A missing Pleiades in the viewable cluster of stars cannot deny us motion though we cannot master its name: there is something you are not telling me standing at the standing stone detained neither by chicken wire nor the upright megalith we imagine pulsing and in so thinking feel the earth beneath us breathe: looking at anyone on the strip mall concourse I can imagine pausing in front of a mirror to let down his pony tale with his my hands pulling down her blouse to our waist but the thirst from being 25¢ short for the vending machine and the dull anxiety of strangers coming to speak with me is my own: the land around the standing stone half browning grass half greening turf folds into itself for miles and I don’t know what season it is.
consider me these hips this
alphabet an echo this symbol
in the hallway surely this tongue
could spin a wow-weaved man
could spin a place to rest to rest
Lucille Clifton once said, somewhere, that things are better said in threes. She once said that she’d thought of several word options before speaking the one she most fancied. She once said that poetry is about questions, connections. Lucille Clifton said many things outside of poems that felt like poems, and many of us who were blessed to sit in front of her and hear her speak remembers these words. Once, she told us to know beyond the obvious. It’s not difficult to see these little lit bits inside of her poems:
my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against
the wall their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars. (from “far memory”)
The lines that open this post are from five friends—Laura Hartmark, Adam Fitzgerald, Anne Rashid, Carrie McGath, and Alexander Long—& are taken from Lucille Clifton’s poems and/or are offered in response to her passing. I am, as many of us are, hurting and healed, mournful and roaring, feeling a little drunk on Lucille Clifton’s words that have been filling my ears all night and day. There was once a time that I thought her words were too sparse; then there was a time the words ravaged; then a time when the words delighted in their conciseness; then there was a time that i wanted to just stare at the non-punctuation. Then, there was my heart feeling blessed.
On this, the first day of the Tiger 2010, I discover that Lucille Clifton was a fire rat: “ imaginative, charming, and truly generous to the person you love. . . Born under this sign, you should be happy in sales or as a writer, critic, or publicist.” This space is here, as are others, for you to say, to read, to listen, to appreciate knowing that we each had an opportunity to make the acquaintance of someone who changed so much of what poetry does and how it comes to do it.
The uploaded photograph is courtesy of Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
Wandering the shadowless aisles of the supermarket a couple of days ago, I passed a colorful phalanx of plastic-shielded, heart-shaped cakes. Realizing that Valentine’s Day was nigh, that other people would be putting forkfuls of these hearts into their mouths in the hours that followed, and that a good many of these displayed hearts would be thrown into the dumpster out behind the store, naturally, I thought of love poetry.
My partner of the past three years recently introduced me to a volume of poems entitled This is My Beloved. I have no idea where she got it, but four minutes of first-rate Internet research informed me that Knopf first published this little tome in 1943, that the author, Walter Benton, was an Austrian-born Russian immigrant who worked a variety of blue-collar jobs, and that Benton published two books of poems in the 1940s.
This history aside, in my beloved’s copy of This is My Beloved, a 1963 edition of this first book, which is presented in diary form, there is an inscription: “In the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and the sharing of pleaseures (sic). For in the dew of little things the beast finds its morning and is refreshed. Happy Valentine’s Day – 1963.”
The writer’s rather cliché, poetical diction is spiced up with the tragicomedy of the misspelling, the strangeness of the phrase “in the dew of little things,” and the fact that the word “beast,” in rushed cursive, is quite probably meant to be read as the word “heart.” This inscription alone is a marvelous artifact, and the book itself seems somewhat complicated as a Valentine’s Day gift because it traces a relationship gone bad—the narrator of the poems falls in love with a woman who ultimately does not love him back, leaving him to declare at the narrative’s close, on “November 25”: “I am lost on an island somewhere between two rivers. / Blind buildings are all around me— / and the earth is covered with flat stones. And over me, the low / dark roof—the harbor’s lifted morass and the belchings of many chimneys.”
“Lifted morass” and “belchings” in mind, let us declare: this Valentine’s Day we agree not to give each other heart-shaped agents of indigestion, but instead, strange, complicated originalities of utterance and legitimate attempts at sharing our, um, truest feelings. What does Jack Gilbert say in “The Great Fires”? “Love allows us to walk / in the sweet music of our particular heart”? Now, that sounds very nice. Let’s get to it.
