Poetry Friday: Miller Williams and the Sestina

I embarked on a consideration of the poetry of the Inland Northwest last time out, but, as often occurs here on Poetry Fridays, events have distracted me and taken me somewhere else this week.  I saw somewhere that Miller Williams had died.  Now, most of you might not be familiar with Miller Williams—he’s a noted but not pop-culture famous American poet of the late 20th Century, who’s probably most well-known, in all honesty, for being father to an award-winning singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams.  His work touched many, though, and brought him high enough in the esteem of the right ears and eyes that he was asked to write and recite a poem for the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, in 1997.  Miller was a clear-thinking and tough-speaking poet, often, and according to the Poetry Foundation’s bio of him, he always felt that the best praise he ever got was “a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” I think that’s fair.

The reason I knew and loved Miller’s work really centered around one particular poem of his, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”. The reason for it is that, each December and January of my teaching career, I taught a mini-unit on poetry. Some of the all-time classics, some poems by friends of mine, some stuff I suspected most of the sophomores wouldn’t get and some stuff I dearly hoped most, if not all, of them would. One of the things I wanted to show them was the dazzling array of poetic forms, and the most fiendishly challenging and clockwork-clever of them is the sestina. It’s a tricky form to even understand—it abandons meter, and focuses on a small set of six words, which dance along the right margin of the poem like it’s the Virginia Reel, spinning, changing partners, always there but never in the same place. You can follow the link a couple sentences back to the Wikipedia entry explaining the exact pattern—how each of the six line stanzas uses the same six words to end each line, but how no word is ever at the end of the same line twice (that is, the word that ends the first line of the first stanza will end the second line of the second stanza and the fourth line of the third stanza, and so on for each of these six special sestina words). Now, because a sestina has to keep coming back to the same six words, most sestinas end up feeling a little silly. They can never move on from the topic at hand, and by the fourth or fifth stanza it often can feel like the poet has said all they have to say, leaving us irritated and bored. A neat device, you may think—catchy at first, but ultimately more a set of rules that prevent you from writing a decent poem than enabling you to.

But not Miller Williams. He had the genius notion that the sestina is an engine of great emotional power, structured in such a way that, in the hands of an artist and a passionate human being, can punch us in the heart and the head at just the right moment, and leave us wiser. At least that’s what I think. Because every year, no matter what else won the acclaim of each crew of sophomores, I could always count on them falling just a little bit in love with Miller Williams, and “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”:

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come—

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark—they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.

Time
goes
too
fast.
Come
home.

Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.

That damn sixth stanza. It makes me cry every time. I don’t think I have to tell you why or how this works. It will move each of us in different ways, and show us different sides of love and of loss. I just wanted you to know it existed, and that there existed, too, a man named Miller Williams who wrote something that will live far beyond his mortal body. I bless him and these words of his.

Poetry Friday: In memory of grandparents

It’s time to dust off the old blog, begin anew the consideration of literature, America, and how those two massive entities tug me in their gravitational fields as I encounter them.  I’m settled in enough at my new university to feel I can begin reading Upton Sinclair again, and start talking poetry here on Fridays again.  So consider this the blog’s sixth or seventh rebirth—hopefully with some staying power.  Today, though, I won’t be picking out some great poet of days gone by, and if you come here for something more polished today, you might want to look elsewhere on the Internet for a great poet.  This is one more personal Friday, one more chance for me to impose a little of my own verse on you, and perhaps you’ll enjoy it, or at least it will give you something to think about.  Saturday is my grandmother’s memorial service, and we’ll be commemorating both her and her husband, my grandfather, who died several years ago, before I moved to Chicago, and never had a formal service.  Today we drive across the mountains to be able to join the family for the occasion.  Grandma’s loss is still too recent for me to have set down any thoughts about it in verse form—I don’t know if I ever will, but if I do, surely they’ll make their way here someday.  But I do have the poem that saying goodbye to Grandpa Olander brought out of me, several months after his passing.  So I offer it today as my meditation on loss and love, on Grandpa and Grandma, on the world as it is and the world as it will be—as always, with my own work, I won’t comment in the post itself, but I’m happy to talk about it in comments if anyone cares to do so.  This is “Penn Cove Thanksgiving”, by James Rosenzweig:

The Thanksgiving after my grandfather dies,
my wife and I drive to his cabin.
A crisp blanket of snow surrounds us
on the drive up—
hems us in with its white glory,
but the roads are not icy.
We have an easy journey.

