone doesn’t mean I find Hoagland’s poem better than Dunn’s—just more sticky-brain (probably), which might mean Yeatsian elegance or greasy kids' stuff. 

So help, please. Weigh in on this business of being memorable, whether the subject is poems' phrasing and poignant images, or people, places or events in your own lives.  Also feel free to explain me to me in relation to these two poems and memorability.
The Crooked Beak of Psychology

Don’t Tell Anyone by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine

Jul 25, 2012

Stephen Dunn’s “Here and Now”: a Brainy Look at Love

Here and Now- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Stephen Dunn’s “Here and Now”:  a Brainy Look at Love

Stephen Dunn’s work sometimes makes a very good bridge between prosy, chatty, talk-y poem-ish words and the rich tightness or musicality of thought and language that were once required of poetry.

In “Here and Now” some short passages could easily and naturally be heard as prose, but there’s a satisfying weightiness in the content and sometimes a new twist on a familiar word, phrase, or idea. All that might be diminished if presented in cumbersome, pedestrian prose, without benefit of purposeful line breaks and white space that create additional emphasis and meaning.

Consider these lines cast as prose:  “Heaven did exist, I discovered, but was reciprocal and momentary . . . . ”  Sounds like a reflective essay, does it not?  Compare that to Dunn's versification:

                                    Heaven did exist,
            I discovered, but was reciprocal
            and momentary . . .

Now we see some hefty questions more clearly. What exactly does it mean for Heaven to be “reciprocal”?  How important is the fact that Heaven is a thing to be “discovered”—and not through Catholicism but through romantic, erotic love?  By the way, if it’s Heaven, how can it be “momentary”?  I can imagine those questions taking up a healthy hour of discussion and then keeping the participants awake that night.

It's breaking these ideas into lines that encourages us to look more carefully at each word and phrase. We pause at “reciprocal,” which makes us remember that it’s Heaven that Dunn is calling “reciprocal.”  If not presented as poetry, I suspect these big assertions would shrink, would be glossed over, cheated, buried in the endless coffin of a prose paragraph. In Dunn's fairly short lines, they dance.

Do you see other parts of the poem that might work as prose ideas but unveil themselves and breathe better as poetry? 

Here are a couple more examples from me. I'm tempted to balk at the gawky passive voice in “must be arrived at,” but as a fairly short line of poetry, it makes me wrestle with it. I have to see it and wonder about it. Maybe there's a reason for the klutzy structure.

And why the imperative in “must”?  Why must one arrive at it? Why even choose the verb “arrived at” when it requires that awkward, tacked-on preposition, “at”?  Is the meaning of "arrive" worth the clumsiness of adding "at"?  I think there are reasonable, mostly favorable responses to all these questions, and they reveal Dunn's skill in laying out his argument. 

And for sheer, perhaps dismissive playfulness in a serious poem, how about this:

                        let heaven
            go its mythy way,

Am I going too far if I say Dunn might be including, by sound-association, The Milky Way? Perhaps our galaxy is, like the old High Mass Heaven, one more thing that's secondary to love.

Well, that’s enough for now. It’s just that . . . I feel as if I’ve harped a lot here about poetry that’s too prosy, or so prosaic it’s not even poetry, and here’s an example of a memoir-y, philosophical, talk-y poem—in free verse, no less—that meets the standard of verse with room to spare.  IMHO.  At the end of the day, going forward, it’s all good. 



Jul 21, 2012

Birds, Nerds, and Where the Love Is

Birding: the Central Park Effect.  See it!  HBO.  Saturday through Wednesday and maybe beyond, at least once per day.

Today’s post is intended as a public service announcement. At various times (check your TV guide or listings), at least once per day, today through Wednesday, and maybe beyond, on HBO, there is a very fine hour-long show celebrating birds, birders, and New York City’s Central Park—previously unknown to me as a birders’ delight.


