W.E. Butts on April 15

The Book Club for Poets will discuss W.E. Butts’s Cathedral of Nervous Horses on April 15, 2014, in the Reflection Room, top floor of the Simon Center, New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire, 7–9 p.m. Here are the poems club members have requested we discuss:

“What We Did Wrong, 1956” (p. 8)
“The Last Hold” (p. 9)
“Martin’s Nursing Home” (p. 13)
“First Catch” (p. 21)
“Day Labor” (p. 26)
“The Lover” (p. 49)
“Movies in a Small Town, 1957” (p. 50)
“Innocence” (p. 53)
“Sunday Evening at the Stardust Café” (p. 58)
“Sunday Factory” (p. 72)
“The Calling” (p. 86)
“The Annual Richard Milhous Nixon Pig Roast & 4th of July Celebration” (p. 94)
“What To Say If the Birds Ask” (p. 98)

The Book Club for Poets is free and open to the public. Hope to see you there!

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The Craft of Eavan Boland

grass_dewIn addition to its humanity — its giving voice to people that history and art have often overlooked — one of the great pleasures of Eavan Boland’s poetry is the way it layers time and moves through time. At our last meeting, the Book Club for Poets focused on poems from Against Love Poetry, several of which show Boland’s ability to merge past and present, historical and personal, the captured moment and the fleetingness of time.

In “Making Money,” for example, the poet devotes the opening five stanzas to a narrative describing how women living near the River Slang were employed to make money for the British government. Boland describes the process closely, from the “first ugly hour” of the women’s waking, to “the toil / of sifting and beating and settling and fraying / the weighed out fibres” of “rag” and “hemp.” The poem then shifts into what the women themselves cannot see — the consequences of British wealth in Ireland, compressed into a single stanza:

And they do not and they never will
see the small boundaries all this will buy
or the poisoned kingdom with its waterways
and splintered locks and the peacocks who will walk
this paper up and down in the windless gardens
of a history no one can stop happening now.
Nor the crimson and indigo features
of the prince who will stare out from
the surfaces they have made on
the ruin of a Europe
he cannot see from a surface
of a wealth he cannot keep

The poem then challenges its readers. If we can’t acknowledge that the past is “a crime we cannot admit and will not atone,” the women are still there “in the rainy autumn” as the “wagons of rags . . . arrive.” The women will always be “facing the paradox” of making money in their poverty, “learning to die of it.”

In “Thankëd be Fortune,” the poet moves from “constellations, / orderly uninterested and cold” to “the bookshelves just above” the sleeping narrator and her husband:

all through the hours of darkness,
men and women
wept, cursed, kept and broke faith
and killed themselves for love.

The poem then shifts from literary time into the present of the couple as they wake and hear their child waking — “listening to our child crying, as if to birdsong” — and the poem ends with an evocative, mysterious image: “the grass eking out / the last crooked hour of starlight.” Is the grass photosynthesizing starlight? What, to human eyes, seems like the timelessness of the constellations is translated into the more mortal time span of the grass.

Boland creates a similar moment in “The Pinhole Camera,” noting first our knowledge of the natural world and how time works here (“the reason for the red berries / darkening”). The speaker then describes the narratives that humans have created to explain phenomena like solar eclipses (“if this were legend / the king of light would turn his face away”) — before the poet captures the workings of the universe in an everyday object, a piece of paper below the pinhole camera:

But this is real —
how your page records
the alignment of planets,
their governance.
In other words,
the not-to-be-seen again
mystery of
a mutual influence.

Besides the pleasure we get in reading Boland’s poetry, we can also use these poems to remind ourselves to consider how time moves in our own poetry. Can we include more than one scale of time in our own poems? Can we explore when to be leisurely and when to move swiftly, compressing events?

Sources

Boland, Eavan. “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 296–297.

— — —. “Making Money.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 292–293.

— — —. “The Pinhole Camera.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 280–281.

— — —. “Thankëd be Fortune.” New Collected Poems. 1st American ed. New York: Norton, 2008. 286.

Poems to discuss at the Book Club for Poets, January 21, 2013

pomegranate1Here are the poems we’ll be discussion from New and Collected Poems by Eavan Boland at the January 21, 2013, Book Club for Poets discussion:

“The War Horse,” 39
“On the Gift of The Birds of America by John James Audubon,” 168
“The Achill Woman,” 176
“Pomegranate,” 215
“Colony,” 245-57
Selections from Against Love Poetry, 279-307

You can bring copies of poems not in this book, and we’ll discuss them as we have time. If you want to suggest further poems, just let me know!

The discussion will take place from 7-9 p.m. in the New England Room of Danforth Library, New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire. All poets who would like to discuss craft are welcome!

