Friday, December 16, 2011

To the Oracle at Delphi (Ferlinghetti)

To the Oracle at Delphi

Haven't been reading much poetry lately. Poetry is the opposite of escapism - it doesn't let you get away from the world you're in, but rather makes you  more in that world, I think. Well, there are some exceptions, of course, but in general I think that when I read poetry I'm always comparing its truths to how I see the world, trying to measure how real it is. Not real in the sense of describing something that actually happened, but real in the sense of getting at something true underneath. Expressing in words the things that can't be expressed in words (to paraphrase LeGuin).

So, this poem. Not written so long ago (2001). The language of it is powerful, and probably a lot of people would say it was insightful. But I don't know. Are we in "the dusk of our civilization" now, any more than we were in the 60s or in the Depression? Are we more the metaphorical Roman Empire now than we were, say, 20 years ago? 40? I'm not sure. We're always on the verge of sliding back into the dark ages, or at least that rhetoric has been used before. Not that I think America is "too big to fail," but I think it's too big to fail with a bang. I think we're much more likely to go with a whimper, slowly, and we won't know it's happening until we've become something else.

There are parts of the poem, however, that do ring true for me. We want an oracle, someone to "tell us how to save us from ourselves / and how to survive our own rulers." I think it's a natural human urge to want that - to want to be able to hand off responsibility to someone who we can trust is wise. We think that if we just find the cave where the oracle is hiding then we can coax it out, make it tell us what we need to know.

The trouble is, there isn't any oracle. There's only us. We are responsible for our own dreams. If we want "new myths to live by," we have to create them ourselves. In some ways that's frightening, but in other ways I think it's liberating. We make our own future - it's only inscrutable because we don't yet have the tools to know it.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Changing Light (Ferlinghetti)

The Changing Light

I like this one because it talks about quality of light, which is something that I've noticed before. There's a particular type of late-afternoon golden sunlight that's sort of my favorite, because it seems to make everything more intensely colored, more vibrant. Whereas morning light seems colder, crisper, thinner somehow. Reading this, I ended up thinking of that morning light as the "East Coast light" and the afternoon as the "island light" - it's the kind you get on vacation when you're someplace with long days that seem like they'll never end, when it's like a physical thing that's reaching out and oozing over you like honey.

The other thing I like about this poem is that Ferlinghetti is so clearly from there. There's an identity of place - when he talks about "your East Coast light" and "your pearly light of Paris" there's the implication that San Francisco light is his light. It's personal. I think I find that appealing because even though I'm not from here, I'm really enjoying being a Boston person. Boston is my home. It's sort of the same reason that people get attached to sports teams, only since I'm not really a sports person, my local attachments are to things like the tone of the light and the color of the leaves in autumn and the smell of the marshes on my favorite walking trail.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

i love you much(most beautiful darling)

i love you much(most beautiful darling)

Cummings has always been a favorite of mine because of his wordplay. I think it goes especially well with love poems because, well. It will come as no surprise to any of you that Alyson and I are wordplay types. We're both fascinated and delighted by the ways you can fit words together, the way you can make new and clever things out of familiar things. So Cummings' love poems feel like the sorts of things that we say to each other, schmoopy and metaphoric and playful things. Like "i love you... better than everything in the sky," like the hyperbole of "such sunlight as will leap higher than high." And the repetition of "most beautiful darling" rings true to me as well, because it's the sort of romantic habit that you find yourself falling into - you develop your own nicknames for each other.

The other thing I like about this poem beyond the language itself is the overarching statement of it - that if everyone could feel passion, they would "believe in nothing but love." And really, "nothing but love" is kind of my life philosophy. Love is what it's all about, the thing that we each of us should be seeking. Although for me that doesn't always mean romantic or sexual love - you can just as well have love for nature or a well-made object or a song. It's about intensity of feeling, it's about joy.

I should read more poems about love because they always make me a bit soppy. Which is a nice feeling.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Latin & Soul (Victor Hernández Cruz)

Latin & Soul

I like this one because it's a good example of written poetic form actually being relevant and important for what the poem is about. This is a poem about dancing, and the words are dancing on the page. When I read it my eyes move back and forth, rhythmically, organically. All the distinct fragments make me think of the way, when you're dancing, you sometimes move to a position and hold it, just for a split second, before you move on. Or you don't really mean to hold that position, and maybe you don't actually stay there for longer than you've stayed anywhere, but it feels like a moment. When you're twirling someone outwards with your arm, right when they get to the end of the twirl so that both your arms are outstretched, and then they rebound - right before the rebound, that's what I'm talking about. There's a moment when you feel yourself being at that point, being at a place of changing direction, though you haven't actually changed direction yet. (Think of points on a graph.)

