Saturday, May 7, 2011

"A Story" by Li Young Lee

Sad is the man who is asked for a story
and can't come up with one.

His five-year-old son waits in his lap.
Not the same story, Baba. A new one.
The man rubs his chin, scratches his ear.

In a room full of books in a world
of stories, he can recall
not one, and soon, he thinks, the boy
will give up on his father.

Already the man lives far ahead, he sees
the day this boy will go. Don't go!
Hear the alligator story! The angel story once more!
You love the spider story. You laugh at the spider.
Let me tell it!

But the boy is packing his skirts,
he is looking for his keys. Are you a god,
the man screams, that I sit mute before you?
Am I a god that I should never disappoint?

But the boy is here. Please, Baba, a story?
It is an emotional rather than logical equation,
an earthly rather than heavenly one,
which posits that a boy's supplications
and a father's love add up to silence.

This is another poem I found that I liked. It reminded me a little of my dad.

"Grief" by Elizabeth Barrett Browing

TELL you, hopeless grief is passionless;
    That only men incredulous of despair,
    Half-taught in anguish, through the midnight air
Beat upward to God's throne in loud access
Of shrieking and reproach. Full desertness
    In souls as countries lieth silent-bare
    Under the blanching, vertical eye-glare
Of the absolute Heavens. Deep-hearted man, express
Grief for thy Dead in silence like to death—
    Most like a monumental statue set
In everlasting watch and moveless woe
Till itself crumble to the dust beneath.
    Touch it; the marble eyelids are not wet:
If it could weep, it could arise and go.

I happened to really like the poem, especially the last two lines about the statue. It took me a few reads to get it, but now I love it.

"What the mirror said" by Lucille Clifton

you a wonder.
you a city
of a woman.
you got a geography
of your own.
you not a noplace
mister with his hands on you
he got his hands on

I like this poem for two reasons. I really like the theme, and the rhythm to this poem is wonderful. The idea of a mirror prep-talking a girl may sound cheesy, but it's actually more true than it might appear at first. I've definitely stood in front of the mirror in my mirror and done that positive self-talk. Sometimes, being a girl or a woman can be incredibly hard. It's easy to believe that you're insignificant or ordinary.

There's a sort of irony to the title "What the mirror said." Often, when girls look in the mirror, they see someone fat, stupid, un-cool, or whatever else negative there can be to looks. It's strange, then, for a mirror to be saying, "you a wonder." I think this poem does a good job of the insecurities of a woman's life. It can be guessed that it is the woman saying these things to herself, not the mirror. So it would seem that she has a good sense of self-worth, but there's a sense of worry to the poem, like she's trying to convince herself that what she's saying is true. I like that the woman in this poem doesn't seem weak or completely broken like struggling woman so often are -- she's saying some pretty bold things to herself, after all -- but she isn't arrogant either. She's just trying to prove to herself that she has some individual value.

I also like that this entire poem could fit for any woman. Plenty of men can testify that "somebody need a map/ to understand" women. And the slang in the poem makes it seem like it applies to all woman, rich or poor, educated or ignorant, confident or beaten down. The words are simple and don't exclude anyone. And the message -- you're body is unique and something to be proud of -- is something that every woman should know.

But perhaps my favorite part of the poem it the rhythm. None of Clifton's verbs agree with the subject, according to standard English grammar -- and that's if they appear at all. She's using what has been called "Black English." The "broken" dialect of English grown in eighteenth century century slavery and latter slums. There's something warm, honest, and attractive about it. It's the kind of speech in which a girl can tell herself she's worth it without feeling guilt for being arrogant or self-centered. It skips the formality or political correctness issues of standard English to get to its point. And because Clifton chose such a "raw" form of speech, the whole poem is more believable. It's like the when a girl asks if a dress makes her butt look big. There's the typical answer, "No," that she's probably not going to believe anyway, but there's also others answers, like "Heck no!" that, while not exactly standard English, is still more believable.

Overall, Clifton's poem is just fun and encouraging. Perhaps I'll tape it to my mirror to wake me up it the mornings.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Not Waving but Drowning" by Stevie Smith

No one heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They say.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

This poem makes me think of my experiences in the ocean around Hawaii. The waves there can be huge and lots of fun, but they have also broken a lot of necks. I have been there as a little kid, with my parents telling me to stick by them, near the shore, and as a teenager, in water so deep I could barely touch with sister, both of us watching out for each other. As much fun as the ocean is, I have had enough experience being pummeled to be wary of its dangers. Spinning in the darkness, with not idea where up is and no air is one of the scariest experiences I have had. I have also noticed how easy it is to get very far out without noticing. Thankfully, I have always been with my sister, parents, or aunts and uncles, who let me know when they thought we'd gone too far, or who came after me when I started to drift away. I always stuck with one of them so that someone would know if I went under a wave and never came up. The difference between me and the dead man in the poem seems to be that the man didn't have any family with him. And even though other people saw him, no one moved to help, no one even realized he was in danger.

