“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship with everything in the universe.”
“Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship with everything in the universe.”
The other night I went to see the poet Billy Collins deliver a lecture. It was a pretty fancy event–I’d been given the tickets– held in the beautiful Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. As Billy Collins remarked, it is like standing inside an enormous cello.
Anyway, I don’t know a lot of Collins’ poetry, except maybe two or three poems, but I always use his poem “Introduction to Poetry” at the beginning of any course I teach in poetry. In it, Collins claims:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
It is those last five lines that are important. They describe why poetry is met with such an “ugh” from people whose only experience with it has been in classes where the well-intentioned teacher urged them to “find the meaning.”
I tell my students that human beings are innately wired to respond positively to poetry (think infant lullabies, toddlers’ picture books, nonsense riddles, jump-roping songs). It is the English teachers who teach students to dislike it. To think of it as something to fear and dread.
And that is a shame.
For last night, Collins (who repeated what I said about poetry being innate) was as entertaining as could be. He told the audience a bit of his life and his term as Poet Laureate of the U.S. He spoke of his influences and literary influences in general. He spoke of the death of humor in poetry–he blames the Romantics who he said “replaced sex and humor with landscape.” And he spoke of the difficulty for some people used to hearing formalist poetry to hear the acoustics of what is commonly called free verse. (He doesn’t like the term.)
He also read several of his poems, although half of what he read came from others. Here is a wonderful two line poem by Howard Nemerov called “Bacon and Eggs”:
The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.
See it’s good to laugh. And have fun in poetry.
And so he spoke of the importance of humor and used a poem by Ruth L. Schwartz to demonstrate how humor can be used as a transition point, moving from light to darkness (or vise versa). He got a laugh on the line “look at that DUCK,” which is how he wanted it to be:
The Swan at Edgewater Park
Isn’t one of your prissy richpeoples’ swans
Wouldn’t be at home on some pristine pond
Chooses the whole stinking shoreline, candy wrappers, condoms
in its tidal fringe
Prefers to curve its muscular, slightly grubby neck
into the body of a Great Lake,
Swilling whatever it is swans swill,
Chardonnay of algae with bouquet of crud,
While Clevelanders walk by saying Look
at that big duck!
Beauty isn’t the point here; of course
the swan is beautiful,
But not like Lorie at 16, when
Everything was possible—no
More like Lorie at 27
Smoking away her days off in her dirty kitchen,
Her kid with asthma watching TV,
The boyfriend who doesn’t know yet she’s gonna
Leave him, washing his car out back—and
He’s a runty little guy, and drinks too much, and
It’s not his kid anyway, but he loves her, he
Really does, he loves them both—
That’s the kind of swan this is.
But the most effecting poem that he read was the one that he read last. It is his beautiful poem about the love between a mother and son–told with sweet humor:
by Billy Collins
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
I gave my students a poem today and asked them to wriggle around inside it and tell me everything they found in there. The poem I gave them was “The Pitcher” by Robert Francis. I was hoping there were some baseball players in the class, but none of them had played much past little league. But many of them were fans. And I believe they achieved a pretty good literal reading–how a pitcher in baseball depends greatly on being misunderstood, at aiming at something he didn’t seem to be aiming at, at avoiding the obvious and varying the avoidance. We went through it line by line, describing what aspect of a pitcher’s performance was being described. One student thought that maybe it might even be, in his words, “about a pitcher and maybe about a non-conformist.” That was interesting. He knew what he meant but was having trouble working himself through it. And then one student, somewhat self-doubting, said that he too saw the poem dealing with a baseball player and something else. But for him, that something else was “a poet.” He went on to say that a poet’s deception was that instead of saying something was brown, he would say something was like the “leaves of autumn.” Much like a pitcher’s throw looks like its coming one way but then intentionally breaks another. A part of him believed that he was really off-the-mark but, to his credit, he forged on. And he was pretty good. In fact, in the past, after a class has seen this poem, I ask them–as they are leaving–to think again about “The Pitcher” when they get home, but this time to think in terms of a poet and the poet’s craft, to think about the similarities between what some pitchers and some poets attempt to do. And the next days’ discussions are often quite good. But today’s student was the first ever to go there without my prompting. And that’s a pretty cool thing.
