Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Autobiography in Fiction: What are the boundaries?

The great thing about managing this blog is it gives me the opportunity to learn about writers I may not otherwise study. I was doing some research on our current poet, D.H. Lawrence, who, although an accomplished poet, painter, and critic, is best known for his novels. It is understood within the scholarly community that Lawrence's work was highly autobiographical, and that he drew from personal experiences and acquaintances to inspire his work. His home town of Nottinghamshire frequently provided the setting for these stories. Check out this site for lots of great info about Lawrence's life and work.

Many times, the people of Nottinghamnshire were offended by Lawrence's work, because they could recognize themselves in the often unflattering portrayals of the characters in Lawrence's books. Apparently, Lawrence did not try too hard to disguise who was inspiring what character.

What are the boundaries, do you think, for this kind of writing? Today, the lines between genres are more blurred than ever. We have memoir, which is different from autobiography, which can be different from other kinds of non-fiction, which is different from fiction, but these categories frequently blend and overlap. Does a writer have an obligation to protet the identities of real-life people who inspire their characters, or does it depend on the genre? Is it enough to simply change a character's name? What about memoir? What are the ethical/ literary boundaries?


Friday, December 17, 2004

D.H. Lawrence--Let's Discuss.

Our next poem is by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930): "When I Went to the Circus." For a short biography of this extraordinary novelist, critic, poet, and painter, click here.

Extra special thanks to Jett who suggested the poem, and when I couldn't find it, typed the whole thing out and sent it to me. Thanks, Jett!


When I went to the circus that had pitched on the waste lot
It was full of uneasy people
Frightened of the bare earth and the temporary canvas
And the smell of horses and other beasts
Instead of merely the smell of man.

Monkeys rode rather grey and wizened
On curly piebald ponies
And the children uttered a little cry--
And dogs jumped through hoops and turned somersaults
And then geese scuttled in in a little flock
And round the ring they went to the sound of the whip
Then doubled, and back, with a funny up-flutter of wings—
And the children suddenly shouted out.

Then came the hush again, like a hush of fear.

The tight-rope lady, pink and blonde and nude-looking, with a few gold spangles
Footed cautiously out on the rope, turned prettily spun round
Bowed, and lifted her foot in her hand, smiled, swung her parasol
To another balance, tripped round, poised, and slowly sank
Her handsome thighs down, down, till she slept her splendid body on the rope.
When she rose, titing her parasol, and smiled at the cautious people
they cheered, but nervously.

The trapeze man, slim and beautiful and like a fish in the air
Swung great curves through the upper space, and came down like a star
--And the people applauded, with hollow, frightened applause.

The elephants, huge and grey, loomed their curved bulk through the dusk
And sat up, taking strange postures, showing the pink soles of their feet
And curling their precious live trunks like ammonites
And moving always with a soft slow precision
As when a great ship moves to anchor.
The people watched and wondered, and seemed to resent the mystery
That lies in the beasts.

Horses, gay horses, swirling round and plaiting
In a long line, their heads laid over each other’s necks;
They were happy, they enjoyed it;
All the creatures seemed to enjoy the game
In the circus, with their circus people.

But the audience, compelled to wonder
Compelled to admire the bright rhythms of moving bodies
Compelled to see the delicate skill of flickering human bodies
Flesh flamey and a little heroic, even in a tumbling clown,
They were not really happy.
There was no gushing response, as there is at the film.

There is so much to do with this poem. Mostly, I am struck by the response of the human beings to the parading, performing animals and humans. They begin “frightened” and “uneasy,” just from the smells of animals and canvas. Children “shout out” when they see the monkeys. There is a “nervous” cheer for the “nude-looking” “tight-rope” lady,” her almost-naked appearance being to primitive or animal-like for the comfort of the audience. The same for the “trapeze man,” who receives “hollow, frightened applause.”

It is striking how the audience is just as uncomfortable with the human acts as they are with the animal acts. It is as if, in the three rings of this circus, animals and humans are on a level playing field, all of them serving the same purpose, which is to parade their trained talents in front of a crowd. The audience senses this “equality” between man and animal, and are forced to consider that they, as human beings, may be just as trained—to applaud in the proper places, and to obey their compulsion to watch the disturbing show.

The stanza with the elephants is the one I find most poignant. The audience watches the elephants “taking strange postures” “with a soft slow precision,” disturbed by the elephant’s talent and ability. The people resent “the mystery / That lies within the beasts.” Why? I believe it goes back to the leveling of animals and people—that elephants are capable of the kind of great beauty and intelligence that only people should be capable of. To be confronted with the idea that they may not be the most significant creatures on the earth, but only one of many—this is what the people resent.