The Craft of Billy Collins

zodiac coinThe Book Club for Poets decided once again to discuss a book by the latest Hall-Kenyon Prize winner, and the poet selected for the 2013 award was Billy Collins, who gave a reading at the Concord (NH) City Auditorium on October 3, 2013; the audience was large and enthusiastic, applauding after every poem. Several national figures have praised Collins’s work. But when I told poet friends that we’d be discussing Collins’s Horoscopes for the Dead at our next meeting, I got mixed reactions, including a “I won’t be going to that one” and a simple but fairly hostile “Why?”

Why does Collins inspire such polarized views among other poets? That was the question I decided could be our way into Horoscopes for the Dead. What are the strengths of this poetry? What are its weaknesses? If Collins wasn’t such a wildly successful poet financially, such a popular writer, would he instill the same kind of reaction?

His work is admired by accomplished writers. In choosing Collins for the Hall-Kenyon Prize, poet Wesley McNair told the Concord (NH) Monitor, “He’s intelligent, wonderfully witty and urbane, just as the critics say. But the Billy Collins who engages me most is the naif — the poet of the curious imagination, who shows us that the world is a source of delight and mystery, and the only reason we haven’t seen this is that we’ve been standing in the light.” Stephen Dunn admires how “we seem to always know where we are in a Billy Collins poem, but not necessarily where he is going.” Dunn says, “I love to arrive with him at his arrivals. He doesn’t hide things from us, as I think lesser poets do. He allows us to overhear, clearly, what he himself has discovered” (Academy of American Poets). In a review of Picnic, Lightning in Poetry, John Taylor notes, “By forming these odd but somehow convincing associations, Collins helps us feel the mystery of being alive. Beneath his tongue-in-cheek humor, a deeper melancholy reminds us that a human being can hope for little more than emotional, mental, and physical experiences of this mystery.”

But not everyone admires Collins’s craft. Paul Stephens has noted in the Drunken Boat,  “The dominant impression one gets when reading a Collins poem is one of sheer lack of ambition. … There is nothing engaging whatsoever about the construction of [“The Lesson”]. The prosaic domestic setting is typical of a Collins poem. There is in fact no specific ‘History’ to speak of. ‘History’ becomes a sort of non-threatening daydream of some past life where things might actually have been interesting.”

This last comment comes closest to that of those poet friends of mine who declined to be part of our discussion of Horoscopes. The work, they said, was glib, overly sentimental, not ambitious, not well crafted.

So the Book Club asked ourselves what we liked in Collins’s work—and what we found disappointing.

In Collins’s favor, the club noted his humor, his willingness to be whimsical, his willingness to risk sentimentality — and the strategies he uses to undercut it. Critics sometimes object to Collins’s “pandering” to the audience in his performances, but Don Kimball noted that without the humor of “The Lanyard,” the poem would be unbearably maudlin. The poem also gets more serious at the end, a technique the poet uses frequently.

One of the things I personally respond to best in Collins’s work are the moments when he shifts dramatically, in tone, in time and space, or in point of view. In a poem like “Horoscopes for the Dead,” for example, most of the poem mines the humor of prosaic newspaper horoscope-speak and its inappropriateness for the dead:

Some days I am reminded that today
will not be a wildly romantic time for you,
nor will you be challenged by educational goals,
nor will you need to be circumspect at the workplace.

The prosiness is intensified, I think, by the neatly self-contained stanzas. Occasionally, the language is elevated by more music (listen for the long i sounds, the s’s, and the l’s below) and by image and metaphor:

… that would apply
more to all the Pisces who are still alive,
still swimming up and down the stream of life
or suspended in a pool in the shade of an overhanging tree.

Collins reserves the ending for his most dramatic shift. Compared to the narrator, who is “pedaling along the shore road by the bay,” the dead “you” of the poem is both stationary and moving, flying, beyond the dimensions of this world:

And you stay just as you are,
lying there in your beautiful blue suit,
your hands crossed on your chest
like the wings of a bird who has flown
in its strange migration not north or south
but straight up from the earth
and pierced the enormous circle of the zodiac.

In a poem like “Good News,” however, the Book Club thought the whimsy and sentimentality were not balanced by something sharper or more ominous. The dog’s “long smile” is such a satisfying image in the penultimate stanza, but the final lines seem unremittingly sweet and discursive: “and your brown and white coat / are perfectly designed to be the dog you perfectly are.” In contrast, in “Two Creatures,” the narrator is willing to risk the sweetness of contemplating a pet dog’s point of view but ends somewhere much more interesting: “I have never once worried,” the narrator says at the conclusion of the poem,

that she would take off in the car
and leave me to die
behind the locked doors of this house.

