One Last Hurrah: Three Poets and Something New

This is it. My last post for class. It’s been an adventure and I can’t help but be glad for this assignment. It’s grown me as a writer and reader. So without further ado, allow me to look at not one, not two, but three Modern poets for my final post. (If you can’t tell, I’m playing catch up.)

Today I’ll be looking at three poets: Muriel Rukeyser, Elizabeth Bishop, and Sylvia Plath. And because I figured why not and this is the last chance I’ll get to do this the poet I’ll be comparing them to is…. Me. So be lenient with me (because I in now way am claiming to be as a good a poet as these here) and settle in for a long post.

First up is Muriel Rukeyser. I enjoyed her poetry and really, I just have a thing for social justice poets. So today, take a look at her poem “Mearl Blankenship” from The Book of the Dead and my poem below.

Anger is easy.
The thudthudthud of my heart,
pounding across my soul,
bringing tremors to my frame,
earth shattering quakes that rip apart
the weakness and fragility that held me captive.
It is more simple to see red that to offer a second chance.
If there were fury up from hell,
this jilted lover would take it out for tea and
take a sledge-hammer to its car.
Proving that niceties mean nothing
when storms of wrath—gales that upend worlds,
precision lighting pilfered from Zeus’ armory
by a Hera who will stand for betrayal
no longer—rage across the last fading
memories of amorous days,
more fair and beautiful than
wretched sorrow, but drowned in the
downpour.

One of my favorite things about Rukeyser is that she is unapologetic in her poetry. The Book of the Dead is a stylistic hodgepodge of tone, voices, and formats. It’s awesome. Mearl Blankenship has two distinct tones, one from the perspective of the speaker, and one from Mearl, who is given voice in the poem. Mearl’s letter takes up a good portion of this poem, and it’s heart wrenching to read. The final lines of his letter “But I am still here / a lingering along” brings the reality of suffering and and hopelessness of a man with no one on his side, continuing to plod along in life.

In a similar fashion, I end my own poem with a note a hopelessness. While ager is the theme of the poem, the conclusion of my poem points to how even with a mighty rage, not even anger can keep sadness away.

Next up is Elizabeth Bishop and her poem “One Art.” I found it especially lovely. I’ll be comparing it to my poem “Pink Lemonade,” which you will find below.

Our bench is gone.
The cool marble seat
that held you and I,
our first laughs and jokes,
and the spicy chai
that warmed my body and my heart.

That brisk April evening,
as we sat under the pink lemonade sky
and shared drinks and dreams,
was the beginning
of a friendship
I hadn’t dared to want.

And still the sky
is tinged pink,
looking over the
paths and sidewalks
we walked together,
that I called our own.

But we are no longer we,
you are long gone,
and my dreams
can hold you here no more.
The sky is pink lemonade,
and your name is sour on my tongue.

Both of these poems are about losing something. Bishop writes exclusively of the very idea and art of losing. Her clever rhyming stanzas are witty, but hide the more serious tone of the poem, until eventually revealing in the final stanza the loss of love. The lines “—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture / I love) I shan’t have lied” are a final shock to the reader, realizing that while losing petty things is common place, so too is losing the one you love.

In a similar theme, my poem is about loss.  While obviously more overt, my poem is about losing the one you love and about the memories of that person. Both Bishop and I cal back to similar phrases. For Bishop it is a whole line: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” For my it is the idea of pink lemonade. Both of these phrases help to keep the poems focused and concise.

