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Jeff Oaks
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I didn't like Allen Ginsberg when I first read him. I didn't get why those long lines and weird language was necessary. It wasn't until I read the "wrong" book of his--the book that nobody else seemed to talk about--that I "got" him. Kaddish had me weeping by the end, and I realized there might be other ways to approach poets than the one that people urge you toward. The other realization was that my initial sense of a poet could be completely wrong. I might not be as smart as I think I am. Of course I have had to learn this lesson many times in my life. I remember Carl Phillips' work was once so impossible for me to read that I perceived it almost as garble. I turned away from it toward the other thousand poets whose lines were clearer. But his name refused to go away, and it became clear that I had to deal with his work somehow, so I did what I often do: I assigned a book of his for discussion to a class. That would force me, I thought, to come up with a way to read it. I took out the line breaks so I could "simply" read the narrative or argument. Then I tried to put them back in without looking at the original poem. That little useful exercise taught me an enormous amount about the relationship between the sentence and the line. What had seemed like a simple relationship was suddenly changed into a much more sensual one, in which music and sense constantly dance around each other. Similarly students often say they can't make heads or tails out of his poems. They can't read them, they say. Having gone through it myself long ago, I love this moment. I get to talk about sentences and sentence structure and how meaning can get interrupted and layered and turned toward music. "Why didn't anyone teach me this stuff?" they complain at some point. "Someone did," I say. They sigh. They do remember that someone in high school talked about this stuff. "So we now have a chance to go back and think about it again. Think of it as an opportunity," I say. "This time let's try to think about sentences like artists." Then we all begin again to read, this time more patiently: A Kind of Meadow by Carl Phillips —shored by trees at its far ending, as is the way in moral tales: whether trees as trees actually, for their shadow and what inside of it hides, threatens, calls to; or as ever-wavering conscience, cloaked now, and called Chorus; or, between these, whatever falls upon the rippling and measurable, but none to measure it, thin fabric of this stands for. A kind of meadow, and then trees—many, assembled, a wood therefore. Through the wood the worn path, emblematic of Much Trespass: Halt. Who goes there? A kind of meadow, where it ends begin trees, from whose twinning of... Continue reading
Posted Dec 11, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
My father has been dead for ten years today. I woke up in the dark hotel to a phone call: a nurse saying, “Your father’s condition has changed.” I’d spent the last three days with his second wife watching him die, so I knew what she really meant by “changed.” "Changed, changed utterly,” I hear echoing in my head now, but that morning there was only a kind of exhausted silence. It had been hard work to sit with a dying man, someone I had such complicated feelings about, and his wife who kept assuring me that I was her son now too. That morning all I knew is that I had to find my clothes and get into them, get into the truck, drive across town to the hospital, and then do whatever was next. As I drove past the McDonalds and Burger Kings, past the little dull plazas of my childhood, past the big, 24 hour Wegmans, a voice on the radio said it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. And because I knew it, I recited “Because I could not Stop for Death” Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality. We slowly drove –He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility – We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess – in the Ring – We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain – We passed the Setting Sun – Or rather – He passed us – The Dews drew quivering and chill – For only Gossamer, my Gown – My Tippet – only Tulle – We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground – The Roof was scarcely visible – The Cornice – in the Ground – Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity – Everything in it rang and glittered with new, personal resonance. I didn’t cry then; that only happened months after the funeral. But the poem kept me company there as I silently drove toward the body that used to be my awful, angry, complicated father. The weirdness of being in my little truck driving through the place where I’d grown up, the bizarre look everything had, as strange as “Gazing Grain,” the strange way time in the last three days had been stretched, it was all there in the poem. Part of my job is to set up big, public readings, but I hope the real work goes on off-stage, in the cramped rusting quiet of a student driving back home maybe, when a poem or sentence refuses to be forgotten, when the reader finds him or herself saying the words over and over again for the pleasure and the pain they bring. I have spent quite a lot of time writing about my father in some form or... Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I'm posting this late because I've had no time at all to compose or even think straight. It's the last day, for me, of classes this term. I've ordered pizzas for the two classes, an Advanced Poetry class and a class called The Writer's Journal. I've fielded last minute questions about projects. I've given advice on life, love, what to read, and how to dress for graduation. When I'm harried and losing my sense of time and direction, I often turn to Stevie Smith, the British writer. She lived from 1902 to 1971. She always either gets me out of the rut I'm in or makes me laugh at the rut I cannot escape and might as well embrace. One of my favorites is Our Bog is Dood Our bog is dood, our bog is dood, They lisped in accents mild, But when I asked them to explain They grew a little wild. How do you know your Bog is dood My darling little child? We know because we wish it so That is enough, they cried, And straight within each infant eye Stood up the flame of pride, And if you do not think it so You shall be crucified. Then tell