There is something very sad about this poem, so much sadder than anything that ever happened to me in Hawaii. It switches through about three voices: the narrator's, the dead man's, and 'theirs'. The narrator starts the poem and, in his omniscience, explains the situation. The dead man is "moaning," a strange thing for a corpse to do, but here is seems less like the dead man's body and more like his spirit, pleading to be heard, just once, since he was never heard in life. And 'they' are nameless people, standing around a dead body, analyzing its death. The three voices take turns, each telling to situation from a different angle. 'They' are pitying, but without deep emotion. The narrator sounds a bit like God looking sadly down at His children who just don't understand. And the dead man is trying, desperately, to communicate with the people who never heard him before.

What I really love about this poem is the way the imagery and symbolism evolve. At first, we see a man waving far out in the waves. The motif "not waving but drowning" appears for the first time, and we get the sense of neglect that is prevalent throughout the poem. We then move to the body on the beach, being examined, perhaps by EMTs. Or perhaps the morgue. We hear the typical regrets of people when a life that has been cut short and the diagnosis -- his heart gave way, probably because of the cold. But then the ordinary, though not typical situation changes, as the dead man responds, "Oh, no, no no, it was too could always...I was much too far away all my life/ And not waving but drowning." In a few simple lines, the poem opens up to universal application. The ocean become a symbol for life, and the man's death has so much more meaning. I almost got chills as I read the last stanza. Perhaps it's because I can relate to being in a sea of trouble, or just a crowd of people, without anyone to notice me or help me. I don't think I'm anywhere near death, but sometimes I do feel the cold spoken of in the poem. The motif "not waving but drowning" also makes me think of how many people I may pass by without noticing that they need my help. As much as I might sympathize with the dead man, I probably act much more like the well-meaning, but insensitive 'they.'

This poem is sad, but that's what makes it powerful. It's meaning might be called obvious, but it reaches its point in such a way that it touches the heart. It makes us want to shed out natural protective shell and become less callous. It makes us want to see the faked smile and the hidden pain that we could somehow fix. It makes us believe that if we did see, we would be able to save those who are dying.

The next time we see someone waving, we'll check that they're not drowning.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"this is just to say" by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I could see this poem taped to the fridge after coming home from school or work. It's the perfect apology: honest and sweet enough to erase any anger. And despite written with simple words, for a simple purpose, it still managed to to draw up imagery. The simple words just flow.

Williams uses mostly one syllable words, which lends a homey feel to the poem. The longer words -- icebox, breakfast, delicious -- get extra emphasis. Williams also does something interesting with his rhythm: he writes two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable. The pattern in not contained in single lines, but flows through the whole poem, through lines and stanzas, creating a waltz-like pattern to words: step, step, slide, step, step, slide. The actual words of the poem float over the rhythm like a melody over the beat. As a result, a message that otherwise might have sounded insensitive or even rude is actually quite elegant.

The incredible thing about this poem is that, despite an almost complete lack of descriptive words, it bring up very clear images. I see an old-fashioned kitchen, glowing the morning sun, and a scrap sheet of paper, stuck to the refrigeration with one of those silly, almost tacky magnets, with this poem written on it. I can also see the plums, nestled in the icebox, bright purple and ripe, before being taken out and eaten. I can almost taste to juiciness on my tongue, sweet and cool. And I can glimpse someone, possibly his wife, holding the poem, shaking her head, and saying, good-naturedly, "Oh, William."

Perhaps what I like best about this poem it the attention that it gives to something as ordinary and as domestic as eating plums. Certainly the are bigger, more profound things to write about, but Williams chose simple and incredibly commonplace. How many of us have eaten something that we have know, or could have guessed, someone else was saving for later? Even if it wasn't exactly theirs and they hadn't expressly forbid you to eat it? But Williams finds such an experience worthy of poetry. In a few, short words, he expresses the attitudes vital to a family: honesty and humility. He highlights the importance of even the littlest things and puts a sweet, simple spin on life. Without great literary devices or even punctuation, he writes a poem that touches the heart. It it the sweetest poem I've read.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

"When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wandered off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Looking up in perfect silence at the stars.

This poem reminded me of "Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins. I think it portrays a similar theme. As a Physics students, I have had some lessons on the theorems and mathematics behind the stars, though probably not even scratching the surface of what this "learn'd astronomer" taught. All the same, I can testify with this poem: it gets tedious. On the other hand, I have been in the desert or the mountains at night, far from civilization, and looked up at the pure expanse of endless pinpricks of light. While being about the do the math makes you look smart, there's no feeling quite looking at the clear night sky. That beauty is not something you can capture with numbers and equations.

I like the way Whitman has set up this poem. His first four lines all start with "When." The first sets the scene, the second adds detail, and so it goes, getting longer and longer, until the fifth line, where he finally picks up again with the sentence. It seems that Whitman is imitating the astronomer's lecture. Originally interesting, it drags on and bogs down in details. I particularly like how each line gets longer, expressing Whitman's frustration. It is especially powerful in conjunction with Whitman's ironically positive diction. He never directly insults the astronomer and even says that "he lectured with much applause." Whitman calls his tired and sick reaction "unaccountable." But it couldn't be clearer that he never actually meant the praise when compared to his words in the second half the poem. Sweet, graceful words like "gliding," "mystical,""silence," and "stars" express true emotion unlike the accurate but empty words of before. They express a sense of release -- and not just from the astronomer's lecture.

