Saturday, January 28, 2012


Such a weighty topic. How do poets avoid sounding ponderous when they deal with it?

One way is to follow the adage "show, don't tell." Since poems are instances of shared consciousness (as poet David St. John is fond of saying ), let the poem evoke that bit of consciousness, rather than explicitly telling us what feelings we should be feeling.

Catherine Barnett's poem is slight. She simply describes an event where she was present. The beads themselves weigh practically nothing, yet the central character collects "the round weights" (emphasis mine) and has yet to restring them.

Maud Kelly's poem, on the other hand, seems to do a lot of telling: those amazing cows with windows, plus a curious dare and its follow-through. Yet does the poem relate to its title What I Think of Death, If Anyone's Asking ? Perhaps the answer is indirect: consider the opening of the third stanza:
. . . reached the point I always know
would come, when I was at once too old and far
too young, how I knew, really for the first time 
Knew what? That "there's a wildness in us" ? Or maybe that this wildness stems from the sudden yet eventual realization that we're mortal?

Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes Are Pierced (Catherine Barnett)

We unstrung necklaces into two glass bowls
and passed them around to the mourners.
The beads were onyx, agate, quartz, all manner

of stone. Everyone was to take two
and at the end of the service
put one back into my sister’s hands.

What could she do but collect
the round weights all night?
She has not restrung them,

not wanting to be finished yet with death.

        (from Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced, page 23:  Alice James Books, Farmington, ME © 2004)

What I Think of Death, If Anyone’s Asking (Maud Kelly)

Let me tell you about the cows, how scientists driven
by some dark need to see them digest, really see it,
cut holes in the sides of twenty and inserted glass
tinged with plastic there, riveted it to their skin,
creating in each a porthole, so that when they stood
together, sleepily chewing, at the icy edge of a Missouri
sunrise they looked not unlike a fleet of cow ships, moored
illogically to a barn, bobbing on a sea of frozen sod.

Let me tell you how I stumbled, nineteen and drunk,
across a field to touch one on a dare—the window,
the boy had hissed, shoving the bottle at me
for one last drink, it has to be the window
how I moved, stubbing my feet, shivering woozy,
eyes half-mooned from groping, and was almost there,
hoping the boy was watching, impressed,
and aroused, his eyes blazing with the joke of it all,
how, then, from nowhere and all at once the long arm
of time’s elliptical arc swooped in, wrapped me
in its cello-thin line, how I stopped, looked at the cows,
wondered what they must see coming toward them,
what monster upon them now, mad with curiosity
and no doubt a map of what to peel back next,
having already torn open and plexiglassed
their stomachs, would it be their hearts, or would I take
their souls, undo the papery layers of their thoughts,
pull the thread of their breath to unravel the tones of their lowing.

I am telling you how I reached the point I always know
would come, when I was at once too old and far
too young, how I knew, really knew for the first time
that there’s a wildness in us, how that made me sick
but I couldn’t go back, so I went toward the only cow
who watched not me but the sun, pink as a newborn,
heaving itself through the trees. I went to her, leaned
my head on her back, the sun growing, the boy
turning, her belly reflecting the last of the stars.

        (from The Best American Poetry 2009, editor David Wagoner, page 66:  Scribner Poetry,
New York, NY © 2009)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

"Body of Water"

Since the previous posting was "River," let's continue with an aqueous theme. Both of the poems below relate to a body of water, yet each poem does so with a slightly different focus. 
At first blush, Jennifer Michael Hecht's "September" seems to be a melange of different thoughts. We learn where the speaker is situated in a most indirect way:
. . .
I let my oars fall into the water.
. . .
My hand trails in the water.
. . .
I should not have dropped those oars.
. . .
Initially, people are "getting what they want"; then they are "getting just what they need"; later, those people are "so happy / that they have forgotten to worry about tomorrow."

Hecht is smack dab in the middle of an experience. What we have is a meditation, and the poem embodies that very experience: different thoughts cross-cut each other in an associative, intuitive, manner. The poem does not proceed linearly because the mind typically carries out its work in a non-linear way.

On the other hand, Mark Strand's "A Morning" proceeds in a noticeably linear fashion. The speaker sets off in a boat for Mosher Island, and the details of that journey are related in the order in which they are experienced. The speaker's realization is saved for the end: "saw for the first time / the one clear place . . ." . But for me, the key phrase is "I have carried it with me each day." That boat trip to Mosher Island has been recalled often, and its power/wonder is re-experienced by the speaker on a daily basis.
For Hecht's speaker, the (mystical) experience occurs only once, and we the readers are privileged to enter that singular, magical moment.
Poetry: so many different strategies -- ya gotta love it.  

                  September (Jennifer Michael Hecht)

Tonight there must be people who are getting what they want.
I let my oars fall into the water.
Good for them, Good for them, getting what they want.

The night is so still that I forget to breathe.
The dark air is getting colder. Birds are leaving.

Tonight there are people getting just what they need.

The air is so still that it seems to stop my heart.
I remember you in a black and white photograph
taken this time of some year. You were leaning against a half-shed tree,
standing in the leaves the tree had lost.

When I finally exhale it takes forever to be over.

Tonight, there are people who are so happy,
that they have forgotten to worry about tomorrow.

Somewhere, people have entirely forgotten about tomorrow.
My hand trails in the water.
I should not have dropped those oars. Such a soft wind.

        (from The Next Ancient World, page 32:  Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT © 2001)

                  A Morning (Mark Strand)

I have carried it with me each day: that morning I took
my uncle’s boat from the brown water cove
and headed for Mosher Island.
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
other half of the world until, by a distant prompting,
I looked over the gunwale and saw beneath the surface
a luminous room, a light-filled grave, saw for the first time
the one clear place given to us when we are alone.

