Last year when I posted about the Pushcart poetry, I admitted I was scared of poetry. I still am. But maybe a little less scared.
This September I’ll be taking a (free!) poetry class from the University of Pennsylvania via Coursera on Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, a course that promises to teach me ” how to read poems that are supposedly ‘difficult.'” I considered waiting until after the course to do this post, but that would push things to next year, and that’s just not a good idea. And it isn’t like I’ve never taken a poetry class before. But learning the basics of meter and how to recognize a sonnet aren’t skills that I find particularly useful when I’m confronted by a poem.
So I just read, and react. I’m always surprised at how accessible the Pushcart poems are; a couple of them went over my head, and I’m sure I could’ve gleaned a great deal more, particularly in terms of techniques used. But each of these poems was an aesthetic and emotional experience for me. I hope someday poetry can also be more of an intellectual experience, and I’ll be able to better articulate exactly how the poet creates that experience.
I’ve divided the poetry into three categories: first, those that include commentary, in-line or by link, from people who know what they’re talking about. Second, poems that are available online; I did my best to provide some semblance of comment for these. And third, the ones that aren’t online; I’ve included a few lines and some general notes.
Poems I had help with:
Adam Zagajewski: “I Look at a Photograph” from Tin House, Spring 2011 translated by Clare Cavanagh (available online; scroll halfway down the page)
I gaze at the photograph, I can’t tear my eyes away,
and suddenly I imagine that they’re all still alive
as if nothing had happened, they still scurry to lectures,
wait for trains, take sky-blue trams,
check calendars with alarm, step on scales,
listen to Verdi’s arias and their favorite operetta,
read newspapers that are still white,
live in haste, in fear, are always late,
are a bit immortal, but don’t know it,
I’m very lucky to find myself in e-contact with writer Naomi Williams through our blogs, so when I noticed she, as a former Pushcart winner, had nominated this piece, I thought I’d ask her to speak to it, to share what it was that struck her about the poem. She generously agreed; here are her comments:
First–and I’m assuming this is carried over from the original Polish, but I don’t really know–the entire poem is one long sentence. The way he’s able to pile on clause after clause, moving from the photo to his memories to his imagination and back, in the end, to himself, sustaining that tension all the while — it’s just mesmerizing. Mesmerizing to the reader the way, it seems, looking at the photo is to the speaker.
I also love the use of tense in this poem. The photo captures a moment in the past, and the speaker acknowledges that “freezing” in time by using present tense throughout. Or maybe he is himself caught in that moment — suggested by his admission that he “can’t tear” his eyes away from the picture. Even before he tells us outright that, “suddenly I imagine that they’re all still alive,” he’s already given himself away in the previous line when he describes, in that sort-of “eternal” present tense, the “Orthodox churches,/where on Sundays the basses sing so mightily…” The Orthodox churches that, for all we know, are no longer standing at all.
It’s one thing, of course, to imagine that people one once knew are still, in some alternate, photographic universe still living the lives they were living when the photo was taken. But Zagajewski maintains present tense even when he refers, late in the poem, to actual, datable events like the invasion of the NKVD — events that are obviously not depicted in the photograph & most likely occurred later.
I’m also just taken by the way his images and references aggregate & mix up the universal and the personal, the general and the specific, the historical with the timeless. You’ve got the more-or-less general “they” who are all “still alive,” scurrying to lectures, waiting for trains, etc., who give way to specific individuals–his grandmother with her cake, his cousin about to catch pneumonia–who in turn give way to, or are perhaps swept away by–the generic depradations of “pogroms, uprisings, deportations” and then the specific ones (Wehrmacht, NKVD), before returning to a more general “they,” which then becomes “me”–“me,” the speaker, but by then, of course, “me” the reader as well.
The poem is, as you say, a sad memoir, but it also places us all, in this way that I find simultaneously chilling & reassuring, in the position of those (“they”) who go on with their lives as if nothing will ever change but who are always on the cusp of disaster, always too late to save ourselves from history, & always too busy with our “so much to do” to remain other than in ignorance of that inevitability.
Thanks, again, Naomi, that’s so much more specific than my typical poetry comments. I was struck by the religious imagery in the beginning – the basses in the Catholic and Orthodox church choirs singing so loudly the community could hear – which gave way, both in the poem and historically, to the Wehrmacht and then the NKVD.
Patricia Smith: “Laugh Your Trouble Away” from Sugar House Review, Fall/Winter 2011
You pout, he pulls,
and, not for the first tune, you wonder what he hides.
