“Ultimately the poems you or anyone will write will be the poems you (or anyone) needs. I always think of this as the blind spot in the totality of verse, a place toward which each of us is driven & where we never quite fully arrive.”
Ron Stillman – University of Iowa Press – 2010.
The House Was Just Twinkling In The Moon Light
by Gertrude Stein
The house was just twinkling in the moon light,
And inside it twinkling with delight,
Is my baby bright.
Twinkling with delight in the house twinkling
with the moonlight,
Bless my baby bless my baby bright,
Bless my baby twinkling with delight,
In the house twinkling in the moon light,
Her hubby dear loves to cheer when he thinks
and he always thinks when he knows and he always
knows that his blessed baby wifey is all here and he
is all hers, and sticks to her like burrs, blessed baby.
Gertrude Stein is quoted as saying “Why do something if it can be done, ” implying that taking risks in originality is a far more satisfying. Stein is an inspiration in creativity; a blazing intellect whose circle of friends were the avant garde in poetry, literature and painting. Her New York Times obituary read in part:
Although Gertrude Stein could and did write intelligibly at times, her distinction rested on her use of words apart from their conventional meaning. Her emphasis on sound rather than sense is illustrated by her oft-quoted “A rose is a rose is a rose.”
Devotees of her cult professed to find her restoring a pristine freshness and rhythm to language. Medical authorities compared her effusions to the rantings of the insane. The Hearst press inquired, “Is Gertrude Stein not Gertrude Stein but somebody else living and talking in the same body?” Sinclair Lewis concluded she was conducting a racket.
I think she would have been pleased to have so bold an accusation in print. Personally, I don’t think that Stein’s poetry is very intriguing, and yet her passionate willingness to be different and to support other writers in their pursuit of originality was her real legacy in my opinion.
T. S. Elliot received heaps of praise and recognition during his lifetime among critics and readers, but silently many of his contemporaries, like William Carlos Williams, were discouraged that he dragged the poetry world backwards, for a short time, towards a more formal style, just as new voices were starting to emerge.
Why did Elliot’s poetry receive such widespread acclaim? What about it made such an immediate impression on the public? Very few poets of the past 100 years have achieved the critical and publishing success that Elliot achieved. I wonder what would be the response to Elliot today? Would there be an avenue for him to critical success or would he be lumped into the category of just another privileged Harvard educated pale, stale, male and find a limited audience for his poetry?
There are some poets whose originality and voice are timeless and others whose fame were only possible in the period in which they lived? Elliot was a bridge from the old to the new. T. S. Elliot success was aided by Ezra Pound’s and Gertrude Stein’s influence and generous support. I have read several places that Ezra Pound should be listed as a co-writer on nearly everything that Elliot published, so through was his editing and suggestions. Unlike Whitman, whose brilliance is timeless, Elliot feels to me like a faded newspaper, whose even strongest prose is brittle and yellowing under the modern glare of more polished contemporary writers. But Elliot wrote poems that filled a need at the time and had the good fortune to be recognized generously for that creativity.
Excerpt from The Waste Land
by T. S. Elliot
Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
I have a friend who is a self professed crow by nature. I was fortunate to be under the sway of her good nature and inquisitive spirit during the recent snow storm and it reminded me of Robert Frost’s playful poem. We actually experienced the phenomenon of thunder snow on Friday night, complete with lightning as snow flakes came down.
For as powerful a metaphor that snow provides there are surprisingly few sonnets that have snow as a central character. The most famous is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s sonnet The Cross of Snow, written about the tragic death of his wife Fanny. Its a sad poem that doesn’t fit the humor of this April blizzard, so I rejected it as a fit in favor of Claude McKays more optimistic ode. McKay’s wish for winter to stick around a little longer has been granted here in Minnesota, but fair warning any Frosty the Snowman, temperatures are forecast in the mid 40’s the rest of the week, so the snow will disappear quickly and the robins can get back to building nests.
Our snowfall totals for the year are actually about average, it only felt like 15 feet. For a little good clean snow-white fun, check out Nick Cave’s video below.
by Claude McKay
Stay, season of calm love and soulful snows!
There is a subtle sweetness in the sun,
The ripples on the stream’s breast gaily run,
The wind more boisterously by me blows,
And each succeeding day now longer grows.
The birds a gladder music have begun,
The squirrel, full of mischief and of fun,
From maples’ topmost branch the brown twig throws.
no need for geography
now that we’re safe everywhere.
point to whatever you please
& call it church, home, or sweet love.
paradise is a world where everything
is a sanctuary & nothing is a gun.
here, if it grows it knows its place
in history. yesterday, a poplar
told me of old forest
heavy with fruits I’d call uncle
bursting red pulp & set afire,
harvest of dark wind chimes.
after I fell from its limb
it kissed sap into my wound.
do you know what it’s like to live
someplace that loves you back?
