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I remember listening on a green transistor radio to the Frazier/Ali fight back in the late winter of 1971. I was 12, and at the height of my interest in sports. My Yankees had done badly that summer (they’d finished fifth in their division). This is not the dynasty Yankees: this is the Yankees of Horace Clark and a third baseman (Jerry Kinney) who hit under 200 without power. This is a Yankee team whose best and most consistent player was Roy White, and who had two starting pitchers who swapped wives and houses (Kekich and Pederson). I loved them without hope–the way it should be.

Ali had been out of the loop for over two years. He was cocky. I’d heard an old man say something I didn’t understand: “Say what you want about that mother fucker…he ain’t no fuckin field nigger.”

Ali’s tune up fight had not looked sharp and, in my neighborhood, where many young men were in Nam, and three of them on my block were soon to be dead, rooting for Ali took a lot of guts. Ali also rubbed it in so deep on Joe Frazier that you had to feel bad, or mad, or just humiliated yourself. Frazier had an amazing left hook and a stolid, cut off the ring approach that seemed utterly hard hat. The hard hats were not the friends of the hippies that year and visa versa. This was the beginning of the schism in the democratic party, between depression based old union democrat and prosperity, lifestyle based choice culture leftism. Frazier was a patriot. Frazier was a no nonsense, soft spoken guy from Philly. Ali was the pretty boy, the darling of the new global left–the most famous figure in the world. It was hard to root for him, but even after two years off, it was even harder to believe he wouldn’t somehow out dance, out box, and out think Frazier and steal his title while humiliating the champ.. I think working people were beginning to feel humiliated enough. They didn’t understand the anti-americanism of the new left, especially since it seemed to be led by and comprised almost entirely of little privileged shits from the burbs. Those kids mocked us. They were not like us. They saw us as white trash. They looked bored and unfriendly and we had no idea they’d gotten that bored and unfriendly look from the Velvet Underground and posters of various hipsters and fashion models. I remember a man in the barber shop saying: “those long hairs got their nigger, and we got our’s. Their’s is just like them: a fuckin wise ass.”

I rooted for Joe Frazier because he had a terrific left (I’m left handed) and was a short guy as was my father. He cut off the ring. He took a punch to land one. He had trained hard and beaten a bunch of good fighters to get the title. In my heart, I knew the war was wrong, the word nigger was wrong, the whole feel of that time was somehow wrong. I was against the war, and as an 11 year old, I opened my mouth and got my ass beat. We were a strange mix of working class anger, and old leftist virtue. In my house, my mother swore if she ever heard us use the N word, she would leave us at the police station and give us up for adoption. We knew she meant it. It was a time of splits: racial splits, class splits, most importantly a split between an old immigrant unionism which was at both the top of its success and ready to take a nose dive with the first oil crisis, and the new left that would later spend most of its youth and middle age analyzing itself.

I rooted for Frazier because he was the underdog–the fighter for those working class guys who were in Nam. It never occurred to me that the guys in Nam were not against Ali. When Tom Daley came back after two tours of duty and missing three fingers he said: “Ali was right… I was a fucking sap.”

So on March 8th, 1971, on the same radio station as my Knicks (think it was WOR) the fight was broadcast. it was close, so close, and Frazier won. I was ecstatic..It was a year for underdogs. My Knicks were defending champs. For a moment, a year before my balls dropped, I was a happy kid. But I felt bad for Ali. The next day in the paper they showed his puffed up face. They never wrote Frazier was in the hospital even longer. Two black men had beat the shit out of each other. Given the warped mix of class, race, pro-war, anti-war sentiments, some whites still felt proud and almost teary eyed that their good, patriotic “nigger” had won.

That’s what some idiot yelled to my dad when he came up the street from the bus that left him off from the 3:30 to 12 shift. “Hey Rocky!” The guy yelled, “The good nigger won.” My dad flipped his cigarette and yelled back: “Ali… won?” “No… you dumb bastard, the good nigger.” “I thought you said the only good nigger was a dead nigger,” My dad rejoined. “Ah Rocky… ” the guy finished in disgust, “you’d fuck up a wet dream.” I was up late because my mom gave me permission. My father looked at me: “kid… don’t ever be like that dumb shit… A little late for you to be up.” I answered my father, “I wanted to see what you thought Dad.” He said,” A lot of idiots think they won a fight and they never spent even a half minute in the ring… Listen, I want to show you what it means to be in the ring… don’t tell your ma, ok?” My dad made me get into a boxer’s stance after going inside the house to get the egg timer. For three minutes he hit me–very lightly with jabs to my arms, countered all my punches, faked me out, made me winded so that, at the end of those three minutes, I thought I’d puke my guts up. He said, “that’s what you heard tonight kid, except no punches was pulled, and it went all them rounds.That’s the only part of this that ain’t bullshit. That’s just a taste… boxers are just poor dopes trying to make some scratch… black, white, they get themselves hurt for the green. this was a big pay day. All this horse shit about this or that …you know what’s wrong with this country?

“What’s that dad?”

“It ain’t the boxers or soldiers who’s brutal… it’s all these goddamned spectators…” He threw one more jab at my arm. “Come on, Let’s go in and have some pie… Ali is a great boxer. If he’d been a little more in shape, goodbye Frazier. Joe is a great fighter… he’s got heart…Ali is the better man, but not tonight. The rest of us, we best pray we don’t have to get into the ring with either of em. Come on… I’m beat to shit.”

 

BEND TO IT
BY KEVIN SIMMONDS
SALMON POETRY
2014
ISBN 978-1908836793

cover_bend

When the young Miyamoto Usagi (from the pages of the Stan Sakai comic Usagi Yojimbo) won his first tournament, his reward was a pair of swords. The katana was named “Yagi no Eda” (or ‘Willow Branch’); and the short sword was name Aoyagi, or Young Willow. His future lord and master Mifune explained that the willow bends so as not to break, and that strength isn’t just power but, perhaps more importantly, adaptation.

This comic book was essentially my main role, from days at Alta Vista elementary to my present as a semi-professional thirty-something. Pliability over strength and sacrifice are things I learned from Usagi, and thought about way too much as a teenager. I still ponder them almost daily, and clearly so does Kevin Simmonds, as evidenced by his new book Bend to It.

The cover depicts a tree under the kind of weight one might encounter in a hurricane, which Simmonds’s New Orleans is all too familiar with. But he’s no stranger to Japan either, as he splits his time between there and America. This collection of poems is sectioned off by kanji numbers, and often references Simmonds’s faraway home. Between Louisiana and Nippon, the author is drawing from a wide swatch of culture and voice, including but not limited to music and growing up gay.

Not that such things are totally disparate, but between the various subjects, epigrams, shifting title conventions and poetic structures, and sections, this book does begin to bend under a certain weight. Throughout it though, Simmonds balances it all with grace.

Off the bat he gives us wild, there:

wreckage is the lasting thing

||:  so mean its music:|| 

 

whatever vows you’ve made

cello them

 

sink your vowel

into them

An undulating sense of music is well-wrought through the lines in this opening piece, which Simmonds continues to use to great effect throughout the book. His strength lies in communicating the effects of music without getting bogged down in the particulars of it, in utility in the right symbols and references without overuse.

