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"These socks?" he said to me, leaning in with a big conspiratorial grin, and lifting the leg of his absurdly high-end-looking jeans. When Mark Strand smiled, you could almost see the little 1960s Tony Curtis special effects "pling!" of light glinting off his teeth. "They're cashmere." And he sat back in the porch rocking chair with a distinctly canary-eating look. They were. They were, really, splendidly nice socks. Mark Strand died Saturday from liposarcoma. He was 80. Many have, and will, write about Mark with far greater perspicacity and depth than I ever could, so I'm not going to pretend this is at all scholarly or profound. But Mark was one of those writ-large personalities who just seemed to generate legend everywhere he went -- minimalist on the page, Strand's personal presence was massive. In fact the majority of poets over the age of about 26 probably have a Mark Story. So... this is mine. First of all, poets are supposed to have the decency to be dumpy, or homely, or slobs, or jerks, or mildly autistic and incapable of normal social interaction; or hacks. I mean -- aren't we? Awkward and weird, at the least? But no. Mark was cool. He was bright, witty, talented, debonair to the nth, highly charismatic, and, it mist be said, head-turningly handsome even decades after AARP must've started haunting his mailbox. He talked like Clint Eastwood and that smile of his could just about blind you -- and he smiled a lot. Because that guy was always in on the joke. But what annoyed me was that sort of Majestically World-Weary schtick that he sometimes had. I think it bugged me because everything about him seemed so effortless and I would have given anything I had to have one twentieth of his CV or body of work and he just semed so utterly Over It I wanted to scream "Pay attention!" When we first met, at Sewanee in 2008, we bonded over a shared admiration for James Merrill and Constantin Cavafy. Then we bonded over my alma mater -- Mark had briefly taught at Mount Holyoke in the 60s, discussion of which put him in a sort of grin-trance during which he seemed to be seeing a potentially scandalous movie on the ceiling. I tried to imagine a guy like Mark presiding over a literature class at Holyoke and immediately came up with an image sort of like this: Then he promptly forgot who I was. Anyway, I didn't know what to make of him. At one point I was sitting behind Mark in the reading room at Sewanee when the announcement came that that later that evening there'd be the annual book signing party at the cute college bookstore. Mark moaned loudly enough to be heard at the podium: "Awwwwww... I don't wanna sign BOOKS." Well, this gal, who'd have given her teeth to have a book on which people actually wanted my autograph, unfortunately lacks the Shy and Retiring gene... Continue reading
Posted Dec 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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 focus. In Yoga, it means focus upon the goal of exiting the cycle of life and death and fusing with Brahman, becoming an egoless wisp of the cosmos, a drop of brine in a celestial ocean. It means forgoing attachments. To outcomes. To feelings. Ultimately to your body. Well, let's be honest, I'm rather attached to attachment, and if that makes me childish, then I want a damn cookie and I want it now, and no I am not going to clean my room or look both ways before crossing the street. I like being embodied. It has some remarkable advantages. Of course it comes with the promise of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion. Without which how the hell would you ever know what bliss felt like? Clarity? Wholeness, firmness of purpose? Tantrikas believe in the body as a lens, a sort of telescope for glimpsing the divine. I'll never really be one because they also believe utterly that you cannot be one without pledging yourself utterly to a guru. And by that I mean genuinely believing in this other, human person as a manifestation of pure consciousness, pure love -- a god in human form. Again, maybe all this proves is that I will never shuck my stupid ego but the notion of bowing down to another human being as a god gives me the creeps. Yet we can, if we are paying attention, experience moments in which it is possible to see that love is, in fact, transcendent, pervasive, the animating energy of the universe. Sometimes we encounter this in solitude, in meditation, in nature -- sometimes we learn it from our children. Sometimes, and sadly not as reliably as should be the case, we learn it in bodily and spiritual union (yoga?) with another person. This experience is represented in Tantra by the image of Shiva and Shakti (who represent the principles of Matter and Energy) in an eternal sexual embrace, fitted together like puzzle pieces in an act of eternally creating the world. A word of unsolicited advice: should you ever, ever find another human being in whose presence you feel this sense of union (often it's in sexual relationships but not always) -- someone who inspires in you a sense of infinite potential, a cessation of confusion or pain, a sense of transcendence: do not let go. Nonattachment be damned. Cultivate the ability to... 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 — In doubtful meal, if it be possible Their Banquet’s true — I tasted — careless — then — I did not know the Wine Came once a World — Did you? Oh, had you told me so — This Thirst would blister — easier — now — You said it hurt you — most — Mine — was an Acorn’s Breast — And could not know how fondness grew In Shaggier Vest — Perhaps — I couldn’t — But, had you looked in — A Giant — eye to eye with you, had been — No Acorn — then — So — Twelve months ago — We breathed — Then dropped the Air — Which bore it best? Was this — the patientest — Because it was a Child, you know — And could not value — Air? If to be “Elder” — mean most pain — I’m old enough, today, I’m certain — then — As old as thee — how soon? One — Birthday more — or Ten? Let me — choose! Ah, Sir, None! -- Emily Dickinson Continue reading