(image by David Shapiro ©2010)
A coyote is sweetness itself compared to a professor—
and a professor is selfless compared to a poet—
even the meanest sculptor is not as stupid as a University—
a wild animal is gentle and tame compared to a critic—
a bobcat is meek and mild compared to any Intellectual—
the zoo containing all is a garden compared to a Department
no architecture is as fragile as friendship as vicious as love
No stepmother is as horrible as the one you are stuck with
No poem looks as good as the one you will find out is nothing
when a mother calls you up you are lucky When a teacher
calls you up you must always take out the revolver
when you see a sick raccoon look more closely and it is your art and your friend
language poets have been seen roaming near cities
when a NY poet fights boundaries become magazines
when a poet needs a job no one else can find one
if you ever need advice ask a bobcat not a Mentor
when you need support and money all humans disappear
the old poets need no prizes they have stolen them already
the young poets need something that the bobcats have teeth
when you need some more hope read Kafka in the morning
when you’re dying for champagne read Proust in the evening
when you want to put yr hand thru a window open the window first (Ron P)
The best advice is the one you give to yourself already
Here we are in the early days of Black History Month, churning steadily towards Women’s History Month, & chugging heartily towards National Poetry month; it is 2010. We are ending the Year of the Ox, charging headlong to the Tiger’s year; Valentine’s Day will, for some of us, be (wonderfully) subsumed by Chinese New Year. It is 2010 and Brooklyn has finally gotten its “blizzard”. Years ago, when I lived in Binghamton, I thought the fog was lovely, the snow was lovely, all of that weatherly white was lovely. Until I stepped from the dense white of fog, the soft fur of white snow, into a town filled with a severe whiteness. It wasn’t so much the faces as the attitudes. Twice a year, when I head to Vermont to teach, I am reminded of those clouded white faces of Binghamton, faces like flowers, closed to perceived darkness & waiting for the bright white light of sun to open to, towards, to lean into. Sometimes I didn’t care. Sometimes I wrote a poem. Sometimes I went to the gym and put on my headphones and ellipticalled my thighs off. It is 2010, and it is, once again, Black History Month. I’m teaching a class called African American Literature; I’m learning about various faces in Black Female African American arts thanks to the lovely Facebook updates of Valerie Jean Bailey. I am happy. The Poetry Society of America has plastered the faces of 21 Caucasian, one Japanese German American, and one Chicano poets as children all over their website. The lack of inclusion of faces of color has made some folks unhappy. I look at the photos and think of those white cartons of milk and faces of missing children. What’s so genuinely lovely about a child’s face? What would the posting of a Black child’s face tell us about the Poetry Society of America? What does the posting of a child’s face—as tribute—tell us about how the PSA views poetry, poetics? I understand the clear articulation of race in the nonarticulation of race. I get it. And I’m bored to death by it. It’s Black History Month. It’s 2010. We’re in the shortest month of the Western calendar; this month is shared with, oh Groundhog’s Day, 100th day of school day, Charles Dickens’ Day, Thomas Edison’s birthday, President’s Day, and Valentine’s Day. Did you know that Pluto was discovered in February? Well, you’re missing something to celebrate in February, in which you can also celebrate George Washington’s birthday. Yes, February is a month of celebration, so let’s celebrate something. I’m celebrating poets who have charged my mind, spirit, heart. Black poets? Sure. Caucasian poets? Sure. Vietnamese poets? Sure. Flamboyantly heterosexual poets? You betcha. Poets who refuse to check a gender box? Sure. Cablasian poets. Of course. What can each of us do to celebrate the child face that promised poetry, the adult face that licked poetry? Me? I’m reading, I’m typing, I’m teaching. I’m looking for graceful raw energy, that makes me happy. I’m looking for the funky disposition of an innocent finger that makes me happy. I’ve a lot to say about the faces of poetry’s future, but I’ve more to say about Arisa White’s Disposition For Shininess, which has been whooping waves into my brain for eight and a half fucking months; and I’ve curry simmering on the stove, curry turning my silver spoons yellow; I can’t get the cayenne out of fingertips, and I’m rummaging in my brain for a childhood photo of me that I’d share. The weather outside is frightful; salt is chomping into the asphalt; a kid wants to clear my stoop for a few measly bucks, and my laptop is burning a pattern in my thigh. I’m going to re-listen to this child read Herb Scott’s poem “The Grocer’s Children“, & some of more of Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children & pretend I’m in Chicago helping little Omar celebrate his second birthday with a snow cake.
Let’s begin with a recording of Ode on a Grecian Urn recited by Richard Howard, which was taken on 2/12/2010 through my iPhone.
Ode on a Grecian Urn
Thou still unravished bride of quietness,
Thou foster child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loath?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit dities of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unweari-ed,
Forever piping songs forever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoyed,
Forever panting, and forever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
One of the most debated poems of the 20th century wasn’t written by a modernist, nor was it even penned in that century. John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn was written in May 1819, published a year later (Keats died in February 1821) alongside the other Great Odes—one of the most considerable series of poems in the entire English language, and certainly the cornerstone of Keats’ reputation as a poet.