But, in the end, they are still “compelled to wonder… admire… and see” the show, despite how it disturbs them. They don’t responds with enthusiasm however, not the way they would “at the film.” Why? Because a film is not real. You can always leave a movie thinking, “well, that’s just a story, that’s just a movie.” But what these people witnessed was real life confronting them with what is potentially their own insignificance.

Thoughts? Please share!

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A Poetry Manifesto

Before we move on to the next poem, I would like to post something I wrote for my poetry workshop. We are required to write a poetry "manifesto," a word that makes me laugh a bit, but is supposed to be our chance to express something we believe about the nature and purpose of poetry. Feel free to comment, to add something, to agree or disagree, whatever. I'm interested to hear what poets and/or readers of poetry might think. Thanks for indulging me!

A Call for Courageous Poets

Do we have anything new to say? Is there any freshness and new-born life in us that we can express in our poetry? Is there any boldness and color left in our language that hasn’t already been appropriated by one of our predecessors? Is there anything unique about our lives, our experiences of love, pain, loss, beauty, sex, lies, truth, violence, abandonment, death, birth, hate, and joy?

I believe, at some point, each of us must confront this question. How we answer it fundamentally affects how we write, what we write, and our attitudes toward what we and other poets write. I have my answer.

The nature of experience is one of fluidity. We each travel from moment to connected moment, as if flowing through a liquid circle of time. Usually, when a moment feels cemented or halted in our minds, it is because its sensory impact was so strong: the scent of a mother’s baked cookies; a particularly cold hike through the woods; a traumatic instance of abuse; the first time we kissed someone; the first time our hearts were broken. But each moment, no matter how apparently mundane, takes up its own space in our lives, and is as worthy of our attention as the “stronger” moments. Our individual connectedness to these moments, our willingness to be grounded firmly in our experiences, and our mastery of language are what determine the quality, impact, and uniqueness of our art.

In an essay entitled “A Poet is Made, Not Born,” Tina Blue writes, “The more carefully you attend to observation, to really experiencing the complexity and intensity of the world's details, the less likely you are to view your experience of life through the lens of cliché” (sic). Cliché serves a purpose in our language. It is a way we are taught to express an idea so it will be readily and commonly understood. But cliché is not natural to us. It is learned. I think of my nearly three-year-old niece, Justine, who sings a famous Christmas song this way:

Jingle bells, jingle bells,
Jingle all the way.
How much fun it is to ride
Horse and soap and sleigh! Hey!

Justine doesn’t know the actual lyrics to this song, and she doesn’t care. She has complete faith in her ability to translate what comes at her from the radio or the CD player. No one has yet told her, “No, Justine, it goes like this.” Justine has perfectly and confidently expressed her experience of the song.

We have an advantage over Justine, however, and that is our mastery of language. If we can learn to ground ourselves in experience, and if we continue to study the beautiful English language, we can either avoid cliché by discovering our own words, phrases, colors, and distinctions, or we can exploit cliché, by subverting it, or employing it in the interests of satire or to provoke debate.

Language, like experience, is fluid. Words are constantly being added or subtracted from the English lexicon. There is no possible way for language to be completely used up. Like experience, it is not finite. How can one completely quantify the sensory and emotional impact of an experience? How can one learn and employ every word and nuance available in our language? We can’t. As poets, this is to our advantage; we can each express our particular perception of an experience through disciplined and creative use of language. Because each of us is unique, because each of our experiences is interpreted through our own unique conscious and subconscious filters, because language always carries the potential for unique expression, we can create unique poetry.

This is not for the faint-hearted. It is not for the easily jaded, or for the cynical. It takes courage to create art even in the best of circumstances; it takes even more if we have voices around us whispering, or even shouting, that there is nothing we can express that has not already been expressed. This is an artificial, external voice, not our own, internal truth. Let’s dig out our truths. Let’s not cast judgment on our experiences. Let’s use it all: our pain, love, abuse, fear, guilt, bodies, friends, hate, joy, everything. Let’s seize our courage and put it to use, injecting hope, creativity, and beauty into a frightened world, with language that we choose. Let’s learn from our predecessors, but not be intimidated by them.

Do I believe I have anything new to say?


Who wants to join me?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Pablo Neruda

This year marks the 100th birthday of the poet Pablo Neruda. Check out Copper Canyon Press for a celebration of his life and work.

Thank you to Kristina for suggesting the following beautiful poem by Neruda.

Here I Love You

Here I love you.
In the dark pines the wind disentangles itself.
The moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters.
Days, all one kind, go chasing each other.

The snow unfurls in dancing figures.
A silver gull slips down from the west.
Sometimes a sail. High, high stars.
Oh the black cross of a ship.

Sometimes I get up early and even my soul is wet.
Far away the sea sounds and resounds.
This is a port.

