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Poetry and Poetics

Elizabeth Bishop

When I first read Bishop as a young poet, I was dazzled by her perfect syntax and rhythmic modulation, the nearly flawless detail of images. Rereading her as, I would like to think, a mature poet, I am struck by the power of her social conscience. Pity is the underlying feeling she conveys, compassion and a deep feeling for the injustice of privilege. Few of her poems overtly express outrage, but it is very much at the surface with a poem like Pink Dog. It is so clearly about how society at large treats its poor and homeless, wanting them to just dress up and play a part so we don’t have to feel uncomfortable by their presence. But in light of it, I reflected on other, earlier, Bishop poems and realize they do the same thing, such as House Guest. Here is a figure who is forced to live a life not of her own choosing. In that context, the poem concludes,

Can it be that we nourish
one of the Fates in our bosoms?
Clotho, sewing our lives
with a bony little foot
on a borrowed sewing machine,
and our fates will be like hers
and our hems crooked forever?

It recalls Kennedy’s assertion that “freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” It aligns with what happens in the poem “In the Waiting Room.” The speaker, about to turn seven, realizes her singular self, “you are an Elizabeth,” and this is coeval with realizing she belongs to humanity, “you are one of them.” But this gives rise to countless questions of identity—what does it mean? So the speaker asks,

What similarities—
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts—
held us all together
or made us all just one?

The poem returns, in the end, to its historical (and social) context: World War I.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

Again the poem is located in social issues, constructs. Where do our allegiances lie and why, the poem seems to ask. Or, more importantly, why decide to kill for country or cause when to be you or anyone, well, “nothing stranger/had ever happened, that nothing/stranger could ever happen.” All those running about killing and obsessing over borders and politics and power and land are like Bishop’s sandpiper, lost in the details of a world that is

minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!

Her poetry seems to say, take pity on us, on yourself. We are alone, even in the most crowded city. And for those with privilege, even more so, take pity. As the speaker in Manuelzinho says at the end, speaking to his land worker, whom he had looked down on,

You helpless, foolish man,
I love you all I can,
I think. Or do I?
I take off my hat, unpainted
and figurative, to you.
Again I promise to try.

Her poetry or its speakers do not even presume to know themselves fully. They have the humility of realizing that absolute self-knowledge is limited and to presume it is to fall into the same evil as those who presume to any kind of absolute knowledge. Every flawed one of us must humbly struggle to be a better person in whatever station we find ourselves.

sea change Jorie graham

 

This is the final part of Joan’s essay.

     When viewing the poems of Jorie Graham in the Sea Change collection, it’s a little harder to pinpoint place. Graham’s poems have narrators that inhabit more of an internalized physiological place. This is a much different approach than Tretheway’s internalization of place. Graham does not rely on characters influenced, defined or trapped by place. There are few external settings in Graham’s poems. There is also not the hierarchal feeling we get from Hull’s poems or the definite characterization in the sense of place we see with Di Piero.

     Graham, instead, has a feeling of total embodiment in her poems as if it is both a foundation and a place of diffusion and dispersal. The narrators inhabit the world around them as they inhabit their own psyche. In the title poem of the collection “Sea Change” Graham begins her poem from this viewpoint that everything from wind, to news, to how the body feels is all interconnected:

“One day: stronger wind than anyone expected. Stronger than

ever before in the recording

of such. Un-

natural says the news. Also the body says it. Which part of the body—I look

down, can

feel it, yes, don’t know

where. Also submerging us,

making of the fields, the trees, a cast of characters in an

unnegotiable

drama, ordained, iron-gloom of low light, everything at once undoing

itself. Also sustained, as in a hatred of

a thought, or a vanity that comes upon one out of

nowhere & makes

one feel the mischief in faithfulness to an

idea.” (3)

     There are several key phrases that strike the reader aside from the flow from the distance of wind, the detachment of the news and the ultimate feeling within the body of this impending change or doom: Submerging us, unnegotiable drama, sustained, as in a hatred of a thought, mischief in the faithfulness to an idea. The reader feels as though this “wind” this “feeling within the body” and this “everything at once undoing itself” reaches the physical, psychological, and emotional. But in relation to place, the body is the foundation of meditation. Sensations and feeling become immediate responses and are used here to exact a sense of truth. As if from the grounding of the body comes the wisdom for experiencing sensations that speaks to the body of instantaneous truth. Even though the emotional and physical body appears to be on the same level in this hierarchy, the body and the emotions that speak to truth are all illusive. Place in fact, has no more bearing than a feeling within the body. Everything is interconnected with the same importance.

     Graham speaks of the body in the same terms used to describe an eco-system. By doing this, she reminds the reader how powerfully we are connected to nature. She also reminds us how tenuous this connection can be if not nurtured and how, in destruction, the body will feel “everything at once undoing / itself.”

“Like the right to

privacy—how strange a feeling, here, the right

consider your affliction says the

wind do not plead ignorance, & farther and farther

away leaks the

past, much farther than it used to go, beating against the shutters I

have now fastened again, the huge mis-

understanding round me now so

still in

the center of this room, listening—oh,

these are not split decisions, everything

is in agreement, we set out willingly, & also knew to

play by rules, & if I say to you now

let’s go

somewhere the thought won’t outlast

the minute, here it is now, carrying its North

Atlantic windfall, hissing Consider

the body of the ocean rises every instant into

me & its

ancient e-

vaporation, & how it delivers itself

to me, how the world is our law, this indrifting of us

into us,” (4)

     Graham has given us this place, a room with shutters fastened, and as with the other elements of this poem, the reader is not sure if this is an actual room or a metaphorical room; or for that matter, a metaphorical wind, feeling, impression or dilemma. This intermingling of senses allows the reader to experience this poem in a way that reaches them on an emotional level. Every reader can understand this idea of uncertainty and movement of change: how reverberation and regret in the form of past decisions can feel like a wind that encompasses everything. Graham takes this one step further though, reminding us that “the body of the ocean rises every instant” and that “the world is our law” which takes the reader outside of the narrator and into a state of mind where we must consider the larger, more intricate things around us. Our thoughts are carried out in concussive reverberations, which extend beyond the seemingly simple constraints of rooms and shutters and singular feelings.

In “Root End” Graham has the narrator moving through a well known house:

“The desire to imagine

the future.

Walking in the dark through a house you know by

Heart. Calm. Knowing no one will be

out there.

Amazing

how you move among

the underworld’s

furniture—

the walls glide by, the desks, here a mirror sends back an almost unseeable

blink—“ (48)

     The movement of the narrator through this familiar house in which things “glide by” nearly unnoticed by the narrator suggests that this is only a placeholder and that, once again, it is the internalization of the familiar, the knowing “how you can move among / the underworld’s / furniture,” that is the more important sense of security for this narrator. The things in this place are only meaningful because the narrator takes comfort in the “knowing that no one will be / out there.” There is a sanctuary that the reader senses here, a feeling of complete control.

“Here a

knotting of yet greater dark suggests

a door—a hallow feeling is a stair—the difference between

up and down a differential—so slight—of

temperature

and shift of provenance of

void—the side of your face

reads it—as if one could almost overhear laughter “down” there, birdcall “up” there—

although this is only an

analogy for different

silences—oh—

the mind knows our place so

deeply well—you could run through it—without fear—even in this total dark—“ (48)

     This idea of the skin, the brain and the body understanding where you are is so interesting. This place exists as an extension of the mind so intrinsically that the brain and body can sense what is there, what is not there, and what will be there in one thought. This is not a place that: controls, traps, or defines the character or narrator. This is a place defined and controlled by the narrator in a very definite way.

“look hard for where they rise and act, look hard to see

what action was—fine strength—it turns one inside out—

what is this growing inside of me, using me—such that the

wind can no longer blow through me—such that the dream in me grows cellular, then

muscular, my eyes red, my birth a thing I convey

beautifully

down this spiral staircase

made of words, made of

nothing but words—“ (50)

     Graham takes the ending of this poem down to the minuscule structures of cellular and muscular growth of this “fine strength–it turns one inside out.” And then returning to the wind, but this time, “the wind can no longer blow through me” until finally we come to the last line of the poem “made of words, made of / nothing but words.” Graham has taken us through the house, the wind, the body, the mind, until finally we are left with “nothing but words.” This metaphysical interaction of the things around her: the wind, the body, the reverberating aftermath of decisions, and then finally only the words, brings this idea of not only internalized place, but a place controlled that ultimately becomes a lesser influence when pitted against the body, the brain and the physical interaction between these things and the vast world beyond it.

     Place is an intricate tool used by all of the poets discussed here. Whether used to refine, delineate by extension, or by enhancing intimate characteristics, place plays an important role in the development of the narrator and other characters within the poem. Place can help chisel out intricacies and emotional relationships the narrator has to other characters. It can also help to broaden their viewpoint and bring them to reconciliation with the world around them. Place can pit the character against his or her past, themselves, entrap him or her within circumstance, or give the poet a springboard to jettison a character up and out of their surroundings and into a transcendent state of mind. Place not only helps guide the reader through the movement of the poem it also weaves in additional threads so the reader can see characters and images through the intimate lens of each poet. When used creatively, place can open up infinite possibilities to aid in the expansion and development of characters in poetry with this sense of concussive reverberations that expand, extend and continue to define how the narrators and characters move within their worlds.

linda hull collected poems

linda hull collected poemsThe Selected Levis

 

This is part two of Joan’s essay. Part three  will be posted on Thursday, October 23rd.

     When we look at the poetry of Lynda Hull, her poems seem to combine the backdrop of Di Piero and the internalization of Tretheway in her Collected Poems. And while the early poems are heavily textured, it’s easy to see, not only a change of perspective, but also a depth that developed in the poems written just before her death.

     In the introduction to Collected Poems, Komunyakaa stated: “Hull’s poetry creates tension through what the reader believes he or she knows; it juxtaposes moments that allude to public history alongside private knowledge. Thus, each poem challenges and coaxes the reader into an act of participation … Measured experience informs these poems.”

