Poetry?

On my blog yesterday a short discussion of poetry emerged in the comments. I’m not all that comfortable talking about the impulses that lead to poetry vs. prose for a writer (I think they are infinitely varied and personal), but the conversation got me thinking about it (again).

I seldom write poetry, but I went through a spell last year during the “lock down” because I had nothing to say that wasn’t weirder or more interesting than the reality we were all living in to greater and lesser extents. I wrote a bunch of sonnets, inspired by Val from A Different Perspective. She often writes poetry on her blog and was, I think, responding to some challenge and had posted a sonnet. I thought, “Why not?” and Shakespearean sonnets filled this space for a short time.

As I wrote, I remembered the wise words of my 10th grade English teacher who said, “If you want to be a writer, write sonnets. That will teach you about language.” One thing I know for sure about poetry is that it will teach you about language whether you write poetry or read it. The next year my 11th grade English teacher entered one of my poems in a contest and it won. That was cool. I got disenchanted with it all at some point — much later, during grad school. I don’t remember why, but it might have been because I wrote a reflective piece about riding my ten speed up Waterton Canyon, a common thing to do now but not back in 1978.

I love poetry and I know a lot of poems. I owe that to my mom and dad. They had memorized many poems and loved many more. That’s a major thing, I think, not just the parental influence, but that poems are memorable. Old-school, highly structured poetry that rhymes easily stays with us. I think of blind Homer sitting on a stone or bench telling everyone the stories of the man who sacked the city of Troy.

In my mind is a little file box of poems and lines from poems I can return to when I need something. Lately it’s been William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis” (A look at death).

To him who in the love of Nature holds   
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks   
A various language; for his gayer hours   
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile   
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides   
Into his darker musings, with a mild   
And healing sympathy, that steals away   
Their sharpness, ere he is aware…

Not only this lovely opening which has always spoken directly to me, but now? ALL of it. I’m not young any more, and, am approaching that age when humans turn the page from “I’m not that old YET” to “OK, now what do I do? Yikes. Right. THAT! OK, but???” The poem has good solid answers. I have always loved it. I love it more now.

That’s just one of the poems in my mental file box. When I see a hawk, Gerard Manley Hopkins calls out,

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

(The Windhover)

It’s pretty hard to hold a novel or even a short story in our minds like that.

I went to a little poetry-writing class a couple of decades ago with a friend, and the “teacher” said, “There are no rules with poetry. It’s just sentences written down differently.”

I wanted to jump up and run her through with my rapier, but I don’t have a rapier, and such behavior is frowned upon in our time (shooting is OK, though). Poetry is a LOT more than sentences written in sloppy grammar. A LOT more. We never went back. We already knew how to write bad sentences. I despise the word “craft” applied to art. A better word to me is “discipline” or “surrender.” I think if a thing is really going to happen (painting, narrative, poem) somewhere along the line the will of the artist has to step back and serve the creation. The artist is not God over his/her oeuvre but its servant. That can be scary at first — what if you actually LET GO and surrender to the work you’re doing? OH MY GOD!!! But that’s when the dance begins. ❤

This morning I woke up with the idea that writing is (for me, anyway) an act of seeing. I learn a lot from writing, not just about writing but about my thoughts, the world around me, stuff I’m studying. Maybe poetry is a chance to look at life and the world through another person’s eyes, or focus our own eyes more clearly. All the magical poetic devices help us do that — both show and tell. I straddle a fence between thinking that poetry is completely irrelevant and that poetry is the ONLY relevant thing we humans have to offer each other.

All About My Dog

“It’s raining, Martha,” says the weather dog
bright eyes, damp coat, and hope on every fur
filament. “Do you think it…?” her head cocks.
Before snow, it rains. She’s no amateur.
“A few months more, Bear,” I tell her, gently
“Then we’ll have all the snow and cold we want.”
She nods, shakes, and shuffles out intently
To lie in wait for future’s snowy jaunt.
Summer is inevitable, winter is too
I tell my dog (and myself) every year
Nurturing plants and fighting mosquitoes
We watch summer go with nary a tear.
Patiently we wait for the cold snow kisses
and the sweet deep snow moment of Bear’s bliss.