Here I love you.
Here I love you and the horizon hides you in vain.
I love you still among these cold things.
Sometimes my kisses go on those heavy vessels
that cross the sea towards no arrival.
I see myself forgotten like those old anchors.

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have. You are so far.
My loathing wrestles with the slow twilights.
But night comes and starts to sing to me.

The moon turns its clockwork dream.
The biggest stars look at me with your eyes.
And as I love you, the pines in the wind
want to sing your name with their leaves of wire.

Neruda is amazing at expressing love in a way that is terribly romantic. Trees, water, the sea, the moon, the stars—he uses lovely, expressive imagery that catches our imagination, longing, and desire for love.

This, in my opinion, is not what makes him a great poet. What he does so wonderfully well is describe love that is complicated, heartbreaking, and even messy. In this poem, “Here I Love You,” the speaker is separated from the object of his love: “the horizon hides you in vain.” In vain, because the speaker, although feeling the pain of separation keenly, feels no diminishment in his love.

In the first stanza, there are many subtle images which serve to complicate the expression of love. The "pines" in which "the wind disentangles itself" are "dark," and the "moon glows like phosphorous on the vagrant waters. My first response to the word "phosphorous" is simply to think of a warm glow on the surface of the water, perhaps reflecting a warm glow of love in the speaker's heart; but it is interesting to note that the most common form of phosphorous, which is a white solid, is highly poisonous. It is also insoluble in water. Why use a toxic substance to illustrate love? Perhaps because to love someone who is far away from you is so painful. It can feel as if something poisonous is eating away at you from the inside.

Why are the waters "vagrant?" Vagrant means "one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place." Perhaps the vagrant waters reflect the life of the speaker, one who must travel but feels as if he has no true home; at least, no home apart from the one he loves. And "Days, all one kind, go chasing each other." This expresses not only the day-to-day life of someone on the sea, doing his work almost robotically, thinking of his love, but also has a quality of depression: that every day seems exactly the same; every day brings the same pain and separation; every day the speaker longs for the lover he cannot see.

Neruda takes the experience of love and layers it, complicates it, even makes it downright painful. For me, this makes his work more accessible, because it reflects the world in which we exist. Sometimes love just plain hurts.

And this is just the first stanza. Any thoughts? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

More on e.e. cummings

Thanks to Carson for giving new insight into the time in which e.e. cummings lived. Carson writes that cummings would have lived in a era when the "l" (el) on the typewriter was used to write not only the letter "l", but also the number "1" (one).

Fascinating, especially in the context of the alienation and lonliness inherent in the poem. The number one is, of course, "the loneliest number." So, visually, we can view that first letter as the number one, which adds to that sense of loneliness.

Also, the letters after the parentheses spell "oneliness," or "one-liness." Now cummings is really playing with us: "1", or "one-liness," equals "loneliness."

Love this poem.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004


First, I am still soliciting poems from anyone who might have a poem in mind that they'd like to see discussed here. Thanks to everyone who took the time to suggest their favorite poems. I'm planning to cover many of the suggestions.

Today, I'm posting a poem suggested by a friendly reader at http://snazzycat.com/ordinarychica. (I was careful to spell it correctly :-) It's by e.e. cummings.




Form is at the heart of this poem. As chica pointed out, if you read everything between the parenthesis, you read "a leaf falls." The rest spells "oneliness." If you add the beginning "l" to the "oneliness--that is, everything not in parenthesis--you get "loneliness."

Man oh man. This poem is heartbreaking. Upon first reading, I thought, how clever. A nifty poetic device. But the more I read it, the more it got to me. The form illustrates falling, motion, slimness, even termination. The lines are long--not just the poem as a whole, but the letters in the poem--so many l's and f's. Long, even fluid lines, all leading down.

We are familiar with the image of falling leaves and the poignancy that creates. Poems are full of that image. But cummings is illustrating that poignancy in several ways. First, the words themselves: "a leaf falls loneliness" or "loneliness a leaf falls." It doesn't work well to read it that way does it? Second, in the long, lean lines; the downward fluidity of the poem as a whole created with the whole line, and the lines of the letters. Third, those parentheses! Parentheses are inherently exclusive. cummings illustrates loneliness by alienating that word from the rest of the poem. And fourth, although this list is by no means comprehensive, the title. l(a. Alienation and loneliness is inherent in the separation, the boundary, between those two letters.

The gentle, wind-carried fall of a leaf, traveling downward to meet its fate, which is, let's face it, death. The separation of the leaf from its home and companions. Fantastic poem.

Any other ideas about this poem? Feel free to comment with other insights--I'd love to hear your ideas.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Soliciting Poetry Ideas

Do you have a favorite poem? One that you love and read over and over? How about a poem that you're sure is a work of genius, but you just don't get. Or one that has recently inspired or moved you in some way. If so, please suggest this poem in the comments section and I'll choose one to post and discuss on the site, or more than one.

