Friday, October 28, 2011

I Teach Myself

Yesterday, on a whim, my sister and I ended up down Commercial Drive, walking towards a used bookstore we have passed before but have yet to enter. It was called "Canterbury Tales" though there was no name on the door or anywhere on the small building. (The receipt revealed it unto us.) Inside was a densely stacked shop, with sprawling shelves and inbuilt nooks and crannies, and books overflowing, like manna from the gods. There was no room to sit and contemplate a purchase, but we spent over an hour there, picking up cheap reference books as is our wont, and old favorites and new titles and poetry, poetry, poetry.

I got a book about the lives of poets, as if listing saints for a prayer book, full of old resounding names like Milton and Pope, as well as newer greats like Frost and Yeats, Sandburg and Auden and Aiken. Although I'm not the type to really enjoy classics, I felt I needed to know a thing or two about the poets who paved the way. A dearth of women in there of course. But it seemed a solid thing I could stand on, even as I look around for poets my age.

And then after careful deliberation, I picked out a paperback of contemporary American poetry arranged by geography, published in 1979, with names I knew and more I didn't. And I like that it's small enough to carry around, and I'm reading it one page at a time, which is rare for poetry books on my shelf, and it's old enough that I underline some verse I liked (in pencil) and maybe write a comment or two, and it feels like an easy conversation instead of an assignment.

And I still dream of writing down a curriculum to follow, but knowing my own flighty self, am resigned to keeping the books close, and the pen closer.

“If you’re afraid you can’t write, the answer is to write. Every sentence you construct adds weight to the balance pan. If you’re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, don’t show them until you write your way beyond your fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence. If writing even a sentence is impossible, write a word and teach yourself everything there is to know about that word and then write another, connected word and see where their connection leads.” -― Richard Rhodes


When a dream has you tangled in its strands
While the sirens sing to you from yonder shore
And you stumble over sea and over land
Just to touch them as they sing you more and more
Then a foghorn goes off right beside your ear.
You can't unwake from that, my dear.

Note: The effect of reading epic poetry on my constitution.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Falling in Love

I got Ted Kooser's "The Poetry Home Repair Manual" in the mail and I'm reading it now. His words make me think of my own history of poetry. I made up rhymes as a child, considering it a game. I wanted to be a writer, but I preferred stories, because they were big enough to live in, to get lost in. In high school and college, I wrote poems that were mere wordplay, witty but without beauty. I lacked understanding of the essence of poetry.

As a literature student, I had the opportunity to study a variety of poetry. But we were taught to ask what does it mean? and we dissected the words of these men and women while ignoring the inherent beauty contained within the work, aurally and visually. And while I learned about the place of poetry in culture, in revolution, it was like a puzzle to be decoded, another game.

And then I met a poet who taught us to look at the beauty of poetry, to say it out loud and listen to its music. To let it inhabit us. And I fell in love. (with poetry. with life.) I was twenty one years old.

Six short years and one transatlantic move later, I have over a dozen poetry books on my shelf, and have written draft after draft. The writing of poetry has become to me a life-affirming, even sacred act. Something of the game remains, but one played for higher stakes. (That is, myself.)

And yet I also face the gaps in my education, the gaps in my technique and ability. The road ahead is fog-ridden, filled with drifting ghosts of my own doubt. But I walk through it without fear. There are few things in my life that I want badly enough to risk failure, rejection, humiliation. Poetry is It.

Something I wrote after reading Kooser:
Dreaming of Poetry

I don’t want fame;
I don’t even like
my name. But I want
to write a poem
that someone else
will speak out loud
that will change
the shape of their breath,
of their thought.

I want to write
a poem that gleams
bright enough
to be mistaken
for a star, a poem mysterious
as ether, and as concrete
as a plum, purple and ripe,
with a pithy heart.

I want to write a poem
that flies with other poems
season after season,
the sky alive with beating wings.

Words you could read to the blind,
sounds you can almost touch.

