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Archive for October, 2010

Poem Elf posts seem to be a tad morbid lately.  Perhaps I’m adjusting to the seasonal change or reacting to Halloween decorations or, most likely, working out just-under-the-surface sadness from the passing of two fathers in one year. Whatever the reason, now that I’m aware of the death thread, I can snip it.  But one last entry first.

I found this website of the graves of famous poets.  Be warned, the quality of the photographs is on par with mine, that is to say, decidedly amateur.  I was surprised that so few tombstones were engraved with poems.  Sylvia Plath’s grave, below, is one of the few that features a poetic quotation.

 

Not featured on this website is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beautiful tombstone near my hometown.  Modestly situated in a Rockville, Maryland Catholic churchyard by a noisy intersection, his grave features poetry of the highest order.

 

Happy Halloween, everyone.

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poem is on tree trunk

Spring and Fall

to a young child

by Gerald Manley Hopkins

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name: 10
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Presenting this poem, I feel as though I’m introducing an old friend to newer ones.  The old friend is an oddball, dressed in clothes from another era, caught up in pursuits even I don’t understand, a Suzanne-takes-you-down-to her-place-by-the river sort of person, but still precious to me, burrowed deep and claiming her plot in my heart’s territory.  I feel anxious that the new friends, polished, sensible people, won’t understand or like the old one.

Which is all to say, this poem and I go way back.

Maybe I was 7 or 8 years old when one of my older sisters studied “Spring and Fall” in high school.  Because I shared a name with the child in the poem and because my sister has always been sweet and thoughtful, she gave the poem to me one Christmas. Literally.  She printed it on parchment, burned the edges, and decoupaged it on a piece of wood. (Decoupage! Big in the 70’s.) She used to recite the poem to me in a voice you might use to tell stories of goblins and ghosts, a voice urgent and eerie.  I can still hear her, building the drama, picking up the pace with each successive alliteration and bouncy rhyme, and then slowing down to that killer last line: “It is . . . MARGARET. . . that you grieve for.”

Long before I understood them, I had memorized the first two lines.  Hearing my name in a poem!  I was famous!  Any attention in a family of eleven is like cupcakes for dessert (unexpected and eagerly devoured), and so the poem became part of my identity.  I associated myself with the young child of the poem, the one with “fresh thoughts,” the one who inspired such musings in an old man. (Actually there’s no reason to assume the man is old, just older, but that’s how I’ve always seen it.)

If my name wasn’t in it, surely I wouldn’t have liked it so much.  “Spring and Fall” is not an easy poem to understand. Although the speaker addresses a child, the convoluted syntax and invented words are not, in the parlance of 2010, child-friendly. Unless children were loads more intelligent in Victorian days than they are now, I suspect little Margaret’s understanding of this poem rested mainly in the joy-fest of words, the delightful sing-song way it sounds.  (This poem is just begging to be recited.  Go ahead, it’s fun.)

Just as the language is a little advanced for the poem’s stated audience, so is the message. The old man, observing the child Margaret crying, explains that she cries now and will continue to cry when she’s older, for the same reason:  because fall signifies the coming of death. She mourns the end of her own life even as she begins it.

What a message to give a child, we might think. Better enjoy jumping in the leaves while you can, kid, because you’re going to DIE. Our culture shields children from death. The old family cat is just “sleeping”; grandma dies in the hospital where children aren’t allowed and then the casket is closed at the viewing so as not to upset anyone; and there are even those parents, Bruno Bettleheim be damned, who find fairy tales too morbid and disturbing for a young audience. (It will be no surprise that in my career as a mother I’ve erred on the side of hard truths too soon.)

The old man in the poem speaks truthfully to little Margaret, on the assumption that children know much more than they can articulate.

I’m reminded of another adult who speaks truthfully and unsentimentally to children: Mary Poppins, the P.L. Travers character, not the spoonful-of-sugar one. To modern readers, Poppins may seem brutal and unkind, but I loved her and read the Travers series over and over, even into my teen years. In a Paris Review interview, Travers explains Poppins’ nursery room demeanor:

She doesn’t hold back anything from them [the children]. When they beg her not to depart, she reminds them that nothing lasts forever. She’s as truthful as the nursery rhymes. Remember that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again. There’s such a tremendous truth in that. It goes into children in some part of them that they don’t know, and indeed perhaps we don’t know. But eventually they realize—and that’s the great truth.

I do think children, in their intimate relationship with nature—the hours spent with lightening bugs and dandelions, bees and slugs, grassy hills and falling leaves—understand something of mortality well before we anxiously read them Where’s Grandpa. Every beautiful thing children experience in nature dies or changes. Spring to fall, life bursts forth then dries up, crumples underfoot, blows away.