Yes, 24 inches of snow on April 15 is a bit extreme for even the heartiest of Minnesotans, but sometimes the places that love us most, must show us tough love too. Truth be told, I have had a wonderful weekend. I wish all of you that live in warm places could experience the fun of a spring snowstorm like yesterday and today. Even though it feels like February, I know this snow won’t last long and spring is just a week or two away.
I spent the last two days with a perfect companion for this kind of unexpected weather. My friend’s love of snow is so completely infectious that I had no choice but to join her in celebration. We didn’t let the weather alter our plans. We ventured out Saturday morning and got where we needed to be in the midst of the worst of it and then got home mid afternoon to make a delicious batch of potato, leek, ham soup. As the snow piled up and winds howled last evening, we feasted on soup, had a glass of wine, (well maybe two), and watched a movie while the blizzard raged.
We awoke to a thick blanket of fresh snow, the most of our entire winter! This is a record-setting snow storm in St. Paul and Minneapolis for April and is not normal for this time of year. Today’s high temperature is 30 degrees below normal. However, one of the refreshing things about a snow storm, any time of year, is it gives you an opportunity for a sense of achievement. My friend and I got up early this morning, made a hearty breakfast (apple-bacon-pannenkoeken) and then shoveled her steps, used the snowblower to clear out her drive way and then performed our good deed for the day by assisting an elderly neighbor down the block. By 10 am we felt like we had accomplished something and earned the right to curl up on the couch for a nap this afternoon.
Pre-nap I am reading the Minneapolis Star Tribune Sunday paper and was pleased to see that Minnesota poet Danez Smith won a rather prestigious award for his sequence of poems titled “Summer, somewhere.” The sequence is from Smith’s collection “Don’t Call Us Dead,” published in 2017 by Graywolf Press. I have included one segment of his prize winning poem above. It seems rather fitting given today’s weather. To answer his question in the final stanza of the excerpt I have included; I do know what it is like to live someplace that loves me back. It’s why Minneapolis is my home, the same as Danez Smith.
To read a longer excerpt from his poem, or listen to Smith give a reading, check out the link below to Poetry Magazine.
Here’s the recipe I used to whip up this morning’s breakfast.
Apple Bacon Pannenkoeken
(serves 2, if you are shoveling snow…)
3/4 cup of flour
3/4 cup of milk (or half and half if that is all you have)
1/4 cup of sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
2 medium apples (peeled, seeded and diced)
2 tablespoons of butter
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix eggs, flour, milk sugar, salt together. Fold in apples. Pick out large skillet (I used a 12 inch flat bottom with 2 inch sides). Melt butter in skillet and add mixture and put in hot oven. (Bake for 20 to 25 minutes)
While its baking – make your toppings.
5 slices bacon
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tsp of cinnamon
(mystery season of your choosing – I used a pinch of cloves and a dash of cardamom).
Drizzle of Maple syrup
While the pannenkoeken has started baking, cook your bacon – remove from heat, pat free of excess grease on a paper towel and cut up into desired sized pieces. Mix your seasonings together. Pull out your pan from oven with about 10 minutes left and add your bacon and brown sugar/cinnamon/spice topping. Dollop with a drizzle of maple syrup. Put back in oven and finish baking.
A pannenkoeken has a kind of crepe-like consistency. The bacon and apple give it something for you to chew on and the rest is sheer warm egg fluffy delight. This dish is so good you’ll wish it was snowing outside to ease your conscience for eating the entire thing so that you could go out and work off a few of the calories by shoveling.
The greatest physicists rewrite the rules of our universe to fit not only what is observable but what is possible. Many of their experiments take place solely as thought experiments, our ability to test their theories beyond our scientific capability. They use creativity to expand our understanding. Isn’t that what poets do as well?
Einstein’s theory of relativity says essentially that all motion must be defined relative to a frame of reference, that space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts. There’s lots of other mumbo-jumbo about speed of light in a vacuum and gravity bending in space near black holes, but the idea that time and space are relative is a concept explored by artists as well and part of what the humanities does in a different way. In reading a sonnet or poem from 300 years ago, a 1,000 years ago, we realize what it is to be human is the same now as it was then, space and time are relative.
Sarah Howe wrote a sonnet for Stephen Hawking and sent it to him. Her inspiration his book A Brief History of Time which came out in 1988. It sounds like she may share my obsession with sonnets if they have a gravitational pull for her….
In formal terms, “Relativity” is a sonnet, a form I started to think of as a sort of black hole exerting its own gravitational pull, compressing an everywhere into its little room. Yet my sonnet starts with light not as it exists in the large-scale world of gravity but at the subatomic level of quantum physics. It is the grail of contemporary physicists to make these two irreconcilable theories speak to one another.
Sarah Howe, Paris Review. October 2015
Try following my advice, the rules of Poetry Night (See my earlier blog post). Read the following sonnet twice. The first time, read it like a scientist, thinking about how the words relate to the rules of physics and specifically the untestable theory of relativity. The second time read it like a lover, thinking about how the words relate to explaining the mystery of love. Then ask yourself; which one makes more sense to you?
