Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ink Runs

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
From “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

April is National Poetry Month. Since 1996, the Academy of American Poets has designated the fourth month of the year as a time for the nation to celebrate poetry. Schools, libraries, and communities schedule special activities in April celebrating the role of poetry in American life. When I was teaching, I usually read at my university’s celebration where faculty, staff, and students read favorite poems—sometimes their own, sometimes one by another poet. Our celebration was low-key, but there are some glittering gatherings going on this month.

I’d love to attend the one Tuesday at Lincoln Center and hear stars such as Meryl Streep, Matt Dillon, Roseanne Cash, and Gabriel Byrne reading their favorite poems. I’m always interested in learning people’s favorite poems. There’s a wonderful site called “The Favorite Poem Project” which offers videos of Americans in all their wondrous variety reading their favorite poem and sharing their reasons for connecting with the poem. Robert Pinsky founded the project during his tenure as 39th Poet Laureate of the United States. I find it heartening to visit the site and watch a few videos and remember that the fifty on the site are just a sampling of the thousands in the project. Americans from 5 to 97, from every state, from various backgrounds were eager to share the poems they love.

Another great site to pay a celebratory visit to this month is Robert Lee Brewer’s 3rd Annual Poem a Day Challenge at his Poetic Asides Blog. He provides a prompt each day, shares his own response to the prompt, and challenges his readers to write and share theirs. Today (April 18) , the prompt is to “take the phrase ‘To (blank),’ replace the blank with a word or phrase, make the new phrase the title of your poem, and then, write the poem.” Brewer’s own poem for today is entitled “To write a poem in a crowded bookstore.”

Yet another site I visit is the American Academy of Poets Life Lines. The Academy invites readers to share a few lines of poetry that have remained with them, along with a paragraph explaining what the lines have given.

By now, you’ve probably realized that I’m a lover of poetry. It was really my first love—the first lines I learned by heart were from poems (nursery rhymes, psalms, Robert Louis Stevenson). I’ve been blessed to have a few poems published. I even won an Academy of American Poets award when I was in graduate school. These days I write only occasional poetry, although I like to think I bring a poet’s sensibilities to the prose writing I do. And Max’s songs may count as poems. But I am still a reader of poetry. I would find a day without reading a poem bleak indeed. I thought about posting my favorite poem, but how can I choose from such bounty? Instead, I’ll share with you some of my poetic “life lines.”

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!
--from #288 by Emily Dickinson

I was 10 the year I first read this poem. It was my first experience with feeling that a poem was a conversation between the poet’s mind and mine. I was entering puberty at a bewildering speed, feeling as if eyes were everywhere. I was hungry for solitude and safety. Ah, I thought, she understands! That’s an experience that has been repeated countless times since, many times with other Dickinson poems, but perhaps it’s never been quite so powerful as the first time. These lines have become part of me.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
—from “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden

Some of you may recognize these lines from the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, but my love for them goes back further to a time when I was hit with a loss so great that it was nearly unendurable. I clung to these words. I whispered them to myself in the darkness, finding solace in the evidence that someone else had known such loss and had survived to write of it.

Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
--from “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

These lines belong to a more recent period in my life, a time when I was old enough to question some of my choices, to mourn for dreams that were dead, to wonder what was left. They offer consolation and challenge when I need both.

I have loved this poem since the first time I read it in a college classroom. Back in February, the Academy of American Poets offered several downloadable, printable poetic valentines. This is one of them. I printed it and I keep it on my desk. Every rereading brings a new sense of epiphany.

What are your “life lines”? Don’t tell me you don’t like poetry. My response to that claim is a bit from my introduction to poetry lecture for my students: You don’t like poetry? Tell me truly, are there no lines from childhood readings, from the lyrics of a song, from the words you read that no one made you read that sing in your head and echo in your heart? Think hard. Remember. Then tell me that you don’t like poetry.”


Manda Collins said...

Janga, you've got some of my favorites here. I remember the first time I read "Eating Poetry." I was so jealous not to have written that first line.