And so with Hopkins’ poem.  Spring and fall, joy and death.  Joy in the created world, in wanwood leafmeal and goldengrove, and joy in the act of creating poetry.  But then there’s the weeping, the ghosts, the sorrow, blight and death.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), brilliant Victorian scholar and poet, seems to have been an unusually intense man with a large capacity for joy (expressed in his religious faith and in poems) and just as large capacity for sorrow.  He suffered from depression his whole life.  Converting to Catholicism as a young man and becoming a Jesuit priest isolated him from his disapproving Anglican family and convinced him, for a time, that writing poetry was self-indulgent.  As a new priest, he burned his earlier poems, but returned to writing seven year later.  He was published little during his lifetime and found an audience only after death. In spite of his depression and the loneliness he felt living abroad in Dublin (he taught James Joyce), he insisted as he died of typhoid fever, “I am so happy, I have been so happy.”

Listen here for Natalie Merchant putting these very musical words to music.

Jane in the wanwood leafmeal




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The week before Halloween seems the right time to share an image that’s haunted me since I first saw it a few years ago.  “Caroline” is a mixed media photograph created by my old friend Trish Rawlings, an artist and writer living in Baltimore. The photograph is taken from a series called Revenant, meaning “one who returns after death or a long absence.”

Besides, a little beauty on Monday morning helps enormously.

From Trish:

“The mixed-media assemblages shown here are from a series called Revenant, which had its genesis when, some months ago, I uncovered a group of portrait photographs and negatives I’d packed at the bottom of a trunk and forgotten about. While I studied and then began to work with the images, I was struck by how different the faces looked from how I remembered them; I felt I’d never seen them before.
Some bore an air of ghostly wistfulness, as though weakened by the years of confinement,while others appeared bewildered, lost, ironically, in the light.  A few flaunted a defiant expression, as though proud to have survived both darkness and abandonment. You do what you must do, these seemed to say, against invisibility.
Impelled by an irrational guilt–feeling I’d committed an existential crime by consigning them to darkness and obscurity–I tried to return these sea-changed faces to how I remembered them. But no amount of darkroom tweaking had any effect; the haunting images had emerged from their exile as new beings.
When it came time to print, straightforward methods felt wanting. The added layers of time, memory, and longing begged a fresh approach. I hit on the idea of using a shallow shadow box and found materials to set off the faces and suggest complementary moods. While I worked, it felt as though someone–or something–were pressing me to bring about yet another incarnation for these faces from the past.”

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The Ticket

by Anne Porter


On the night table

Beside my bed

I keep a small

Blue ticket

One day I found it

In my pocket-book

I don’t know how

It got there

I don’t know

What it’s for

On one side

There’s a number

98833

And

INDIANA TICKET COMPANY

And on the other side

The only thing it says

Is KEEP THIS TICKET

I keep it carefully

Because I’m old

Which means

I’ll soon be leaving

For another country

Where possibly

Some blinding-bright

Enormous angel

Will stop me

At the border

And ask

To see my ticket.

Frustrations with WordPress ran high with this post. For reasons sadistic or indifferent, WordPress doesn’t acknowledge line breaks.  I press Carriage Return once—twice—ten times—-I pound it—-I say bad words—I type what I think are HTML codes. Nothing changes.  It’s like trying to talk reason to an ideologue.

Please, WordPress, give the people WHITE SPACE!

It’s an issue today because white space fuels this poem.  I apologize to Anne Porter and all readers who have to squint away the pesky dashes I inserted to simulate the breaks between stanzas.

Porter uses line breaks and white space masterfully in “The Ticket” to create a poem that seems effortless and improvised.  A dotty old woman putters around the page, slightly confused, wondering why she kept a ticket stub and how it landed in her purse.  But dotty old ladies can be remarkably sharp, as any Jane Marple fan can attest.  This one knows exactly what she’s doing and where’s she’s going.  She’s going to die.

Such a morbid subject is balanced by Porter’s humor and trademark simplicity.  I don’t want to rattle the poem around too much to shake out meaning.  Seems an indelicate thing to do to an old lady, and besides, the poem is pretty straightforward.  But I do want to talk a little about the poet herself.

Porter’s literary career was launched when she was 83 with the publication of her first book of poetry.  Can I say that again? Her literary career was launched when she was 83.  Surely that’s the most hopeful, life-affirming sentence I’ve ever written.   And she is the sweetest most adorable poet I’ve ever encountered.  Watch this video to get an idea.  (Best line: she opens a letter and says, “Oh, from the Pope.”)

I’m not sure if she’s still alive.  I couldn’t find an obituary online, so I assume she still has her blue ticket in hand.  Which means she’s 99 years old by now.