I also love this:

a piano is trying to break a molecule
is trying to lift the stage into orbit

There's something about the language of effort here, like you can picture the piano groaning under the strain of  being played so furiously, so enthusiastically. That's one of my favorite things about going to see live music; when you can see that the musician is so into it, it just brings this whole other level of excitement to being there. A musician can bring a certain type of joy to a performance that just heightens the joy of the audience.

And I like the repetition of "dance" in the first bits of the poem. What that makes me think of is the way dancing can be very zen, the way you can get lost in it. It drowns out everything else and the music takes you "away-away-away" and all you know is dance-dance-dance. All you are is a dancer (sometimes not even a dancer, but just the dance).

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Alzheimer's (Jane Hirshfield)


This is a subject that frightens me. When I think of who 'myself' is, I think of my mind. I am a mind; my mind is my essence. I can imagine being me in another body, or in an artificial body that's nothing like human. I can imagine being moved to a situation like that, and still being me.

But what that means is that it's exceptionally terrifying to think about losing that self, having it be impaired. Or losing none of it, but losing the physical ability to express it. I can't decide whether I think Hirshfield's interpretation of Alzheimers (holes, blockages, but the essence still there) is right or not - I feel sure science doesn't know the answer, either. But more than that, I can't decide which interpretation is more frightening: to lose myself, or to be myself but not be able to show it.

The last line of the poem is an interesting reference. "Contrary to Keatsian joy" is surely meant to invoke this passage from Endymion:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing

I think this is why I feel such an urge to create tangible things, to write. Because there is this sense that if I can create a thing of beauty, it means that I will have created something that lives on after the thing that makes me myself has gone. But the man in the poem is "contrary" to Keatsian joy - perhaps denying it, perhaps proving it false simply by being what he is - and I think maybe he has the right of it. Maybe a fine old carpet with holes chewed in it ceases to be a carpet and becomes only a rag. I don't think that makes it any less beautiful when it is whole. Maybe more beautiful, for being something that only lasts so long.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fourth World (Jane Hirshfield)

Fourth World

The line that struck me from this one most was "A man dies over and over again on the news." (My book version says "man" but the earlier, Cortland Review version I've linked to says "woman" - interesting that she changed it before republishing. My guess is because using "woman" there made that more of the focus of the sentence, hinted at something a bit darker there, whereas "man" is more generic.)

There's an interesting implication here - that we are not merely watching someone who has died once, but that the act of watching means that the person dies, that each time we watch, the death happens once more. It's not a causal connection - the act of watching doesn't cause the person's death - but some other sort of connection. Similar to the way observation of a quantum event changes something fundamental about what is being observed.

I've been working on a science fiction piece about a person who relives the same day over and over again (kind of like the movie Groundhog Day), and one of the things he wrestles with is that if he doesn't stop someone dying every single time he goes around, is he morally culpable for their death and suffering? Even if they go back to not being dead when morning rolls around, even if they don't remember any of that pain - does it still matter? And I sometimes think the same about what we see on the news - there are things that only become news by virtue of being aired as news. Once a news organization decides that this thing is something that counts as news, something people should care about, then suddenly people start caring about it. We've seen this in particular with runs on banks, where the news stations go on about urging people not to panic, which is what causes people to panic.

And then there's the phrase "the fourth world" - in one sense it's like "third world" in representing a particular type of human population: non-industrial, stateless, poor. I think that's a fairly accepted usage. But I also wonder if we could categorize human populations in terms of how much they are recorded. For most of us, the modern first world would still be the first world, with driver's license photographs and closed circuit TV and so on. If we extrapolate that down to "fourth world" level, though, would we find people who do not even create drawings of themselves? People for whom being physically present is the only representation they have? I suspect things wouldn't go that far, for even in tribal civilizations they can refer to someone who isn't present, they have drawings. But I wonder what it would be like to live in a world like that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Day Oops-I've-Fallen-Behind: First Light Edging Cirrus

Well, so, this is what happens when one sets goals like 'daily,' isn't it? Life has just been too busy - we've taken delivery of a new bed and have established tomorrow as the night for attempting to get it up the stairs (woe). And I've been going to hear music, because it's getting cold out, and when it's full on winter I know it'll be much harder to get myself to go out when there's a warm house waiting.