Maybe because I've read it so many times (both for class and when I was teaching it) the poem that I remember lines from most clearly is Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Just this past week after some drama or other I kept thinking of lines from it. The one about having wept and fasted and wept and prayed. There is something in that poem for everyone. Well, except for the Sanskrit bit at the beginning;)

Another favorite that comes to mind frequently is Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning."

I'm not sure what it says about me that the poems I remember are the morbid ones. Perhaps because they are able to articulate and imply deep emotions with an economy of words that prose sometimes isn't able to replicate.

"I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning" says more than a 5000 word essay could.

Love the Valentines.

quantum said...

Its not so much that I dislike poetry, more that I don't really understand much of it. I'm sure some of the greatest lines are fathoming emotional depths that I may never reach, though I will sometimes read and ponder with some awe and wonder.

For example, There is a book of poems by Dunn in the house that I sometmes open at random, and flip through the pages untill something catches my eye.

Poetry of the lighter more humorous type is more my thing. I guess its a little like pop music compared with classical. On a recent uncomfortable visit to the dentist I found this rhyme of Pam Ayres quite soothing!

Oh, I wish I'd looked after me teeth

Oh, I wish I'd looked after me teeth,
And spotted the perils beneath,
All the toffees I chewed,
And the sweet sticky food,
Oh, I wish I'd looked after me teeth.

I wish I'd been that much more willin'
When I had more tooth there than fillin'

There is a lot more of course and Pam has lightened many a long car journey for me.

Is there a technical word for this type of poetry?

Glad you got past your deadlines Janga!

MsHellion said...

She walks in beauty like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes
thus mellowed to that tender light
which heaven to gaudy day denies...

Though it was Byron's "So We'll Go No More A-Rovin'" that made me fall in love with poetry. Poems until then were all about nature or churchyards. Never about things that interested me like love, passion, and sex. The poems we had studied were like the literature we studied: they were about death. And I was so sick of death when I was a teenager. I wanted something that about LIFE, about living in the most elemental ways.

Byron certainly did that.

I enjoyed most of the Romantics, even Wordsworth who was a nature boy.

I LOVED "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" but I think that was because I felt I could identify with his neuroses and fear of not belonging. The mermaids who sang but did not sing for him.

The poem you quoted (used in 4 Weddings), I don't remember hearing before that movie--and I think it's beautiful, but I can't read it much. It makes me cry too much. Yes, it's nice to know people who know grief as deeply as us, but reading it only makes me relive it.

Oh, my favorite poem to quote is by someone not overly commonly know. Thomas Moore. (Irish poet. Popular with Victorians, I think.)

I've oft been told by learned friars
that wishing and the crime are one
and Heaven punishes desires
as much as if the deed were done.

If wishing damns us, you and I
are damned to all our hearts' content
come then at least we may enjoy
some pleasure for our punishment.

He's also got another one that makes me laugh--something about women's eyes...and if their gaze would let him go, the winds could not outrun him. It's quite a funny poem.

irisheyes said...

Janga, you're a gem! I would have been one of your naysayers. Like Q, I would tell you poetry is confusing and I don't understand it.

Then I read the poems that you and Hellie referenced and I guess I would have to say that I do know poetry. They all sound familiar to me, especially the one from W.H. Auden. I do know that poem and hope that I never know the grief that one conveys. It makes me sad to know that you, my friend, have.

I would also have to concede the point that, as you pointed out, there has always been that certain song. The one that I was certain was written especially for me at times in my life when I was unable to verbalize all the turmoil going on inside. Most of them extremely emotional and totally depressing. I was an extremely angsty child and teen!!

And, of course, there is always Dr. Seuss. He was my first and most pleasurable foray into poetry. I also believe he hooked my daughter, who started writing in similar rhyming nonsensical fashion before moving on to other various types of poetry.

So, you can count me as another poetry convert!

MsHellion said...

Oh, I want to add The Lady of Shallot by Lord Alford Tennyson. I love the rhythm of the poem. Though the content makes me laugh when I think about it. I mean, it's a SAD poem, I can think about it seriously and get the sadness, but on the other hand, it's a bit ridiculous because it's rather like the ultimate Unrequited Love story where the girl dies at the end and the boy is completely unaware she was ever in love with him in the first place. (So I laugh because love can be so silly. Barbara Allen makes me want to giggle too. Seriously, chickie? You're going to die over this guy? Get a grip.)