Immediately after this he moves on with longer, more narratively rooted poems, and throughout shuffles through these modes regularly. One doesn’t get the chance to become bored with any style, but neither are they afforded a longer meditation. The poems are for themselves, and as soon as you settle into a section it’s over.

Later we find Exegesis:

There was nothing trivial about the

Thai masseuse who slid his vertical

along my vertical, the power

outage, or those extra minutes

without charge. I cannot say he

wasn’t God. What I felt then, what

I feel with a man’s body on mine, is

holy, holy the way I imagine it is

right & without damage, worth

thanks & remembrance &

justification for.

A more personal, sensual poem, still jetsetting and musical. In the book things are forced into a justified column, giving rigid rules to a subject matter better interpreted loosely and interpersonally.  The alignment of verticals references the narrator’s desire to align with the world at large: spiritual synchronization. But at the same time it’s a self-justification. It is what it is, knowing right but excusing that correct feeling as well. Though all contact is a form of damage, anything else is a wistful request.

The negotiation between contact and damage, yearning for what you love but in so yearning causing harm, threads throughout the book. Maybe it’s more a matter of time than interaction. Bend to It, a little wildly at points, swings to and fro as if buffeted by a hurricane. But Simmonds certainly does not break, and gives us a book of perseverance; and in that survival, between moments of confusion or abuse or damage, an exploration of the joy found in small moments of peace.

 

DEATH CENTOS
BY DIANA ARTERIAN
UGLY DUCKLING PRESSE
2014

death centos

Diana Arterian’s chapbook Death Centos is currently available in a limited edition set ($125) that includes two additional works of art. The first of these is a broadside, designed as a version of the Goose Game, with an inward-spiraling design that depicts a life cycle. The second is a game piece, accoutrement for the board: a small sculpture made of white brass, replica of a 2-franc piece (no longer in circulation), evocative of funerary customs in which the deceased are given money to help aid them in their respective journeys to the afterlife. The center of the letter-pressed broadside holds a statement from Arterian regarding her aesthetic intentions for Death Centos, in which she writes, “I have placed [my subjects, whose words comprise [these centos] on even ground . . . I have bastardized history in order to provide a poetic space in which they are marshaled together, allowing them company in the terror of the unknown.”

Indeed, the form of a cento – a quilt of human thought and experience, couched in the language(s) and perspectives of many – seems ideal for Arterian’s task of simultaneously memorializing and combining the last words of historical figures. These centos seamlessly combine the last words of geniuses such as Emily Dickinson, who described the onset of death with immutable innovation and elegance: “I must go in, for the fog is rising”; venerated historical figures, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who reinforced the importance of beauty, art, and faith: “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord’ tonight – play it real pretty”; religious leaders, such as Jesus of Nazareth, who invoked the value of family, love, and unity among human beings: “Woman, behold your son; behold your mother”; and common criminals, guilty of unspeakable acts of violence, sadism, and evil, e.g., Lavinia Tucker, who revealed a chilling lack of either delusion or remorse to the last: “If any of you got a message for the devil, give it.” These quotes, like all employed in the text, are credited; those who spoke them are listed on the innermost edge of each page, alongside the binding. However, the speakers cited are not listed in an order that corresponds to the placement of their words in each poem. By scrambling the identities of the speakers, these poems successfully render death a truly egalitarian process: not only must we simultaneously confront criminals, admired personalities, and venerated leaders, but we are deliberately deprived of the opportunity distinguish among them. Thus is the reader compelled to acknowledge their common humanity – and, in this way, Arterian’s project seems to become less about providing these souls company among one another in the terror of the unknown, and more about giving them equal real estate in the psychic space of the reader.

For this reason, terror seems neither the most defining nor the most compelling quality with which death is portrayed in this collection that interrogates what it means to die, and how we use those final moments before death – both our own and those of others. In fact, death is associated more immediately with happiness than with fear or suffering: Arterian opens the collection by quoting, via epigraph, the last words of her grandfather: “I’m so happy.” In addition to its direct declaration of joy, the context provided by this epigraph encourages the reader to understand death as a unifier – familial – an occasion that facilitates communication between the individual about to depart and the rest of the living world. Four times in the text, death is referred to as “going home,” and once as “taking refuge,” suggesting that human finitude, rather than merely stimulating fear, may serve as an intensifier for our natural propensities for forging connections, exchanging knowledge, and learning from the experiences of others. This text specifically differentiates, via section titles, between the dying and the condemned; to succumb to our physical finitude, then, is not to be sentenced. We may have to die, but we are not punished by death – a view that suggests a paradoxical sense of agency; readers are encouraged to regard the moments immediately preceding death as an occasion that provides the about-to-die with a reasonable expectation of being not only heard, but remembered – a secular brand of immortality.

And, ultimately, these centos suggest that our participation in the immortalization of others – the post-mortem maintenance of their identities – is a communal project, one that is also egalitarian in that it renders the individual will less important than the collective memory that keeps it alive. “Only you have ever understood me/ and you got it wrong,” Hegel tells his favorite student, and then takes his leave. Even as death erases his identity and sends his ego spiraling through the ether of the unknown, his faithful student transcribes and remembers his final speech. And so our collective attention to another human being’s last conscious moments allows us to help preserve the self that is being effaced, as we choose to integrate their departing wisdom into their own lives via language and memory. However, Hegel’s words – and Arterian’s lovely, haunting centos – also highlight the true terror of death: in being immortalized by the memories of others, how much of your true self, as you’ve defined it, will live on? How much of you is in your own words?

 

Innocence

In the middle of summer, when it’s too hot for cargo shorts and the air is heavy to breathe, I let my mouth slide open into a slippery smirk, as I watch Michael Ritter, the boy you loved in 5th grade, on the local news.

“Dear Michael, I really, really like you…” your 5th grade love letter began. Against my warnings, you stuffed the tightly folded letter, a rainbow scrawl, colored pencil on notebook paper, into his cubby.

He fell to his knees laughing. His friends snickered at you: Dear Michael, I really, really like you… They whispered when you walked by.  You cried yourself to sleep at night, a salty puddle of pre-adolescent pain staining your Barbie doll pillow case.

It’s not until I see him on the news, until I want to tell you how much you didn’t miss out on, how lucky you are that he never loved you. It’s not until then that I start to miss you.

It’s almost been a year since last summer when your mother drove you off an Arizona overpass. Your car tumbled onto the shiny alloy of train tracks pulled tight against dirt and gravel like braces. You were dead before a train slammed into your car twisting metal and bones.

I like to imagine you asleep in the passenger seat.  The overpass a cliff, the desert orange rock of a winding road.  Maybe your mom falls asleep at the wheel; she’s been driving for too long. Maybe she swerves to miss an animal, a rock. Maybe she cuts a turn to sharply and loses control.

I like to imagine it innocent. That it’s nobody’s fault.

