March

March in Portland means weather of every kind (hail, sun, snow, rain, freezing, 60°) in a single day on most days. The weather in March poems ranges too. In Lizette Woodworth Reese’s Mid-March “It is too early for white boughs, too late / For snows” and “The days go out with shouting.”  Swinburne‘s March is a “master of winds, bright minstrel and marshal of storms that enkindle the season they smite,” but William Matthew’s March is hot, with thick air — “Nothing can ease the March heat / nor make it stay.”

In Elizabeth Spires’ “Ocean City: Early March” the month is moody and gray with storm. Dickinson, however, invites March in,

Oh March, Come right upstairs with me –
I have so much to tell –

I got your letter, and the Birds –
The Maples never knew that you were coming –
I declare – how Red their Faces grew –

But I think my favorite Continue reading “March”

Mark Doty

Mark Doty is frequently lauded as one of the best American poets writing today, and I certainly concur. His manner of looking at the world is that of regard, an intellectual gaze that insists on detail and beauty, and taking the time to examine. He’s prolific, with about seven is it? eight? volumes of poetry, not including his award-winning New and Selected (which is a great place to start). And three books of memoir (centering around the death of his partner from AIDS, growing up gay, and dogs and loss, respectively). And a meditation about art history. And a little poetics book too (one of Graywolf Press’s lovely “Art Of” series). And an occasional blog.

When Doty annoys, which can happen every once in a while, it’s because of an overdosing of description, a too-mannered-ness. “Dammit, too much elegance!” one perhaps wants to yell on occasion. Or maybe, sometimes, “Cut to the chase!” But mostly he’s wonderful.

My Alexandria was my introduction to Doty (his third, I think, collection, published in 1993). The first poem in it has been one of my favorites since I read it (freshman or sophomore year of college), “Demolition,” which watches a building being taken down by a backhoe, its shy metal scoop, “a Japanese monster tilling its yellow head / and considering what to topple next.” That poem has one of my favorite poet-profound lines, “We love disasters that have nothing to do / with us.”Continue reading “Mark Doty”

Two novels

I recently finished two classics, and damn were they worth the designation, both of them — The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1932 Pulitzer Prize) and All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1947 Pulitzer Prize). They’d been sitting on my shelf for years, finally got around to them (the list is so very, very long, and then there are all the movies too…!)

The Good Earth follows the life of an ordinary Chinese man, Wang-Lung, from the day of his wedding to the day of his death, during a time of world war, revolution, and great upheaval that touches him directly barely at all. It’s the land that changes him, and then, human foibles that undo him. The sentences are very simple, and roll along quite easily. A simply-told, profound story.

Before a handful of days had passed it seemed to Wang Lung that he had never been away from his land, as indeed, in his heart he never had. With three pieces of the gold he bought good seed from the south, full grains of wheat and of rice and of corn, and for very recklessness of riches he bought seeds the like of which he had never planted before, celery and lotus for his pond and great red radishes that are stewed with pork for a feast dish and small red fragrant beans.

The book jacket on my copy says this book is of interest for anyone who wants to know about Chinese culture, but I say Continue reading “Two novels”

February

February. In Portland we’re having fantastic 50′ weather and warm rain, but I always think of February as snowy, and so it is most often in February poems. One of my favorite February poems is Norman Dubie‘s “February: The Boy Breughel.”

It starts out with this beautiful metaphor,

The birches stand in their beggar’s row:
Each poor tree
Has had its wrists nearly
Torn from the clear sleeves of bone,

“Clear sleeves of bone”! Then it moves to a further beggar image, “These icy trees / Are hanging by their thumbs” which is, well, terrible.Continue reading “February”

Titles

I re-read Charles Wright‘s  Appalachia this morning (and Black Zodiac (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998), both excellent) and was struck by — in addition of course to just how good he is, and how the feel of his long lines (in his later books anyway) differs from so many other poets I like, and how deep and meditative the poems feel  — just how fantastic the titles in Appalachia are.

Titles, as a point of craft, can be quite difficult. And a great title does not a great poem make, just as a pedestrian title does not a bad poem make, of course. Mark Doty, Elizabeth Bishop, and Cornelius Eady are wonderful poets, but they won’t be on my favorite titles list, nor many others; they have good titles, that set up and affect the rest of the lines (“Poem” is actually a perfectly fine way to go) but that are unremarkable out of context. Dickinson didn’t title any of hers. But, a great title can be an awfully fun way to start things.Continue reading “Titles”

Poor sons-a-bitching ducks

I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of John Logan before this morning, but I am now enamored. Of the poem “Three Moves,” at least, since that’s the only one of his I’ve yet read.

