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.

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?

Please, Read for Equality

I’ve said it before but now more than ever, this is important. We all need to read books written by people who don’t look like us. Here are three that I’m reading this week and each one is valuable, readable and satisfying.

Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a Memoir.  Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Lene Indian, writes with his usual wit and depth about his childhood through the lens of his complex relationship with his mother.

Qin Xiaoyu, ed. Iron Moon: An Anthology of Chinese Migrant Worker Poetry, translated by Eleanor Goodman. Jared Smith, Director at The New York Quarterly Foundation, writes in his back-cover blurb: “These poems are a wake-up call for poets, scholars, and humanitarians everywhere.” He’s right.

Smith, Tracy K. Duende, Poems. Smith’s book won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is our current U.S. Poet Laureate.

Let your library and bookstore know that you value books that enlarge your world, and I welcome your additions to this list. If you send recommendations via the comment option here, I’ll add your ideas next week. If you add your voice to mine, we will have an impact on the racial tensions in the USA and the world.

Read for equality.

Imperfect Gifts

One of my favorite books is The Gift, by Lewis Hyde. It’s about passing along the gifts of creativity–writing, visual art, music, etc. It came up again this past week with a group of writers. But what if the gifts I give are less than perfect, not even close? After all, would I give someone a bald tire, a torn shirt, half a jar of peanut butter? I wouldn’t give stale bread to a starving child.

And what constitutes a real gift, as opposed to a gift to my own ego? “Look at the wonderful poem/book/photograph I’ve made.” Gifts are meant to signal generosity, not grandiosity. I remember a segment of the TV show Friends, in which Phoebe tried to give a gift that did not in any way serve her. She found that it was impossible, because she felt good about giving, thus the gift was never pure.

Gifts from writers are never pure either. The writing is never perfect and the writer’s pleasure in sharing affects the giving. But we still must move the work on. It’s a bit like raising a child and sending that kid out in the hope that he or she will be a friend to someone, a loving spouse, a hard worker. Poems, essays, and stories are our offspring, and sending them out is an act of faith, however flickering that faith may be. We cannot give without receiving, and maybe that’s the best gift of all.

Word for the Day Is Wall

The Great Wall of China, built with slave power about the third century BC was ineffective against invaders. Now it’s a tourist site. The Biblical Old Testament tells us about the Battle of Jericho: “And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.” Hadrian’s Wall was built in 122 BC to protect the northern boundary of Roman Britain. It did not keep out the enemy. In 1961 East Germany built a wall of wire and concrete. It came down in 1989. My dictionary defines a wall as “a rampart built for defensive purposes,” meant to enclose, to divide, to confine, to block off.

Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” begins, “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall …” I’m with him. But of course, I live within walls, feel safe and sheltered by the sturdy walls of my home. But these walls are pierced with doors and windows that can provide access, welcome, or escape, as needed. Defensive walls, historically, have not guaranteed safety from intruders. They are costly failures. They are not permeable and can imprison those on the inside. Like Frost, something in me doesn’t like such a wall.

Ekphrastic Writing

Yesterday Lighthouse Writers Workshop in collaboration with Denver Art Museum sponsored an event featuring ekphrastic writing, writing in response to visual art. Our host writer for the day was MolinaSpeaks, a Denver poet and artist. Molina led us to the 4th floor of the museum where a we visited Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place,  installations by 13 Latino artists exploring “contemporary life in the American West.” Our process was to first visit each of the installations and then choose one that inspired close observation, interaction, mystery, whatever might inform our own writing.

My choice was a mixed media grouping by artist Ramiro Gomez. His bronze sculpture of a woman stands outside the museum, near the entrance, and three mixed media pieces inside portray the same woman, Lupita, who cleans the museum. Gomez says in his bio that manual work is an important element of his art. He uses cardboard, black trash bags, a cleaning rag, a spray bottle in his constructions, textures and surfaces that Lupita handles as she cleans.

The static art brings her not to life but into our lives. At breakfast yesterday I did not know her. With my morning coffee today, I know of her. Here’s the poem that developed as I sat with Gomez’s art:

LUPITA

Cardboard and black plastic,

cleaning rag and spray bottle–

everything means something:

the blood-red paint, a woman

cut out of the background,

leaving a white silhouette

of a brown woman. Warned

to “stay behind the line”

meant to protect the art,

I cannot touch her, Lupita

of Integrated Cleaning Service

though she touches me.

Why I Own Books

I’ve moved dozens of times and in those moves I tried to free myself of the weight of books. It has yet to work. The books sneak back into my home like stray cats. And this week I had a lesson in the joy of owning them–the books, not the cats.

Reading a library book, I saw what looked like an unintelligible couple of lines quoted from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. These poems are dense and ask a lot of a reader, and despite having read them numerous times, I didn’t quite trust myself to say, oh, yes, typos in an expensive tome of criticism. Didn’t dare say “Gotcha” to an editor from Harper Collins. Hurried two or three steps to the Es in my collection of poetry, and felt momentary panic–where was Eliot? Aha, the coy, slender volume was hiding between Stephen Dunn and Sharif Elmusa.

But my memory was right, two words were missing initial letters in the quoted passage. My copy of the poems saved me from booting up the Mac Mini and waiting for the wifi to open, and then the bother of typing in the search box, and watching the screen light its way into the labyrinth of Eliot’s work to find those wounded words snapped off like glass twigs.

Best of all, I had that little book in my hands, the feel of its sleek cover, the little head shot of T.S.E, a facsimile of his signature, the praise from John Crowe Ransom on the back cover, and inside the familiar dots of red ink I often use to mark memorable lines, my very own Four Quartets. And I read it again straight through, brushed my teeth, and went to bed happy and vindicated.