This is a Shakespearean sonnet which follows an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme. In a perfect world they are also in iambic pentameter which is ba-BOOM, ba-BOOM, ba-BOOM which happens, also, to be the fundamental cadence of English. I’m not a fanatic about that. If I weren’t so lazy I might try other poetic forms, but…

Thoughts on a Walk Today With Bear

Pastel spring breaks through shyly, hesitant,
“What if?” Knowing snow could fall on the land
before white winter’s determined, rampant
cycle fades toward fecund summer’s grand
promises. Ambivalent, spring pauses, slow
to leave in this high valley. Soft showers
yield to summer’s green trees and fruitful show
of barley in the fields, potato flowers.
Then, come September, summer surrenders
Weary. Its moment too short for many,
Fine with me. Among season’s contenders,
Winter season is better than any.
Nature rests in winter’s patient freeze,
Ice crystals in the air, hoar frost on trees.

~~~

This is a Shakespearean sonnet, more or less. 14 lines, ababcdcdefefgg. Iambic pentameter (10 syllable lines with the stress on every other syllable, but I’m not a fetishist about that). The final six lines are supposed to set up a situation established by or counter to the first 8 lines. I’m not big on rules, though, other than the rhyme and syllable thing. I’m writing sonnets as a mental challenge, mostly, but once in a while one might be good. I started writing sonnets when I realized I just don’t have much more to say in one of my customary blog posts at the moment.

P.S. I never imagined writing 2 in a day but it was so pretty out there at the Refuge in the rain, what could I do? Now I have to go cover the beans. Freeze and snow in the forecast. 🙂

Slept In

My parents loved poetry and read it to my bro and me all the while we were growing up. Then, in school we studied even MORE poetry. In high school we read a LOT of poetry, so much that I graduated with the belief that poetry was a big thing for everyone in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD.

I know now that what we studied says a lot about the generation to which my teachers belonged. Some of the poetry was called “experimental” because of the use of language, the way it looked on a page, and probably a bunch of stuff I don’t remember.

The three main guys from that group who found their way into these distant strands of my life are William Carlos Williams, e. e. cummings and Theodore Roethke. I know there were others, but they didn’t “stick,” and among the three who have? Williams and cummings “stuck” because I couldn’t forget them (even though I wanted to). Williams proffered that infernal red wheel-barrow glazed with rain water beside the stupid white chicken, and cummings inflicted my life with a little lame balloon man who whistles far and wee (???).

But Theodore Roethke stuck because a couple of his poems informed my life (and are beautiful).

There were other poets, of course, the main guys, Frost, Sandburg. On my own I found the Beats, but Roethke has remained a different kind of voice.

So there we were, a bunch of kids, analyzing poetry written by this very, very, very complicated man. The poem that my teacher thought was most important was “The Waking.” I did not know when I was 17 how true it is, but I know now. And she was right. It is important.

The Waking

BY THEODORE ROETHKE

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?   
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?   
God bless the Ground!   I shall walk softly there,   
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?   
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do   
To you and me; so take the lively air,   
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.   
What falls away is always. And is near.   
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.   
I learn by going where I have to go.

Featured photo: Me, Mr. Nichols, D. Ballard, Miss Decou looking at a drawing for our literary magazine which was very grandly named The Empyrean. And that’s how we dressed in high school until sometime my senior year.

In other news, WP just informed me that I’m on “a streak” and have posted “8 days in a row.” Huh? Seriously, “encouragement” from WP creeps me out.

Other Lives and Other Times

I used to come across the word of the day, “moue,” pretty often back when I was reading Victorian fiction. I never looked it up. I guess, even as a kid reading Little Women, I understood its meaning in a general sense. It seemed to happen to the faces of the female characters when they didn’t get their way. In Little Women Amy was alway “pulling a moue” when she didn’t get her way. Of course Beth, the good sister, NEVER “pulled a moue” though she had more to endure than the other three sisters. It was an object lesson in putting a brave face on things. The message came through pretty clearly that it was far more noble (and therefore better) to be like Beth than to be like Amy.

