New Year’s poem

As a sure sign of January, I saw an exercise bike by the side of the road with a “Free” sign on it. New year, new exercise resolutions, which segues nicely to Lucille Clifton’s poem:

i am running into a new year

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
about myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me

lucille clifton

Poetry Monday–two from Lucille

imagesI know it’s Tuesday again, but I was in an anti-poetry mood yesterday, wandering through my friends’ extensive library and not liking anything I read. We poets are a pretentious bunch! Then I thought about Lucille Clifton. I was lucky to have worked with her two different years at Squaw Valley. Although I knew her only slightly, she was one of those people who make a big impression. I watched her deftly improve poems, encourage without over praising, and say things like, “the house of poetry has many rooms.” Her own poems are usually short, accessible, and powerful like these samples. They are not all about being a woman, or black, but they all have wit and a big heart. Lucille didn’t capitalize much, and was sparing in punctuation. When asked about it by one of the students she said that was just how it came to her:

to my last period

well, girl, goodbye,
after thirty-eight years.
thirty-eight years and you
never arrived
splendid in your red dress
without trouble for me
somewhere, somehow. Continue reading “Poetry Monday–two from Lucille”

A pint of plain…

In the rarified intellectual world of boarding school, I arrived as a naïf in 10th grade. I was lucky to make a friend who later became a translator of Octavio Paz. He was always willing to explain a poem or a line to me. I remember clearly asking him to explain several passages of Prufrock when I first read it.  What did it mean to “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”? And his answer—”That one’s so easy—it means to put on the mask you wear in public.”

He had a scathing wit, and for a few years after high school he was the secretary for our classes alumni notes section. He kept in touch with many alums, and his descriptions were not always kind. They were always fun to read, though. Unfortunately, the more sensitive of my classmates were offended, and he was asked to resign, which he did.

All of which brings me to the criticism of William Logan, whom I’ve mentioned briefly before. Most poetry criticism reads like a sanitized version of alumni notes—bland, kind, praising small achievements. The world of poetry is a small and cozy one, and few want to risk alienating their peers. But in the midst of this vapid sea of faint praise, there is an island of acerbic wit called William Logan. Though he writes and publishes verse, he seems to have no qualms about pricking the pretensions of the most lauded poets, and the poetry establishment itself. Here’s an excerpt from his 2009 review of Billy Collins’ book, Ballistics:

“When comedians stop being funny, they must invent themselves anew or retire for good. A number of poems here mention divorce in a roundabout way… Indeed, the most hilarious poem in the book is titled “Divorce,” and it’s also the shortest:

Once, two spoons in bed,
now tinned forks
across a granite table
and the knives they have hired.

If Collins can become the bitter philosopher of such lines, there’s hope yet. Otherwise, Poetry must do what Poetry does when a poet runs out of gas, or screws the pooch, or jumps the shark—give him a Pulitzer and show him the door.”[1]

Lucille Clifton used to say “Poetry is a house of many rooms,” meaning that there is room for a wide variety of style and form. But unlike a house, whose builders need to demonstrate a minimal level of carpentry skill for the house to stand, anyone at all can claim to be a poet, whether skilled or not. Here’s where knowledgeable critics help.  William Logan, Dana Gioia, and Robert Hass have each written some wonderful prose about poetry and are all worth reading. Dana Gioia’s essay “The Successful Career of Robert Bly” in Can Poetry Matter? is one of my favorites of his work. Robert Hass’s collections of newspaper columns, Now and Then, and Poet’s Choice are both worth owning, and if you like these, you might want to go on to the more difficult Twentieth Century Pleasures.  But no one makes me laugh as reliably as William Logan, and that’s worth a lot in this world of woe.

If you’re looking for biting wit, for someone who can pierce the veil of pretentious obfuscation poets so often draw about themselves, a pint of Wm. Logan is your only man.  I’d rather be skewered by him, and have my eyes opened to what’s flabby and phony in my work than be praised by a thousand fans. But I wouldn’t have fired my friend as secretary to our class, either.

[1] From “Verse Chronicle,” The New Criterion, June 2009

Narnia or poetry workshop?

As a child, I was always looking for the door at the back of the wardrobe to get into another world. I believed that I could be transported to Narnia if I just knew where to find the door. As an adult, the poetry workshop at Squaw Valley has been the closest to that magical world for me. I first went in 1986. It was a very small gathering then, perhaps 30 or 40 poets, divided into three workshops each day, taught by Bob Hass, Sharon Olds, and Galway Kinnell. Galway was the Director until a year or two ago, and his generous spirit shaped the experience (a spirit Bob Hass continues to manifest).

With four children and a demanding job, I hadn’t written a poem in years, and the first evening I discovered we were to write a poem that night, and read it in a workshop the next morning. The terror I felt was probably what I’d feel standing at the open door of a plane for my first parachute jump. But somehow, poetry was waiting patiently for me, and that week the poems kept coming, one after another.

The process at Squaw is simple: everyone, including the “staff poets” writes a new poem each day and reads it in the morning workshop. After each poet reads, someone jumps in and says something about what works in the poem for them. A brief discussion follows, with no criticism unless the poet asks for specific feedback on something. At first I thought, “How dumb to only say nice things.” And Dean Young, who has been a staff poet, sometimes refers to it as the “petting zoo.”

But these poems are fresh, and we don’t know each other’s work. Pointing out what is working in the poem does several things. It focuses the writers on their strengths. It encourages them to can keep moving in that direction. There really is no need to say what’s wrong; the focus on what’s working implies what isn’t. And poetry is so much a matter of personal taste–different things move different people. As Lucille Clifton, another staff poet, often quoted, “the house of poetry has many rooms.”

Most of all, though, the spirit of the workshop encourages experimentation. Writers feel safe. No one presumes to “teach” you how to write a poem. Instead, everyone is trying hard to do their best work. Of course we each want to impress everyone with our skill, that’s a given. But over the week, everyone’s work improves.
It’s thrilling to watch and to experience. It’s like living in a poem. Everything informs the process. The place itself is part of the magic, but most of it has to do with the indefinable nature of community–a temporary community, to be sure–but one that makes so much possible.

I’ve been back several times. This year, while I didn’t attend, I went for the final evening, an amazing dinner at the home of Barbara Hall. Oakley Hall was one of the founding forces of this program (there are fiction and screen-writing sessions, too, although these are managed differently). The Hall family, especially Brett Hall Jones, make the ongoing workshops a reality. After dinner, anyone who wants recites a poem from memory. Sometimes, with a familiar poem like Jaberwocky or Lake Isle of Innisfree, many poets join in. I love this experience. It seems to me like watching the living voice of poetry jump from throat to throat, sometimes in different languages, always with a different voice. So that’s where I’ve been.

As a bonus, I got to hear Bob Hass talk about prosody. Someone had asked what role rhyme, meter and form play in poetry, and Bob’s answer was essentially that poetry is made of what you know. The more widely you read, the more is available to you. If you are moved by a poem, you might explore it, analyze it to see how it’s done. He had a handout that started with a line from an Irving Berlin song that haunted him:

What’ll I do when you are far away?
When I am blue, what’ll I do?

He talked about the stresses in the phrase “What’ll I do,” a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, then a final stress. This pattern is called a cradle, as the two stressed syllables “hold” the unstressed ones. It’s shape goes a long way to the power of these song lines.  If any of you want my notes, and the full handout, leave me a comment, and I’ll send them your way. Or you might want to hear Bob read one of my favorites of his poems.