Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Poems for January 13

As if to Demonstrate an Eclipse by Billy Collins

Of The Empire by Mary Oliver

Darkness of the Subjunctive by Paul Hoover

Elegy for the Disappeared  by Forrest Gander

let it go – the  by e.e. cummings

Mobile  by Sarah Strong

It was difficult to choose poems this week, given the tumultuous chaos in the capital on Epiphany... a very dark day for America on the day traditionally celebrating the return of light.  Note sent out with the poems:

Dear All,

 I am grateful for these groups, O Pen and Poetry Oasis that celebrate the power of words to bring understanding and healing and poems that allow us to study the care with which they are made.
When I choose poems, I am looking those which reflect a poet’s love of words, the care of crafting sentences, a message which reflects the hand of someone who is paying attention to the world in an multi-faceted and empathetic manner.  In turn, by discussing, we share reflections on how these poems help us navigate this complex world mindfully and with compassion.
 I hope the line-up for next Wednesday will not disappoint in this regard. 

I am pleased to share that this month’s curator of a poem-a-day is  by Fatimah Asghar. In this spirit of continuing to learn, and foster better understanding of others, especially those we don’t know, I encourage you to read her poem chosen by the American Academy 
as introduction to her and her work: : Ghareeb

I was pleased to read her choice for today which felt like a gentle introduction both to Sudan, but also Arabic customs, and that “cocktail” shaken together of old and new, Sudanese and American.

You might enjoy this link as well!
In last week’s discussion, we were reminded of the solar system model (see my notes in the blog under Dorianne Laux:… so in this same spirit of “learning” it seemed fitting to start with Billy Collins’ As if to Demonstrate an Eclipse.
 We shared many different versions of appreciation for  the delight Collins provides by taking the ordinary, gently transforming it into an object of wonder, all while  infusing it with some self-irony without sentimentality.  Note the title is as if to demonstrate an eclipse which by the end of the poem might be the greater metaphor of an eclipse in our mind where, in the dark, we lose the light of seeing all that prompts gratitude...  After another glass of wine from that bottle,  (from the echoing set up of 3 things, 2nd stanza) no longer comparing himself to a benevolent god "presiding over a  establishment of a miniature creation myth... singing a homemade canticle of thanks..."  but  "singing the room full of shadows..." imagining the eclipse, with his usual mock-humility,", we too can join him, if not "cockeyed" with gratitude, at least convinced that it can be sincere without being schmaltzy. 

Laux: How to link all the metaphors of wound as flower,  (which in turn dies on its descent to earth, and is a bag of scent filled with war, forest, torches, trouble) and fire sinking into itself? Lori was reminded of Rumi, "When your thoughts are rose-like, you would be a rose garden; when your thoughts are thorn like, you would be firewood in a furnace"--   The poem deals with healing... and David recalled Robert Frost's distinction between grief and grievance... the first can be addressed by "sewing back together", the second only causes more harm.  Ken underlined this wisdom, mentioning he had been reading about the backgrounds of the people who assaulted the capital last Wednesday:  all very different and all with their own grief.  Bernie brought up the power of listening to the body for healing... and Lori showed  the icebag on her hand, a live enactment of calming a burn on her skin while she was making tea..

Oliver:  Not the usual style of Mary Oliver, more like a thoughtful essay than a poem.   Published in 2008, whether it was regarding the LA riots and Rodney King (1991) or happening right now, this address saying how we will be known, is a frighteningly true prophecy.
One thought was that starting with "we" and moving to what "they" say, the surprising repeat of the heart which is defined on the last line,
moves us back to the we... and how to address hearts that are "small, hard, full of meanness."  

Hoover: Quite a biography, part of which includes publishing an anthology of Vietnamese poetry in 2008 which he hoped would change the US view of Vietnamese poetry, and bring awareness to the range of expression practiced since the "Nhan Van" development of the 1950's when members of the Writers Association demanded freedom of expression, for which they were punished with loss of their jobs, loss of publication privileges and in some cases, prison.  The subjunctive mood, expressing layers of doubt, desire, uncertainty, and the "if" clauses that deal with the imperfect tense followed by the conditional allows expression of what is possible.  Elaine told us the vietnamese language does not have this  verbal mood.  This is not a breezy poem with facile explanations... how to understand "the world is possible meaning"... 
Jan demonstrated that the I in the poem is the poet, using the subjunctive to explore what could have, might have happened.  How do you retire to your future? Who is this we that might have existed... and what small light as person, by a 60 watt bulb in such an endless, unmeasurable darkness....

Gander: It's best to see the artwork to understand the poem.  The art asks us to fill in the blank... just as the poem does... the letter p, when combined with h makes an f sound, a fantom p... just as the b in limb, does not pronounce the b. 
"I will need to listen well so I hear what is not"-- Emily I believe, quoting the difficulty of "listening between the lines" the way we need to read.  The opening calls for looking carefully... what is mirrored?  What is really there?

Cummings: Let it go... and the word play... the broken/open... length/wise.. the paradox of "truthful liars"... "false fair friends"-- calling as nouns "both" and "neither"... the "the" hanging on the first line has indeed lost its noun... the (you fill in the blank, you are the one who knows)... the endearing personal touch of "dear"... the making room... a gem of a poem.  

