Friday, October 27, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/30/2006: Megan


Megan, my dog,
You freed me from that churning water.
You turned and came back to me
as I screamed for you.

You glided to me over the sharp rocks
like a ballerina
getting ready to dance,
and you pulled me to shore.

You gazed into my eyes,
and comforted me
as I cried for my father.

Megan, thank you.

Sibella Campbell
Grade 3 - Northern Lights ABC

Poetry is right language, Howard Nemerov writes, and this is true whether you are 9 or 19 or 109. The first stanza of this poem is spectacularly right language. Without the first and last lines, this poem could be as good as many of the poems written by people four or five times her age; the tightness and clarity of language make it strong and powerful.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/23/2006: Variations on the Word Sleep

Variations on the Word Sleep

I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head

and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

Margaret Atwood 1987

This one is a bit of a ramble, but that's how it fell out tonight.

The last line of this poem seems a little incongruous to me; while the rest of the poem is an elaboration on tenderness and togetherness, the last line implies some kind of dependence. It privileges the sleeper. Other than that, though, I find this poem beautiful. Atwood plays with rythmic cycles and abstract imagery in portraying intimacy. Oh, it sounds so dry to say it that way. Let me instead point out the gorgeous eroticism. The speaker opens innocently enough, for "sleeping" implies inactivity. However, when she says, "I would like to sleep with you," suddenly we are aware that one of the variations on the word sleep is sexual. The narrator says that she wants, "to enter your sleep as its smooth dark wave slides over my head," evoking images of sheets moving, perhaps, or bodies. Even the sound of the phrase "smooth dark wave" is sultry and soft, its oooo sound cooing arousal, and the low "a" sounds singing along with the act of love.

At this point, however, the speaker pulls back, entering a weaker dream world of "a watery sun and three moons." Here she says that she wants to follow him into a cave where he must meet his deepest fear. Elaborating on this in the next stanza, she says that she would like to present him with "the silver branch, the small white flower, the single word that will protect [him]." Is this love? A vagina (a long thin branch with a small round flower)? Physical presence? A body? A mere dreamlike, mythic token of affection? Hm...

however, is this a departure from the erotic imagery? Perhaps these are merely her thoughts while lovemaking, the loving impulse. As she writes, she continues to use enjambment, which implies sexuality, stringing our energy over one line to the next, and repetition, moving the sentences one after the other like two bodies. As the third stanza moves on, the reader almost runs out of breath running from line to line, all the while accumulating the image of a flame in two cupped hands - perhaps this flame is her orgasm, perhaps just her delight?

The stanza ends with an in breath; literally, its last two words are "breathing in," and after this climax, the poem falls back into tenderness.

Perhaps we may see the entire poem as a breath, the inhale starting from a place of peace, of rest, of sleep, moving and inhaling and building to a climax, and then, finally, releasing, relaxing, breathing out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/17/2006: Of Mere Being

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Wallace Stevens 1957

Monday, October 09, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/9/2006: To the Roman Forum

To the Roman Forum

After my daughter Katherine was born
I was terribly excited
I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark
We--Janice, now Katherine, and I--were in Rome
(Janice gave birth at the international hospital on top of Trastevere*)
I went down and sat and looked at the ruins of you
I gazed at them, gleaming in the half-night
And thought, Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.
While I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by
I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm--
I thought I'd look up at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.
Next day I saw Janice and Katherine.
Here they are again and have nothing to do with you
A pure force swept through me another time
I am here, they are here, this has happened.
It is happening now, it happened then.

Kenneth Koch 2000

Koch's poem is not your typical ode, but I call it such because it ponders on/talks to a Classic object, examining that thing's interplay with a larger emotional or spiritual force. To understand the departure, let's look at the definition of an ode. My Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory defines it as: "A lyric poem, usually of some length. The main features are an elaborate stanza-structure, a marked formality and stateliness in tone and style (which make it ceremonious), and lofty sentiments and thoughts. In short, an ode is rather a grand poem; a full-dress poem" (608).

Now read the poem again.

This poem does not have a rigorous stanza structure, elevated diction, or pretensions of any sort. Indeed, it trades heavily in humility, in wonder, awe and love. So perhaps they are lofty thoughts, but I consider "lofty" to be something self-conscious. Lofty includes ego, and this poem is all about feeling small. It opens with the giddy, hilarious assessment, "I was terribly excited, / I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark."

His excitement surges through the poem, appearing in the scattered, jittery sentence lengths. The narrator feels such enthusiasm about his daughter that he forgets to punctuate his sentences in the first 7 lines of the poem. However, he is so scattered that he turns around in the next 12 and uses thirty punctuated pauses (that is, thirty commas, dashes, or periods). This is a lot.

Even more than the sheer number, however, the poetically brilliant but technically poor use of punctuation disjoints the rhythm of his sentences. He tells us, "When I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by / I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did I'm--" He doesn't even let himself finish the description of his friend Adya (a friend whose name he was too excited to tell us at first) before jumping into telling her of his daughter.

In the line above, it's also important to notice that he defers responsibility for "having" the daughter. He implies that he did little more than make love with his wife, while she carried the baby for nine months and gave birth to it herself, for he later explains, "Next day I saw Janice and Katherine. / Here they are again and have nothing to do with you." Of course, "you" directly refers to the forum, but one could read the line as a piece of interior monologue. The greatness of their coming has nothing to do with him, and this is exhilarating.

Reading "you" as a reference to the Forum makes Janice and Katherine small in comparison; just as the narrator had little to do with his daughter's birth, so his daughter and wife have little do with the Roman Forum. Koch thus sets up a comparison between the great and the small, the old and the new. The last three lines, "A pure force swept through me another time / I am here, they are here, this has happened. / It is happening now, it happened then," explain what this comparison ultimately achieves. By throwing our own greatness (the ego) against something far greater, and then dwarfing that great something against an even bigger thing, Koch gives us perspective. This is not only the perspective of humility, of which it certainly has some component, but the ability to see and love one's tiny place in the vast stretch of the present and the past.

Each of us is part of everything that was and is, but it is rare that we feel that. School, friends, petty problems: these things obtrude upon our sense of relativity, the idea that a single human or event is far smaller than we usually think. What is striking about this revelation is that it includes a deep sense of love - the "pure force" Koch includes in the end of the poem. Somehow, in singling out the small from the vast, we can love and appreciate the small that much more. Perhaps this has something to do with continuity/connectedness, perhaps with the love of a single, small person opening into the love of every person and thing. Perhaps this poem includes some lofty thoughts after all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Poem of the Week 10/2/2006: The Season of Phantasmal Peace

The Season of Phantasmal Peace

Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadow of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city still--
the net rising soundless as night, the birds' cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.

And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven's cawing,
the killdeer's screech, the ember-circling chough*
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where the birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.

Derek Walcott 1981

I have a new goal for the Poem of the Week. Instead of writing the extensive close-reads I have been doing, I hope to write about an interesting or important theme I pick up in the poem - a paragraph or two - and leave it at that. I do not like that I have left this blog so sadly unattended, for the wonderful poems are hung alone and unexamined. So, the next part of this is coming either late tonight or tomorrow morning.

The title indicates that this poem is about an illusory, ephemeral, or perhaps spiritual peace, introducing some of the central themes within the poem: time, etheriality, and peace. The central image for this poem - birds lifting a net of shadows to leave the earth in absolute light - implies the