Whitman is not insulting the astronomer. If he were, his tone would be much more sarcastic. But he expresses a sort of detachment from the astronomer and his audience. It seems that Whitman has found himself in a crowd that he does not -- cannot -- relate to. He watches the astronomer demonstrate impressive things, watches other people erupt in applause, but he remains untouched. It seems he leaves, not just out of boredom, but out of loneliness. He seems to think through how he sees the stars so differently than everyone else. He does not attempt to describe the stars, even in their beauty. The obvious point of the poem is to criticize those who analyze to the point that they loose the true value of a subject, but there is also an underlying theme of a man who doesn't connect with the excitement of the people surrounding him. Because an appreciation for the night-time sky isn't something that can be shared in a lecture. There is a sense of loneliness and isolation to the poem because of this disconnect. The emotion heightens the reader's sympathy for Whitman, and in the end, re-enforces the idea of true experience being cluttered with data. It's an ingenious poem.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"Sindhi Woman" by Jon Stallworthy

Barefoot through the bazaar,
and with the same undulant grace
as the cloth blown back from her face,
she glides with a stone jar
high on her head
and not a ripple in her tread.

Watching her cross erect
stones, garbage, excrement, and crumbs
of glass in the Karachi slums,
I, with my stoop, reflect
they stand most straight
who learn to walk beneath a weight.

I liked liked this poem for the wisdom of the two lines. The whole poem beautifully illustrates its point about adversary without sounding critical or callus like the common phrases "Trials make you stronger," or "Work builds character."

The whole poem is actually just two sentences, broken into two stanzas. The first stanza, or sentences, appears to be only describing a particular scene, like many other poems. The word "bazaar" immediately places the reader in a third-world, Middle Eastern market. "Barefoot" suggests poverty but also strength and tenacity. With this setting, both visual and emotional, immediately put in place, Stallworthy uses precise detail -- the cloth, the placement of the jar, her walk -- with words like "grace," "glides," "blown," "high,"and "ripple" to put a sense of beauty, even accomplishment, to the stereotyped image of an African women carrying a load on her head. The image itself may be unusual in its culture, but Stallworthy describes it in such a way that the usual pity that comes along with such description is completely erased. Stallworthy puts worth and dignity to this woman who in many other renditions would to portrayed as unfortunate at the best.

With this set up, the reader still carries the grace of the woman with him as he reads Stallworthy's description of her surroundings. The poem drops back to reality, where the woman really is poor, and by our, American terms, extremely unfortunate. But even as Stallworthy depicts "garbage, excrement, and crumbs/ of glass in the Karachi slums," the reader retains an admiration of the woman, who can walk with such grace, barefoot, though it all. Stallworthy nurtures this feeling by comparing his own stoop to the woman's straight back. His personal comparison seals the attitude he has been feeding and makes his point come across as humble and as compassionate as possible: "they stand most straight/ who learn to walk beneath a weight."

Throughout the poem, Stallworthy follows a simple, though not common, rhyme scheme: abbacc. The rhymes are not jarring. Only the last couplet in each stanza stands out as obviously rhyming. This is impart because Stallworthy has no set rhythm to his lines. The words flow, but they could easily sound like prose. However, because of the the rhymes, the words sound just a little more poetic, a little more composed than they would ordinarily. This parallels the image of woman Stallworthy is describing. It could be ordinary or taken for granted, but it is actually far more than first meets the eye. And, of course, the rhyming of the last two lines highlights the thesis of the poem.

"Sindhi Woman" is a beautifully written poem that breaks away from the stereotypes of both poverty and so-called "character-building" to portray the spirit of one who has overcome, without loosing the meaning in a series of devaluing cliches.

Friday, March 18, 2011

"you fit into me" by Margaret Atwood

you fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook
an open eye

I love this poem. It made me laugh out loud. I've never read a poem that I love as much as I love this one. It's brilliant.

When I first read the title, I thought its was going to be one of those sappy or slightly creepy poems like Shakespearean sonnets or modern pop songs. I know at least one song called "You Get Me," which is entirely sappy and romantic, and it was the first thing that popped into my head when reading "you fit into me." This romantic beginning makes the irony of the second that much more powerful. I was laughing then and just kept laughing harder as I read the rest of the poem. The poem has brilliantly continues the sentence through not just lines, but also stanzas to produce the desired effect.

This poem also has a rhythm to it. Although it is not in a specific meter, certain words, like "hook" and "eye" are clearly stressed. The other syllables dance around the poem, pointing to those two curial words. The poem sounds pleasant. It doesn't trip up the tongue, the words could be sung -- which just furthers the irony. Some that sounds so sweet, is really so cruel.

The simplicity of the poem makes it stunning and humorous. After all, a witty joke with a powerful punch line is normally preferred to a long, drawn-out and weaving telling of the same joke. Atwood makes her point and leaves.

As will I.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

"Cottonmouth Country" by Louise Gluck

Fish bones walked the waves off Hatteras.
And there were other signs
That Death wooed us, by water, wooed us
By land: among the pines
An uncurled cottonmouth that rolled on moss
Reared in the polluted air.
Birth, not death, is the hard loss.
I know. I also left a skin there.

When I first read this poem, I stupidly confused "cottonmouth" with "cottonwood." You can imagine my confusion as I tried to figure out what an "uncurled" tree had to do with anything. However, some quick research quickly told me that a cottonmouth is not a harmless plant as I had assumed, but a notorious, venomous snake, which change the meaning of the poem for me drastically. I also learned that Hatteras is a small island off the coast of North Carolina. Apparently, it saw some action in the Civil War, but for all I could tell, it's just a collection of small towns trying to attract tourists.