Posted Jan 2, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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. In optics, the word" resolution can refer to a couple of different things: image resolution in a picture, on a computer screen, a television, is the clarity or fineness of the image achieved by density -- the more pixels per square inch, the higher the resolution of the image. It can also have the meaning of reducing things to their constituent parts, in the manner of sunlight breaking into its spectrum of colors through a prism. Swedenborg, the King of Analogy, is considered by many to be the grandfather of crystallography, and it's probably not a coincidence that he was both a scientist and a seer. Crystals were at the heart of his vision of the world (as both scientist and theologian) -- he saw them as the base unit of all things; not just minerals and ice but living things, leaves, animals (which makes sense because as anyone who's ever done the 4th grade make your own rock candy experiment knows, they grow! And indeed, research has begun to suggest that human connective tissue is a crystal matrix). In fact the crystal is one of the few places where science, religion, philosophy, art and the occult meet and find they have relatively little for which to judge one another. The center of solid state physics, the basis for radio technology, the magus's shew-stone and the scryer's portal to the past and the future, the crystal has been an object of fascination to many, including Swedenborg acolytes Blake, Thoreau and Emerson, and the Romantic poets Coleridge, Shelley and Byron, all of whom were obsessed with ice. Crystallomancy is a relic of the dark ages, really -- yet as Thoreau and Emerson discovered, gazing at the crystal patterns of hoarfrost on a window or staring intently at the surface of the pond, there does exist within crystals a sort of portal to... clarity, to a meditative trance where ego dissolves and vast truths manifest. Or crystallize. Or resolve. Crystals are manifestations of geometry and architecture, of form and thus of poetry -- they are tropes, in a sense (lens, mirror, window, air, light). They reflect and illuminate human response to nature. They clarify. No major epiphany here, but it's the icy season and the first day of the year, and I'd like to offer up a hope that for each of us, the year ahead is one of clarity and perhaps... Continue reading
Posted Jan 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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 lover, and, look, I knew from the first second I laid eyes on you that there was no chance of that. The idea still honestly really appealed to me – the high school sweetheart model, the One True Love Soulmate Missing Piece It’s So Sappy Walt Disney Wouldn’t Touch It model. I didn’t get a high school sweetheart: I got you. I got you, you chimera, you kaleidoscope, you liar, you weirdo, you gorgeous enigmatic irresolvable equation; you, part James Dean part feral cat; you Houdini, you genius, you specialist in the unsaid and unsayable, you cognitive dissonance, you unhealable, no-closure, no sutures for it slice down the midline. And nearly a quarter-century later, I still don’t know what that means because everyone who had you, whether for a moment or most of your life, got something slightly different. And I don’t mean it in the normal sense, the way in every relationship there is a fusion of my you and your you; my me and your me. I mean you had a mask collection to rival Venice at Carnaval. I doubt any two people who knew you remember the same person. I headed east for college, and counted days until I’d see you again. You were infuriating, sent strange love letters, often made a point of saying you’d call at such and such time on such and such day and then very specifically not being around when the time came. You screened your calls and I often got the sense that you enjoyed listening to my increasingly frantic messages. Sometimes I’d get upset – I knew you were there – and call several times in an hour. In between, your outgoing answering machine message would change to things like “Don’t hang up, darling – just leave me a message.” People told me you were sadistic, even abusive, and I understood why they said it but I never saw it that way. I knew you couldn't help it. Why I put up with it is still a mystery but I guess we can just say I couldn't help it either, and sometimes love is like that. You made a point of offering to pick me up at the airport when I came home for Christmas. Then you made a point of not doing it. Now what? I’d made up my mind to, you know, take the “relationship” to the “next... 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 I am going to offer you a few meditations on the subject of Resolution. Feel free to chime in with your own. Here higher mind, so resolute, Is undivided, Arjuna, Though minds of the irresolute Branch out in many endless ways. (The Bhagavad Gita – this translation by Charles Martin with Gavin Flood) Dharma -- wich means virtue, but also natural order and law -- is one of the main concerns of the Bhagavad Gita, one of the great classics of Hindu literature and a text that has perplexed and inspired artists and philosophers for centuries. The Gita is a verse dialogue between a warrior named Arjuna and his charioteer, who conveniently happens to be Krishna. Just before a battle, Arjuna suffers a crisis of conscience about slaughtering his own kinsmen, and questions whether it is right to engage in battle. Krishna proceeds to chide him for several pages, sneering at his misguided arrogance. After all, if Arjuna dies, he will ascend in reincarnation. If he lives, he will prevail on earth. Same for his so-called enemies in the next village. Arjuna is a warrior and the dharma of a warrior is… war. Of course it's the right thing to do, dummy. Now shut up and fight. Okay: this bothers me. I mean, yes to dharma. To things acting in accordance with natural order, with their quintessence, their truth. And in a cosmology rooted in the idea of kalachakra or samsara or whatever you like to call the endless recycling of the soul into eternally repeating dramas of pain and pleasure, longing and loss, striving and confusion – and in which the ultimate goal is to Get Out of Dodge – sure, I guess I can even understand that at a certain level, even killing should not be questioned. . Here's what bugs me. How can you tell if you’ve got your dharma mixed up with your imagination, or wishful thinking, or some misguided need to prove something or some Brooklyn Bridge you’ve sold yourself as a distraction from confronting something you’re afraid of? What if you’ve lost sight of your truth in the tangle of wishes and worries and dreams and projections and inventions and the myriad illusions even very wise humans cast between themselves and the reality of who and what they are and what they are here to do? Dude, it happens! If it didn’t, do you... 