Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shove and Tumble

Happy National Poetry Month!

Last week I got my first-ever dog: Rosie, a golden retriever, rescued from Tennessee. Since I married a dog person, I knew this would happen eventually, but I was unprepared for the magnetic love in this creature's eyes, or for the energy it requires to walk her enough so that she'll go to sleep at night!

Mark Doty has been writing about dogs for decades, so he does it better than I. Here is an excerpt from a wonderful poem that I heard him read at Smith College. The entire poem appears at


They shove and tumble around us
on the concrete floor, the little ones,
just as they must have crowded
around the gates of this world,

eager to live. So much
to be licked, on earth,
what work! All mouth,
sure of their reception,

they've hurried to a realm
they know will feed them,
and they open their new faces
to us, tongues and teeth

apprehending our sweetness and pity,
smells and salts. This is here,
the minds register, yes,
and this, and this is good....

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Poets Should Give Encores

I think that as poets and consumers of poetry we can be entirely too sedate. Thus, I want to propose a new aspect to poetry readings: encores. Even at quieter readings of "page" poems (as opposed to "spoken word" poems), when there is a good connection between reader and audience, that energy should be recognized and honored with an encore. Musicians give encores. The whole idea of an encore is for the audience to let the performer know how much they loved the performance and don't want it to end. When Mark Doty read at Smith College a couple weeks ago, he said, as he neared the end, "Ok, I think we have time for three more poems." Someone in the audience yelled, "Could you make it four?" When Doty was done reading, we clapped and clapped and clapped and he did stand up again and take a bow, but it would have been so much more gratifying if he had given an encore.

The other thing I think we should embrace more is applause, which is another great way for the audience to interact with the reader. Normally at poetry readings, the audience behaves like concert-goers listening to sonatas: remaining silent through everything, no matter how moving. All the emotion stays inside the individual listeners. Sometimes, this is appropriate. The poems are more quiet, or they require some pondering before they sink in. However, certain audiences tend to break into applause more easily at poetry readings. This gives the evening more of the lively feel of a jazz show, in which audiences applaud throughout in appreciation of the artists' virtuosity. When Sharon Olds read at Smith College last week, people applauded after every poem. The part of me that was raised going to Classical music concerts with my family thought, "How uncouth!" but the part of me that loves spontaneous expression thought, "How wonderful!"

Monday, April 7, 2008

Reviews in Brief

Notes on a few of the good books in my library:

Elizabeth Bishop. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. The long periods of time Bishop spent crafting her poems is evident in their careful construction. She creates subtle rhymes and meters within both traditional and invented forms. The poems tackle subjects such as loss, disconnection, and foreignness in a controlled, perceptive voice.

John Cage. Silence: Lectures and Writings. These lectures are not called poems, yet they have much to teach the poet about how the arrangement of words on a page can be seen as a performance of the work. Cage, a composer, describes the “chance methods” through which he creates work based on his Zen beliefs. The result is a bizarre beauty.

Anne Carson. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1999. Carson transforms narrative into lyric with her consistent use of rich and unusual figurative language. The ebb and flow of the lines evokes the inconstancy Geryon experiences as a depressive artist and particularly as a lover of the elusive Herakles. The standard plot provides a sturdy structure for Carson’s quirky, memorable characters and her bold revision of an ancient myth.

Lucille Clifton. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2000. Clifton’s poems are admirable for their brevity and taut potency. Simply constructed and easy to read, they convey brave and unabashed messages about life’s essential duality of creation and destruction. Clifton does not shrink from ambivalence; rather she sees it everywhere and renders it affectingly, without gratuitous explication.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Robert Creeley

Creeley is one of those fabulously unclassifiable poets. I have heard him compared to other poets, even seen him labeled and placed in a "school," but I still think his work is in a class of its own. Some of it is clear and simple, some of it is obscure. Much of it is heartfelt, much of it is reserved. Even the more opaque of his verses seems to contain their own logic, like a painting that is well made but whose meaning is a mystery.

Who was it who said, "A poem should not mean, but be"?

Here is the Robert Creeley poem that showed up yesterday on my Poetry Daily desk calendar:


Tunneling through the earth
this way, I didn't know

the surface was where
I had come from. Dreams.