Strong:  She reads well (Mary was delighted -- the enunciation allows her to hear every word!)... There is a chronology from the spin of images,  from birth when all is a blur, to growing up as things adopt meaning... to the complexity of memory.  However, so many layers..
there is the processing and grappling with the world as it works... then with the same waltz in the mobile played by the real Danube, a reference to its passage through history... and the anecdotal authenticity of hearing the waltz played by it on guitar accompanied by the sweeping sound of the river, dancing fett  (no squishy plastic smell, associations with asthma attacks, factory workers in China, Barbie dolls)

the threading of "shiny things" again, as distraction, but then a shiny cellphone (put down, the person holding it weeping), the magpie's  love shiny objects... back to the "plastic" in ourselves... and by naming it... aware... of what we really want... 
"green breath of those first fields,/blown towards us by the moving shapes of horses." 


Wednesday, January 6, 2021

January 6, 2021

A Donation of Shoes by Ted Kooser

The Big Picture by Ellen Bass

Third Rock from the Sun by  Dorianne Laux 

A Winter Twilight by Angelina Weld Grimké 

Emmonsail's Heath in Winter by John Clare

Gravitational by Alfred Corn



Ted Kooser: Thank you Ted for your goodbye poem.  We'll look forward to Kwame Dawes taking over  the stewardship of "American Life in Poetry".  Now... for your poem...  We loved the liquid l’s, how not only shoes are recycled but also lines of poetry such as Thomas Gray’s Elegy (… left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,/ Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?

We discussed the Capitalization of Goodwill and Destiny.  Although no conclusion reached, indeed, it feels the “old cardboard carton” could be our future coffin.  Lovely personification of shoes and a way to address the inevitability of the end of a life, whether it be “wingtip, slip-on, workboot, sneaker”.  Just the mention of those names enhances both shoe and metaphor!

Ellen Bass:  Hearing her read in a live reading, and the laugh of the audience in the 4th stanza, called our attention to "the bad day at the slots".  The gentleness of her voice cradled the assonance and slant rhymes, such as sun/tongue/cub, in the beginning, the spondee "burnt ferns" the "home/grown" at the end.

We appreciated the juxtapositions, the play between universal and quite personal, the witty insertion of the song title, "They Can't Take That Away from Me"... the tongue-twistingly difficult "excruciatingly insignificant" where we are helped by the enjambment, which only accentuates the "insignificant"...

Everything is transitory... the things we associate with "treasure" may well be a moment on a lumpy couch, and matching cardinals of sweater and bra-strap may lead us to appreciate what is at risk. 

We noted lines that stuck out further in the stanzas, like the 4th stanza from the end... Perhaps it is that longing she describes for endangered  animals that keeps her in the same "room" (stanza) about the bears.

"when I get home /// line and stanza break... and she becomes animal herself, warbling.  Much to admire about this poem which we didn't get to.  Thank you Vicki for bringing up the Wordsworth, and how we attach ourselves 

to those we love.

Dorianne Laux: Vicki shared her story of teaching her 2nd graders about the solar system by making a model with the sun and planets.  The Earth, the size of a pingpong ball seemed indeed tiny compared to the sun.  (1,3,00,000 planet Earths could fit inside the sun!). From "rock" in the title to the final word of the poem, "stone", the poem rocks from amazement of what this planet bears, to our inability to pay attention to one of the billions of miracles.  Rich with images, and condemnatory description of humans as "evolved image-making brains" unable to pluck up an orange maple leaf in fall to admire in the palm of our similarly shaped hand... humans who "invented week-ends to have time to spare, (time another idea devised like an "epilogue").  We are not forever... not pronounced from any pulpit, merely, the idea that we are not in control of birth and death in this universe (which made us from its "shattering and dust").  The question of whether we are reprimanded and might be better off if we were ignorant came up, countered by the thought, that the word "ignorance" be substituted by "innocent".  "When was the sun enough?" brought up the idea of sun worshippers, primitive ideas of its birth and death, or incomplete comprehension that indeed, our planet is not part of a heliocentric vision.  As for this warmth "we've yet to name", it would be hard not to think of the important abstractions that guide our behavior.   

The book Sapiens by Noah Harari came up:

Angelina Weld Grimke:  a beautiful poem whose 8 lines wrap us in subtle rhymes and music to contemplate mystery.

Lori gave a beautiful description of why it is a perfect "grief poem".  Winter, as the month, when we long for younger, brighter days; twilight, the mysterious time before dark and death of a day, the star, perhaps our life-giving sun.  Like Marna, she sees the poem reflecting on nature in winter, but goes further. This small portrait on "Life expanded to the universal, where the metaphor circles back to the Universal in life"  We were also sensitive to the contrast of opne group of trees contrasting with one lonely fir, apart.  Perhaps a Christmas Tree, and the star the star of Bethlehem, although that didn't come up.  Rose was reminded of John Cage's 4'33′33″ where the musicians sit for three movements in silence... the opening word of the poem.  