     This “challenge” and “measured experience” is what I believe culls the sense of place from within Hull’s poetry and allows the reader to dive in with all five senses. Hull is not only describing a place, but her experiences in that place. Hull is equally meticulous in describing the sounds of the trains and the longing they produce in her characters as she is the bead of sweat that trickles down the back. Hull tells the reader not only what is happening, but also where it is happening and why that is important to her, the characters and the reader as well. As Hull builds these physical layers around her characters, the reader is pulled into the same sense of claustrophobia and can almost hear the sound of the trains passing or the wind through clothes hanging on a clothesline.

     The poems in The Only World, published posthumously, elevate the ordinary, everyday things surrounding her characters and push them onto a more personal level. In “Chiffon” Hull’s use of phrasing and word choice creates a tactile sense of heat:

“Fever, down-right dirty sweat

of a heat-wave in May turning everyone

pure body. Back of knee, cleavage, each hidden

crease, nape of neck turning steam.” (151)

     Hull has rooted her poetry in experience and relates these experiences through an intense emotional response like a sense-memory she has already shared with her readers. These descriptions begin to feel like a sort of communally informed memory, which allows the reader to remember the feel of a trickle of sweat creep from the neck down their back. Hull then places unexpected images next to one another that enhance and expand the sense of place in a way that opens up the poem like a multi-layered image.

“a shock

of lavender clouds among shattered brick

like cumulous that sail the tops of high-rises” (151)

     This idea of a surprising “shock” of flowers among shattered and crumbling brick gives the reader the sense of a dilapidated part of the city, where these flowers persist to grow and rise colorful against the backdrop of the city. Hull’s deliberate use of interspersed short lines grabs the reader’s attention and tells them “pay attention, this is important.” The contrast of shattered brick and bright iris gives the reader a contradictory but solid sense of place. This contradiction in juxtaposed opening images alerts the reader to the fact that there are many layers and facets that make up this place and Hull intends to attempt to give as many to the reader as possible. Hull takes this even further when she transitions from sweat, brick and a shock of wildflowers to this somewhat hopeful flashback interaction with a group of young girls, labeling her “the cousin on the bright side” in this still innocent game of dress up:

“This morning’s iris frill

damp as fabulous gowns after dancing,

those rummage sale evening gowns church ladies

gave us another hot spring I, 1967.” (151)

“the endless rooftop season

and sizzle, the torched divided cities…

Camphorous, awash a rusty satin rosettes,

In organdy, chiffon, we’d practice

Girl group radio-hits…

JoAnn vamping

Diana, me and Valerie doing Flo and Mary’s

Background moans…”(152)

     These images set against the backdrop of “torched divided cities” and the significance of 1967, just before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, shows these young girls, so far from the changes to come, as they mimic the girl-groups in gowns. But, Hull interrupts this setting of innocence on this rooftop with not only the suggestive omens in the actual streets, but the realities in the upcoming lives of the girls as well:

“a landscape flagged with laundry, tangled

aerials and billboards, the blackened

railway bridges and factories ruinous

in their fumes.” (152)

“JoAnn who’d leave school, 14, pregnant.” (151)

and then later:

She was gang-raped later that year. The rest,

As they say, is history. History.” (152-153)

     But Hull doesn’t leave us in this setting of the clash between innocent role-playing and the reality of this place with these young girls. She ends the poem recalling the “cousin on the bright side” image and traces this reflection back to the iris, which seems to be a hopeful image:

“Bend

to these iris, their piercing ambrosial

essence, the heart surprised, dark bitter.” (153)

     Hull has transported the reader from the present to this conflicted past and then returns us back to this image of the iris all the while suspending these characters, and her readers, within a scene of shattered buildings, rooftops and the contradiction of the bright flowers as metaphor for the young girls.

     In “River Bridge” Hull uses this sense of place in a much different way. We are given a series of venues that seem more like the vistas a nature writer would describe, but these are city scenes, that are all at once mysterious and alluring, but always vividly tactile. The reader becomes as encased as the characters within the motif of clotheslines, trains, trolleys, streets and bridges that seem at once to tower over and ultimately trap everything within:

“The train

slashes its path through the neighborhood, whirr

and pulse. The heart and fuse of distance filling

the room, hurtling through countless frames,

the scene—now that curtainless room of young men

preening shirtless before their mirrors, now

the ward of iron hospital beds. I’ve seen them.

By the screen, the white cat swivels her ears

to follow the train until it’s lost in glass.” (168)

     Hull gives the reader increasing levels of place. There is what they inhabit but also all the things that are beyond their reach; the places they cannot touch; the things they will never see. The dual voice in this poem interjecting with “No not that one,” “I’ve seen them,” “Why That One?” in the beginning of the poem gives the reader a sense of an inner collective voice which becomes a deeper more questioning voice later in the poem: “so this is what its like to die” “now, now this sweet wrenched only” until this voice gives the reader a kind of soliloquy in part V:

I am the stranger coiled on the landing, singing

this is the bridge of the flying hands,

the mansion of the body. I am the one

who scratched at your door, the one who begged

rough coinage. This is the blessing

&this is a hymnal of wings. Hear the heart’s

greedy alluvial choir, a cascading train

whirring the tracks; called back,

called back from the river.” (173)

     This is the human reaction to this cacophony of images that have trapped them in … this is what has become of these voices in these places. The ending of the poem brings all of the elements in the sections together and the final line leaves the reader with the resonating “Someone feed them. Someone said get out of town” reflecting back to the “get-out-of-town-fast-story” from section II.

“The cat leaps again, a train, striking this time

a smooth oiled chord, as if there might be a

singing on the other side of the tracks.

Some Jordan. That otherness, those secret times

the bridges beneath the surface of life.

Pull on the rough coat and salt-wet shoes.

Let the liquor burn your throat. Did I do that?

Could that have been me? Those figures crossing

The bridge, setting out, always setting out.

Voices I must keep listening for in these sharpening

Leaves, among stacks and flames,

The smoking pillars. Someone feed them.

Someone get them out of town.” (174).

     With these closing lines we have the convergence of all: the bridge, the trains, tracks, and people trapped within wishing for what is beyond this place, searching for a “Jordan” and finally the unresolved and resonating “Someone feed them. / Someone get them out of town.

     While Hull paints vast overshadowing places in which her characters are imbedded, Larry Levis gently places his characters in the places they work, live and dream. Place in Levis’ poems doesn’t so much overshadow or become another character vying for attention as complement them as if they are grounded in their surroundings; as if the place they reside is a natural setting like a tree in a forest or beach near an ocean.

     In the Afterward, David St. John said: “Often, Levis’ championing of those at the margin of society—migrant workers, the disposed, a variety of spiritual transients—is set against a landscape of encroaching morality.” (228). How better to set these, then in a place that defines as much who they are as what they do? Which is exactly what Levis does.

In “Winter Stars” Levis opens with:

“My father once broke a man’s hand

Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,

Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father

With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

Two fingers, so it could slash

Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,

And, for a moment, the light held still

On those vines. When it was over,

My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,

Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.

He never mentioned it.

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,

Then listen to Vivaldi.” (87)

      In this opening stanza, Levis has deftly interwoven place around his characters. It appears seamless. By telling his reader that this happens “over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor” and by naming the man (Rubén Vásquez) Levis shows that this is a migrant worker and that his father is the boss, or owner of the farm. Levis also tells his reader that this is a commonplace occurrence and not something out of the ordinary: “When it was over / My father simply went in & ate lunch.” Levis then goes one step further in setting up the levels at play here by telling the reader his father is listening to Vivaldi. And while all of the characters are in the same place, the distinction in the hierarchy is clear; the father is the boss, the man with the knife is the employee. The narrator, the owner’s son, is outside of this altercation, and in seeing this interaction from a distance, sets up the voice for the rest of the poem. While he is in this place, he isn’t a part of it, physically or mentally, but only as an observer.

“sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,

And stare through the wet branches of an oak

In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars

Again. A thin haze of them, shining and persisting.” (85)

     This sense that the narrator has of being lifted up, out of this yard and into the stars further defines his sense of detachment from this place in his sense of longing to be elsewhere. The setting up of this distance in the beginning lays the groundwork for the way he views the depths of his father’s illness. But even in the analogy he uses to describe his father’s illness, he still stands outside what is happening:

“If you can think of the mind as a place continually

Visited, a whole city placed behind

The eyes & shining, I can imagine now, its end—

As when the lights go off, one by one,

In a hotel at night, until at last

All of the travelers will be asleep,” or until

Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind

Of sleep;” (88)

     Once again, Levis contrasts the father as being indoors, even his illness takes on the characteristics of a large hotel, with strangers dimming lights as they drift to sleep. But when the focus returns to the narrator, he is still outside:

“I stand out on the street, & do not go in.

That was our agreement, at my birth.” (88)

     This metaphor for the relationship with his father is not only an emotionally distancing one, but also physically displacing. As Levis ends the poem, we are once again with the narrator gazing at the stars:

“”The pale haze of stars goes on & on,

Like laughter that has found a finale, silent shape

On a black sky. It means everything

It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.

Cold enough to reconcile

Even a father, even a son.” (88)

     We are brought from the expanse of stars to this “final, silent shape / on a black sky.” The father now resides in this otherwise star filled sky as a dark shape that has replaced “everything / it cannot say.” And although this may seem at first to perpetuate the distance, even in death, between the father and the son, the very act of placing the father as a permanent fixture in this star filled sky, that has been the son’s refuge, places the father in a position of meditative significance. As if in the very act of carving out this space for the father, Levis seems to reach a kind of transcendent understanding. The symbolic continuation of the established relationship in this way shows an acceptance and understanding in which the father becomes a permanent and unchangeable presence. Could this acceptance, finally, be a symbol of that longed for reconciliation?

     In “1967” Levis combines farm work with the clash of the narrator’s need to expand psychologically from the place the narrator lives:

“Some called it the Summer of Love; & although the clustered,

Motionless leaves that overhung the streets looked the same

As ever, the same they did every summer, in 1967,

Anybody with three dollars could have a vision” (180)

     Levis is taking the reader completely out of physical place in this poem and venturing into the idea of altering reality without changing the place. But doing this, he alters the set physical properties and can take the narrator so far outside of the physical by adding the dimension of the mind in a definitive way:

“Some people spent their lives then, having visions.