But enough of excuses. Maybe I won't manage daily, but I'll keep on nonetheless.

Today: First Light Edging Cirrus (Jane Hirshfield)

This is from a book that was a birthday gift this year, and having only looked at a poem or two I can already tell I'm going to like this author and find her challenging at the same time. I've always liked writing that spoke to the joy that I find in science and in understanding the universe in a measured way. Because to me science and math are beautiful, they reveal a deep truth about the world that's huge, bigger than anything else. To believe that the world is logical is to believe in something ultimate. But at the same time, there's a distinct gap between our current understanding of science and math, and what I think the ultimate truth is likely to be. We think on a concrete level, and the universe functions on something like a quantum level (by which I don't mean to limit to our current thinking about what 'quantum' means). I think that ultimately we don't know what it is to know, we don't understand what it is to understand. But I think those things are knowable.

 First Light Edging Cirrus seems to get at the gap between those things.

1025 molecules
are enough 
to call woodthrush or apple.

I think it's the "enough" that's the key word here, as if to say that there are some things which get defined by reason, by measurable functions. And then implicitly we are set up for the things for which reason is not enough, which "cannot be counted."

And of course love is one of those things, love is the thing. The thing which is not counted, which is inside each thing looking out to each thing. If you didn't know about sound waves, you'd think it was magic that strings move when someone near is speaking. So it is with us and the understanding of love. We think it is magic because we do not know what is in between us all that allows for waves of influence to pass between. But someday we might understand it. And I don't think that takes anything away from love. I don't think that makes it more romantic just for being mysterious.

I'm not sure that Hirshfield would agree. She might say there's always something unknowable, something for which reason is not enough. I wonder which of us is right.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Day eight: The Last Days of Summer Before the First Frost

The Last Days of Summer Before the First Frost (Tim Bowling)

Skipped posting yesterday because I went to hear music instead. Afterwards, walking back to the subway from the concert hall, I didn't want to put my earphones in because what I'd just heard was still sort of with me. It was brisk then, and dark (city dark, the kind where there's plenty of light but things take on a nighttime character anyway), and this poem reminds me of that, even though there's nothing of the city in it, really.

There are parts of this that I think are a bit sentimental for my taste, and a bit simplistic ("a child's love" and "I followed my heart" - yeesh). But I love the wilderness language, wolf and deer and salmon, the way these make me think fly fishing in the Rockies, standing in a stream with waders on and seeing a grizzly go by. I've been working on a fiction piece that starts off in Yellowstone and this is the same sort of mood I'd like to evoke. I also like "the bee trails turning to ice as they’re flown."

And I love "where the spider lets its microphone down" - what a great, precise-but-new way of describing that. You can picture exactly what it means, but it's a really unusual metaphor. So cool.

Actually, I pretty much like the first half of this a hell of a lot more than the second half, except for the last line. The nature imagery is way more convincing than the schmaltz. I think it's really hard to do straightforward emotional stuff in writing these days - you have to approach it sideways rather than head on. Partly because of the whole earnestness thing. But also because emotions have become cliche. Just expressing an emotion in straightforward terms isn't convincing because it's been said before. Which makes things difficult, because of course, the reason it's been said before is that it is a near-universal experience that we all want to talk about. But by approaching emotion via metaphor, if you do it right, you can convey the sort of personality of the specific relationship between this mother and this child, and still evoke the universal relationship between mothers and children.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Day seven: LXIV (granted the all)

E. E. Cummings

granted the all
                     saving our young kiss only
must unexist,solemnly and per rules
apparelling its soullessness by lonely
antics of ridiculous molecules)

nakedest(aiming for hugely the
ignorant most precise essential flame
never which waked)& perfectingly We


      out of tinying time
                                (into supreme

        feeling memory shrink from such brief
selves as fiercely seek findingly new
textures of actual cool stupendous is

nor may truth opening encompass true)
while your contriving fate,my sharpening life

are(behind each no)touching every yes

Picked this one at random from Complete Poems 1904-1962. Opened the book in the middle and took the one on the left hand page. I've been feeling melancholy today and was hoping Cummings could cure it. So much of his work is joyful and celebratory. But I'm not sure this is the right poem for that - it suits my mood more than something I would have chosen.