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 of us were lawyers. Some of us were dedicated Black Sheep. Some of us were just Danish.) I was used to "argument" and known for being able to hold my own, but nothing could have truly prepared me for John. John Hollander was a know-it-all. Literally. I mean, the man knew everything. About everything. He was passionate about knowing things, about truth, about connection -- and woe betide you if you weren't and ended up seated next to him at dinner. Though our acquaintence was short, I'm guessing that most people who knew him would confirm that that he was strongly disinclined to ever let drop an opportunity to enlighten someone. On any subject. At any time. He was relentless, and could be combative. Being wrong in front of John didn't feel good. I'm neither uneducated nor a shrinking violet. But running into Hollander on campus usually set off alarm bells in my vasovagal area. I knew I was about to be told how utterly wrong I was about something. I knew I was going to be found wanting for the poems I had never read, the terminology I didn't know, the languages I couldn't speak. Any encounter with him was likely to turn into a chess game in which he was Bobby Fischer and the best I could do was note that the therm "checkmate" came from the Persian "Shah mat" -- "The King Is Dead." And by the way... he knew that already. John talked a lot. He was as witty as he was argumentative, tenacious to a degree that would cause a pit bull to hang its head in shame. He had a great gift for oratory and rhetoric and a steel-trap memory. He delighted in a good debate, especially the part where he got to mop the floor with you. Okay, in a poetry workshop this can be.... counterproductive, as it can limit multi-voice discourse and occasionally causes someone to snap their pen in half and leave in tears. He frustrated several conferees in our group -- outraged a fair few, in fact. He did not care. There was KNOWING SOMETHING on the line and John was Knowing Something's personal Knight Templar. When one of my own poems came up at the workshop table, I just braced for impact. Only that morning I'd made John despair for my soul because I'd been unable to recite Frost's... Continue reading
Posted Aug 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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, imagining how I'd arrange the garden, looking in windows, trying to calculate what it would take to renovate the place, which, though structurally perfect, is a study in acid-flashback-awful design choices, bathrooms begging to be gutted, a kitchen that would be the height of fashion and luxury, if it were 1955. Doing this without my realtor is, I suppose, "trespassing." Well, c'est la vie. I ran a red light once, too. It has four times the land my house does, including an undeveloped area screaming to be an orchard. Great floorplan; it's capacious but not ostentatious. There's a beautiful detached guest cottage - high vaulted ceilings, pouring light. Aside from being an ideal place to stow guests, it would make a pretty killer writing space. I could have a library. Yes, I have a point, and it's not just that you have to make cosa nostra wages to afford a cosmetic fixer in my town, although that is not nothing. I started the week ruminating, if you will, on the room/stanza thing, so I am going to return to it. I believe this is known as a refrain. (Repeat. Break off. Refract. YES REALLY, refract. Also, restrain, repress, hold back as with a bridle. Don't get me started.) I want to talk about revision. And yes, the word means "a seeing-again." Re-visioning. "To look over again with intent to improve or amend," according to the Online Etymological Dictionary, but I think vision applies, in re-constructing the rooms of a house or the stanzas of a poem, in its other sense. The meta-one. The supernatural one. ("Like a Saint's vision of beatitude...".) The Yeats one, the Merrill one. Seeing beyond what is in front of you to what is really in front of you. When I hear a writer airily announce "I never revise," I tend to write them off (if you will). Silly? Maybe, but as none of us can read everything and one must draw lines somewhere, I draw one around boastful self-avowed non-revisers. Not because of the gutless arrogance implied in the idea that everything springs forth from them in unimprovable, divine perfection -- though that's decently obnoxious in its own right. There is a layer of complexity I am pretty sure cannot be achieved without revision. Without it one is unlikely to experience the kind of supernatural, second-sight moment where something you weren't sure about suddenly clicks... Continue reading
