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.

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!

Sea Called Fruitfulness

Sea Called FruitfulnessOn a personal note, I want to share that my second full-length book has just been published: Sea Called Fruitfulness. You can learn more about it in a review in the spring 2013 issue of Tower Journal, and on my publisher’s website. Sea Called Fruitfulness was inspired by a 1651 map of the moon.

The Craft of Donald Justice

The Book Club for Poets was so impressed by Ellen Bryant Voigt’s discussion of Donald Justice’s poetry when we discussed her Art of Syntax in January 2013, that we decided to devote our April meeting to Justice’s Collected Poems. And what we learned about the role of Donald Justice in American poetry was also impressive: his career bridges the poets he studied as a young man, such as 0001693847384John Crowe Ransom, to the poetry of his teachers, including John Berryman and Robert Lowell, to his classmates, such as Philip Levine and W. D. Snodgrass, and finally to the many poets who were his students. In the New England Review shortly after Justice died in 2004, C. Dale Young listed some of the poets Justice “helped to develop: Mark Strand, Charles Wright, Ellen Bryant Voigt, James Tate, Jorie Graham, Larry Levis, Tess Gallagher, Brenda Hillman, Rita Dove, Eric Pankey …”

When critics discuss the poetry of Donald Justice, two words always come up: nostalgia and craft. Some of us expressed surprise, at our April meeting, that his poems are so often focused on the past and on loss. Critics like James McCorkel note that behind Justice’s nostalgia lies a powerful desire to recognize, honor, preserve:

In his essay “Meters and Memory,” Justice comments that one motive for art is “to keep memorable what deserves to be remembered”; meters in poetry allow for emotion to be fixed and “called back again and again” … for both the audience and the poet. Justice continues, remarking that “for an audience the meters function in part to call back the words of the poem, so for the poet they may help to call the words forth” … Indeed, it may be argued that Justice’s project fuses poet and audience into a sustained moment of retrieval.

In contrast, Stephen Burt makes this comment about Justice’s Collected Poems: “[The post–World War I] world, its moods, and the properties that match them—repeated words, carefully balanced lines, childhood, retrospect, old south Florida—dominate Justice’s last poems as they did his first.” Burt states, “The absence of any transcendental dimension—the poet’s decision to refuse even hints of religious (or politico-historical) purpose—made nostalgia, bittersweet longing, and recognition of loss almost the only consolations his poems could seek.”

The Book Club had already read “For the Suicides of 1962” and “To the Hawks” in our January meeting—two poems that, I think, do in fact more than hint at “politico-historical” purposes and social issues, to powerful effect. But a question arose in our discussion of this critical response: when is a dominant tone or obsession effective in our own writing—and when do we undercut our ability to reach readers when we focus to a large degree on one kind of emotion?

One thing that critics agree on uniformly is Justice’s mastery of craft. For now I’ll focus on larger issues of structure rather than meter. Justice is especially skillful in using forms that suggest the obsessive quality of memory through repetition—forms like the pantoum, the villanelle, the sestina. Justice can follow such a form closely, but he is also masterful in varying expected patterns of a form. As Phoebe Pettingel puts it, Justice “dazzles us with his dexterity in complex metrical forms … [while] teasing our expectations with half-rhymes and parodies of the baroque, classical and romantic traditions.” One poem that “teases our expectations” is “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts,” a poem that sets up a pattern of repetition and almost immediately and continually varies it. Like a sestina, the poem is built of six stanzas, most of them containing six lines (though two in “Nostalgia” have a seventh line). The poem often uses repetition of end words, sestina-like, though not in a sestina pattern:

Cities burn behind us; the lake glitters.
A tall loudspeaker is announcing prizes;
Another, by the lake, the times of cruises.
Childhood once vast with terrors and surprises,
Is fading to a landscape deep with distance—
And always the sad piano in the distance,

Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling
(O indecipherable blurred harmonies)
Or some far horn repeating over water
Its high lost note, cut loose from all harmonies.
At such times, wakeful, a child will dream the world,
And this is the world we run to from the world.

Or the two worlds come together and are one . . .

This poem reminds me of a quality I discussed in my post about Kay Ryan: how her “recombinant” rhymes suggest a form that feels familiar—even while resisting any traditional form. Justice’s stanzas in “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts” are enough like those of a sestina to bring it to mind, but his order of repeated end words is nothing like that of a sestina—though his use of the same words across two stanzas is indeed reminiscent of the stepping-on-one-another’s-heels repetition of the end word in line 6 of one sestina stanza and line 1 of the next. In the stanzas quoted above, for example, “distance” bridges the two stanzas: “Is fading to a landscape deep with distance— / And always the sad piano in the distance, / / Faintly in the distance, a ghostly tinkling.”