Such a shift, it seems to me, invites us to ask questions about our relationships to the creatures we have under our care. What’s the hidden cruelty, or at least the hidden callousness, in such a relationship?

Other poems from this collection that take similar leaps or shifts are “My Unborn Children,” “Roses,” and “Thieves,” which moves from the narrator’s human point of view to that of the mouse he sees “ducking  … into stone wall.” The ending also illustrates Collins’s sly allusions, the language of the first line of this stanza recalling Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse”:

my wee, timorous mind darting in after him,
escaping the hawk-prowling sunlight
for a shadowy cave of stone
and the comings and goings of mice —
all that scurrying and the secretive brushings of whiskers.

This movement to the inward and the small is intensified by the narrator’s just having imagined “the monstrous glacial traffic of the ice age.” (The final image reminds me a bit of the sudden intimacy of the bee in the foxglove in Elizabeth Bishop’s “Moose.”)

At his best, Collins writes a musical line:

all that scurrying and the secretive brushing of whiskers (“Thieves”)
delivering morsels of asparagus and crusted fish (“Table Talk”)
One hagiographer compared him to a hedgehog bristling with quills (“Table Talk”)

At other times, he doesn’t seem as interested in loading the rifts with ore:

“It’s the size of a basketball / but much more interesting” (“The New Globe”)
“the drawings you would bring in” (“Girl”)

In the poems the Book Club enjoyed most from Horoscopes from the Dead, Collins’s narrator is saying, in the conversational way he has, something complicated, as in the series of inner landscapes, private worlds, compressed “to the size of a bedroom,” for instance, in “Memorizing ‘The Sun Rising’ by John Donne” — the world of the lovers in Donne’s poem “contracted” a second time, as the narrator memorizes it, “into a little spot within” the narrator himself. At other times, the poems express deep ambivalence, as in the dead father’s silence in “Grave,” which is described so delicately but that seems withdrawn, withholding, perhaps punitive. In comparison, a poem like “On Reading a Program Note on Aaron Copland” is clever—the famous composer traveling only from Brooklyn to North Tarrytown over his ninety-year life span — but never really goes beyond cleverness. The world of the poem seems completely imagined, self-contained within its own whimsy. But the poem on the facing page, “After I Heard You Were Gone,” has both a clever extended metaphor but much more emotionally at stake, the world transformed, made surreal, by the “you’s” absence:

I could have sworn the large oak trees
had just appeared there overnight.
And that pigeon looked as if
it had once been a playing card
that a magician had transformed with the flick of a scarf.

Sources

Poems quoted from Collins, Billy. Horoscopes for the Dead. New York: Random House, 2012.

Dunn, Stephen. Quoted in “Billy Collins.” Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/278.

McNair, Wesley. Quoted in “Poet Billy Collins Selected for Donald Hall–Jane Kenyon Prize.” Concord (NH) Monitor, April 29, 2013, http://www.concordmonitor.com/home/5932297-95/poet-billy-collins-selected-for-donald-hall-jane-kenyon-prize.

Taylor John. “Picnic, Lightning / The Art of Drowning.” Poetry 175, no. 4 (Feb. 2000): 273. ProQuest.

Stephens, Paul. “An Apology for Poetry, or Why Bother with Billy Collins?” Drunken Boat 4 (Spring 2002), http://www.drunkenboat.com/db4/stephens/apology.html.

The October 15, 2013, Book Club for Poets Discussion

The Book Club for Poets will discuss the craft of Billy Collins’s Horoscopes for the Dead on October 15, 7 p.m., in the New England Room, Danforth Library, at  New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire. Free and open to the public.
On October 3, 2013, Billy Collins will give a reading of his poetry and receive the Hall-Kenyon Prize at the Concord  City Auditorium in Concord, New Hampshire. For tickets to this event, visit http://tinyurl.com/HKPrize. If you hear a poem at this reading that you’d love to discuss, let me know, and I’ll try to add it to our discussion.

The Craft of Natasha Trethewey

ImageAbout Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Ange Mlinko has said that the book “is structured like a dialectic, in three parts: the autobiographical as thesis, the historical as antithesis, and the intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis.” On reading this comment, I realized that the Book Club for Poets hadn’t yet considered the structure of an entire book of poems — and that Native Guard would be an excellent book for this kind of craft discussion. The individual poems of this collection — which received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry — are impressive in the range of forms Trethewey takes on: the pantoum, villanelle, a crown of sonnets, and even a palindrome, among other. But in addition to the mastery of individual poems, the overall structure of the book shows us how careful ordering of poems can create something greater than the sum of its parts. In our discussion, we basically walked through the book from title and dedication through to the final poem, paying attention to the shifts and echoes created with each additional element. We don’t have space to cover that entire discussion here, so I’d like to focus on the introductory poem.