"Cottonmouth Country" has a large amount of strange irony. From fish bones walking -- which should be impossible both because they're dead and because they're fish -- to Death wooing to polluted nature, the poem has strong, jarring juxtaposition. It adds a sense of dry humor to the poem about death, pollution, and other unpleasant topics. It this way, the poem leaves the reader with a more open mind than might have been possible if the descriptions had been all dark.

Gluck uses ironic comparisons to lighten dark topics and darken light ones. The poem is set on a beach, but it is not the pretty beach of California or Hawaii. Instead of turtles, there are fish bones. It is also an East Coast beach, and I have to admit that I don't think of those beaches as exactly clean. Mostly, I just think of all the trash New York used to dump into the ocean. This marred paradise leads exactly into the idea of Death that "wooded us, by water, wooed us/ By land." If life is the beach, death is its trash. The fish bones litter the sand, and death tries to pull you away from every direction. It even sneaks up in the form of a cottonmouth.

This snake seems particularly important. It not only names the poem, but gains more "time" in the poem that anything else. Because of the colon after "By land," it seems likely that the cottonmouth is either one of the signs of Death or Death itself. It makes sense, seeing as cottonmouths are poisonous. They are also sneaky and easy to miss, just has death may be where we would never expect to find it. An interesting thing about death in this poem is that it's capitalized. This indicates that Gluck is referring to it either as a place or a person -- or just something to be respected. I think of it as some sort of person, represented by the cottonmouth.

The last two lines of the poem are the most confusing. "Birth, not death, is the hard loss./ I know. I also left a skin there." The last line seems easier to understand. Loosing skin automatically made me think of snakes (even when I thought a cottonmouth was a tree). They shed skin in order to grow, something I don't think any other animal does. So somehow the speaker is like a snake -- or the cottonmouth. As I thought about how in the world a human could lose skin, I thought of birth. After all, weren't we within our mother's skin before? So when we were born, we essentially "left a skin." We left a protection.

Before we were born, we were protected, safe. But just after, we were introduced to a world of sorrow, suffering, and imperfection, just like the dirty beach in the poem. Death is all around, like a sneaking, venomous snake, and we never know when we will get bit. Death is not hard. It is only an end, the poem seems to say. It is living, with its uncertainty and its pain, that's hard. Losing the security of the womb is far harder than losing life.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Questions We Have About Ourselves"

Is my self confidence really arrogance?
What is my purpose?
Is my self anything other than what I see?
Why can I never seem to change the elements that define me?
Do I really want to change or am I afraid to lose myself?
Am I really ready for the changes that are about to come?
When you embrace the self, does its distinctness fade?
What is the power of the individual?
Does the individual even matter when my hair looks like a haystack?

By myself, Josh, Conrad, and Mandee

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"The Cat" by Miroslav Holub

Outside it was night
like a book without letters.
And the eternal dark
dripped to the stars through the sieve of the city.

I said to her
do not go
you'll only be trapped
and bewitched
and will suffer in vain.

I said to her
do not go
why want

But a window was opened
and she went,

a black cat into the black night,
she dissolved,
a black cat in the black night,
she just dissolved 
and no one ever saw her again.
Not even she herself.

But you can hear her
when it's quiet
and there's a northerly wind
and you listen intently
to your own self.

I was first struck with the unusual figurative language in the poem. The techniques themselves are ordinary enough, but their use is not. In the first line, the night is compared to "a book without letters." Normally, figurative language is used to clarify an idea or image, but here it just confuses it. How is the night a book without letters? Is it mysterious or empty? Coded or forgotten? Interesting or useless? Or what about "the eternal dark/ dripped to the stars?" Normally when we think of "drip" we think of things going down, but the stars are up. And what is the "sieve of the city?" These strange connection set up the poem; it doesn't quite take place in reality. It isn't completely fantasy, either, more like an alternate universe. The first stanza sets the tone and style for the poem, both are import in order for the reader to believe the last line when a cat suddenly becomes "your own self." Holub also puts some alliteration in the third and fourth lines: "dark dripped" and "sieve of the city." It makes the last lines of the first stanza flow. In fact, the whole poem flows, though written in free verse. The words make rhythms. "The Cat" is not written in strict iambic meter, but stressed and unstressed syllables of the words push and pull the reader through the poem. They dictate pauses, accelerations, or stress that makes the poem move like a song. This conventional side of poetry helps the reader move through the less conventional comparisons and phrasing. It makes the reader comfortable enough to read through the poem several times until he catches the meaning -- if there is a meaning.

There could be a very specific meaning to this poem. Holub could be describing a specific memory or experience. He may be portraying an specific idea. Or he may simply be presenting an small scene. The first stanza gives a very strange description of night, and yet, if one looks closely at the descriptions, he can actually see a darkened city, filtering the darkness that reached up to the stars. The poem then narrows its scope, looking into just one house where a man pleads with his cat. What he says seems to represent the human fears of darkness. On the one hand, we fear what could be hidden by it, what it could do to us, and on the other hand, we fear that is nothing and that it will turn us, too, into nothing. "But a window was opened/ and she went." The black cat, which, naturally, is part darkness itself, doesn't fear the darkness. It leaves. In the darkness, it was invisible. It almost turned into nothingness, as the man had feared. But sometimes he could hear her, indicating that the cat had not turned into nothing as he had feared but had just become another one of the mysterious of darkness.

