Relearning Poetry

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.

Jake Adam York

Almost at the end of National Poetry Month, browsing a library display, I found Abide/Poems by Jake Adam York. York, now deceased, has been widely admired, especially by Colorado writers and readers. An associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver, he edited the journal Copper Nickel (http://copper-nickel.org/).

Abide, says David Wojahn in his cover blurb, is “an intricately layered threnody for the martyrs of the civil rights movement …” In the author’s afterword, York says that this book is both elegiac and ethical. He grew up in the US South, a white man writing about the ugly divide he had witnessed between his kind and the people of color who suffered, and who still suffer. Often the poems are couched in the language of the blues, honoring the birth of the genre in black culture.

York’s poems comfort and distress me, turn by turn. The beauty of his language draws me into the horrors of our history. His loss is great, but I am beyond pleased to have his work to sustain the movement toward equality.

 

READ FOR EQUALITY

Sorrow & Confusion

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.

My Mind’s a Sieve

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.”[1]

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.

brown girl dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

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?

A Plan in January

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.

2017 in Review

This weekend many of us will look over our shoulders and see what’s behind us, not what’s stalking us, but what we have accomplished, other than staying alive. Mostly, I think of the work I’ve done. Keeping a positive attitude so that I don’t shred myself to tatters over what’s left undone. So, let’s see what I have accomplished:

Finished and launched a third novel, Invisible Juan; had eight poems published in a variety of venues; coached an enduring group of eight other writers; maintained my poetry output with the help of a weekly critique group (thanks, Gamuts); led a workshop or two, one for the News Writers of the Colorado Independent; participated as an invited guest in the seasonal poetry reading at the Loveland CO Museum; read more good books than I can list; posted a few reviews on Goodreads; wrote regularly with two groups of friends, one the Free Writers, the other a women’s group; maintained this weekly blog; had Providence reviewed in Publishers Weekly; spent many productive hours in libraries and coffee shops with my pen in hand; started yet another novel (what am I thinking?) and met regularly with my climate fiction partner to share ideas and information on writing and publishing.

Thanks to my followers for sticking with me here, on FaceBook, and on Twitter. I’ve learned from you, taken your presence as encouragement, and your discernment as a measure of my skills. Feel free to jump in here and let me know how your year of writing has gone. Next week, let’s set some goals for 2018. HAPPY NEW YEAR.