I like Victorian fiction or maybe, more accurately, 19th century fiction. I’m not sure that we’ve ever done better in English than the novels of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. This was also era in which American fiction began to blossom and that, right there, is pretty amazing. Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and a plethora (since I’m writing about literature just like an English teacher) of female (they were called that back in the day) writers whose names have been forgotten but whose books were read more than those by male writers. Whatever the natal genitalia of the writers, the 19th century gave us great stories with three-dimensional characters involving themselves in realistic and complicated situations.

Wow. I remember feeling bereft the day I finished the last of the Thomas Hardy novels from the library at the University of Colorado. At that very time I was working on my senior paper which was about Sarah Josepha Hale and Godey’s Lady’s Book, a project that later evolved into my thesis.

In the process of writing my thesis I learned that when we look at history we don’t see very much. We see less of the iceberg than did the captain and crew of the Titanic.

My first encounter with Mrs. Hale or the 19th century happened when I was a little girl, so little that when I sat on a sofa my legs still stuck out straight in front of me. My dad had acquired a book at the University of Denver library book sale and he brought it home for me. It was A Poet’s Offering one of the coffee table books of the 19th century, a compilation of poetry organized according to topic.

Of course I couldn’t read it, but I could look at the beautiful engravings.

Immediately inside the embossed cardboard cover was an engraving of the woman who’d sponsored the compilation, Sarah Josepha Hale.

I have imagined the book being given as a Christmas gift back in 1850 and sitting on a velvet or lace covered table, thumbed through on rainy days and used as a reference in times when a certain thought, a certain poetic line, could turn around the course of a day. Most of the names in this book would be unfamiliar to people alive today, but they were famous in their time. Women were always “Mrs. Whoever” unless they were unmarried and then, chances are, they wrote under a nom de plume.

I gave the book my dad gave me to a Chinese professor from the University of Chengdu. I have a partial copy here that I scored on Etsy some time ago. He was struggling to compile a poetic lexicon of English and that’s essentially what A Poet’s Offering is. We knew each other in Denver the year after I had returned from China. He was a sweet, intelligent, kind and sincere man who’d been redeemed from the shit he’d endured in the Cultural Revolution and put at the head of an English department, then, miracle of miracles (to him) sent to America to study.

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/11/11/rdp-wednesday-moue/

Time and Tide Wait for No Bean

Frost took Tu Fu early Tuesday morning even even though I had covered him (and the others). Li Bai had some damage, but not bad, Li Ho and Bai Juyi suffered nothing. Scarlet Emperor Beans ARE very susceptible to frost. I cut Tu Fu down to the original little 6 inch plant I set in the ground in June. It will go, too.

A few more beans were ready to harvest for next year.

In other climes Scarlet Emperor Beans are perennials, but not in this high valley. In other places, they’re just fodder for cows. After cutting him down yesterday, I pulled the tomatoes. A couple of days ago I cleared up a small bed and planted 16 Leper Bells — fritillaria that’s more often called “Snakes Head.” They don’t do great here, either, but…

There’s no way to escape the fury of nature, even when that “fury” is as quiet as the settling of frost on a clear September night.

Sunset
Tu Fu

Cows and sheep walk slowly down,
Each villager has shut his wicker gate.
The wind disturbs the clear, moonlit night,
These rivers and hills are not my homeland.
A spring flows from the dark cliff,
Autumn dew drips on the roots.
In the lamp light I sit, white-haired.
Why do the flowers continue to bloom?

For anyone who might be interested in the structure of a Chinese poem, here it is in Chinese with a Pin-yin transcription. (I found a great website if you like Chinese poetry… http://www.chinese-poems.com/

日暮

牛羊下来久
各己闭柴门
风月自清夜
江山非故园
石泉流暗壁
草露滴秋根
头白灯明里
何须花烬繁

rì mù

niú yáng xià lái jiǔ
gè jǐ bì chái mén
fēng yuè zì qīng yè
jiāng shān fēi gù yuán
shí quán liú àn bì
cǎo lù dī qiū gēn
tóu bái dēng míng lǐ
hé xū huā jìn fán

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/09/30/rdp-wednesday-fury/

If You Need Inspiration…

From the joints where leaves broke or froze, new vines are emerging ALREADY. I love these beans.