The Pitcher by Robert Francis
His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.
Eyes, Stones–Elana Bell’s first collection of poetry and the winner of the 2011 Walt Whitman Award–is an extraordinary feat of poetry and clear-mindedness. Each of these 40 small poems are dense explosions of beauty and clarity, encased in language that is both modern and antique, beautiful and brutal–much like the countries that she writes about.
In her poetry, Bell attempts to look and understand the worlds that are Palestine and Israel. She moves from biblical stories to modern events and much in between. Her topics range from the ancient relationship of Abraham and God, Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Hagar to the modern Holocaust, the Zionist movement, the 1968 Egypt-Israeli War, and the most recent Intifada.
But what is remarkable about these poems is that they don’t stink of politics, of nationalism, of self-righteousness. They are simple poems that lay bare the simplicity of man’s pain, the artlessness of his troubles, the wonder of his existence. Often, in these poems one is unsure which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Bell sits, her treatment is so even-handed.
Take for instance her poem “Naming the Day,” which is a composite both of those Jewish villages in Eastern Europe destroyed or made “Jew free” AND those Palestinian villages destroyed or evacuated during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
In “On a Hilltop at the Nassar Farm,” the speaker admires the Palestinian woman Amal:
“Amal laughs with all her teeth and her feet
tickle the soil when she walks. She moves
through her land like an animal. She knows it
in the dark. She feeds stalks to the newborn
colt and collects its droppings like coins
to fertilize the field. Amal loves this land
and when I say land I mean this
exact dirt and the fruit of it.“
Amal’s rough existence she compares with her own existence in the settlement that surrounds Amal’s land:
“All around her land the settlements sprout like weeds.
They block out the sun and suck precious water
through taps and pipes while Amal digs wells
to collect the rain. I am writing this poem
though I have never drunk rain
collected from a well dug by my own hands,
never pulled a colt through
the narrow opening covered in birth fluid
and watched its mother lick it clean,
or eaten a meal made entirely of things
I got down on my knees to plant.“
Yet Bell’s work does not rise from the guilt of the occupier. It comes from a genuine love of the people–both Arab and Israeli–and a horror of the world that has evolved around them. A particularly poignant poem, “In Another Country It Could Have Been Love,” laments what could be between the two:
The next time I saw her, a rifle
strapped her shoulder. The tip
of it fingered my ribs, my hips
the inside of my thighs.
Cold metal instead of her hands,
Elana Bell herself is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and as such, her examination of Jewish and Arab relationships is strikingly honest. She maintains an embracing love of the land through its many incarnations: biblical landscape and Zionist dream, modern nation and occupied territory.
In the end of the collection, she returns to Brooklyn where she lives. There she will “watch the Super Bowl…eat organic greens and make love on Saturday afternoon…[She will] listen to jazz in tight-packed clubs…and sleep on clean cotton sheets.” It is during this sleep, however, that the Mid-East comes to haunt her, to remove her from her comfort, and to tie her to the lands of her heritage.
Eyes, Stones won the 2011 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Five of her poems (along with her bio) are published on the Academy’s website. Check it out. She is a remarkable woman and a fine poet.
I am not the first to make the comparison between the Pacific Coast Highway in Northern California and Ireland. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It is a magnificent landscape, full of crashing surf and rock-strewn fields, dramatic cliffs and rolling mountains. The hills are more “golden” than green, and the roadways have much fewer sheep and doubledecker tour buses, but yes, it very much reminds me of the west coast of Ireland. Every turn in the corkscrewing highway offers another extraordinary vista.
But it is Goat Beach which is perhaps the most memorable. Goat Beach sits where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. In July the river flow is feeble, but it is then–between March and July–that the area is a breeding ground for sea lions.
By July the sea lions have already pupped and the adult ones seemed quite tired. At first, it is a bit jolting to see twenty to thirty adult sea lions asleep by the rivers edge. It looks as if they have all been slaughtered. But then a fin rises to slap a companion or another waddles to find a more comfortable position. They are just resting–and continue to do so for the rest of the morning.
