January 4th, 2012 § § permalink
Susan Howe writes this sentence in speaking of Reverend Hope Atherton, who ‘[on] May 17, 1676 . . . marched out into nature . . .’ She seems also to mean this sentence for herself as a wanderer of libraries — ‘places of freedom and wildness’ in which she is ‘surrounded by raw material paper afterlife, [her spirits] shaken by the great ingathering of titles and languages.’ Another thing she says:
Sauntering toward the holy land of poetry I compared the trial of choosing a text to the sifting of wheat, half wild, half saved.
So there is something particular about walking, that kind of slowness of physical movement that is at once determined — a step can only be so long or so short, given the person — and lacking in aggression, which allows for a percolation of some kind, a creative act. It is useful to think of the words she uses:
sauntering for walking, as if careless and lustful, like a flâneur
holy land for poetry, and toward it, as on a pilgrimage
trial for the writing of poems, as a necessity, a suffering, an act of judgement
half wild, half saved for the residue, the eventuality born of recklessness and of caution
These words make sense to me. I write almost all my poems, or their beginnings or ends, in my head as I’m walking some place. Usually it’s the kind of walking one does daily, like walking to work or to class. There is a set route and so a reduced need to pay attention to the path. Walking in my mind is a drifting between different levels of consciousness, with recklessness and caution at two ends of the spectrum. The threshing mechanism being different yields differently every time. I often collect an image or a line that could make itself into more. I also solve problems in poems I’ve written previously. Or think of five more ways of writing something I thought I had already written. So even when I am not writing consciously of place as I am walking, walking is the place of writing for me.
The above is a short essay from a series of five that I wrote in the fall for a class on place and poetry. The book by Susan Howe referred to is Souls of the Labadie Tract (New Directions, 2007).
August 22nd, 2011 § § permalink
(2) You must regulate your life as strict as a religious devotee. You must keep a strict eye on your health. Live healthy. Though you go in rags be careful every day to wash every inch of your body so it is always beautiful and fresh–even if you are too hard up to afford extravagant washing bills, wash your underclothes with your own hand as though this extra personal fastidiousness were part of a religious rite. Never use powder or scent under any circumstances. In your eating keep as far as possible from animal foods, eat dairy produce, fruit, and vegetables. Always sleep with your windows wide open. Always try to take natural exercise. Aim at getting up half an hour earlier than other people and walking if possible to catch a glimpse of the sea every morning. These walks should be very important to gaining a heightened consciousness of existence. The senses are most keen and receptive at such a time. Do the same if possible in the evening, sending your soul from your wrist like a Merlin hawk to fly to the stars, or to ride upon the wind or shiver in the rain above the housetops.
I recently finished reading Richard Hugo‘s book of lectures and essays on poetry and writing, The Triggering Town. I read it because I will be teaching an undergraduate poetry writing class and of all the craft books recommended to me, this one seemed to most have its head on its shoulders. And this is quite true of the book. » Read the rest of this entry «
July 18th, 2011 § § permalink
Perhaps the simplest tool at a poet’s disposal is the simile.
It can, with the lightest of hands, make clear a description (‘wounds on his face and throat/Small and diagonal, like red doves’ — George Mackay Brown) or a feeling (‘a bad feeling/Like the feeling of the stones gouging the soft undersides/Of her bare feet’ — Brigit Pegeen Keely) or a thought (‘like a memory of drying sails’ — John Haines) or it can thwart expectations by reversing a familiar comparison (‘the sun was setting/ like the reigns of emperors gone obsolete’ — Lucie Brock-Broido). I’m sure it can do other things as well that I don’t recall right now.
The simile is also, I’m beginning to believe, the most misused tool in poetry. I’ve read such poems in journals and published collections, particularly by Indian poets. I don’t know why — I think it might have to do with the quality of the average Indian book of English poems being substantially lower than the average American or British book.
This sort of poem will rest its credentials on the ability to supply a number middling to occasionally surprising similes in the course of describing a scene. So, for example, in a field the cows are like daisies, the sun is like a glorious football, children are playing like train compartments derailing and a frog is somersaulting like a circus clown. I’m not exaggerating, I’ve read poems like this.
Now the point is: if cows are daisies, the sun a football, children train compartments and a frog a circus clown, what are we looking at here? The similes do not cohere; they have not moved into or out of something larger. We’re left with a sophomoric riddle. » Read the rest of this entry «
July 12th, 2011 § § permalink
When I see interesting things, I file them away and often never look at them again. This is a shame.
But I found this again: 33 Rules of Poetry for Poets 23 and Under by Kent Johnson.
I fall quite neatly into this category, don’t I?
Ordinarily, I would hate a list of this sort, but I find myself taking a lot of this advice seriously, even if some of it is meant in jest. Here are my favourites:
1. Study grammar. Only by knowing grammar, knowing clearly the parts of speech and sensing their mysterious ways in sentence parts, will you be able to write interesting poetry. For poetry is all about grammar’s interesting ways.
5. Ask yourself constantly: What is the worth of poetry? When you answer, “It is nothing,” you have climbed the first step. Prepare, without presumption, to take the next one.
8. Read Constantine Cavafy’s great poem, “The First Step.” Meditate upon it. » Read the rest of this entry «
May 24th, 2011 § § permalink
. . . an interview I read a few years ago in the New York Times Magazine with the writer Mario Vargos Llosa about his novel The Bad Girl. In the interview, Vargos Llosa explains that he made his main character a translator to explain the man’s lack of personality and why he’d need to go groveling after the Bad Girl. A translator, according to Vargos Llosa, is an inhibited “intermediary” whose life is “curtailed” and “mediocre.”
My question after reading this was how many translators does Vargas Llosa actually know?
In the poetry world, I’ve found translators usually are the bad girls—the poets most likely to put themselves in dodgy situations in other languages and enjoy it. To disappear for years into other cultures and live in situations that would make their parents cringe but that also leaves them aware of the world in a way that makes them live, think, and take risks they never would have otherwise.
That’s from a short piece Idra Novey (amazing poet and translator) posted on the BOA blog. It’s a short, but fierce piece, and I rather like it.
As for putting oneself in dodgy situations, I’ve been translating a book by Marguerite Duras. » Read the rest of this entry «
April 19th, 2011 § § permalink
Lately, I’ve fallen in love with so many women — utterly in love — with who they are, how they are, what they do. These women are all of a certain age, and it makes me excited; it makes me wonder what it would be like to be that age and to have something and to live a life of — I suppose I could only call it a life of poetry, and to live it fully. It almost makes me want to skip all of the in-between, which I know is unwise.
Most recently, my excitement has been for Susan Howe, whose work I never expected to like much at all, having read individual poems. But then I read a whole book (Souls of the Labadie Tract, 2007), which I liked quite a bit, and I heard her read from her latest (THAT THIS, 2010), which seems even more fascinating. She also gave a talk on Emily Dickinson, a favourite poet of hers. She spoke so passionately of her — it seems weak to use the word ‘passion’ even. Howe believes strongly that if you love a writer, you must go after the original manuscripts, as she has done with Dickinson. Find the library or estate that owns them and do what you can to see them for yourself, not just digitally. The experience, she says, is radically different. And she’s right; there’s a material significance to it. » Read the rest of this entry «
March 11th, 2011 § § permalink
A question that is almost always difficult to answer — and in many ways, I think it should be, that something is wrong if it isn’t — is:
What do you write about?
I write about feelings.
I write about birds.
I write about feelings and birds. » Read the rest of this entry «