But in my case, the morning after I dropped mescaline

I had to spray Johnson grass in a vineyard of Thompson Seedless

My father owned—& so, still feeling the holiness of all things

Living, holding the spray gun in one hand & driving with the other…

With a mixture of malathion & diesel fuel,

And said to each tall weed, as I coated it with a lethal mist,

Dominus vobiscum, &, sometimes, mea culpa, until

It seemed boring to apologize to weeds and insincere as well,” (180)

     This somewhat comical stanza begins to point to the “generation gap” in the late ‘60s. This shift shows how he, the new generation, views even the weeds in a new way. The idea that he needed to apologize to the plants he is spraying is in direct contrast to the way his father or the migrant workers would approach this task. And while this does not specifically create a change in the place itself, it does create a difference in how the narrator views this place. Whereas in previous poems Levis has this narrator as separate from this farm, from these chores, here, through the psychological change, he is more in tune with it than previously seen.

“The bird’s flight in my body when I thought about it, the wing ache,

Lifting heaven, locating itself somewhere just above my slumped

Shoulders, & part of me taking wing. I’d feel it at odd moments

After that on those days I spent shoveling vines, driving trucks

And tractors, helping swamp fruit out of one orchard

Or another, but as summer went on I felt it less & less.”(180-181)

     This internalization of the things around him becomes a separate consciousness and even though he absorbs these things, it is not the work, or a connection to the people, but the internalization of the place itself with which the narrator becomes singular. This is short lived “as summer went on, I felt it less & less.” And, once more we are pulled back into this distance that has plagued the narrator:

“As the summer went on, some were drafted, some enlisted

In a generation that would not stop falling, a generation

Of leaves sticking to body bags, & when they turned them

Over, they floated back to us on television, even then,

In the Summer of Love, in 1967,

When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception,

And the best thing one could do was get arrested.” (181)

     As Levis closes the poem, the narrator is looking even further than the farm around him. He is viewing the world as though he were in the center of a whirlpool from which he is once again distanced. The momentary oneness he felt to the things around him has slipped away with the drug leaving his system and the reality of the world has seeped back into his conscious state. This recalls the ending of “Winter Stars” which finds the narrator outwardly in the same physical place but now with a more meditative understanding of the things around him.

skirts and slack di piero

skirts and slack di piero

tretheway domestic work-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This essay will be posted in three sections. Part 2 will post on Thursday, October 16th and part 3 on Thursday October 23.

     Place plays a substantial role in establishing environment. Place can be used as a metaphor to define abstractions, as a backdrop that can help set tone or even as a character which can enhance movement and increase tension. Utilizing a sense of place can be an important factor in building depth in a poem and can be a significant tool for the development of characters.

     In the collection Skirts and Slacks, W.S. Di Piero uses place as a character as opposed to a backdrop to hang his characters upon. The characters do not merely exist where they live, place is used to give the reader additional bits of information that play out like vignettes around them. And although at times Di Piero’s characters seem to exist in spite of where they live, many times there is a subtle redefining of the habits of these characters through place.

     For instance, in the opening poem “Cheap Gold Flats” the title alone gives the reader some sense of style for this neighborhood. And even though the poem begins in a neighborhood bar, the image of those “cheap gold flats” seems to hang in the air waiting for recognition. This is a two-part poem, “Part 1.” Philly Babylon” opens with the bartender and whether or not the reader has ever been in one of these neighborhood bars doesn’t matter, Di Piero very effectively sets tone and place by appealing to the senses:

“The bartender tossing cans, carton to cooler,
hand to hand, with silky, mortal ease,
while the 4 p.m. beer and shot standees
study the voiceless TV above our heads.
The worst and longest storm on record.
Iceworks canal the pavements, power lines down,
Cars pillowed helpless in the snow.
Bus fumes vulcanize the twilight’s
911 sirens” (3)

     The reader can almost hear the clink of aluminum as the bartender tosses the cans, see them gliding as if he or she has watched the bartender perform this trick many times. The standees at the bar watch the voiceless TV as if this is a sacred place, which sets up the bar as if it were a sanctuary. We learn there is a storm. The wording here is particular “longest storm on record” not the worst, or the most snowfall, not even the greatest amount of damage, just simply the “longest.” Power lines are down, cars are “pillowed” which brings the drifts of snowed-in cars into a soft focus of airy snowdrifts with powdery white snow piled upon cars, angelic if form. The terms used to describe the storm and the setting does a lot to increase the feeling of seclusion in this opening section even though there is a group here there is little interaction among the characters.

“enter HAZEL, touching my elbow at the bar.

My Staticky Daily News breaks into the draft.

‘What’s my horoscope say today, honey?’

Dear Hazel, dear Pisces, don’t be hurt

Leave me alone a while, my mother’s dying,

I’ve been beside her bed for several days” (3)

     This intimate moment in which Hazel speaks to him and touches his elbow creates an interesting transition by breaking the silence with speech and continues with an unexpected insertion of the horoscope. This is such a great sarcastic break not only of the silence in the bar but lets the reader into the state of mind of the narrator. The reader finds out that his mother is dying without leaning on sentimentality. This line also reveals something more about the narrator himself. Di Piero pulls from the anger and hopelessness someone would feel about the eminent death of a mother: the seeking of isolation, the anger, the want to crawl into some sort of escape. The storm, the icy pavement and power outages now become a metaphor for not only the death of his mother, but the narrators state of mind as well. The chill he is feeling and the silence of the people standing in the bar watching the voiceless TV seem more significant now that we know he is in the midst of this crisis. This setting of the bar becomes a silent refuge for him until the solitude is broken by this sympathetic “touching” of his elbow. He no longer can escape the emotions that he is holding in and they begin to come out on the page.

“and when she looks above her head, she groans

to see whatever it is she sees, so here,

take my paper, go home, forgive me.”

     This passage does a few things. The mother looking up at some voiceless, soundless image harkens back to the men standing at the bar staring at the TV set. The “go home, forgive me” holds a double meaning. On one hand he could be talking to Hazel, on the other he could also be talking to his mother. The progression of place (the bar), the setting, (silent people standing around, frozen from the storm) and the actual emotional event the narrator is experiencing (his mother dying) all interconnect and foreshadow. Place becomes a character as important as the narrator, the other occupants of the bar, Hazel and his dying mother.

     In “Oregon Avenue on a Good Day” Di Piero also uses the senses to set place but in this poem he relies on taste and smell to set up this memory in which place becomes a concrete character.

“Some nights I dream the taste

of pitch and bus fumes and leaf meal

from my old exacting street.

This time home, I’m walking to find

I don’t know what. Something always

offers itself while I’m not watching.”

And then onto:

“enameled aluminum siding, brick,

spangled stonework, fake fieldstone

and clapboard, leftover santa lights,

casements trimmed in yellow fiberglass

our common dream of the all

and the only this, that’s exactly

what I can’t find.”

And finally:

“husband and wife inside, plus kids, suppertime,

pine paneling where scratchy exterior light

rises sweetly above a TV voice.”

     Place is as much a memory as a search for something the narrator cannot find or cannot regain. I find it interesting that in this poem the TV has a voice. The scene of the family having dinner has sound and a connection, unlike ‘Cheap Gold Flats” where the TV is voiceless. I like the idea of “a scratchy exterior light” The use of “scratchy” to describe the light shifts the feeling of this section into a completely different texture. This ‘scratchy” light from the exterior seems to be an intrusion into a memory diluted by time that threatens to “shed light” on this illusive thing he believes he has lost; the thing he longs for that may only exist in memory and not in the true reality.

     The poem “Hermes: Port Authority: His Song.” begins with the use of specific regional speech. The opening line is a type of hustler street-speak. Using a regionalism like this to open a poem is another way to set up place. The reader understands that this is happening in a city bus terminal and the character takes on a distinctiveness based on the idea of setting him in a city environment.

“Hey, mister, find a bus for you?

I burn my tracks, I stink.

I lay down in the dust.

And then:

“A dollar’s good. A quarter, too.

Any bus will do.

Wee got them all. There’s Teaneck,

The Oranges and Hackensack.

Atlantic City too.”

“”I’ll sell you pussy, nookie,

what you will. I’ll soap

your goodies in the men’s room sink.

O play me how you will.

Sleep tight. God speed your bus.

A dollar, quarter, dime will do.”

     This modern day Hermes is a very different messenger of the gods. This is the voice of no place. This is the voice of invisible existence and of things unseen. People ignore these unwanted, grittier people within all cities. This may be why the cities are named instead of described; this creates a namelessness that is created by treating places as well as people in this way. As if this new voice of Hermes is a universal telling of how all things have become: nameless, faceless, and disregarded. This is the voice of the hopeless and lost.

     Di Piero’s use of place as a character in Skirts and Slacks acts as another dimension for the characters and narrators to inhabit. Place not only begins to embody the character’s development but helps the reader to identify with even the most complex characters by giving the reader a solid anchor. But foremost in creating this place are the language choices that Di Piero embodies in these poems. This sense of collision that surrounds his characters is not limited to place alone.

     In “Pocketbooks and Sauerkraut” an essay from City Dog, Di Piero states that: “What my culture did give me was a sense…of language as the embodiment of contingency … but language … was swampy, crazily shadowed, and veined with unintelligible matter.” (43). Di Piero has created place in these poems from this “swampy, crazily shadowed and veined” language, and as a result, place becomes not only a naturally occurring extension of character but a solidly formed presence which acts as a character in itself to enhance and support the actions of the narrator and other characters in his poems.

     Natasha Tretheway’s domestic work, on the other hand, uses place in a very different way. Place in Tretheway’s poems is internalized by her characters. It is a sense that is carried within their movements. By using place as an internalized characteristic, she is able to create a persona that is expressed through the characters sense of their place in the world. In the opening poem of the collection, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process” even the things around these women are part of them:

“Around them, their dailiness:

clotheslines sagged with linens,

a patch of greens and yams,

buckets of peas for shelling.”

“Even now, her hands circling,

the white blur of her apron

still in motion.” (3)

     The women are consumed as a part of the things that make up this place. “Their dailiness”; “the white blur of her apron”; the “buckets of peas for shelling.” All of these things speak to their work. There is little shared that is personal about these women. The chores they perform, the place that they perform it in and how they go about their day is interwoven into who they are. This truly epitomizes the idea of “I am what I do.”