For me, the power of this poem was in the slow dawning of exactly what’s happening. It highlighted in a concrete way how race matters; always, every day, race matters. Sometimes, no matter how enlightened or liberal we are, we forget that. As I started reading, I had pleasant memories of all the carnivals and midways of my past, only to be brought up hard against what kinds of memories others might have. This is one of my favorites, because it taught me more than poetry, and that’s exactly what poetry, what all art, should do.
Mary Szybist: “On a Spring Day in Baltimore the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers” from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2011
What should be remembered, what
The Associate Editor of The Kenyon Review explains “Why We Chose It” as part of a trio of Szybist poems about annunciation. By itself, I don’t see annunciation, but it’s devastating, nonetheless. The juxtaposition of art and abuse; the use of memory, to remember what can’t be forgotten but also can’t be borne. No matter how much I read, I’m still astounded so much can be wrung out of words.
Diane Seuss: “Everything is Sexual or Nothing Is, Take this Flock of Poppies” from Blackbird, Fall 2011 available online)
…Either the whole world is New
Orleans at 3 a.m. and a saxophone like a drill bit or it’s all clinical
sunlight and sad elementary school architecture, circa 1962…
I’m going to just enjoy the delightful read and leave the commentary on this to Ken of Great Writers Steal, where you’ll find, as I did, that the poem teaches structure before spiraling off from the concrete to the abstract. Not to mention potential and kinetic energy.
Elizabeth Powell: “Match.Com/Matthew Likes Buttered Toast, Vulnerability…” from New Ohio Review Spring 2011
We are invented, in part,
By the wanting and not having
By now, you should be realizing that Great Writers Steal is a far better place for poetical analysis than this is. But what I contribute is the view of someone who doesn’t quite get poetry, and this poem worked for me because I got it immediately: the crazy idea of meeting someone we will love online, the dream that the people we meet online will be people like us, and not people like Matthew. And the loneliness that’s behind it all.
Jill McDonough: “Preface” from Harvard Review Online #6 (available online)
Hand and foot, from head to toe, the body we know
like the back of our hands, we say, patting our palms
since we don’t know back from front
Reproduction, and how we make sense (or nonsense) of it. And guess who has a terrific take on the use of italics for dialogue.
Rasheda White: “A Shadow Beehive” from Ecotone, Fall 2011 (available online)
I hear my mother
in the kitchen drying out the darkness.
In the Fall 2011 issue of Ecotone, John Rybicki included a set of poems by children, including this one by fourth-grader Rasheda White, saying: “Children see the magic and possibility that reside in all things.…Lift these pages to your eyes and read, and if the urge strikes you, drop to your knees.” The imagery is delicious.
Sommer Browning: “It Isn’t Dead, Just Different” from Spork, (text)
At night the Turnpike is lit like a wet snake.
No matter which way you travel, you’re heading
for the fangs.
A brush with death, and chicken sandwiches on the New Jersey turnpike. The anthology has omitted a few things – dialogue tags, italics – from the original. I’m not sure it’s an improvement. Then again, I’m not sure I could tell this was a prize-winning poem in a game of “emo or poetry?”
Alicia Ostriker: “April” from Poetry, February 2012 (available online)
What a concerto
of good stinks said the dog
trotting along Riverside Drive
in the early spring afternoon
More juxtaposition: this is the third stanza. Whether it’s a rising arc, a downward spiral, or a level playing field, the reader gets to decide.
Elton Glaser: “Do the Do” from Southern Poetry Review 48:2 (available online)
It’s all jism and jungle, late love and cheroots,
Sweat equity on the dance floor.
Somebody lies about his rusty heart. Somebody don’t.
I can hear the music as I read this, I can smell the room. I like how the focus moves around the room before zeroing in on the band, each member in turn.
Matt Mason: “Notes for my Daughter Against Chasing Storms” from Nebraska Poets Calendar ( video available online)
Tornadoes swing through like a kid
Oh, you must see him read this poem; it takes a turn I sure wasn’t expecting, but it turned out to be one of those “oh, of course!” surprised-yet- inevitable turns. There’s a school of thought that literature must be kept context-free, but I disagree, particularly on this poem: my reading from the printed page had a melancholy, tragic feel; had the poet been a woman, I think this would’ve been correct, but his more ebullient, mocking read makes perfect sense as well. How interesting, the difference between my read off the page and his from the lecturn. I learned something from this one: try reading in multiple ways to get a view of the poem from different angles.