"Lonely antics of ridiculous molecules" feels like a pretty accurate summation of what humanity is, today. Not for any particular reason, just that we humans seem a bit fragile and small in the scheme of things. Things feel hopeless, like society is this thing that is happening to us instead of a thing that we make happen. I don't know which of those is true.

What does it mean to be "touching every yes" in modern life? I think it's about being fully engaged with what you're doing, about mindfulness. That's something I've been working on for a while, actually. I stopped taking pictures because I felt like it was creating this distance between myself and the experiences I was having. I was spending more time thinking about taking a picture than I was enjoying the experience I wanted to commemorate. But it's hard to be in the moment all the time. I could turn off the picture-taking impulse, but I haven't yet figured out how to turn off the narrative impulse, the way my brain sort of describes what I'm doing, finds ways to phrase things humorously, writes little blog entries about everything. Sometimes I can sideline that by thinking very deliberately about a physical sensation, but that doesn't work for long.

I want to "fiercely seek" more often. I want to feel without thinking, hear without thinking. I want to learn how to just be. I just don't know if I have it in me.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Day six: I Am Waiting

I Am Waiting (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

This poem makes me think about Occupy Wall Street. Because we have been a generation of waiting, of thinking that things would happen someday, soon, now. Only we’re still waiting, aren’t we? Waiting for the system to change, for the war to end, for all those things we’ve been promised (jobs, homes, happiness). But they haven’t come.

This feels like a protest poem. The repeated “I am waiting” is like a chant, a drumbeat, a demand. All the mythologies of America as the promised land are still out there, are still being sold to us, but there’s no there there. Just pretty pictures with nothing underneath.

But it’s not just about the problems of our generation, or of Ferlighetti’s generation, or of any generation. It’s also about being an adult, I think. About realizing that reality never measures up to our imaginings, that all mythologies and symbols are just pretty pictures, that none of humanity’s dreams will come true. That’s the nature of dreams. Even if we reach some specific goal it won’t be like the dream. We went to the moon, but it wasn’t heaven. You can write that “great indelible poem” but it won’t be good enough. It won’t ever be good enough.

So we’re waiting. We’re always going to be waiting – for the war that will end all wars, for God to show himself, for humanity to come together as one and death to be overcome. We’re always going to be waiting for the point when we can return to the innocence of childhood, when we can return to hope. For “the new rebirth of wonder.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

Day five: Enthusiast

Jonathan Williams

literature – the way we ripen ourselves
by conversation, said
Edward Dalhberg…

we flower in talk, we slake
our thirsts in a brandy of heated speech, song
sweats through the pores,
trickles a swarm
into the sounding keyboard,

pollen falls
across the blackened paper…

always idle – before and
the act:

making meat
of vowels
in cells
with sticky feet

I happened across a book of poems by this author in the library while hunting for another poet, picked it up more or less at random (went to return 2 books, came out with 4, you know how it goes). The back of the book describes the poetry within as “eccentric, strange, and boundlessly authentic,” and I certainly found it so. Though the authenticity is of the sort that I think would seem false, to someone not familiar with the context.

Because this is Black Mountain poetry, Appalachian poetry. It’s poetry of the American south, but the part of the south that gets forgotten even by the rest of those states. It’s scatological, sexual, dirty. A lot of it’s found poetry, but without the romantic NYC associations of the Beat poets. And it’s spare – each word chosen with no space for frills or lyricism.

Which sort of ties in with my comments on Saturday’s poem about how things should be read aloud. The Black Mountain group was associated with this manifesto by Charles Olson, which talks about shaping poetry by breath rather than by the formal constraints of meter, that form should come from content rather than content from form. A lot of that essay is pretty incoherent, I think, but there’s something to the idea of poetry as an essentially sounded thing, where a word is a sound above anything else, even above its meaning. (“speech is the ‘solid’ of verse, is the secret of a poem’s energy”)

And I think there’s a natural connection between that idea and found poetry, because the act of creating a found poem is an act of listening, of taking what’s there rather than making something be there. Yes, the poet shapes the end product, but that shaping is subsidiary to the source material. There are things you can’t do in a found poem – you can take things out, you can put things in a new order, but you can’t add things, not if you want to keep the authenticity of the found.

