Changing Grief, Changing Poetry

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June Hunt, who has a dynamic Christian counseling program online and on the radio in many cities, has said that depression can be pictured as a heavy weight on the heart, like a brick on a pillow. If it lies there too long, the pillow may not take its old shape anymore.

When I met June she was so kind and joyous with me, but I could tell she wondered why I couldn’t at all bring that energy to her, despite my love for her.

She asked me my name and I told her, they call me it, which. Or they did. They said I was a preposition. Then I found out my name meant happy, but I almost never am – maybe someday, I said.

What device does nature have to enlarge our sense? What things strewn on our path give us pause and help us answer the questions we’ve been collecting? I know these things happen sometimes in conversation. That is how women are heart doctors.

This post is not meant to be an elaborate psychoanalysis. I just wanted to say that my customary grief and heaviness seems somehow to be surfacing in my writing in a new way. Instead of writing poems that labor to express the whole burden of the sadness, as with some elegies, or sad love poems, here it seems like something fresh and living is sprouting from the old grief, like loam rich with black manure. The outward ornament is broken through, there is more wholeness psychologically to the writing, and a plainer style. Other styles are still cropping up, but with some of these new pieces there seems to be a natural mystery poking through. Instead of being “good with words” or “phrasing”, which is nice, these prefer something else, and I am realizing now that phrasing and such just doesn’t get one very far in real poetry.

And I am not very far. However, perhaps it will help to gravitate to where the writing wants to go, and learn from there. James Wright is a great champion in this plain style. He learned to repose on the facts of his lived experience as charged content the reader would find worthwhile. It is amazing that he does not just try to make himself goofy or puff himself with horror or any type of enhancer, but trusts in the plain truth.

Here is one Plain Style Poem by James Wright. Here are three recent Plain Style Poems of my own, though the middle one is a revision. Finally here is a wonderful Plain Style Tanka. Please enjoy.

Grumpy Cat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 42

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I’ve been reading Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella and had to post this favorite because it thrilled me so much. Sidney’s eloquence here is a natural overflow of real love. The music tends to be sinuous and has a sometimes surprising, leaping pulse.

While Shakespeare in his Sonnets makes imagination, perhaps not feeling, the workhorse of most of his rhetorical lines; Sidney finds the metaphors, even the thoughts, which make do, and fills them with his feeling.

Here is Sonnet 42 with my comments. And here is a quick analysis of Sonnet 42 by Jonathan Smith of Hanover College.

(Image is Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach

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Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach is kind of the 19th century’s nihilist version of William Carlos Williams “This Is Just To Say”. He has formulated a classic slice of sublimated spitefulness; turns a plate of your sweetest plums reduced to a pile of pits. My comments with Dover Beach focus on how he teases us with the appearance of a formal poem in various ways at various times, but really only wants to lead us on to felt trouble.

3 Poems by Robert Hayden

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Hayden’s Poetry Foundation Bio talks about his somewhat unique place in African American literature as a great African American poet who focused on race and ethnicity, yet nonetheless denied the limitations of a narrow label for himself. At least, he seems to be one of the first major black poets to take that stand so seriously.

[From the poetry foundation:]
“‘In the 1960s,’ William Meredith wrote in his foreword to Collected Prose, ‘Hayden declared himself, at considerable cost in popularity, an American poet rather than a black poet, when for a time there was posited an unreconcilable difference between the two roles. . . . He would not relinquish the title of American writer for any narrower identity.’ Ironically, much of Hayden’s best poetry is concerned with black history and the black experience.”

Perhaps Hayden’s crowning achievement is the longish poem, Middle Passage. It is gloriously complex and fine, with meaningful dramatic surprises throughout. It is also a grisly depiction of moral baseness set with rich, elevated language. I suppose it must be one of my favorite poems. In 1976 Hayden became “Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress”, that is, our Poet Laureate.

Here are three poems by Robert Hayden in PDF: Middle Passage; a dramatic poem on Harriet Tubman Runagate Runagate; and a wonderfully even handed poem on Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

 

Sam Allen’s A Moment, Please

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Sam Allen (1917-2015) first studied with the magnificent James Weldon Johnson at Fiske, a black university in Nashville. Allen’s bachelor’s degree was in sociology. Then in 1941 he received a law degree from Harvard. He taught both law and literature on the college level.