Jane Hirshfield: “In A Kitchen Where Mushrooms Were Washed” from Ploughshares, Fall 2011 (available online)
As a person who’s once loved completely,
a country once conquered,
does not release that stunned knowledge.
I love the story of this poem: a friend asked Hirshfield for “poems for a mushroom/fungi anthology” but as she had no mushroom poems, she wrote the introduction instead (“Poems, like mushrooms, demand our close attention before they can be found or seen at all”). The idea of a mushroom poem lingered, and she ended up writing two, including this one. I’m not sure I quite grasp the poem as a whole beyond the lingering-scent imagery, which is lovely, but I’m fascinated by the above lines.
Alan Michael Parker: “A Fable For Our Anniversary” from Subtropics, Spring/Summer 2011 (available online)
It was one of those dawns that didn’t
and then was. The crows were calling
in their office across the street,
all that old business of the soul and such,
but don’t you worry, I wasn’t scared.
And now I have a goat:
Think Mockingbird – though you can’t tell from the stanzas here. I loved reading this, yet once again, I have no idea why in objective terms it’s a great poem, other than recognizing the combination of a hint of threat (the last bag of rice, the crows) and fanciful magic.
Ted Kooser, “Lantern” from The Kenyon Review, Fall 2011 (available online)
In the predawn cold and darkness,
it was only a pinch of light,
not more than a cup of warmth,
as a farmer carried it over the snow
to the barn where his dozen cows
stood stomping, heavy with milk
in the milky cloud of their lowing.
Everything leaves something behind, and sometimes that something can generate more than you ever dreamed possible. At least when in the hands of the 13th U.S. Poet Laureate.
Marianne Boruch: “The Art of Poetry” from Pilot Light, September 2011 (available online)
isn’t sleep. Isn’t the clock’s steady
one and one and one though seconds eventually make
an hour. And morning passes
into a thing it might not recognize by afternoon.
This is the kind of poetry I feared Pushcart would be full of before I started reading it: beautiful images, but damned if I know what she’s talking about.
Fred Moramarco: “Elegy for Kenneth Koch” from Poetry International #17 (available online)
It seems too crazy, like one of your mad, funny poems,
that you’re not with us anymore, not here to point out
the thisness of things, like mountains, circuses, and fresh air.
You were always the court jester of poets,
topping pretension from its granite and marble heights.
Even a poetic Philistine such as I can appreciate a student’s life-long respect for a teacher. Moramarco passed away himself in February, and the poem was republished as a memoriam.
Laura Rodley: “Resurrection” from The New Verse News (available online)
Carry this, they ask,
carry this load of bamboo
tied with rope upon my back
take this load to my mother,
tell her I got lost upon the way
and now in deep waters of the ocean
I have not forgotten.
A lovely elegy for the spirits of those lost to the tsunami. It starts off with some measure of futility – irony of the closing-the-barn-door variety – then turns exquisitely, heartbreakingly personal.
… Call this place a horsecollar, a way to redefine a world,
& watch how it cuts into skin, how the leather embraces
all of our necks. Even as a visitor behind plate glass I brace
myself for cuffs.
This is overwhelmingly powerful, but controlled; a look at prison through the man whose brother is incarcerated. The horse metaphor comes from Psalm 20: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses.” The poem uses dual word meanings – “horse” meaning heroin, “cuff” as shackles and a slap – to take self-aware self-destruction as a partner and dance.
Michael Waters: “Beloved” from Gospel Night (available online if you’re very careful)
She scours shelves for American novels –
Overhead bulbs fizzled out years ago –
Then finds the harrowing tale of a slave
That makes her bulb seem to surge with power
Hour after hour in the old cubicle.
It’s a gorgeous poem, a love song to books and that was before I found the author’s commentary. His wife lived in Romania under Ceauşescu, and at 16, she carried own light bulb to the library to read: Ethan Frome, Toni Morrison, whom she met ten years later. Another remarkable poem.
Toon Tellegen: “A Man Found An Angel” from The Manhattan Review Fall/Winter 2011/2012
A man found an angel, in some out of the way place,
let’s fight, said the man,
good, said the angel
I adore this little parable. Maybe we’ve all been thrown into the abyss, victims of our own hubris, and we don’t even have the awareness to realize it. The poem was translated from the Dutch by Judith Wilkinson; I’m always surprised when poetry translated can work like this. The translator must become a bilingual poet.
Adrian Blevins: “Tally” from The Georgia Review, Fall 2011 (available online)
The babies smelled like mixed-up milk and cotton dragged
through a little wax, but not like sugar or any amount
of caramel. …
Now, see, just when I think I’ve got the hang of it, something comes along that stumps me. I’m pretty sure this is painfully grim. I just don’t know the specifics. Then again, are the specifics necessary?
Deborah Brown: “Walking the Dog’s Shadow” (available online)
It’s best to let grief enter you like this,
alone with your own black dog,
a drag on anyone’s leash”
Wonderful metaphors, and a touch of word play – “shows you how well it heels” – make this special. To think of grief as a pet makes it more manageable, gives you a new avenue of approach.
G. C. Wadrep: “Internal Monument” from Michigan Quarterly Review (available online)
A man was sad—for himself, maybe for someone else, maybe he had lost something, or someone—so he hired some workmen to erect a monument.
A charming little fable. I think it’s about ego props, and the false directions we take all the time. I would think the monuments inside ourselves would be the ones that matter, but apparently they don’t help much. Which leaves the stars, if we could only raise our eyes and look up.
Matt Hart: “Beyond and Beyonder” from Smartish Pace #19
…When they listen
to our music, when they open our books, remember
our wars and treaties and image, will they find there
a lightness or an absence where we fluttered?…
We all need to remember that we will be judged, just as we judge those who went before us. It’s a lovely poem, but I’m afraid it’s in that category of “teenager or master?” for me – I like it, I just don’t know enough about poetry to understand why it’s a great poem.
Christine Gelineau: “Socanasett” from Paterson Literary Review, 2010
When the clothes went missing
from a neighbor’s line we understood the boys
were not cold, or suddenly shy but
crafty, looking to blend back in
with those of us who didn’t yet now what they knew:
the true worth of one’s own skin
and what it can cost to own it.
I was gliding along, thinking of the time I lived near a youth detention center – then the last two lines stopped me dead. This is how you sneak up on a reader with an interpretation that changes everything.
Cristian Flores Garcia: “Lucky One” from American Poetry Review, Sept/Oct 2011
We wait. We sit. We hold hand, sister and I. He asks
which one is the lucky one?
Lucky is a relative term when you and your sister are crossing the border in the trunk of an ’86 Ford Grenada to get to your parents. The poem itself mimics the girls’ experience: the tight constriction, the flash of light, the relief at the end – but you, and they, know it isn’t over.
Davis McCombs: “First Hard Freeze” from Indiana Review, Summer 2011
… and whatever it is
that will unmask the girl who masks the old
woman who is turning the tap comes crawling
up from timber on a night like this…
I think this is about fear of death, but I’m guessing.
Diane Wakoski: “Oysters with Lemon in Montmartre” from Fifth Wednesday, spring 2011
In any mirror, you always face the loss
of memory; mirrors retain
nothing of what they have seen.
I like the balance of accessibility and fancy here. A woman finds a random scrap of paper with those title words written on them, and they take her back to another time. Part memoir, part rumination on memory itself, all revolving around oysters and a summer in Brittany long ago.
James Richardson: “Vectors 3.1: Aphorism and Ten Second Essays” from Hotel Amerika, Spring 2011
The self does not exist. But just try to change it.
I think this is cheating. Yes, they’re very clever aphorisms, all worth reading. But… is there a unifying principle here? Maybe it’s just over my head, in which case, it’s brilliant. At least more brilliant than I.
Bruce Bennett: “The Thing’s Impossible” from Ploughshares, Fall 2011
Don’t write a villanelle to tell a tale:
they’re not the form for narrative or plot.
It’s pretty obvious why you will fail.
Guaranteed to make you smile. Beside the limerick (if a limerick can be considered poetry), the villanelle is the only form of poetry I instantly recognize, and, thanks to Plath, Thomas, and Auden, love. It takes a twisted mind to invent such a form, but it has the sing-song effect that’s counterbalanced by the often melancholy content. Bennett starts off with a quote from The Making of a Poem in which “the absence of narrative possibility” is asserted, then goes on to tell a story via villanelle. Just the act itself is poetry.
I’d hoped to have this post ready for National Poetry Month, but life intervened. That’s ok, I’m the sort of person who reads two short story collections in Poetry Month and does poetry in Short Story Month. The line blurs sometimes, anyway.
Poetry was more fun, and less scary, than last year. I’m even looking forward to next year already.