But the seal pups are another story. Frisky and active, they plunge into the crashing surf of the Pacific or slide into the muddy waters of the Russian River. There is something fascinating about these creatures: their sleekness, their eyes, their movement.
Seals and sea lions have long played a part in Norse and Celtic myth. The legend of the selkie is perhaps one of the most famous and there are a wide variety of stories about them. These creatures are seals when in the water but humans when they go upon land and emerge from their sealskin. And while there are numerous variants on the stories, there are basically two version of the selkie myth: one female, one male. The female selkie is often a beautiful woman who is “captured” by the man who finds her, unable to return to the water because the man has taken possession of her discarded skin. The male selkie is also renowned for its beauty and charm when it comes upon land and sheds its skin, and he is often noted for his ability to satisfy the unhappy and dissatisfied women of the area. Fairly often, these women bear his children, usually children with some sort of “deformity” or oddity about them. These women too are in possession of the creature’s skin.
I can immediately think of two wonderful movies that deal with this myth. One, is a 2009 film, Ondine, featuring Colin Farrell (and my personal favorite actress Dervla Kirwan from Ballykissangel) and the other is an older film from 1994 called The Secret of Roan Inish. Both are well worth finding, however you find your movies these days. And both deal with the female version of the story.
Anyway, so I am reading The Guardian online this winter and I come a cross a video of the Scottish poet Robin Robertson reading his poem “At Roane Head.” It is a powerful poem, and perhaps the most powerful reading I have ever witnessed. In it a woman cares for her four children. Her drunken husband has disowned them–for they have seal-like characteristics as well as human. At the tragic end, the woman returns the seal skin to her lover.
Here is the video. Give it a view–I find it very powerful.
(by John Frederick Nims)
Except all ill-at-ease fidgeting people:
The refugee uncertain at the door
You make at home; deftly you steady
The drunk clambering on his undulant floor.
Unpredictable dear, the taxi drivers’ terror,
Shrinking from far headlights pale as a dime
Yet leaping before apopleptic streetcars—
Misfit in any space. And never on time.
A wrench in clocks and the solar system. Only
With words and people and love you move at ease;
In traffic of wit expertly maneuver
And keep us, all devotion, at your knees.
Forgetting your coffee spreading on our flannel,
Your lipstick grinning on our coat,
So gaily in love’s unbreakable heaven
Our souls on glory of spilt bourbon float.
Be with me, darling, early and late. Smash glasses—
I will study wry music for your sake.
For should your hands drop white and empty
All the toys of the world would break.
I once read this poem in public to a group of twenty to twenty-five people. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that I had brought her to tears. Although it was a nice compliment, I knew surely that it wasn’t I that did it. For who could hear those final lines “For should your hands drop white and empty/All the toys of the world would break” and not get a catch in their throat?
I love this poem because it is an anti-ideal love poem.
Shakespeare did the same thing 400 years ago with his Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.)
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Here too, the poet celebrates the flaws and the humanness of his beloved. In embracing her reality–and announcing that he has no need to “belie her with false compare” as so many other poets did–he claims a superior, purer love… “a love as rare” in Shakespeare’s words.
Both men, separated by four centuries, are similarly battling against a constructed “ideal.” Whether it was the “ideal woman” presented by the Renaissance sonneteers or the “ideal woman” fashioned by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, it was a false image. And both men knew it. Their love, they claim, is special because it is grounded in the real world, not in an imaginary, air-brushed, wish-fulfillment world. Their love exists in the everyday, “everyman/everywoman” world that most of us mortals inhabit.
We know little of Shakespeare’s beloved except for what she looks like: dark hair, pale-lipped and dun-skinned, bad-breathed, clunky-walking and shrilly-voiced. Nims, on the other hand, gives us more information about the object of his love. She deftly handles those who are ill-at-ease, exiled or drunk; she moves easily with words and people and wit and love. Certainly, she has her frenetic failings–and Nims recounts them with affection– but that is not what makes her unique; that makes her human. She is much more than that. She is unique in the welcoming warmth of her love, in her compassion for and embrace of life.
Nims truly appreciates and loves her for what she is. And isn’t that what all of us is looking for?
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