The car falls down the cliff breaking through a mile of air, but it only takes a second to slam into the ground, not long enough for you to wake up. Not long enough for you to know what happens next.

_______________________________
Yinka Rose Reed-Nolan is currently a PhD student at Binghamton University. She earned her BA in Liberal Arts from Goddard College and MFA in creative writing from California State University Fresno. She has worked as an Editorial Assistant for The Normal School: A Literary Magazine and The Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. Her work has been featured in The Hoot and Hare Review, The Dying Goose, Niche, and Bloom. When she’s not writing she enjoys baseball, road trips and team trivia.

 

THE BROTHERS PERDENDO AND PERDENDOSI
BY BRIAN TRIMBOLI
RELEASED BY NO, DEAR MAGAZINE AND SMALL ANCHOR PRESS

Brothers1-copy

This is how terrible of a reader I can be: didn’t even think to look up “perdendo” or “perdendosi” until after I’d read this chapbook at least four times, the first two in quick succession immediately after it arrived. Not that it’s necessary to define every little thing in a book or poem, or so I feel; but the title is that much more fitting knowing that these brothers are named after, if not actually, a manifestation of loss, or at least the musical term for a fade out. The Brothers of Loss, things fading away.

This might have been more accurately titled The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi and their Father, as far as the literal ongoings within as the dichotomous distinction between the two halves set them up next to the father as if they were a single entity. We read their experience, and a few soliloquies from the father, and loss operates in tandem, theirs the royal “we” though this automatically connotes their individuality. Their names are so similar, and roots of the same gerund, to fade out in the face of their father. In Rilievo, the musical command is to become louder, to “stand out over the ensemble”.

Really I should have seen it all, though it is late in the chapbook that Trimboli basically spells out his thesis:

 Two different time signatures,

my father in the center talking loudly

 

to himself. Lights all around him.

He is dressed like a seven-year old boy.

He will not take his costume off,

even after he has gone home.

Families are baked in with the potential for discordance, a mess in the making. What are boys to learn from a father who never grew up? They raise themselves, and their father, in the process. Though there are limits.

Ultimately it’s a stressful cacophony to live under. As Trimboli indicates, “Our father was coal at the bottom / of the ocean. We named him In Rilievo, / / his voice a brash horn.” The father didn’t exist until found, and then named as the equivalent of an orchestral drama queen. But they did the naming, knowing coal’s potential for escalation.

The Brothers Perdendo and Perdendosi deals directly loss in the wake of an irreconcilable father. It’s further appropriate when we consider how the poems themselves fade out, as the musical definition of “perdendosi” commands. Which isn’t to say they aren’t gratifying or unfinished, but rather they weave throughout each other with such open expression. These verses thrive in quick structures, usually fewer than ten lines and alternating between two conjoined books stitched together with no other directive in reading. Page by page as if mirroring each other, one after the other, right to left or vice versa, this chapbook is built to be remixed through reading.

It’s the kind of setup that could drag itself into tedium if not done carefully, concisely, and in the frame of this chapbook, necessitated by the disintegrating emotions expressed therein. Multiple readings are subtly encouraged but no one experience gains ground over another. And really each line sings with such vulnerable vigor, title-less, divvied up by page as the only indication of where one fades out and another fades in.

That’s the surface poetics at work, wrapping up these short pieces as sublimely poetic, musical, and layered. But it’s more than an exercise in cross-genre ekphrasis. Trimboli’s well-wrought lines sway, graceful with their weight, are best self-described: “an orchestra of small insanities held together with catgut.”

Leatherbar in Louisville (owed)

The city hums traffic through lights, blinking
eyes right before sleep, a flatline pattern,
automated efficiency designed
to pull cars through midnight into dawn.
I fall inside, privy to dulled movement,
beer foaming to a quiet stasis, smoke
veiling the bartender and patrons.
Smells of gin, sweat, amyl, tool and product
of lifestyle manufacture, the market
for primacy, the dank and dark of cave
signifying spaces where men belong
to men, belie the confidence of pose,
migraine smiles suggesting satisfaction.

Don, the shirtless bartender, jovial
and smirking at me, dangerously out
of place, nudges me with jokes and beer
into talking, a thaw that draws other
moths to the light of the HD big screen
porno flashing raw tension behind my stool.
Maladroit, I can’t navigate a way
between communion and commodity,
a simple new guy that laughs politely,
declines shots, thank you, declines dance, thank you,
out of place in the sanguine atmosphere
of easy sex in public, among friends.
They offer me beer, friendship, a blowjob.

In this space constructed by and for men to pose, to pretend like
the word faggot doesn’t exist, a highly studied safe zone,
rules sit simple: pleasure transcends the body’s
politics and the cattle grind of out there. To cum is to arrive.

___________________________________________
Airek Beauchamp is attending Binghamton University where he is working on his PhD in English, studying writing pedagogy and sound. He is a Binghamton resident, although he really hates winter.

To introverts writers are glamorous. I am reading Joan Didion’s Blue Nights and enjoying it, but I hate those who feel they own Joan Didion. I don’t know how many others feel this way, but I often become irate over the ownership of issues and artists. Nothing will make me back off an issue or an artist more than the disciples and gatekeepers of said issue and said artist. I can’t stand when people “collect” their loves and hoard them. Dragons do that. Introverts are dragons.

Maybe this is why I feel alienated from other writers. I never got into the glamor of being a writer. To me writers are the most uninteresting of persons. Most of them sit around looking slightly bug like and fearful until the book comes out or the poem and then you see the ferocity of the dragon in their work which is that bug projected onto the screen and blown up to three hundred times its normal size.

Writers never pick good places to eat; they pick overpriced places with bad food and indifferent service. I’m not heavily attracted to either the timidity or the ferocity of writers. Both are kind of mean spirited. I loath meeting writers, especially writers I admire. I would never want to meet Joan Didion. I am not an introvert with a vast glass unicorn collection.

To me, there is nothing more gloomy than attending a signing and someone almost knocks you over to get face time with an author he or she worships. It’s the literary version of a Black Friday sale at Wal-Mart. If Joan Didion came to campus people would jealously hoard her and feel ennobled that they were the ones she sat next to at the dinner table, blah, blah, blah.

Having dinner with a celebrity writer is no where near as fun as sitting around with some funny old lady who can tell a good story. Writers save their best stories for their books. That’s the place to meet them. Anywhere else and you have to deal with their hangers on and groupies. I’d rather have a tooth pulled.

Transcendent Beauty in Yeats and Keats

The works of W. B. Yeats and John Keats are interestingly similar in style and concept. Both rely heavily on imagery. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” is full of sensory imagery describing the journey to an ideal place, just as Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is beautifully portraying the significance of an ancient art on an urn. Both use metaphor to deal with the idea of aging, the concept of time, and the permanence of art compared to the fleeting nature of life. The examination of immortality is a common thread in both and is seen as an achievement. Yeats and Keats come to the conclusion that aesthetic permanence is transcendent beauty. Imagery and metaphor in “Ode to a Grecian Urn” and “Sailing to Byzantium” are used to convey the poetic speakers’ beliefs that being an “artifice of eternity” is the ultimate achievement of transcendent beauty, while the tragic effect of time on beauty is a flaw of mankind and nature.