     In “Domestic Work, 1937” The woman in the poem varies her movements and her temperament depending on place. Although she is doing the same work, her demeanor changes according to where she is:

“All week she’s cleaned

someone else’s house,

stared down her own face

in the shine of copper-

bottomed pots, polished

wood, toilets she’d pull

the lid to.”

But when she is at home doing the same work:

“a record spinning

on the console, the whole house

dancing. She raises the shades,

washes the room in light.”

“She beats time on the rugs,

blows dust from the broom

like dandelion spores, each one

a wish for something better.” (13)

     It becomes very clear that place is internalized into her actions. Her demeanor, her lightness is apparent in her own home, so different from her demeanor in the house of her employer. There is a joy apparent in the duties performed at home that are not present when she performs these things in the house of her employer.

In “Three Photographs” Thretheway uses place as a subjective part of her characters.

In “1. Daybook April 1901” she uses the narrative voice of the photographer who begins:

‘What luck to find them here!”

     This line turns them into objects within the photograph. Who they are does not matter. They are used merely as reference points to complete the photograph:

“two negro men, clothes like church,

collecting flowers in a wood.”

‘a blessing though their faces

hold little emotion. And yet,

they make such good subjects.

Always easy to pose.”

Even when she speaks of framing, it is still focused on the men in the photograph:

“how well this arbor frames

my shot—an intimate setting,

the bough nestling us

like brothers, How fortunate still

to have found them here

instead of farther along

by that old cemetery,” (6)

     They are not positioned within the things in the photograph; the things in the photograph are positioned around them. It’s as if as objects they hold more significance for the photographer. Flowers in a field would be incidental in a shot of an elaborate vista point so it seems that the men in this photograph are only necessary in order to capture the true nature of the “bough” or the “old cemetery.”

In “2. Cabbage Vendor” the focus is once again how this narrator does his/her work:

“When I’m in my garden

tearing these cabbages

from earth, hearing them scream

at the break, my fingers

brown as dirt—that’s natural.”

The narrator labels this work as being natural. Later, when the narrator speaks of the photograph it becomes the unnatural thing:

“But he will keep my picture,

unnatural like hoodoo love.

I could work a root of my own,

Turn that thing around

And make him see himself

Like he be seeing me—

Distant and small—forever.” (7)

     The idea that working the ground, pulling the vegetables is more the natural thing than her reflection in a picture is interesting in this passage. It brings again to mind the adage “I am what I do” which carries into the third and final portion of the poem: “3. Wash Women.” The narrator in this poem is looking at the picture. There is a different sense here as if the narrator’s connection stems from something other than familiarity. There is a communal sense of history and an understanding of that history that shifts between the narrator and the subjects in the photograph.

“The eyes of eight women

I don’t know

Stare out from this photograph

Saying remember.”

    The description of the work is supposed. This is a much more somber poem than previous poems in this collection. This poem gives the reader a more intensely disconnected feel. The women simply stare. The narrator supposes the lightness and joy in the chores but the faces of the women seem to tell another story.

“I picture wash day:”

“I hear laughter,

three sisters speaking

of penny drinks, streetcars,

the movie house. A woman

like my grandmother rubs linens

against the washboard ribs,

hymns grow in her throat.” (8)

     The narrator is giving us an imagined idea of these women working. It repeats the image of joyful work that we have seen in other poems in the collection until the poem comes to the final stanza:

“But in this photograph,

women do not smile,

their lips a steady line

connecting each quiet face.’ (9)

     This is the first hint that this is not happy work. This is the first time the sense of these women is different from the outer expression they portray. They are “a steady line connecting each quiet face” which tells the reader that this internalized place is dark, prison-like and inescapable.

     I find it significant that Thretheway uses place in this way. Many of the portraits in this collection are displaced persons. Slaves that do not belong to the homes they inhabit or the jobs they are perform. They seem to carry a sense of belonging only to themselves because of this displacement. They have been forced to fade into the background to survive and so in a sense they have become part of the place they inhabit. This is more of a social commentary than it first appears. In some ways, this idea of belonging to self and contented abiding within seems a very zen-like thing. But when the reality of slavery is considered this becomes a much different perspective. The fact that the people in the pictures are regarded as owned objects is significant. When viewed this way, the expressions on the faces in this picture become a reminder not merely of displacement, but of ownership. Slaves were often listed on manifests along with other “owned” objects: houses, furniture, china, bales of hay, acres of land and heads of cattle. Family members “willed” slaves to other family members at death and often used slaves to settle debts and disputes among landowners, trading them as if they were mere objects. So in effect, the only place for these women to have any power or strength is to revert to something internal that cannot be taken away from them.

     The differences in the way Di Piero and Tretheway use place enhances the characters and the settings in each of their collections. Di Piero’s poems are city poems. They have a beat and a strut, which narrates a type of separation from place so that it becomes something that enhances the poems as a separate character. Tretheway‘s characters don’t belong to the places they inhabit, so they carry these places inside themselves whereas Di Piero’s characters, imprisoned by their own actions, emotions and choices, pull out of the scenery around them like a 3-D image.

LangstonHughes2

This is the final part of Brian’s essay.

The final Hughes poem this essay will address is “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” a long, poetic sequence about Harlem published in 1951, a sequence that relies on the rhythms of jazz, ragtime, swing, and blues to address and protest racial oppression. In Hog Butchers, Bus Boys, and Beggars, John Marsh states that not only did the “low-down” folks give birth to jazz, but they also received something back from it. “It gives them purpose and focus,” he writes. “They have invented it because they need it” (167). What Marsh doesn’t address, however, is the way black music forms link “Montage of a Dream Deferred” together, even as poems and voices cut off and another voice and poem begins. In his essay, “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz; Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred,’” Bartholomew Brinkman writes that while the jazz rhythms may threaten the lyric stability and unity of the poems, the poem’s use of manic bop rhythms the sequence to “move from a critical gesture to an affirmative one, recouping its loss of a private, lyrical subjectivity and instituting in its place a communal one” (93). Furthermore, Brinkman adds that like a jazz performance, there is a forward momentum to the sequence that depends upon the ordering of the poems (93).

While the poems may seem disparate, when read together, they represent the tension in post-war Harlem, the anxiety over the dreams deferred and the racial inequality that still plagued communities. What separates the sequence from Hughes’ other Harlem-based poems is that “Montage” showcases a class-conscious Harlem.

All of this frustration is reflected in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” The sequence opens with the poem “Dream Boogie,” which begins with the traditional ballad stanza, a-b-a-b rhyme scheme, “The boogie-woogie rumble/of a dream deferred” (The Collected Poems 388). The sound of music is accompanied by the sound of feet stomping in poetic rhythm, but there is a violent undertone pulsating in the poem, though something is about to break and explode. The “boogie-woggie” sound rumbles in the first stanza, and one of the two speaker asks, “You think/It’s a happy beat?.” The poem indicates potential militant violence, pointing not only to the questions the italicized voice asks about the nature of the beat, but one of the last lines, “Take it away,” which could refer to the dream addressed in the first stanza. The dream is literally and musically taken away. In addition, the meter breaks down in the poem, and stanzas are frequently cut off by the italicized voice, thus creating a back and forth sequence, a question and answer between the notion of the dream and the dream deferred.

In another poem in the sequence, “Ballad of the Landlord,” Hughes uses the traditional ballad form again, while highlighting the poverty and hardships blacks faced. He then smashes the form after the speaker in the poem is arrested. The sonic techniques Hughes employs, especially the use of repetition, are especially effective in showing just how desperate the conditions were. The poems begins:

Landlord, landlord

My roof has sprung a leak.

Don’t you ‘member I told you about it

Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,

These steps is broken down.

When you come up yourself

It’s a wonder you don’t fall down. (The Collected Poems 402).

For the most part, the opening stanzas adhered to the ballad form, especially in terms of the rhyme scheme and meter. The repetition of the phrase “Landlord, landlord” is an effective sonic technique because it shows how much the tenant tried to get the landlord’s attention. Eventually, however, the tenant has had enough, especially after the landlord asks for more money.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?

Ten bucks you say is due?

Well, that’s Ten Bucks more’n I’ll pay you

Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?

            You gonna cut off my heat?

            You gonna take my furniture and

            Throw it in the street?

            Uh-huh! You talking high and mighty.

            Talk-on till you get through.

            You ain’t gonna be able to say a word

             If I land my fist on you. (The Collected Poems 402).

After the tenant threatens violence, the rest of the poem changes. The ballad form, especially the doggerel rhymes and meter, break down. The tenant’s voice is gone, replaced by the landlord’s, who cries out, “Police! Police!/Come and get this man!/He’s trying to ruin the government/And overturn the land!” (The Collected Poems 402). Like other poems in “Montage,” Hughes depicts the change of voice by using italics and altering the rhythm. The final three lines read like newspaper headlines: “MAN THREATENS LANDLORD/TENANT HELD NO BAIL/JUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN JAIL” (The Collected Poems 403).

           On multiple levels, “Montage” illustrates the inequality that plagued Harlem. The poem is a drastic shift from “Harlem Night Club” and “Harlem Night Song.” Not only does Hughes experiment with form, mixing traditional ballad forms with frantic bebop rhythms, but the content marks a stark contrast to the optimism of his Harlem Renaissance-era poems. “Montage” is a sequence written after the Harlem riots, a period when Cold War politics silenced dissent and nearly disrupted the growing call for civil rights and equality. The poetic sequence stands as a fine critique of American capitalism and racial inequality and draws attention to a country that fought in a world war under the banner of freedom and justice, while ignoring growing tensions at home.

           By using sound, specifically laughter, blues, and jazz, as an essential part of his work and defending black music forms and black art in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes challenges the sonic color-line and ideas from the Enlightenment Period that can be seen in the early 20th Century. For Hughes, these sounds are not mere noise, but an essential part of black culture, an extension of the slave songs, a way to protest racial segregation, and an escape from the “weariness” of a white world. Furthermore, Hughes’s use of sound documents Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s, capturing the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance period and the frustration of the later years.

 

 

Works Cited

Brinkman, Bartholomew. “Movies, Modernity, and All That Jazz: Langston Hughes’s ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred.’” African American Review. Spring/Summer 2010. Vol. 44: 85-96. EBSCOhost. Web. 27 Sept. 2013.