So, Enthusiast. I picked this one out I think because sub-consciously some part of me thinks of this as one of the more poem-like poems, one that seems most crafted. That doesn’t surprise me – I like art that shows skill and crafted-ness and effort, so it’s natural that I would like this more than some of his more clearly experimental or found poems, the ones that are more explicitly snippets:

one edinburgh publican has
a sign over the
bar that says if
assholes could fly this
would be an airport


my daughter can spot
a cute boy at
150 yards what she
can’t find is a
tomato in the refrigerator

And Enthusiast is a poem about words, which, you know. Button, pushed. So what do I like about it? I like the way there is this series of images but that they’re given in a very terse way. Each of these words makes me think of a different image: brandy, sweat, swarm, pollen. And more isn’t needed - my brain supplies all sorts of detail to go with those words. To analogize, reading the poem is to reading a book, as reading a book is to watching a film. Watching a film can be great, but when you’ve got this very spare wording, your imagination does the work.

I like the sounds of the poem as well. I tried mouthing the words and found myself really aware of the shapes my lips made, the movement of my tongue. It’s the sort of thing you don’t really think about most of the time because it’s become second nature, and then when you stop and try to think about it, it seems really weird. I wrote a poem about reading as eating once, and this reminded me of that, of sort of taking each word into your mouth.

I think I’m going to try finding more poetry at random, maybe hit up the library again tomorrow.

(This should be day 6 but I missed a day due to busy life, etc)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Day four: Why I Am Not a Painter

Why I Am Not a Painter (Frank O'Hara)

This one is me, oh yes. I start writing something and I know what it is about, and by the time it's done I've taken out those first scribbled lines and there's no mention of them at all, but the piece is still about what it is about.

I love the conversational tone of this one, the way it sounds like a story someone would tell you, and yet it keeps a certain rhythm that's poetic. I'm not sure I could put my finger on what makes that happen - is it just the format? I don't think so. There's just a bit of a swing to it. "The painting / is going on, and I go, and the days / go by." This is one I'd love to have heard the poet read aloud, just to know how it was intended to sound.

It's one of the things, I have to say, that I still don't really get about poetry, how you're supposed to read it. You don't pause where the line breaks (oho, what a newbie mistake that is when you're first learning), just where the sentences go, except why break there if it doesn't mean anything? I've studied poetry in classes and things and I never really felt like this was explained to my satisfaction. And obviously there isn't "an answer" but I think most poets must think about this sort of thing, don't they? I know I did, when I was writing poetry, and to me it felt like those line divisions should have some weight, should mean something. Yet that doesn't seem to be the pattern I've noticed at readings. I wonder if there's some sort of book on this. I will research and blog more later!

Back to O'Hara. I like the parallel of the painter and the poet, the repetition of "days go by. " The way they're doing the same thing basically, except that what they work with is different. The painter is a painter because he paints, that's the essence of the difference. It's not a difference in the way of working but in the material used. Art is still art. That's reassuring, actually. Because I'd really like to be a painter. But this kind of makes me feel like I'm not too far off.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Day three: The Wilderness

The Wilderness
W. S. Merwyn

Remoteness is its own secret. Not holiness,
Though, nor the huge spirit miraculously avoiding
The way's dissemblings, and undue distraction or drowning
At the watercourse, has found us this place.

But merely surviving all that is not here,
Till the moment that looks up, almost by chance, and sees
Perhaps hand, feet, but not ourselves; a few stunted juniper trees
And the horizon's virginity. We are where we always were.

The secret becomes no less itself for our presence
In the midst of it; as the lizard's gold-eyed
Mystery is no more lucid for being near.

And famine is all about us, but not here;
For from the very hunger to look, we feed
Unawares, as at the beaks of ravens.

Today's poem is a departure from the last two, a more "poetic" poem. In some ways it's a lot harder to find something to say about this - the previous two poems are both fairly popular even with people who don't 'do' poetry, they're more conversational, whereas Merwyn isn't like that at all. This is a poem of words and images.

What do I like about it? I like that the sentences don't necessarily lead you, grammatically, where the feeling of them takes you. "the moment that looks up, almost by chance" - how does a moment look? (Old joke: my dog's got no nose.) And yet if you let the words roll over you, you can feel what's happening there. There are bits of images, fragments that thread together in a way that's sort of deceptive. Or, not deceptive, but organic as opposed to formally correct. This poem feels like wilderness to me, like the words make wild shapes on the page, and they make sense to themselves but maybe not to us unless we take them apart down to the atomic level and see how they work. Or we can just go visit the wilderness of the poem and take it as it is, enjoy the view.