I found it important that Holub chose a cat as opposed to, say, a human, to leave into the darkness. I happen to like cats, black cats especially. I thinks they're pretty and intelligent. They don't automatically assume you're their friend, like dogs do, or really even believe that any human is their master. I greatly admire the way they are so autocratic and how little they let the opinions of others affect what they do. Black cats are the best. They are often called unlucky, but they seem to take that all in stride, enjoying disturbing silly humans -- or just wanting your food. The black cat in Holub's poem, then, is not some stupid animal, but a thinking, calculating being that has decided that the man's arguments are inadequate. Cats are rather know for wandering away from home, and so the cat in the poem does. It establishes its independence by disappearing in the dark. But, somewhere inside it, it still feels something for the man it left, and occasionally, it will call out, letting the man know its still out there, part of the dark.

Is there a deeper meaning that this? Could Holub be talking about death? It is like he described the night: mysterious, possibly hiding something or possibly nothing at all. The black cat is a symbol of death. He begs the cat not to go into the dark, and still it goes, just as we may ask someone not die, and yet, they do. But, sometimes, he hears it again. Not like he had heard it before. Now he has only a memory. It is his mind he hears, repeating what he had heard before. Or is the cat really still out there, speaking to him? Are the ones we loved still with out, even in death? The poem seems to suggest that hope. For a poem about death, this seems unusually calm and at peace. Most seem overcome with grief or anger or shock. But the speak seems only sad and accepting. Perhaps it is because he still believes the cat to still be out there, in the dark, and within him. It is a comforting thought.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins

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.

The imagery in this poem makes it vivid -- and funny. I see this poem not as words, but a series of pictures. Collins uses common images so that he doesn't have to spend a great amount to time describing: the image and feeling are already there. He makes his argument concrete by presenting it in pictures.

Looking at the structure of the poem, it is clearly divided into images. The stanzas are not defined by the number of lines or perhaps even a sentences. They are defined by images. The first stanza is a color slide; the second, a hive; the third a mouse, and so on until the end where the reader sees a poor "poem" tied to a chair a bunch of students beating it with a hose. The contrast between that and, say, stanza four is laughable. And, perhaps, that is the point. Collins uses wondrous, intriguing images in the first five stanzas to describe how poetry should be approached. His images are all a little childlike and enjoyable. Watching a mouse, waterskiing, studying light -- all those are interesting things to do and quite unpredictable. But Collins directly contrasts those happy images with those of a courtroom confession in his last two stanzas. And in his last stanza he throws in a hose to prove just how ridiculous such methods are.

Collins isn't just condemning his students' (or, at least, I'm assuming they are students) approach to poetry, he's condemning their entire outlook. They expect poetry to have one answer, one "confession," one things that "it really means." They expect the poem to behave like math or science where there is only one right answer and no grey. But poetry isn't like that. It speaks differently to every person and has various meanings. Collins is trying to teach them how to experience poetry, but all they want is to get an answer. He shows their reluctance to step into the childlike world of possibilities as they demand "the answer." He is trying to tell them just how easy poetry is, but they refuse to see easiness or fun. They want to concrete and the "right." Possibilities are weaknesses to them.

So Collins wrote a wonderful poem with vivid imagery and a simple message -- knowing full well that many students are going to beat it with a hose, looking for that "deeper meaning."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"It was a dream" by Lucille Clifton

in which my greater self
rose up before me
accusing me of my life
with her extra finger
whirling in a gyre of rage
at what my days had come to.
i pleaded with her, could i do,
oh what could i have done?
and she twisted her wild hair
and sparked her wild eyes
and screamed as long as
i could hear her
This. This. This.

The first thing that struck be about this poem was its structure. The title is actually part of the poem. "It was a dream/ in which my greater self/ rose up before me..." And nothing is capitalized except the last line "This. This. This." It's as if Clifton were going out of her way to give English teachers a conniption. And, after reading the poem, that seems almost likely.

The poem focuses on "my greater self." The apparition is described as wild, having an extra finger, and "whirling in a gyre of rage." I find it amazing that Clifton didn't end the poem after the sixth line with, "i screamed and ran." But Clifton pleads with the spirit. Perhaps because, as it is her greater self, she feels some connection -- possibly even loyalty -- to it. And how interesting that it should be described as her greater self, not just something ordinary like, say, her spirit or her heart. Which begs the question, what's so great about a wild, deformed thing that is screaming at you like a banshee?

The answer must be in what the apparition says. Clifton describes her as "accusing of my life... whirling in a gyre of rage/ at what my days had come to." (Clifton really does have something against English teacher: not only does she refuse to capitalize, but she also ends her sentence with a preposition) When Clifton asks what she should have done, all the apparition says is "This. This. This." What the heck is "this"? The only things in the poem the apparition could be referring to are her actions. But she's twisting her hair, sparking her eyes, and screaming. It that really a beneficial way to act? It's practically crazy! But then, maybe that's the point. This apparition, this "greater self," parallels Emily Dickinson's poem "Much madness is divinest sense." The apparition isn't normal, she is quite mad, but she speaks sense.

