For the last day of National Poetry Month, here are three great poems

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month!  Does this mean anything?

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t really think so.  Poetry lives and breathes outside the schematics we impose on it, and National Poetry Month is just an excuse to celebrate something that cannot be contained in really any way.  But there is something – sad? significant? – about the ending of April and this month designated as poetry’s, if only because we need to say farewell to our intentional calendrical homage, and move out into May’s own vista, as poetry moves out of the national spotlight and back into the less-attention-getting situation of readers and writers (mundanely, extraordinarily) connecting.

To commemorate the ending of this poetry month, we should connect with some poems.  Here is a deservedly famous villanelle by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, titled “One Art.”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
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Elizabeth Bishop

And here is African-American poet Robert Hayden‘s unforgettable “Those Winter Sundays”:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

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Robert Hayden

And here, last but not least, is the profoundly wonderful “Adam’s Curse” by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

 

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.’
                                          And thereupon
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, ‘To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.’
I said, ‘It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.’
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
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William Butler Yeats

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National Poetry Month – Why and How Do Books Affect Us When We Put Them Down?

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Turner, night scene

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed this afternoon, and came across a very interesting tweet from a Ted Underwood, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, who wrote, “The way the book you’re reading seeps into the rest of life, tinging it with undefined narrative potential: something everyone knows but literary critics don’t discuss enough.”

I loved this tweet.  Why?  Because the books we read, novels, poems, essays, plays, non-fiction, they do not only work on us (as we work on them) while we are reading them, but instead percolate and germinate once we have put them down for a moment; and when we re-enter the stream of life and interact with others and the world, these percolations and germinations color our perceptions, just as they influence our thoughts.  In a sense, then, reading a book does something to our consciousness.  For a long time, literary critics have written about language, and the dynamics of language, but reading and writing also of course have to do with the consciousness of the person reading or writing.  So when we read, what exactly is happening?  And how and why are we able then to see the world differently, after we placed the book down upon the table?

Here is one way to think about this: Have you ever visited an art museum, and spent good and meaningful time looking at the various objects, engaging with them, thinking about them, letting their forms and shapes and colors and textures speak to you?  Just looking at them, noticing them, wondering about them.  And then – and this is a very interesting  part of the experience – you leave the art museum, and the world itself has become more vivid!  The sun behind the clouds is seen more clearly, you perhaps notice the cracks in the sidewalk, the sound of children playing in a park a block away, the movement of cars as they make their way across the street, the feel of the wind as it does acrobatics with your hair.  What is going on when that happens?  I think that it is a matter of consciousness – that you have spent time sharpening your mind on the art objects, honing your perception, polishing your vision, so that when you shift from art to world that sharpness, that polish, that hone, is there, still.  Art, in this sense, augments our consciousness (just like poetry, just like books).

There is a great poem by one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens, that talks about this phenomenon.  It is called “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and it is about a woman walking along a shore and singing.  Stevens, like any poet, imagines this song, this indescribable thing that he hears and listens to in his imagination, and then he wonders about it.  He says, “what is this thing I hear?  What does it mean?  Why does it move me?”  Maybe even, “Who hears the song?”  The poem is, then, his own strong and idiosyncratic and profound answer to these questions.

In the penultimate stanza of the poem, we come across something very interesting and strange.  Stevens writes,

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

What does this mean?  What has happened?  Stevens has been listening to the song of the woman on the shore.  Then the song ends (we put down our book, our novel, our play, our  non-fiction).  And what happens?  “Why, when the singing ended and we turned / Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights, / The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there, / As the night descended, tilting in the air, / Mastered the night and portioned out the sea, / Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles, / Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.”  Stevens’ consciousness has been augmented, enriched, deepened, transformed, by the singing of the woman on the shore.  When she is done singing, Stevens still, in a sense, hears it, for what he sees has been inflected with her song.  The night itself is no longer only night – it is something seen and felt intensely and vividly, a vision, let’s  say, that permits Stevens to take part  in it.  He has allowed his consciousness to be infused with the song, and so it takes on contours of a wider, deeper impression, which then informs his vision of the night.

We are nearing the end of National Poetry Month, but that does not mean we should stop reading poetry.  Poetry, in many ways, in a sacred transaction, in which we encounter a deeper way of seeing the world.  When we imbibe a poem, and then put the book down, we have been blessed with a gift – a gift that is utterly free and part of the boon of all art – which is that we can for a moment step beyond ourselves, shift out of our accustomed habits of seeing and thinking, and dwell in a louder and vivified world.