I like the phrase "the hunger to look." I started thinking about whether I felt that, and the answer is I'm not sure. On the one hand, I love to find beauty in things (not just nature, but I do find it a lot in nature). I find myself searching for beautiful sights. But then when I find them, it's hard for me to just look. I think my brain just can't be that still for too long; I have to start thinking about something. Sometimes I tell myself a story about what I'm seeing, I imagine myself as a character in that landscape and then think about why I'd be there. Sometimes I write blog entries in my head, trying to find a good way to describe what I'm seeing. But I can't turn off the narrative part of my brain. So I guess in some ways it is like hunger in the wanting.

And maybe that's what Merwyn is getting at there. From the very hunger to look, we feed - the act of searching gives us what we're searching for, though we may not realize it. We look for the mystery of the wilderness and don't find it, and the mystery is in the fact that we don't find it. The more precisely and hungrily we look, the less we expose the mystery. Hmm. Maybe.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Day two: How To Like It

How To Like It (Stephen Dobyns)

These are the first days of fall.

I chose this today because it’s raining, because last night was overcast and cool, the wind brisking against my cheeks and making them heat up (maybe the wine helped). Because this is a poem about learning to live your life, learning how to choose one path from all the paths that you have in front of you, and this is what I always think about when my birthday rolls around.

There is a point that each of us has when we run out of milestones. Most of the people I know grew up planning to go to college, trying to make good grades so that they could get into a good school. Then they went off somewhere and spent four years, more or less, writing papers and taking exams, planning to graduate on time, to get a good job and an apartment. That happened, too. And then the milestones end, and you have a moment where you wake up in the morning and you’re getting ready to go to work, and you think, “This is my life now. I will do this forever until I die.”

It shocks you, because you’ve spent your life up to then living in a state of waiting, knowing that your situation was finite. But now you’ve got nothing to wait for. This is what it means to be grown up.

It doesn’t happen at the same time for everyone – some people are waiting on the milestones of “get married” and “buy a house” and “have kids,” so it takes longer for them. Some people get caught between one milestone and another; maybe they sabotage themselves in order to stay in a place they understand, or maybe things just don’t work out well and they’re unlucky.

Once you’ve had the shock you have to figure out what you want to do about it. You can create your own milestones. “I want to write a novel” or “I want to travel to Japan.” This is when people start formulating their bucket lists, or obsessively reading other people’s. Or you settle in to the person that you think you’ve become, you make that person’s skin fit (or make yourself fit).You feel that “memories which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid” you feel that you have grown solid. You have collapsed from a quantum state of all the people you could have been into the person you are, the person that your memories have made you. And yet there’s still that urge, “the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.”

There’s a part of me that’s like the dog in the poem, the animal part. I want to stay up late, to dance, to stuff myself on burgers, to behave badly. I want to be a rebel, a wild version of myself. Not worry about the consequences and just feel things. And the man in the poem, that’s me, too. I want to be romantic. I want to be myself in a movie about leaving on a journey, I want to drive all night until the sun creeps into my rearview mirror, until I find the lights of a city entirely new to me. I want to take every turning, have every experience.

And that’s the trouble when you’ve passed all your milestones. There’s nothing to tell you what next, to tell you which turning to choose. The kinds of choices you make now – where to take your holiday, what book to read, whether to go to a show or stay in – there’s nothing about one that’s necessarily better than any other. So you get paralyzed (at least I do), you stall and dither and in the end you retreat to something comfortable, something you understand. That’s how you end up:

staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept-
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Day one: Litany

Today is my birthday. It's also the day I've decided to start this project, a month of reading one poem per day and blogging about it. When I was in college I loved poetry, and I devoured it with the boundless enthusiasm of a student. But since leaving school I've been more interested in fiction, in plot, in stories (there's a post marinating somewhere about why that is). I no longer seem to have the attention span for meditating on a single word or a single line, for letting an image sink slowly into my skin, for enjoying words just because of their sound and shape. There are things you can do with words besides tell a story, and that's what I want to think about.