Including a proem, or prefatory poem — one that appears in the volume even before the official first section — can be a risky technique for poets. Such a poem must bear the weight of a great deal of expectation: readers will want the poem to be both representative of the book as a whole and particularly strong on its own. The title of Trethewey’s proem is “Theories of Time and Space,” which sets the focus of the book at the broadest, most abstract view of how we experience history and memory as well as location. The poem starts with a meditative/discursive passage:

You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. …

The colloquial tone of the opening two couplets contrast to the formality of the title, though both title and stanzas are similarly abstract. The opening lines reminded members of the Book Club of the New England comment “You can’t get there from here” (a wry remark about the remoteness of certain locations) and the Southern “You can’t go home again” of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. So the poem hints already at the North and South of the Civil War, which be the setting of “Native Guard,” a sequence of sonnets in the middle section of the book. The opening stanza also suggests a journey to a place we’ve been before, a place in our past — although “there’s no going home,” the lines suggest that “home” is precisely what the “you” of the poem had originally hoped to find.

Similarly philosophical is the second couplet, which brings to mind the Heraclitus’s familiar concept of time as a river: you can never put your foot into the same river twice. Time itself changes a location, or at least our understanding of it — the fixed point of place altered by history and our individual experience of the passage of time.

The narrator of the poem then says, “Try this: / / head south down Mississippi 49.” These lines break through abstractness by introducing a specific location and the specific action of driving. What follows is a long lyrical passage heavy with imagery, the imperative mood, and right-branching syntax:

… one-
by-one mile
markers ticking off

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion — dead end

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

in a sky threatening rain.

The location is clearly a Southern one: Gulfport, Mississippi. Psychologically, the images suggest waste, frustration, damage, threat: the minutes of life are being “ticked off” in travel to a “dead end,” the “stitches” of rigging suggesting the mending of cloth or flesh, though this mending is “loose.” Even the weather is “threatening.” We’ll learn later in the book that Trethewey’s mother was from Gulfport, so the proem is setting up that echo. The poem continues:

… Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

dumped on the mangrove swamp — buried
terrain of the past.

The landscape of Gulfport echoes back to the idea of the epigraph that precedes the proem: lines from “Meditation on Form and Measure” by Charles Wright, lines that declare that “everywhere” something is “underfoot,” “buried” beneath the present. Other burials later in the book will pick up on this idea of events and people being hidden from view. Sometimes these burials are specific, autobiographical, as in “What Is Evidence,” about Trethewey’s mother; other times, the burials are historical, as in “Native Guard,” the bodies and graves African American soldiers wiped from history — until the poet writes about them.

The narrator of “Meditations” then advises the “you” of the poem to “Bring only / / what you must carry — tome of memory, / its random blank pages.” So memory is a necessity, but also random and blank, something to be filled in.

The poem ends with a narrative yet to be unfolded: on the “dock” of departure for “Ship Island,”

someone will take your picture:

the photograph — who you were —
will be waiting when you return.

Whatever this journey is, the “you” will be changed by it. The photograph can capture only “who you were,” not who you are after experiencing Ship Island. Even if the reader is unaware of the history of Ship Island — the site of a prison for white Confederate soldiers guarded by the black Union guards — the reader understands that the journey is significant. What is learned or experienced there will change the “you” — and, by implication, the “we” of Trethewey’s readers.

The proem has established markers that recur throughout the book: the history of the Deep South, travel and return, memory, “tomes” of writing and history, the lost and buried. All of these elements will recur throughout Native Guard — in the first section, about the poet’s mother; in the center section, about African American history; and in the final section, in which the mixed-race narrator herself embodies both black and white and, in Mlinko’s words, “refuses to give up her legacy, which encompasses the land and its history, its mess and its murderousness.” As an example of a prefatory poem, “Theories of Time and Space” is extremely successful: it is powerful on its own and yet anticipates what’s to come.

Sources

Ange Mlinko, “More Than Meets the I,” Poetry Foundation, www. poetryfoundation.org /poetrymagazine/article/180081.

Natasha Trethewey, “Theories of Time and Space,” Native Guard (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 1.

Poetry of Natasha Tretheway

9780618872657_custom-b63ae3224957891bde29e0afba9be2c958d4dd63-s6-c30Here’s an excerpt from “What Is Evidence,” from Natasha Tretheway’s Native Guard, which the Book Club for Poets will discuss on July 16, 2013, in the Sayce Lounge of the Simon Center, New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire, 7 to 9 p.m.:

Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she’d pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she’d steady, leaning
into the pot of bones on the stove.

The Book Club for Poets is free and open to any poets at any level wishing to discuss craft. If you have favorite poems from Native Guard that you’d like to discuss, please let me know!