Chaser, Mike. “The Sounds of Black Laughter and the Harlem Renaissance: Claude McKay, Sterling Brown, and Langston Hughes.” American Literature. March 2008. Volume 80, Number 1: 58-81. EBSOhost. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

Cullen, Countee. “Poet on Poet.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Davis, Arthur P. “The Harlem of Langston Hughes’ Poetry.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Goodale, Greg. Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Record Age. Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.

Griffin, Farah Jasmine. Harlem Nocturne. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2013. Print.

Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture, and the Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2013. Print.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Arnold Rampers and and David Roessel, Eds.New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” in Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry. Dana Gioia, David Mason, Meg Schoerke, Eds. New York: McGraw Hill, 2003. Print.

Jemie, Onwuchewa. “Hughes’s Black Esthetic.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Jazz Poetry and Blues.” in Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. James Nagel, Ed. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1986. Print.

Marsh, John. Hog Butchers, Beggars, and Busboys. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Petry, Ann. “Harlem.” Holiday. April 1949. Volume 5, Issue 4: 110, 112-116, 163-166, 168. Print.

Radano, Ronald. “Hot Fantasies: American Modernism and the Idea of Black Rhythm.” in Music and the Racial Imagination. Ronald Radano and Philip V. Bohlman, Eds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” Social Text 102. Spring 2010. Volume 28, Number 1: 59-85. Print.

Stoever-Ackerman, Jennifer. “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative.” Sound Effects. 2011. Volume 1, Number 1: 20-36. Web. 7 November 2013.

LangstonHughes2

 

Hughes’s ideas about jazz and blues were echoed by other black intellectuals only a few years after “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was published. In Duke Ellington’s 1931 essay “The Duke Steps Out,” he says that jazz is more than the American idiom, but rather an essential part of black history, the result of transplantation to American soil and the evolution of the slave song, thus jazz has a history much deeper than mere dance music. “It expresses our personality, and, right down in us, our souls react to its elemental but eternal rhythm,” Ellington states (qtd. in Halliday 147). Like Hughes, Ellington makes a fine defense of jazz as an essential part of black culture, a music form that stems from slave plantation songs, a music that does not lead to laziness, nervousness, or hysteria, but rather a music that was necessary to survive in a white-dominated culture.

Like Ellingston, Hughes did connect jazz to black history, and he saw the music form as an essential part of Harlem, using it to chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to the 1950s. His music-based poems of the 1920s celebrate Harlem’s swinging nightlife, while his post-war music poems address racial segregation and class inequality. In several of Hughes’s early Harlem poems, specifically “Harlem Night Song,” the city comes alive at night when the bands take the stage.

Come,

Let us roam the night together

Singing.

I love you.

Across

The Harlem roof-tops

Moon is shining.

Night sky is blue.

Stars are great drops

Of golden dew.

Down the street

A band is playing.

            I love you.

            Come,

            Let us roam the night together

            Singing. (The Collected Poems 94)

More so than most of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” has a romantic quality, a speaker who implores a lover to roam the night with him or her while the band is playing and the moon is out. Even the night imagery is given a romantic quality. The moon shines, while the sky is blue and the stars are “great drops/of golden dew.” The poem, particularly the music of the band playing, represents a break from the daily grind, from the “weariness of the white world.” The couple is free to roam at night, to enjoy the music, despite whatever hardships they may face in the day. Like a lot of Hughes’s other poems, “Harlem Night Song” also draws on elements of the blues, particularly the use of the refrain, in this instance the phrases “Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing” and “I love you.” Hughes somewhat subverts the blues form, however, because “Harlem Night Song” is not a lament over a broken heart or racial oppression. Instead, it focuses on promise, of a budding love, a love that is made possible against the backdrop of music and a lively night life.

Harlem Night Song” is reflective of a 1920s Harlem, what critic Arthur B. Davis refers to as “Jazzonia,” a “joyous city” a “new world of escape and release” (136). He also notes that the time, while the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, Harlem experienced a cabaret boom. Furthermore, Davis point out that when Hughes came to Harlem at 22 years old as a sailor and beachcomber, it was natural for him to be attracted to Harlem’s nightlife and to view it as “a new world of escape and release, an exciting never-never land” (136). Hughes was one of many immigrants that came to Harlem, and according to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book Harlem Nocturne, about 1.5 million African Americans moved north between 1916-1930 (7), thus places like Harlem experienced an artistic boom, creating an optimism reflected in Hughes’s early poems.

In later poems, particularly “The Trumpet Player,” Hughes blends African ancestry with the continuing struggle for equality, moving away from depictions of Harlem as a place of cabarets and dancehalls. The poem also reflects Ellington’s idea that jazz is an extension of previous black music forms and black history. The first stanza begins:

The Negro

With the trumpet at his lips

Has dark moons of weariness

Beneath his eyes

Where the smoldering memory

Of slave ships

Blazed to the crack of whips

About his thighs. (The Collected Poems 338).

Published in 1947 in the collection Fields of Winter, “The Trumpet Player” does mark somewhat of a change from earlier poems, particularly the use of African imagery. Davis states that “in this new Harlem, even the jazz players are infected with sectional melancholy” (139), meaning that the ideals of freedom and liberty promoted during World War II were not evident in Harlem. He adds:

The Depression of 1929, having struck the ghetto harder than any other section of New York, showed Harlem just how basically ‘marginal’ and precarious its economic foundations were. Embittered by this knowledge, the black community had struck back blindly at things in general in the 1935 riot. The riot brought an end to the New Negro era; the Cotton Club, the most lavish of the uptown cabarets, closed its doors and moved to Broadway; and the black city settled down to the drab existence of WPA and relief living (138).

The African imagery evoked in the poem shows the long history of inequality blacks faced, dating back to slavery and continuing after World War II. The opening stanza contains the image of “smoldering memory/of slave ships/blazed to the crack of whips/about his thighs.” This haunting memory of the past has a physical impact on the trumpet player, evident by the “dark moons of weariness/beneath his eyes.” By the third stanza, the poem shifts from memories of the past to the present music.

The music

From the trumpet at his lips

Is honey

Mixed with liquid fire.

The rhythm

From the trumpet at this lips

Is ecstasy

Distilled from old desire—

Desire

That is longing for the moon

Where the moonlight’s but a spotlight

In his eyes,

Desire

That is longing for the sea

Where the sea’s a bar-glass

Sucker size. (The Collected Poems 338).

            In Harlem Nocturne, Griffin depicts the 1940s as especially important to black artists in Harlem because of the realization of dreams deferred. In July 1941, there was a plan for a major march on Washington for jobs and equality. However, FDR issued an executive order calling for an end to discrimination in defense industries and federal bureaus, thus the march was called off. However, as late as 1940, 90 percent of New York’s defense plants refused to hire black workers, and a number of bars and restaurants did not serve black patrons (7). Furthermore, throughout the 1940s, J. Edgar Hoover called for a crackdown on black newspapers sympathetic to left-wing causes. He even urged FDR’s administration to use wartime sedition powers to indict members of the black press ( 92).

           These issues eventually led to the Harlem Riots, and by August 1, 1943, property damage was estimated to be over $5 million, hundreds were arrested, and six blacks died (Griffin 120). Writing about Harlem for Holiday magazine in 1949, novelist Ann Petry stated, “Rioting mobs broke plate-glass windows, looted stores, causing property damage estimated in the millions. And in the process they seem to have permanently rubbed out that other hackneyed description of Harlem –the dwelling place of dancing, laughing, happy-go-lucky, childlike people” (110). The “hackneyed description” of Harlem Petry refers to is certainly evident in Hughes’s early depictions of Harlem; however, his work evolved to capture the tension Petry refers to and to critique capitalism and inequality.

           In his other poems from the 1940s, Hughes addressed the issue of segregation and inequality directly, using sound to do so. One of his poems, “I, Too,” echoes Walt Whitman’s iconic poem “I Hear America Singing,” particularly Whitman’s idea that the downtrodden are also part of America and deserving of praise. Hughes extends the conversation by including blacks as part of America, while using sound, particularly laughter, to protest racial segregation.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America. (The Collected Poems 43).

           Written in 1945, about a decade before the Civil Rights Movement, “I, Too,” addresses the service roles blacks had and the segregation that existed, in this case the way the “darker brother” is sent to eat in the kitchen when company comes. Especially striking about the poem is the use of laughter as the one act of protest and challenge to white power.

Regarding form, Hughes isolates the lines “But I laugh/And eat well/and grow strong.” Those lines can also be read as end-stopped lines, meaning there is a natural pause at the end of each line, thus slowing down the rhythm and causing the reader to pause after the persona laughs, eats, and grows strong. Because of the form of those lines and the natural pauses, the acts are given more weight, and they come before the white space and shift to the following stanza, where the speaker is confident that one day he will have a place at the table. Not only is the laughter associated with the act of eating and growing strong, but the idea of one day transcending restrictive racial confines. The laughter is an act of protest that allows the speaker to imagine his body in a place it is currently forbidden in the poem, and it gives the speaker the confidence and strength to imagine one day he’ll have a seat at the table.

Part 3 of this essay will be posted on Friday.

LangstonHughes2

This is essay is divided into three parts. Part two will post on Wednesday, and part three on Friday.

 

          While many critics have noted the influence of blues and jazz on Langston Hughes’s poetry, little has been written about Hughes from a sound studies standpoint. His sonic landscapes not only chronicle Harlem from the 1920s to 1950s, but  also challenge the sonic color-line, specifically ideas from the Enlightenment Period about sound and logic, ideas that still persisted in the first half of the 20th Century, evident through early criticism of ragtime and jazz. In defending black music forms and using specific sounds in his work, including blues, jazz, and laughter, sounds of interwar and post-war Harlem, Hughes challenges 19th Century notions that only white speech is clear and reasoned and sounds unable to be pinned down, particularly sounds of the racialized Other, are purely emotional and non-logical; Hughes’s sonic landscapes also serve as a protest against racial segregation and a critique of American capitalism.