me, darling little ones, What's dood, suppose Bog is? Just what we think, the answer came, Just what we think it is. They bowed their heads. Our Bog is ours And we are wholly his. But when they raised them up again They had forgotten me Each one upon each other glared In pride and misery For what was dood, and what their Bog They never could agree. Oh sweet it was to leave them then, And sweeter not to see, And sweetest of all to walk alone Beside the encroaching sea, The sea that soon should drown them all, That never yet drowned me. Her poems are so full of people who seem to think they're normal, or that things are normal, until they begin to talk about them. Everything's connected by commas, getting slipperier and weirder as you proceed. You'd be horrified and disgusted by the speakers if you didn't recognize at least some part of yourself. Here's another one: Nor We of Her to Him He said no word of her to us Nor we of her to him, But oh it saddened us to see How wan he grew and thin. We said: She eats him day and night And draws the blood from him, We did not know but said we thought This is why he grew thin. One day we called and rang the bell, No answer came within, We said: She must have took him off To the forest old and grim, It has fell out, we said, that she Eats him in forest grim, And how can we help him being eaten Up in forests grim? It is a restless time we spend, We have no help for him, We walk about and go to bed, It is no... Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I’ve been reading again about insects because my poems have been slowly filling up with them over the last couple of years. Until I realized I wanted to be a writer around age 17, I thought I’d be a biologist, specializing in entomology. I was a shy kid, so I was always looking at the ground. My childhood was full of butterflies, moths, cicadas, grasshoppers, fleas, lightning bugs, beetle after beetle after beetle. For a few years, I raised monarch caterpillars in an old aquarium that I’d daily stuff with milkweed leaves; I’d watch the whole process of their transformation from caterpillar to chrysalis. It was better than tv! On the days the butterflies emerged, I’d take the aquarium out to the front porch. I’d take each monarch out one by one in my cupped hands. Some would stay on my fingers for a minute or so, flexing their wings in the sun and air. Some would fly off almost immediately. I loved doing that. I probably should start doing it again. It made me feel as if I were doing some direct good in the world. So you can imagine that I have a particular attraction to poems with insects in them—Dickinson’s Fly, the white spider in Frost’s “Design”, Whitman’s spider that “launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,” Plath’s Beekeeper poems, which I reread this past summer and completely fell in love with again. So often the insect seems to represent a kind of boundary beyond which human knowledge, human morality fails or is devoured. I like Muriel Rukeyser’s poem that acknowledges the incredible difference between the speaker and the roach (and by extension, of course, the Other we might be afraid of) but keeps on trying to reach out. ST. ROACH by Muriel Rukeyser For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you, for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth, they showed me by every action to despise your kind; for that I saw my people making war on you, I could not tell you apart, one from another, for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you, for that all the people I knew met you by crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling water on you, they flushed you down, for that I could not tell one from another only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender. Not like me. For that I did not know your poems And that I do not know any of your sayings And that I cannot speak or read your language And that I do not sing your songs And that I do not teach our children to eat your food or know your poems or sing your songs But that we say you are filthing our food But that we know you not at all. Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time. You were lighter than the others... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
December 7th, as many of us know by heart, is Pearl Harbor Day. It’s also Willa Cather’s birthday (1873). If you want a poetry prompt, I’d say open to page 96 of one of her novels—the closest to hand will do—and, using only the words on that page, write a love poem to someone who never understood you. This morning was bitterly cold. My phone told me that it was 18 degrees, but the wind that was gusting off the river made it much colder. My dog Bailey, who loves to walk, today gave me the look that meant Holy Crap, let’s go back. I agreed. He half-ran all the way back, pulling my fat monkey-related flesh behind him like a millstone. Yesterday I saw a whole tree full of puffed-up, slightly sad robins, but today I don’t think I saw a single bird. Certainly none were singing. I’m hoping they all found warm chimneys or vents to huddle near. Even the heron who usually fishes near the 40th Street Bridge has disappeared. The whole stony bank where I used to see her has been scoured and changed by the river, which swelled with runoff last week. Gone are the floating branches and the great fallen tree where I’d seen her standing for much of November. The river water is still thick and brown with mud. Here is the last picture I have of her. For those of us who play what I still call video games (although technically they’re called MMORPGs-- massively multiplayer online role-playing games), the new expansion of World of Warcraft is out. I’ve been playing for about five years now. I first got involved in it when a long term real-life relationship was breaking up and I couldn’t otherwise do anything. I didn’t want to even get off the couch. We both had to live together until one of us found a new place. I was depressed. But I could play the game and that helped move my attention off my own sadness. I had direction of sorts from the quests my character had to do, problems to solve, things to collect and assemble. I dove right in. I’ve always loved fantasy. I learned to read by reading Marvel Comics, which led me to Greek and Norse mythology, which led me to just about everything else. In the game, I made friends with other players. We teamed up, we joked around, we challenged each other, we joined guilds, which are larger groups of players. It was an imaginary world to make up for the imagined world I was losing. We did not talk about real-life, which was a real blessing then. Literary friends furrowed their brows at the news. They were sure it was just a phase in my grieving process. Which was partly true. Sooner or later, they were sure, I’d come out of it and want to join the real human race again. They were patient. After the first few months of playing, mostly... Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Dec 6, 2010
