Friday, January 15, 2016
poems for Jan. 13
White-Eyes by Mary Oliver
Poem and Painting Pairing from American Academy of Poetry: The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak by Albert Bierstadt + Joy Harjo, "Remember"
Ice for the Ice Trade -- by Stephen Burt
A Short Testament by Anne Porter
To Days of Winter -- by W.S. Merlin
To the New Year - by W.S. Merwin
This selection of poems threads winter, but also a sense of transformation and meditative moments on connections.
The first poem by Mary Oliver, where the nine tercets drift lines out to imitate a bird's feathers and the wind's wings, hinges on the 5th stanza, dividing first an image of the bird's urge to make music and then ending with clouds falling like feathers from an "unimaginable bird" into snow, like the Indian "Great Spirit". Apparently, "White Eyes" could be a reference to an Indian Chief, and we tried to imagine what bird would have "white eyes" or whether it is a sense of white rings around eyes, and how this detail in the title works. White light, such as sunlight, contains all colors, and white in the poem seems to bind heaven to earth, spirit to nature.
Mary Oliver’s inaccuracy of detail regarding a nest as resting place, and clouds pushed North by the wind with a wishful thinking of “teaching them to be “mild and silent” leads to a certain sentimentality which some found distracting. The reading of the poem is slow, meditative, gentle and by the 6th stanza, she starts to use em-dashes, which further slows us down.
A poem/painting exercise is always instructive: how does a poet create the seamlessness of the absence of brushstroke? Is there an equivalent of anaphor in the painting? How does the idealization of the Rockies work with the incantatory urgency of "remember"? The intrigue of the poem for me is the image of all the colors of people's skin as what covers the earth, the sense of "aliveness" in motion, very unlike the stilled frame of an Indian camp in the foreground of high (sacred) mountain. Perhaps the poem was picked as Harjo was the Wallace Stevens Award winner by the American Academy. Carmen brought up the original which contains more details, and perhaps a clash between contemporary and traditional Indian.
The Stephen Burt poem brought up the idea of human trade -- and the analogy of ice as a chip of human being experience certainly works as a way of looking at how we feel "commodified", and lose our individual identity. The passage
"A few twigs and dragonfly wings got caught
near the center of me long ago; they serve
to distinguish me from others of my kind,
along with some bubbles of air."
reminded us of Harjo's "skin of the earth" and the multiplicity possible as we each gather different parts of life as our experience.
Discussion points: Thoreau: criticizing ice trade on Walden Pond;
Each stanza a different circumstance/person... and lines can be read in many ways depending on where you put the accent :e.g.:
Everybody wants a piece of me.
Do you accent the first word? the last? the idea of a "piece", or the wants, as opposed to no one noticing.
The next poem also has the supplication to "remember", but instead of asking for forgiveness, it seems more a petition to "make things right". Is "You" always God, or can it be read as a singular family member, a plural society?
Is she speaking about resurrection, linking her death to failed promises...
The formal capital letter that begins each line lends solemnity. Discussion brought up references to "My name is Earl..."; the fact that we don’t always know we have hurt someone and incantation of Jewish High Holidays... Tikkum Olam...
Confession – contrition,Christian prayer for forgiveness...
tossing responsibility back to God.
We read the two Merwin poems back to back -- both are from the same book, and share not only Merwin's characteristic "suspended lines" with no punctuation, but similar images: he blends passive with active, light both worn thing but also touching; stillness, hush, a "you" that speaks of an omniscient spirit infused in winter, in the passage of time, the here and now, the dove.
Concluding with Merwin allowed us to consider the meditative and metaphysical aspects of the poems shared. (we’ll be tabling the Stafford for next week), With one foot in a sense of history (particularly the idealized painting of Bierstadt and the problem of idealizing history, which Burt’s “Ice Trade” offsets with innuendoes perhaps of the Slave Tade) and secondly, the possibility of the new as we pass through our lives, connecting both ancient worlds to our own old year to the next year, already now, in winter.
The sense of greater story of the natural world comes through, looking at how it intersects in our tiny lives.
Elizabeth's comments: (email participant):
I would find interesting a discussion about anthropomorphizing in poems.
Does it bother anyone else (other than me)?
What can fairly be ascribed to nature?
Can we make of the world something like our own image,
ascribing mind and other human qualities?
Or does nature just serve as objective correlative, that we are not really saying other natural things do, think and say as we do?