Any are welcome, although I especially like the postmodern New York schoolish "what the f*** does this mean" type of poem (hello Ashbery fans)! We can figure it out!

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Essay on Linda Hogan's "Nothing"

Linda Hogan’s “Nothing”

“Nothing sings in our bodies / like breath in a flute” (Hogan 416). The first two lines of Linda Hogan’s poem “Nothing” sound almost flippant upon the first reading, the way someone might say “nothing tastes like chocolate in the afternoon,” or, in the words of Sinead O’Connor, “nothing compares to you.” In these two examples, “nothing” refers to that which is non-existent, either in matter or in thought. But the speaker in Hogan’s poem offers a very different definition of “nothing:” it is the invisible, vital, life energy which inhabits, animates, and connects all things.

Nothing takes up space: “it dwells in the drum.” It has sound: “I hear it now / that slow beat.” It is the matter from which life can be created, like the “blue fish / born of nothing.” It is also the intangible but very real love we have for others, like the “nothing” offered by the speaker’s hands as she touches the man in her bed, the same nothing her hands offered to “wash the dead” and “the just born.”

In an interview with Carol Miller, Hogan said she loves to write poetry because “it is like a whole body experience” (Miller). “Nothing” is a poem which illustrates this “whole body experience” perfectly. Not only are the flute and the drum bodies which contain nothing, but the speaker’s body, which has “still a little life / left,” is filled with nothing. In the end, this nothing is vast enough to include even emptiness, the necessary internal void we all possess which allows us too “enter in one another.” Love, life, sound, matter, birth, death—when the speaker states “take nothing from me,” she is offering everything she is.

Works Cited

Hogan, Linda. “Nothing.” Modern American Poetry. Ed. Joseph Coulson, Peter Temes, and Jim Baldwin. Chicago: The Great Books Foundation. 2002. 416.

Miller, Carol. 1989 Interview with Linda Hogan. SAIL – Studies in American Indian Literature. 4 December 2004. .

Copyright Amy J. Grier 2004

Friday, December 03, 2004

New: Barbara Guest's "LEICA"

Yes, it's back to blogging about poetry, which I have missed immensely. Fortunately, I have two essays due next week, which gives me motivation for exploring two new poems of my choice (as long as they are contemporary American poems).

I'm going to examine Linda Hogan's poem "Nothing" for one essay--a beautiful poem; see the "Linda Hogan" post to read it--and for the second, I've chosen the following poem by Barbara Guest (of the New York School, like john Ashbery):


Others about the embarking
have reasons.

I holding shreds
carpenter leavings.

Motions in the wind,
wave rolling

disturb sad plots,
disturbing sad plots.

Desolate places
on the grass
where the birds are a light,

Gather in midsummer,
wood shingles,
visionary house.

Taking glances
from tree to eave,

bicyclist, car,
dark green spots

for the movement
of window.

Mowing bitter edges, too.

It passes,
whatever it is.

Day divided by night.
Corn ears.

Whichever decides.

Constructed of film
Day or night.

-Barbara Guest

All right. The first step for me in doing a close reading of this poem was to look up the meaning of the title. Turns out, according to Wikipedia, that the LEICA was the first practical 35 mm camera (Leitz Camera). Now that I know that, it is impossible for me to read this poem without focusing on imagery, particularly the still imagery provided by a camera shot. "Embarking"--on a journey--at first I think of getting on a boat, especially with "Motions in the wind / wave rolling." But I think of this as a metaphor for a life journey (sounds flakey, but there it is); the speaker believes other people "have reasons" for living, as if the have found meaning or purpose, but the speaker has only "carpenter leavings" to go by--bits or shards of meaning that she has collected, that don't seem to fit together, or are only the bits left over from artists who really create something original. Maybe the speaker believes she has nothing original to create, only the "leavings' of other artists.

"Desolate places on the grass / where birds are a light." Now this sounds like a picture--the nature kind, where the birds are not "alight," the are the light-colored specs in an otherwise gray, perhaps black and white photo. These "desolate places" "Gather in midsummer, / wood shingles, / visionary house." Imagine a photographer going out in the nice weather to do nature photography, "taking glances" with her camera "from tree to eave / bicyclist, car," "for the movement of window"--the release of the shutter? "It passes"--these moments caught with the camera are always just a temporary moment that moves on.

"Sums. / Day divided by night:" implies the dark/light of a film negative. "Constructed of film / splices. / Day or night." My feeling is that the speaker views her life as a series of delineated moments which continually pass, but do not seem to connect. They are "divided," despite adding up to the "sum" of a life." Instead of finding some unifying meaning to these moments, these experiences, she feels she has only a collection of of scenes that she does not even truly experience, but rather feels she is viewing through a lense, perhaps the inescapable filter we all, as humans, strain our experiences through. The speaker, however, does seem to think that there are others who do "have reasons," who do seem some unifying meaning to their lives, who do not need or have the LEICA lense, or at least are not disturbed or distracted by it.