The anniversary of the 13th amendment is today, and it's also the day the Washington Monument finally got finished. Got a project you’re still working on? It’s a little grim in Pittsburgh, although, as my parents always said, somewhere probably has it worse. There’s a thin continual snow falling, and gusts of wind blast the old windows of the English Department offices. There seems to be a little draft of cold air everywhere I turn. A high whine of it sneaking in through the warped frames. The sky’s overcast, one big load of cold water vapor. It’s our last week of classes here, and many of us are using the little energy we gained this weekend (from not having to plan classes) reading dossiers for a personnel committee meeting tomorrow. There is so much hidden work in being a good faculty member, work I never dreamed would be so taxing when I was an undergraduate and then graduate student. Committee meetings you have to attend, letters of recommendation to write, book orders to get in three months before you have to teach the class, syllabi to organize and think about, course descriptions to update for the registrar, faculty activity reports, and on and on. Each thing in itself can be a pleasure, but they begin to accumulate after a while. Suddenly you’re in a whirlwind of details to remember. I end up making lists of things not to forget, then I immediately lose those lists and have to remake them. I begin to make piles on the desk of Immediate Concern, This Month’s Concern, Next Term’s Concern. Inevitably they get shuffled into one another. No one trains you how to keep yourself focused on your own writing at the same time. Around the end of October, I remember we all began saying simultaneously “I’m sorry. I’m losing my mind.” And yet amazingly things get done. It’s like that cliché about theater. One day no one seems to know their lines, and the sets aren’t ready, and ticket sales are low, and suddenly the heat in the hall breaks down, and then the next day right in front of the audience everything works in perfect harmony. I think the students are going through something similar emotionally and psychically. I’ve had a couple already come up to the office with poems they despair of ever getting to work. It’s impossible to fix the flaws. The whole project they were working on has collapsed. They are terrified about the grades this mess they’re barely holding together in battered and ripped folders will receive. Half of them are struggling with colds. Everything about them is raw—they’ve made a terrible mistake, maybe they ought not to be writers, maybe it’s not too late to go into law school, med school, whatever path their parents or the culture has told them would lead to real happiness. Give me the worst one, I say, and let’s see how bad it could be. Sometimes it is indeed very... Continue reading
Posted Dec 6, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
1 Today's the anniversary of the end of Prohibition, General George Custer’s birthday, and the day, in 1945, five navy planes took off from Florida on a routine three-hour mission and were never heard from again. Flight 19’s disappearance still haunts people. I remember being told about the Bermuda Triangle, that there was a section of the earth where people disappeared. In the 70s, when everything was somehow linked to aliens, I thought that the Bermuda Triangle might be a transit point, a kind of interstellar teleportation station. My mother and I had just discovered psychic fairs and there were a number of books about making contact with higher powers. I walked around, listening to people read auras, lay out tarot cards, recommend candle rituals to clear out negative spiritual energies. I wanted desperately to have a psychic power. One guy did tell me I was a strong telekinetic, but he also kept touching my shoulder in a way that creeped me out. Sadly, no one appeared to whisk us away to another planet. 2 Cleaning the house last week in preparation for Thanksgiving guests, I was surprised at all the little places where I’ve tucked away books and notebooks. I literally have books everywhere. My favorite group of books right now is the stack I have on the toilet tank. One friend loved the idea of keeping books there. It’s so boring in the bathroom otherwise, she said, so much sitting around wasting time. I’m one of those people who like to read in the bathtub, especially as winter takes hold here in Pittsburgh and I’m reminded that once again I have forgotten to winterize my old rowhouse. I just bought an iPad because I’d gotten tired of the weight of books in my bag on my shoulder, but the new gadget is useless in the tub. For all the talk of the new technologies of reading, the physical block of paper and glue and weight still has some advantages. It might get damp but it won’t short-circuit. Still, the new elements to be dealt with too: speed, access, energy, and flexibility. I want to get through the airport this Christmas with the least amount of baggage. I feel vulnerable enough there at the end of the security line trying to slip my shoes back on, putting my belt back into the loops, without having to sling around a bag of books. 3 As I write this this morning, the McGann and Chester’s tow truck has arrived to tow away a car parked illegally on the street. The car was parked right in front of one of my neighbor’s driveway, where she’s put two Do Not Park signs. My neighbor doesn’t waste time about this kind of stupidity, so she’s called the police. She needs to move her car and get to church, I imagine. She’s what we newcomers to the city call “Old Pittsburgh.” Her family’s been here for generations. She’s the local democratic committee member. All the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 5, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
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Dec 2, 2010