Finally we have come to Sylvia Plath. I’ll be talking about her poem “Lady Lazarus” and my own poem “Still.”

i can still
still
hear your voice
echoing in my heart

there was silence once
and
you filled the void
until it rang hallow

i can still
still
feel your body
holding me in sleep

the heavy warmth
and
the comfort of your arms
kept me alive at night

i can still
still
listen to your song
it will not leave me

though i long for it
quiet
my heart rings empty
i cannot escape you

Plath’s poetry is a level of brilliance I can only hope to one day emulate. Her voice in her poems is terrifying but excellent. One thing I enjoyed was Plath’s balance of repetition and difference. She uses just enough similar phrasing that it catches the eye and the ear, but not so much that it overwhelms. On the other hand, I make repetition my theme. Where Plath’s stanzas are all three lines with varying length and form, I kept my poem more firmly into a specific form. I absolutely love the final stanza of Plath’s poem:

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

The firm and assured tone of the poem is almost empowering, while my poem’s voice is that of submission and resignation.

And with that, I finish my blogging for Modern American Poetry. This has been a lot of fun, and I plan on keeping up this blog (although on a number of different topics, not just poetry). Although in the future I might put more of my own poetry here. Thanks for reading!

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Love That Poem: William Carlos Williams and a Children’s Novel

One summer, when I was only nine years old, I begged my parents to send me to a week long creative writing class offered at a nearby school. Of the dozen or so children in my class, I was the only one who asked to attend. Every other student viewed the class as a form of punishment. My teacher spent the week focusing on poetry—which offended my prose sensibilities. I went to this class to write stories, not poetry! But sometime during the week, she read to us a book. A very special book. A book that changed the way I interact with poetry. Today I’m going to talk about William Carlos Williams and Sharon Creech’s short children’s novel Love That Dog. If you want to add something valuable to your library, go buy it. Right now. Go. If not, I’ll include a few passages from the book. But trust me on this, you’ll want it.

The entire premise of Love That Dog is that a young boy, Jack, is writing in a journal to his teacher. Each entry is in response to his teacher on the topic of poetry, whether a poem that the class studied, or that the boy himself writes. I can’t give you all of the book, but I’ll type up selected sections because it is excellent. This will be in contrast to William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” (I would apologize for the length of this blog, but really, I won’t do the book justice unless I give you several key passages. So you’re in for a longer read this week.)

September 27

I don’t understand
the poem about
the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
and why so much
depends upon
them.

If that is a poem
about the red wheelbarrow
and the white chickens
then any words
can be a poem.
You’ve just got to
make
short
lines.

This is Jack’s first response to a poem by his teacher, and in it he questions the very nature of poetry. His next two entires are as follows:

October 4

Do you promise
not to read it
out loud?
Do you promise
not to put it
on the board?

Okay, here it is,
but I don’t like it.

So much depends
upon

a blue car
splattered with mud
speeding down the road.

October 10

What do you mean—
Why does so much depend
upon
a blue car?

You didn’t say before
that I had to tell why.

The wheelbarrow guy
didn’t tell why.

One of my favorite things about this book is that Creech uses the simple insights of a child to point out questions that most people have when reading poetry: What makes this a poem? What does this poem mean? Why? And Creech leaves these questions unanswered (for the most part), exemplifying that the nature of poetry is not to find some hidden meaning, but to create an image. While Williams set out to create images of things, a red wheelbarrow, for example, Creech uses Jack to create the image of a child, clear in the eyes of the reader: Curious, self-conscious, skeptical, and even a little bit silly. One of Jack’s later entries in the novel is to me one of the most simple but insightful pieces on the nature of poetry. It reads:

January 17

Remember the wheelbarrow poem
you read
the first week
of school?

Maybe the wheelbarrow poet
was just
making a picture
with words
and
someone else—
like maybe his teacher—
typed it up
and then people thought
it was a poem
because
it looked like one
typed up like that.

And maybe
that’s the same thing
that happened with
Mr. Robert Frost.
Maybe he was just
making pictures with words
about the snowy woods
and the pasture—
and his teacher
typed them up
and they looked like poems
so people thought
they were poems.

Like how you did
with the blue-car things
and the reading-the-small-poems thing.
On the board
typed up
they look like
poems
and the other kids
are looking at them
and they think
they really are
poems
and they
are all saying
Who wrote that?