Yeats’ and Keats’ use of imagery and metaphors as literary tools to communicate the concepts of aging, time, beauty, permanence and transience. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” employs the imagery of people, their life and love, their activities, and destination. The metaphor compares a real journey to a physical place Byzantium to a spiritual journey into “God’s holy fire,” “eternity”. Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” uses such imageries as designs on an urn to describe relationships between humanity and art, lovers to describe the relationship of passion in people and beauty in art. This employs the metaphor of classical Greek art to present the ideas of silence, time, beauty, immortality and eternity.

Both W. B. Yeats and John Keats highlight the inevitability of aging and the mortality of humans. In Keats’ work “Ode to a Grecian Urn”, the speaker brings out the negative perspective of aging and immortality. He sees old age as something that wastes away generations: “when old age shall this generation waste” (line 46) .Yeats looks at the process of aging and consequently death in a slightly different light. Old age is an unavoidable, awful part of life. Due to this inevitability, the speaker wants to find a way to escape. Old age is portrayed as a disappointment: “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.” According to Lesser, “Yeats triumphantly confronts and liquidates his fears of aging and death…he discovers that engrossment in poetry is the only, but a sufficient, recompense for the privation of old age” (291). The statement by Lesser depicts the escape from the bondage of time that both Yeats and Keats yearned for.

There is an analogous understanding of the young being associated with being in love. Particularly, the word “sensual” is used in both works to refer to the lifestyle of the young, “the young sensual music”. This could be their interpretation that the young only see the physical, and lack knowledge and interest in the spiritual. So it correlates that, “old age frees a man from sensual passion, he may rejoice in the liberation of the soul” (Lesser 293). There is an element of being forever young that is captured in Keats’ Grecian Urn: “fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave”. The young that inhabit on the urn are frozen in a constant state of immaturity, but also in the wiles and excitements of youth. Youth is associated with carefree days of love. Yeats’ speaker regards the young, as a distant onlooker with a sense of regret and envy. There is an idyllic romanticism that is incorporated in both Yeats’ and Keats’ work, which portrays the young to be in love and associated with tree, animals or music, “the young/ in one another’s arms, birds in the trees”. The world that Yeats’ speaker is seeing is just for the young and this is similar to young lovers on the urn. In their small world everyone is young and in love. In another insight, “Keats humorously addresses the ever-pursuing lover, noting the paradox of eternal anticipation, but in the third stanza Keats shifts his tone and imagines a love of eternal ecstasy, unqualified by the static character of the marble figures” (Austin 434). Austin’s commentary is recognition of the depth to which the belief in youth’s preoccupation with love and permanence (“eternal ecstasy”), though illusive, is explored.

Keats and Yeats believe that the flaw of human nature is that time is in effect. This is conveyed in the tragic inevitability of aging and death. They seek escape in the aesthetic permanence of art’s transcendent beauty as well as in the optimism of existential importance. In aging there is the idea they both appreciate in which time can be slowed, yet still be happening. Keats refers to a character on the urn being a “foster-child of Silence and slow time”. In Yeats’ work the phrase “of what is past, or passing, or to come” is a representation of time. This sums up what they both hope to achieve. It is the magical balance of being able to exist forever, from the past till the future, yet to remain as in the present moment. Going further than the idea of just a physical or permanent object in which they strive for, is what it represents. Although the popular belief is that they both wanted to be objects of permanence, their goal is one of more existential importance (emphasis).

Immortality, the permanence of art compared to the fleeting nature of life, for each poetic speaker, is an achievement. In Yeats’ poem it is exemplified by, “my bodily form from any natural thing, /But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling”. It seems very superficial and odd for Yeats’ speaker to desire to be a golden creation rather than human, but looking further, it is not about the gold itself. It is about the speaker being able to be an expression of art for all ages. The use of the immortality is for the good of others “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake; or set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium”. In a sense, art is elevated to the supernatural. It is elevated to a place of the divine that can reach people of all eras and times. This is also seen on the urn: “the fair youth piping songs beneath the trees, since he is of unknown place and unknown time, may be regarded as the artist poet or musician – of any place and time” (Wigod 114). Keats’ speaker marvels at the power the Grecian urn holds. Although cold and silent the urn provokes thought and makes one wonder “thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!” These powers that immortal artworks hold are what the poetic speakers want to achieve. They want the power to cause wonder and provoke thought for eternity as well as be of positive relevance for all time.

From the achievement of immortality comes transcendent beauty. In Keats’ poem the speaker lays the famous phrase “beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”. This phrase ponders the relationship between the sensory experience of beauty and the intellectual understanding of truth (Han 245). It declares a universal truth that is transcendental. It can be seen that, “Keats dramatizes the idea that imaginative perception reveals the truth of eternity” (Austin 434). For the speakers it is as if the transcendent beauty is the realization that the works are not mere object, they are “effigies, or monuments, things which have souls” (Lesser 293). For Yeats, there is excitement for the beautiful future in an ethereal sense; this is represented by Byzantium. Yeats emphasizes the transition from mortality “dying animal” to “artifice of eternity”. The speaker hopes to rid himself of human limitation and become the surpassing beauty that is contained in an artifice.

In conclusion, there are remarkable similarities in style and ideas in W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn”. Their style in using the literary elements imagery and metaphor as narrative tools, achieve their desire to provide effective communication between their speakers and audience. The ideas of aging, the concept of time, the permanence of time relative to the fleeting nature of life, convey immortality as an achievement. Furthermore, the celebration of aesthetic permanence as transcendent beauty and the mourning of the effect of time – mankind’s tragic flaw – are explored in both these poems by Yeats and Keats. Just as their last names are interestingly similar in their sound and rhyme, so also are their imageries, metaphors and concepts in these poems. “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Ode to a Grecian Urn” share a common message – the nature of humans to want one’s impact to survive through time.

Work Cited

Austin, Allen . “Keats’s Grecian Urn and the Truth of Eternity.”College English. (1964): 434-436. Web.

Han, Kyoung-Min. “The Urn’s “Silent Form”: Keats’s Critique of Poetic Judgment.” Papers on Language & Literature. Vol. 48.Issue 3 (2012): p245-268. Web.

Lesser, Simon O.. “Sailing to Byzantium”-Another Voyage, Another Reading.” College English. Vol. 28.No. 4 (1967): pp. 291-296+301-310. Web.

Wigod, Jacob D.. “Keats’s Ideal in the Ode on a Grecian Urn.”PMLA. Vol. 72.No. 1 (1957): pp. 113-121. Print.

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1098210_10201543946777682_673889946_nFavour Onwuka has been writing for as long as she can remember. Her vivid imagination as a child, led her to easily dream up fanciful stories. Favour is currently 18 years old, and is a 2nd year Communications major and Psychology minor, at Trinity Western University.

