Torn, I stood in the bookstore with Thomas C. Foster’s new book, How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse. It wasn’t the price that slowed me down. It was that word professor, someone I don’t want to be if by this he means one who intellectualizes poetry. Fortunately, the subtitle is fairly accurate. Foster’s tone–flip and funny–saves the day. And my only complaint is that he starts at the pointy end of the process: things like scansion and rhyme, exactly where we often lose new readers. But he has fun with what he calls”Redeeming the Time” and “The Rhythm(s) of the Saints.” He acknowledges that few of us read for the chance to identify an iamb or a trochee.
In fact, his books is so much fun that I have taken on the self-assigned task of writing about his advice and his definitions. So far I have fourteen pages of response. In one of my favorite quotes as he attempts writes “… we’re not going to get anywhere if you insist on being rational” (29). (Harper Collins has blessedly given permission to use “brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.”) Rational? I don’t know how to help readers who cling to explicating the text as if a bit of imaginative language might cause psychosis. Literal reading at the expense of pleasure is a waste. I want to associate with people who read with all their senses, hearing the music in the language, seeing, touching, even tasting the imagery.
Of course, in addition to the hard-nosed literalists there are those who call what they write poetry when in fact the work in question is sermon or greeting card, the first to be obeyed and the second to be forgotten. Bludgeoning a reader to adopt ones own beliefs sends them complaining to the poetry police. And we know that is not the true intent of poetry. As a reader and a maker of poems, I want to share experience and enlarge my own through the words of others. If these words are sonorous, so much the better.
You’ll likely read more here about the book that I almost did not dare to buy, but cowardice was not on a prerequisite of my long poetry education and Foster is offering me a refresher course. Thanks, Prof.
This past Saturday was the 30th annual Poetry Rodeo (or Podeo, as some call it) in Denver. This event traditionally goes for 12 hours and includes a wide variety of readings and workshops. It’s a candy store for poets. The Mercury Cafe, its home, is a tasty venue and I felt comfortable there, and well entertained, nay, more than entertained. I was inspired. Especially by the introduction of one poet’s first book, Dream On, by Darcy Reed. The first book is a milestone for any poet, but hers is significant for us all.
The author’s note from this book reads, in part, Darcy “is a non-speaking person with autism who uses augmentative communication to write and present her poems.” Think, Stephen Hawking. Darcy’s parents and her brother support her on stage, clearly, but the poetry is her own, and it’s fine work indeed. Appropriately, the first poem is “For Stephen Hawking,” in part: “There will be other dramas / in this void. / I will meet you there,/ my friend./I will meet you there.”
I hope that they do meet in the cosmos, and I’m ridiculously happy that technology, scary at it is at times, has made it possible for us to hear Darcy’s deeply felt and well crafted poems. And now we can read them as well. Dream On is published by Blue Heron Publishing. I suggest you read it.
I’ve been reading David Orr’s You, Too, Could Write a Poem: Selected Reviews and Essays, 2000-2015. Orr’s style and substance are fine, and he goes deep into issues that concern me. Circumstance or synchronicity, not sure which, drew me to copy into my journal the question of whether or not a “bad man” could write “good poetry.” Well, my answer is yes. I think.
Within hours, though, I was blasted by NPR with the news that one of my favorite poets has been accused of sexual misconduct and has apologized, a whiff of guilt. I’m not happy about this. The rise of the MeToo issue matters; so does the character of writers in this wretched stretch of public life where we need more than ever to rely on our best talents.
The poetry books on my shelf still mutter, “Read me, read me.” But I don’t know how to read them today, given this unhappy news. The words still line up; they do not blush red-lettered from shame or embarrassment, but my relationship to them has changed. What felt like shared truth feels–oh, icky. If I read the books, am I endorsing his bad behavior?
And what about the idea of forgiveness? I was not a victim, so it’s not my place to tell others how they should feel. But divisiveness and everlasting castigation isn’t going to help us learn to respect each other. I’m puzzled and caught in a moral dilemma. Maybe I need to read the poems again in the light of this development. We don’t live in a New Critics’ world where nothing matters but what’s on the page. Neither do we live in a world where biography alone determines the value of creative writing.
One of my life-long props is wobbling. Poetry is not always beauty and beauty is rarely truth, no matter what Keats would have us believe.
After much thought, I’m changing my ways. I’ve deactivated Twitter and LinkedIn, tried to get rid of my personal Face Book page (not a simple task, but I’ll keep trying), all in the interest of using my time better. I’ll leave my Karen Douglass Author page intact, as it might be useful to those who see my blogs through that lens. I mean to spend less time staring at a screen that tries too hard to sell me things or services I don’t want, that reTweets obnoxious political rants, fills my hours with cute puppies or cats, when I have in residence a gorgeous cat and three fine canines. Much better to watch their antics than flat screen analogs. Maybe I’ll unhook the dominos and solitaire apps from my phone.