John Clare:  The  now oft-sited Emmonsail's Heath in Winter resembles a Shakespearean sonnet with the odd unrhymed 10th line (abab/bcdcd/e?  /ff/gg) and old English words, filled with delightful words for birds, (bouncing woodcock, idling crow, fieldfares, bumbarrels) bracken, shrubs (furze and ling).  We agreed, that for this sort of poem we do not care what it means!  

Keats may have chided Clare (1793-1864) for emphasizing descriptive nature over any sentiment... but we were left with great appreciation for the arrangement of syllables, and celebration of old words.  

For more of his poems:

Alfred Corn:  Delightfully humorous exploration of gravity, choreographed through the life cycle, male and female from birth to death.  We remarked the thread of horse, (horses threw riders... when you let the reins go (and have a nap!), cradled (breech birth) 6 feet under, where "that horsepower meant to haul our bones..."-- Indeed we enjoyed the ride through the inventive levity!

Fun to hear him read the pleasing slant rhymes, amusing images (Terra's a magnet, we its iron filings; the solar kingpin... dread of the mere 1 g rising from a squat).  Although he uses enjambement, he doesn't pause to indicate it as her performs the poem which increases the playful mood.  

David was reminded of Frost's poem, After Apple Picking-- on the subject of gravitas... 


Thursday, December 31, 2020

December 30

That is solemn we have ended,— (87) by Emily Dickinson

Elegy in Joy [excerpt] by Muriel Rukeyser - 1913-1980

The Old Year by John Clare - 1793-1864

Never Ever by Brenda Shaughnessy - 1970-

Caught  by Mary Hood

The Debate by Alison Luterman

excerpt from The Sun Magazine.

 What a delightful problem... so many wonderful poems!  Here are two we may not get to: poem by Cameron Awkward Rich  an old favorite from Naomi Shihab Nye


Nutshell summary:

Dickinson:  For such a small nugget of 8 lines, there is so much Emily offers: the odd syntax of the title emphasizes the word "solemn", and in colloquial terms we might read, "That which we have ended is solemn".   Solemn is not ended, but rather, the solemnity of the end is reviewed.  The word "play" as in "all the world is a stage and we are but actors in it", the chortle in the g's of glee in the garrets, the first of four possibilities, the other three, a holiday,  "a leaving home" (Jan reminded us how hard it was for Emily to leave home, and did not stay at Mt. Holyoke, because she missed it so) and "later" parting with a world we have understood... June shared her associations with the final word of the poem, "unfurled" -- the sense of sailing the world, the great unknown of the voyage, direction of the wind.  How to understand

this one sentence?  Is the final option "parting with a world" and the understanding, separate?  Have we understood, for better, that this world still waits to be "unfurled".  Is parting for better?  Is better to be unfurled, just not quite yet?  Is it all of that?  Endings are indeed solemn.  However,  if everything ended

would it doesn't matter?   Is what will happen next something we, or a next generation will witness? 

I'm not sure we reached any consensus of conclusion... but it certainly poses good questions on which to meditate.

Rukeyser: This is an excerpt: the poem, in its entirety, is from Birds, Beasts, and Seas: Nature Poems; also in Elegies of Peace; First published by New Directions in 1949. to view (with a critique) : 

I can't find the site where I found lines before this-- these help though and are in the couplet above the excerpted passage.

Though you die, your war lives: the years fought it,

fusing a deal world straight.

How do we tell beginnings?  How does joy insert itself in an elegy?  War is a deadly enterprise.  June

spoke of the difficulty her husband faces as a Vietnam vet, and how he survives by living in the moment.  This poem definitely repudiates war... celebrates nourishment, and "this instant of love" much like taking one minute at a time as a way to heal wounds.  How do we heal wounds?  perhaps start with a modest expression of gratitude that we exist.  We discussed at length the "faring stars", those final words.

Is it one as  alternative to them (like the Dickenson "or") a choice? One things of wayfaring... wandering, alone, or seafaring... where weather can make what familiar feel uncharted.  The constant is the seed, the beginning... the love (that gives us ourselves).

John Clare: How do you understand the new year as "all nothing everywhere"? the old year erased, "no footstep, mark, place".  Like the fire ceremony of "burning the old year", one can write down (identify), like burning the old papers, garments, leaves no trace, ( time, torn away).  At first blush, it seemed to be a rather depressing idea, but quickly the discussion turned to how to embrace the contradictions of "reality" vs. our perception of it.  Indeed, the new year is filled with unknown, time is fleeting... the form with the alternating rhymes gives us a solid grounding with which to ponder these things.

Shaughnessy:  We felt this poem must have been written in this year of pandemic... Delightfully enigmatic... full of great sounds as the couplets clatter through evers and wherevers and nothing is forever.  The idea of embracing opposites, whether Platonic unity separated into male/female; yin/yang; Rumi-esque joy/sorrow, in order to understand something, we need to conceive of its opposite.  To understand equality, we need to examine inequality. We spoke of cleave, its double sense of split, and to draw close; The word play is delightful as is the Capital C and O, (possibly a zero? as well as oh!, followed by 40 /minutes, 40 years, without going into Noah's flood).  "Ever... a double-edged word" for sure as sharp as a sword.  Never-ever... as in Peter pan, as in can't get there, can't get out of this, and how is  "late a synonym for dead, a euphemism for ever. "  As David remarked, if you want to understand this poem, memorize it!

