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Amy Greacen
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Concentrate. To bring inward to a center. To focus one's attention or effort on a particular object or activity. Draw toward. Meet. Make stronger by removing the extraneous. Focus. Increase density. Improve Resolution. Bhagavad Gita, 8:13 -- After being situated in this yoga practice and vibrating the sacred syllable om, the supreme combination of letters, if one thinks of the Supreme Personality of Godhead and quits his body, he will certainly reach the spiritual planets. Yes, I'm back on that. It can't be helped. I have my reasons. Being "resolved" or "resolute" is a matter of concentrating, of tremendus disciplined... Continue reading
Posted Jan 3, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Today I am offering one of my favorite do-over poems. No commentary, really, for now -- but a question. What were you thinking about one year ago today, and what will be occupying you one year from now? One Year ago — jots what? God — spell the word! I — can’t — Was’t Grace? Not that — Was’t Glory? That — will do — Spell slower — Glory — Such Anniversary shall be — Sometimes — not often — in Eternity — When farther Parted, than the Common Woe — Look — feed upon each other’s faces — so... Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Epiphany: manifestation, appearance. Moment of Clarity; sudden deep understanding of a previously elusive truth. Seeing thg the light. Something that crystallizes. Krustallos: ice. Crystals are defined as an ordered arrangement of a material's constituent atoms or molecules extending in three dimensions. They exist at both microscopic and macroscopic (compound) levels. They include snowflakes and spikes of quartz; the salt on your table and the diamond in your wedding ring. Of course, nothing having a simple definition, there are also liquid crystals, which exist in everything from your computer monitor to our laundry soap to tobacco leaf mosaic virus. Clear? Ha.... Continue reading
Posted Jan 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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I’d waited a long time, thought about it a long time. I knew there were complications, but there were always complications, with anything, with anyone, and I wasn’t a kid anymore. Okay, legally I was still a kid for the next few months. I was seventeen. I think you were twenty. Not the point. I’d resolved myself to the idea and that was that. It was too hard to wait any more. I’d lost track of what the waiting was about. I guess I’d thought I’d be the sort of throwback who waited for marriage, who only ever had one... Continue reading
Posted Dec 31, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Confession: New Year’s Eve is just about my least favorite day of the year. It tends to come over me with the kind of pressure that turns shale to slate. The pressure to revel, to kick up your heels; the ominous old wives’ tale that whatever you’re doing when the clock strikes midnight is what you’ll be doing the whole next year, the whole “Am I happy now?” thing. And of course, the eternal grind of those things we think will make us better people but that we can’t quite seem to attain, which we call “resolutions.” So, this week... Continue reading
Posted Dec 30, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
John Hollander died this past Saturday, at the age of 83. Many people, who knew him far better than I, have written and will write about John, his accomplishments and contributions to the world of arts and letters, in deeper and wiser ways than I ever could. So I'm going to skip that, offering instead a small story about shooting donkeys for rhetorical purposes. And about how John accidentally taught me what art is. I've written here before about my first encounter with John at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in 2005. Having come from a rather argument-forward family myself (some... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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There is a house for sale in my neighborhood. It is not listed at a "poet" price-point. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that that house is mine, destined for me. It is irrational. At one point it went into escrow but immediately fell out of contract when the buyers found out the owner had died in the house, violating a dealbreaking cultural taboo for their family (see, there are always ghosts). Now it sits there, vacant, and haunting me. All evidence tells me that I will never own the house. Sometimes I sneak up the driveway and walk around,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Michael has formally invited me to accompany him in "taking out the compost." I assent, but to what, I am not certain. I know what taking out the compost means at my house, and it is nothing you'd invite anyone to join, and by no means whatsoever something to be planned in advance. All I know is, it's Stonington, and whatever you've been invited to do, it's best if you go, because it is likely to be interesting. I'm slightly unclear on why the man is insisting on picking me up; it's a 4 minute walk to the house. When... Continue reading
Posted Jan 31, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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“The fog was where I wanted to be. Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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I don't know it yet, but after tonight I will see you only four more times. My bedroom door is closed, unusal at this very late hour with a boy in the house. But even my generally hypervigilant, Exceedingly Involved parents have foregone the usual finger-wagging Victoriana. They seem to intuit that you are Different, and have made themselves scarce. The room is lit with candles, the stereo playing Peter Gabriel, then the Velvet Underground. You have taken off my shirt, and I yours. That's as far as it will go. I'm not ready. You... you're you, unknowable. I know... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you for catching that for me, Tom! Whatever the hell YOU are taking, it's working.