"What sense?" you may ask. "She's wild." But that's the point. In every society, there has been a conflict between wildness and civilization. Chaos reigns with only wildness, but without it, there can be no creativity and society stagnates. The apparition seems to be telling Clifton that she's erred too far on the civilization side. It seems Clifton has lived her days without trouble but also without meaning. The apparition is wild, but is also Clifton's true self. She is true only to her nature and does not let what society says or anything else for that matter determine what she does or how she feels. Her comment, "This. This. This," expresses her desperation for Clifton to do anything as long as it is true to who she really is. Clifton could grow an extra finger, throw a fit, go crazy, do anything to prove she was an individual, not another order-follower in the crowd. Do something, in other words, that allows her greater self be seen."

But "It was a dream." Clifton has woken up and realized that she can't really do everything the apparition asked of her. Anything is possible in a dream, but reality has rules that must be followed. Clifton sees this as she writes the poem, she puts the truth in the title, but she still retains some desire to do as the apparition asked -- or demanded. She wants to do something...

So she refuses to capitalize. Then, she goes and starts one sentence with "and" just after ending another with the preposition "to." At the very last line, she finally capitalizes, but these aren't even sentences -- they're fragments. And, by the way, "this" happens to be a very vague pronoun. Above it all, she's writing poetry with no rhythm or rhyme scheme.

Clifton knows she can't go crazy, but she's found her own form of rebellion. Let's hope she doesn't write her essays like this, otherwise teachers everywhere are going to throw fits.

On the other hand, her greater self will be happy.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Of Mere Being" by Wallace Stevens

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. It's feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

I like this poem. It seems to tell the story of a moment with vivid images. It moves in a full circle, starting with the line "The palm at the end of the mind," and, in the last sentence, reasserting, "The palm stands on the edge of space." The similar structure and wording make the poem continuous, as if the story it describes is both ongoing and only a single moment.

The imagery in the poem is incredible. It starts with a single tree, a palm, sitting on "the edge of the mind," which brings the image of a lonely island, hardly bigger than its inhabitant, the tree, alone in a sea and sitting at the very horizon. The "bronze decor" suggests sunset. The "gold-feathered bird" most immediately invokes the idea of a phoenix, that mystical bird, reborn from ashes. That it is gold, brighter than the surrounding bronze, makes it seem like the sun. One can just see the golden bird, or the sun, singing against the black silhouette of a palm tree while the sky blazes bronze. The feather's shine. But then the sunset is over. The palm is now at the edge of space, as stars and blackness take over the sky, and the feathers go from gold to glowing red. The poem ends at the point, just before all the world goes dark, when the edge of the sun is still just visible.

But there's something else going on in the poem that isn't visible. It is set, "at the end of the mind,/ Beyond the last thought." There are a multitude of possible interpretations to this, but I see it as the spiritual part of man. Beyond where words have meaning, beyond, even, where emotions have deep sway. They are, perhaps, the wind that moves the branches, but nothing more. Here, this palm tree, this bird, is where the spirit resides, the part of a person that just is. The bird is singing, communicating, but not with "human meaning" or "human feeling." The song is foreign, or just spoken in a different language: the spiritual language. And then the words, "You know then that it is not the reason/ That makes us happy or unhappy." It is the spirit. As this bird sings its strange song, it is the spirit expressing itself. The bird's feathers shine; light reaches the mind. But then that palm is on the edge of space. To go too far is to risk loosing yourself. Emotion or thoughts touch the tree. And the bird's song dims and sets while we shrink closer to the know mind.

Perhaps this poem describes the strange moment just between waking and dreaming. Or the touch of inspiration that is then gone. Or maybe learning some deep truth, impossible to describe in words. It seems to be some wonderful, somewhat mystical moment of extreme beauty that lasts only a few seconds before it is gone... And yet, it could be as common as a sunset.

(I posted on Blake's and Conrad's blogs.)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"Sort of a Song" by William Carlos Williams

Let the snake wait under
his weed 
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait

-- through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

First of all, this guy has a cool name. It's almost a palindrome. It makes me wonder if his parents were poets, too -- or hippies. Maybe a little of both. It is clear that Williams doesn't like to conform to little things like complete sentences, capitalization, or complete ideas, and he seems to like nature. But hey, that's all helped him write!

The first thing that stands out about his poem -- besides the unconventional structure -- is the way the words simply flow off the tongue. It is written in iambic meter and very elegantly, too. The majority of the words are only one syllable, which keeps the poem moving at a steady pace: the syllables are evenly spaced in the words. When a word does have more than one syllable, it is clear that it is supposed to be pronounced at the same pace. The reader does not rush through "Invent!" or "Saxifrage." Williams has also carefully chosen his words so that they are easy to say. There is no tongue-tying "Sally sells sea shells by the sea shore." He keeps the tongue loose by using hard, open vowels sound like in "snake," "weed," "people," and "stones." Even "saxifrage," though possibly unfamiliar, turns out to be easy to pronounce. As a result, it flows, very much like a song, just as the title suggests. Even without the faintest clue of what the poem is about, it is beautiful because the arrangement of the words make it so.