I can't get over the imagery of the speaker standing, holding shards of "carpenter leavings" in her hand, bits of life that cannot be molded into any one thing, and in fact did not originate with her. Sad and fascinating.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

NaNoWriMo Winner

Today, I verified my word count with NaNoWriMo.org, and at 50,085 I have managed to complete a novel and be declared a winner. Pretty cool. Check out my nifty new icon in the sidebar.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

New: Linda Hogan's "Nothing"

I'm up to 17,000 words on my NaNo novel; but I need a break. Time to put my energy toward some poetry, and cleanse my mind.


Nothing sings in our bodies
like breath in a flute.
I dwells in the drum.
I hear it now
that slow beat
like when a voice said to the dark,
let there be light,
let there be ocean
and blue fish
born of nothing
and they were there.
I turn back to bed.
The man there is breathing.
I touch him
with hands already owned by another world.
Look, they are desert,
they are rust. They have washed the dead.
They have washed the just born.
They are open.
They offer nothing.
Take it.
Take nothing from me.
There is still a little life
left inside this body,
a little wildness here
and mercy
and it is the emptiness
we love, touch, enter in one another,
and try to fill.

-Linda Hogan

I could write an entire essay (and maybe I will) on the meaning of "nothing" in this poem. It is the title, so I imagine that is something Hogan want the reader to do.

The first two lines: "Nothing sings in our bodies / like breath in a flute" sound almost flippant, the way someone might say, "Nothing tastes like chocolate," meaning there is no no food that exists that has the distinct, unique flavor of chocolate.

But the simile forces the reader to examine this more closely; "nothing" is compared to "breath." It is also compared to the air in a drum. It is the sound that brought forth creation; it is the space which we leave available for another to fill. "Nothing", in Hogan's poem, is life-energy, that which creates and lives and offers and cleanses. It is as vital as the air, whether in a flute or a drum or in our lungs. When the speaker says, "Take nothing from me," she is offering everything she is.

Monday, November 01, 2004

"The Real Writer"

(Please refer to the previous post to read the poem.)

First of all, I have changed my screen name. You may have noticed. I decided to use my first, rather than my middle name. It's going to stay that way, so don't be concerned that I'm flaking out :-)

"The real writer is one / who really writes." That's what Piercy's poem asserts. If this is true, then I am a real writer today. I have completed over 2500 words of my novel for NaNoWriMo, on my way to finishing 50,000 words by November 30. Now I only have to do that twenty more times. Well, that makes it sound kinda hard.

Anyway, I wonder about this line in the poem. I believe, as Julia Cameron states in her book _The Right to Write_, that everyone, indeed, does have the right to write. If you write you are a writer. But--what about expecations of professionalism? Do we need to make a distinction between writing as a hobby, writing as a profession, and writing as an aspiring professional? How much does earning a publishing credit or paycheck add to one's credibilty as a writer?

I think these things matter most to people we don't know--or who don't know us. My father was sorely disappointed when I studied music in college--voice and piano. He couldn't believe I didn't want to follow in his engineering footsteps, and he frequently referred to my classes as "bunny courses." I knew he wouldn't last a week in music theory, but whatever.

I was not a musician in his eyes. I had been training in classical piano since I was eight, and voice since I was ten. But, to him, I was not a musician. I had no "professional"credits. Only when I started to accompany and sing at weddings did that shift a little. A little.

My husband says I am a writer. So far, I have published only one short story, won an honorable mention in a small contest, and I recently sent off five poems to a poetry contest. Am I a writer? He thinks so. Because he has been watching me write for years. He knows its priority in my life. (He thinks I'm a musician, too.)

Friday, October 29, 2004

New: Marge Piercy's "For the Young Who Want To"

Friday: Time for a new poem!

First, you may have noticed by the little icon on right side of the page that I am participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) beginning Monday, November 1. (If you're wondering what this is, check out http://www.NaNoWriMo.org). Since all of my free time--minus the poetry for my workshop, minus the memoir writing classwork, minus the memoir itself--will be spent engaged in the frantic literary pursuit of writing a novel in thirty days. So, if I don't post much, that's why.

Now the poem (from _Modern American Poetry_):

For the Young Who Want To

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don't have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.'s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else's mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you're a certified dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

--Marge Piercy

[Phlogiston: "a hypothetical elemement that some early scientists, before the discovery of oxygen, believed to be present in all combustible substances to make them burn" (from Encarta online, http://www.encarta.msn.com).]