           Before addressing Hughes’s poetry and his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” it is important to give definition to the sonic color-line and understand some of the key ideas regarding sound from the Enlightenment Period that Hughes’s work reacts against, especially since such ideas still persisted just as Hughes’s career was beginning. The idea of the sonic color-line can be attributed to Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman’s work on sound studies, specifically her essays “The word and the sound: listening to the sonic colour-line in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative” and “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line: Tony Schwartz Remixes Postwar Nueva York.” In her first essay, she notes that the sonic colour-line describes race through “aural signifiers as well as visual ones” (21). The racial etiquette of the 19th Century distinguished between white sounds and black sounds, and included aural behavior, such as musical tastes, public displays of emotion, vocal tones, and accents in speech (22). Furthermore, the dominant cultural of the time labeled black sounds as non-logical. Because the sounds did not conform to white European standards, they were considered non-logical, overly emotional, and wild.

           In her other essay, “Splicing the Sonic Color-Line,” Stoever-Ackerman notes that the idea of the sonic color-line stems from W.E.B. Du Bois’s idea of the visual color-line in the Souls of Black Folks and his re-imagining of the color-line in Dusk of Dawn (65). She adds that we see race as well as hear it, and “sonic phenomena like vocal timbre, accents, and musical tones are racially coded, like skin color, hair texture, and clothing choices” (65).

           Stoever-Ackerman’s work points to several examples of the sonic color-line existing in the 19th Century, but it was also evident in early criticism of jazz and ragtime music, specifically the way critics linked the black music forms to wildness and nervousness. In Anne Shaw Faulkner’s 1921 essay “Does Jazz Put Sin in Syncopation?”, published in Ladies’ Home Journal, the author writes, “In almost every big industry where music has been instituted, it has been found necessary to discontinue jazz because of its demoralizing effect” (qtd. in Halliday 144-145). She adds that after the workers indulged in such music, there was an unsteadiness and unevenness to their work product.

          Other critics and record companies saw a distinction between jazz for a white audience and jazz for a black audience. Greg Goodale notes in his book Sonic Persuasion that record companies tried to manipulate Americans into categorizing music based on race and forced black bands to play “hot jazz” to cater to what they perceived to be the black sound (82-83). Hot jazz often had poor connotations and was frequently associated with drunkenness and sexual frenzy. These negative depictions of jazz, constructs of race, and ideas left over from the Enlightenment Period drew strong reactions from Hughes not only in his poetry, but also his manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” First published in 1926, the essay is critical of black poets that try to be white and avoid using black music forms. Hughes writes:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing ‘Water Boy,’ and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too (151).

The essay was published shortly after critic George S. Schuyler criticized Hughes in The Nation for his reliance on black music forms. Schuyler’s criticism echoes Counte Cullen’s review of Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, for Opportunity in 1926. Though the review was generally favorable, Cullen was critical of Hughes for relying so much on jazz and blues.

Taken as a group the selections in this book seem one-sided to me. They tend to hurl the poet into the gaping pit that lies before all Negro writers, in the confines of which they become racial artists instead of artists pure and simple. There is too much emphasis here on strictly Negro themes; and this is probably an added reason for my coldness toward the jazz poems—they seem to set a too definite limit upon an already limited field (39).

To Hughes, however, jazz was a fundamental part of black life and essential to Harlem, what he labeled in the “Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain as “the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world” (150).

Hughes’s defense of jazz may have come because he realized jazz was a way for whites to transcend their racial identity and subvert negative constructs of black sound, thus realizing the music does not lead to hysteria or drunkenness. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, black jazz musicians played with white musicians in recording studios and in bars. In 1931, Louis Armstrong was arrested outside of a club in Los Angeles for smoking marijuana with white drummer Vic Berton (Goodale 83). It became more and more common to see integration on stage, even if major record companies tried to construct sound in terms of race and market to white and black audiences.

This integration is represented in Hughes’ 1926 poem “Harlem Night Club,” and like a lot of his other 1920s poems, it represents the optimism of the Harlem Renaissance that black art forms could be a way to transcend racial barriers, or more specifically a way for whites to enjoy black music forms and overcome racial constructs and identity.

Sleek black boys in a cabaret.

Jazz-band, jazz-band, ––

Play, play, PLAY!

Tomorrow…who knows?

Dance today!

White girls’ eyes

Call gay black boys.

Black boys’ lips

Grin jungle joys.

Dark brown girls

In blond men’s arms.

Jazz-band, jazz-band—

Sing Eve’s charms!

White ones, brown ones,

What do you know

About tomorrow

Where all paths go?

Jazz boys, jazz boys—

Play, PlAY , PLAY!

Tomorrow…. Is darkness.

Joy today!

  The poem presents a mixing of races, brought together by the jazz music, a scene that would have been common in the larger cities in the 1920s and 1930s. The “white girls’  eyes/Call gay black boys” while “Dark brown girls” dance “in blond men’s arms.” The speaker of the poem implores the jazz band to keep playing so racial barriers can be overcome and young whites can transcend racial identities, particularly the ideas that whites should not like this type of music, but the poem also poses the question “Tomorrow…who knows?”.  That question can be read two ways. Either the speaker believes that the jazz movement could lead to the erosion of racial barriers, or the speaker understands that once the music stops and once the listeners step outside, they will be re-introduced to racial constructs.  The later idea is more likely since the speaker admits in the final stanza, “Tomorrow…Is darkness/Joy today!.” For at least the moment, however, while the band keeps playing, racial barriers are non-existent and the whites realize that listening to this music has no negative effects.

Furthermore, the poem mirrors the syncopation of ragtime music and early jazz, employing syncopation so no regular meter or rhyme scheme is established. The opening stanza has a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-c-a. Two out of the lines in the stanza rhyme with nothing else, thus disrupting the pattern. Hughes does this throughout the rest of the poem as well, establishing what appears to be a rhyme scheme, before breaking it with one or two lines that do not adhere to the structure. In addition, Hughes changes the capitalization of the words “play” in the first and last stanza, also disrupting the rhythm. Like a lot of Hughes’s poems that employ music, his form mirrors the content.

Visit TheThe again on Wednesday for part two.

MIchael Hettich, Lobby Bar, July 16 (2)

Long-time resident of Miami poet Michael Hettich has been writing and publishing poetry for over three decades now. His friends and students here in South Florida have luckily benefitted from the closeness and dialy-ness of his presence and work, so too have many of his long-time readers here and abroad. As the three poems to be shared here will show, Hettich’s is a poetics of external and internal metamorphosis and regeneration, at once fed by and still feeding from elemental forces many times taken for granted because of their everyday groundedness in time and place. With a powerful impetus that has always seemed to me Ovidian, his poetry is always immediate, action-packed, vivid and engrossingly visceral, even when subjective fancies enter lyrically or narratively mid-stream. In an always trusting and refreshing manner, his poems invite all readers to dwell in them for a little. His are poems to be lived, explored, worn, dreamed or, many times, breathed as mantras.

To prove these highlighted observations I have taken three poems from Michael Hettich’s The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers Press, 2011), a fairly recent award-winning volume. Because he is readying to publish a new collection in April (tentatively titled Systems of Vanishing), I purposely took three arguably recent poems that deal specifically with a poet still trying to cope with the almost decade-long loss of his father.  And the beauty will be apparent immediately—for they are not poems of morbidity, rigidity, melodrama or woe-is-me lamentation; instead, they are poems of remembrance that have transformed personal loss, change and impermanence into a newfound wakefulness, a here and now celebration and witnessing. In these poems there is no hint of regret, just a new “way of staying present.”

Measuring the Days

My father dives in and swims off across the bay,
tries to swim all the way to the other side,
swims past slag islands of mucky-drift and mangrove
crowded with birds that don’t notice him.
If he makes it to the other shore he will walk home, barefoot
and dripping. This is his weekend routine,
his way of staying present. But of course we miss him,
cutting the grass or walking through the neighborhood,
talking to acquaintances or glancing at the sky.
Even the minnows swim through him now
as he slowly dissolves into the current. And we remember him
like hair and teeth, like skin–if we remember him
at all. He swims as he always did, steady
and relaxed, reaching forward and pulling, kicking hard.

Concrete and Mortar

I dreamed I was running backward, through fields
and woods, feeling as though I was about to
crash into a rock, or a tree, or fall into
a river and be swept away. But still I ran on.
The windows in our bedroom this morning are dusted
with pollen that smells like damp mushrooms, or like
pipe tobacco in a rarely-opened drawer.
The wild coffee is blooming too, and full of buzzing bees.
Your father has died, two thousand miles away.
The mortar anchoring the bricks of the house
he built with his father, the house you grew up in,
has been crumbling away, falling back to sand.
The workshop he built himself in the back yard
will be pulled down; all his tools will be scattered.
We were married in that back yard. Even the mountains
are slowly coming down. I remember that basement,
the cool darkness where your brother slept the days away, for years.
I remember your mother making cards and gifts down there.
Everything is secret, or else it wouldn’t need to be.
Everything is waiting. Certain days we couldn’t see
the mountains from your parents’ street. Other days they loomed.

The Small Birds

They ask us to understand our grief
by simply leaping out, trusting the air
which is far more complex than sorrow, to follow
all we’ve ever done with a pure heart and change ourselves
completely, but never for long.
Someday, you say, you’ll be glass in a window
that looks across a landscape of wilderness and snow
which will melt when you go out there and walk, because
you’ve loved someone well. But whom do you love,
after all? For now, you open that window
and lean out. For now you just watch things: vivid rugs
on hardwood floors, closets full of clothes
that would never fit you, where another person’s smell
lingers for years. And then it vanishes.

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.

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.

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!

