Thursday, March 27, 2014

O Pen April 14

Poems for April 14
I'll be back for this one-- but sending in March, so people have the poems...

Trying to Name What Doesn't Change by Naomi Shihab Nye
City Without Smoke by Edwin Denby (suggestion from Judith)

Introduction to the March issue of Poetry: (see notes below)

from Tablets by Dunya Mikhail -- the entire set here:
14, 15, 16, 21

Tim Seibles in the same issue has 12 pages in a poem called “Mosaic”
A few poems.

11 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti,

Starting a discussion session with Naomi Shihab Nye is always a pleasure. In this pick, she announces the subject in the title, "change". What doesn't change? What changes around what you think doesn't change? I love the progression of the poem: One person picks train tracks, another notes with a tinge of sadness how even they lose shininess, the ties split, and if there's no train, that changes the track. Even the "every Tuesday" routine with the strong verbs of cracking chicken necks, is juxtaposed with the widow in the tilted house who spices her soup with cinnamon. The reader travels through details so real, so effortlessly recorded, at this point, why not ask the widow what doesn't change? The shortest line in the poem "Stars explode" introduces these images:
The rose curls up as if there is fire in the petals.
The cat who knew me is buried under the bush.

The final stanza takes us to the train whistle, without mention of doppler effect but staged in this haunting way:
The train whistle still wails its ancient sound
but when it goes away, shrinking back
from the walls of the brain,
it takes something different with it every time.

You can guess that I want you to read the poem in the original.

The ending poem captures a moment of being 11 years old in a trademark Ferlinghetti easy-going style l creating with beautifully orchestrated flowing lines.

Judith's contribution of City Without Smoke by Edwin Denby gave a ashcan portrait of Manhattan. We learned from her that he was considered greatest critic of jazz. (Where were you when the page was blank?) Although the alliteration seems a bit pedestrian as well as the rhyme (John), David commented on how the syntax moves through the lines...

In general, how hard do we have to work to get to an enjoyment level? This poem required more work for not as much pleasure.


How is Poetry of witness is better than the news? And what news stays news? Jeffrey Brown's article in this issue gives a wide range of examples. How can we allow war after reading such as lines as these: "Now the earth/grew stained with bright blood as men fell in death... so all fought on, a line of living flame" (Iliad, transl. by Robert Fitzgerald and Alice Oswald, "The first to die was Protesilaus/a focused man who hurried to darkness." p. 569 of the March issue of Poetry)

The penultimate essay by Slavoj Zizek calls on the idea of poetry as language in a torture house (citing Lacan) as he looks at Yugoslavia. He first mentions
Plato and the danger of poets as manipulators leading people away from the rational angles of truth... Next, Hegel's mention of the silent, ceaseless "weaving of the spirit": "the underground work of changing the ideological coordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then suddenly explodes, taking everyone by surprise.

How do the "Dichter und Denker" (poets and thinkers) become "Richter und Henker" (judges and executioners?
I only chose a few stanzas from Mikhail and Seibles -- both long poems, presenting as fragments, the first as "Tablets", the second as "Mosaic". How do the titles prepare the mind? Tablet and I think of Commandments-- but also ancient laws, and possible destruction of the tablets, so man might need to construe what is missing... Mosaic -- again, pieces, but do we have all of them, and what part of what story is told? I particularly like the moment when Seibles enters the fragment "Insert your story here".

My hope is that people will read both poems in their entirety... and discuss the "parts" stand out? What are the commonalities, what lessons move us to remember?

I was so moved by the Mikhail and Seibles' poems, I penned this for the May issue of Poet Talk:

Tablets by Dunya Mikhail
and Mosaic by Tim Seibles
Published in Poetry, March 2014 pp. 525-531 and . 546-559

Usually, I shy away from long poems, not just because of the rush-rush-instant-response-mode fostered in our society, or feeling pressed for time, but because in general, I prefer navigating through poetry plump with pith, sassy with surprise and compressing multiple delights to discover. I picked a few excerpts of two long poems, Tablets and Mosaic to discuss in my weekly group, to see how people would respond. It was marvelous to see how in 30 minutes, we not only enjoyed the fragments picked, but were eager to spend time reading both works in their entirety.