Posted Feb 1, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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 the van rumbles to the curb and I get in, Michael apologizes for the "compost" smell. I say it is something I would expect from an outing entitled Take Out The Compost, and finally understand we are not going to the house, but from it. There's a farm. Michael's wife, Sibby, had made a few remarks about "the farm," which in my Californian-ness I simply took to be a quaint way of referring to a backyard potager (there were hens patrolling the back forty the first time I visited the house; doesn't that make your backyard a farm? It does in my world!) No, no, no. Slightly inland from town, these guys have a few acres of land, with a creek meandering through it and an ancient barn which they are rehabilitating bit by bit. There are antique stone grain silos. There are rows of summer vegetable crops beginning to give up the ghost as October progresses. Even the compost heap that had occasioned the visit was envy-inspiring: a capacious, dug-down area where piles of green matter and kitchen scraps were in varying states of transformation into the most ridiculously perfect, espresso-black loam imaginable. Here and there a potato vine valiantly attempted to escape reversion to earth, and I saw -- so cute! -- what I took in the waning light to be a clump of wild lemon balm, which it would have been had this been my garden. As I tend to, I impulsively grabbed the stalk, to break off a few leaves and inhale the beautiful scented ether they released. Oh, yeah. Nettles. Forgot about those guys. About to try to ignore the throbbing in my hand and Help Out with the compost deposit, I turned and found that instead of a shovel Michael was handing me a glass of very nice Rosé de Provence. That was the end of me helping with anything other than cheering Michael on with great enthusiasm as he handled the veggie trimmings, but I sure forgot about my nettled fingers in a hurry. Only two thoughts floated about: when you have manual labor to do, it is always a civilized idea to travel with a sommelier. And, I am about to die of covetousness. Inside the picturesque barn, Michael pointed out where they'd repaired things, what was original, where the cows had been kept, how they'd managed to salvage an irreplaceable transom... Continue reading
Posted Jan 31, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
“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 sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was the ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.” One night at The Writing and Drinking Conference down south, a playwright friend asked me over the obligatory evening round of gin and tonics whom I considered my "biggest influences" as a writer. I said James Merrill (he nodded). Then I said "Eugene O'Neill," causing a comic double-take that threatened to have my friend sporting Eau de Juniper and Quinine for the rest of the night. Which, given that both the playwright and the conference are heavily involved with Tennessee Williams, might not have been entirely out of order, but no one wants a wet shirt on a humid night, so luckily it stopped short of a gin downpour. For some reason people don't expect a poet to name a playwright among their forebears. I have no idea why. O'Neill -- the only American playwright ever to win the Nobel Prize -- had the pacing, the sense of image and metaphor, the love of ambiguity and the sheer sense of language as magical that I think is part of what makes a poet a poet and not an accountant or an auto mechanic or a line cook. I've written elsewhere about the pivot-point I experienced as a thirteen year old high school freshman I crewed the spring production of Ah, Wilderness! O'Neill's only comedy, commonly brushed off as a lightweight Long Day's Journey Into Night, was an incredibly serious affair for me -- not light, just lit. Illuminating. It taught me that words weren't cheap at all, and that poetry could be a portal to absolutely anywhere. O'Neill was a verbal alchemist. He transfigured pain and longing and loss into something unbelievably beautiful. The more you know about his real life the more astonishing it becomes that he had the capacity or the motivation for it. Thank God he did. Those two plays in particular form a poignant dyad: one is an intensely personal and wrenchingly sad autobiography. The other is a fantasia, his life as he wished it had been. Both, in my opinion, are masterpieces. And both, I realized halfway through my... Continue reading
Posted Jan 30, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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 you sleep with other girls behind my back (who's ready for that?), I know you disappear for weeks at a time, I know you're willing to lie to me. I know you are brilliant, complicated, troubled. I know I am besotted with you. I do not know you; you are a cipher, you could be anything. In the morning I will stumble onto an indecently-early flight to Hartford, off to start my freshman year at Mount Holyoke. I don't yet know that at Mount Holyoke you aren't to say "freshman" because there's a "man" in it -- indeed I will meet people who use, with a dire lack of irony, words like "HERstory" and even "Womanstruation." What I know: this is the alma mater of Emily Dickinson, Katherine Glascock, Virginia Adair and Gjertrud Schnackenberg -- poets, like I'm going to be. It is small, ivied, riddled to the rafters with quaint ancient customs. It is 3000 miles from Berkeley, and from you. I'm lying facedown on the bed, you on your side next to me and kissing my spine. You like backs, you've told me, always preferred them to "fronts." Fine: your palms -- oversized compared to the neat taper of those suprisingly delicate wrists, always covered over by long sleeves because you don't like people looking at the scars (why do it, then, I think sleepily, but the thought dissolves) -- your palms and lips on my backbone, my shoulder blades, make it hard to imagine needing more. Half-awake, my usual nervous agitation in your presence for now banked to languor by the late hour, I think of the day I first met you, backstage at lunchtime while the sets for the play were under construction. Too thin. Strangely Puckish. Sad, too, somehow. I think of the funny thrill of finding out, on the the last day of school, that you are the boy who has been calling my house and hanging up all year. I remember that little party on your roof, and your absurd white terrycloth mental patient bathrobe and how you'd stood on the ledge with your arms out in a posture that could be flight, or crucifixion. Equally heavy-handed, dear one, but who isn't at this age, and who cares, I just wanted you to kiss me. What bliss when you did. But then, years of silence, occasional strained encounters at parties (I laugh too... 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.