Great Egret
Tri-Colored Heron
The captures of birds on video are a reason to watch, but anyone can love gorgeous animals. The real stars of the show are the birders. Even the nastiest hockey team or street gang might see in these nature lovers a new kind of role model. Without pretention, the bird-nerds are articulate, likable, down to earth, self-effacing, and in one case, remarkably courageous. As a group, they articulated perfectly the reasons for my own attraction to the critters, some of which I wasn't sure of myself. It can feel good to be part of a group, even as a Class D minor leaguer.

By the way, one well-known name among the Central Park group is novelist Jonathan Franzen.

Although I still love football and like baseball, my new team just might be The Bird Nerd Crawdads. Colors? Anything bright, though sparrows and wrens are admitted without bias. 

My photos today are from the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in southern Florida.

Jul 16, 2012

Russell Edson with John Prine, Iris DeMenthe, and Pacific Banjo

Imaginer? Seer?

It's a summer Monday. We all might need a pretty scene and a lighter touch, so here is a Russell Edson prose poem I enjoyed. I hadn't been back to him for years, and some readers might not know him at all. Maybe the first question is how seriously we should take his prose poems. Are they merely entertaining diversions, or is there more? Shall we call it substance? Skill? Or rip-off? Or more meekly, verbal shenanigans? (I like the word "shenanigan").

Let Us Consider by Russell Edson : The Poetry Foundation

Maybe I'm forcing it, but I see at least a vague, thin connection from Edson to John Prine's song to blogger Pacific Banjo's engaging pictorial accompaniment. 

The Tendril That Stole the Show

Jul 10, 2012

Linda Pastan, "The Deathwatch Beetle": Spirit, Flesh, and What Might Be Ridiculous

The Deathwatch Beetle by Linda Pastan : Poem Guide : Learning Lab : The Poetry Foundation

                    Practically every line of Linda Pastan’s “The Deathwatch Beetle” is appropriately assertive and menacing. The cardinal is also fitting as a metaphor for the human spirit. In the first case

Nightmare Cardinal

there is a battered red bird, probably as it tries to escape a vision of itself seen in a window. Then, in the final stanza, another cardinal is “blood brother” to the spirit of the deceased, which is desperate to escape the dead human body restraining it.

In addition to the nightmare quality of the poem as a whole, I want to look at three specific images that I find new, fresh, and compelling because they are original and so aptly jarring.  

First, body parts. Most people love cardinals, which can be the only color in North American winter landscapes. Now the “crimson bird” is more or less insane, an imprisoned victim trying to escape a cage of skull through—of all things—a nostril, or possibly an ear canal. I wonder if Linda Pastan is referring to some particular belief system, but whether or not that’s the case, I’m taken aback by her strategy of emphasizing mundane, unglamorous body parts. They form walls and create a lunatic frenzy in the spirit, which is personified as a beautiful, beloved red bird. 

Hungry Cardinal

That in turn might be a hint that “blood-red” is the end result of the war between the flesh and the spirit, in which the spirit loses—or in any case the spirit is painted in the carnal color of the human that trapped it, at least for a time.

In that nostril and that ear canal, I feel I’m in a scene from Bosch or Dali.  I hope readers from the art world will offer names of other painters who might fit here.  

The second image—or is it a concept?—that slapped me into longer consideration is,  “I will be left—ridiculous.”  In the wake of a loved one’s death, who among us worries about feeling ridiculous? I suspect all of us—if we were honest and perceptive enough to say so, though we’d probably point first to more obvious conditions like loneliness, emptiness, helplessness.

Pastan makes me uncomfortable taking those more predictable states for granted and skipping straight to the less expected and more embarrassing “ridiculous.” She disturbs me just the way good poets are supposed to stir us, get us off the couch. It’s at least possible that we fear looking or feeling ridiculous as much as we dread the emptiness of life without the deceased.

What a powerful question to have dropped on our plates:  Bereavement, this new-to-me condition, this stripped down way of being in the world, is so disarming that I feel ridiculous.

But maybe I am ridiculous. How so? Where did that condition come from? Maybe it feels like nakedness in a blizzard. The ice and cold are obvious; pain is obvious. But as  much as cold and pain, I also feel  . . . ridiculous. Actually, I especially feel ridiculous. There are support groups for the grief-stricken, for the newly widowed, but what about the newly ridiculous? 