The last stretch of road is familiar to us—
we walked it arm in arm, once,
a decade ago,
the night we first saw that
two friends were going to fall in love,
at last.

That was a mild May evening.
It is full of frost air now.
The woods are ominous.
The world is going into the dark
and will not return again.
Not the same world.

We are slowly unpacking the car,
preparing to trudge our way to the front door,
when she stops.

“Look,” she says, and points out
at the deck illuminated by our headlights.
We walk forward together,
our eyes aimed downward
as she shows me the tracks left in the snow.
Unfamiliar small footprints—
they belong to a creature neither of us can name,
so we follow them, our breath swirling around
and behind us in visible clouds.

On the deck the tracks swirl and loop
in chaotic patterns, until a single trail
of prints leads away westward
and stops.
“A bird”, we both say,
but we remain motionless for a moment.

We are standing in a place
where something living broke free from the earth
into the open sky,
or else in a place where,
unimaginably,
a life traded the unbounded expanse of the air
to walk where we do,
leaving strange prints on the frozen earth,
intersecting itself with us for reasons we cannot guess.

We return to our bags and boxes,
we pack ourselves into the cabin and sleep.
The next morning we watch the prints on the melting snow
as they darken, soften, and vanish.

It is Thanksgiving morning.
We will be full today.

Poetry Friday: Entering the friend zone with W. B. Yeats

Because we approach a three-day weekend, and I am loath to burden your holiday relaxations with some somber poem about the Great War, you get one more week off from World War I, which by this time 100 years ago was about to become the horrifying, human-eating trench war that almost no one saw coming.  Instead, I offer another fling with one of Poetry Friday’s favorite guests, William Butler Yeats, whose stuff is always worth talking about (and, in my opinion, almost always really good).  A blog I read has been inviting reader submissions all week long of books and poems that have profoundly affected people, and “stuck with them” long term, and when one reader mentioned this poem, it reminded me of some thoughts I’ve always had about it.  I used to discuss this poem with high school sophomores, and I always enjoyed the chat, so it seemed to me it would be interesting to offer it this afternoon, and see what your various takes are.  This is a work of Yeats’ very early career—arguably his first famous poem—written by a man in his 20s and published in 1892: this is “When you are old”

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Yeats employs the style that too many imitated in poor, sing-song fashion—iambic pentameter (with occasional tweaks), end-stopped couplet rhyme, reliance on simple turns of phrase and familiar words—and shows what a master he was of words, and how in the right hands an approach to poetry that might look “greeting card” on first blush will open up and reveal some real depth of feeling.  The approach is direct enough, since each of us as the reader is the second person, the “you” who will one day be old and grey.  Yeats is gentle from the very beginning, the softest of sounds and phrases, a cadence that wraps around us like a well-worn shawl, and rocks us to sleep by the fire.  The woman is asked to imagine herself at the end of her life, looking back on who she once was, and leafing through an old book of poems written by a man she once knew.

And not just any man—not a man like all the others, who “loved your moments of glad grace / and loved your beauty” (though it’s not clear to me that those are very similar bases for love, at all).  No, this was the one man who saw something else in her—a pilgrim soul, whatever that phrase conjures for us.  Perhaps an image of a heart never quite at rest.  A woman who, despite her calm outward appearance, inwardly was forever journeying in search of some meaning not near at hand.  And he “loves the sorrows of [her] changing face”—as I used to ask my sophomores, “what, does that mean he likes it when she cries?” But of course not; instead, it seems to me that the changes here are the weathers of age that take away the outward appearance she once prized.  They may be sad to her, or perhaps some frown lines and wrinkles will arise out of sad expressions, but they only increase his devotion to her.

And then, he envisions, seeming almost eager at the scene imagined, she will bend beside the fire, murmur to herself about how she lost that one true love, who (unmarked by her, it seems) set out for the wilderness to travel lonely there, or else lost himself in the urban chaos of faces, one more pedestrian blurring past her every day.  And I would always ask my class then, and I ask you now, what is this poem?  Is it a love poem?