Mary Hood: Do enjoy her poems and pictures!  We discussed her poem "Flowers" 12/16.

Note how beautifully she uses the repeated “caught” like a prism…in the past tense… and all the ways we can use the term. (The group also noted what she left out —  how she doesn’t mention the road… doesn’t mention the tattered edge of the curtains or those birds etched in their lace…)  The first part sets up a frame, just as Wyeth does… Then, poet, like the painter, shares with the reader/viewer, "catches our eye"… shares the mood— and with Mary’s deft and sensitive treatment, we see differently, this sense of loneliness… and an amazing shift of the “non referential” sky allowed to go free!  

Thank you Jim for sharing your visit to this home in Maine that Wyeth painted:,_Maine)

 You can go up route 1, get off at Thomaston.

Although it is 11 lines, it made me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Curtal Sonnets he invented.

Luterman: Those with sibs, growing up in Brooklyn, or the Bronx really related to this scene, but the teasing, the insults, are so recognizable to all of us.  It brought up discussion about families -- how odd it is that the same parents produce such different kids -- and back to the theme of perception and how differently, even twins will see an experience.  Perhaps the best line in the poem was not from the father or brother, (who becomes more familiar -- first identified as brother, then uncle, then Uncle Barry) but the narrator, recognizing his father's stubbornness "Don't even try Uncle Barry" I almost say... 

Oh!  half lament, half celebration... may it all continue!

I ended with 6 lines of a 15 year old, Seth...  If you only read those lines, you could judge them however you want... but what makes them poignant is the context.  Seth, in the Juvenile Delinquent home... and his counselor responds to his "found" poem with "Dude, that is good!"  and Seth says, "It is?" and his counselor affirms, "yes! insanely good!"

Just like our group... we each bring our perspectives, fanning these words in poems alive by our sharing-- and end the session with the feeling -- "that was SO good".  Thank you all for a terrific 2020 -- zooming along since March... I hope to see you all in person in 2021!

Saturday, December 26, 2020

December 23

 LIFE WHILE-YOU-WAIT  by Wislawa Szymborska

Letter Spoken in Wind by Rachel Galvin

Astronomers May Have Reason for Milky Way’s ‘Lumpiness’ by Marvin Bell

In Lies Lie Beliefs by Bruce Robinson : to hear the poet read:

Creatures  by Marvin Bell

Moving a Baby Grand by Sarah Strong to listen:

T'was 3 weeks before Christmas. 


email included links to 

Alberto Rios: When Giving is all We Have;

Toi Derricotte Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing


Life While You Wait:  Szymborska is one of the most endearing and witty philosopher-poets in my mind. This poem is a fine example, which immediately brought to mind Shakespeare and his haunting permanence (all the world is a stage and we are but actors in it-- "As You Like It"... ).  It is also a magnificent snapshot of the universals that plague all humans: our doubts, insecurities, vanity, arrogance, but also humility.  No matter what it is we do,  life is a drama and as such... we have no choice but to take part of the play. As a poet,  whatever is written, published becomes  an unretractible record  of what we have done.

The discussion, per usual, was rich and varied and we all agreed how this poem is a perfect one to read

when needing a reminder that  knowing oneself is neither easy, nor a given.   Her humor is reassuringly delightful...  By the end, having acknowledged how "ill-prepared for the privilege of living" we are... it feels a comfort to know "the machine rotating the stage has been around even longer" and "the farthest galaxies have been turned on."


The poem Jan wanted to share after the Szymborska is an echo of sorts.  


The Boat Itself by Ursula LeGuin


 The boat itself

 the boat myself


 my crew my life

 that I have never known

Letter Spoken in Wind

The title is intriguing... both the idea of "writing in wind" (breath?) instead of ink, and words spoken to the wind, which carries them off... perhaps to the person to whom one is writing, or thinking about, but wind, like spirit, is part of the mysterious, and if a keeper of such letters, invisible.   Written in tercets which

descend like a small set of stairs, the reader might feel included in the "we" walking in Southern Denmark in Winter.  We discussed who the "you" is in "your voice on the phone" saying in Yiddish "a blessing on your head"... and Susan wondered if the woven dove was not a reference to davening and the Tallit, the prayer shawl, decorated with this bird of peace.   "Words shed overcoats, come//to me undressed... have no letters yet" inspired the idea of holiday cards, wishing for reunion... the poignancy of feeling the absence of a loved one... 

The metaphoric lighthouses, like the 8 candles of the Menorah with the 9th one (the Shamash or helper) lighting them, provide a strong image of the power of faith, making light when there are no candles,

akin to the Hanukkah celebration.  I love this affirmation of our human ability to create what we need emotionally to keep going, in our imagination.

I did write down "Ptolemaic them vs. church" -- someone's idea... but I can't remember the context or see it now in the poem.  