But there is a meaning. Williams appears to be talking about two separate things: writing or the creative process and nature. He seems to switch randomly between the two, with no hint at their connection besides the first two lines of the second stanza: "through metaphor to reconcile/ the people and the stones." Although I believe Williams wrote this poem more to open the mind than focus it on any one idea, his is also making a very profound statement about the purpose of poetry. The idea of people and stones needs reconciliation seems laughable, but there are many ways that men and nature "don't get along." When have we ever discovered a new environment without somehow wrecking havoc in it? And stones can refer to more than just nature. There are plenty to spiritual or personal springs that we fail to connect with. The saxifrage that Williams speaks of is a real type of flower. It grows in rocky, alpine areas and looks quite delicate. But nothing grows in the hard mountains without being strong. It represents Williams' creativity and whatever helps him connect with the universe. Suddenly, the two unconnected clauses in the first stanza start to make a little sense: they are connecting people and nature.

Of course Williams doesn't just standard structure in his poem. The incomplete phrases and strange punctuation carry the reader through the poem like notes in a song, suppressing the reader's instinct to stop and instead enticing him to just listen. He is also trying to speak the language of the universe. That language isn't bound down by punctuation, clauses, or other pesky rules. Williams isn't speaking to the mind, cluttered as it is with rules and criticism; he's speaking to the heart. The poem conveys an emotion of curiosity, wonder, and mild excitement. The rest -- the song-like words, the meaning -- lead only to that.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Much madness is divinest sense" by Emily Dickinson

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye,
Much sense, the starkest madness.
'Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevail:
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur, you're straightway dangerous
And handled with a chain.

I was struck first with just how accurate this poem is. History has many instances of when this idea of "majority rules" has defined madness whether ruling that the earth is flat or more serious issues involving race or religion. I particularly like the last two lines, "Demur, you're straightway dangerous/ And handled with a chain." The imagery is particularly vivid and clearly articulates just how little we, the human race, hate to be disagreed with.

Dickson has managed to more than simply frame a universal truth; the very way she uses her words is beautiful. Just the first line, "Much madness is the divinest sense," slides off the tongue beautifully, helped especially by repetition of the "s" sound at the end of most the words. She continues the pattern in the third line, "Much sense, the starkest madness." The similar sounds connect the first and third line along with the similar sentence structure. They are different most the poem in other ways, too. The whole poem is written in iambic meter. Most of it has three feet per line, but the first, third (and also seventh) lines have four. This, the "thesis" of the poem, is set then set apart. The seventh line, written with four feet and repeating the "s" sound with "straightaway dangerous," connects back to the beginning. It also functions a little like the second line, which, having only three feet and no "s" ending, surprises the reader, breaking the stereotypical flow of poems. The seventh line, set between two tetrameter, rhyming lines, also provide that jerking contrast. The entire poem functions in a similar way: the first three lines work like a stand-alone poem, and the last do the same, in the same structure and patter, but the middle to trip up the tongue, repeating not the "s" sound the "a" of majority, all, as, and prevail. The result is a poem that feels like is should flow, but that purposely does not.

Why would Dickinson want her poem to feel uncomfortable? Because she talking about madness and dissent! Her very poem is a proof of concept. The message is "divinest sense," but the structure is strange enough to make some question her writing abilities. She is breaking away from conventional poetry which either focus on a specific structure or is complete free-verse. She has a structure; it just isn't one that her readers are used to or comfortable with. This "sense" is as discontenting as "madness" goes against regular poetry. And the reader feels it and wants to chain it up in a specific, usual structure. It feels uncomfortable and sometimes difficult to read.

And yet, Dickinson's poem is powerful. Once one has come to understand its structure, saying the first three lines is pleasing, even fun. And there is something powerful in the last, and only, rhyme between "sane" and "chain." It ends to poem with such solid sound that the prior discomfort is immediately forgotten. "Assent, and you are sane;/ Demur, you're straightway dangerous/ And handled with a chain." Dickinson could make anything sound profound with such talent.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Untitled by Stephen Crane

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said: "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter -- bitter," he answered;
"But I like it 
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."

Although we read this poem in class, I wanted to write about it because I saw it differently than we spoke of in class. The naked creature we took for someone or something horrible, an evil-doer or something like. The eating of its heart was either proof of his bestiality or deep remorse. However, I saw the creature more as raw than wicked. That it was naked and bestial reminded me of when we are born, completely naked, and without any polishing from society. We are not naturally born with perfect mannerisms. They must be learned. Even the way that the creature is described as "squatting on the ground" reminds me of little kids, once again before they have conformed to society. But then the poem reveals that the creature is also eating it's heart. At this point, most of us believe it is proof that this creature is vile. The speaker, however, does not. He calls the creature "friend" and only asks "Is it good?" not "Why?" Apparently, the speaker does not find the creature as repulsive as we would expect. And perhaps it's because there's something magical about a creature that can eat it's heart and not die. The doesn't seem to be particularly graphic; there is no description of a whole in the creature's chest or blood dripping down his arms, just a heart in his hands. The creature replies that "It is bitter... But I like it/ Because it is bitter,/ and because it is my heart."