A very helpful article over at Wikipedia includes the following information about the mass of critical scrutiny, controversy and defense the Great Poem has caused:
The thought as enounced in the first stanza is the supremacy of ideal art over Nature, because of its unchanging expression of perfect; and this is true and beautiful; but its amplification in the poem is unprogressive, monotonous, and scattered … which gives an effect of poverty in spite of the beauty. The last stanza enters stumbling upon a pun, but its concluding lines are very fine, and make a sort of recovery with their forcible directness.
Bridges believed that the final lines redeemed an otherwise bad poem. Arthur Quiller-Couch responded with a contrary view and claimed that the lines were “a vague observation – to anyone whom life has taught to face facts and define his terms, actually an uneducated conclusion, albeit most pardonable in one so young and ardent.” The debate expanded when I. A. Richards, an English literary critic who analysed Keats’s poems in 1929, relied on the final lines of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to discuss “pseudo-statements” in poetry:
On the one hand there are very many people who, if they read any poetry at all, try to take all its statements seriously – and find them silly … This may seem an absurd mistake but, alas! it is none the less common. On the other hand there are those who succeed too well, who swallow ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty …,’ as the quintessence of an aesthetic philosophy, not as the expression of a certain blend of feelings, and proceed into a complete stalemate of muddle-mindedness as a result of their linguistic naivety.
Poet and critic T. S. Eliot, in his 1929 “Dante” essay, responded to Richards:
I am at first included to agree … But on re-reading the whole Ode, this line strikes me as a serious blemish on a beautiful poem, and the reason must be either that I fail to understand it, or that it is a statement which is untrue. And I suppose that Keats meant something by it, however remote his truth and his beauty may have been from these words in ordinary use. And I am sure that he would have repudiated any explanation of the line which called it a pseudo-statement … The statement of Keats seems to me meaningless: or perhaps the fact that it is grammatically meaningless conceals another meaning from me.
In 1930, John Middleton Murry gave a history of these responses “to show the astonishing variety of opinion which exists at this day concerning the culmination of a poem whose beauty has been acknowledged for many years. Whether such another cause, and such another example, of critical diversity exists, I cannot say; if it does, it is unknown to me. My own opinion concerning the value of those two lines in the context of the poem itself is not very different from Mr. Eliot’s.”
Cleanth Brooks defended the lines from critics in 1947 and argued:
We shall not feel that the generalization, unqualified and to be taken literally, is meant to march out of its context to compete with the scientific and philosophical generalizations which dominate our world. ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ has precisely the same status, and the same justification as Shakespeare’s ‘Ripeness is all.’ It is a speech ‘in character’ and supported by a dramatic context. To conclude thus may seem to weight the principle of dramatic propriety with more than it can bear. This would not be fair to the complexity of the problem of truth in art nor fair to Keats’s little parable. Granted; and yet the principle of dramatic propriety may take us further than would first appear. Respect for it may at least insure our dealing with the problem of truth at the level on which it is really relevant to literature.
M. H. Abrams responded to Brooks’s view in 1957:
I entirely agree, then, with Professor Brooks in his explication of the Ode, that ‘Beauty is truth’ … is to be considered as a speech ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate’ to the Urn. I am uneasy, however, about his final reference to ‘the world-view …’ For the poem as a whole is equally an utterance by a dramatically presented speaker, and none of its statements is proffered for our endorsement as a philosophical generalization of unlimited scope. They are all, therefore, to be apprehended as histrionic elements which are ‘in character’ and ‘dramatically appropriate,’ for their inherent interest as stages in the evolution of an artistically ordered … experience of a credible human being.
Wishing to update the debate, last week I sent the following email out to poets and critics to weigh in on the matter:
Arguably the most controversial poem of 20th century literary critical debate has been Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Since Robert Bridges, I.A. Richards and T.S. Eliot engaged the poem critically, poets and critics have taken all possible sides: defending its ending, dismissing it, even ignoring the rhetorical closing all together as an unimportant point. What I wanted to know, simply: What is your take on the ending of Keats’ famous ode? Do you find it successful or unsuccessful?
Below are their responses of how this Whole Business of Truth and Beauty struck them. I encourage you, reader, to leave your own comment—and let the conversation continue. Next week, I hope to bring in some other quotes, from Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler, among others, share some other reactions from contemporary poets and critics, and attempt to formulate my own opinion on the matter.