Astronomers May have Reason for Milky Way's Lumpiness

(forgive the typo -- it is Milky, not Milk).  This poem was referred to by Tim Green in his Rattle broadcast as tribute to Marvin Bell who passed away December 14. 

I loved that after 10 minutes of discussion, admiring the details, such as parallel lumps, and oppositions of reason with faith, science with the muse, David remarked, "let it not go unnoticed that this IS a sonnet"--

not just for the 14 lines, but the important volta, or turn.  Indeed, at the end of line 8, "Let me"... repeated line 10 "Let the desk" -- poet and poet's workplace, contrasts with the Astronomers' position announced in the title and first line.

Followed by Bernie's parsing of  the admirable set up of  three images:  faith and ritual (Brother.. where the knowledge will produce a new ritual with which to blister sinners); the moveable lump of the muse (implied breast cancer vs. metaphorical speechlessness) and the almost celebratory imperative to rejoice in that paradox of  "unattainable" we can embrace with our imagination.  

We touched briefly on what makes us speechless -- perhaps anticipating something great... perhaps an overpowering emotion... and the fierceness of the description of our planet-- "reeling in space", and our fixed sun actually a "swinging lamp" in a "warped galaxy"...  "blistering" and "bellowing" carry equally savage weight.

Thought is the great adventurer!  David suggested we read Robert Frost, Bond and Free: -- first stanza below.

Love has earth to which she clings  
With hills and circling arms about—  
Wall within wall to shut fear out.  
But Thought has need of no such things,  
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

In Lies Lie Beliefs:  We listened to the poet read this three-part poem.  

Although I did not mention it, I was reminded of the splendid book by Dorianne Laux, Facts about the Moon where she addresses the same argument between labeling, hoping it suffices as truth, and an emotional honesty.  Perhaps more accessible and incredibly rich with a lyric loveliness -- "familiar things become flinch-worthy".  (Dorianne Laux, "Walk in the Park" - one of the poems in Facts about the Moon.)

Bruce Robinson's poem is a complex meditation.  I was pleased that people were patient to give it time to coax it come alive with all the various reflections.  Thank you Jim for reminding us about the difference between luminescence and brightness. Luminance is the luminous intensity, projected on a given area and direction. Brightness is a subjective attribute of light. 

The ideas of darkness... seeking light... the stumbling on stars... are part of the "onset" -- and at first the relationship to the title seems obscure.  "The Muddle"  clarifies this search... not  just for one star... but a search for meaning on life... and ends with fact that the moon, and ourselves, are only illuminated by something other than ourselves.  The "lie" of what we want to believe, the way we want to see the world,

is indeed hard to admit.  However, it is only in examining that we find what beliefs "lie in the lie". The "Mend" has only two short sentences.  Our contradictory stubbornness, 

moving from the opening "he'd seen the moon" and after reflection, ending with a commentary on human nature... we all fall for lies we tell ourselves.   It helps me feel less negative in judging 

"fake news" or "alternative facts".  

Creatures: This poem, read in two parts to reflect the careful set up: the first part of 11 lines poses the moral dilemma of killing an unwanted spider, ant, mouse in the house, garden pest, i.e. invader of our self-proclaimed territory (with the ironic underpinning that this question is so important that our attention to it  "precludes the moral disquisitions of a study group".  The second part, like a turn in a sonnet, focusses on the honeybee.  Bernie jokingly called his comments an "essay on imagery" in this poem.  Discussion included  thought about sea legs, the role of beekeepers, and service, and what Cindy said about what it's like to be in the Navy for 12 years... 

What the poet saves is the beekeeper -- a saver who saves a saver who serves us... 

Moving a Baby Grand:  pardon typo in stanza 2:  humiliation... 

Piano, as elephant... the weight of making a living... Again a turn, in the beginning of the 4th stanza... transfer to the ivories, as sawed-off tusks and then metaphor of suffering... which turns out to be the suffering itself... A little Archimedes -- Give me a place to stand and I will move the world... contrasted  with the expression "not to lift a finger"-- and suddenly, 3 glasses of water become the fulcrum -- even if only to play a single note... and an homage... the piano deserves Beethoven, the moving men champagne... and the elephant, the world.  She does not say what kind of world... but certainly implied is a world that would respect an elephant to be safe from humans!  It was good to find out that piano keys no longer are made out of ivory!  Brilliant poem. Having started with a comparison Elephant and piano, the poem adds specifics, reality of the here and now, and then opens into an even larger consideration.  

Twas 3 weeks... 

Just silly and a fun take on Christmas in Covid times.

I close with a quote from Marvin Bell.

Marvin Bell: “It’s true that, no matter what, the literary world is full of insult. When you put yourself out to the public, you’re going to get some negative stuff. But writing just feels wonderful. I mean, I love the discovery aspect of writing. I love that. I love saying what I didn’t know I knew, not knowing where I’m headed, abandoning myself to the materials to figure out where I’m going. Of course your personality is going to come out of it, of course your obsessions are going to make themselves known, of course if you have a philosophic mind a matrix of philosophy will be behind things; everyone has a stance, an attitude, a vision, a viewpoint. All that will come out. But in the meantime, you’re just dog-paddling like mad. And that’s fun. That’s what I always liked about every art.”