After serving in WWII, then briefly in New York’s D.A. office, Allen moved to Paris, where he became immersed in the expatriate literary scene. Allen became friendly with people like James Baldwin, (both men were the sons of pastors), Richard Wright, Leopold Senghor, and Aime Cesaire. And through Wright he began to publish in the black literary journal, Presence Africaine. Mr. Allen also attended the Sorbonne on the GI Bill.

Sam Allen began publishing poetry and translations and writing essays under the name Paul Vesey. Here is one of his most deft and delicate pieces of his I’ve seen: A Moment, Please. This poem interests me especially because of the interplay between the two strings of speech. The one in caps at the margin works as an independent meditation, while the indented lines give a narrative. In experimental poetry magazines today, (really this is a centuries old practice at least), poets will sometimes give a poem that runs across rows that is also divided into two or more columns. However, usually the relevance of the phrases is much looser than in Allen’s A Moment, Please; and I appreciate the way that he chooses to build meaning through actual coherent syntactical structures.

In fact, the tension of the meditative column, which is vast in time and space, and naturally inclines the soul to a perspective of freedom and detachment, is caught and caught again by the needling humiliation at the hands of a few impudent teenage girls. The experience of being worn down by something constantly, unfairly, nagging away at one’s vision is thereby well captured. The technique of having two columns, to communicate two things in this struggle is thereby not at all arbitrary.

Old Testament Biblical poetry commonly uses paired expressions, in lines A and B, where B is often a recasting of the sense of A, but with greater specificity and intensity. Much of the time these parallel lines are contraries, however, or are very distantly or obliquely related. Poetry is captured here in some cases when the reader’s mind is not merely called to process the line’s assertion in terms of truth value, but expression A is pitched against expression B, and the contemplation mounts up, even makes us gape in awe, or stuns us, as we consider the relations of the terrain of the entire “burden”, that is, flow of prophetic speech. Parallelism is a technique which tends to provide depth to thought.

There is an incredible ability of the human mind to appreciate a vast number of things that may seem meaningless at other times, like one’s kitchen backsplash, or the West Texas plains, or the mole on a face. We can appreciate flat lines, even fall into them. But this poem contains a great height, (in the lines in caps), still almost undiscernible in a quick read, (as though the TV were on), such is the attractive force of the little pathos laden narrative. In poetry with paired lines and contrasting juxtaposition, as in Biblical parallelism, there is given a fair freedom to compare the meaningful values of the things represented. And so as Allen says, “a moment, please”.

The video below shows Allen in a short reading. Highly recommended.

George Herbert’s Jordan (I)

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Jordan I
by George Herbert

Who says that fictions only and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beauty?
Is all good structure in a winding stair?
May no lines pass, except they do their duty

Not to a true, but painted chair?

Is it no verse, except enchanted groves
And sudden arbours shadow coarse-spun lines?
Must purling streams refresh a lover’s loves?
Must all be veil’d, while he that reads, divines,

Catching the sense at two removes?

Shepherds are honest people; let them sing;
Riddle who list, for me, and pull for prime;
I envy no man’s nightingale or spring;
Nor let them punish me with loss of rhyme,

Who plainly say, my God, my King.

 

Elizabeth Browning: Sonnetto Amore

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“Sonnetto Amore” is my rough Italian for “love sonnet”. Italy was Elizabeth’s adopted country upon her clandestine marriage to poet Robert Browning. There she revealed to him this, her most famous poem. Read an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet in the link.

Sidney’s The Seven Wonders of England

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Sir Philip Sidney, pure poet, soldier, and cup bearer to Queen Elizabeth, wrote the Seven Wonders of England during his mid-twenties. It is a trance-like meditation on an almost supernatural, and unrequited, love spell. A multi-talented prodigy of the English Renaissance, Sidney did not place a high priority on his literary effort for a man so gifted with the lyric touch. A few of the notes included in the PDF link are from the Oxford World’s Classics’, Sir Philip Sidney’s The Major Works.