To My Brother

This is when ponies
were dark violet and a
sack of carrots was all we needed
to survive in the golden desert.
Brother and sister: what a fearless
team to behold.
We’d set toward the sun
as it dropped in the West,
and knew we’d reach Oklahoma
by dawn.
Your too­small blue cowboy boots made you limp
but you didn’t complain.
While my roomy red ones heroically dug craters
with my pointed plastic heels.
The spurs we never owned
flashed and made metal chinks
as we strode across the sands.
I wiped my brow with a gloved hand,
while silently you mimicked me.
 
Plastic muskets on our backs,
we always knew when danger would arrive,
and when it did we fought like ninjas
twisting and kicking the threatening dust.
The cowboys of our backyard,
we kept the neighborhood secure,
even though we were no more than 7 and 9.
I always gave myself more credit,
it made sense. I was older.
You’d go first into the darkness,
and I’d bask in the glory of cowardice.
I’ll always wish I didn’t sacrifice you
so many times during play.
That made it too easy when I started playing
real life. I would apologize, but it is horrific
how much child is extracted from me each year.

_____________________________________
KM Armstrong has a Master’s degree in English from Binghamton University, where she studied creative non­fiction and theory. She lives in Binghamton and works in law enforcement.

This is my favorite Emily Dickinson poem, even though it is not her best. It is the poem for which I have the most affection:

348

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though—

I thought If I could only live
Till that first Shout got by—
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me—

I dared not meet the Daffodils—
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own—

I wished the Grass would hurry—
So—when ’twas time to see—
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch—to look at me—

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed—
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me—
The Queen of Calvary—

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums—

Besides her wonderful slants and off rhymes, the half smile of enlightenment seems pressed to her lips, as if the poem itself were everything we needed to know of dread and sorrow and of the gentle acceptance, and humor of things beyond consoling.

Spring is relentless in its coming, not a creature fails, and it is, as in many Dickinson poems, the passion and then the tomb–the imperial tomb of the Saturday vigil before the dawn. Emily leaves off before the resurrection. She, like Teresa of Avila, loves so much that she would not dare be wanton for heaven, but place herself in that realm of the sealed tomb–the dark night of the soul, the bridal chamber where the cross and the tomb are joined.

And who could ever predict or be anything less than awed by her wonderful and utterly unprecedented use of verbs: “Not all pianos in the woods / had power to mangle me–”. This is one of my most cherished poems. I always wanted it set to music and for Billy Holiday to sing it. She’s the only singer with the style and beautiful sad knowledge and ruefulness to pull it off.

In 1985, two professors of physics published some research about the extent to which a physics class impacted students’ intuitive understanding of motion. Like most of us, the students had a more Aristotelian model–the one that seems to fit with common sense: e.g., heavy objects fall faster rate than lighter ones. The goal was to see how many students internalized the Newtonian model by the end of the semester: e.g., heavy and light objects fall at the same rate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that many students retained the Aristotelian model after the course. The professors were surprised, however, that even A-students–those who had demonstrated competence on exams that tested ability to use and apply Newtonian concepts of motion–even these students still retained the Aristotelian model. Shockingly, the students would rationalize their belief in such models even when shown evidence to the contrary. It’s a truism that we education is more than transmission of knowledge. In fact, we often say that you don’t get it until you do it. Clearly this is not the case, though. Even skillful application of knowledge doesn’t demonstrate understanding sometimes.

This study shows how difficult it is for students to shift paradigms, but true students grow when those paradigms shift. What most teachers, myself sadly included, often forget is how radically disorienting, how almost-impossible it is for individuals to shift those paradigms. Humans are adaptation machines. Experience shows that human resilience (and the creativity bound therein) is almost boundless. Yet we routinely forget the pain, the embarrassment, the extreme self-doubt that is part of the learning process. We are also extremely fearful beings, afraid to test the limits of our fragility. We rationalize, equivocate, and often simply hide when confronted with new paradigms because we have reached a horizon point beyond which we cannot see our new selves.

I expect that if I understood this concept better, I would not ride the same roller coaster every semester. Every four months, I go through the same series of moods. I have been teaching for a number of years now, so I know to expect them:
1. Hopeful: I begin hopeful, hard-working, planning extensively, providing copious feedback.
2. Chastised: After several rounds of assignments, multiple attempts at correction, coaxing, I realize my expectations are too high and need to be tempered.
3. Failure: When students fail to meet my more reduced expectations, I begin to question the whole enterprise of teaching.
4. Despair: The dark night of my teacher’s soul. I lose sleep, wonder when my fraudulent stint as a teacher will be brought to its ignominious end.
5. Peace: I come to accept the reality of my students, my abilities, somehow accept the failures and successes alike.

Perhaps I’m addicted to the process, to the highs and lows; I need every break I get, but after the break–when I step back into the classroom–I am filled with hope again. At the end of every semester I promise to remember the lessons I have learned, but it’s clear that my own internal paradigms are not fully shifted to the reality of the task yet.

I wanted to feature essays by students–about poetry primarily, but perhaps other literature-related topics too–which surprised me in some way. It’s not that I am pointing to these students as budding literary scholars (we need scientists and historians who can read poetry!) or that I’m some star teacher who wants to show off the quality results of my teaching. Instead, I am featuring students whose writing showed them grappling with those new paradigms, whose work showed a kind of bravery in confronting the new self beyond the horizon point. I see a facility for understanding and writing about poetry in a way that I thought was admirable. There are sentences I wish I had written; ideas I wish I had articulated.

That’s when I feel most satisfied as a teacher: when I see a spark of something in a student that I admire. Not a mirror image of myself (Augustine said–roughly–that no parent is so stupid to send their child to school to learn what the teacher thinks), but that mutual flame of interest in something outside both teacher and student. In that sense, a great classroom environment is created when those flames combine and burn that much brighter.

I hope that other THEthe contributors who teach will also feel compelled to contribute to this series. But for now, this is my own (burnt) offering.

Revealing the presence of order in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

“The Idea of Order at Key West” was written by Wallace Stevens, a ‘transcendentalist’ in the modernism era. Steven’s poetry reflected works similar to those of Whitman and Wordsworth in that he loved writing on concepts of the natural world to help discover and create personal meaning. Stevens often took vacations to Florida where the serenity of peace and beauty inspired him to write and reflect on deeper philosophical issues such as natural order, chaos, and the deep internal desires of the self (Morse 140). “The Idea of Order at Key West” emphasizes the internal longing to create meaning for order within the natural world, and to discover the role of man’s origin and the self’s purpose. However, in order for such meaning to be made obvious over the chaos, the order at Key West can only be clearly revealed when the beauty and chaos of nature is combined with the role of the poem’s female individual. The poem’s argues that order can be found and already exists among the chaos of nature, but that it takes the individual’s artistic craft to create meaning to make the order’s presence known and evident to the rest of the townsfolk and society.