The question arises, what makes a long poem enjoyable? What balance of meaning and poetic pleasure derived (sound, image, spacing, line, etc.) convinces the reader that the effort of staying with a poem over 5-12 pages or more is worth the effort?

I think of epic poetry performed aloud, and contemporary poetic experiments which span many pages which I usually avoid and wonder what was it about these two poems which
was so engaging in spite of pages of length.

Sometimes, knowing the background of the poet helps, or the background of the poem,
but even without this, even without more than a passing glance at the title, I first noted these two stanzas from Mikhail, an Iraqi now living in the US.
The shadows
the prisoners left
on the wall
surrounded the jailer
and cast light
on his loneliness.

Homeland, I am not your mother,
so why do you weep in my lap like this
every time
something hurts you?

This use of inverting the usual powerlessness of the captive and ignored emotional condition of the jailor adds a dagger to a universal feeling. The poem is in translation, so it is hard to know how it “sings”, but the translator has done a good job in line breaks which create hesitancy even with the longer lines. Some stanzas are more gripping than others, but at the end, I had the sense of having read something important worth reading again.
To quote Phoebe Pettingell, The New Leader
“When will there be another society that produces poets in Mikhail’s tradition? If you want to understand how disastrously an ancient culture has been affected by its recent history, this poem will tell you more than any film clips, news stories or books about Middle Eastern battles. Sometimes verse becomes the only language adequate to express the struggles of evolution or the depredations of human conflict.”
for more praises of Mikhail’s work:

Linking a long poem to a title and holding the title in mind, also is an effective tool for reading. Tablet and I think of Commandments-- but also ancient laws, and possible destruction of the tablets, so man might need to construe what is missing...

In Seibles’ poem Mosaic, the title harkens to tiles or pieces. Do we have all of them, and what part of what story do they tell? How is the reader included?

If you think of the sections of the poem as tiles in a large mosaic, this “tile” in the Seibles poem is the one line stanza which invites the reader to participate:
-- / --
Insert your life here.
-- / --
The stanza before speaks of seeing The Game in pieces— /the rules inside me/ like bad wiring… The stanza after asks, Did you mean to be this way?/Did you mean to become/something you didn’t mean?

What would the poem be like if the reader shifted the pieces of the mosaic? In what part of the poem would you “Insert your life ”? Would it change the message, the impact? How does the “who we are in the times we live in” constantly shift?

The curious epigraph is attributed to “Florence Church”, about whom google won’t tell anything but information about the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. Thus,
Mosaic sets a tone of entrapment:
I’m a ‘kickin’ but not high
I’m a’flapping’ but I can’t fly

The stanzas are ordered periodically by a straight line or -- / -- . The eye follows how the words/meanings seek space, for instance :
Myself runs
into my other self: Over here!
My self whispers — Freedom

over here!

He uses punction “< and >” but the interpretation is difficult to know. For instance:
... a house of hunger, personal
but not personal: the way moonlight calls

for you and not for you. What
I want> I guess < I want. ... Suppose nobody knows what’s inside you. But you, yourself, find it pretty clear: anxiety adding up, leveling off, doubling > some comfort in people
you think you

fatigue, a secret.

(the slash works to bar understanding, or put up a fence against which three things lean: (frustration, fatigue, a secret.)

Seibles evaluates our culture, but indirectly, using biography, reflection (metaphors for eyes, sight, what is seen, visible) and existential questions. He includes details that concern the environment, race, religion, money, power and the culture which binds us, yet cuts as lives are “turned on the spit”. Yet, even with such a mammoth undertaking, the more you read, re-read this long poem, piece by piece, the better the larger whole.

We ended up discussing both poems, eager to read them in their entirety. Rather like the psychology of sharing a good book with a friend, who otherwise might not pay attention to it, having 16 people respond to what parts stand out, what ideas are triggered, what phrasing becomes a springboard for emotion, made us all eager to re-read them both in their entirety.

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