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Wallace Stevens
Link to “The Idea of Order at Key West:

National Poetry Month – What is Poetry?

Folks, it is National Poetry Month, which means we really should try to answer an important question: What is poetry?  Or, as many might feel is a more appropriate way of asking the question, What the heck is a poem, anyways?

This is a very valid question that comes from a very genuine place.  I think there are many avid readers out there, readers who consume novels and non-fiction with a kind of ardor, who still come reluctantly to poetry, and wonder how or why people connect to that particular art form.

What is poetry?  How does it differ from the other art forms, like visual art, or theater, or music?  Isn’t poetry a kind of music?  And isn’t it something you have to look at to appreciate its form, and therefore isn’t it kind of like visual art?

One of my favorite descriptions of what poetry is comes from the scholar Elaine Scarry, who writes in Dreaming By the Book that our various art forms all participate in different kinds of content.  What does this mean?  Scarry points out that many art forms, like visual art and music, involve “immediate sensory content.”  We hear a song or a symphony, we see a painting or sculpture.  Our senses come alive during these interactions, and the content is immediate and sensory.

But what about things like musical scores?  That’s art, isn’t it?  Scarry calls that “delayed sensory content.”  In this case, the notes call attention to a sequence that, if honored, produces actual music.

But there’s one more kind of content, and this is my favorite one.  For what happens when we read a novel or a poem?  There is “immediate sensory content” – the weight and feel of the book in our hands, the smell of the pages, the color of the black letters printed into the white page, the different shapes of the letters.  But when we read, we are not only engaging in immediate sensory content, because the letters on the page, as in a musical score, are instructions that help us to imagine a world.  In this case, we are engaging not only in immediate sensory content and delayed sensory content but also….(drumroll please) “mimetic content.”  So what’s that?  Mimetic content does not include any sensory content – it is, rather, what we see, touch or hear through our imagination and memory.  Scarry then points out that the visual arts, film, theater and music are all focused primarily in immediate sensory content, whereas the verbal arts are more grounded in mimetic content.

Phew!  That was a lot of theorizing.  I hope it wasn’t too off-putting.  But we have one more step to take, so that we can think about poetry, and more specifically think about what poetry is.  For poetry, more than the other art forms, participates in all three forms of content outlined by Scarry.  It’s immediate sensory content participates through the visual form of the words on the page.  Its delayed sensory content participates through the way in which the notations on the page are intended to produce actual sound.  And its mimetic content participates through the way in which the poem activates our imaginations, the way it sings in our mind.

Yes!  We are (hopefully) getting somewhere.  But there is actually one more distinction we have to make.  And that’s this: what’s the difference between novels and poems?  Both are weighted primarily in mimetic content.  Both involve the production of worlds, through language, in our imagination and memory.  So how do we differentiate between the two?

I don’t have an easy answer to this, but I think it has to do with the aspect of poetry that involved delayed sensory content and immediate sensory content.  How do I mean?  Well, most poems have a certain form – maybe it’s a long stanza, with rolling and exuberant lines, a la Walt Whitman.  Maybe it’s a short stanza, with more restrained lines, a la Emily Dickinson.  The point being, when one reads a poem, its form is so essential to its content.  Reading a novel, we of course imbibe the paragraph breaks, but the form of the language is not as paramount as it is in poetry.  That’s the immediate sensory content.  But also, poetry, like music, is a form of singing.  Poetry touches upon the boundary that separates language from music, in a way that I don’t think novels often do.    Many novelists employ musical language – Vladimir Nabokov is a good example of that; Proust is another.  But poetry and music, I think, are more intertwined than prose and music.

So that’s my librarian talk for today, with help from Scarry.  And, as it is the first day of National Poetry Month, I feel I would be amiss if I did not include a poem.  So, dear readers, as a great example of poetry’s always-noble attempt to simply break into song, here is a favorite of mine, James Wright’s (Ohio poet) “A Blessing.”  Enjoy!

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,

Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.

And the eyes of those two Indian ponies

Darken with kindness.

They have come gladly out of the willows

To welcome my friend and me.

We step over the barbed wire into the pasture

Where they have been grazing all day, alone.

They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness

That we have come.

They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.

There is no loneliness like theirs.

At home once more,

They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.

I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,

For she has walked over to me

And nuzzled my left hand.