This poem seems very appropriate to me these days, spending so much time writing and having very little published as yet. But, I must say, that the more I write, the more I enjoy the process of writing itself, with all of its grinding difficulty and occassional elation. I think in the past I actually enjoyed having written more than I liked writing; now, I like writing for itself.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Burning your art=burning your self

(Please refer to the post "Lucille Clifton's "fury" to read the poem.)

Whe I was a kid and I got angry, I would tear up or destoy things I had created. When I was mad or sad or depressed or overwhelmed with any emotion I could not release, everything I had made would suddenly appear ugly and worthless to me. In retrospect, I believe I was sacrificing little pieces of myself whenever I sacrificed a piece of art. At the time, it was a survival mechanism in a very dysfuntional household.

The good news is, as I have learned, these pieces of self can be reclaimed and given new life. But in Lucille Clifton's "fury," we see a woman who sacrifices her art--"they burn / jewels into jewels"--but never experiences a reclamation--"she will never recover." I get the feeling that this woman is burning her poems not out of self-hatred or anger, but because she has been forced to--"each hank of her hair / is a serpent's obedient / wife." It seems someone else--a husband?--has forced her to burn these poems, and she has done so to survive in that house. But her survival comes at the cost of having burned a part of her self as well; she is alive, but incomplete, and always will be without her poetry. The speaker, her daughter, feels a tremendous responsibilty to live and perservere and survive, and, I believe, to create and claim her own art, as a way of completing the work her mother could not.

Are we, as artists, incomplete without our art? Do we have to do it to be fully human and alive?

Friday, October 22, 2004

Lucille Clifton's "fury"


for mama

remember this.
she is standing by
the furnace.
the coals
glisten like rubies.
her hand is crying.
her hand is clutching
a sheaf of papers.
she gives them up.
they burn
jewels into jewels.
her eyes are animals.
each hank of her hair
is a serpent's obedient
she will never recover.
remember. there is nothing
you will not bear
for this woman's sake.

This poem, "fury," is from Lucille's Clifton's collection _The Book of Light._ It is, along with Strand's "Keeping Things Whole," one of the poems I am currently writing an essay about. I am usually attracted to poetry that deals with identity, borders, the conscious and unconscious, the postmodern dilemma over trying to describe the indescribable, that sort of thing.

In contrast, I find this poem to be highly accessible and personal. Its imagery is powerful--the coals, the crying, clutching hands, the animal eyes--the sense that this woman is surrendering not only her art, but a part of her humanity as well. I wonder if artists would agree that to surrender one's art--to supress it, deny it, ignore it, or destroy it--equals a surrendering of at least part of what makes them human. Any thoughts?

Thursday, October 21, 2004


I have nothing to offer in the way of poetry analysis today. All I have to say is that I am so happy--I feel as if the air is lighter and the sun is brighter--that the Sox are going to the Series. I am so exhausted after days and days of late night game viewing. After the meltdown at Yankee Stadium last year, this is redemption, relief, celebration, and it's just great to be on the winning end. Yea! My husband and I tried to get Series tickets, but unless we're willing to spend thousands of dollars on ebay, I guess it's not going to happen. That's okay; this is why we have a huge television!


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

"Wherever I Am..."

(Please refer to the previous post to read the poem.)

"Wherever I am / I am what is missing."

The speaker feels able to "complete" any environment. This signals power; nothing is finished without him/her. "In a field / I am the absence of field." The speaker "always" provides the definitive other by which the environment can be identified. How can we know what a field is if we don't know what a field is not?

However, this idea also suggests that the speaker is forcibly fluid in his or her own identity. What can the speaker be other than "not" what is in the environment? The speaker can only be defined in a negative term: not a field, not the air. The speaker's own identity is fluid and transient, while the surroundings use the speaker to form their identities. Add to this the responsibility--even obligation--to be that which keeps things whole and defined. I sense anxiety and sadness in this poem, and a feeling of resignation.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

New: "Keeping Things Whole"

I came across this poem the other day and I love it. It's from _Modern American Poetry_, ed. by Joseph Coulson, Peter Temes, and Jim Baldwin, 2002 edition, p. 376. It's Mark Strand's "Keeping Things Whole:"

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body's been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

Having spent as yet little time with this poem, I am first struck by the palpable sense of space; the perception of boundaries between the speaker's self and the environment. The speaker is what everything else is not. The poem strikes me as quite poignant in that the speaker is "what is missing," and yet seems forever alienated, at least spacially, by what surrounds him/her. The speaker "keep[s] things whole," but not by adding to or blending in with what surrounds him/her. Perhaps if the speaker stops moving, and does not allow the air to "fill in the spaces" behind him, that place of non-air becomes some kind of blot, or taint, or at least a disruption of the wholeness and balance in the world. This seems a lot of responsibility for one person to carry.