~~~

MOON, RAIN, RIVERBANK
Tu Fu

Rain road through, now the autumn night is clear
The water wears a patina of gold
and carries a bright jade star.
Heavenly River runs clear and pure,
as gently as before.

Sunset buries the mountains in shadow.
A mirror floats in the deep green void,
its light reflecting the cold, wet dusk,
dew glistening,
freezing on the flowers.

FALL RIVER SONG
Li Bai

On Old River Mountain
A huge boulder swept clean
by the blue winds of Heaven

where they have written
in an alphabet of moss
an ancient song.

NIGHT SNOW
Bai Juyi

I was surprised my quilt and pillow were cold,
I see that now the window’s bright again.
Deep in the night, I know the snow is thick,
I sometimes hear the sound as bamboo snaps.

WALKING THROUGH SOUTH MOUNTAIN FIELDS
Li Ho

The autumn wilds bright,
Autumn wind white.
Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.

Wilderness fields in October — 
Forks of rice.
Torpid fireflies, flying low,
Start across dike-paths.
Water flows from veins of rocks,
Springs drip on sand.
Ghost-lanterns like lacquer lamps
Lighting up pine-flowers.

Three More Months, a Petrarchan sonnet

Freezing temps, the sky silver with snow,
Airborne crystalline promises shimmer.
In the morning light, minute spectra glimmer.
I leash my big white dog and off we go.
Hoar frost on the bare trees’ smallest branches
breaks free and falls on my dog and me.
As we walk beneath the cottonwood trees
Across the snowy field, the fresh snow crunches.
The parallel tracks of Nordic skis shadow
Our path through the brown and golden tones,
Blue shadows, the angled light of winter noon.
Ahead, Mt. Blanca, covered with snow.
I stop, rest my hand on my dog’s warm back, she
leans against my leg, savoring our gelid paradise.

***

I haven’t tried this since high school. My sophomore English teacher said that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to learn to write sonnets so I would learn the discipline involved in the effective use of language. I wrote a bunch back then. They really are not easy and I don’t know if he was right nor not, but this was fun. 🙂

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/07/01/rdp-wednesday-gelid/

Gyres, Spirals and Poetry, Oh My!

As an undergraduate, I met William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, in a summer class, Critical Writing, a required class for English majors. I was in summer school to expunge an F in that class I had won honorably in a joust with a fascist, sexist POS professor. In that summer class we were tasked to write five different five-page essays on ONE poem by Yeats. A long poem, which was a little helpful, but it was still a challenge. I chose “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.”

My professor was of the school that believed in direct reading of poetry, not historical analysis, so we read the poems without reading criticism or extraneous analysis. I didn’t know (and didn’t learn, at that time) anything about the background of the poem. I just read it and wrote about it. A LOT. I ended up LOVING Yeats, so when the option appeared a few years later when I was in graduate school to take a seminar in Yeats, I signed up.

I love that this is “A New Edition” and it’s practically falling apart…


Yeats kind of lost me when, in his poetic career, he and his wife, George (Georgie) began exploring the “occult” side of life, going into trances and doing “automatic writing,” a thing where the spirits come and direct the pen of the person holding it who simply surrenders to what the spirits have written and later gets to read and decode it. Ultimately there were 4000 pages of this done by Yeats and his wife. Many of these poems are “told” or “seen” by a character, Michael Robartes — Yeats but not Yeats.

All this occult stuff led to a few books and more poems based on something that Yeats and his wife saw as a “system” that explained the rise and fall of human culture throughout history. Two gyres — dynamic spirals — spinning in opposite directions. In a general sense, one of the gyres is the culture building, the other is the culture declining.