She is black and white,

Her mane falls wild on her forehead,

And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear

That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

 

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James Wright

 

 

Making the Ordinary Sacred

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In my last blog post, I talked about how poetry is able to articulate, through its form and language, aspects of experience that are hard to articulate – aspects like love or grief.  But another great thing about poetry is its ability to make the ordinary sacred, by focusing on ordinary life and making it into something special, or reminding us how special our most ordinary moments are.  This is to say that poetry is good for the big things, the things we think about alot (love, grief), but it is also great on the smaller things, the things we forget, the things we want to remember but don’t (alas!) write down.  Therefore, now that we are nearing the end of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share a poem that I love, where what is ordinary is memorialized and maybe even transformed.

This poem is by one of my favorite poets, the Detroit-born Philip Levine.

Belle Isle, 1949

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl
I’d never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks
of the old stove factory unwinking.
Turning at last to see no island at all
but a perfect calm dark as far
as there was sight, and then a light
and another riding low out ahead
to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers
walking alone. Back panting
to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare
fall on, the damp piles of clothes,
and dressing side by side in silence
to go back where we came from.

 

This is an amazing moment, a remarkable experience, but it’s the kind of thing one might forget about if it hadn’t been written down – going hand in hand under the water of the Detroit River with a stranger, a “Polish highschool girl.”  There is something so lovely and deep about this memory, despite the description of the river as full of “car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles, / melted snow.”  We hear about a “perfect calm dark / as far as there was sight,” and the sense is that Levine and his stranger-friend are buoyed in this darkness and calm by the water, and are swimming towards a light – “ore boats, maybe, or smokers / washing alone.”  There is something desolate about these images, while at the same time something gritty and stark and beautiful.  The moment is seemingly ordinary, but something about the language – the motif of light and dark, the water, “the final moonless atmosphere / that was this world” – gives the poem a spiritual and even philosophical intensity, something almost metaphysical, something having to do with experience and memory.  Levine has chosen to memorialize this event, and it’s not hard to see why – there was about this event something so vivid and alive, something youthful and fun.  It makes me wonder if the memory is bittersweet for the older poet looking back on it, or if the memory still retains its taste of pure amazed joy.

As we end National Poetry Month, I hope you are able to find similarly intense and vivid poems that reminds us why we read and write poetry in the first place, and that perhaps might inspire you to put your pen to paper and memorialize something, no matter how large or how small.

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Philip Levine

A Poem About (Messy, Visceral) Love for National Poetry Month

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April is National Poetry Month, which means I have the opportunity to write about one of my favorite topics.  Poetry, for me, is one of the most beautiful, powerful, and expressive of the art forms.  While visual art uses the world that we see, and music uses the sense of our hearing, poetry uses both (seeing = the arrangement of the poem on the page; hearing = the rhythm of the poem on the page, or hearing the poem read out loud).  But what poetry uses more than anything else is language.  And that’s why I love it so much.  Don’t get me wrong – fiction and non-fiction are also constructed out of language, but poetry for me is a different use of language, and it can gesture towards aspects of experience that are hard to talk about or explain, including love and grief.  Here, for example is a poem a friend of mine shared recently on Facebook.  I read it with the shocked awareness of something being said about love and grief that would be hard to articulate in another art form.  Here is the poem:

Marriage

By Ellen Bass
When you finally, after deep illness, lay
the length of your body on mine, isn’t it
like the strata of the earth, the pressure
of time on sand, mud, bits of shell, all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.
How to bear the weight, with every
flake of bone pressed in. Then, how to bear when
the weight is gone, the way a woman
whose neck has been coiled with brass
can no longer hold it up alone. Oh love,
it is balm, but also a seal. It binds us tight
as the fur of a rabbit to the rabbit.
When you strip it, grasping the edge
of the sliced skin, pulling the glossy membranes
apart, the body is warm and limp. If you could,
you’d climb inside that wet, slick skin
and carry it on your back. This is not
neat and white and lacy like a wedding,
not the bright effervescence of champagne
spilling over the throat of the bottle. This visceral
bloody union that is love, but
beyond love. Beyond charm and delight
the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.
This is the shucked meat of love, the alleys and broken
glass of love, the petals torn off the branches of love,
the dizzy hoarse cry, the stubborn hunger.