 

What are some reasons why we read poetry? Why turn to a poem over a novel, a play, a philosophical treatise? In this essay I want to suggest that we turn to poetry out of a fundamental desire to answer the question, How should one live? By making this claim, I am attempting to wonder about poetry’s relationship to the ethical, broadly conceived here as partaking in the four distinctions of ethical criticism as laid out by Wayne Booth in his book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction and then paraphrased and articulated by Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Those distinctions are 1.) Asking of a literary work, as Nussbaum writes, “What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?” 2.) “What sense of life is expressed in this work as a whole?” 3.) As there are “many good things for literature to do and be,” how do we talk about ethical criticism without reducing it to some “single dogmatic theory”? 4.) “What becomes of readers as they read?” (Nussbaum 232-233)

Furthermore, while I am interested in asking these questions more broadly about poetry, my emphasis in this essay will be on the work of John Ashbery, whose work I have found sustaining, consoling, and always interesting for about a decade now. Because the question, “How should one live,” is so resolutely personal, it seems important to choose a poet with whom I also feel – without knowing him personally at all – a kind of personal connection. For if literary works are, as Wayne Booth writes, like friends, and “we can assess our literary relationships in much the same way that we assess our friendships, realizing that we are judged by the company we keep,” then it seemed of the utmost importance to write about a “friend” that has, to paraphrase Nussbaum, enriched my life, however distantly, in a substantial way. (Nussbaum 234) Indeed, one of our greatest readers, Harold Bloom, has written,

Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures. It returns you to otherness, whether in yourself or in friends, or in those who may become friends. Imaginative literature is otherness, and as such alleviates loneliness. We read not only because we cannot know enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies, and all the sorrows of familial and passional life. (19)

So if Ashbery has been a kind of “good friend” to me over the years, how has his work enriched my life?

2.

Let me start here: I remember vividly the first time I came across Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, at Shamandrum Bookstore in Ann Arbor in 2003. The orange spine of the book caught my attention, and I pulled the slim volume off the bookshelf and read Bloom’s exultant blurb, in which he placed Ashbery in the company of poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. I opened the book to the first poem, and read

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the sun yellows the green of the maple tree….
So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen. (427)

Reading that passage from Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into a Packet-Boat,” I myself “felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages”. There was something mysterious and lyrical about the passage, something exquisite, moving, and funny. Who else wrote in their poems about the “smell of an old catalogue”? What was the “thing” that was prepared to happen? The poem captured the excitement one might feel during the time the symphony warms up, that scintillating sound of instruments testing their timbers, meeting each other in the strange arena of sound, coming together to produce “the promise of that fullness,” for which “the least attentive fall silent / To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.”

I bought the book. I had never come across a poet as suggestive as Ashbery, nor read anyone with such a mastery of language. As a child I had loved The Phantom Tollbooth, and perhaps a part of me was still searching for that one conductor who, as he swung his baton in the air, could orchestrate the movement and color of the sun setting and rising. Ashbery, more than any poet I had read up that point, struck me as that conductor. His poems were participatory events, musical and visual as well as verbal, as rich with fecund possibility as W.H. Auden’s early poems, which I had fallen in love with a few months earlier. And as I read more Ashbery, certain questions began to percolate. The main question was: How could criticism talk about as rich a poet as Ashbery, without somehow suffocating his suggestiveness, his wacky humor, his idiosyncratic and imaginative gifts? Why was I so taken with the poetry?

3.

Richard Rorty has written of Harold Bloom that,

His ideal reader hopes that the next book she reads will recontextualize all the books she has previously read – that she will encounter an authorial imagination so strong as to sweep her off her feet, transport her into a world she has never known existed. In this new world, all the authors and characters with who she has previously been acquainted will look different…The reader’s real-life friends, relations and neighbors will also look different, as will their motives and choices. (390)

I love this quote, because this is exactly what happened when I read Ashbery. I was transported, swept off my feet. Everything I had read up to that point changed – it was if a great shifting occurred in my mind, not exactly suddenly but gradually – and over time I began to compare what I read – mostly 20th century American poetry – with the surprise, enchantment, and supple, tremendous sense of humor and nostalgia I found in Ashbery. And when I found much work lacking in the virtues I admired in Ashbery – taking itself too seriously, say, like in the work at times of W.S. Merwin or T.S. Eliot, or taking itself too un-seriously, like in the work of Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beat poets – I would continually return to Ashbery’s work, still startled, still unsure of how a mind could so continually surprise me with its jarring juxtapositions, its risks, its sheer imaginative chutzpah. As times passed, I became basically in awe of Ashbery’s poems, for I could not find in any poet’s work – with the exception of some major poets, like Stevens, Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop, A.R. Ammons – as ferocious a freshness, a newness, a kind of constantly renewing something that made the poems always delightfully baffling, pulling me into their dazzling fields, astonishing me with their metaphors, and making me gulp with pleasure at their sheer unwillingness to be pigeon-holed in any way.

4.

So, let us return to Nussbaum’s paraphrasing of Booth, What sense of life is expressed in Ashbery’s work as a whole? What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well? For this we have to look at a poem. Hence, here is a shorter poem, “Spring Cries,” from Ashbery’s book from 1994, called And the Stars Were Shining:

Our worst fears are realized.
Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.
She pleads with us to say: “Stay,
just for a minute, can’t you?”

We are expelled into the dust of our decisions.
Knowing it would be this way hasn’t
made any of it easier to understand, or bear.
May is raving. Its recapitulations

exhaust the soil. Across the marsh,
some bird misses its mark, walks back, sheepish, cheeping.
The isthmus is gilded white. People are returning
to the bight: adult swimmers, all of them. (4)

How do we read this poem? Where do we draw the line between description and metaphor? For example, how does one read “The isthmus is gilded white” – is this literally a description of an isthmus, perhaps alluding to the way the sun hits it at a particular hour, or is there something about the isthmus being “gilded white” to suggest bafflement, bewilderment, or even a kind of tentative beauty? But let me first back up. Notice the way the poem begins, by refusing to make a statement that cannot itself be contradicted. “Our worst fears are realized” we read, and we think “oh no! This is likely to be a sad or mournful poem” – at which point we read, “Then a string of successes, or failures, follows.” Suddenly we are completely in the Ashberian universe, where “either/or” is constantly exploded to make way for “both.” And the first two lines are general enough to relate to anyone reading – who hasn’t experienced failure and success in ways that are always unpredictable? And who hasn’t heard the desperation and sadness of someone asking, “Stay, just for a minute, can’t you?”

The poem therefore evidences an exhaustion, a sort of uncaring about what happens next – success or failure, who cares? They both simply ebb and flow, lapping up onto the sand of our lives in ways we can never hope to predict or anticipate. Better to simply stand apart without attaching too much sense or meaning to these changes (?). But if this is the speaker’s stance, what is ours? Do we agree with the speaker? Do we empathize with him or her? Of course, at certain times in our lives we would agree; at other times we might not. Either way, Ashbery says, “We are expelled into the dust of our decisions,” though this knowledge is not easy to “understand, or bear.” For the world, like the month of May, is “raving” – crazy, loony, enigmatic, never to be fully understood. And all the iterations of May, unlike what we normally associate with spring, do not cause a regeneration of the soil but instead “exhaust” it.

As we continue to read the poem, it becomes clear to us that the poem is just general enough for us to relate to it, but just particular enough for us to be aware of a different speaker speaking, and of the multitude of possibilities that might have been spoken instead. For couldn’t this just as likely have been a poem of celebration of May? Instead, however, the poem is about a kind of sad human incompetence, finitude. For even the bird on the marsh, we learn, feels “sheepish” and “misses the mark.” And then the very enigmatic ending, which I read as suggesting a kind of futility related to everything that is happening around the speaker – still, despite all of our successes and failures, and our inability to know which will come next, still we jump into the water, we jump into the next bend in our fate, somehow willingly, even as adults! What a weird and revolting and exhausting (and amazing?) state of affairs!

I want to emphasize again here that the sense of life as expressed in this poem is a contingent one, based upon the speaker’s circumstances and place at the time of the writing of the poem. Whether Ashbery is making up a speaker, or is articulating his own particular worldview at the moment, is unimportant. What is important is that we are being presented with a whole worldview, a whole philosophy, and we are then asked to wonder about it, to be made aware that, like the speaker, we are particular people in a particular time with our own preoccupations, and that here is an entirely different person with his or her own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations. Naturally, then, we might wonder, What are our own idiosyncratic and interesting preoccupations? If we were the speaker of the poem, would we lend more credence to agency? Would we agree with what we perceive to be the speaker’s exhaustion? Do we nod our heads knowingly or raise an eyebrow as if to say, Is this really how we feel about things?

5.

See how the poem, then, occasions such ethical reflections, merely by unfolding its own kind of logic of particulars. And this thickness of description, this polytheistic quest, seems to be the reason why Rorty and Martha Nussbaum praise the novel as a moral agent, (although they might as well be praising poetry as well), capable of nothing less than, in Nussbaum’s words,

psuchagogia (leading of the soul), in which methodological and formal choices on the part of the teacher or writer [are] bound to be very important for their eventual result: not just because of their instrumental role in communication, but also because of the values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view. (16-17)

“The values and judgments they themselves [express] and their role in the adequate stating of a view” – in our case, a view in “Spring Cries” that life is absurd, hard-to-grasp, frustrating and sometimes exhausting. But remember – this is the speaker speaking. And Ashbery’s poems are rife with polyvocality, with an almost perverse pleasure in a chorus of voices and images jostling against each other, all competing for our attention, all calling attention to what Nussbaum calls “the incommensurability of our values,” how we are incapable of prioritizing our real values but instead must learn to be as responsive as possible to the “ethical relevance of circumstances.” (37) And the plethora of vocabularies and idioms and tones that Ashbery employs means that one quickly learns to become sensitive to many things in his poems, including tone, mood, word choice, rhythm, allusion, “subject matter” and much more. For this reason, Ashbery’s poems are both about moral progress as increased sensitivity, or the ethical relevance of circumstances, while at the same time they enact this kind of moral progress in the reader, through his or her process of deep reading. By sensitizing the reader to a larger and more diverse set of possibilities, Ashbery’s poetry serves as a kind of poetic guidebook of what Wallace Stevens, another life-teacher, called “How to Live, What to Do.”

6.

“What becomes of readers as they read?” Nussbaum writes of an “ethical ability that I call “perception”:…By this I mean the ability to discern, acutely and responsively, the salient features of one’s particular situation.” (37) Earlier in the same chapter she poses these questions:

Then, too, what overall shape and organization does the text seem to have, and what type and degree of control does the author present himself as having over the material? Does he, for example, announce at the outset what he is going to establish and then proceed to do just that? Or does he occupy, instead, a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change? Do we know at the outset what the format and overall shape of the text is going to be? And how does it construct itself as it goes, using what methods? (33)

Hopefully it is clear at this point that Ashbery occupies “a more tentative and uncontrolling relation to the matter at hand, one that holds open the possibility of surprise, bewilderment, and change.” But what methods, as Nussbaum insightfully asks, does the poem use to construct itself? To attempt to answer these questions requires looking at one more poem. Here is the first stanza of “Valentine,” from Houseboat Days.

