Monday, April 25, 2005

Poem of the Week 4/25/2005: The Shout

The Shout

We went out
into the school yard together, me and the boy
whose name and face

I don't remember. We were testing the range
of the human voice:
he had to shout for all he was worth,

I had to raise an arm
from across the divide to signal back
that the sound had carried.

He called from over the park -- I lifted an arm.
Out of bounds,
he yelled from the end of the road,

from beyond the foot of he hill,
from beyond the look-out post of Fretwell's Farm --
I lifted an arm.

He left town, went on to be twenty years dead
with a gunshot hole
in the roof of his mouth, in Western Australia.

Boy with the name and face I don't remember,
you can stop shouting now, I can still hear you.

Simon Armitage 2002

Hello Friends and Family! Though perhaps not the most technically rich of poems (though of course tightly crafted and very beautiful), I chose this poem for the poem of the week because I like how relevant it is to "the human experience." I always hesitate to go on about human nature (Orwell might have something to say about the meaninglessness of those words - I would highly recommend "Politics and the English Language," for anybody and everybody), precisely because who can presume to say something about human nature? That is not to say that there aren't common experiences. That's what this poem touches, for me. I guess I will get to that at the end, though.

The poem begins with the speaker noting that he doesn't remember the boy's name and face, two elements of identity that most people hold on to strongly. The speaker does recall, however, what they did together. The two boys tested "the range / of the human voice." One gets the feeling of young children testing the limits of their importance, the range of their impact. The shout is a way of asking, "Where am I in you, oh world? What weight have I, with my singular self against the other six billion beings on this planet?" Armitage even goes so far as to say that the boy "had to shout for all he was worth." This shout is not only a question, but the shouter must attempt to do the best he can, to be the best he can be. To make an impact, the poem says, requires personal dedication and work.

It is also important to note that in order for this "game" to work, the other boy (presumably the poet, due to the personal, almost confessional tone of the poem), must acknowledge that he has heard the sound. This brings to light the concept that we need reciprocity and reactions to validate and enrich our existence, to alleiviate our fears. Lifting an arm also functions as a sort of salute to the boy's existence. It is an almost triumphant way of saying "I hear you! Look how much you mean!" Furthermore, this idea of the arm-lifting as a salute brings up another thought as to what the poem is. "The Shout" is a salute-
poem. Not quite an elegy or a eulogy, but it is a salute; I like that self-similarity across scale in that!

The first few times I read the poem, I thought that the boy had died in a war, which lends the poem a political/humanist slant, but I think that it can be more accurately read as a suicide. Thus, the boy's death is much more of a personal tragedy. Suicide is often the final act of desperation, the last way to feel noticed (though it is much more complicated than that, of course). Here, though, it fits in as a crying-out for recognition. What I really love about this poem is how tender the last couplet is. It doesn't matter how we look or what we do, part of identity rests in those that we loved, in those that we shared something with, no matter how small. Even though the boy moves farther and farther away every time spacial image in the poem (from the park to the road to the hill and on til death), in some ways he is still stationary in the poet. The self needs an other to reflect it back. Where would we be if our voices couldn't be heard, and if we couldn't hear those around us? This poem deals with reciprocity as much as it deals with individuality and loneliness. The end is just so empathetic - the author is willing to love this boy whether he knows his name and face or not. Have a wonderful night!


Monday, April 18, 2005

Poem of the Week 4/18/2005: Dusting


Every day a wilderness -- no shade in sight. Beulah
patient among the knicknacks,
the solarium a rage of light, a grainstorm
as her gray cloth brings
dark wood to life.

Under her hand scrolls
and crests gleam
darker still. What was his name, that
silly boy at the fair with
the rifle booth? And his kiss and
the clear bowl with one bright
fish, rippling wound!

Not Michael -- something finer. Each dust
stroke a deep breath and the canary in bloom.
Wavery memory: home
from a dance, the front door
blown open and the parlor
in snow, she rushed
the bowl to the stove, watched
as the locket of ice
dissolved and he
swam free.