Jack doesn’t see his own writing as poetry, just pictures with words. But that in itself captures much of what Modernism and Imagism set out to do: Create an image with poetry.  In this way, Jack’s poems, which are crafted to immolate writers like Frost and Williams, do exactly that, they create an image. But even greater than that is Creech’s poems, which create a different image, that of a young boy trying to come to terms with the idea that he writes poetry, and that people actually like his poetry. In the January poem, it is easy to read by Jack’s tone that he is uncertain about his poems, and does not know how to feel about his classmates interest in his poems (which are posted anonymously on the board in his class).

Creech, using the voice of Jack, also brings to light the issue of free verse poetry, in a very humorous manner. When Jack talks about using short lines to make poetry, he is referencing how Williams’ poem uses short lines, broken at seemingly random intervals, for formatting. And so Creech has Jack do the same thing. In a stylistic homage to Williams, but also in giving the character Jack a voice of his own, Creech allows Jack to emulate poets he has read, and grow as a writer as time passes.

Overall, I think Love That Dog is a book most children should read. It introduces poetry in a fun, entertaining, and impactful way. (Spoiler alert: The middle of the book is really sad.) The way Creech brings poets from different times in history together to teach children about poetry is beautiful, and well worth a comparison to William Carlos Williams, who happens to be one of my favorite poets. So go read Love That Dog. And maybe keep some tissues handy.

If you don’t read H.D. after a bad breakup, you’re doing it wrong.

Last spring, I got dumped. It was pretty bad. Last spring I also took a Survey of American Literature class. It was pretty rad. Although we never covered H.D. in class, my curiosity had me looking for awesome female poets in the anthology. I stumbled upon H.D. by chance (As it was intended, the acronym had me unsure about H.D.’s gender). I read her poem “Eurydice” and fell in love. Then I read as much of her poetry as I could get my hands on, finally writing a paper on her for the class. H.D.’s poetry is excellent, but it’s hard to articulate how much “Eurydice” echoed with me without remembering the bittersweet sorrow of a terrible breakup. So with that in mind, this week I want to talk about “Eurydice” and the song “Manhattan” by  Sara Bareilles. Take a listen, and stay with me. It’ll be worth it.

H.D. defined the imagist movement. She didn’t start it, but scholars agree that she embodied it. It is impossible to read “Eurydice” without imagining several of the intense images H.D. evoked in her writing. I especially enjoyed her use of the idea of both a breaking rock and a blooming flower near the final stanza:

hell must break before I am lost;

before I am lost,
hell must open like a red rose
for the dead to pass.

The contradictory images of breaking and blooming echoes the paradox of the entire poem: Life in death. H.D. gives a voice to Eurydice, and in doing so creates a speaker who once held out hope of returning to life, but when she is let down by her love, instead turns the situation around. Eurydice says she is more happen in Hades than she ever would have been if she returned to life with Orpheus. The images are striking. Eurydice is flourishing in the land of the dead, which is broken before her spirit. She turns the pain and torment of death into joy and growth.

The song Manhattan doesn’t mirror the mythic theme of Eurydice, but the emotions of the two works are similar. Eurydice begins in sorrow and eventually grows into self-empowerment. Manhattan remains sorrowful, but holds out hope towards the end of the song. One of the starting images of the song, reminds me of H.D.’s imagist style.

I’ll gather up the avenues
And leave them on your doorstep
And I’ll tip toe away
So you won’t have to say
You heard me leave.

Again, two close but different images dominate. The first, of the speaker physically gathering the streets, as if they were something to be held and moved, is beautiful in the depiction. Then the image of sneaking away echoes the secretive nature of the speaker’s leaving. She does not openly return the streets, or leave while saying goodbye. This is a private and lonely retreat, but obviously a heartbreaking one. The speaker of Manhattan, like H.D.’s Eurydice, does not want to leave the ideal land. But both eventually come to find that their new locations, the West Coast and Hades respectively, are better places for them. The “you” of each poem, the implied man who has hurt the speaker, is left in the place of origin, but despite sorrow, both women come out stronger for leaving and being satisfied.