Bonus Points: Check out the link for the marvelous reading by Stephen Hawking himself. Its good stuff and a kick in the pants that it was recorded for National Poetry Day. Think Like a Poet!
Stephen Hawking reads Relativity by Sarah Howe
by Sarah Howe
for Stephen Hawking
When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.
Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows
that stripe a dimmed lab’s wall—particles no more—
and with a wave bid all certainties goodbye.
For what’s sure in a universe that dopplers
away like a siren’s midnight cry? They say
a flash seen from on and off a hurtling train
will explain why time dilates like a perfect
afternoon; predicts black holes where parallel lines
will meet, whose stark horizon even starlight,
bent in its tracks, can’t resist. If we can think
this far, might not our eyes adjust to the dark?
And yet one arrives somehow, finds himself loosening the hooks of her dress in a strange bedroom— feels the autumn dropping its silk and linen leaves about her ankles. The tawdry veined body emerges twisted upon itself like a winter wind . . . !
There is a tradition in poetry which I admire; that being established poets mentoring the next generation of poets who are pushing the current boundaries of poetry. Many of my favorite poets have maintained a wide circle of friendships, and provided encouragement and criticism to new writers, helping them to hone their craft.
William Carlos Williams is an example and maintained correspondence and friendships with many poets, including Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Charles Abbott, James Laughlin, Louis Zukofsky, and Denise Levertov to name a few. Levertov, a disciple of Williams’ Imagist style, wrote him an admiring letter when she was young, and included several of her poems. Williams wrote back, providing validation and the most generous act of all, suggested edits, to help refine her writing technique.
Levertov penned an interesting explanation of why modern poetry evolved in the 20th century beyond the confines of more formal metrical structure like sonnets. In it she wrote:
“.….I do not mean to imply that I consider modern, nonmetrical poetry “better” or “superior” to the great poetry of the past, which I love and honor. That would obviously be absurd. But I do feel that there are few poets today whose sensibility naturally expresses itself in the traditional forms…The closed, contained quality of such forms has less relation to the relativistic sense of life which unavoidably prevails in the late twentieth century than modes that are more exploratory, more open-ended. A sonnet may end with a question; but its essential,underlying structure arrives at conclusion. “Open forms” do not necessarily terminate inconclusively, but their degree of conclusion is–structurally, and thereby expressively–less pronounced, and partakes of the open quality of the whole…The forms more apt to express the sensibility of our age are the exploratory, open ones.”
Excerpt from The Function of The Line, 1979. Yale University Press.
It is an interesting idea, that the poets of the 20th and now 21 century have left structure and rhyme behind because there are no answers to the madness that befalls this world on a daily basis. But there’s always been madness. And in my opinion, if poetry lacks beauty, in some form, it lacks a timeless quality that is the cornerstone of verse that survives its epoch. As readers we toy with darkness and enjoy rolling in the mud from time to time, but’s its the light of poetry that is the bread of life for our souls. Its why, when I ask someone, do you have a favorite poem, the answer if yes, is more often than not, a metrical rhyming poem. A poem where there is a reassurance of an answer. Poems where there is something concrete in meaning or imagery for the reader to find, not words that were by design to be elusive, there is something for the reader to hold on to.
Wallace Stevens’ legacy is primarily his originality of free verse, but he wrote beautifully in traditional forms as well, even if he found “it sounded like the rise, of distant echo from dead melody, soft as a song heard far in Paradise.”
by Wallace Stevens
Lo, even as I passed beside the booth
Of roses, and beheld them brightly twine
To damask heights, taking them as a sign
Of my own self still unconcerned with truth;
Even as I held up in hands uncouth
And drained with joy the golden-bodied wine,
Deeming it half-unworthy, half divine,
From out the sweet-rimmed goblet of my youth.
Even in that pure hour I heard the tone
Of grievous music stir in memory,
Telling me of the time already flown
From my first youth. It sounded like the rise
Of distant echo from dead melody,
Soft as a song heard far in Paradise.
It came to him that he could nearly count
How many Octobers he had left to him
In increments of ten or, say, eleven
Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.
He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six—
Humanity’s advances notwithstanding
In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens—
What with his habits and family history,
The end he thought is nearer than you think.
The future, thus confined to its contingencies,
The present moment opens like a gift:
The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,
The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—
All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?
At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.
by James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)
All right. Try this,
Then. Every body
I know and care for,
And every body
Else is going
To die in a loneliness
I can’t imagine and a pain
I don’t know. We had
To go on living. We
Untangled the net, we slit
The body of this fish
Open from the hinge of the tail
To a place beneath the chin
I wish I could sing of.
I would just as soon we let
The living go on living.
An old poet whom we believe in
Said the same thing, and so
We paused among the dark cattails and prayed
For the muskrats,
For the ripples below their tails,