I want to write a poem
that is beyond the limits
of my skin, of my mind,
of my dream. A Poem
that is beyond me.

from "Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet"

by Adrienne Rich

... I thought [poetry] could offer clues, intimations, keys to questions that already stalked me, questions I could not even frame yet: What is possible in this life? What does "love" mean, this thing that is so important? What is this other thing called "freedom" or "liberty" -- is it like love, a feeling? What have human beings lived and suffered in the past? How am I going to live my life? The fact that poets contradicted themselves and each other didn't baffle or alarm me. I was avid for everything I could get; my child's mind did not shut down for the sake of consistency.
As we all do when young and searching for what we can't even name yet, I took what I could use where I could find it. When the ideas or forms we need are banished, we seek their residues wherever we can trace them. But there was one major problem with this. I had been born a woman, and I was trying to think and act as if poetry -- and the possibility of making poems -- were a universal -- a gender-neutral -- realm. In the universe of the masculine paradigm, I naturally absorbed ideas about women, sexuality, power from the subjectivity of male poets -- Yeats not least among them. The dissonance between these images and the daily events of my own life demanded a constant footwork of imagination, a kind of perpetual translation, and an unconscious fragmentation of identity: woman from poet. Every group that lives under the naming and image-making power of a dominant culture is at risk from this mental fragmentation and needs an art which can resist it....
By 1956, I had begun dating each of my poems by year. I did this because I was finished with the idea of a poem as a single, encapsulated event, a work of art complete in itself; I knew my life was changing, my work was changing, and I needed to indicate to my readers my sense of being engaged in a long, continuing process. It seems to me now that this was an oblique political statement -- a rejection of the dominant critical idea that the poem's text should be read as separate from the poet's everyday life in the world. It was a declaration that placed poetry in a historical continuity, not above or outside history.
To write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman's body and experience, to take woman's existence seriously as theme and source for art, was something I had been hungering to do, needing to do, all my writing life. It placed me nakedly face to face with both terror and anger; it did indeed imply the breakdown of the world as I had always known it, the end of safety, to paraphrase Baldwin again. But it released tremendous energy in me, as in many other women, to have that way of writing affirmed and validated in a growing political community. I felt for the first time the closing of the gap between poet and woman.
What happens to the heart of the artist, here in North America? What toll is taken of art when it is separated from the social fabric? How is art curbed, how are we made to feel useless and helpless, in a system which so depends on our alienation?

Alienation -- not just from the world of material conditions, of power to make things happen or stop happening. Alienation from our own roots, whatever they are, the memories, dreams, stories, the language, history, the sacred materials of art...
Nothing need be lost, no beauty sacrificed. The heart does not turn to a stone.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


As the train follows its path home,
the spires of one bridge catch the eye,
a beacon over the river gleaming,
against the murky sky, among the neat rows
of boxes nestled in verdant green, what's left
of a mighty forest that still holds
the seat of mystery, the mirror
to our own wildness we always try to tame.
And beyond, the shadowy mountains
slumbering bodies of giants waiting, waiting.

I must be the odd one out, the stranger
walking through this city, ever lost.
Still yearning for the half-remembered chaos
of a half-forgotten home, full of things
waiting for the poet's eye to transmute it,
spinning the rough tangle to softest silk.

Is it that we see only what we do not grasp?
Is it that to my unhappiness I am too attached?
Even now, I am plotting ways to escape
the things that bind me here, though tis my own feet,
my own hands, my own selfish self.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

from "The Figure a Poem Makes"

by Robert Frost

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life -- not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement.
No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn't know I knew.
It must be a revelation, or a series of revelations, as much for the poet as for the reader.
Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Note on Poetry

by Tristan Tzara
from "Poetry in Theory: an anthology 1900-2000" by Jon Cook, pp. 91-3

The poet of the last station has given up vain weeping; lamentation slows down progress. The humidity of past ages. People who feed on tears are contented and obtuse, they thread their tears behind the necklaces of their souls so as to cheat the snakes. The poet can go in for Swedish gymnastics. But for abundance and explosion he knows how to kindle hope TODAY. Whether tranquil, ardent, furious, intimate, pathetic, slow or impetuous, his burning desire is for enthusiasm, that fecund form of intensity.

To know how to recognise and pick up the signs of the power we are awaiting, which are everywhere; in the fundamental language of cryptograms, engraved on crystals, on shells, on rails, in clouds, or in glass; inside snow, or light, or coal; on the hand, in the beams grouped round the magnetic poles, on wings.


The mind is alive with a new range of possibilities: to centralise them, to collect them under a lens that is neither material nor delimited -- what is popularly called: the soul. The ways of expressing them, of transmuting them: the means. Bright as a flash of gold -- the increasing beating of expanding wings.

Without pretensions to a romantic absolute, I present a few mundane negations.

A poem is no longer a formal act: subject, rhythm, rhyme, sonority. When projected on to everyday life, these can become means, whose use is neither regulated nor recorded, to which I attach the same weight as I do to the crocodile, to burning metals, or to grass. Eye, water, equilibrium, sun, kilometre, and everything that I can imagine as belonging together and which represents a potential human asset, is sensitivity. The elements love to be closely associated, truly hugging each other, like the cerebral hemispheres and the cabins of transatlantic liners.