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Poems for December 16

1. A Poem by Naomi Long Madgett

2. The Dipper   by Kathleen Jamie

3. Mercy Beach  by Kamilah Aisha Moon 

4. Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye 

5. Translation  by Susanna Brougham

6. For Tom Shaw S.S.J.E(1945-2014) by Mary Oliver

7. Their Lonely Betters by W.H. Auden 

8. To be of use by Marge Piercy

9.  Flowers  by Mary Hood


It was fun to see how the poems connected to each other... The first, with the idea that we need to learn to let things speak and be for themselves, uses the verb "coax", first line, repeated in the second poem in the final stanza.  How is it that we think we need to be involved, applying our "eager tenderness"?  The echo in the first poem's last line has a bit of the last line of Robert Frost, Hyla Brook ("We love the things we love for what they are.") But it's more.  As in the second poem, watching this amazing bird, hearing its song, "It isn't mine to give."  Indeed, we have to learn to leave alone the things we love.  This need to assume we are in charge repeats in the creative process perhaps referred to in the Auden poem, that as humans, given language, we "assume responsibility for time".   Is it because we are compelled to "be of use", as Marge Piercy explains?

Or perhaps, it is that we need to feel our prayers and supplications will help those "babes in hewn rock cradles"?  The 3rd poem states as a matter of fact that they "learn to bear the hardness coming".  And yet, it is hard to refrain from prayers that start with "may this serve & bless them well.

Two poems deal with grief, and the final poem an affirmation of understanding how flowers are designed for themselves, not us.  They do not need to know they draw us in as they do their pollinators!

Notes on individual poems:

A Poem:  I love the title!  Those of us with children could immediately relate the over-prodding of plants to our over-concern seen as "over-fathering" and "over-mothering".  Give them a chance to seek what they need, by and for themselves.  It could also be what happens in the artistic process-- when is 

a painting, poem, choreography, finished?  Why keep rehearsing the play, the symphony, even after performance.  June gave the example of her husband's painting.  How it looked "finished" to her, but not to him.  Dave brought up Joseph Campbell and the perennial story in myths about children growing into heroes.  David brought up William Faulkner and an alternate self available through his novels, very different from his actual one.  (As an aside, interesting that Campbell, idealized for his writing, was an anti-semite; and Faulkner who wrote quotable and convincing lines such as  “every man is the arbiter of his own virtues but let no man prescribe for another mans well-being." (Quentin, in the Saddest of Words).

was blatantly racist. 

The Dipper: Do admire this bird and its song here:

Jim shared this exact experience of the bird materializing out of nowhere. That verb "issue" for the sudden exit (like a birth) out of a waterfall is uncannily perfect for the tone.  We discussed "stupidly"... and the "yet" without any conclusion.  Undammable song makes a contrast to "swept stupidly"--

the one, mindless water, the other a bird programmed to fish and sing as it does-- caught in a moment.

The yet feels out of place, as does the assumption that the song sings of the depths of the river the bird plumbs.  We remarked a psychic feel to the idea of depth...   but that too could be human transposition.

I brought up the German word, "unerfüllte Sehnsucht" -- unfulfilled longing... The poet understands the experience of this bird "is not hers to give".

Mercy Beach:  We marveled that a 13 year old would pick such a poem, which then was shared with Emily's 10 year old grandson for their home-schooling of poetry.  Emily mentioned it could be just a lucky pick--  the first one he stumbled on in Poem a Day.   The "about this poem" says: “This poem was inspired by the shoreline in Madison, Connecticut. In Annie Finch’s workshop with other poets at the Poetry By The Sea conference, we explored meter's relationships to nature. As I entered this meditation, I couldn’t help but relate the physical landscape to the ongoing struggles of human nature embroiling our country and world. The poem is a call to transform adversity into greatness; a wish for relief, also known as mercy.

Our discussion  included an association with "Old Man River"

and Kintsugi (金継ぎ, "golden joinery"), also known as kintsukuroi (金繕い, "golden repair"),[1] is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum, a method similar to the maki-e technique.[2][3][4] As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.  The beauty of broken

adds to the sense that whatever happens, as in the first poem, "the leaf's inclined to find its own direction...) We tried out ideas of the ocean being a mother, the beach a line of gold... the water being the unconscious, the land conscious... we all appreciated the images and sounds.**

Red Brocade:  an old favorite.  Elaine noticed the past tense in the opening line... and there is also past tense in the 3rd stanza.  All proverbs come out of a simpler time,  may explain in part.  The poem certainly evokes a time when such cultural traditions in Palestine were intact.  It also asks us, no matter what nationality, religion, culture, to examine in the here and now, how we are behaving towards each other -- if we can be true to honorable legacy, and not be claimed by pretending we have a purpose in the world, especially if alien to who we are and represent. 

I want to be sure to have fresh mint for you, to snip in your tea-- it confirms that I will make no excuses, but offer the sacred rules of hospitality.

