Saturday, April 17, 2010

Praise and Celebration

During a poetry module at the University of Kent I used to set an exercise to write a string of curses and/or a string of praises about something/someone. Most people preferred the curses because they found that their praising tended to sound too sickly, cliched, overstated, or even ironic. Perhaps it is harder to be genuinely and overtly kind than to pick a fight : )

However the following poet has no problem with praise.

Beach Attitudes

Blessed is the beach, survivor of tides.

And blessed the litter of crown conchs and pen shells, the dead
blue crab in all its electric raiment.

Blessed the nunneries of skimmers,
scuttering and rising, wheeling and falling and settling, ruffling
their red and black-and-white habits.

And blessed be the pacemakers and the peacemakers,

the slow striders, the arthritic joggers, scarred and bent under
their histories, for they're here at last by the sunlit sea.

Blessed Peoria and Manhattan, Ottowa and Green Bay, Pittsburgh,

And blessed their children.

And blessed the lovers for they shall have one perfect day.

Blessed be the dolphin out beyond the furthest buoy,
slaughtering the bright leapers,
for they shall have full bellies.

Blessed, too, the cormorant and the osprey and the pelican
for they are the cherubim and seraphim and archangel.

And blessed be the gull, open throated, screeching, scolding
me to my face,

for he shall have his own place returned to him.
And the glossy lip of the long wave shall have the last kiss.

Robert Dana

from The Other © Anhinga Press, 2008

I like how everything is blessed, what we might naturally find beautiful and inspiring (dolphins), what we might normally dismiss (the dead blue crab), and what might normally irritate us (a screeching gull). I like the place-names that anchor the poem to a real world.

Some readers might find the personnification in the last line a little too sweet (the wave kissing the beach) but I don't mind it here. Perhaps because of the language - glossy lip, which, for me, is a fresh and vivid image for a wave. And perhaps because the poem has engaged me so fully that I'm happy for the poet to take a risk with an edge of sentiment at the end.

Can you write a praise poem about a particular aspect of the world? You can use Robert Dana's structure of 'Blessed be...' if you like, or find your own.

Try to let the reader experience your 'world' - let them see and smell and touch and taste and hear it. Let them celebrate it with you.

A maximum of 30 lines please, and I'll comment on up to 2 poems.

Write well.
L x

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Informal analysis of Jack Gilbert's 'Hunger'

The title of the poem is abstract but it carries an emotional weight – I immediately think of starvation, of need, while my initial response to the poem on the page, the vertical shape of it, and the repetitions my eye picks up even before reading it from line to line, suggests a journey of some urgency.

The first line with its hard consonants and continuous present tense also communicates and reinforces this sense of urgency – we have come across the poet/narrator in the middle of an action, no preliminary details, no introduction, we’re as involved as he is in this activity of ‘digging’, a verb which we might not initially associate with eating, or taking apart, a piece of fruit.

As I continue on with the poem I begin to realise that this poem isn’t about eating, at least not in the traditional sense. It is more about searching for something, about discovery. The present participles continue - digging, scraping, refusing, digging, turning, feeling, getting, going, not taking, getting – and they’re reminiscent of the language we’d naturally associate with an archaeological dig, the hard earth being dug away, the soft earth cleared, going below the surface. We even have images of clogged nails and going deeper that resonate further with the idea of the possible discovery of something valuable that lies under the earth.

I actually begin to feel quite physically uncomfortable while reading the poem. Eating an apple is generally a pleasant experience, yet here I’m affected by the discomfort of the clogged nails, then the poet’s explicit statement of the sweet juice running over his hands unpleasantly. He compounds this with the violent word gouge, the sensation of the juice as sticky, and the skin itching. We’re made to feel that this is ‘dirty’ work, and also ‘hands on’ work – something we have to get involved with at a physical level.

It’s also interesting how the poem moves from pleasant images of the moon colour of the flesh and the smell and memories associated with a sweet apple, and works towards less appealing images of chunks and stickiness and the hard wooden part. Though the hardness, or difficulty, doesn’t stop him. He goes beyond that to reach the seeds, an image that suggests the beginnings of something new, of growth, of hope, at which point we might have expected him to stop. Because if this poem is working as an extended metaphor, then surely reaching the ‘heart’ of something, the seeds at the centre of the apple, would be the desired destination, wouldn’t it?

But no, the poet urges going on and getting beyond the seeds. The line that interrupts these two phrases (Not taking anyone’s word for it.) is the only line in the poem that shifts us away from the concrete physical activity, yet it also uses the language of metaphor. We don’t literally ‘take’ someone’s word. We ‘accept’ intellectually or emotionally what other people tell us.

It seems to me that the poet here might be referring to the idea of ‘received learning’. I can’t help but associate the image of the apple/fruit with the Bible story of Adam and Eve and its issues of obedience and the poem has given me a greater insight into how I’ve previously interpreted that myth.

I’ve always seen the judgement of Eve as unfair. Why shouldn’t she have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil if she wanted to. Why should limitations be imposed upon her by an omniscient (and very male) god?

With the benefit of reading this poem I’m now considering an alternative interpretation. Eve’s taking of the fruit could symbolise a refusal to think for herself. The easy option of eating the fruit from a tree already in existence could represent her ‘eating’ someone else’s knowledge in favour of developing her own and learning ‘the hard way’ from her own experiences.