So. Litany (Billy Collins). I wanted to start with this because it's one of my favorites (it's one of everybody's favorites, I know, but I'm not necessarily aiming for obscure on this blog). It was read at my wedding. It's funny, and it's about love, and it's meta. Which is pretty much the trifecta of how to make me love something.

I should talk first about the meta part. Litany is a love poem, yes, but it's also a poem about love poems. It's about how we (the authors of poetry) create romance in a metaphor just by placing it in the setting of a romantic poem, and how we (the audience) accept that, even when the metaphor gets quite implausible. When I think about "the wind in the orchard," that seems romantic to me. But, "the pigeon on the general's head"? No way. And yet reading Litany makes me think that there could be a poem that would make it romantic. There is, in the platonic universe of poetry, a poem in which that line is romantic.

Language is about context. You can make almost any set of words have meaning, have a particular meaning even, if you set them within the appropriate context. You can make words mean their opposite. You can make seemingly nonsense words into a meaningful sentence. Once you have established the setting for a sentence, if you do it right, you can say almost anything.

Sometimes I play a little game with myself, where I come up with a strange sentence or image or situation and then I have to figure out a way to make it make sense. It's a great technique for writing stories, because it forces you to work logically, but it also gives you something really entertaining that you're working towards. You start with your bizarre thing and work backwards - how would this person get into that situation? What would make them say this sentence? And when you figure out how to make the story successfully build up to that moment it's really satisfying. It's like you've conquered something, you've bent this idea to your whims.

The other thing I wanted to talk about was the funny part. It's not just that the poem is funny. It's-- okay, back up. Before I talk about humor, I have to talk about earnestness.

Earnestness is a difficult thing, both from the giving and from the receiving end. It's vulnerability. From the giving end - when you are sincere about a feeling and you show that sincerity, you are giving someone a weapon which can be used against you. Sometimes that's okay, because you trust the person, because you're trying to make a point, because it's necessary to be earnest in order to accomplish what you need done. Sometimes choosing to be vulnerable is symbolic; it demonstrates that you trust the person you're talking to, and it's more about the act of being earnest than what you're actually earnest about.

From the receiving end - when someone makes themselves vulnerable to you, there is a responsibility that comes with that. You have the responsibility to treat their belief with respect. You have the responsibility to not mock or humiliate them, even if you think their belief is ridiculous, even if you think it's ridiculous and dangerous. Imagine there's something you might normally say, "oh, that's woo-woo bullshit" about. Now imagine someone has told you, seriously and intently and earnestly, that they really believe it, that it has helped them when nothing else did. Your whole way of responding has to change. If you're like me, you feel vicariously vulnerable on the other person's behalf - you think "Good god, why are you telling me this? It's too personal! It's too much! You should protect yourself!" Even if you're not as prone to vicarious embarrassment an I am, you probably at least feel a bit burdened by that sort of disclosure, like "We were getting along fine, and then she had to go and tell me something like that!"

One way to ease the burden on both parties in this sort of transaction is via humor. Humor lets you take a step back from something you care deeply about, but still lets you say it. When you're talking, humor lets the person you're talking to know that they don't have to meet your statement with equal seriousness or risk being thought (either by other people or by themselves) as a thoughtless asshole. And it gives you (the speaker) a bit of protection so that if someone does start being an asshole, then they're the one who's taken things to the wrong level, not you.

To bring this back to Litany - I think love is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. When you love someone, it is in essence an earnest thing. Loving someone means owning up to having that soft underbelly that we all have. But precisely because love is so powerful and so personal, I think that makes it very difficult to talk about in a way that sounds sincere and that doesn't make the audience cringe. Alyson and I have a whole language of shared referents - inside jokes, phrases that don't mean anything to anyone else but which, to us, mean "I love you." If I started telling other people about those things they wouldn't make sense, or they'd sound banal and stupid. So in Litany, Collins sort of merges the public and the private sphere, and he does it by using humor. He makes it clear that these metaphors are funny, they're meant to be funny. But they're meant to remind the reader of our own silly love metaphors, to evoke the kinds of things that you end up with in the course of a relationship. The humor allows him to connect with the reader's experience without getting it exactly right - if there was a poem that said the things Alyson and I say to each other, I bet I'd find it a bit weird. With Litany, I know it's meant to imply those things, and I think it works.

[Aside: if you like Litany, you might like this song.]

So I've talked about meta, and I've talked about funny. I don't think I really need to talk about love. Another poem tomorrow.