The poem and the song are starkly different is many ways, but both use images to portray the loss of love and how it is possible to grow stronger through such loss.

I’m sorry T.S. Eliot, Humor Poetry wins today

This blog post is dedicated to my best friend Sara, who has spent a good portion of her life having emotions about T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland. (But I’m not talking about The Wasteland.)

One of my first interactions with T.S. Eliot outside of a classroom setting was in John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars. During the novel, the main character Hazel goes with her boyfriend, Augustus, to Amsterdam. On the airplane, she reads “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” much to the amusement of Augustus, who is not literarily minded at all. The poem plays a small part in the book, but it made me smile to see one of my favorite Eliot poems in popular young adult fiction. (Then I cried, because that book is sad.) The point is, despite Eliot’s high class writing, his poetry is still approachable today.

And then I discovered “The Love Song of J. Alfred Capslock” by Aaron Belz. And it is magnificent.

The way in which Belz writes both as a tribute to Eliot but still manages to poke fun at Eliot’s high strung style and content is masterful in a playful way. Where Eliot writes pages of precise craft with copious footnotes for the less educated reader, Belz jumps right into the current dialect of the internet and texting age, appropriating Eliot’s character as lost and confused in an afterlife for the present age. The complete contrast of language between the two poets leaves me wondering at first if they even should be compared. And then I chuckle again at Belz and know that the humor alone is worth the comparison.

Eliot is know for his complexity, verbosity, and the fact that no one can really figure out what exactly The Wasteland means. His knowledge and ability to make allusions to literally anything and everything is part of what sets him apart from other poets. Reading Eliot without footnotes is just a bad idea. So to read Belz portraying Eliot in such a simple manner, with language and content that a sixth grader would have a perfect grasp of, is a refreshing and humorous contrast. It feels a little rude to say that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Capslock” has won my affections for the day, but really, I’m still giggling at how excellently opposite of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” it is.

Keeping it Simple with Ezra Pound

For a long time, I’ve enjoyed Ezra Pound as a poet. His poem “In a Station of the Metro” both fascinated and conflicted me when I first read it in high school. Being told to copy his style in a poem of my own as an assignment made me realize that it is far easier to ramble on about something than to capture a feeling in a concise image. So in respect of his quality imagist poem, and because his Cantos require more footnotes than T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” I’ll be taking a look at “In a Station of the Metro” and the poem “Solstice” by James Scott Smith.

“In a Station of the Metro”

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

I decided to compare these two poems because they are different, drastically so. Poud has two lines, simple and concrete. A quick image. On the other hand, Smith’s poem is long, drawing out the moment longer and longer, feeding the reader more and more images until it is almost overwhelming. Where Pound gets away without a single use of a verb, Smith makes a point to use verbals like declining, descending, and becoming. Smith is focused on the action, whereas Pound is focused on painting a picture of a single moment.  But I love both of these poems, and they both make me feel something. Despite the differences in style and focus, both poems create in the reader an understanding of an experience.

Pound gives us a flash of experience from a Metro station, while Smith gives us a theological idea from the feeling of being out on a cold night in winter. Both experiences are different and portrayed in vastly different ways, but both also leave the reader with a more nuanced understanding of the experience. It is in the metaphor, the idea of petals on a wet tree, that the reader sees the Metro station. And likewise it is in the metaphors of night biting the ear and rasping the cheek. These two examples of metaphor show how despite stylistic choices, the use of metaphor can always express a more full expression of experience.

Super Late Sickness and Snow Day Two for One Spoken Word Spectacular

I’ve been sick. Also it snowed. Life gets crazy. So this week I’ve got a two for one special!

First, I’ll be taking a look at Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak” and this lovely spoken word poem by two teenage girls. (If the video had proper citation, I would love to give credit where credit is due to these two talented young women.)