Many of Yeats’ later poems center on this idea. It turned out the poem about which I wrote five essays (“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”) “depends” on understanding Yeats’ vision to be completely comprehended. OH WELL.

I don’t buy that. Yeats was a good enough poet that meaning shines through many of these “visionary” poems even without knowing anything about A Vision. Probably the most famous and well-known of these poems is “The Second Coming.” The gyre appears in this immediately:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming

He’s describing the decay of a world. When the gyre reaches its widest part, it vanishes. “This figure is true also of history, for the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction.” Michael Robartes and the Dancer

Only the work of artists and scholars remain from a world when it has reached its fullest point on the gyre and vanishes. Art and scholarship are coded messages from one age to the next.

“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make,
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”


William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium.”

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/28/ragtag-daily-prompt-thursday-like-a-circle-in-a-spiral/

Two Years and It Still Works!

Two years ago about now I was getting a bleary-eyed view of the “theater” in which my hip would be replaced. It was amazing. Star Trekky, beautiful. They were putting tubes into me and onto me and chatting. “What do you think? That’s the operating table.”

“THAT???”

It wasn’t a table at all. It was more like a comfy-vice that would hold me in the ideal position for Dr. Ed to work his hip-replacement magic while making it easy for the anesthetist to keep me under. I loved my doctor. In another reality, we would have been friends.

When I woke up, I was in a recovery room and Lois, my friend, was there — I think. In some respects this is fuzzier in my mind than is the actual surgery. I can’t explain that, other than to say I think we know what’s going on even when we’re anesthetized. We just don’t feel the pain. I have a distinct memory of it going well, laughter and a faint memory of the sound of a bone saw. But, I could be confusing this with some episode of House.

The whole thing was pretty great, actually. Afterward was challenging for a while, but here I am today. Sure, I walk with a limp and am somewhat lopsided, but it’s not Dr. Ed’s fault.

When I was wheeled into my room I was met by a tiny version of Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog whom I dubbed “Little Bear” and soon Little Bear had a dragon I named Francis (after the hospital) to keep her company. I do not know what it is about these effigies of animals that delights humans, but they made me feel better.

The nurses in the orthopedic wing were amazing. Apparently they liked me because they sent me a card with notes thanking me for being so easy to help and fun to be around. “I wish every patient were like you.” Seriously? NOT hurting any more should put EVERYONE in a good mood. One of the best things about joint replacement surgery is that immediately after your joint doesn’t hurt any more.

For the past two years — since the surgery — I — who usually wakes up between 8 and 8:30 — on May 7 I wake up at 5:30 ready to go. I suppose it’s some kind of physical commemoration of that day.

~~~

I promised my Scarlet Emperor Bean, Li Ho, the opportunity to share one of his poems. I think this is a good moment for that. It’s a different kind of poem than that written by his contemporaries, Li Bai and Tu Fu. This poem struck me really hard when I first read it back in my 20s when I knew I was a writer but I didn’t know what I had to say or would have to say. At that time I just wrote. I “raged at the wall” as I “carved my questions to Heaven.” The final image is still, to me, a profound paradox. Without the wall, there would be nothing on which to carve the questions and yet the wall is a barrier.

Don’t Go Out of that Door

Heaven is dark
Earth is secret,
The nine-headed monster eats our souls,
Frosts and snows snap our bones.
Incited dogs snarl, sniff around us,
And lick their paws, partial to the smell of the virtuous,
‘Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends his chariot to fetch us,
And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.

I straddle my horse, but there is no way back,
On the lake which swamped Li-yang the waves are huge as mountains

Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the metal wheels,
Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.
Pao Chiao parted the ferns and forever closed his eyes,
Yen Hui at twenty-nine was white at the temples;
Not that Yen Hui had thinning blood,
Nor that Pao Chiao had offended heaven.
Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would rend and gnaw them,
For this and no other reason made it so.

Plain though it is, I fear that still you doubt me.
Witness the man who raged at the wall as he carved his questions to Heaven!

https://ragtagcommunity.wordpress.com/2020/05/07/rdp-thursday-limp/