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 In palpable relief to candlelight. Familiar. That word is moving around in me, the way words with multiple meanings tend to, a sort of toggling from one definition to another until they overlap like waves. This sense of doubling, twinning, entwining, punning multiplicity in the meaning of a word always seemed to present a particular thrill to Merrill, who seldom refused an opportunity to pit different meanings and sub-meanings of words against each other, no matter how egregious the pun or how complicated the syntactical cartwheels required to achieve it. Familiar, meaning, as an adjective, intimate, of family; common, generally known, personal. Nominally, an attendant ghost or demon or spirit. A supernatural presence, joined to you but not of you, one that will serve you, do your bidding. At this table, Merrill and his partner David Jackson took dictation from a “witty Shade” who called himself Ephraim, and ultimately, from a suspiciously remarkable cast of literary and intellectual luminaries. The Changing Light at Sandover, the 10,000 line epic slash cosmology slash unified field theory resulting from decades of these Ouija board encounters, remains, in the opinion of this acolyte (who is in what must be a rather small minority of people who have deliberately read it some half a dozen times), one of the most perplexing and fascinating poems of the 20th century. Merrill used to joke that he only became friends with Auden after Auden's death, when the poet became one of the principle voices that spoke through that chipped teacup planchette. I have a not dissimilar relationship to Merrill -- minus the Ouija board. Having only met him in in person once, I feel and have always felt so familiar with him that I've never even known what to call him. It feels utterly presumptuous and absurd to refer to him as "JImmy," as his, ah, familiars did. Calling him anything else feels fake. I've been a passionate reader of his poetry and prose since I was fifteen. He has influenced my own writing probably more than any single writer (Eugene O'Neill is the one arguable exception but we'll get to him later). And now I am sleeping in his house, and writing in this flamboyantly hued room. "Room," in Italian, of course, is "stanza." But stanza also connotes “station” or “stopping place.” It derives from the verb “stare,” which means “to stand,” but of course as it... Continue reading
Posted Jan 28, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
PS -- Bill, If "Pink Sparkle" were headlining, I'd totally buy tickets. lol.
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. What does it say?” His answer was not a translation – it was practically a koan, actually – but I managed to extract that it was a passage from the Bhagavad Gita and concerned meditation.Which made sense; I’d just been having a conversation with another poet about Charles Martin’s new translation of the Bhagavad Gita, which was about to be released. And I’m finding that whatever you are preoccupied with will present itself absolutely everywhere you look. Sadly, meditation and I don’t get along very well (are you surprised? No?). I have a very chatty superego that keeps telescoping out to inquire “Am I meditating yet? Is my mind clear yet?” It’s a disaster. I’m still trying. But. Now, I am not an expert in the interpretation of mandalas, but I know they are sacred art in both Hindu and Buddhist cultures, and that they are cosmograms, visual metaphors for the universe, depictions of pathways to enlightenment, and focus objects for meditation. They can be fairly simple or unbelievably complex, with intricate interlinked geometric figures (which makes sense; I mean you’d probably have a better chance at mental clarity if you stun everything else out of there with a great blast of impossibly complex abstractions rendered in eye-watering colors.). Anyway, at the center of many mandalas is a complex flower-like figure representing Nelumbo nucifera, the Sacred lotus. Presumably because of the way it rises from the mud and seems to float above the surface of the water, the lotus represents divine purity, detachment from earthly desires, freedom from illusion. Hindu deities are usually depicted sitting on a lotus. It is the flower of the enlightened mind. Once I wandered into a yoga class in (of all places) Easton, Pennsylvania, and discovered that the studio was hosting a group of Tibetan monks who happened to be in town the same week I happened to be in town. They had constructed a raised dais in the front part of the studio, and were in the beginning phases of creating a mandala from colored sand. The work was incredibly slow and intricate, and to my total astonishment, it was done with no verbal communication among the monks. A circular form emerged, and over the next six days was filled in with a mind-bogglingly complicated, totally symmetrical system of interlocking geometric figures and symbols that, like the Sanskrit verse on my friend’s arm, I... Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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 a staredown with Marina Abramovic! Dude, that was weird. Did you know that dress was designed so she could pee in it?). Anyway, on the list of things you’d have to really really work hard to talk me out of, even though it’s a tourist staple and frequently crowded, is Muir Woods, the redwood forest at the foot of Mount Tamalpais just across the Golden Gate from the city. Sometimes, I’ve incorporated this into a goofy “Vertigo Tour,” in which we try to visit as many of the locations from Hitchcock’s masterpiece as still exist. You recall the scene, right? They’re there, in the dark in the forest, and standing there like Time itself there's a cross section of a tree, and they’re looking at the concentric growth rings as if that is where they will find all the answers. When you enter the park, one of the first things you see is a cross-section of a