Translation: As Ted Kooser says, this is a fine poem about "the staff of life" -- and yes, perhaps there is a pun in the Finnish in the last line.  David shared his son's love of baking bread, and how bread is indeed translation -- transforming one medium to another.  The tradition of making and sharing food as symbolic sharing love is also here, but here, in a eulogy.  The mono-line and rounded vowels of "slow" and "hours" suspended between the discovery of a last word (one loaf of dark rye) and the idea that it was left to be consumed.  The thaw of bread and heart... the healing of the firm, fragrant, forgiving bread... all those f's which work the teeth against the lips, the knife, and that Finnish and final silence.

For Tom Shaw: He was a Bishop and indeed, Mary Oliver must have had many conversations with him.  Whether she actually had this conversation with him, or imagined or dreamed asking him, and his reply is in quotes doesn't matter.  It is the perfect poem to honor a friend and console the one who has lost one.  It is Rumi-esque -- the idea of joy and sorrow in the same cave, and the more sorrow carves it out, the more room is made for joy.  This poem confirms Mary's humble reverence, reverent humility towards life.

The Lonely Betters:  We do have a better understanding of Nature now than when this poem was written... we understand that animals and plants have a language of their own... and perhaps we also are able to redefine ourselves, not as superior at all.  As Maura said, we could be called "lowly betters" with emphasis on the lowly.  And lonely we are.  Auden pays tribute to Frost, a poet of ordinary language in the last line -- and winds a complex skein of thought about language and how humans use it.  He is not without irony addressing the struggle we have, burdened as we are by being able to lie,

our complexity in facing death, our audacity to think we are in charge of time, and cursed by being aware we are caught in it. 

Indeed, when humans laugh and weep unrestrainedly, we resemble animals.

Yes, words... to remind us of promises... I love the loaded ironic undertone in "words for those with promises to keep" --  no guarantee they will be kept.  And of those incapable of making them... 

shall we call what is said "noises"?

To be of Use:  Good discussion about how hard it is to feel of use... and what is meant by being "productive".  It is hard to be an ancient Greek Amphora, once active pouring oil, shut in a case in a museum, or worse, in storage.   Dave shared a great observation: "I've been productive all my life.  It's not all it's cracked up to be."  Bernie mentioned this is a favorite poem to share, as it is a bracing thought to feel of use.  The sentence, "the work of the world is common as mud" redeems the poem from the Protestant work ethic.

Carolyn suggested this film:

We discussed common rhythms,.. how we submerge ourselves in larger packs... how society pays attention to those we judge as important... how to honor the "invisible" essential workers... farmers producing food we eat, and those who get it to us, meat-packers... 

Bernie reminded us of the LeGuin poem (discussed July 19, 2019) The Small Indian Pestle at the Applegate House - UKLG


Dense, heavy, fine-grained, dark basalt

worn river-smooth all round, a cylinder

with blunt round ends, a tool: you know it when

you feel the subtle central turn or curve 

that shapes it to the hand, was shaped by hands,

year after year after year, by women’s hands

that held it here, just where it must be held 

to fall of its own weight into the shallow bowl

and crush the seeds and rise and fall again

setting the rhythm of the soft, dull song 

that worked itself at length into the stone,

so when I picked it up it told me how

to hold and heft it, put my fingers where

those fingers were that softly wore it down

to this fine shape that fits and fills my hand,

this weight that wants to fall and, falling, sing.

Flowers:  We ended on this lovely poem by Mary Hood.  A delicate sketch that takes a look at how we use flowers... (do we coax them too?  Are they ours to give? May they brandish wounds of gold! Perhaps put them on the red brocade pillow as you slice the rye bread as last word.

Where has this cold come from?  The flowers know, words are for those with promises to keep, and that the work of the world is common as mud.)


** More links: Thank you Bernie


 Also associated is the Japanese aestheic called wabi-sabi:  "In traditional Japanese aestheticswabi-sabi () is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.[2] The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature.[3] It is a concept derived from the Buddhist teaching of the three marks of existence (三印sanbōin), specifically impermanence (mujō)suffering (ku) and emptiness or absence of self-nature ()."


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Poems for December 9

Winter Morning by James Crews

Gwendolyn Brooks: America in the Wintertime by Haki R. Madhubuti 

Dawn  by Ella Wheeler Wilcox – 

When I Am Among The Trees by Mary Oliver

Grendel by Roger Reeves

Runaway by Jorie Graham

Thank you to all who braved the zoom challenge this morning... I was thinking of Wallace Stevens' poem The Snow Man.  Indeed... I started penning a pastiche...

One must have a mind of winter

to regard zoom refusals as long and crusty

snow, shagged with ice... imagining no connection

for our weekly poetry infusion, indeed, as far off

as the idea of a distant glitter of January sun...

Thank you Elaine for keeping us connected.

Nutshell summary:

Crews:  Sometimes it's just refreshing to read a poem where you don't have to work hard to have the truth stare at you in plain, simple, ordinary terms (embellished with images, sounds, scents!) And yet, perhaps not as plain and simple as all that.   Emily connected the orange of the space heater's glow with the scent of the tangerine after it's gone... Elaine brought up how what could have been negative about steaming coffee kissing chapped lips, the icy air, turns into a positive.  