It seems to me (and of course I tipped my hand early on, in the post’s title) that Yeats is writing on some level about the “Nice Guy problem” that men seem to complain about online these days, or at least there is a sudden awareness of what I think is a long-standing male complaint.  It’s sometimes colloquially called “getting friend-zoned”—the nice, timid, devoted male friend thinks he’s the only guy who REALLY gets how special this beautiful girl is who spends all her time surrounded by admirers, and he feels somehow unjustly treated by her, since she never takes him out of “the friend zone”, this conjectured mental space where lovely women apparently deposit their opinions of “nice”, timid, devoted male acquaintances.  This isn’t all that nice a poem, if my thesis is right—it begins and ends where it does because that’s what’s emotionally satisfying to him.  The image of her, old and alone, staring sadly into the fire and leafing through the poetry of the guy she never gave a fair chance (but now knows was probably a little too good for her—certainly miles better than those flashy guys she dated).  Talk about some serious emotional issues, eh?

But that’s not the only reading, of course!  Usually I could count on students to advance other possibilities, but I’ll just take the clearest one (and the reason this has been one of Yeats most-anthologized poems).  The poem is simple, direct, and sweetly phrased—there’s almost no hint of bitterness in the words chosen.  It’s wistful—the poet hoping that someday she realizes what she meant to him, not because he wants to twist the knife, but because his feelings meant so much to him (drove him into the mountains and the faceless crowd, ultimately) that he wants to believe that she will, at least once in her long life, recognize them and understand.  The poem shuts no doors, draws no lines in the sand, casts no judgments, and pronounces no decrees.  So why assume it’s the claws of an angry cat?

And I turn it over to you—what kind of poem is this?  Why did Yeats write it, and what are we to make of it?  Is it a bitter “friend-zoned” poet soaking luxuriously in the thought that the woman who spurned him will one day ache with sorrow over it?  Or a nostalgic wish from a man who will always remember that girl with the haunted look and wish her well, wherever she is?  Or something else entirely?  Perhaps the Labor Day weekend will afford us all time to mull it over, and to offer a comment or two here on this post, if you like—thanks, as always, for your attention to this humble space and the poems that fill it!

Poetry Friday: Dorothy Parker

In my ongoing mission to weave back and forth between the somber poems of death, war, and loss and the cheerful poems of life, love, and satisfaction, today is slated to be a more fun week, in the wake of G. M. Hopkins’ sonnet of depression seven days ago.  And so it commends to our attention a poet who, whether or not she was as happy as she led us to believe, always had a spark in her sentences and a quick jab at the end of every poem to turn a grimace into a knowing grin.  I speak of today’s birthday girl, Dorothy Parker, who would be 121 today if she was alive (and yet I’m sure she wouldn’t look a day over 107).

Happy birthday, Dorothy!

There’s an earnestness to those eyes, I’ll admit, but it’s the firm set line of that jaw that tells me she was no one to trifle with.

You know her work even if you don’t immediately recognize her name—her witty barbs were the centerpiece of the famous Algonquin Round Table, and her talents as a screenwriter earned her two Academy Award nominations, most famously for A Star is Born.  She had her dark side—a lifelong battle with depression, which culminated, like Robin Williams’, in suicide late in life (in Dorothy’s case, well into her 70s)—but the face she showed the world in her poetry was normally a brave one, tough enough to take the hardest life offered, and keen-eyed enough to see through society’s little games.  And so I offer, in her memory and as a birthday salute to her, Dorothy Parker’s poem “Interview”:

“The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints…
So far, I’ve had no complaints.”

Parker never clarifies how this is an “interview”—is this a set of remarks she envisions making to some fictional journalist, or is she casting heterosexual romance in the setting of a job interview (where what’s described and what’s expected are often two different things)?  Or something else entirely?  It’s hard to say.  What’s easy is to grab right away the poem’s key thesis, the casual way Parker describes the sheltered life of the supposedly desirable woman and how her eyes must gleam as she remarks to us, finally and so coolly, “so far, I’ve had no complaints”.  It makes me laugh every time—Parker’s ease in branding herself as a wild, untamed, painted woman, and her obvious amusement at the idea, proponed by goodness-knows-who, that men would find a woman like her anything but fascinating and desirable.  You feel it right away in all her phrases, which are almost condescending as she imagines the kind of person who would be scandalized by a “wicked word” (I think “wicked” is very intentional there) and are so innocent that they cannot even recognize when the man in front of them is suggesting a dalliance.  There’s a power to the poem, beneath (and intricately involved in) its humor: the strangeness of our society’s double standards for women seeking relationships with men, which suggest a norm of purity that few can live up to, and yet confront women simultaneously with the reality that impurity is encouraged rather than frowned upon by the other side of the equation.