The first stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” introduces two central figures which are used to reveal the poem’s meaning and existence of order: the sea and she. Both of these objects work independently of one another, yet also close together, and require attentiveness to the poem’s themes of imagery and sound so that order can be revealed (Bloom 62). Stanzas one, two, and four, contain descriptive sea imagery which can help one decipher the existence of order within the sea’s chaos. Order within the sea can be seen, but it is primarily masked by Steven’s raw depictions of turmoil, such as “the grinding waters and the gasping wind” (13). Despite this chaotic imagery, the poem goes on to reveal that the sea maintains a powerful consistency of order in that its “waters never formed to mind or voice” but rather remained consistent of that which it was and whose “mimic motion… caused constantly a cry” (2,5). Further support for this existence of order can be read within the opening verse of stanza one, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). Here the language implies that despite the sea’s potential to possess upwellings of turmoil, the sea also possesses ‘genius’, an underlining potential to overcome chaos to regulate life and diversity. Thus the waters of Key West possess both potential for natural chaos as well as order. According to stanza four, these waters can be ‘walled’ with ‘sunken coral,’ and ‘colored by many waves;’ yet due to geographical demarcation along the equator, can also possess a ‘dark voice’ for trouble such as death among species and seasonal abiotic catastrophes. The presence of order can be seen overall within the context of the sea; however, it is and continues to remain unstable because it is constantly undergoing interaction and change. This makes the order difficult to initially discover.

Robert Pack reinforces this idea that the natural world cannot exist without the presence of both order and disorder because “these two things are one” (Pack 130). These two elements must work together to create natural change, and consisted of “Steven’s definition of the world in which we live” (Pack 131). Through “order becoming disorder and disorder becoming order,” the two elements make up a cycle which changes over the course of time (Pack 131). In “The Idea of Order at Key West”, however, Stevens portrayed the townsfolk as failures to recognize that order could be found within natural chaos. Rather than looking for order’s presence in an underlining cyclical concept, the townsfolk’s perception of order’s existence was based dependently upon that which was visibly evident in the experience of the present moment. Thus, this created the need for the role of the female individual.

Throughout the poem, the role of the individual, referred to as ‘She,’ is used to communicate the presence of order among the chaos. This is done through the act of the girl’s song, which breaks the townsfolk’s rational perception of order in that moment, and causes others to stop and ‘listen.’ Without the role of this individual, the townsfolk would continue to lack understanding on the presence of order and its meaning. Steven’s verse “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” implies that the nature of the song itself contained a unique element which transcended any perspective of chaos and/or beauty that the townsfolk had previously known or experienced (Stevens 1). The simple and structuralized beauty of the art of the song altered the townsfolk’s previous perception on order’s existence around them (Bloom 62); it became captivating and mysterious causing all to stop, and listen:

It was She and not the sea we heard
For She was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. (Stevens 14-17)

The art (order) of the girl’s song was internally and naturally created within the individual’s self, which when sung, enchanted, deepened and transcended the meaning of order in that moment and allowed others to discover and interpret its origin in a different light.

The order within the art of the girl’s song contained a unique state of ‘unnatural,’ pure order which gave the song’s meaning and words a form of structure. This structure was beautifully arranged and impacted the townsfolk listeners as well as created an internal desire and passion within the listeners to want to pursue the presence of this order more:

More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. (Stevens 29-30, 37-40)

Unlike the sea, a state of nature that possesses the cyclical relationship between both order and chaos, the art of the song possesses a ‘pure’ state of order which overpowers and sings “beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). The presence of chaos within this order ceases to exist, and therefore makes the order of the song truly pure and unique to the individual, and unnatural among the understanding of the listeners. Because of this, the listeners, for the first time, are able to both see and hear what order consists of in its purest state despite the disorder of the natural chaos of the sea.

Throughout the song and upon the time that the song of the individual comes to an end, the listeners are overtaken with feelings of awe and contemplation regarding the nature of this unnatural order’s origin. This can be seen in stanzas three and six where the townsfolk ask:

Whose spirit is this? (Stevens 18)
…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 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 44-51)

The order created by the structure of the song impacted the listeners to a point of meaning that transcended their original perception of order’s existence. Not only did this captivate their attention, but it also activated an internal desire which caused them to look for and seek out the meaning of order around them, “in the town” and in the night, in a new, ‘deepening,’ and ‘enchanting’ way (Stevens 48).

The poet closes with the following verses:

Oh! Blessed rage for order…
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
…And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (Stevens 52-55)

Here, the poet acknowledges that a ‘blessed rage for order’ is required in life for meaning to be created. The only thing that can do this, however, is an unnatural form of order, disconnected from chaos and nature, which is uniquely pure and originates from the human inner self. Such was the influence produced by the song of the girl at Key West, and remains a unique element, which alongside the use of visual interpretation and the incorporation of keener sounds, allows man to make meaning to share with and/or to inspire others.

Meaning for order consists of more than what is made obvious in the present, but in order for it to be clearly revealed, one has to intently pursue it and/or interpret its meaning through another element. This is expressed in the role of the female individual, and is what Steven’s made evident when one listens for the presence of order within the artistic nature of the girl’s song.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers. 2003. Print. p. 59-64.

Morse, Samuel. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasua. 1970. Print. p.140.

Pack, Robert. Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. New York: Gordian Press. 1968. Print. p.130-131 and 175-176.

____________________________________
DSC07673 - CopyKatharine Sell is a 3rd year student majoring in Biology focused in coral reef ecology and marine organisms. She enjoys writing in her spare time. She loved exploring ‘meaning’ in “The Idea of Order at Key West” in correlation to her passions for people and all that the sea possesses.

Special Education

every morning the machine hands us a hiccuped torch.
recycled failures of the week, the year, the decade before.
cc’d emails collect a swollen desk. an asbestos-lined ceiling
fan stains a memory of the time when a senator, a congresswoman,
and a community member vowed to fight this Brooklyn machine
with the rigor of a Long Island PTA mother. but I am on the front-lines.
every morning i look for answers in their epic eye gazing, repetitive self-injuries,
and empty vocalizations.

____________________________________
Jessica Abel is a Speech Therapist based in Brooklyn, NY. She earned her B.S. in English Literature from S.U.N.Y Binghamton and M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology from New York Medical College. She is currently pursuing her M.S. in School Leadership. She is a lover of adolescent literature and music (think Judy Blume and Lorde).