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I am drinking a glass of wine in James Merrill’s séance room. No, not figuratively. It’s smaller than I had expected it to be, but otherwise it’s exactly the room I have always seen in my mind. The rounded contours, that supersaturated coral color on the walls, the milk-glass table, the deconsecrated church out the window past the inhaling and exhaling sheers. Even the ceiling medallion seems familiar. Backdrop: the dining room at Stonington. Walls of a ready-mixed matte “flame” (a witty Shade, now watermelon, now sunburn). Overhead, a turn of the century dome Expressing white tin wreathes and fleurs-de-lys... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
PS -- Bill, If "Pink Sparkle" were headlining, I'd totally buy tickets. lol.
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Speaking of concentric patterns, I have been – no, not meditating, more like ruminating – on how things always come back, on how everything is linked to everything. On ripple effects. On chakras. Cycle. Eternal return. And how you can glimpse the whole wheel sometimes and other times you just can’t. While driving (in a circle; I’d forgotten something and had to go back) to dinner with a friend of mine recently, I asked him to translate the Sanskrit phrase inked across his forearm. He was maddeningly vague about it. “It’s Sanskrit.” “I can see that. I don’t read Sanskrit.... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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True fact: the whole is equal to more than the sum of its parts. Speaking of getting around, when I have guests from out of town, especially if they happen never to have been to San Francisco, there are certain places I gently suggest might be of interest to them, and some places upon which I simply insist. We can – though I will not force you to – ride a cable car, drink Irish coffee at the Buena Vista or go deal with whatever too-cool-for-school thingy is on gawk detail at SFMoMA (Once I saw food-nerd Alton Brown in... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Speaking of cycles and circles, the leaf buds are breaking on my baby apple trees. Anyone who knows me probably knows I am an unreconstructed botany geek and a serious fruit fetishist. I allow friends to assume we left San Francisco for the East Bay burbs for the decent public schools, but between you and me, what brought me back to the county that spawned me was the lure of summer heat and winter frosts on the east side of the coastal mountains – which meant the ability to grow fruit trees, maybe even tomatoes (known in their early days... Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Bear with me, guys – I cannot think straight. Thus the theme of circling and spiraling. Pop the Dramamine now. Though he isn’t always the first poet I think of if you ask me who my favorites or biggest influences have been, and though I read him less, return to him less, than to some of my other touchstone writers, the first poet I ever fell head over heels in love with was William Butler Yeats. I was two. We had this book of poetry illustrated for children, one of those large-format coffee-table guys with weird, stippled early-seventies watercolor illustrations.... Continue reading
Posted Mar 6, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
One of the things I missed at this year’s Association of Writing Persons conclave – aside from a probable last chance to blow an obscene amount of money at Charlie Trotter (who has decided to close down his restaurant empire so he can go back to school for literature. Think about it) – was a panel on Carolyn Kizer and the magazine she co-founded, Poetry Northwest. They announced – and I have been allowed bean-spilling privileges on this – that their annual Richard Hugo Prize will henceforth be the Carolyn Kizer Prize. A great decision, I think – Kizer more... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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The thing about Rome that gets to me the most (and I’m sure this is “the thing about Rome” for a lot of folks) is the way the ancient, archaeological city and the living, modern one sit so seamlessly cheek-by-jowl with one another. The first time I saw the city, I burst into tears. This second time was no different. I’ve never seen anything like Rome for the utterly overwhelming feeling of accretion, of layers, of mosaic, that it has. It’s humbling, and it’s awesome, and it’s heartbreaking. And the thing about having your heart broken is that parts of... Continue reading
Posted Oct 22, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