The ineveitable question that comes to mind at the end is "Why do I keep moving?" I'm going to sit with this a while.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Intellectual Connection

(Please refer to the 10/8 post to read the poem).

Yes, perhaps you have noticed that I have not yet confronted the shadow imagery in the poem: "And a triangular shadow whose apex is my toe / comes tell me of my rights, warning me / of perjury, in some books the most serious crime of all." This shadow imagery strikes me as a reflection of the speaker's self, like the crinkled stars and the "she" voice, looking back at the speaker in intense self-analysis and self consciousness. But it is interesting to look at an analysis of what a triangle is, what an apex is, and how this shadow stands in relation to the speaker's body.

The shadow is a triangle: a three-sided geometric shape. I imagine the speaker standing, back to the sun, and seeing his/her shadow extended in front. The tip of the triangular shadow--the apex--connects to the speaker's toe. This juxtaposition is interesting to me, because the apex of the triangle would be considered the top, and the toe can be considered to be the very bottom of the body. So, where the speaker's body ends, the shadow begins. Or, perhaps, where the speaker's conscious self ends, the subcoscious self begins. Whatever this shadow represents, it has the power to "tell" the speaker of his/her rights and to "warn" against perjury, which suggests a monitoring or policing voice. The anxiety referred to in the first stanza is present in the shadow's power to warn against perjury--a crime--as if it could arrest or even imprison the speaker if the rules are broken.

Also, how can one escape a shadow? Only by escaping the light--which, it suddenly occurs to me, is just what is mentioned in the third stanza: "I must go out with the light." The speaker knows, inevitably, the light will go out. "And some day, / someone will see through and love me." Perhaps someone will be able to see the "real" speaker without the shadow, without the anxious, monitoring, warning other-self.

There is so much one can do with this shadow.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Emotional Connection

(Please refer to the 10/8 post to read the poem).

It is not enough for me that poetry be an intellectual pursuit. I love to engage in intellectual analysis of poetry, but I must have an emotional connection to it to feel its significance in my life. For me, the reason to study poetry or any literature is to feel an emotional connection and to be altered by it.

I am back to the first stanza, and today the critical voice of "she" is bothering me. Why is "she" so lacking in compassion for the speaker? Then, the very obvious suddenly struck me: perhaps "she" refers to the anxiety itself. It is the anxiety yelling at the speaker: "In all time / was never such lurching, such rubbing of the chin." Sounds like the anxious voice inside the speaker's head, saying why he or she should never have left land. The sea is just as bad with its "lurching" and the worry it causes, the speaker's "rubbing of the chin."

This kind of critical voice gets to me, and I'm surprised it didn't bother me sooner. Maybe it's because I was working on the memoir today, reliving some of the intensely critical voices of my childhood, and I am feeling sensitive to it. At any rate, I have no patience for this compassionless voice. I want to tell the speaker, "Go ahead, travel! Ignore that "she" behind the curtain! The sea is a wonderful place!"

The third stanza feels so self-conscious and sad to me, it is difficult to write a about. The speaker is stared at by even the flowers, feeling forced into a "contrained idea" of him- or herself. It speaks to me of a relentless sort of introspection, or self-analysis, the kind of thing we do when we are trying to figure out why we have a particular fear or, shall I say, anxiety. Why is the speaker forced into this view? Perhaps the "crinkled stars" represent some part of the speaker, some kind of self-looking, that cannot be escaped. Perhaps the meadow as a whole represents the speaker's internal life, and "unsteady," anxious, insecure place where the speaker does not know what is safe to "grab." His or her self is shaky in its anxiety, and there seems to be no way, at least now, to ground it.

And the line "I must go out with the light, and someday / someone will see through and love me." So sad! Sounds like a desperate hope of the speaker's that after the end of something, after the "light" goes down, after death, maybe? someone will see and recognize the real self behind the anxiety and love him/her. As if the anxious, insecure self is not worth loving. Sad! I want to comfort this speaker. You deserve love!

Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Land of our Forefathers

(Please refer to the 10/8 post to read the poem).

Yesterday I couldn't get past the first stanza, but today the second stanza is practically screaming at me. I have learned this about Ashbery's work: don't be discouraged if at first a poem seems disconnected and confusing. Just let it sit with you a while, and certain words or images or ideas will begin to leap out from the page. One must be comfortable with non-linear thought and experience to read his work.

Having said that, it quite suddenly occured to me this morning how the second stanza reflects my experience in writing a memoir: "I'd have deserted the land of my forefathers / a dozen times before if I'd thought / I could get away with it." The speaker could be referring to the effort to abandon the carried anxiety, and learning it travels with us as we move about. Today, it reminds me of my effort to create a life free from the tremendous fear and pain my parents live with; the damage they suffered as children that they passed on the their children. In a sense, I have abandoned the "land of my forefathers" in that I no longer have a relationship with my parents; but that fact does not result in a dropping of anxiety and fear. So, as the speaker says, one can't "get away with" nullifying previous painful experiences and their consequences.