It’s not subtle, despite how sly it is—you’ll note that Parker never actually admits to anything, herself, instead allowing us to infer whatever we will from the simple admission that she’s “had no complaints”—because Parker knows how easily she’ll win us over.  Even the most conservative among us, folks who well might see themselves as pure and who would in fact never read an erotic poem, would (I think) have to acknowledge that the saucy smile Dorothy beams at us in that last line is a winning one.  If she entered the room you were in, whether you wanted to imitate her or not, it’s hard to imagine you could take your eyes off of her.  Her poetry certainly has that fixating effect, for me, and for many others.  So I hope it brings a little smile to your Friday, and that those who like what they saw here will nose around a little to find some of Parker’s other stuff—not all of it is quite this level of genius, but most of it is just as cheekily irreverent (and therefore captivating).

Poetry Friday: Summer and Siegfried Sassoon

At the end of a busy week, sometime all I can do is see the wheel of time turning and be glad it rolls only one direction—forward.  With that in mind, let’s turn our minds to the road ahead, to the promise implicit in this Midsummer’s Eve that summer is upon us with all its heat and light, and to the hope that the future tense brings with it—the delightful recklessness of verbs like “shall” and “will”.  Our guide tonight is Siegfried Sassoon, a poet you may know from his grisly World War I poems (about which more next weekend, on the centennial of the war’s beginnings), but who tonight is nothing but romance and confidence.  This is “Idyll”, by Siegfried Sassoon:

“In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day-break and the morning hills behind you.
There will be rain-wet roses; stir of wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
Till that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread, quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.”

Sassoon’s couplet rhyme may be cloying to some of you, but in the exuberance of a summer evening it’s hard for me to resist him.  Who does he await—a lover surely, but one dead? one long since married to another? one who sits beside him even now as he writes and who is reforged by his words?  Love is more than this poem knows, of course—darker, stranger, much more complicated and much heavier as a burden—but it is also all that this poem promises, the days when everything about the world seems to hum with the tune you have been singing.  When no thing flies or walks or creeps past you but you see some beauty in it.

Can we find Sassoon’s joy in the world?  Perhaps we can tonight, and perhaps not.  But on this warm Friday evening, poised on the brink of summer, I think there are grey summer gardens ahead for us all, sooner or later, and maybe Sassoon wrote this poem to remind us to look for them.  Regardless, I hope some turn of phrase here catches your eye and turns up a smile in you this weekend.

A daughter, and Veterans Day: A poem for both

Those who’ve followed the news here at FP for a while know that my wife and I were expecting a daughter.  I am glad (and exhausted) when I tell you she arrived on Friday in the wee hours of the morning.  We are all tired and learning our new roles and doing our best to care for each other, so blogging will proceed at goodness knows what pace in the short term.  I like writing here, and I think someday she will like reading what I wrote, looking back on these days when her father was so young, so sure of his opinions.  And I have a novel that is at least plausibly about young parenthood, so I should return to it.  For now, I hope I will be forgiven a little radio silence.

And it is, again, Veterans Day—a day when I recognize the horrors of war and lament the dead, a day when I both remind myself of the ugliness of the human condition and am simultaneously inspired by the ability of the noblest side of the human spirit to thrive even in war’s darkness.  I have written about this in the past, and what I think it says about my country that November 11th is a day for car sales and undelivered mail (who sends letters, anymore?) and maybe a few school kids at an assembly that’s more about rah-rahing and flag-waving and the glory of war than it is about the day’s true meaning.  You can read them, if you like: 2010 is here, and 2011 is here, and last year’s entry here.  This year, all I can add is that the birth of a daughter enhances rather than diminishes all my feeling about war and death—my admiration for those who have borne the battle (many of them unwillingly) and how they have found ways to express humanity thereby rather than giving in to depravity, and my dejection when I think of how many nations, mine included, have sent thousands if not millions to die for no good purpose.  So here, in a poem that expresses just a bit of all those sentiments, is a poem from the Great War, the war whose ending gives us today as a holiday—this is T. M. Kettle, an Irishman who went willingly into the fray because he believed he was working for a free Europe and a free Ireland, who died leading his men at the Battle of the Somme and whose body was never found.  This is the poem he wrote to the daughter he never came home to: “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God”.