monster tree, bigger around than you are tall, over a thousand years old, felled in a storm in, I think, the 30s. To provide a little perspective on timne from the redwood's point of view, some of the rings are marked with little arrows that say things like “Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand.” “French Revolution.” “Magna Carta.” “Battle of Hastings.” “Aztecs begin construction of Tenochtitlan, Mexico.” The Coast Redwood or Sequoia sempervirens is the tallest as well as the longest-lived tree on the planet (there are trees alive today that were putting on rings when Julius Ceasar died). It occurs only in a small range from the extreme south of Oregon to around Big Sur, California, and never more than 50 miles inland. Muir Woods, named for the influential conservationist John Muir (a devotee, may I add, of Swedenborg! I’m telling you, everydamnthing is connected) is the kind of place that would probably have made Swedenborg himself jump up and down and yell whatever the 17th century Swedish equivalent of “I told you! I told you!” would be. It is nothing so much as a living cathedral, with the ability some exceptionally well-crafted churches have, of making you feel alone in your own sacred space even with a million people around you, and of drawing your eyes – and presumably your spirit – upward. Because they are so enormous, redwoods create a very dark forest floor. They do bear cones, like other needle-leaved evergreens... Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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 as “love apples” for their supposed aphrodisiac qualities). I have an entire collection of botanically-themed poems, my own personal de materia medica, ranging from food plants to ornamentals to psychotropics, and from the tiny to the gigantic. The last entry to be completed, the one that was still naggingly not right a year after the rest of the collection had been put to bed, and for all I know still hasn’t settled – is Malus domestica, the apple. Few fruits are cultivated as broadly as the apple – probably only the grape has a broader range – and I can’t think of one with a deeper, more complex mythos. Nothing seems more American, yet apples are exotics here, brought from forests in the Kazakh range of the Silk Road through Europe and across the Atlantic to the American frontier. It has infiltrated myths and legends from the story of Atalanta to the Garden of the Hesperides to the Book of Genesis (yesterday I mentioned the theory – which I espouse – that the English-speaking world tends to think of the Forbidden Fruit as an apple due to a translational pun: malus, or apple, conflated with malum, or evil. Given the probable location of a Garden of Eden, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was most likely, in my opinion, the thorny, tangling pomegranate, whose name, incidentally, means “grenade apple.”) and beyond, far beyond. Yet there is something – isn’t there? – in the apple being the emblem of… of what? Temptation, the strange ways wholesomeness and forbiddenness combine – of the pull of wildness and the pull of cultivation. At the root of this, so to speak, is the apple’s exceptional genetic diversity (it’s believed that in the apple’s heyday in North America, with maybe 2500 varieties, we had something like a tenth of the apple’s genes represented) and its essential waywardness. Apples are heterozygous – as are humans – but they make us look like simpletons – their genome is fully twice the size of ours. Every apple tree produces, say, a few hundred apples each season. In each apple, there are five, maybe eight, seeds. EACH of those seeds, in each of those apples, on each of those trees, will grow a different offspring plant. Most of these are bound to be unpalatable, “spitters.” Occasionally, you hit the jackpot in the gene-combining lottery and get... Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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. The book contained everything from Chaucer to Ogden Nash, Blake to Dorothy Parker. My parents read to me from it, from the minute I was old enough to sit still. There was, basically, everything else in the book, and then there were the two short Yeats poems (“When You Are Old” and “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water”) in a world unto themselves. Nothing else caught at me like Yeats’s rhythms, his elegiac strangeness, which at a young age I already associated with Being Irish, because the same tone suffused gatherings of my father’s family (though it must be said, in somewhat lower diction and much aided by rum-and-diet-cokes), and the portentous beauty of his phrasing. Whatever it was, other poems were funny or pretty or sad or happy – Yeats was trance-inducing. Reading him again as a high school student, I began to feel I was in over my head with the subtleties of political movements and religions and artistic schools into which I had not been indoctrinated – but the music was still always there, and the eerie feeling of meanings behind meanings, connections waiting to be made. Symbolism isn’t cool these days, and hasn’t been for a good long time. But there is something in it all the same, isn’t there? I wouldn’t call myself a Symbolist, or an –ist of any kind, but as Official Torch-Carrier for the Uncool I will say that I seriously dig the idea of the transpersonal in poems – and perhaps even more, the wonderful organizing principles of homophone and synesthesia, seeming accidents of sense and of language (like the possible mistranslation in Genesis that gave us the idea that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was an apple: the Latin for apple is malus; for evil, malum – mala in the plural for each). Even the word “symbol” has mixed heritage, deriving from Latin symbolum (a sign of faith) and symbolus (a sign of recognition) – both of which come from the Greek symbolon, which is: an object, inscribed and cut in half, with the halves given to ambassadors of allied cities as a sign of their connection. In other words, faith and recognition. How d’ya like them apples? As an adult I find Yeats more perplexing than ever, though I know a bit more now about his life. He was something of a shapeshifter – poet,... 