That was years before Father gaver her up
with her name, years before
her name grew to mean
Promise, then
Long before the shadow and sun's accomplice, the tree.


- Rita Dove

*Part of a book length narrative, "Thomas and Beulah," about which Dove writes in introduction, "These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence." The main characters are African Americans born at the beginning of the twentieth century.
**Beulah means "married, possessed" in Hebrew. In the Bible, it refers to the promised land.

Happy Monday all! To begin, I have to say that I particularly love this poem - it reminds me of something Toni Morrison might write, which is not quite surprising; they are dealing with similar subject matter in similar times. The first thing that leaps off the page in this poem is the imagery - "a rage of light," "the clear bowl with one bright/fish, rippling/wound!" "canary in bloom," "locket of ice...." Dove presents us with these powerful and stunning images, which lend the poem a sort of mystical quality. This contrasts with the simple, domestic act of "dusting" and the apparently plain patience of Beulah. Since this is in its full form book length, there is a lot more to the woman than we get here in the poem, but it still stands by itself, hinting at more richness. (What happened with her father? How did her name take on those different connotations, and how does its Biblical references tie in to her life?) It switches to stream of consciousness narrative (mixed with the poetic voice of the author), and we learn that this woman has had a wealth of experience. The one described here, or rather family of experiences, has to do with "a silly boy" and a fish that appears several times.

Now that I think about it, there is a definite sense of water throughout the poem, but it remains just that: a sense. Dusting, which is a dry, dirty activity is here a "grainstorm," obviously a pun on rainstorm. Furthermore, the rippling wound tangentially refers to water, as does the term "wavery memory." The recollection itself has references to water in different forms, namely snow and ice. Then, too, one of the meanings of Beulah is "desert-in-peace," which refers to an absence of water. The final word of the poem, Maurice, could possibly be a pun on "more ice" - they sound sort of similar, though that could easily be a strech. The sound of the name itself is enough to merit placement in the poem. Anyway. The water is prevalent throughout the poem in every form but as an actual liquid. What this might signify more largely is impossible to divine without reading the entire poem. However, it might be useful to think of water as being necessary for life, which also appears throughout the poem. Dusting gives life to the wood, so Beulah, we know, is a life giver. She vivifies the wood, saves the fish, and fleshes out her memories as she is dusting. There is some self similarity across scale, too, in the fact that as she dusts off this dark something, she dusts off her memories. She frees them just as she freed the fish (the fact that she freed it and saved it brings up the question of how freedom and being saved are linked), just as the dust flies off like "a canary in bloom." This concept of freedom may or may not have something to do with slavery - I don't want to go on liberal autopilot and say that this is a noble, complex, black woman and she is working, dusting, unable to escape the wilderness, longing for some shade, some respite from the harsh reality which is really a societal repeat of slavery only not so explicit. That is not to say that the answer isn't plausible, I simply don't want to escape the bounds of what we have here. To fully understand the significance of many of these motifs would probably require a full reading of the poem, which I do intend to do at one point; I like all of Dove's work that I have read so far. So - I hope that you all enjoyed the poem of the week this week. Of course, feel free to reply at any time with comments, disagreements, other poems that you found complementary...And I am glad that I can share this with all of you every week!


Monday, April 11, 2005

Poem of the Week 4/11/2005: Sonnet 14


Batter my heart, three personed God; for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me,' and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like a usurped town, to'another due,
Labor to admit You, but O, to no end;
Reason, Your Viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly'I love you,'and would be loved fain,*
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me,'untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you'enthrall me,** never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne 1663