MsHellion said...

I will stop commenting, I promise, but Irish mentioned Dr. Seuss and I remembered Shel Silverstein. Great for The Giving Tree (not sure it rhymed, but brilliant), and then his poems. I loved his poems! (And he wrote a boy named Sue, didn't he?)

So for Shel, I quote:

The little bat cried out in fright,
Turn on the dark!
I'm afraid of the light.

MsHellion said...

I'm a big fat liar: another poem by Shel that makes me cry--

The Little Boy and the Old Man
By Shel Silverstein

Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.

Janga said...

Manda, I felt the same way the first time I read "Eating Poetry." We read it in class one spring evening after I had spent the afternoon sitting on a picnic table in a campus garden, playing the do-you-know game with a new friend as we shared poems we loved. The poem always takes me back to that lovely day.

Eliot is a great one for memorable lines. "Prufrock" is filled with them. I think "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" is the ultimate expression of self-loathing. My favorite Eliot lines are from "Little Gidding":

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Janga said...

Q, to quote Eliot again (and he's a perfect source for me to use in a conversation with you since both the U. S. and Great Britain claim him). "Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood." I think people worry too much about "understanding." My youngest nephew is a big fan of Japanese music, and I sometimes listen to it with him. I don't understand a word of the lyrics, but a great deal is communicated nevertheless.

Janga said...

Hellion, your enthusiasm is wonderful. "She Walks in Beauty" is lovely, but Don Juan is my favorite Byron. I love his couplets like this one:

Society is now one polish'd horde,
Form'd of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.

Thanks for sharing the lines from Thomas Moore. I'm not familiar with them. I associate Moore with one of my great-aunts who used to sing "Believe Me If All These Endearing Young Charms" in a squeaky soprano. I laugh at the memory, but I would not have dared to laugh at the performance. My grandmother would have frozen me with one look.

Janga said...

Irish, I think it's sad that poetry in our culture has become for many people something connected to the classroom rather that to life. I often found song lyrics a way to get students interested in poetry, and some lyricists are among my favorite poets--as are some children's writers.

Go read Stephen Dunn's "The Kiss" or Sharon Olds' "35/10" or Galway Kinnell's "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps." I think you'll like them. You can find them all online.

quantum said...

Thanks for trying to help me understand Janga. I can listen to opera sung in Italian and enjoy the music and drama without understanding the words.

But poetry seems different.I think Elliot is saying that poetry can be understood on different levels and with some poems I suspect that I am only getting the very basic level. Let me give a couple of examples from John Donne:

I can understand some of his poems with ease and then I enjoy them. For example:

No man is an island
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory
were, as well as if a manor of they friends`s or of thine own were.
Any man`s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore
never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
John Donne

But others are a bit of a mystery for example:
Air And Angels
Twice or thrice had I loved thee,
Before I knew thy face or name;
So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame,
Angels affect us oft, and worshipped be;
Still when, to where thou wert, I came,
Some lovely glorious nothing I did see.
But since my soul, whose child love is,
Takes limbs of flesh, and else could nothing do,
More subtle than the parent is,
Love must not be, but take a body too;
And therefore what thou wert, and who,
I bid love ask, and now
That it assume thy body I allow,
And fix itself to thy lip, eye, and brow.
Whilst thus to ballast love I thought,
And so more steadily to have gone,
With wares which would sink admiration,
I saw I had love's pinnace overfraught
Every thy hair for love to work upon
Is much too much, some fitter must be sought;
For, nor in nothing, nor in things
Extreme and scatt'ring bright, can love inhere.
Then as an angel, face and wings
Of air, not pure as it, yet pure doth wear,
So thy love may be my love's sphere.
Just such disparity
As is 'twixt air and angel's purity,
'Twixt women's love and men's will ever be.
John Donne

I get the message that he likes her. But to quote Terri "Thats an awful lot of words to tell her she's cute!" *smile*

Janga said...