Spirit Cardinal
Maybe, “She’s too young to be widowed. That’s a ridiculous state of affairs.” Or, “He’s too old to be that moved by his father’s death. It’s ridiculous.” Or, “He broke down in tears? There?! In front of all those people? That’s ridiculous.” Or, “She has no idea how to balance a checkbook? Ridiculous.” Or, “She just had a year-long affair with the dog trainer. This show of grief is ridiculous.”

Applied to an individual human, how many adjectives are as dangerous as “ridiculous”? 

The third item that seizes my attention is “ticking.”  Whatever the literal sound of the death beetle is, I cannot imagine that it’s more alarming than “ticking”—first as a literally odd noise from a bug and secondly with its connotation of clocks and therefore mortality . . . for us all.   

So, in an All-Star poem—oh yes, the game’s tonight—those three specifics are Hall of Famers.

My hunch is that this will be a popular poem here and probably already is out there in Anthology-Land. How well do you like it?  Respect it?  Scale of 1 – 10?  I welcome responses to that or anything else Linda Pastan and I have said. Regulars here know I always want to know what their favorite parts or aspects of the poem are. 

One question nags me. Do we need to know more clearly who’s died, or is it enough to feel sure it’s someone near and dear?  

Jul 4, 2012

Adrienne Rich's "Dreamwood," Poems, Maps, Independence Day

Somewhere in NW Pennsylvania

Detroit River, Ambassador Bridge to Canada
What is a poem? Maybe that has nothing to do with America's Independence Day, or maybe it does. Isn't a country both dirt and idea? Aren't its literal, legal policies also symbolic and evocative? 

Doesn't the U.S., like many nations, invite small journeys as well as larger, life-changing ones? How might we map those movements, or otherwise "report" on them? 
So, what is a poem? Any number of poets and essayists have been bold or foolhardy enough to approach that question. On that subject, here is “Dreamwood” by Adrienne Rich, who died last March. The poem doesn’t try to be a final, complete, or exclusive answer; rather, it’s one woman’s experience with thinking, dreaming, writing, mapping and making life choices. As I hear it, the poem steps up to grand, or grandiose, topics,
Renaissance Center, GM Headquarters, Detroit

and modestly replies, “Well, here’s my experience with writing—a literal, wooden, gouged typing stand and some larger experiences or imaginings to which the wood has led me. Maybe you'll think it's all worth something.”  Dreamwood by Adrienne Rich : Poetry Magazine

Granville, Ohio

In the following passage from the poem’s middle, what do you think Adrienne Rich means by “the one great choice”?  Or, “touristic choices”?  Are “distances blued and purpled by romance” positive or negative things—in the poem and in your personal associations with that image?

            not a map of choices but a map of variations
            on the one great choice. It would be the map by which
            she could see the end of touristic choices,
            of distances blued and purpled by romance . . .

Rt. 285, Southeastern Ohio
Author after author has said that writing is a matter of journey and discovery, not a pre-planned, safe, omniscient, goal-oriented walk-through of a pre-planned, safe destination. How dreary that would be. Robert Frost said, famously, "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," and surprise is a major reason we go to poetry.

We are surprised that the poet has felt and thought more or less what we have about important human experiences, but we're intrigued by the writer's clever or moving phrasing—more clever or moving or musical than ours could ever be. We’re fascinated and maybe awed by the poet’s unexpected yet apt comparisons and thorough, thoughtful, precise understanding of the subject. Whether or not the poem posits answers, the author has probably looked difficult realities in the eye better than we have. 

Rebekah Long,  Cafe Eleven, St. Augustine Beach, FL:   one woman’s experience with thinking, dreaming, writing, mapping 
And yes, Bettertry, I'm posting that damn red, white and blue building again! It was part of a very pleasant journey through an unspectacular, green, evocative place.     Dreamwood by Adrienne Rich : Poetry Magazine
Kellys Pizza & Cones, Rt. 314, Chesterville, Oho

Lovers' Lane