 Furthermore, what saves us from feeling Crews is mounting a preacher's pedestal was the early (7th line) admission that he is selfish, unruly (and so tactfully referring to himself in the 3rd person as one of possibly many others inside him who believe they deserve "only safety and comfort").  This allows us to receive his advice to be grateful for whatever it is.

Madhubuti: Chosen by Tracy K. Smith, we concur with her the importance of the work of justice, healing, staying awake and telling the truth... and want very much the voices that do so.  Who is offering up compassion?  The title mentions Wintertime, and Elaine mentioned that Gwendolyn Brooks died in December... so there could be resonance about endings, silence, and need for a warrior like her... Jan brought up the word "kind" which appears both to describe language, a green nourishment, as opposed to enemies of kindness. Please note the spacing:

Both those sentences are on a line by themselves separated with stanza breaks on either side.

 June shared an anecdote about driving with Gwendolyn and discussing funerals-- how at first Gwendolyn said Italians couldn't match the drama of an Afro-American funeral... and they got into an argument...  until they each realized the drama in different forms-- yes, an Italian aunt grabbing a corpse out of the coffin in the middle of last rites can be dramatic too.  

I had asked if anyone felt implicated in the "you" -- compelled to be like the "you" honoring Gwendolyn... if the lack of caps was necessary, overdone... 

I found it interesting that several times people quoted "bloodlust enemies" as bloodiest enemies... perhaps it was my ears -- but all to lead to the importance of the poem: America -- if you see me as your enemy, you have no


Lori was reminded of 1,000 Beautiful Things, by Annie Lennox.

Wheeler Wilcox: Stunning love poem!  (Jan).  Dave was reminded of the classic "rosy fingers of dawn" of Homer... and how welcome to see beautiful crafting and those repeated l's.  Susan shared her mother's favorite saying when the chips are down:  "Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone", the opening lines of Solitude:

Oliver:  We all agreed, a lovely, uplifting poem, but would have wanted more from the honest and authentic line "I am so distant from the hope of myself.".  Not quite developed enough  to carry the facile reassurance of the trees saying, "it's simple..." As opposed to the Crews, where he includes shades of ambiguity, here, the message feels reduced to trees as source if you want hints of gladness...  and yet... many of us concur, "Her poems are prayerful and plenty of them reveal her humility so I take great comfort in her reflections and perspective.”

Reeves: David gave a fine background of  Grendel from Beowulf, and a Christianized anglo-saxon culture which turned the monster into an  offspring of  Cain... Listening to Reeves read the poem, there is a piercing and wrenching sadness...  Jan suggested that everyone listen to the gospel song, Precious Lord

Indeed, the story of the song, written by Thomas Dorsey in 1932, comes out in a letter he wrote to a friend 45 years later about going to sing in a revival meeting, and she gave birth to his son... and died... and on his return to Chicago, his baby son also died.  He buried them in the same casket.

Words of the song are in the Reeves.  So are Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin... David brought up the debate in 1955 between William Buckley and James Baldwin -- how Baldwin won hands down!

This is an amazing poem, worthy of listening to as well as reading.  The grief of being excluded, ignored like Grendel, results in a ferocity ... we all want to be someone's child... but when treating others as the monster, the enemy... the irony is that when the beast is brought... with the desire for mercy.. that bringing humans to the best vision of themselves... and that enigmatic last line... "which of course must be slaughtered"... 

Graham:  Jan had the feeling she was reading about the despair of a migrant refugee... where the "they" might be the ICE people... Marna had a visceral, bodily response... the visual set up in tercets, with unusual and unexpected line breaks makes a big impact.  We wondered how Jorie would read it... 

The truncated "your", where the "ou" of you is sliced out (yr)  comes up five times;  then, even "you" becomes "u"  several times, as does "they".  We discussed the repeated "it's" -- what is the "it"?  The "licking flare"-- pretend it's laughter, a refrain... pay-up... or specifically, the recent past, "it's got too much history/a mind can set th match to..."we feed it... keep it... unpayable.  Any answer feels very layered, but not clear.  How to you rebuild, imitate, believe, wait, b/c IT will come again, -- not over the rainbow... but over the ridge. 

I ended with reading the text I penned for our card this year.

December 2020


We wish you well as the days slip into yet another year—

and yes, this fairy-tale like card carries metaphor as history repeats…

there have been pandemics, potentates, but also times of peace.


We are fortunate in so many ways, and wish such cheer

were available to all— that possibility

transform to positive reality


as we deal with impacts of inequity, injustice, and sheer

disregard for our climate.  Once, an oriental palace pressed 

against mountains, sky, its traces still inspire, declare blessed


be those who create the beautiful, and blessed, the true seer

not pretending real smoke curls out of his painted pipe,

or fragments made of broken mirrors left to wipe—


but asking us to make this the year to reflect, look ahead beyond mere

empty talk to apply heart in multiple meanings— bring solace

like the guilloches[1] and calligraphy hidden in this Moorish palace—

[1] architectural ornamentation resembling braided or interlaced ribbons.