POETS, CRITICS AND READERS RESPONSES
I’ve certainly heard—and many times—critical statements to the effect that a given work of art failed because it had presented a scene or object or person as too beautiful (perfect, shapely, harmonious), thereby violating our consensus about the actual nature of experience, which we should acknowledge as being flawed, unshapely and dissonant. And that a proper understanding of beauty should insist on the inclusion of aspects of reality not traditionally considered pleasing or attractive. In short, it’s the aesthetic of “Beauty is Truth, Truth, Beauty.” Given that, I wouldn’t be inclined to dismiss the Urn’s statement as silly, so absurd as to ruin a great poem. To me the puzzling thing is that, in the poem, such a statement should be attributed to the Grecian Urn. Puzzling because it doesn’t strike me that what we are told about this marble vessel of great beauty (in the traditional sense) accounts for the statement it makes. So for me an important critical project around this poem should be to explain why an aesthetic stance at odds with the “character” of this object should be pronounced in its voice. The tone of the conclusion suggests that the poem’s observer and speaker does not, himself, share the view expressed by the Urn. The speaker condescends, perhaps with a certain amused tolerance, to the statement being made. So perhaps an aesthetics of imperfection and dissonance isn’t at all what the Urn is urging. Yes, perhaps that’s it: we’re meant to understand that the Urn is so far out of contact with reality it doesn’t even guess that the world is ever less than perfect, shapely, and harmonious. It thinks the Beautiful representation of reality is unfailingly True. An object made of marble, its only “task” is to continue to exist as it is and display the relief sculptures on its surface. A non-functional artwork exempted from the painful struggle of fleshly existence might indeed believe the world was lovely throughout, as lovely as the scenes represented on its surface. That’s all it knows; and all it needs to know. We, the human observers, will need to know more. We aren’t going to be allowed to remain in the unflawed cosmos of the Urn. Sad, but there is a consolation. We are not frozen in immobility. We can live and move and breathe, and even kiss our beloveds; though of course we know that to love inscribes us in the order of time, and therefore consigns us, eventually, to the order of mortality—the extinction of ourselves as perceiving, thinking subjects. The Urn will still be there, unchanged, immobile, beautiful, impervious to time and to love. I assume Keats wants us to admire the Urn, but he also shows us why we don’t want to be it.
To borrow a lovely phrase from Ian Stewart, who was writing on physics (in WHY BEAUTY IS TRUTH: A HISTORY OF SYMMETRY, Basic Books, 2007), “beauty does not automatically ensure truth, but it helps.”
Yet not all truth is beautiful; some is obviously quite ugly.
A poem should not hate itself for wanting to be beautiful.
Jessica Palmer suggests that disorder is the new beauty – but allows that it could be also dereliction.
As for Eliot, we may counterpose the spirit of Kenneth Koch: One beauty conceals another. One truth may conceal another, too.
I have no anxiety whatsoever about the poem’s closing lines or whether they have, or ought to have, any truth-value.
As for beauty, as many have said, it’s in the language of the beholder.
Plainly a lot hinges on who speaks the last two lines, and whether one or two speakers. I feel most comfortable with the idea that Keats knew exactly what he was about when he created “beauty is truth, truth beauty” as something both true and beautiful, and yet circular and inadequate. (This reading suggests, though it does not absolutely depend on, the idea that the urn says just these five words, leaving “that is all … need to know” being addressed by the speaker to the urn. The absolute circularity of “beauty is truth, truth beauty” so aptly mirrors that of the urn, whose depicted story has neither a start nor an end, that I incline to this reading. However, the last line and a half also expresses and continues a strong sense of circularity, so I wouldn’t be dismayed if MS evidence showed incontrovertibly that the urn speaks both final lines). Either way, the inadequacy and yet loveliness of the idea that truth and beauty are one and the same – which creates a triteness that is presumably what Eliot disliked – seems to me to be what Keats is talking about all through the poem. The paradox is that the human mind is incapable of absorbing the idea of eternity, but also unable not to be “teased” by it: the urn is a friend to man through the comfort of its unchangingness, and yet the old age of this generation and woe of the next are not to be cured by its message, although assuaged.