I copped that title from one of the Rome students (hey Chloe!), who gave a rather sophisticated talk on the notion that the poetic impulse inherently springs from the desire for something unattainable. (Oh, yeah: I’m still in Rome. Like Shelley, I drowned in Italy and what bits of me washed up are buried there for now.) In its original, Aristotelian meaning, ars poetica means the art of, or the nature of, poetry. Anyway, I got to thinking about how unrequited, unrequitable, or forbidden love, and their attendant depths of loss and longing, have always been the subjects that interest... Continue reading
Posted Oct 20, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
I was lost. On purpose. I’m a bad map-reader, so when I’m alone in a city I don’t know, I like to set out on foot, get thoroughly lost, and then try to find my way home. In most cities, the method works. Rome wasn’t totally unfamiliar – I’d been there once, briefly, with my husband, who is a human compass – but it is a spiraling labyrinth of cobbled alleyways and strange diagonals. I could find my way easily to a place on one day and get hopelessly lost the next, taking what I knew for a fact to... Continue reading
Posted Oct 19, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Rome. July. Swelter. Godfather of the Bad Hair Day, ruination of all clothing, even linen. The Italians are the undisputed masters of linen, and you know why: it’s the only fabric with a snowball’s chance in hell of breathing in this weather. Pliny the Elder claims in his Naturae Historia that the ability of flax to be spun into linen cloth was discovered by the mythological character Arachne. Pliny, as I have learned, does not care for fact-checking, though, being Italian, he does seem to get his T’s crossed and I’s dotted on the subject of winemaking. In my craft... Continue reading
Posted Oct 17, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
Oh, Stacey, this is wonderful! And reminds me that "sweet and Low" and "a sea dirge" were poems i did know by heart as a child and had forgotten. This also reminds me that in my last blogging stint I signed off an entry on "argument" with John Hollander's poem "By Heart," which is still worth reading and re reading (and hey, maybe memorizing). Terence -- you bring up two interesting points -- in addition to this tradition still being very much alive in Ireland (of course!), people I know who were raised in France know vast amounts of Valery and Appollinaire and others. And yes, zillions of kids no doubt have zillions of rap lyrics memorized. Hollander's poem begin something like "the songs come at us first..." and there are two interesting things about that. It's far easier to memorize a song than a poem. (I would bet i literally know hundreds or more songs by heart, and a dozen poems at most) part of this it that the melody and rhythm of music are like a vessel the words are carried in (i don't know how else to put it) -- and part of it, at risk of provoking snark from free verse jihadists, is rhyme. Our innate need to use pattern recognition to process knowledge makes rhyme irresistible to our processing centers. -- amy
Writers: how many poems do you have memorized? Did you set out to memorize them? Was it demanded of you by a teacher? Did you just read them so many times they became imprinted on your amygdala? When you recite those poems – if you ever do; muttering verses to yourself while you run the vacuum or pulling out a stageworthy rendering of “Ozymandias” to astound tipsy computer programmers at your spouse’s company holiday party – what do you feel? This is not a rhetorical question. I want to know. This summer I had the good fortune to be invited as a guest scholar to the University of Washington’s summer creative writing session, a month-long poetry intensive run out of the University’s outpost in central Rome. The students were primarily undergrads, many of them science majors or otherwise new to creative writing, taking advantage of an opportunity to nail down a humanities requirement under felicitous circumstances. The program was both rigorous and flexible, with students responsible for attending various lectures, workshops and outings, critiquing one another’s drafts, and generally living the life of the literary expatriate with as much appetite and verve as possible. One of the program’s requirements was that each student had to memorize, and correctly recite, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” If they messed it up they had to do it again. Recitations were heard before workshops, at villas and museums, at the end of lecture periods or whatever time presented itself, but we all heard those lines recited, confidently, hesitantly, shyly or with an oratory aplomb Ian McKellen would envy, more times than I can count. At first I thought: wow, what a quaint, funny, old-school thing to do. It almost seemed like a kind of fraternity hazing ritual. You wanna be a poet, eh? Prove it. URN it. (Sorry, that just slipped out.) But as I listened, time after time, in the ruined groves of Hadrian’s Villa and the echo-riddled entryway of a palazzo with a gravity-defying Boromini spiral staircase, in