Friday, January 20, 2012

O Pen: Jan. 18. Shakespeare to Santaquilani

A good poem will remind us that particulars lead to universals, that your experience is not yours alone but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s. We will start with Shakespeare’s sonnet 97: How like a winter hath my absence been (from 1/11.)
Personality—by Carl Sandburg
White – Leona Sevick
A Sleepless Night -- by Philip Levine
We are Tigers -- by Francis Santaquilani

So the poems were sent out... and in the email I mis-spelled triskaidekaphobic, dropping a syllable. Although certainly we referenced Shakespeare's statement/correction/corrected correction, last week, we did not start with the sonnet, but with Santaquilani's poem, as I heard back from him.

This started a wonderful discussion about how different it is to read a poem "cold" with no information about the author, the background of why it was written or how it came about, not even a clue to time and place. If these things are important, the poem will point to them. It is rather like going to the museum, and appreciating a work of art for its own sake, without looking at the title. This is ONE lens
to guide our understanding. A work of art in a museum has some background information erased, and some information added which was not part of its original setting. The equivalent in poetry is to read a poem in an anthology where the individual poet is not as important as way in which the poem presents itself in the context of other poems.

What stimulates us? Engages us? For some, knowing more about the poem, increases the enjoyment. Sometimes it won't change our opinion one bit.
Carmin had looked up Francis Santaquilani, and we gathered from her, as well as his email that "Dad and survival stuff" play a big role in many of his poems. Marcie brought up the point that if someone had said, "this is a poem about addiction" the reader would immediately focus on finding details to support that meaning. Actually, "We are Tiger" could be the relationship of an addict and the Tiger of his addiction... the bite, the hold, the teeth, the way speaker and Tiger are Team terrible, dependent yet unable to trust each other.

Another interesting point: He says he doesn't have time to write,
but Carmin found 180 poems! Does it change anything to know his father is Italian, his mother French, that he moved to the USA when he was six, and quickly shrugged off his French so no one would make fun of him on the baseball field? Does it change the poem to know he has been practising graphic design for the past 16 years?

About the poem... Santaquilani maximizes paradox -- the details such as "picked bones" and the "day sank to its knees" which renovates a cliche of heart sinking, light sinking, darkness will cover the shipwreck... and then, "the day sped to a smudge" and "we are a team". Day/night; Father/son; what one is, impossible to separate from what one isn't.

What attracted me to this poem first of all was the sonic play at the beginning: how the "war" and "your" echo vowels with an R, how war brightens to whirl, the bill darkens to billow and "low" backwards is wol, a reverse sound like war, crunched into the long I of bite.

I warred against your whirl,
Then billowed to your bite.

Now the poem is richer to me for the discussion.

We are eager to key into the background of people -- but I think it is also important to see the result independent of the creator.

For instance, Mr. Shakespeare. Even if it had not been written by Will, the situation he describes is universal. What is it like on a sunny day, when a widow or widower wakes up with a heart bursting with grief, anger, and a loneliness that scrapes at the bone like a heavy bear applying its claws to remove every last bit of living tissue. Sonnet 97 uses physical and metaphorical "weather" plays with the similarities (how like a winter; leaves that look pale) but corrects this "perceived reality", only to correct the correction. If you break the 14 lines into three quatrains, Q1 is statement: comparison of absence w/ bareness of December.
Q2 starts with "and yet" -- how can this be -- it's summer -- and playing on "bare",
"bears" the "wanton burthen of the prime"...
Q3: another comparison: if like widow'd womb -- then any hope of birth
seems like "hope of orphans and unfathered fruit."
Even birds are mute.

Perhaps knowing it is Shakespeare and reading Helen Vendler, analyzing the crossed rhymes and quatrains, and finding a couplet tie in "winter" in the final line
in 4th word of the first line, helps to appreciate what Shakespeare does in his sonnets. Certainly, even though it is over 500 years old, we felt it was far more accessible and the clarity satisfying, unlike the Armantrout of the previous week.

Personality is another poem which does not require background knowledge.
Five sentences. 4 singular thumbs; two plural thumbs.
40 to 1 thumb; 100 to one thumb -- 1,000 to one thumb -- the thumb coming back to what it left still makes the same print -- and of course, mentioning thumb twice in this sentence underlines the difference of what the thumbs are attached to.
Now millions -- no two thumbs alike.
And then, uncountable -- and up to the God of Thumbs who can explain
this brief passage -- through love, life, mother, separating, war. Mere prints -- but we know nothing about the thumb-bearer.

Brilliant poem!

From Sandburg's "personality" we move to "identity". What does the word "white" mean to you? skin color? absence of color, even though science says it contains them all? possibility of blank, or the opposite? In this small narrative,
I copy again white. This poem, White, by Leona Sevick might easily have been overlooked, except for the words of the Judge, Naomi Shihab-Nye who stressed that the final poems presented the reader with an invitation to enter a “kingdom of Mattering - topics/subjects of essential collective care, poems embodying deep witness, speaking up in hard places, not shuddering or seeking popular favor -- poems of responsibility and elegantly shaped conviction.”
About “White” Naomi says, “." Worlds within and behind visible public worlds. Everything we don't see and hear -- private, precious pulse of identities.

Synaesthesia -- having a rainbow be loud... language twisted like a body.
Some people had the poem come out as a paragraph, so the question of the difference between prose and poetry came up.
The line breaks -- end words: tiny,
head, in , her, hand, color, through, day's, all. every, and silent. for, sleep.
An interesting exercise is to write the first word on the following line in a column next to the end words -- see how the separation makes a difference in meaning.
tiny -- chair; day's -- piece-work.
I gave the example of the agogic accent -- how the music can be written with no diacritical marks -- no accents, soft/loud -- but the agogic accent is the interpretive touch of the artist feeling the need to give just a little more stretch to a note before it moves on. Such accents do not happen in prose.
We discussed verb tense -- how only one verb was not descriptive past, or repeated past, and one verb pluperfect. Having one completed action verb works like a spotlight: "spotted" works both as spotlight -- immigrant stands out, and spotted as in "saw -- with an eye that is roaming, looking for something, then pins into vision."

We ended on the Levine: how despite what others might see as difficult, the irongrip of hard work or misery, for whatever reason this man cannot sleep,
in spite of his insomnia, he is grateful -- the bird, like a muse. The childlike image of the snail going to china is enhanced by the way it wakes up -
The snail, awake
for good, trembles from his shell / and sets sail for China.

The light will come, be so powerful just like the memory of vanished stars at the end of the poem.

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