“In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,—
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.”

English: Thomas_M._Kettle_memorial_in_St._Step...

A memorial to Thomas Kettle in a Dublin park. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nothing I could say could add meaning to this, nor could any detractor diminish what these words move in me. Today I remember with sorrow and with joy Lieutenant Thomas Kettle of the Irish Volunteers, and the daughter Elizabeth who never knew his face. May God bring them together in glory. May God forgive the human hatred and violence that parted them.

Poetry Friday: How to tell a whole story in 30 words, by Anna Akhmatova

English: Anna Akhmatova Español: Ana Ajmátova

Anna Akhmatova, circa 1925, the year her poetry was first subject to censorship by the Communist Party. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All right, time to jump back into the swing of things here at FP with a poem to liven up our Friday night and maybe give us something to ponder this weekend.  One of the great neglected poets is Russia’s Anna Akhmatova, whose work I’ve loved for years, but who I’m realizing has only been featured once on Poetry Friday in 3 years (and it wasn’t one of her better works, either).  Anna was a modernist, a lively thinker and a woman willing to speak the truth about gender and inequality—and, perhaps even more bravely, a Russian willing to speak out against Stalin’s murderous treatment of his people.  She was censored and denounced, harassed by the state police, and saw her son dragged off to a decade in a prison camp, but she refused to leave her beloved Russia, and she didn’t let the censors keep her from writing.  Today, I’ve chosen a piece from early in her career—it predates not only Stalin but the Revolution—but in the boldness of the writing, I think you can imagine how she might have spoken about totalitarianism on a national scale.  As always, I’m left to read in translation: I’ve read many translations of this poem, but I like this translation by Jerome Bullitt best.  This is “On lyubil“/”He Loved Three Things” from her 1912 collection entitled Evening:

“He loved three things:
White fowls, evensong,
And antique maps of America.

He hated the crying of children,
Raspberry jam at tea,
And female hysteria.

And I was his wife.”

This is a marvelous thing, to me—as I promised in the post’s title, I think this is a whole story contained in 30 precisely chosen words.  The character of “him” is so vivid it leaps off the page: the detachment of a man who prefers his cooing pets to handling the emotions of his children, the austerity of a man who prefers the crispness of a choir in song to the lusciousness of jam at tea.  I love the exactness of his hobbies—he’s not a generic “map nerd” but this (presumably) Russian man is specifically obsessed with “antique maps of America”.  And I think we know without Anna having to tell us that the phrase “female hysteria” is not the speaker’s—it’s a phrase she has heard him say, perhaps often, his lips curling back from it slightly with disdain.  Sometimes it takes half a novel to feel we see into a man’s head as fully as we are seeing into this nameless husband here.

And then the beauty of that dagger—“And I was his wife”!  In the punch of those five words, we see it all, don’t we?  Or enough to immediately step empathetically into her shoes, and see what kind of life unfolds from these premises?  Yes, yes, I’m taking a lot of liberties here, assuming this and extrapolating that, but the poem invites us to, and I think it suggests quietly all along “No, you’re not wrong to see all this; it’s all here just as you expected it would be.”

I own an anthology (somewhere in the serpentine labyrinth of the bookshelves that wind sinuously throughout the apartment) entitled The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, where the editors solicited 55-word stories from a wide range of authors (a few of them famous), and they’re delightful, but I think Anna manages to out-punch them while leaving 25 words on the table, which as I understand it is something like a hip-hop artist dropping the microphone.  She’s almost too good at this.  But I think it’s a fun challenge, and an easy one to complete (compared to most writing tasks): can you write a 30 word story (poetic or not) that feels alive?  Why not have a run at it on the back of an envelope, or in the margins of your weekend edition of the newspaper—heck, you can probably tweet it, as long as your words average 4.66 letters long (or less).  And whether you do or not, have another read at this tiny delight by Anna Akhmatova that may be over a century old but feels, to me, as fresh as an apple straight from the tree.