I remember the 90s much better than the 80s because the 90s pissed me off. First, everyone started going grunge, but hell, I had worn flannels and work boots, and funky ski caps back in the friggin 70s and no one gave me credit for it. They told me I was a sloppy dresser. I was surly and moody, too, and took a dim view of humankind, and then along comes Generation X acting as if they had invented flannels and boots and baggy-assed jeans with holes in them, and the Fugs, and did they give me any credit? Well, Do you know Generation X to ever give anyone credit? They just bitch and moan about how greedy the baby boomers are, and then they bitch and moan about the human condition, and then they go gentrify some urban neighborhood, jacking up the rents, and filling it with health food stores and everyone looks very thin and very ungrateful. The 90s actually began in the late 80s. In Hoboken, they had already burned the poor out of their shit boxes and renovated the shit boxes. Then the artists started complaining it was too expensive to live in Hoboken anymore (They were right). They were replaced by surly Wall Street brokers disguised as artists. So the artists either moved to Jersey City or to Alphabet City (this was before Brooklyn) and I had a brief business with my friend Marco, helping artists move out of Hoboken. We had a pickup truck and a willingness to suffer. Lion claw bath tubs were all the rage, and, it being Hoboken in the late 80s/very early 90s, there was a whole field of old lion claw bathtubs. We moved that field of bath tubs. We moved it hither and yonder, but mostly to Alphabet City where the police were starting to beat up homeless folks in Tompkins Square Park because white people wanted to replace Puerto Ricans and turn Alphabet city into a safe, hip, organic, faux bohemian version of Disneyland Manhattan. White people are scared of homeless people. Did we do that? The white folks say. Of course not, we know everything there is to know, and we have read all of Howard Zinn and Chomsky. We also ride antique bicycles and act circumspect, skinny and beautiful in countless indie movies. Lets get these eye sores who will molest our cute children out of here! And that meant we got to move a whole field of antique bathtubs at the same time they were beating up homeless people in Tompkins Square Park. By the 90s I had been in the factory for years but had gotten more involved in poetry. I started running the Baron Arts Center poetry readings, and, for a while, the demographic included a lot of good looking 20 something and early 30 something people from New Brunswick (this is because slam and the brat pack had made poetry cool for a brief period). I finally had lovers in the 90s–just as my good body was going to seed and becoming a bad body. As I recall people thought muffins were good for you at the beginning of the 90s, and bad for you by the end of the 90s. I lived in the North End of Elizabeth on the border of Newark, and it was a good neighborhood for espresso, for Portuguese food, for Cuban food, for slightly burned on the top custards, for baseball games played by kids at night under lights, for Portuguese grandmothers all dressed in black with ankles the size of pit bulls going to mass, and going to the laundry mats, and scrubbing their section of sidewalks on their hands and knees. Allen Ginsberg was later buried in that neighborhood. The grandmothers grew to like me and suggested I give up baggy flannels and jeans for nice shirts with alligators on them and chinos. Then, they said, a good woman might like me. Somewhere around 1989 to 1991 yuppies tried to move into Elizabeth, but it was old world, with real bodegas and botanicas, and no brownstones. Elizabeth had the wisdom to replace most of its brownstones with fast food joints in the 1970s. Affluent bohemians need tin ceilings. All my friends and me had ripped off most of the tin decades ago. So we didn’t get gentrified. Plus, people actually had jobs in Elizabeth and could not be beaten by the cops who were their nieces and nephews and sons and daughters. Affluent bohemians who read Zinn and Chomsky can only take over your neighborhood if you’re broke and look dangerous. We didn’t look dangerous. We just looked like we ate too many custards. I liked the 90s. My cousin Ed had come to live with me in 1989/90 and had left me some good furniture (at a cost above what he had paid for it I later found out). Ed was gay and very good looking and had a bum of the month club. Ed was a player. These guys were very sweet and some would call me crying after Ed dumped them, and I’d have them over for coffee while Ed worked as a limo driver. I’d pray with them. I’d tell Gene, my favorite of Ed’s victims, that Ed suffered a traumatic childhood, and he was not ready for true intimacy. I did their Tarot cards. They said the same thing the grandmothers did: why don’t you dress better? Ed and the one ex he was still friends with took me out to a mall and forced me to buy stone washed jeans and a whole bunch of other stuff I probably ruined in the laundry. This was years before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy came out. When Ed left, he gave me a true compliment: “Joe, you’re the only person I didn’t pick a fight with in order to move out. I love you.” “Same here, Ed.” We parted on good terms, and it was only a couple years later that I realized what a deal he’d made on the furniture. By then, he had entered the seminary (Ed had flare). He later left the seminary and became a good teacher in Jersey City. (He had put my ratty furniture in storage in a wet cellar when he moved in. It could not be redeemed). I remember that I looked forward to hearing music again in the early 90s because it was just like music in the late 60′s and early 70s only slower and muddier and full of the surly nihilism that later became real and cheerful sociopathy in the 2000′s. I liked it. I also liked the Salsa music I started listening to: Ruben Blades especially. There was a salsa club just up the block from me and sometimes I’d go there with Cuban church members and get my groove on (which was not much of a groove considering I was a grunge white boy usually in flannels). My stone washed jeans and dress shirts made me sort of acceptable, and so I remember the 90s as a time of bridging many worlds and of steady work. I worked the night shift at National tool. We had a temporary bubble of prosperity in the 90s so the foremen stayed off my ass and I made my rate, made bonus, got overtime, and threw parties for my poetry friends. I also started taking people in–temporarily–when they needed it. I took in a guy named Jim who was slightly OCD, spoke six languages, and who, I found out later, liked pain. A woman I sometimes saw, sort of, had laid eyes on Jim, spoke French with him, and fell immediately in love. He left that day, taking his garbage bag full of clothes to move in with her, and then a month later, she called me up one night and said, “Why didn’t you tell me Jim was a masochist?” I said, “I didn’t know.” She said, “I don’t mind” but I really would like to do more than beat him up.” It turned out his ex roommate who lived down the block, this older man, had been his abusive lover and had broken Jim’s ribs a few times. This man later turned up dead, and Jim disappeared from the scene. I don’t know if he murdered the guy. So that was one person I took in. I took in homeless folks for a night, especially if they could cook, and I took in friends who were temporarily on the skids. I took in my sister and niece, and then they split to Florida. That’s when it occurred to me I was terribly lonely. My best friend, Joe Salerno died in 1995. That ended the 90s for me, the way Kurt Cobain’s suicide ended the 90s for others. The New Brunswick people became part of the exodus to Manhattan, and then Brooklyn (when Alphabet City became too expensive). The Democratic party, my own Democratic party sold me down the sewer with NAFTA. I remember the 90s as the decade in which the lifestyle blue state Democrats screwed over working class guys like me as badly as the Reagan folks did in the 80s. These new dems were people who saw themselves as “creative” and artistic and outside the box. They were entrepreneurs. They honestly thought they were all going to be Steve Fuckin Jobs–Zen masters of geek and slave masters of outsourced labor. They were the true grandchildren of the beats and saw pudgy white factory workers as so “post.” They completely ignored the fact that, by then, most of the factory workers were the very black and brown and yellow folks they pretended to champion. This was the decade of “post.” Everything was post. The music went bad again, and Madonna became a children’s book author. It never occurred to the white bobos, for all their reading of Chomsky and Zinn, and their “poor” bohemian lifestyles, and their tuva singer concert tickets that they had totally killed what little chance was left for unions, for worker’s rights, or for the real poor–not the “I’m a grad student and can always move back with my parents on Long Island” poor. Well, now, about 20 years down the line, those parents are old and there is no place to move back to, and being white is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember the 90s as being the decade where white liberals had one last fling. It is easy to live on salad with two room mates when you’re 25. It gets tired at 35. And tragic at 45. So it goes. Many married and are now eating salads on Long Island, or in some southern city like Nashville, so I don’t feel that sorry for them. I call these people knowers. They know everything. They don’t know half of what the old grandmothers knew in the North End: scrub your side walk. Love your family. Have nice times. Take care of the sick. Even with the coolest bicycles on earth and a basket full of veggies, you are going to die.