        (from New Selected Poems, page 163:  Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY © 2009)

Friday, January 13, 2012


What is more natural, more appealing, more calming than a river? Yet there is a mysterious quality about rivers. And the two poems presented in this posting are fine examples of how language can be used to clearly communicate the mysterious aspects of a given situation.

The first poem, by William Stafford, uses uncomplicated language, but what exactly does the river tell the speaker? ("What the river says, that is what I say.") And what is there about the moment "when the river is ice" that makes it a propitious time to think about "mistakes I have made" ?

In the second poem, Stanley Plumly uses straightforward language to convey a complicated situation: the difficulty of communicating.

How do these two poems approach the notion of mystery/difficulty in similar ways? in different ways?

Ask Me (William Stafford)

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

        (from The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems, page 56:  Graywolf Press, St. Paul, MN
© 1998)

       Wrong Side of the River (Stanley Plumly)

I watched you on the wrong side
of the river, waving. You were trying
to tell me something. You used both hands
and sort of ran back and forth,
as if to say look behind you, look out
behind you. I wanted to wave back
But you began shouting and I didn’t
want you to think I understood.
So I did nothing but stand still,
thinking that’s what to do on the wrong side
of the river. After a while, you did too.
We stood like that for a long time. Then
I raised a hand, as if to be called on,
and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

        (from Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me: New and Selected Poems 1970-2000, page 151:  Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins, New York, NY © 2000)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Introduction and "Trees"

In the preface to his 1998 book Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, poet Stephen Dunn writes:

I became intrigued with working in tangentially related pairs, each a discrete paragraph and as packed and pithy as I could fashion…I became fascinated with how I might make different ideas, claims, and stories rub up against and inform each other.
Here is a sample prose-pair of Dunn's:


   When you insure your life it’s a bet for your heirs, which you win by dying. And a hedged bet for the big companies, who’ve already invested your premiums in commodities and futures. Kafka couldn’t have invented it any better. When I was 19, my father arranged a summer job for me with New York Life. All I had to do was take the psychological test, and I was in. “Do you ever have black, tarry bowel movements?” one of the questions asked, and I wavered, sure my answer would mean everything to New York Life. “Yes,” I decided, which couldn’t have been the only reason I flunked. My father was disappointed and I ashamed. And now I think my failure was a kind of insurance—the best I ever fell into—against doing such work. Ever since, I’ve tried to live my life so that living would be its own annuity, in its own time. A bet in the dark, the beneficiaries always in doubt.


   Years ago at Aqueduct, my friend Joe, a Marxist, bet on a horse named Marxism in the third race. Its odds were 8 to 1, which seemed about right. And it won. Eighteen bucks for a two dollar bet; he didn’t share it with the masses, you can be sure. This is a true story about luck in the small. In the large, he had bet on a horse that immediately thereafter seemed to get old. Never won again. History’s always a bad bet, unless you play it to show. Even Tiresias and Cassandra’s inside dope didn’t alleviate any anguish or doom. No insurance possible for an ancient Greek. Yet I need to believe that luck can confound fate, change its course. I need to believe you can make a little of it out of research and nerve. The rest is a one-time gift, a nag that for a while gave some of us hope, like Marxism in the third.

        (from Riffs & Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, pages 108-109: W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY © 1998)
But what would happen if one paired poems against each other? Would rubbing two poems together create a fire that might further illuminate each one in terms of craft, imagery, musicality?

This blogspot is just such an experiment. Each posting will present a poem-pair. The poems in a given pair are related in varying degrees—sometimes obvious, sometimes fleeting and mysterious. Some poems are realistic, others are more philosophical. The poems appearing here may vary in length and structure. Some poems use formal devices like stanzas or lines of a particular rhythmic structure, while other poems go their own way, defining their strategy as they proceed.

Other than providing a brief label for the poem-pair, I do not discuss any relationship between the poems. Instead, I leave it to the reader to discover and enjoy whatever linkages might exist.

In this inaugural posting, I feature a poem by Marvin Bell and a poem by Gerald Stern. (A full citation follows each poem.)

So, let the experiment begin!


The Self and the Mulberry (Marvin Bell)

I wanted to see the self, so I looked at the mulberry.
It had no trouble accepting its limits,
yet defining and redefining a small area
so that any shape was possible, any movement.
It stayed put, but was part of all the air.
I wanted to learn to be there and not there
like the continually changing, slightly moving
mulberry, wild cherry and particularly the willow.
Like the willow, I tried to weep without tears.
Like the cherry tree, I tried to be sturdy and productive.
Like the mulberry, I tried to keep moving.
I couldn’t cry right, couldn’t stay or go.
I kept losing parts of myself like the soft maple.
I fell ill like the elm. That was the end
of looking in nature to find a natural self.
Let nature think itself not manly enough!
Let nature wonder at the mystery of laughter.
Let nature hypothesize man’s indifference to it.
Let nature take a turn at saying what love is!

        (from Poems 1962-2000, page 89:  Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA © 2000)


                         The Power of Maples (Gerald Stern)

If you want to live in the country you have to understand the power of maples.
You have to see them sink their teeth into the roots of old locusts.
You have to see them force the sycamores to gasp for air.
You have to see them move their thick hairs into the cellar.
       And when you cut your great green shad pole
you have to be ready for it to start sprouting in your hands;
you have to stick it in the ground like a piece of willow;
you have to plant your table under its leaves and begin eating.

        (from Leaving Another Kingdom: Selected Poems, page 22:  Harper Perennial, New York, NY © 1990)