Both of these poems deal with some serious issues of racism and prejudice, which is why I wanted to compare them. Dunbar uses the voice of a personified old oak used to lynch a black man to bring to light the crimes committed in the name of racism. The narrative voice switches in the first and last stanzas, from a man first questioning and then realizing the horror and injustice that happened at the tree. The somewhat confusing switch in narrative voice reminds me in part of the two young women switching off the duty of speaking their poem, playing off the other for emphasis as much as for meaning. Both poems have two speakers. In Dunbar’s, the speakers are more difficult to identify, while the poem dealing with being Jewish and Muslim in America today makes sure the listener is fully aware of the change in speakers. For the very change brings weight to their words.

For today’s second comparison, I’m dealing with Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry” (Click here to watch some students recite part of the poem) and the following spoken word poem that I will henceforth call “Dear Mr. Anonymous.”

To start with, I’ll go ahead and say that good feminist poetry is one of my favorite things to stumble upon.  So I thought I would love Patriarchal Poetry. I thought wrong. Stein’s repetition and total refusal to recognize regular conventions is poetry is off-putting and rough. But Stein’s use of repetition and inversion of traditional standards leaves the reader uncomfortable. And perhaps that is important. We are not meant to read Stein’s poem and get away with a casual enjoyment. We are supposed to think, to question, and to be brought outside of our comfort zones. This mirrors the effect that “Dear Mr. Anonymous” has upon a listener who is not from a background of marginalization. The speakers challenge the way of life and perceived difficulties of those with privilege so as to discomfort the listeners. They use different methods than Stein, thankfully. Where Stein refuses to match a standard, these two poets fit well into the genre of spoken word and use it to their advantage. I found it interesting that in a genre of poetry generally thought to make use of rhyme, rhyme is scares in “DMA” whereas Stein’s unconventional use of words that both rhyme and sound similar to confuse and disorient the reader.

All four of these poems struck me hard this week. Stein and Dunbar wrote in a context of dealing with marginalization at a cultural level. These two spoken word poems bring to light today how issues of marginalization still run rampant in American culture. Perhaps the encouragement is this: Where there is injustice and oppression, there will always be poets fighting back.

Someone should have told me Robert Frost was terrifying

I first read Robert Frost in Elementary school, in a creative writing class that focused on poetry. We read his “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Then in Middle school, while reading The Outsiders I was introduced to “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Somewhere along the road, I was introduced to the well known “The Road Not Taken.” My boyfriend likes to recite “Fire and Ice” to me whenever Frost comes up in conversation (which is more likely than you would think, but put two English majors together, and what do you expect?).  I mention all of this because I’ve practically grown up learning to read Frost. And yet even when I think I know something about a poet, I realize I still have a lot to learn.

I was not prepared for the dark side of Frost, the side my teachers all seemed to keep tucked gently away in a corner where no one would ever discover him. During one of my readings of “The Witch of Coos” I had to physically put down my poetry book and stop reading simply because I was so terrified. This week, I’ll be taking a look at this poem and a poem by North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti: “The City Jail.”

Both of these poems make use of a speaker on the receiving end of some sort of supernatural tale. Frost has a visitor listening to a mother and son recount the tale of an ambulatory skeleton. Bathanti’s speaker is a young boy learning simple moralism through the reference to the shape in the window of the city jail. Both Frost and Bathanti reject simple moral lessons, though. Instead Frost paints a chilling picture of a potentially mad woman haunted by the past. Bathanti likewise rejects the idea of the family myth of the man in the window and instead creates for the speaker a rarity in which morals are not simple, but necessary to avoid the terrifying fate of the specter that haunts him even into adulthood.

Neither poem leaves the reader feeling safe or at ease by the end. Frost leaves the reader wondering if any of the events with the skeleton actually happened, and wondering at the character of the Mother. Bathanti leaves the reader without ever addressing the issue that the speaker actually does see the man in the window, a make believe character of the speaker’s parents invention.

I still love Frost. “Birches” is one of my favorite poems. But now that I know that Frost is much more than my teachers ever let on, I think I love him all the more.