In many of the pieces I’ve turned in for a Creative Writing class, they’ve been returned with red ink underlining the first line, usually with comments like “This needs to have more impact” or “How does this draw in the reader?” Plus, there’s always one class period dedicated entirely to the crafting of the first line. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m wondering if these first sentences are really the best ways to open this article.

The first lines of our poems can promise us interested audience or convince them our work is worth skipping over. From what I’ve learned from my studies so far, a good opening grabs a reader’s attention. I’ve also seen from my own reading that trying too hard to get their notice can make the lines feel forced and serve as a worse opening than something more generic.

This emphasis in my classes and the complexity of first lines I’ve experienced in my own writing led me to wonder what truly makes a great first line and what people’s favorite first lines are. I took to THEthe’s tumblr and twitter page to ask our followers.

Some of our responses were from our reader’s own poems:

thethefirstlinesoriginalpoetry

Others responded with some published and famous works:

thethefirstlinesfamouspoetry

While I had read some of these poems before this gave me the opportunity to look up many of these poems. What I noticed was that many of these first lines left a strong visual image along with an emotional connection, most notably love or sadness. An image by itself in an opening can be memorable, as in one of our followers’ original poem, which compares cervical mucus to egg whites. This also gives a bit a mystery to beginning of the piece because although the bodily fluid obviously will relate somehow, the reader must read more to find out what’s going on in in the piece. It can sometimes be difficult to pull out extraordinary descriptions but simpler image may be more readily available. In this case, it may be more effective to juxtapose the image with a strong emotion that isn’t usually associated with that image. For example, one follower mentioned the opening to Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris.” While the image of a door is not all that exciting, and certainly not very memorable, when combined with the feeling of suffering the lines become a powerful combination that pulls the reader in. Sorrow isn’t typically a feeling one would think of alongside something as typical as a door, and by putting them together the poet creates interest.

Still there are other amazing poetic openings not mentioned by our followers, but still are worth examining. For instance, Homer’s epic, The Odyssey, begins with “Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.” While this line doesn’t meet either of the characteristics previously mentioned, it does give the reader (or in the case was for Homer’s audience: the listener) an immediate sense of what the following story is about. We learn that our main character is smart, strong, and a veteran of the famous battle of Troy. We also know that this story will be about his journey after the battle, and that it will be a long journey. Also, Milton’s Paradise Lost opens by telling the readers what they are about to experience. The first book opens with “Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/ Brought Death into the World, and all our woe.” It is becomes obvious to the reader within these first few lines that the tale will be about Adam and Eve and their infamous story of the origin of sin. Neither of these poems open with bold imagery or obvious emotional connections, but they are still regarded as iconic and beautiful first lines. There is something in the simplicity of these lines, along with those of other epic poems, which are inviting to a reader. These lines seduce the reader with the promise of an adventure or tale, which the reader then gets to experience vicariously through the poet and the characters in the poem. There is also this hint of a narrative in the lyrical first lines. It may not be as direct as epic poems, but it is there in an unusual image, or evocative phrase. Look again at the Louise Gluck’s line. Both the suffering and the door promise a story of some sort, one of an upsetting past and the other of a hopeful future.  However, there is a lack of immediacy in epic poems that is present in lyrical poetry.

This easily explained by the difference in lengths between these exceptionally longer epic poems and the shorter lyrical pieces. Epic poetry has many chapters, in some cases books, in which to ease the reader into a scene and topic of a story. Meanwhile, lyrical poems have less space available and must get to the essential parts of the scene immediately. Shorter works from the same time periods as Homer and Milton have similar first lines to modern lyrical poetry.

There is also a sense of intimacy in the openings of lyrical poetry that is lacking in the epic poems. Homer’s work addresses the muses in the first line, seemingly talking to a third party. The epic poem begins with holding the reader at a distance, although it invites them to read the story. Lyrical poetry is more personal and usually addresses a “you” or “we”, even in the first lines of the poems. These lines give the allusion that the poet is speaking directly to the reader.  Whoever the poem is about served as a sort of “muse” to the poet and that’s who they are truly addressing, but the language gives the sense that it can be about anyone, including the reader.

Thanks to all of our followers who responded!

 

Ariana Nadia Nash is a poet of the body, like Neruda, like Whitman, but her poems do not move with Neruda’s desire-driven caprice, nor do they swell with Whitman’s electric and expansive equation of body and soul. Rather, they proceed with the structured precision of a surgeon (the title of her prize-winning collection is revealing in this regard: Instructions for Preparing Your Skin).

The first poem below, “To Hold the Body in My Hand,” begins with: “I peel back my skin and scoop.” From there it carefully probes down the page in measured lines that one can’t help but read softly and slowly–an effect of the low enjambment and elaborative syntax (Scoop what? “The origins out of my self.” Like what? “Like embryonic papaya seeds.” From where? “From the center of the fruit”).

The relationship with the body in this poem is recursive and seemingly paradoxical: one can both be and have a body, and for a body to fulfill its purpose, it must be exposed, it must rot. I am reminded of a stanza from Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewel,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

Nash’s poem “Unnamed” takes the idea of holding the body to a more literal level: holding a child, which is both a piece of and a continuation of one’s own body. Again the paradox: the releasing of this body (bluntly, infanticide) is not something that can be released. Again, the recursive turn. In these poems, Nash invites us to feed upon our own bodies, to savor our rotting, and in so doing, to glimpse our own “progenitive seed.”

To Hold the Body in My Hand

I peel back my skin and scoop
the origins out of myself
like embryonic papaya seeds
from the center of the fruit.
No different than
the condensation of sky
into rain, the moss-crept
stone house, the compost—

bodies everywhere exposed
to their own being.

The same rainbow-grey
of fish-scales, the shriveled
density of cloves—I am inside
out and desiccating, everywhere
expanding with scent.

This the carious flesh, I say,
this the progenitive seed.

Unnamed

I should have used
a burlap sack and weighed it down
with rocks but her skin was so soft
and the cloth harsh
and bristly Wrinkled mouths whispered
while I was swelling
that I should burn her (if she was
a her) as a sacrifice
but I didn’t
want her in flecks of ash
and wisps Now I almost wish I had
left her swaddled by the road But
no one else would take her and
as I stirred soup and let it steam
I would have heard her cry as she slowly
starved to death
and that would have reminded me
if she died
this way I saved her
from nothing She would call
my blood to my skin across the distance
bruising me rotten What I’ve done
instead though was too cruel to me
It comes to me this night again—
holding her under clear water
holding her until
her limbs shuddered and fell limp
and I smiled so the last
sight she ever saw
was her mother’s face sweetly
waving through the water

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Ariana Nadia Nash is the winner of the 2011 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry for her collection Instructions for Preparing Your Skin (Anhinga Press, 2012). She is also the author of the chapbook Our Blood Is Singing (Damask Press, 2011). She is a recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and a MacDowell Colony residency. Her work has been published in Rock & Sling, Poet Lore, Cimarron Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Southeast Review, among other journals.