Beauty is Truth
An epitaph in tone
One can see it inscribed on a deathmark
A funereal inscription
On a tombstone
On an urn filled with ashes
Ashes to ashes, and all that good stuff that never ends
Another circular instance
Keats was always dying
Keats never was not
Like Stein’s a rose is a rose
As a hope, as a denial
Would be that all were circular always
Like all poetry is
Or makes it up as if it were
A = B, and in case we didn’t get the point, B = A? I prefer to give Keats more credit. I don’t read “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” as a transcendental, let alone philosophical or mathematical, equation. The statement is addressed to someone, namely those of us who admire the urn but don’t entirely understand it. To me it’s about negative capability. Nothing wrong with knowledge, but we don’t need to know everything, and if we’re not able to entertain half-knowledge, we’ll miss out. Beauty is a kind of truth, and can be appreciated as such, without understanding. The converse proposition is that truth, even when not visually or feelingly beautiful, still has the beauty of being true. This isn’t immediately obvious from the second half of the verse in question, maybe I’m reading too much in two words, but I would argue that Keats’s beholders of unheard melodies and his Lovers who cannot kiss enjoy the beauty of those melodies and that love not because of Platonic ideals but because the melodies and love exist, they’re true. Ergo, truth is a kind of beauty.
I thought I’d share some Mayer sonnets, as Valentine’s day is almost upon us. Love nor the sonnet is standard in Mayer’s world, and she highlights the possibilities/ multiplicities of poetics and of love. After all, desire doesn’t always follow a neat and tidy pattern.
So long honey, don’t ever come around again, I’m sick of you
& of your friends, you take up all my time & I don’t write
Poems cause I spend all my time wanting to fuck you & then
You put the apple onto the grilled cheese, I tie you up
Save me from your respective beauties, keep them home
Thanks for all the rock & roll music, if such a
Thing can be said. Who are those guys? The B-52’s?
That’s what Ethie told me. Can I believe her?
You wanna get married? You tie me up with
Garter belts & less than Heidegger & Kierkegaard the fact
That as we know the poem is not the thought so a slap
Might notice that Uranus suspected a comet? Let me know
He kicks her fallen hat & they are not grownup
Any more than a vase of flowers is, painted, so what?
INCIDENTS REPORT SONNET
Woke up from dream on
July 9 1965, dream was erotic
(can’t remember what was in it),
I think the woman was attempting
to sit on her chair while
lifting the man’s wallet
but then on the boatride my hand
got caught in the elevator door
by the firecracker tossed in
by a child who was a woman as missing
as the coffee money, anyway I
lost balance and, falling, woke up
jerking off through the chair,
another chair, was still falling
on my foot, sorry.
INCANDESCENT WAR POEM SONNET
Even before I saw the chambered nautilus
I wanted to sail not in the us navy
Tonight I’m waiting for you, your letter
At the same time his letter, the view of you
By him and then by me in the park, no rhymes
I saw you, this is in prose, no it’s not
Sitting with the molluscs & anemones in an
Empty autumn enterprise baby you look pretty
With your long eventual hair, is love king?
What’s this? A sonnet? Love’s a babe we know that
I’m coming up, I’m coming, Shakespeare only stuck
You have to get young Americans some ice cream
In the artificial light in which she woke
I’m don’t consider myself a comfortable elegist (is anyone?), but reading of Alexander McQueen’s death this morning forces me to take up the mantle. I’m not a huge fashion-buff, but I made the walk past the McQueen store on 14th Street a highlight of my daily commute when I worked in Chelsea. His clothes seemed to me wild and well-tailored in the English way. His suits would have fit beautifully in this show at the V&A in London a few years back; he’s one of the only contemporary designers who would have fit, I think; and I mean fit while also doing his own, completely contemporary thing. That show, by the way, was a revelation.
So, Mr McQueen, we are sad that you are not with us anymore. Here is a tribute, from the inimitable Stevie Nicks as she gets done up for a Rolling Stone photo shoot.
I want to begin praising If There is Something to Desire by Vera Pavlova, translated by Steven Seymour (her husband, her muse! how romantic, how intrinsic!) released last month from Knopf, her first collection published in English. These one hundred poems go so far so terrifically fast (almost all under ten lines) that Pavlova seems to intentionally strive to increase poetry’s audience and relevance—this is, after all, Love in the Time of Tweets and Text Messages—with brevity and bravura; meditations for our culture’s dwindling (and, mostly, already shallow) attention spans. This Valentine’s day, send an entire poem to your dearest—take number 14 for example: the lengthy course of a relationship in eighty characters:
No love? Let us make it!
Done. Next? Let us make
care, tenderness, courage,
jealousy, glut, lies.
Now I want to follow Simone’s lead and leave you with a letter, from James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara, found in a charming pocket-sized edition from Turtle Point Press edited by William Corbett. Schuyler writes O’Hara with advice on what poems to include in the manuscript of Meditations in an Emergency, and in the process gives him the kind of generous encouragement we all need from time to time.