Instead of enduring a barrage of useless information, I plan to spend more time here, blogging, something that I enjoy and that just might be of use to someone else. I returned library books this morning through the drive-up, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to check out more books. I have, oh, more than a hundred books here at home. I think I’ll reread them from Allende to Zagagewski. These books live here because they please me. I’ll start with my top-twenty shelf.
I hope to be more active on Goodreads, where, again, I might connect with people in a useful way. I’ll be more attentive to Colorado Independent and the News Poetry there. The poetry of witness has been an interest, almost a compulsion, for me for at least a decade, since I took part in a workshop with Allison Hedge-Coke at Naropa University in which Allison asked us to put our art in service to an issue. And do we have issues! Better to attend to them than to admire the shoes or widgets or casual conversations all too present online. Most of all, I will pay much more attention to poetry. I’ve spent years grappling with the art and use of it, so why not get, finally, all in?
There, I’ve said it, so now I’m committed to a better use of my time. We cannot know how much time we each have. No point in wasting any of it.
I often complain that my “mind is like a sieve” given the limitations of an overstuffed memory. Because I read a dozen or so books a month, I cannot recall the juiciest parts of most. Sometimes I scribble into my journal what strikes me as worth saving. But my journals, once full, go into a box in the closet and might not be seen again until the box overflows and I pitch the whole mess into the recycling bin.
And there go the nuggets of wisdom or grace that I took the time to write down. There is a better way. According to Wikipedia, the English philosopher John Locke wrote in 1706 a book titled A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, “in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”
I’ve not read Locke’s advice, but I’ve known since my first graduate school course that I need a system to preserve the wonders collected in my sieve-like mind. Hence, the turquoise journal reserved for the best of the best quotes and details worth the ink to copy them. I have another book that I call my reading log, in which I note the author, title and shiny little bits of language or ideas that I would otherwise forget. I think I’ll give Locke a look and take notes about his note taking. An addition to my endless search for the gold that is good writing.
February is Black History Month and this book of poetry is the best kind of history, first-person history, family history straight from the family. The book even begins with a family tree.
Don’t let the YA library sort deter you. The book is about a child but not by or only for a child. I read it straight through and I will likely read it again. There are scenes of the equality marches that Woodson witnessed, she tells us about being followed in the stores, lest she steal, which she never did. But far more often we are privileged to see up close a family raise four children who are loved, well cared for, well spoken and talented. As a writer, my favorite poems here is “composition notebook” in which the child Jacqueline cannot yet write but is in love with a blank book: “For days and days, I could only sniff the pages, / hold the notebook close … // Nothing in the world like this– / a bright white page with / pale blue lines. …” How could this child not grow up to be a winner of the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, and a Coretta Scott King Award?
Wouldn’t it be fine if all children’s dreams came true?
So, last blog I said I would this week reveal my writing plan for the future. First, regarding the future, Fate is in charge. What I intend, though, is this: I’m rejoining my tribe, poets, and now my mornings pages are full of old words and new insights. I’m mining for prompts two books, Tremor by Adam Zagajewski and The Notebook by José Saramago. The first is poetry, the second a collection of blog posts by a Nobel Prize winner from Portugal. I need their ideas, images, vocabulary and syntax now to be of use in a ragged world.They lead me deeper into dark and difficult places, but I manage to come out of those caves (think Plato) with sharper sight, or so it feels. Maybe I’ve mentioned a hundred times that I admire depth as well as the other joys of poetry.
Poetry should be of use, not to preach, but to connect the writer and the reader to a shared world. Ten years ago or so I took a weeklong workshop at Naropa University with poet Allison Hedge Coke. Her assignment was to put art in service to a cause. At that time my cause was our endangered food supply. I was fired up by the writing of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others who highlighted the risks of taking food for granted. The result was my poetry book The Great Hunger, or in Irish An Gorta Mor. (No, I don’t speak Irish; a generous student in Galway once tried to teach me, but this short-stay visitor did not learn much Irish.)
Over coffee yesterday, I talked with Jared Smith, an excellent and experienced poet, about reconnecting to poets. He encouraged me and suggested what to read, where to go, who to know or know about. I’m also involved in writing News Poetry for Colorado Independent, a progressive online newspaper. And I have widened the lens of current events to include concerns over climate, homelessness, and racial inequality. The news is full of inhumanity and I don’t plan to preach–preaching is not the same as poetry–but I mean to put my words in service to the sad unfairness of the world and find some peace in the making of poems.