She was born in Boston to a wealthy family, attended Bryn Mawr, and married the most famous American painter and art critic I’ve never heard of, Fairfield Porter.  (A link to his work proved his paintings familiar, if not his name.) Their marriage was not an easy one.  He indulged his artistic temperament and sexual drives while she tended to their five children* and hosted his friends for months on end at their homes in Southampton and Maine.  Lovely that some of these guests were his lovers, male and female, but to be fair, she had an liason of her own.

Their life together fascinates me. I’ve lost a good hour following their story link to link, drawn down down the rabbit hole of mid-century bohemia. Their social and familial circles pull in such a number of artists and intellectuals, it’s a veritable Bloomsbury group.

portrait of Anne by Fairfield

Like so many other wives of writers and artists, Anne Porter remained hidden and overlooked until the death of her husband.  I have a vision of her tottering on her walker, step by step, on through the heap of egos, drama, passion and duty that blocks her path, until at last she emerges cheerfully on the other side, an artist in her own right.

 

 

*Her oldest son was mentally disabled in some way, either autistic or schizophrenic. When he died in 1980 she wrote the heartbreaking “For My Son Johnny.”

 

For more information on the remarkable Porter, read this profile in the Wall Street Journal.

For a review of her most recent collection of poems, link here.

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Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Download Cover

I’m in love.  I’m reading Parrot & Olivier in America by Australian Peter Carey.  I’m thinking about the book all the time, taking it to bed, and not wanting our relationship to ever end.  Carey’s books have a crazy reckless energy that I associate with Australians in general (oh, my old friend Pippi Woodger!), and this one pops with the same fizz. The book follows the unlikely friendship between a late 18th century Alexis de Tocqueville-like aristocrat and his servant, Parrot, conscripted to follow his master to America to spy on him.

Parrot’s life has not been his own. Terrorized and tricked by those older and more powerful, he’s been shipped around the globe, forced to leave behind family and lovers.  In this passage, Parrot recalls his time in New South Wales, where he was sent as an innocent boy on a convict ship.  Home is England to him, where he left behind no one, his mother having died and his father hung for forgery.

Being a transplant myself, I’m touched by Parrot’s riff on home and thinking a lot about wasted time.  So I send this out to all the other transplants.  And also to those who have had to listen to transplants sing the glories of their home city/state/country.

“I had a wife, a child, a home, but for all that I did not understand it was my home.  She, my wife, would not call it home either.  All around us everyone was the same— soldiers, convicts, even captains with their holds stock-full of rum.  Home did not mean here.  That was elsewhere.  When will we be in our real home at last, we asked each other.  We manured the earth, she and I, and grew cabbage, and toasted the tails of kangaroo, and held each other through the entire night, breathing that perfume that lies on the skin of young boys and girls.  We swam at night, bare as God made us.  We gathered oysters from the rocks and shucked their living juices down our cruel and eager throats.  We laughed and farted. We had fevers and were well.  We were at home, while waiting to go home, while missing home.  We looked up at that cobalt sky, and out at the ultramarine seas, not seeing their beauty but only the cold empty distance between us and home.  And so we made our lives, pining all the while.”

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Experienced bloggers advise newbies, “Post early and often.”  Doggone it, I just can’t seem to do that.  Notwithstanding the fact that I don’t think clearly before 10 a.m., I also couldn’t post one of my long poetry responses every single day.  I’d burn out in a month and so would my readers.

But I do want blog more frequently. My solution is to create short posts of what I call “poetry found,” for lack of a better term. “Found poetry” (more here) refers to piecing together words and phrases from texts already in existence to create another text, a poem.  “Poetry found” will refer to moments, textual and non,  that carry an import beyond their context.

Let me translate that gobbleygook into English.   Everyday we have experiences that need to be pulled apart from the others and examined or appreciated. These moments—-overheard conversations, odd juxtapositions, and snippets of books—-can be poem-like if not quite poetry.  Think of poetry found as pulling a photograph from a jumbly pile of hundreds of photographs and placing it on black matting.

So I begin right now.

*********************

Today in a checkout line, the woman behind me said to the person on the other end of her cellphone, “You’re the first person I’ve been able to tell my stories to.”

Her past loneliness made me sad.  At the same time I admired her honesty.

There was a pause on her end of the conversation before she replied, “I’m respectful of other people’s time, that’s all.”

My thought:  How many people in this world are waiting for someone else to have time to listen to them?

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I Have News for You
by Tony Hoagland


There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

I was sitting in Costco’s concrete food court with my husband as he ate lunch.