New York, New York
The old crank would like to see “in,” 3 Penny, Now I am quietly waiting, and There I could Never be a Boy.
Can you really leave out Debussy, which I love?
And there’s Les Etiquettes Jaunes, The Starts are tighter (with or without its last stanza, if its last stanza bothers you), and I like Morning very much.
Personally, I like My hearts a-flutter better than the one called Spleen.
And we don’t want to be unfair to “He can rest.” Do we now? Of course we don’t.
Well, give my love to the sky children. We’ll have good times talking about all this.
But mercy, don’t think the straight bolts you shoot from your crystal bow are tipped with marshmallow! They’re unbending yew fletched with eagle feather. (That means, don’t be silly and mistake sincerity and inspiration for sentimentality and goopiness.)
Je t’adore, fils du Baltimore, mon oriol, oiseaux sauvage!
PS I fainted twice and then ascended into the sky (just to the left of the UN Building) when I got to the lines in “There I could never” about “as if I were Endymion. . .”
“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore.”
—Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Miss Romano’s fourth grade class was gathered on the rough green carpeting listening to a small blonde girl with a turned up nose recite from memory “I Hate Homework” by Shel Silverstein.
The year was 1993. The place was Floris Elementary in Northern Virginia. I was dressed entirely in black.
As the little cherub was finishing, “Homework oh homework you’re last on my list. / I simply don’t see why you even exist,” I stood up, indicating my readiness to Romano with the stoicism of a samurai readying for battle. The cherub finished. The class applauded mechanically and hushed.
“Yes, Sarah? You’re ready?”
“Yes,” I said to Romano, that pedagogical twerp, “I am ready.”
I made my way through the clustered crowd of quiet cross-legged tots. As I stood before them, I took an audibly deep breath, almost a pained hysterical sigh. Then, I began.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘’Tis some visiter,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.’”
Was anyone ever so young?
Well, yes. I was nine years old and had memorized my first bit of poetry for Miss Romano’s recitation assignment. (I only did the first five stanzas—to do the entire thing would have been, well, freakish.)
Meanwhile, the context was this: My parents were in the middle of their divorce. They were in and out of the courtroom, it seemed, on a constant rotation for one thing or another, and I would miss, that year, 48 days of school due to severe anxiety that made me, literally, sick to my stomach. So, not only was I hardly ever present for Miss Romano’s class—when I was, I was reciting morose verse to my highly impressionable classmates. Miss Romano didn’t seem pleased.
Back then, everything and everyone around me was shifting. The room I lived in would change in a few months. People, a house, and belongings would be lost. But I could live a while in those first stanzas of “The Raven,” and Poe, unchanging, was with me and would—with “each silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain”—always be.
Since then, I’ve memorized a number of other poems, from Wyatt to Hopkins to Berryman to Marie Howe. And just last week, I memorized another poem in which, like “The Raven,” a dark bird plays a large role: Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” an appropriate inauguration into my 25th year.
While I was working on memorizing the ode (The best approach for memorizing lengthy poems, I think, is doing one stanza in the morning and one stanza at night), I was also—probably like many others these days—rereading Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. In it, Franny is reading a book, which, at her twerpy boyfriend’s request, she struggles to describe:
“‘I don’t know. It’s peculiar. I mean it’s primarily a religious book. In a way, I suppose you could say it’s terribly fanatical, but in a way it isn’t. I mean it starts out with this peasant—the pilgrim—wanting to find out what it means in the Bible when it says you should pray incessantly. You know. Without stopping. In Thessalonians or someplace. So he starts out walking all over Russia, looking for somebody who can tell him how to pray incessantly. And what you should say if you do.’”
Franny, earlier in the novel, also talks about poetry, or rather, argues with her twerp of a boyfriend about what great poetry should do:
“‘I know this much, is all,’ Franny said. ‘If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings—excuse the expression.’”
I’m still ruminating over these ideas: how prayer relates to memory, and if poetry has taken over the role of prayer for those of us who grew up in religiously convoluted or agnostic households, and how memorizing and repeating language creates a feeling of transcendence.
I know this much, is all: While I was memorizing “Ode to a Nightingale,” its words and rhythms ran through my head all day, like a song, and there was a quality of incessant prayer to it. The mind-space that would normally be taken up by, most likely, quotidian chatter—what I needed to buy at the store, who I needed to email, what the point of doing anything whatsoever is, what would happen if I got hit by a car without health insurance—was replaced with:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Just as Keats fades, dissolves, and forgets the weariness, fever and fret of living while listening to the nightingale’s song, I found myself—on my walk to the bakery for a muffin and coffee, or brushing my teeth at night—dissolving in the music that Keats conjured, and taking such consolation in the sounds that I would feel transformed and would often forget where I was and what I was doing. (“Room for milk in your coffee?” “That I might drink and leave the world unseen!—er…yes, please.”)