Q, Donne is an old favorite of mine. I've loved him since my undergrad days, but I concede that he can be difficult. Indeed, he can be deliberately obscure. The modern reader has to unpack all those metaphysical conceits to reach understanding, a daunting task, and sometimes even those who persevere find the work ultimately not worth the investment.

"Air and Angels" is not an accessible poem. It's not one I return to reread with delight. I'll resist the temptation to play teacher and just say that the speaker in "Air and Angels" tells his beloved the story of his love for her. Even when he didn't know her or thought he loved others, he loved her. He uses the conceit of angels because they are pure spirit and thus invisible, but they can assume a body. In the same way, the speaker can find an apt embodiment of his love for his beloved in her love for him: "thy love must be my love's sphere."

The poem is, of course, vastly more complex than my oversimlification, but I'm sure neither of us nor any other visitors here have the patience for a full explication. The important point IMO is that you can read and find meaning and connection in Donne's "Meditation XVII."

quantum said...

Thanks for that Janga. I can see the thread now!
I also had a look at the meditation.

Donne seems to have been ahead of his time in some ways. His holistic view of mankind and the world seems almost modern in some ways.

Mrs Q likes some of his love poetry so I think I will take a look there next .... give her a surprise perhaps *grin*

Very stimulating blog. *smile*

Anne Gracie said...

Janga I have many beloved poems, too many to list. I even have a favorite one on my website -- a Chinese poem called The Joy of Reading.

We used to have a poetry tram (trolleycar) here, where instead of advertisements, there were poems. It looked like all the other trams from the outside, so when you got on, it was a gorgeous surprise to step into a tram lines with poems. I used to sit reading the poems, smiling, and shifting slowly down the tram, not wanting to get off until I'd read everything. It was a wonderful innovation.

Janga said...

Hi, Anne! Thanks for stopping by, I went to your web site and read "The Joy of Reading." Lovely! Such rich imagery.

And I love the idea of a poetry tram. I wish I'd had one available all those years I spent hours commuting on the Interstate. Reading poetry would have left me healthier and happier than fighting traffic did.

Janga said...

Q, I'm sure Mrs. Q would love your reading Donne's love poems to her. "The Ecstasie" is a good choice, and it has some of the same ideas as "Air and Angels":

"Love's mysteries in soules doe grow,
But yet the body is his booke."

Don't overlook the aubade "The Sun Rising" in which the speaker chides that "busy old fool" the sun for interrupting the lovers' night. :)

TerriOsburn said...

I'm finding it quite funny and flattering to be quoted in a comment on a blog about poetry. What are the odds of that ever happening again?

Throw me into the "I don't get it" club for a lot of poetry. And though I had some great English teachers in HS, I don't remember spending a lot of time on poetry.

But I do have some very old books that are collections of poetry. I'd love to show them to you someday, Janga. I think they date back to the first half of the 20th century.

My poetry has always been song lyrics, which I'm sure won't surprise anyone. I could quote songs all day, but there's a new one I've found by The Script that I've fallen in love with.

It's called I'm Yours and this is just the beginning...

You touch these tired eyes of mine
And map my face out line by line
And somehow growing old feels fine
I listen close for I'm not smart
You wrap you thoughts in works of art
And they're hanging on the walls of my heart

I may not have the softest touch
I may not say the words as such
And though I may not look like much
I'm yours

And though my edges may be rough
And never feel I'm quite enough
It may not seem like very much
But I'm yours

Janga said...

I had to go listen to the song, Terri. Beautiful. Now I'll have to download it. Thanks for sharing it. You've seen me quote song lyrics often enough to know I love them too.

And I think I've quoted some poems that you liked. If I remember correctly, you even looked up one of the poems I recommended to Irish, Galway Kinnell's "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps." :)

TerriOsburn said...

That IS a fun poem, Janga. What I would call a "slice of life" piece. LOL! Though I can't help thinking, "Tell me they put on clothes!"

I did buy a book of Keats poems a few months ago. I keep them on my nightstand. Something lovely and soothing to read before nodding off.