Although the poem is titled “Marriage,” I think it could speak to anyone who has experienced love both as a “balm” and a “seal.”  Here, Ellen Bass is trying to get beyond notions of love that are “neat and white and lacy.”  She is trying through language to gesture towards the messy and visceral aspects of love, the way it reaches us down to the roots and changes our lives in unalterable ways.  Love, for Bass, is like “the way you to yourself are past charm and delight.”  It is real, and therefore not always pretty, but its power moves within us, through happiness and (maybe even more so?) through loss.  Love is such a rich and complicated thing that it contains

                                                                   all
the years, uncountable wakings, sleepings,
sleepless nights, fights, ordinary mornings
talking about nothing, and the brief
fiery plummets, and the unselfconscious
silences of animals grazing, the moving
water, wind, ice that carries the minutes, leaves
behind minerals that bind the sediment into rock.

When people love each other, they are loving a person formed by time, and time is full of so many things, including dreams, quarrels, chatter, silence, and even things like weather and trees and leaves and rock.  When we love someone, we are loving an embodiment of the world.  This is not a pretty poem, but a poem doesn’t have to be pretty.  Instead, it needs to be honest about its subject matter.  Reading it is therefore bracing, but also energizing.  I hope during this month, and beyond, that you are able to find poems that you find energizing, exciting, and moving, full of rich language and imagery.

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Ellen Bass

The Poetry We Can Find in the World

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For the upcoming National Poetry Month, which starts in April, I’ve been thinking about places we find poetry outside of poetry books.  Of course, if you think about it, the subject of poetry can be very wide, for poetry is often used as a metaphor to describe a moment of beauty or clarity that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the verbal art of poetry proper, but instead is related to our experience.  For example, this morning, driving to work, I saw a group of black birds rise up into the sky, and the scene to me was like poetry – there was something graceful about it, even moving, how they all rose up together as is borne up by a great wind, and how quickly it happened, and as quickly moved out of view.  Of course, I wasn’t reading a poem about birds, I was seeing birds in flight, but something about the experience struck me as poetic.  But what does this even mean?

John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and political economist from the 19th century, also had some interesting thoughts about poetry.  In an essay he wrote called “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” Mill argued that poetry should not be defined based on “metrical composition” alone, “metrical composition” referring to the way in which poetry is often concerned with the rhythm of a sentence or a line.  But Mill thought defining poetry exclusively based on its focus on rhythm was not true to the spirit of what we mean when we talk about poetry in the wider sense.  Mill goes on to say in the essay that he does think poetry contains a “difference” that sets it apart from other experiences, though this difference can be found in other art forms as well, including prose, music, sculpture, painting and architecture, and maybe even outside those art forms.  So what is this difference?

Here is how Mill describes this difference:

“The object of poetry is confessedly to act upon the emotions;—and therein is poetry sufficiently distinguished from what Wordsworth affirms to be its logical opposite—namely, not prose, but matter of fact, or science. The one addresses itself to the belief; the other, to the feelings. The one does its work by convincing or persuading; the other, by moving. The one acts by presenting a proposition to the understanding; the other, by offering interesting objects of contemplation to the sensibilities.”

So for Mill, the opposite of poetry is not prose.  The opposite is instead “matter of fact, or science.”  For Mill, there is a wide gulf that separates the things that persuade us (having to do with beliefs, facts, and even reason), and the things that move us (having to do with feelings, emotions).  Indeed, Mill believe there is an intimate connection between the world of poetry and the world of feelings.  Poetry refers to an experience during which we are moved, during which our feelings are stirred and we are pulled out of our habitual thoughts to contemplate something interesting, different, even sublime.  Poetry slows us down, so that we can focus on something that shakes us, that makes us feel wonder.

Although Mill does distinguish poetry from science, I don’t think it is too far a stretch to say that science can also be poetic.  I’m sure readers of the late Stephen Hawking would agree that there is something awe-inducing about contemplating the universe itself, which causes us to feel wonder at the sheer fact of existence at all!

So, dear reader, what are some moments in your life when you have a poetic experience, when you experience the poetry of your own life?  Does it have to do with a relationship, of seeing a friend or loved one smiling or laughing?  Does it have to do with a moment in nature, noticing the color of the sky or marveling at the growth of a certain tree?  Does it happen during peak moments, like a wedding or a funeral, or does it happen in quiet moments, like cooking dinner with a spouse?  Either way, I hope that during this National Poetry Month you are able to feel and experience and see the poetry in your own life – and maybe even write a poem about it!

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