But whether you are inclined to think of memorizing poems as a kind of religious act or an exercise in staving off Alzheimer’s, it is invariably a learning experience for anyone attempting to write poetry. By letting someone like Keats inside your head, you, in turn, enter the mind of Keats and, as you memorize each line, you come to a better understanding of the decisions he made while writing, therefore coming to a more complete appreciation of the beautiful things that the poet did. It is the difference between renting a hotel room for a few days in a strange city and owning a mansion in the city middle, from whose windows you can observe the city’s inner workings, into whose rooms (“stanza,” as we know, being the Italian word for “room”) you can wander and sit for hours:
Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.
I worry about graduate students. When intention, and goals, and focus outstrip the accidental, the possibility of falling into exactly what you need to trip over, you ought to take stock: what do you just allow to happen? Some students will say, “Easy for you. You have a job.” They’re right. But I never planned my lifeever, and I think anyone who knows me, knows this is true. I’m not advocating that any one be as accidental as I am, but there needs to be some carelessness. The true power of money, or fame or talent is that it gives wiggle room for carelessness. I’ve been poor most of my life—sometimes dangerously so, and what I felt most deprived of was the right not to give a rat’s ass. A writer needs carelessness to a certain degree. They need to write just for the hell of it—without the pressure of publication, or work shopping,or a grade, or because it’s “worthwhile.” No child kicking a can wonders if it’s worthwhile. Can kicking is a value in its own right. So I like to instill in my students a sense of “just for the sheer white hell of it.”
This is what Flannery O’Connor was getting at when she spoke of developing a “habit of art.” So much of the industry of poetry is about “Work.” Being goal oriented, and focused can be detrimental, if taken too far. As my grandmah always said: “A dog chasing his tail, loses the yard.”I hate work. My idea of a meaningful life would be to recieve a spell that allowed me to lie down beside a beloved in a field of timothy grass, sans the bugs, and, every so often, she would tenderly ticikle my cheek with a blade of grass, and we would make out until ourl lips were swollen, and then walk hand in hand through blue chickory and ascend to the bed room where we’d have sex for six hours, in perfect bliss, fully realizing the tantric ideal, and then there’d be a movie, and perhaps a beverage, and the last rays of the sun would fall upon our noses just so, as we lay naked and tangled in each other’s limbs in abject splendor, and angels came with rock glasses full of Jameson– perfect little ice cubes that maketh sweet melody! Oh yes! Being short, and bald, and utterly untantric, I am forced to write this, rather than live this, which brings me to the point of my rant: writing is a compensatory act—an augmentation to a life that is not lived. It is what is missing. It is a void through which the hand moves, and, when the hand moves just so, the void allows the faces and landscapes to appear. to be vivd for a moment until they fade, and are replaced by bills, and obligations, and the voice of the world telling us to keep busy. Oh busy, busy world which hath not love, nor hope, nor Jameson: what does it avail thee? My true motto: “Lighten up and despair!”
This leads me to a writing prompt called “despairing more deeply into joy. All you need to do in this writing prompt is be undignified. James Tate is never dignified. He indulges himself. That’s why he’s famous: You need a cookie for this writing prompt, or anything you might eat when you miss someone– a cookie, rice pilaf, whatever. You need to realize life is both beautiful and hopeless, that, even if you win the Pulitzer, wrinkles will come, and body parts will fail you,and you’ll become King Lear and insist utterly false people kiss your warty ass until you drop dead, and they forget you.. If you’re lucky, you’ll be hot for about 20 years, and your reign of terror will be extended. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be less than hot,and that will mean you’ll have to be really smart or very kind to all sentient creatures just to get a little taste of what hot people get by simply breathing. Yes. Life is unfair. Ho hum. You have been cheated. You were born for greater things! Why doesn’t anyone realize it? Get yourself into a state of absolute indignity. Right now. You can begin this prompt with any of the following three lines:
“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”
“You sat naked on my sofa, all except for your glasses, and you asked me to remove them.”
“Why is that fig in your hand, instead of me?”