Justice continues to vary his patterns in the third stanza, where he uses rhymes rather than repetition in lines 5 and 6: “And the shriek, perhaps, of Kane’s white cockatoo. / (Would this have been summer, 1942?)” In the first line of the fourth stanza, he uses assonance rather than repetition as the link between stanzas: the long oo sound of cockatoo and 1942 recurs in June in “By June the city always seems neurotic.” He also uses rhyme rather than end words later in this stanza, linking lines 4 and 6 rather than in 5 and 6, as he did earlier in the poem:

Why sad at all? Is their wish so unique—
To anthropomorphize the inanimate
With a love that masquerades as pure technique?

What connects these closing lines to the next stanza is neither repetition nor rhyme but a rephrasing of an idea: “O art and the child were innocent together!” Because we’ve come to expect the ending of one stanza to echo in the first line of the next, we’re more likely to interpret “art” as another way of saying “a love that masquerades as pure technique.” Justice uses a similar connection between the final two stanzas, with both the assonance of time/pine and the similar ideas of history/time acting as the bridge: “Only, like history, the stark bare northern pines. / / And after a time the lakefront disappears.”

This is, finally, a poem about the passing of time—and how art, “a love that masquerades as pure technique,” preserves what time otherwise steals: “the lakefront disappears / Into the stubborn verses of its exiles / Or a few gifted sketches.” Music also spurs the memory in this poem, in the “ghostly tinkling” of the “distant” piano in stanzas two and three, and the “far horn” playing its “lost note,” also in stanza two—and even in the wry hint of “the blues” in the fourth stanza, when the color of the lake is mentioned: “famed among painters for its blues, / Yet not entirely sad, upon reflection.” (The Book Club noted how often this kind of subtle punning in Justice’s work both lightens and creates tension with the sense of loss in the poems.)

The poet is just as gifted in the patterning of his free verse. One of my own favorite Justice poems is “On the Night of the Departure by Bus,” which is composed of two stanzas followed by a single-line stanza expressed as a question—and then another two stanzas followed by a second single-line question. (The poem was modeled on a poem of Rafael Alberti, as Walter Martin notes in his essay “Points of Departure.”) The first half of Justice’s poem focuses on a memory of youth and love and passion, and the repetition of words evoke both ardor and humor:

Tell me if you were not happy in those days.
You were not yet twenty-five,
And you had not yet abandoned the guitar.

I swore to you by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
You swore to me by your nakedness that you were a guitar.
The moon swore to us both by your nakedness that you had abandoned yourself completely.

Who would not go on living?

The repetition of “abandoned”—with its different meanings—is especially playful. What follows in the second half of the poem focuses on transformation via art, on departure, on imminent loss, as the future tense of the fourth stanza quickly shifts into the present perfect before the imagery that follows evokes a rapidly deteriorating scene:

The typewriter will be glad to have become the poem,
The guitar to have been your body,
I too have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter.

A passenger has lost his claim-check,
The brunette her barrette,
And I—I think that there are moths eating holes in my pockets,
That my place in line is evaporating,
That the moon is not the moon and the bus is not the bus.

What is the word for goodbye?

The passion is still here, in the extravagance of “I too have had the luck to envy the sole of your shoe in the dead of winter”—but confusion is swiftly entering the poem, possibly the confusion that comes with advancing age: “I—I think there are moths … in my pockets, / That my place in line is evaporating.” In the final line, the narrator is not even sure of the word necessary for this departure between lovers: “goodbye.”

We ended this Book Club discussion with another writing exercise and a challenge to take home with us: to write a poem of our own that uses some form of refrain or repetition—especially one that we could vary as well as repeat.

Sources

Burt, Stephen. “An Unillusioned Life.” Boston Review (February/March 2005). https://bostonreview.net/BR30.1/burt.html.

Justice, Donald. “Nostalgia of the Lakefronts.” In Collected Poems. Knopf, 2006. P. 222.

——. “On the Night of Departure by Bus.” In Collected Poems. Knopf, 2006. P. 138.

Martin, Walter. “Arts of Departure.” In Certain Solitudes: On the Poetry of Donald Justice. Ed. Dana Gioia and William Logan. University of Arkansas Press, 1997. P. 47.

McCorkel, James. “Donald Justice: The Artist Orpheus.” Kenyon Review 19, nos. 3–4 (Summer/Fall 1997): 180–188. ProQuest.

Pettingel, Phoebe. “Salt for the Spirit.” New Leader 87 (2004). ProQuest.

Young, C. Dale. “In Memoriam: Donald Justice.” New England Review 25, no. 3 (2004): 121.
Selected Works for Biographical Information:

“Donald Justice.” Poetry Foundation, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/donald-justice.

Hoy, Philip. “Donald Justice in Conversation.” Excerpted from Donald Justice in Conversation with Philip Hoy (Between the Lines, 2002). http://waywiser-press.com/imprints/justice.html.

Rosenheim, Andrew. “Donald Justice: Award-Winning Poet Revered by his Peers and Influential to a Wide Range of Younger Writers.” (London) Independent, August 18, 2004, p. 29. ProQuest.
© 2013 Martha Carlson-Bradley