Rhythm is the gait of intonations we hear, but there is a rhythm that we neither see nor hear: the radius of an internal grouping that leads towards a constellation of order. Up to now, rhythm has been the beating of a dried-up heart, a little tinkle in putrid, padded wood. I don't want to put fences round what people call principles, when what is at stake is freedom. But the poet will have to be demanding towards his own work in order to discover its real necessity: order, essential and pure, will flower from this asceticism -- (Goodness without a sentimental echo, its material side.)


The poem pushes up or hollows out the crater, remains silent, kills or shouts in an accelerating crescendo of speed. It will no longer depend on its visual image, on sense perception or on intelligence, but on its impact, or capability of transmuting the traces of emotions.


Under the bark of felled trees, I seek the image of things to come, of vigour, and in underground tunnels the obscurity of iron and coal may already be heavy with life.
Note: I don't necessarily agree with this, but I understand how a poet strives to break through the barriers of form. And yet the best poetry seems to stem from a collaboration with form, the result of hard-won liberties you reach under the yoke of traditional elements such as rhyme and meter.

Can the same be said of life? Should we not strive to break free of societal rules (such as anarchists do) and instead glory in negotiating the rules and finding our way to our own personal freedoms? (Democracy?)

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

To Clara Rilke

by Rainer Maria Rilke
from Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000 by Jon Cook, p. 37-8

...Go on collecting impressions; don't think of letters which have to be informative and comprehensible; take in this and that with quick snatching-gestures: passing thoughts, ideas, fancies that suddenly flare up in you and last only a second under the influence of some occurrence; all those unimportant things that often become significant through a fleeting intensity of vision or because they take place on a spot where they are absolute in their irrelevance, unceasingly valid and profoundly meaningful for any personal insight which, rising up in us at the same moment, coincides pregnantly with that image. Looking is such a marvellous thing, of which we know but little; through it, we are turned absolutely towards the Outside, but when we are most of all so, things happen in us that have waited longingly to be observed, and while they reach completion in us, intact and curiously anonymous, without our aid, -- their significance grows up in the object outside: a powerful, persuasive name, the only name these inner events could possibly have, a name in which we joyfully and reverently recognise the happenings within us, a name we ourselves do not touch, only apprehending it very gently, from a distance, under the similitude of a thing that, a moment ago, was strange to us, and the next moment will be estranged anew.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


What do you need, Christine?
A hand to push or pat?
A mouth to give advice
such as this? Let your breath
cover mirrors and beware
not to meet your own eyes.

Silence keeps the cracks from
showing, holds death at bay.
The truth is like the seeds
you bury or the stones
you can throw. You follow
this line to where it leads

down, in the deep cavern
where secrets breed like ghosts
born from love. All things end,
but will these words live on?
They wound you like sharp knives.
You turn around and send

them back. How to forgive
and to frustrate your selves?
You watch the skies for signs
of what’s to come, ignore
the cords that bind, the vines
around your heels entwined.

You still cannot decide
to trust, but you can write.
Each poem offers a trail
into darkness where you
mark each footfall you take.
Hope lives behind the veil.

I wrote this over a year ago, going through many revisions. I like how this came out, but the last stanza still bothers me. Also, when I read it at first, it was strange to me, as if someone else wrote it, which is particularly ironic. I had to go through my notes to remember what truths I was grappling with: Poetry as Truth, Self-sabotage, Self-protection.

Reasons for poetry

"The world deprived of clear-cut outlines, of the up and the down, of good and evil, succumbs to a peculiar nihilization, that is, it loses its colors, so that grayness covers not only things of this earth and of space, but also the very flow of time, its minutes, days, and years. Abstract considerations will be of little help, even if they are intended to bring relief. Poetry is quite different. By its very nature it says: All those theories are untrue. Since poetry deals with the singular, not the general, it cannot—if it is good poetry—look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, it cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint. By necessity poetry is therefore on the side of being and against nothingness."

- Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things

"We know, from the mellifluous litany of poets' names, who wrote these poems, but we might also consider what wrote them: the urge to sing, pray, cry, announce, and whisper; to write cultures into visibility; to write not after events but in their aftermath, through collisions in time and space, exile within and without; to walk around in the ruins of wars, awake. What wrote them was a determination to revolt against silence with a bit of speaking. What wrote was an upwelling of poetic apprehension of world."

- Carolyn Forche, Language for a New Century:
Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond