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Poetry and Blackberry Picking with Seamus Heaney and Robert Hass

Over on her blog, turbidus has posted a (poem of the day) Blackberry Picking by Seamus Heaney, including a great video of Heaney reading it:

I would just like to counter / respond with my own favorite poem about blackberry picking, by Robert Hass from his breakout second book, Praise:

Picking Blackberries with a Friend Who Has Been Reading Jacques Lacan

August is dust here. Drought
stuns the road,
but juice gathers in the berries.
We pick them in the hot
slow-motion of midmorning.
Charlie is exclaiming:

for him it is twenty years ago
and raspberries and Vermont.
We have stopped talking

about L’Histoire de la vérité,
about subject and object
and the mediation of desire.

Our ears are stoppered
in the bee-hum. And Charlie,
laughing wonderfully,

beard stained purple
by the word juice,
goes to get a bigger pot.

A poet and blogger made a really interesting observation on this poem a few years ago that I just ran across:

I also like the way Hass employs the word “stuns” in “Picking Blackberries…” to give a quick nod toward Sylvia Plath’s “Blackberrying.” Plath wrote of the flies buzzing round her English blackberries: “The honey feast of the the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.” The acknowledgment of the debt is a classy little move, typical of the work of Robert Hass. (via sonnets at 4 a.m.: A Poem by Robert Hass.)

Though of course I’ve read Sylvia Plath, I have absolutely no recollection of this poem, but now I want to rush out and read it.  (I can’t read a poem for the first time online; there’s something about computer screens that seems to inhibit that initial connection for me.)

For more poetry by Robert Hass, and some background on him, check out Robert Hass : The Poetry Foundation:

Robert Hass is one of contemporary poetry’s most celebrated and widely-read voices. In addition to his success as a poet, Hass is also recognized as a leading critic and translator, notably of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haiku masters Basho, Buson and Issa. Critics celebrate Hass’s own poetry for its clarity of expression, its conciseness, and its imagery, often drawn from everyday life.

Praise, by Robert Hass – Powells.com
Praise, by Robert Hass – Amazon.com

Filed under: Poetry, , , ,

Poem: Stephen Dobyns, “Rain Song”

RAIN SONG

The woods are full of men with umbrellas -
the butcher from Roy’s Market, the mechanic
who fixed my car – they are looking for you.
They heard of a woman lying naked in the fields:
that was you. For days you lay in the north pasture
to encourage spring, as the sun touched your thighs,
your belly and breasts, and was at last so
disconcerted that the sky clouded over
and the president of rain took you for his wife.
You wore blue to the wedding; even the crows sang.
Now, hurrying through the trees, the black umbrellas
do not realize that it is you dripping from juniper
and birch, forming puddles, then rivulets and
running downhill to the river flowing through town.
The people of Peterborough bathe in your body.
They drink glass after glass and say they feel better.
They smash their televisions and prepare to go dancing.
The fat town clerk and tax consultant, legions
of Republicans removing their clothes, baton twirlers
and firemen’s band – all march naked through the street,
banging cymbals and drums as you touch them,
blowing their horns as you run down their backs,
tumbling at last into lascivious piles on this
rainy Sunday they will long remember but which you
have already forgotten as you flow down to the sea
into the stories of sailors and promiscuous fish,
and past that small promontory where I stand,
body greased and waiting for the long swim.

STEPHEN DOBYNS

from Heat Death (New York: Atheneum, 1980).
See also: Velocities: New and Selected Poems: 1966-1992 (Penguin, 1994).

We’ve been speaking of loss, and in particular of the loss of love, heartbreak, the end of a relationship, so this may seem like a real shift in tone: a poem about love. A love poem, in fact.

Of course there is obviously an intimate (no pun intended) connection between love and heartbreak – one requires the other. But beyond the truism that you can only have your heart broken if you are in love (or as Neil Young put it, only love can break your heart), there is a somewhat deeper and more compelling connection: you can only fall in love if you are ready to have your heart broken. Opening yourself to love requires that you open yourself to loss.

But as to the poem…

I discussed another poem by Dobyns from this same volume earlier, and the two make an interesting pair. Where “Oatmeal” said no, no to a woman who wanted a relationship, “Rain Song” is a big yes.

Yes to love, yes to sex, yes to the possibilities of life, and yes to the pleasures of smart and sexy poetry – yes I said yes I will Yes

I love the pacing of this poem:

The woods are full of men with umbrellas -
the butcher from Roy’s Market, the mechanic
who fixed my car – they are looking for you.
They heard of a woman lying naked in the fields:
that was you.

At the end of each of these two sentences, the bit about it being her/you brings a fairly emphatic stop to the flow. They are declarative sentences, complete and final – and powerfully direct, declamatory as much as declarative. They start us out in a very direct, prosaic way.

Then we get this big, scrumptious, sexy pudding that follows as he describes her lying naked in the field “as the sun touched your thighs / your belly and breasts.” In the beginning, we might have been in a fairly quotidian realm – women do after all lie naked in fields in the real world, though perhaps not as often as we might like. But with that pudding of a sentence that follows, that ends with the “president of rain” taking her for his wife, we are clearly in the realm of myth, myths of fertility and spring. But crucially not the darker myth of Persephone, trapped into her marriage with Hades. The president of rain sounds like a much better catch.

And the poem gets wilder after that. The Dionysian orgy that follows and comprises the bulk of the poem, as the woman becomes one with the rain and washes over the town, still has a mythic quality, but in the details – wearing blue to the wedding, the black umbrellas, the crows who sing – it also has, for me at least, a magical realist quality. The whole extended passage calls to mind Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his happier moments.

This passage is liquid. It’s really the best word for it. Beyond the obvious liquid content, it drips, then collects then flows through the poem.

It’s an easy thing to praise, but much, much harder to do, this marrying of form and content. Finding a diction, punctuation and rhythm that instantiates the moments and qualities you are trying to convey, a kind of objective correlative. Emily Dickinson is one of the great masters of this, which is why she is the mother of so much that is great in American poetry. In Dickinson, though, this melding of form and content is usually precise, fine-grained, and devastating. She does it best, and most often, when what is at stake is hard and painful, and punctuation is the main weapon she wields when she goes for blood in this way.

In “Rain Song,” Dobyns achieves that marrying of form and content through rhythm more generally – through flow, appropriately enough, since he’s describing a spring rain storm. The drips becoming rivulets, conjoining and flowing, people splashing in the puddles. It’s all there. Look at the last half of the poem – it’s one long burbling brook of sentence, beginning with the fat town clerk and running all the way down to the sea.

You already know I’m a sappy sentimentalist. I have almost no critical distance on this poem. Is it a great poem? Well, what is a great poem? It’s not as great as, say, Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” but what does that mean anyway? I discovered this poem during the early days of the first real love of my life. And of course I gave it to that love, Elke, who fortunately shared both my sappiness and my love of poetry – shared it with her, bathed in it with her, and it is forever bound up in my mind with being in my 20s and finally understanding what all the fuss was about. Not sex, I’d learned about that already, but love.

I’m not such a sappy sentimentalist, though, that this poem has remained forever bound up with that time, and that relationship. I’ve shared it since with other women I’ve loved – and I encourage you to do the same – because it is just such a sexy love poem.

And it knows about love, is smart about love. The last line – “body greased and waiting for the long swim” – is so great, not just for its sexy extension of the “woman as water” shtick that runs (no pun intended) through the poem. What really makes that last line a knockout is the twist, the new element it brings into the poem.

Love has been fun and, let’s be honest, a bit goofy up to now, but when he says “waiting for the long swim,” it is suddenly serious, perhaps even dangerous. That’s a real twist. Dobyns sweeps you up in the pleasure of his language and the goofy magical realist imagery, but at the end he reminds you of how deep, serious and powerful love really is. It’s there in the drawn out rhythm – a marrying of form and content, again, with the line being a “long swim” rather an iambic splash. It’s there in the image of a long swim, and swimming alone out to sea. It’s really something.