In writing my memoir, every memory I write seems to bring up memories long hidden. These will never disappear. But, I believe, I can create a life that includes these memories, and even some of the pain, while freeing myself from the damaging behaviors and fears of my parents. I have a "shadow" telling me "of my rights:" I have a right to tell my story; I have a right to create my own life. At the same time, the shadow warns me "of perjury, in some books the most serious crime of all." Along with my rights, I have a responsibilty to tell the truth. In a memoir, the most significant truth is the emotional truth of each experience and each scene, while also getting the facts as straight as possible. A memoir is not about revenge, or bitterness; it is not a place to rant or vent; no matter the painful subject, a memoir is for storytelling, reflection, and a record of growth. So I have a right to write it, and a responsibilty to write it with maturity and hope.

Friday, October 08, 2004

The First -- John Ashbery

I read poetry because I want to be moved by it. I want it to change my world: to shake things up, to make me ask questions I never thought to ask before, to reshape the framework through which I view reality, to challenge, in fact, my definition of reality. I want to struggle with it, to hate it, to love it, to sleep with the book which last night I threw against the wall. For me, reading and writing poetry is a passionate endeavor. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother.

I believe poetry has meaning and relevance to my everyday existence. When Wallace Stevens expresses frustration with his perceived inability to describe the reality of an experience, or John Ashbery interweaves conscious and unconscious thought in text form, I too wonder if I can ever properly verbalize how I think or feel or how much of my identity is divided between the conscious and unconscious being. This affects how I relate to people, how I write, how I live. Poetry is an entry into my own mind. Poetry makes me wonder.

Do you understand? Do you feel passionate about the expansiveness and relevance of poetry?

Share your passion here. I will post a poem every week and comment on how it affects me: what memories or feelings it unleashes, what conclusions I draw from it, or simply my struggle with trying to figure out what it means. Feel free to write how the poem affects you. I ask only that you write with respect, regardless of how you feel about the poem.

In an interview with John Tranter in 1985, John Ashbery expressed his desire that readers "come to terms" with a poem on their own, without commentary from the author. I share this view. So for the first poem, I am posting John Ashbery's "The Sea," a poem from his collection _Can You Hear, Bird_, published in 1995:

The Sea

We carry our anxiety about the land with us
when we leave the land to travel overseas.
She shouts: "This is the dimmest
thing you ever did! In all time
was never such lurching, so much rubbing of the chin."

It's true: I'd have deserted the land of my forefathers
a dozen times before if I'd thought
I could get away with it.
And a triangular shadow whose apex is my toe
comes to tell me of my rights, warning me
of perjury, in some books the most serious crime of all.

Even the crinkled stars in the meadow
cannot look the other way, forcing me
into my constrained idea of myself.
I must go out with the light, and some day
someone will see through and love me.
I look down at these asters, unsteady,
unsure of what to grab. The tuneless sing to me.

What grabs me first is the initial idea: that the anxiety one feels in one place is not left behind simply by moving to another place. Even on the sea, one worries about the land. It reminds me about what I leave behind when I travel, especially my dog. She is safe in a wonderful kennel, but even as I am enjoying a relaxing getaway, I worry about how she is doing.

More importantly, it brings to mind my own experience of learning something it took me years to learn: you can't run away from your problems. They follow you! Sounds cliche, doesn't it? But still so true. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had lived and worked in several states, and had moved to Japan. I always hoped that a fresh start meant a fresh me. In the end, I always ended up being the same person with the same complications. It was in Japan that I finally realized that personality, difficulties, strengths and weaknesses, and personal history were not about geography. They're about me.

What does the speaker mean by saying we "carry" our anxiety? Is this to imply that we take it with us, cradling it in our arms, refusing to let it go even though we could? Do we keep it close to our chests to remind us of what we have been through, perhaps afraid that we wouldn't be able to recognize ourselves without it? Do we think of it as our child, to be nurtured and fed? Is this why "she" seems to criticize the speaker, claiming "this is the dimmest / thing you ever did?" Perhaps "she" is someone who is a freer spirit, safe in her identity and worryless self-worth.

I respond to this stanza with my own anxiety, because it forces me to wonder how much of my fears and worries are my own creation, kept by me out of a false sense of protection: if I worry about something, it means I am alert to the possibility of it happening, therefore I can perhaps prevent it. I don't even think this is good logic. But it bothers me to think that at least some of my fear is unnecessary, and that I might have the power to change it. Feels like a serious responsibility.

All right, I haven't moved out of the first stanza, but that's enough to think about for one day. I am going to let this poem live in me for a day or two, then comment some more.

How about you?