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 than deserves the nod. And let me jut put in a plug right now for Poetry Northwest, which is a magazine well worth your time. And I’m not just saying that because they’ve been super indulgent about accepting my work. And I’m not under some quid pro quo arrangement to tout them because that first Carolyn Kizer Prize is going in a direction I Very Wholeheartedly Approve Of (cue trumpet obbligati). Seriously, it’s a great publication, eclectic in the great tradition of Pacific Northwest eclecticism yet stylistically rock-solid. If you don’t read it, you’re missing some good stuff. My preoccupations of the week have ranged widely, from Pandora’s Box to Schroedinger’s Cat, from Yeats to the Upanishads, from birdwatching to Borges, Kalachakra to quantum mechanics. When I was relieved of the burden of trying to weave a basket out of those reeds by last night’s phone call about the Kizer prize, I thought, well, that makes it obvious. Let's talk about Kizer. But in diving back through poems of Kizer’s (which are many, and many of which are too long to be done justice to in this space), two things happened. One, I found this quote: “Writing about iambic pentameter is like writing a defense of breathing. When I was a child I had severe asthma. I would lie perfectly still and concentrate on the production of the next breath. It is both the most natural and the most concentrated activity I know. One breath and the pentameter line have the same duration.” I don’t know why it surprised me to read this. Maybe because I’ve always thought of Kizer as being more notable for her themes and subject matter than her stance on the Great American Bicker between “formalists” and um, “free versists.” It was a common tenet of, for instance, San Francisco Renaissance poets (and it traces its heritage to Whitman, who I guess had one hell of a set of lungs) that the breath be the basic unit of poetry rather than the iamb, which was seen as artificial. And here’s Kizer, a poet who wrote both metrical and non-metrical poems, saying that for her, iambic pentameter was a breath-unit. It made me realize that it was that for me as well. I never had asthma but I have done years of yoga and I have done plenty of breath-based mindfulness meditations to help deal with bouts... Continue reading
Posted Mar 5, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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 it can wander off in different directions. The first real poem I ever wrote – at least, the first one I’d call “mature” whatever that means (David, you’d have heard me read it in the Glascock competition back in ’92!) was about a kaleidoscope. It was an actual kaleidoscope – and an exorbitantly fine one, I must note, polished brass and a double wheel of beautiful stained glass shards – that I’d gotten as a birthday gift for The Boy Who Died. He was a physics-minded creature and seemed to get a kick out of optical tricks, but the gift was also symbolic (in a ham-handed, adolescent way, perhaps), a way of saying that I knew all the broken stuff inside him coalesced into something exceptional and gorgeous if you knew how to look at it. At his family’s house after the memorial service I don’t mind admitting I ransacked his old bedroom looking for that kaleidoscope, but it wasn’t there. I have no idea what he did with it. He had ascetic tendencies, kept few possessions – a sentimental knickknack from me, I realized, was probably not on his list of essentials. But I always did wonder where it ended up, and that was partially what prompted the poem. But writing it made me realize that breakage and accretion and mosaic were going to be lifelong companions of mine in poetry writing. My favorite church in Rome – not counting the Pantheon, which is inarguably in a class by itself – is the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s very, very old; the original structure dates back to the 300’s, and the current one, built on the old foundations, mostly dates to the 12th century. Santa Maria has a markedly different feel than the Renaissance and Baroque period Catholic churches. It’s Medieval. It has more Byzantine features, and the detail and sheer multitude of intricate, fascinating mosaic elements is staggering. Its interior columns are repurposed from the Baths of Caracalla, and its portico is plastered with fragments of ancient carved marbles. Everything in that church is made up of tiny fragments of other things, meticulously put together to form a seamless whole, one that tells a story, one that directs you to feel a certain way when you step inside. It is, in short, a poem. I don’t know how many times I went back to it, and... 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 me most as a poet. I think I stand with a significant majority of poets in that impulse. We write as an act of exorcism, or as a way of having our beloved, on the page, particularly if we cannot in real life; we write to bring our dead back, we write to redirect grief. We write our letter to the world that never wrote to us. The tropes and devices of poetry offer us ways to express our deepest longings without the consequences that might attend acting on them in real life. James Merrill spoke of using the second person in love poems in order to obviate discussion of his sexuality – he referred to the pronoun “you as “a fig leaf.” This impulse is probably what prompted Merrill to develop the dazzlingly ornate linguistic puzzles and flourishes that characterize so much of his work. If he had had nothing to obfuscate, we’d probably be without some of his best work. “All the new thinking is about loss,” as Robert Hass famously put it. “In