Filed under: Poetry,

Poem: Stephen Dobyns, “Oatmeal Deluxe”

OATMEAL DELUXE

This morning, because the snow swirled deep
around my house, I made oatmeal for breakfast.
At first it was too runny so I added more oatmeal,
then it grew too thick so I added water.
Soon I had a lot of oatmeal. The radio
was playing Spanish music and I became
passionate: soon I had four pots of oatmeal.
I put them aside and started a new batch.
Soon I had eight pots. When the oatmeal cooled,
I began to roll it with my hands, making
small shapes: pigs and souvenir ashtrays. Then
I made a foot, then another, then a leg. Soon
I’d made a woamn out of oatmeal with freckles
and a cute nose and hair made from brown sugar
and naked except for a necklace of raisins.
She was five feet long and when she grew harder
I could move her arms and legs without them
falling off. But I didn’t touch her much -
she lay on the table – sometimes I’d touch her
with a spoon, sometimes I’d lick her in places
it wouldn’t show. She loooks like you, although
her hair is darker, but the smile is like yours,
and the eyes, although hers are closed. You say:
what has this to do with me? And I should say:
I want to make more women from Cream of Wheat.
But enough of such fantasy. You ask me
why I don’t love you, why you can’t
live with me. What can I tell you? If I
can make a woman out of oatmeal, my friend,
what trouble could I make for you, a woman?

STEPHEN DOBYNS

from Heat Death (New York: Atheneum, 1980).
See also: Velocities: New and Selected Poems: 1966-1992 (Penguin, 1994).

Someday I want to do an anthology, maybe just a chapbook, of poems about varieties of porridge. There’s that classic of early American literature, “Hasty Pudding,” and Galway Kinnell’s poem on oatmeal, and I am sure there are more… Maybe an anthology on breakfast foods, with a section on porridges.

I really like Heat Death, the volume from which this poem comes. I think a big part of what I enjoy about these poems is Dobyns’ style, which is very intelligent and very poetic and crafted (in things like line breaks and word choice – all that) but at the same time reads so naturally, like prose, vernacular. It makes me think these would be interesting poems to teach to kids, to help them think about poetry in new ways – not as something alien, in form and content, but as no different really from the forms of speech and writing with which they are already familiar.

Language that has been shaped – a little – but mostly that has been rendered powerful through some subtle process. I might use Niedecker’s term to refer to it – “this condensery” – except that Dobyns’ language doesn’t seem that condensed. Like I said, it feels much more natural, much more vernacular. Though of course when you look closely the rhymes and rhythms and breaks all add up to real craft, hard work to make something simple.

Not perfect. Near the end, when the women says “what has this to do with me,” that diction is anything but natural. And I feel like the word “soon” recurs a bit too much, though the deadpan delivery of the first line in which it appears – “Soon I had a lot of oatmeal” – is one of the great moments in the poem. As is the line break here, which is like a moment of hesitation in a striptease:

sometimes I’d lick her in places
it wouldn’t show.

Overall, “Oatmeal Deluxe” has a kind of magical realist quality to it, starting off mundane – what could be more mundane than oatmeal? – but then descending, or ascending, into strangeness, before finally saying “enough of such fantasy” and coming clean on its intentions. It’s his way of saying “No” to a woman who loves him. How much better than “I like you – as a friend,” or “it’s not you, it’s me” is the ending:

If I / can make a woman out of oatmeal, my friend, / what trouble could I make for you, a woman?

Filed under: Poetry

Event (NYC): An Ethics Occurs at the Edge / of What We Know

An Ethics Occurs at the Edge / of  What We Know

May 29, 2010
1:00pm-3:00pmA

Author of Practical Water, among other poetry books, Brenda Hillman discusses poetry and activism, writing about the elements and ecopoetics, and the writing process in relation to political commitment and spiritual ideas.

Poets House
10 River Terrace, New York, NY 10282

212-431-7920

via bookforum.com / outposts.

Filed under: Events, NYC, Poetry, ,

Poem: Bruce Weigl, “The Impossible”

THE IMPOSSIBLE

Winter’s last rain and a light I don’t recognize
through the trees and I come back in my mind
to the man who made me suck his cock
when I was seven, in sunlight, between boxcars.
I thought I could leave him standing there
in the years, half smile on his lips,
small hands curled into small fists,
but after he finished, he held my hand in his
as if astonished, until the houses were visible
just beyond the railyard. He held my hand
but before that he slapped me hard on the face
when I would not open my mouth for him.