**unless you make a prisoner of

Hello! Sorry this is late - six hours of rehearsal will do that to a poem of the week... I hope you'll forgive me. This has been one of my favorite poems for a long time, even though I tend to gravitate towards twentieth century poetry. What draws me to it is the energy of the language, the imagery, and (surprise) the paradox. That energy comes from the lists and consonants within the poem (break, blow, burn; break that knot). Now, what the lists contain is interesting, too, because one of the first lists is a deceptively simple one of some of the functions of God: knock (to punish/to judge), breathe (He gave us life), shine (God is glorious, omnipotent, omnitient), and seek to mend (God is, above all, a healer, a love-er). I like that destruction is required to make the man new; he asks God to get rid of the old so the new can grow back. Then, in using "a usurped town" and "viceroy," Donne takes the body of a man as a town, as a whole community. I love that kind of metaphor for a human, because it manages to be encapsulate some of a human's complexity. But my favorite part of the poem is all of the paradox - rampant paradox, really. He asks for heresy (divorce) in order to escape a worse kind of heresy, he will not be free unless he is locked up in God, and he will never be chaste, except when God ravishes him. This, to me, though, does two things. First, it points towards the fact that being locked up and raped by God is better than being technically in line with church morals. It also then questions the importance of the insitution of church next to the institution of faith, the latter being preferred. Furthermore, and I believe that this is the true core of the poem, it hints at the paradoxical nature of God - He is everything, he is all around, and yet he is nowhere, he cannot be seen. I don't think that I can express this as beautifully as Donne does, and I definitely can't after ten million (and by ten million I mean six) hours of rehearsal, but I hope that you all see what I mean. And I also want to put a little disclaimer on this that this poem of the week is in no way intented to be a sermon or religious act. Not like it matters, but anyway. Just thought I would put that out there before I bid you all goodnight!

love sarah

Monday, April 04, 2005

Poem of the Week 4/4/2005: Heroes


In all those stories the hero
is beyond himself into the next
thing, be it those labors
of Hercules, or Aeneas going into death.

I thought the instant of the one humanness
in Virgil's plan of it
was that it was of course human enough to die,
yet to come back, as he said, hoc opus, hic labor est.*

That was the Cumaean Sibyl speaking.
This is Robert Creeley, and Virgil
is dead now two thousand years, yet Hercules
and the Aeneid, yet all that industrious wis-

dom lives in the way the mountains
and the desert are waiting
for the heroes, and death also
can still propose the old labors.

Robert Creeley

*Aeneid, 6.129. When Aeneas asks the Sibyl, a priestess and prophet, how he might visit his dead father in the underworld, she answers that the descent is easy, but to return -- "that is the task, that is the labor."

As some of you may or may not know, the poet Robert Creeley died this week (thanks to Steve Fisher for letting me know), so I decided to do one of his poems; happily, I had this poem marked to do soon anyway! A good place to start with a poem is something that you don't understand, so: What I had trouble with when I read this poem was the line "the one humanness." What is this one humanness? And what is the antecedent to the "it" that follows? I take the "it" to be heroes, or at least the heroic plan - that is the only thing that makes some sort of grammatical sense. Maybe the one humanness, then, means that there is only one powerfully human part of Virgil's story. Or perhaps there is one thing all humans have in common, and, the poem proposes, it has to do with death. Returning from death - "that is the task, that is the labor." This wisdom runs through the whole earth, and it remains true even though thousands of years have passed. Creeley points out that, even if it seems that we don't have heroes any more to journey through the underworld, or great storytellers of yore to carry on their story, we have people and the opportunity to work. In that way, there is something heroic in the way every single person walks around the earth. Or maybe our task is not to simply walk around; maybe that's not heroic. I think that it might only be heroic to strive, for death only "proposes" the old labors. It requires an answer, an action.

There are lots of perhaps-es and maybes in this PotW criticism, but that in itself points to one of the things that I love most about literature in general - all of these ideas may be true within the body of the poem even if they conflict. Poets, authors and literary critics often welcome paradox. So as I have said before, if anybody disagrees with my read of the poem (because they are never ever perfect, and who would want them to be) or has any extra comments or anything, you ought to email me back! I hope that everybody enjoyed this Poem of the Week, and I hope that your days are great!