“Look around,” I said, sighing dramatically.  “Here’s the crowning glory of our consumer culture:  obesity, obesity, and more obesity.”

He glared at me.  “Can I please finish my hot dog in peace?”

Clearly I can relate to the over-thinkers poet Tony Hoagland playfully roasts in “ I Have News For You.”  It’s not always a group I want to belong to, especially after reading this poem. We over-thinkers can be such silly creatures—blocking sidewalks as we ponder our existence, scouring life for symbols and irony the way other people look for bargains and good parking spaces. If only we could stop thinking so much and simply feel the breeze at the window, swat the fly in the motel room, and gaze at the lemon-yellow moon.

I really like this poem.  I love how the title rolls right into the first line. The title, which is repeated towards the end, sounds faintly aggressive (just add “buddy” or “pal” to the end and you’ll hear it), but also humorous, a quality lacking in the over-thinkers of the poem. So despite of the fact that the poem’s speaker includes himself in this group of kill-joys (“there are people unlike me and you”), his drollery makes him a member of the other camp as well.*

The person addressed in the poem, and by extension the speaker of the poem, is the type of person who invents symbols, interprets behavior, cannibalizes friends and family for material, yearns for fame, and is tortured by failure. Sure sounds like a writer to me.

In other words, here again Hoagland (or the poem’s speaker) straddles the opposing camps of thinkers and feelers. Hoagland pokes fun at the very condition which allows him to poke fun. To write a poem about people who spend too much time making metaphors and analyzing behavior, he has to create metaphors and examine his own and his friend’s life.  He uses elevated, academic language to sharpen the humor of his judgments, and the humor provides a lightness that keeps him from becoming that which he ridicules.   (And he does have a delightful sense of humor which you can enjoy here.)

In the last section, the humor fades and the poem’s mood turns wistful.  In creating an image that is purely physical, the speaker seems to yearn for release from the burdens of abstract thought:

I have news for you—

there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in

and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies


Notice the lack of end punctuation.  (Hoagland wants you to notice it.)  The phrase drifts off, very like the breeze it describes, unweighted by periods or semi-colons or intense rumination.  Or perhaps the phrase is a visual representation of the speaker’s voice trailing off, as he wanders back in his own head. (Oh dear. Have I fallen into a trap here?  Am I “sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through the noisy straw”?)

Not for any particular reason, on a warm September weekend I taped “I Have News For You” to the deck of a beach house where I was staying for a girls’ weekend. I’d rather have posted a poem celebrating friendship, but I didn’t bring one with me. Nothing else I packed spoke to me. (Unfortunately I felt same way about my wardrobe choices.)  The very urban Grace Paley didn’t belong in the salty air; old Walt Whitman’s free spirit belonged, but no one with me would have enjoyed reading him; and the haiku I brought about gray hairs on a pillow was a downer. Hoagland earned his space by default.

But I have succeeded in fashioning a good reason for this poem-elfing because, like those tortured souls in the poem, I can wrangle connective tissue out of sand.  Some background first: the women at the beach house have been friends since high school, some even longer than that, and for twenty-one years have reunited annually.

Not one of us is quite the same as we were as teenagers—life has tossed some around more than others—and as the years go by, the differences between us are more marked. Some have eight children and others two; some have high-powered careers, others are at home; some are passionately religious and others more secular; some are Democrats, some Republican. These differences and those in marital status, income, and temperament might divide other friends, but they don’t matter to us.  We all treasure our friendship and our time together. We hang.  We sun ourselves.  We talk and advise and gossip and remember wild times.  There’s a lot of beach time, a lot of beer, some good greasy food, music and late-night dancing.  And lots of laughing.  For this weekend we leave behind worry over health issues and home life.  We’re together, we’re in the sun, baby, and it feels warm and wonderful. No over-thinking allowed.

That weekend the girls played a lot of cornhole. For the uninitiated, cornhole is a mindless beanbag tossing game.  Two teams compete to throw the bags into holes on plywood ramps. Hoagland might have observed that there were the people who played cornhole and others (okay, maybe just one person) who found it a communal evocation of scatological activity.

Someone asked me to play.  “No thanks,” I said.  “I don’t like games of accuracy.”

But I had second thoughts and tossed a few beanbags just to get over myself.  And sat back down on a lawnchair with the sun on my back and a cold, cold beer

 

*The dichotomy Hoagland sets up between people who live in their heads and those who live in their bodies reminds me of the old story about former Redskin John Riggins sitting next to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor at a black tie dinner. “Come on, Sandy baby, loosen up!” he said, shortly before passing out on the floor.

Lucky folks in the Washington area:  Tony Hoagland is giving a reading November 12 at the Library of Congress.  Look here for details.

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