I do not want to say his whole hips
slammed into me, but they did, and a black wave
washed over my brain, changing me
so I could not move among my people in the old way.
On my way home I stopped in the churchyard
to try and find a way to stay alive.
In the branches a redwing flitted, warning me.
In the rectory, Father prepared
the body and blood for mass
but God could not save me from a mouthful of cum.
That afternoon some lives turned away from the light.
He taught me how to move my tongue around.
In his hands he held my head like a lover.
Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

BRUCE WEIGL

from What Saves Us (Northwestern University, 1992).

We fell in love with this poem at Squaw Valley one summer, at the poetry writing workshop, me and a few others. Now, it’s a bit harder to see what we loved. I still like it, but not with the same enthusiasm, and there are things that trouble me, in particular when it comes to the last line. At the time, we were drunk on beauty—the Sierras in Summer, how could we not be? And all there together, to write together, for a week “to sit at desk / and condense,” as Lorine Niedecker put it. I thought often of the Navajo Blessing Way—”beauty all around me”—during that week, and of the notion of poem as prayer and as beauty, issues that came up in a number of the workshop sessions.

Now I see that last line as perhaps a bit dangerous. Is it really true that you can “make it beautiful, no matter what” by saying it clearly enough? I’m not so sure. Some things no amount of condensing will render into diamond.

Did Weigl really mean that? The poem takes an episode of childhood sexual abuse and does, really, render it fairly beautifully. But doesn’t it lose or efface much of what falls into the category of “no matter what”—the violence and pain—with the beauty of its language? “He taught me how to move my tongue around.” It’s a big shift from the “mouthful of cum” just two lines earlier—which, frankly, is a line I have never liked. I’m not sure if this is because I find the abuse hard to take, and it is rendered starkly by the pornographic turn of phrase, or if it is the language of the line. I usually feel that it is the “God” in the beginning, whose appearance in the poem seems abrupt and unhelpful, and also the awkward flow, the lack of rhythm of the line as a whole. But perhaps it is me “turning away” from something that makes me uncomfortable…

I think, too, about the contrast between “he slapped me hard on the face” near the end of the first stanza which seems almost prose-like, and stark in its violence, and “In his hands he held my head like a lover,” whose alliteration verges on poetic parody but doesn’t quite cross the line—at least not that line. Its flow and alliteration, its music work to make it beautiful. But it isn’t really something that should be beautiful, is it? And so it takes us into the last line, which tells us “Say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.”

Weigl has told it pretty clearly and pretty beautifully in places, so how do we evaluate it? Doesn’t the beauty have a kind of judgment, a value judgment to it? Or is that just me?

Filed under: Poetry

Poem: Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”

ONE ART

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

ELIZABETH BISHOP

There’s so much to love about this poem. The force of the end, the way that parenthetic interjection in the last line – “(Write it!)” – breaks the flow, the rhythm, which has already started disintegrating at the beginning of the stanza, breaks it utterly, and then drops you into the ending “like disaster.” A falling off that, of course, mirrors, enacts in rhythm, in breath, in the loss of breath, the loss that it describes.

The interruption of the rhythm in the last stanza, and the very slant rhyme of “gesture” and “master” points to one of the other lovely aspects of this wonderful poem – its marriage of an antiquated form, the villanelle, with a very modern sensibility and diction. The poem’s use of a modern style within the decidedly unmodern form is announced in the first stanza, with the odd break between the second and third line, and the break from the iambic rhythm in the phrase within which that break occurs – “the intent / to be lost.” The awkwardness of that phrase, with the break, seems to enact, in a way which I couldn’t precisely specify, “intent / to be lost,” a moment of loss. The return of the rhythm for the end of the stanza seems like a coming out of darkness, a rescue or return from the abyss of loss in that phrase, lack of rhythm and line break, “the intent / to be lost”.

In the second stanza you have the less odd, but still slightly odd, break between the first and second lines, that perhaps helps draw attention to that wonderful word, “fluster,” which again seems to come out of a sensibility foreign to, more modern than, that of the villanelle.

One could go on in this vein, playing off the modern versus the antiquated, showing how the poem works these two to great effect, but to do so seems to me a bit forest-trees. It is to lose sight of how special and fierce the poem is. Because it is fierce with loss.

Filed under: Poetry, ,

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zerode

is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, film buff and occasional reviewer, and former private detective. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.

 

What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.

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