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.

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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.

I Hate Walt Whitman

I hate Walt Whitman. I have a very complicated relationship with the man. Mostly by way of his poetry, seeing as he’s been dead for some time. This week, in my reading I was forced once again to reconcile myself with Whitman. You see, I don’t dislike his poetry. In fact, I enjoy a good portion of it. But reading Whitman gets tedious, quickly. It’s the love-hate of “This poetry is so good that it makes me feel emotions and now I am upset with the poetry” that makes me hate Whitman at times. So today, I’ll be looking at Whitman in comparison to a poet I was recently introduced to. 

Here’s Whitman’s “I Hear It Was Charged Against Me”: http://www.bartleby.com/142/54.html

And here’s John Blase with “Surely, This”:  http://thebeautifuldue.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/surely-this/

 

Both of these poems deal with the poet recognizing the self and different identifiers. The speaker in Whitman’s poem addresses the accusations of destroying institutions. The speaker then distances himself from these imposed identifiers and uses a new category with which to identify: “The institution of the dear love of comrades.” The speaker supports the dear love, so much that he seeks to establish it in “every city.” 

Likewise, in his poem Blase uses his speaker to address similar identity issues. The speaker in Blase’s poem intentionally identifies as religious over spiritual, explaining the significant difference between the two and then moving towards the emphatic statement of the sparker’s identity. This mirrors the same structure that Whitman uses: An introduction of identification issues within culture, and a shift towards the speaker’s self identification.

Although these two poems share similar ways in which ideas are presented, there is a stark contrast in almost all other aspects. Stylistically, Blase writes in much shorter lines, making use of enjambment to bring focus to certain thoughts. On the other hand, Whitman ends every line at the end or a clause, fixing each idea firmly for the reader. At the same time both ignore traditional end-rhyme scheme in favor of unrhymed poetry, 

Whitman addresses serious issues in his poetry, many of a political nature. Blase deals with serious and personal issues regarding religion. Both men use their poetry to convey their strong emotions about what they find important. I enjoy Blase for his frank and real treatment of his faith, while at the same time I find Whitman frustrating for some of his straightforward dealings with the issues of being human and living in the United States when he did. So perhaps it is not that I hate Walt Whitman, but the emotions he manages to elicit from me with his poetry.