The creature shows the natural side of human kind. That is why the speaker is not repulsed by it: he recognizes it. The creature, who hasn't been taught by society how to dress or how to act or even how to stand or sit, it naked, bestial, and squatting, but he also has a knowledge that most humans have forgotten. His heart, which represents the emotions and soul of a person, is in his hands, and he is eating it, accepting it and taking it in. It is not exactly sweet, but he likes that, and he likes that it is his heart. It is not a heart stolen from anyone else, or the heart that society tells his he should have. It is his heart, with all the faults and flaws, but also the gifts and talents. It is not easy to look at yourself exactly the way you are and be honest, to admit, "I do not like all of my traits, but I will accept myself the way I am." It is even harder when you listen to society that tells you you must looks like this, talk like that, act like something else. So when we find those who have decided to accept themselves, not matter how raw or slightly repulsive they may be, we end up liking them, just a little, because they are what we want to be.

So that is way, when wondering through the desert, the speaker does not see the creature and run away, screaming. He calls the creature "friend" because he sees something of himself in it. Of course this creature would be rejected by society. He doesn't not belong. But he has his heart, and he eats it without shame. Society looks down are eating hearts, but then, it also looks down at being exactly yourself. Are you surprised the creature's in the desert?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Book" by Miller Williams

I held it in my hands while he told the story.

He had found it in a fallen bunker,
a book for notes with all the pages blank.
He took it to keep for a sketch book and diary.

He learned years later, when he showed the book 
to an old bookbinder, who paled, and stepped back
 a long step and told him what he held,
what he had laid the days of his life in,
It's bound, the binder said, in human skin.

I stood turning it over in my hands,
turning it in my head. Human skin.

What child did this skin fit? What man, what woman?
Dragged still full of its flesh from what dream?

Who took it off the meat? Some other one
who stayed alive by knowing how to do this?

I stared at the changing book and a horror grew,
I stared and a horror grew, which was, which is,
how beautiful it was until I knew.

I couldn't help liking this poem. It's just so creepy! To think of holding a book, pouring your life into it, and then finding its made of human skin! It's disgusting...but enthralling. Perhaps the creepiest part is that the man in the poem "had laid the days of his life in" the book. He didn't just own it; he took it and made is the record of his life. Imagine what that means, to have your life recorded in human skin. Dead human skin. It seems that it must necessarily taint the record. And how strange that the book should be surrounded by destruction, made by the death of a person, found in a "fallen bunker," the broken relic of war.

A man picks up a book and records his life in it, not knowing it has been made of human skin. It takes a very specified, experienced, and not to mention rare expert to reveal the book's true nature. But by that time, the man's life was already bound in human skin. Think of the awfulness, the horror, the destruction -- "What child did this skin fit? What man, what woman?/ Dragged still full of its flesh form what dream?/ Who took it off the meat? Some other one who stayed alive by knowing how to do this?" -- and the man has chosen to record his life in it. The book represents murder, greed, perversion, the worst of human impulses. It is possibly the most disgusting thing anyone could hold. The speaker holds it with growing horror, but the man -- the man didn't just hold, he recorded his life in it. And the worst part is "how beautiful it was until I knew."

Creepy! Disgusting! But far too true. As Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter said, "Humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things which are worst for them." For some reason, we see truly ugly things as beautiful. True, they can be well hidden and well disguised, but that can never change what they are. Hate, lust, murder, selfishness, all can be carefully disguised.  Hitler did it perfectly. He was beyond corruption, his works were pure evil, yet he spoke in such a way as to have people believe in him. The Nazi's not only tolerated it, they bound their lives in in, believing they were completely right. Think of slavery, especially in America, in the South. People grew up with it, were raised by it, made their livelihoods by it. Good people, they believed. God fearing people. Christian people. They were like lords and ladies, with their elegant dress, their fancy parties, their beautiful lives. But it was all bound in slavery, as disgusting as a book bound by human skin. But they didn't know, they couldn't see how awful it was. They didn't see the horror. They only saw something beautiful to lay their lives in. They fought a war to protect it, their beautiful lives, their beautiful slavery, because they didn't see the destruction is came from or the destruction it continued to cause. Such terrible ignorance happens power frequently than we would like to admit, if not always on such horrible scales.

Take the movies stars. Popular, rich, powerful, sexy, hot, beautiful... Don't we all want their lives? We stare at them, wanting a nose like that, hair like this, and that body. We want their money, their power, their success. But we don't see the horror. The anorexia, the broken families, the stress, the wildness. How many of those people have a marriage that can last? Kids born into a proper home? A sense of self strong enough to even make a proper relationship? If such things were common, all the gossip magazines you see in line at the grocery store would go out of business. Of course there must be exception. But Britney Spears the good girl once, and look at her now.

"The Book" reveals the most dangerous side of human nature, which is not evilness but ignorance. It is not coincidence that the man put his life in the book or that only the old bookbinder that can recognize its true nature. Far too often, we forget to ask questions or look closely as we life our lives. It may just be arrogance or pettiness or a grudge that we bind our lives in, never seeing its there, never how is has shaped our lives. The old know what to look for, but we rarely ask their advice. Not anyone could tell the man his book was bound in human skin; it had to be a bookbinder. In our day, who is this bookbinder? Who has the experience and expertise to tell us the truth? Who could possibly be that omniscient?

For me, there is an answer. For you, the answer might be different. But we much each find an answer, or risk binding our lives in something as horrible as human skin.