classrooms and gardens, to those 19th century rhymes, to Keats’s unfaltering, surefooted metricality, something started to happen to me. I knew this poem, had never memorized it, but it’s hard to get through even a rudimentary education in literature without “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, that is all / Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” The poem, which I doubt I’d given much thought to since my early teens, was so familiar that it was strange to realize that if I were called upon to recite it, I’d fall on my face. Anyway, hearing the endless iterations of “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss / Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,/ For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” – well, the first thing that hit me was something like: easy for him to say, he died at twenty-six. But following on the heels of that was something about why it is inherently important -- cognitively? Emotionally? -- to memorize. Of course, the earliest tradition of poetry was oral, Bardic – intended for public recitation and passed down by memorization. But it does something for us even in an age where it’s the page, not the lyre, that rules, and where rhyme and meter, tools that no doubt contributed to your ability to retain childhood nursery rhymes, have been subject to derision for decades. The very word “rote” connotes ideas that are largely anathema to us. Something servile, something mindless. Memorize a poem and you’ll quickly learn that the act is anything but mindless, and anything but servile. There is some kind of primal magic that occurs when a matrix of beautiful or meaningful or harrowing words becomes fused with your consciousness. I saw it. I saw it again and again, on the faces of the Keats reciters, for some of whom this was almost certainly the first time they had ever been made to memorize a poem. Even on the faces of the workshop leaders, who do this every flipping year and who murmured along, time after time, eyes half-closed, larynxes silently keeping pace as they mouthed those words to themselves. It was mastery. And it was elation. Memorized poems are something extraordinary, I suspect, part prayer, part talisman, part party trick and part acknowledgment of something fundamentally human, a shared history, a common origin. I “know” many poems, pieces of them, stray lodged lines or stanzas, fragments that haunt, uneradicatable bits. But memorized to the point where I could recite them on demand? Not that many. Thom Gunn’s “Tamer and Hawk.” James Merrill’s “About the Phoenix” and “The Victor Dog.” Large sections, but certainly not the sequential entirety, of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam. Cavafy’s “Ithaka.” Frost’s “The Most of It” and “Directive.” Yeats’s “When You Are Old” and “The Two Trees.” Stephen Vincent Benet’s “The Ballad of William Sycamore” because it’s the one poem my father memorized and he recited it so often, and with such a mystical air about him, that I couldn’t help but absorb it. And after this summer, if I ever slip a single syllable of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” someone will need to promptly involve a neurologist. Poet Frank Giampietro has collected a wonderful group of memorized and recited poems, which you can hear at www.poemsbyheart.org . Each poet gives a brief explanation of why they memorized the poem, and then recites. There are recordings by Alan Shapiro, Claudia Emerson, Robert Pinsky and a host of other wonderful voices (Greg Brownderville’s recitation of Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse” is particularly chill-provoking). Check it out. And consider this: what does it mean when a piece of writing gets so far under your skin that it becomes part of you? What does it mean to master the words of a master? What do you know, after memorizing a poem, that you didn’t know before? Not a rhetorical question. I’ve been pondering this since July and I don’t have answers. Why memorize? I’m certain that, cognitively, psychically, it changes you. Why, and how, are probably up for debate, and are likely personal. Beauty is Truth; Truth Beauty. That is all…. Continue reading
Posted Oct 16, 2011 at The Best American Poetry
A prominent poet who shall go unnamed once sat down across the table from me, a manila folder of my drafts in one hand, and said, without so much as a hello:“You know what’s wrong with you?” “Probably,” I replied, “but hit me.” “You’re too God-damned argumentative.” The gentleman had, in the previous day’s workshop, flogged me (and my poem) with such a pronounced and obvious desire to belittle and embarrass that 24 hours later people were still asking me if I was okay. Coming from this particular person, the term “argumentative” seemed almost bizarre. But I’ve had plenty of... Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2010 at The Best American Poetry