this, it resembles all the old thinking.” In Persian poetry there is a constantly recurring motif of the nightingale and its love for the rose. The nightingale endlessly trilling for the beautiful but thorned rose san symbolize the poet’s love for God, for an earthly love, for any praiseworthy object, but it also bespeaks a longing for unattainable perfection, for the exact right expression of something, sublime or terrible or… inexpressible. It’s the unslakable desire for the creative act itself. Dig this. My introduction to Keats, Shelley, and the Persians came at the age of thirteen, when I was in a school production of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (The title comes from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyyam.) The young protagonist, a teenager on his way to college and besotted with Romantic poetry – in love with love, drunk on it the way Sufi poets are drunk on the wine of divine love – was played by Jon, the boy whose parents I ran into outside that hotel in the middle of wherever I was. Years after our own chaste little ninth-grade romance, Jon went on to date the grandchild of Czeslaw Milosz, who says in his poem “Ars Poetica?” The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open,... 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 be the same route. I could go to Piazza Navona, set out in any direction away from it – and find myself ten minutes later in Piazza Navona. It made no sense. I was wandering in aimless circles, fretting about the lecture I was about to give. The talk was something of a confusing spiral in its own right; there were connections I wanted to illuminate but I felt like they didn’t work: like central Rome itself, there was almost too much going on to make sense of. MAKE SENSE OF IT is one of the recurring refrains of James Merrill’s Ouija Board epic The Changing Light at Sandover. The other is THERE IS NO ACCIDENT. Part of my freakout was that the lecture led inexorably to that poem, which is terribly ambitious and complex, and and I was scared to death of having to talk about it, especially in front of a professor who had known Merrill and touched that stupid board. I thought of Merrill’s own lines, his own insecurity as, in the trope of the poem, he’s been charged by spirits with the writing of “poems of science.” Dread of substances, forms and behavior So old, original, so radically Open yet impervious to change That no art, however fantastic or concrete, More than dreams of imitating them. Make sense of it, I was muttering to myself. But in the labrynthine swirl of references and citations, Ovid and Pliny and Keats and Frost and Merrill and naming and mythmaking and mastery, each a tessera of its own, supposed to fit together in a mosaic like the ancient basaltic cobbles on which I circled, but like those stones too, catching my heels at every step. I wanted someone to tell me it was going to work, and there was no one there to tell me anything. I stopped in a sleepy, unprepossessing side street to get my bearings. There was a small hotel across the way. A car caught my eye as it pulled into a parking space. I watched a woman get out, noting with amusement how so many Italian women bore a resemblance to the mother of my ninth-grade boyfriend: the austere peeled-onion bun of dark hair, the deep tan, the slender figure artfully draped in effortlessly stylish clothes. Then the driver’s side door opened and her husband got out, and I realized that I was in... 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 lecture for the UW poetry group, I’ve been asked to touch on Pliny, in the spirit of the presiding genuis of Keats who haunts the program: notions of Truth and Beauty and how they play out in an “encyclopedia” full of “facts,” some of which are documentably facts and some of which are… well… not – but may possess a strange poetic beauty of their own. I find myself with a dissertation on the history of natural history that pits Pliny against Ovid’s Orpheus, the Golden Voice, Ultrapoet, Uberbard, the Greco-Roman rock star. In the tacky webs of taxonomy and the growing divergence of myth from science over the centuries, I’ve concluded that Ovid’s Metamorphoses (fable! Myth! Poetry!) outstrip Pliny’s encyclopedia – in terms of their ability to articulate scientific truth, mind you – like a Ferrari with the pedal to the floor against a pea-green Plymouth Duster. Anyway, we’re on this Baroque church deathmarch, and I’m walking next to Richard Kenney, and talking about wine. My husband’s visiting. The night before, for our anniversary, we’d treated ourselves, despite cost and season, to a bottle of Brunello de Montalcino, a luxury we never afford ourselves at home. Kenney’s eyes pop in a way that makes me assume he doesn’t either. I’m going on about how it had tasted, like saddle leather and tobacco, dried cherry, vanilla, roses. “I don’t understand,” I say, “how it is that wine has the ability to transform itself into anything. It can taste like anything on earth, except maybe grapes. There is something mystical to me about that.” “Well, you really are Ovid’s girl, aren’t you?” Rick laughs. I’d never thought about it like that, but yes, this is why I love wine. It is its metamorphic ability, its transformative power, a natural magic its ventriloquism, its essential poetry. The way it can mimic, hit at, suggest, almost any flavor you can think of. It’s bottled metaphor. Italian wines hold a special fascination for me, because they seem more local, more specific, more tied to place and personal experience than wines from just about anywhere else I know of. Italy is the largest (in volume), and one of the oldest, winemaking regions on earth. They grow something like 800 grape cultivars, and you will never see most of them unless you stumble into the random village where they happen to be cultivated. In California we... 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 . 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