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 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,]

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?