When I think of snow, I think of a navy blue P coat because I once loved a girl who always wore a navy blue P coat, and, in my warped mind, a couple flakes of snow are always falling into the darkness of her coat, and disappearing. I see her sometimes in dreams, and she is wearing the coat, and a little knit ski cap, and calling me : “Booshi!” I touch her hair. It is damp and wren brown, and it makes me feel wierd, and tender, and sadder than I have ever felt in my whole fucking life. Every time I go to touch her hair, and feel the damp, and watch the snow melt into her coat, she undoes the buttons, and lets me put my hands around her waist, and then she disappears. This is easy to do, this dreaming awake. I have given up all control of what should happen, and yet I am the only creature of what happens. Writers are often introverts who secretly want to rule the world with an iron fist. They need to stop trying to control everything, and then they will have the absolute power of a hollow pipe through which the wind blows, and little children peer to look out the other side.
Anyway, by now, you are probably wondering where the prompt is. It is in the lines: Let’s look at the first line:
“You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning.”
Okay, we know someone is snow (not uncommon in a poem). We know it is “that year.” We know the snow fell on the speaker of the prose poem, and it appears to happen in the morning. What’s an odd hour? Perhaps we can do without the word odd, but odd sounds nice. We shall see:
If you choose this prompt, pick a year in your life that the reader need never know: 1991, or 1967, or whatever. List three things that made that year significant : You got laid for the first time, you came to know God, your father had a heart atack in his lover’s bathroom… whatever. Anyway, list. Put the list to the side. Now, consider snow in terms of all the five senses:
Sight: how is it falling? Is it swirling? Are they fat flakes, little icy pellets? Is it lake effect snow and blowing sideways? Does it fall in a still semi-darkness of winter, 7 Am. Does it fall under the street lights? Are you noticing how vividly green and red and amber the traffic lights are during snwy days? IS the wind blowing?
Smell: wet wool perhaps, the smell of the cold (We know it has a smell. What is it), a smell of wood smoke, etc.
Taste: Is the snow salty, sooty, Icy metal? Did you suck wet wool as a child (I did)? Children are always tasting the world. They’re like catfish.
Touch: does it sting your face slightly? Does it fall on your hair, so gently yet somehow perceptible? If someone should suddenly put cold hands on your face, would it piss you off?
Sound: And has God put a mute in the trumpet of consciousness? Is the snow like a damper petal? Have you ever stood in silence on the porch, and tired to hear ne snow flake among thousands?
Now, the good news is, you don’t have to use any of this stuff. This is what I call gathering. You’re stalling. Your picking up strays. The main purpose of this is to build the thing inside you– to trust that the truth of this dream is growing.” Fell” can be aggressive: it can mean attack, or affectionate ambush, or passion, or playfulness. In this one line, you have a lot to work with. I’ve been gathering by helping you gather. I have a blue cup full of coffee to my left. My heat is working. I am ready!
You were snow that year and fell on me at all odd hours of the morning. I came to rely on it, and took my blue knit ski hat off, and let you sting my ears. But tell me, if we come to rely on being ambushed, is it ambush? The snow falls now. It isn’t you. Perhaps it is someone else’s dead. Perhaps it’s become the fingers of a clumsy child, a child who can’t button her coat, and must pretend for the rest of her life that she likes being cold. How many things since you stopped being snow have I pretended to like? I put my hands over my ears. I don’t want to hear myself. This is sad. This is always sad. I stand at the bus stop, expecting you to fall, to touch my bare neck—to give me the good pain. I say “cut it out.” In the language of sad this means: “Come here!” Look! The traffic light is more green more red, more amber than it has ever been. It is a record traffic light! I am sick with love. Terrible things happen to people, or maybe they don’t. Perhaps that’s wishful thinking because a truly terrible thing would give me full permission to cry. I need permission. Something is locked inside my scarf—something that trembles, and smells of wet wool, and doesn’t know the lock is broken. It could come out—if it wanted to. If it was that child, I would offer to button her coat. I would kiss the dark wool where the flakes were disappearing. No wonder I lose scarves—all those prisoners inside them! I can’t bear it any longer. Whatever it is, I want out. The bus is coming. Inside, in the still semi-dark, the green yellow ancient light of the bus, and slushy foot prints, and somber morning faces. Fall on me. My hands are cold. The buttons won’t obey. I am wide open. I refuse to listen. My hands are over my ears.
What is it I am so afraid of hearing? There is nothing terrible happening—nothing anyone can see. That’s what makes it so terrible. That’s what makes it snow.
Okay, so try one of these, and give yourself permission to digress, and, if you are a busy human being, give yourself permission to digress even further. Digression is nine tenths the law. Fuck the manuscript. Fuck the curriculum vitae. We serve them bitterly. We have to work, but it isn’t our true kingdom. It isn’t snow.