Gilbert uses the apple as a symbol for something that holds much more inside of itself, more than we already know. We might be told it’s an apple and it’s good for us, but if we stopped to think for ourselves we might look at it again, and end up going beyond the flesh and the juice (the easy parts of learning) to the wooden core and find the seeds. But to stop at the seeds isn’t enough either. They still represent the seeds of someone else’s knowledge. To be really authentic we need to get beyond those too, and become the creator of our own seeds.

As a poet I feel the poem works as a very successful metaphor for the writing process during which I do dig, and refuse to accept the first ideas and images that surface (moon flesh and sweet juice) in order to discover what lies beneath them.

It’s true that the images I first write down can end up being unpleasantly sweet - too easy or cliched. And, at times, the editing process does feel like gouging out chunks. And it can make me feel physically uncomfortable – itchy – as if the writing is still at a stage of being prickly and uncomfortable. And the wooden part feels very true too! All writers have the experience of hitting a ‘wall’ – the feeling that we might not get through this barrier.

The image of the seeds threw up a feeling of paradox for me at first – isn’t this what I start with? The seeds of fleeting ideas and images that arrive suddenly, or are noticed arbitrarily? The poem makes me wonder about my creative process – that before the seeds can arrive I have to cultivate or prepare the ground. In this way I’m going beyond the seeds. I am responsible for creating a place for those ideas and images to be received. For me this is a state of mind that’s receptive and open, rather than resistant to change and possibilities.

Gilbert’s apparently simple structure of repeated grammatical phrases draws us into the poem. The simplicity of the language allows the poem to be accessible on the surface level yet the familiar metaphorical verbs take us to a deeper level very quickly so the idea of the poem as an extended metaphor is realised without any real effort.

The repeated present participles also act as rhyme within the poem – they have a unifying effect that pulls each action into another, almost drags the reader along with their insistent patterning.

His line breaks generally follow the pattern of natural breath pauses, as if we are too having to stop for breath at each stage of this activity. Sometimes the images are confined to single end-stopped line, as in moon color and smell and memories and this feels appropriate for the pause we might have to make to consider the loveliness of what we are refusing before making ourselves go on.

On other occasions the images extend over two lines for clarity as different senses are dealt with – the implied taste of sweet juice followed by the sensation of touch: running along my hands. There is, I feel, a particularly successful line break with on my wrists. The skin itching/ which connects the two images and allows us to read the line backwards and forwards, a technique that also acts as a unifying tool, uniting each step of this process.

However, the last five lines of the poem are all end-stopped lines. They add a rhythm and weight to the seriousness of each statement. They reinforce the idea of any process being constructed around steps. And the last line with its image of the unknown – going beyond the seeds – avoids closing the poem down, leaves it open for the reader to ponder the possibilities that might exist there.

I admire the deceptive simplicity of this poem. It uses straightforward concrete language to express something profound. And the universality of the language makes the poem open to interpretation in all sorts of processes – not just the creative arts. The use of repetition is both a warning and an encouragement. It says: this will not be easy, it will take hard work, yet it’s worth working towards an absolute beginning, something that will be your own hard-earned creation.

© Lynne Rees 2010

Sunday, April 04, 2010

What's in a poem?

How does a poem work on us? The best poems can make us think and feel. They can transport us into our own memories. They can suggest ideas and ask us to reflect and ponder. But how? And how can we make our own poems do that to readers too?

We have to learn to articulate our craft choices. We need to know why we choose a particular form or shape. Why we break lines at certain points. Why we choose one word or image over another. And all those choices need to relate to what the poem is about as a whole, its emotional tone, its intention. The HOW and the WHAT of a poem are inextricably linked.

This critical process isn't a part of first drafts though. That's the time to play, let the creative mind express itself freely and not impose any restrictions and what we want to say and how we want to say it. It's in the subsequent shaping and editing that we need to make conscious choices.

One of the best ways to improve our own conscious critical process is to look at other poets' poems and try to identify what craft choices they have made. It's not necessary to know anything about the poet themselves to do this. All we need is the poem on the page in front of us, several readings over a number of days to let the poem work on us, and then a couple of sessions looking more carefully at the poem and making notes.

If anyone would like to give this a go, try it with the poem below.


Digging into the apple
with my thumbs.
Scraping out the clogged nails
and digging deeper.
Refusing the moon color.
Refusing the smell and memories.
Digging in with the sweet juice
running along my hands unpleasantly.
Refusing the sweetness.
Turning my hands to gouge out chunks.
Feeling the juice sticky
on my wrists. The skin itching.
Getting to the wooden part.
Getting to the seeds.
Going on.
Not taking anyone’s word for it.
Getting beyond the seeds.

Jack Gilbert

1. Print the poem and read it ALOUD once or twice a day over a period of 5 to 7 days WITHOUT making notes. This is thinking time.
2. Once this time has elapsed look at the poem again. What does it make you think and feel? Is there an overall theme? What choices do you think the poet might have made during the creation of this poem? The following aspects might be worth looking at:
a. The title
b. The shape of the poem on the page - its overall shape and where line breaks have been made
c. Some of the language choices the poet has made
d. The repetition in the poem.
d. The poem's dramatic development, i.e. how it begins and where it ends and what happens in between

If you'd like to post your comments, please feel free to do so, but please keep them to less than 500 words. Thank you.

A slightly different prompt to start the month and I hope you enjoy it. Jack Gilbert's poem is a favourite of mine.

L x