Like a serpent among roses, like an asp
Among withered thornapples I coil to
And at you. The name of the castle is you,
El Rey. It is an all-night truck stop
Offering the best coffee and hamburgers in Utah.
It is most beautiful and nocturnal by daylight.
Seven layers: moss-agate, coral, aventurine,
Carnelian, Swiss lapis, obsidian – maybe others.
You know now that it has the form of a string
Quartet. The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What is this poem talking about? How do we account for a poem that covers, in fourteen lines, serpents, castles, truck stops, Swiss lapis, a string quartet, and “a new kind of emptiness”?

Perhaps we can get at the meaning of this poem by investigating Ashbery’s usage of “you,” and placing this in the context of moral progress as increased sensitivity. For what is “you” in this poem? You are the name of a castle, an all-night truck stop, something beautiful and nocturnal, with the form of a string quartet. With each iteration of “you,” the poem expands our self-image, calling our attention to aspects of our experience and world that are not typically represented as thematic matter in a poem (say, an all night truck stop in Utah juxtaposed with the name of a castle). (In this sense, we might say that Ashbery’s quest is analogous to Whitman’s, in that both provide us with catalogues and categories that extend the boundaries of what we consider to be important, what we value.) It’s as if each iteration, each part of the catalogue, widens the circle of our self-image. In doing so, in pushing back the thresholds for what we consider parts of our community, our deep ethnocentrism, they redescribe us, and in doing so, redescribe our values. The poem is a microcosm of society, in which

The different parts are always meddling with each other,
Pestering each other, getting in each other’s way
So as to withdraw skillfully at the end, leaving – what?
A new kind of emptiness, maybe bathed in freshness,
Maybe not. Maybe just a new kind of emptiness.

What do all our interactions amount to? Simply and complexly the moment of our attention, the “mooring of our starting out,” an increased sensitivity to our particular circumstances. It is perhaps a “fresh emptiness,” meaning an invigorating life unclouded somewhat by the insidious quality of our devotions to overly abstract concepts like “Reason” or “Reality,” or it is just an emptiness, a kind of existential echo chamber or vacuum in which we make transitory meanings that importantly create hope for a better future and greater understanding, but which still take place in a world shorn of metaphysics, or absolutes, or, as Rorty puts it, “neutral starting points for thought.”

7.

Perhaps it is because there are no “neutral starting points for thought” that Ashbery begins his poems so often en media res. For it is a strategy that immediately evokes in the reader a bewilderment, a sense of not knowing where exactly he or she is, and this carries over, then, into the reader’s own situation while reading: How did we end up where we are? The effect of beginning in the middle of things prompts us to move from the microcosm of the poem to the macrocosm of our lives: What strange confluence of fate and chance has been orchestrated to work to produce the rather miraculous equilibrium in which we sit and read? What kind of balance does our present place in the universe suggest, and how in the world did we wind up where we are? These questions are raised instantaneously as we begin many Ashbery poems; which is to say, that many of Ashbery’s poems serve promptly to historicize us, while at the same time force us to directly participate in the poem, for if we don’t know where we are in the poem, the best we can do is focus and see if we can get our bearings within the poem. How is reality any different? Ashbery’s poems, in their self-consciousness, in their method of decentered unfolding, recreate for us a scene of living, in which we are compelled to participate and imagine in order to reach any tentative understandings about the poem, as about life.

This is what becomes of us as we read – we become more responsive and more perceptive as readers. “The resulting liberation,” Rorty writes,

may, of course, lead one to try to change the political or economic or religious or philosophical status quo. Such an attempt may begin a lifetime of effort to break through the received ideas that serve to justify present-day institutions. But it also may result merely in one’s becoming a more sensitive, knowledgeable, wiser person…the change is not a matter of everything falling nicely into place, fitting together beautifully. It is instead a matter of finding oneself transported, moved to a place from which a different prospect is available. (390 – 391)

Sources

Ashbery, John. Collected Poems, 1956 – 1987. New York: Library of America, 2008. Print.

Ashbery, John. And the Stars Were Shining. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Bloom, Harold. How to Read and Why. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Nussbaum, Martha. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.

Voparil, Christopher J., and Richard Bernstein eds. The Rorty Reader. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

All the hipsters are making their aggravating lists made of poets from Brooklyn and Amherst with good haircuts, trust funds and irony. Lists where the majority of poets have one book and slept with the writer of the list. I have nothing against poets sleeping with each other but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good list. In an age of truly remarkable work these lists are full of too many gutless poems made of flippant language that make one big metaphorical turn near the end and we are supposed to go ooooh and ahhhhh. Many of these poems show the shallow influence of a poet like Dorothea Lasky but without her wit and ability to create a voice of endearment. They want to be Lasky, but the young poets don’t have her talent. All they have is a Brooklyn address, connections, and great internet savvy. Oh and an MFA. And ironically their ironic poems are DISEMBODIED and RHETORICAL in the worst way. These lists are aggravating, full of poems of the moment, books that will soon fade into youthful oblivion but in a year when some of the best books I have read in my life, books that can sustain a person for decades and not lose their relevance have been published, collections by some of our grand masters and some young sharp guns from the outer edges, I want to offer some poets I have not seen on any list floating online despite some of them winning big awards or garnering academic notice this year:

Whether first books, second books, and career collections, what these books share is a commitment to make a poem that— even if linguistically playful, still has a commitment to speaking to this world, and the idea and importance of experience and identity (such a dirty word to the hipsters, played out they say, how passé’ they say) and how we negotiate both in this difficult world. They all share some commitment to negotiate the body through lived space, and language. Perhaps pulled in so many directions by the confusion of late Capitalism, by the disconnect of technology, our best poets are reclaiming the body and lived experience and space? In the corrupt spirit of these lists I also tried to choose poets that I actually knew, since it seems that is what you are supposed to do with a list. Though I failed here in not really knowing everyone on my list. And sadly I failed again: I did not sleep with any of them.

~

These are serious books. I sometimes wonder if the young poets still know how to make “serious” art, but then I read The Backlit Hour by young Jose Antonio Rodriquez and I know they are more than capable. This book is western, political, and deals with the conflicts of gender, class, race, and power through story and lyricism. If only more young poets had such bravery. Another poet with such bravery is Corey Zeller whose book Man Vs. Sky offers us a series of poems in the voice of his friend who committed suicide. In a year of many books of such grievous loss this original voice and point of view stands out. And other young poet is Cody Todd whose book Graffiti Signatures is such a experimental gem. A hip hop DJ and graffiti artist, an old B Boy from Denver, Todd combines his knowledge of experimental poetics with the street and structure of the turn table. I know that after her death the grand tome of Lucille Clifton will help many people to live and understand the terror and joy of our country. Roger Bonair-Agard offers us a book both streetwise and worldly, one that unflinchingly crosses borders. Charles Fort’s Selected Poems brings together one of our most important and under praised African-American poets and prose poets who tackles issues of race, love and form. Ron Padgett’s Collected Poems brings us together one of our master New York School lyricists. Ron Padgett has always been my favorite NYC poet, and one who has that rare ability in poets, to express JOY. I always grieved he was far in the shadow of John Ashbury as I found Padgett’s work far more engaging and …. And well true. Jillian Weise presents a book that reads as a 21st century book, full of slips and slight moves of lyricism while maintaining an interrogation of the body’s role in Being. Yona Harvey first book Hemming Water brings us a long awaited book that pushes sound and music into fragments only the body and history can hold and by doing so sustain us. Another great first book is Mathew Olzmann’s Mezzanine, a book of remarkable range and metaphor whose interrogation of Spaces evokes for me memories of the French theorist Batchelard in the best way. Joe Weil’s auspicious Selected Poems gathers his many poems from the small press into one beautiful tome. It covers the territory of cities, the self suffering, the idea of the other, of labor and loss, in a manner both tragic and comic rarely found in American poetry. Mary Biddinger’s edgy O Holy Insurgency, continues her project of exploring the body, the spirit, and the beautiful wreckage of the things and moments of our lives. Lastly, Jennifer Militello’s second book Body Thesaurus firmly presents herself as a quiet heir to the Lorcan tradition, a poetics of lyricism and emotion and dare I say duende. There are thoroughly fierce books, often political, the kind of books that Milosz wrote “can save nations” if we will only listen. Buy them.

GRAND MASTER SENSEIS

Lucille Clifton The Collected Poems 1965-2010 BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/the-collected-poems-of-lucille-clifton.html

Ron Padgett Collected Poems Coffeehouse Press

http://coffeehousepress.org/shop/collected-poems/

Charles Fort We Did Not Fear the Father: New and Selected Poems Red Hen Press

http://redhen.org/book/?uuid=35FD4A0F-6C64-2656-C499-99E8419A08DB

Joe Weil The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems NYQ Books

http://books.nyq.org/title/greatgrandmotherlight

SECOND (or THIRD) BOOK ASSASINS

Jennifer Militello Body Thesaurus Tupelo Books

http://www.tupelopress.org/books/body_thesaurus

Bury my Clothes Roger Bonair-Agard Haymarket Books

http://www.nationalbook.org/nba2013_p_bonair_agard.html#.UrLegdJDsYE

Jillian Weise The Book of Goodbyes BOA Editions

https://www.boaeditions.org/bookstore/catalog/product/view/id/944/

Jose Antonio Rodriguez Backlit Hour Stephen F. Austin University Press

http://www.powells.com/biblio/71-9781622880041-0

Mary Biddinger O Holy Urgency Black Lawrence Press

FIRST BOOK NINJAS

Yona Harvey Hemming the Water Four Way Books

http://fourwaybooks.com/2013spring/harvey.php

Corey Zeller Man Vs. Sky Yes Yes Books

http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781936919130/default.aspx

Cody Todd Graffiti Signatures Main Street Rag

http://mainstreetrag.com/bookstore/product/graffiti-signatures/

Mathew Olzmann Mezzanines Alice James Books

http://alicejamesbooks.org/ajb-titles/mezzanines/