The rhymes! and the near-rhymes, how they spill down the page! “Remain, “friends” and “again” in the first four lines, the long single syllables of “call” and “soul.” And “grounds” and “brown” later, and then couplets here and there, “boats” and “floats,” and “night” and “all right.” But also in between there’s “damp” and “Frank” and “dares.” “Swill” and “spill” and “beautiful.” Say them out loud, they move the mouth wonderfully.

For instance, in the top half of the poem,

I have a friend named Frank—
the only one who ever dares to call
and ask me, “How’s your soul?”
I hadn’t thought about it for a while,
and was ashamed to say I didn’t know.
I have no priest for now.
Who
will forgive me then. Will you?
Tame birds and my neighbors’ boats.
The ducks honk about the floats…

Frank who asks you to be frank. (And isn’t it interesting Continue reading “Poor sons-a-bitching ducks”

Farm Animals

It’s set to be a gorgeous, blue-sky 50′ February weekend in Portland. Let’s take a field trip to a farm to see the animals.

We’ll drive down the road and see on either side “those dear old ladies, / the loosening barns,” barns hiding deer and tractors.

When we get to the farm, we’ll visit the sow Blackula, lying in her pen “in the mud to consider herself.” (She is being closely watched from a fence post by the “excellent clamberer,” the cat Jeoffrey).

Off to the left, there’s a field of sheep. There are both black-faced sheep “not shrewd like the pig,” and gray sheep Continue reading “Farm Animals”

On the Anthology

There are just a ton of poetry anthologies out there in the world (over fifty on my own bookshelf alone). I’ve been thinking about anthologies of late, no doubt due directly to the recent controversy about Rita Dove’s choices (and omissions) for The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry and to American Alphabets (David Walker’s wonderful new anthology out of Oberlin College Press, offering robust selections from 25 poets) which I was given for Christmas.

Without taking sides on the Penguin issue, since I have not yet read the anthology itself but only read articles about it online, I wonder if part of the problem is less Dove’s choices and more just the title — if it were An Anthology of 20th Century instead of The (and it can’t be The without Plath and Ginsberg — those two omissions due to permissions issues and budget limitations) would there be so much vitriol? If it were just Dove’s choices for An anthology, I suspect the discussion about it would be more fun.

Well, probably not, Continue reading “On the Anthology”

W.C.W

The red wheelbarrow. The plums. Dancing in front of a mirror. That’s what I always think of when I think of William Carlos Williams. I’ve been reading around a lot more in his Selected Poems and it turns out he’s a lot more irreverent, and less the grandfatherly type, than I thought.

I’m not sure why he’s always seemed so. I complained to my book club that my misperception of his work must be because the only poems of his that are anthologized are the imagist ones. But then I went back to my anthologies and I’m wrong, poems like “Tract,” with more edge and a much different tone than “The Red Wheelbarrow,” are actually well-represented.

Maybe it’s just the photographs. His Selected cover photo gives a much different impression of the man than the photo on the cover of his autobiography (which is an entertaining read. It’s really just a series of somewhat randomly connected stories and anecdotes. Some are quite interesting, though some are a bit ‘and then that one time when I was a boy I fell down.’ “Spontaneous” is the word the jacket uses.) Here are more photos, and even a self-portrait painting (scroll a ways down).Continue reading “W.C.W”

Ghazal

On the flip side, as it were, from the fragmented, non sequitur, collage poetry I sometimes complain about, is the ghazal  (correctly pronounced, they tell me, something like a rhyme with “guzzle” but with a longer, throatier “gh” at the beginning).

Here are the first few couplets from the ghazal “Miscellany” by Nancy King:

Spread the tarot with care with me.
Future is daily fare with me.

Cats know eyeing can unnerve.
If you agree, come stare with me.

A confidence is heading here,
a dangerous need to share with me.

An Anjou lost no one an Eden.
Regard the innocent pear with me.

Ghazals are made up of anywhere from a few to many autonomous couplets with equal-length lines (be it meter, syllables, or beats) and a repeating rhyme (a qafia) and refrain (a radif) at the end of each 2nd line, which is introduced twice in the very first couplet (“care with me / fare with me”). Often the poet’s name is used in the very last couplet. The form dates back to the seventh century in a variety of Middle Eastern and other languages.

Pretty much all of my knowledge of the ghazal comes from Agha Shahid Ali‘s 2000 anthology Ravishing DisUnities: Real Ghazals in English, Continue reading “Ghazal”