It’s long been a dream of mine to have a poem up at Poetry Daily, and today, that dream came true! My poem “The World’s Longest-Running Scientific Experiment, 2010,” first published in The Briar Cliff Review, is today’s poem. Thanks to the editors at both publications! This poem appears in my second collection, Simple Machines.
Hi! Simple Machines is #15 on the Small Press Distribution July Poetry Bestsellers list. Woo-hoo! That was a secret, long-held dream of mine. Now, help me crack the top ten for August! There are 23 copies left over at SPD–if you haven’t already bought one, please head over to Small Press Distribution and get one! Let me know you got one, and I’ll send you a signed bookplate or sign it in person the next time I see you. And please share! #SimpleMachinesSellOut
Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer last year, so it’s probably not a surprise to you that he’s a good poet to read. I thought I’d include a poem from his earlier collection, though, to show that his musicality and wide-ranging consciousness were present in the last book, too (from www.poetryfoundation.org):
It’s a beautiful image, and the sonic qualities of this poem are equal to its visual interest. Track the letter “t” through the poem–see how many lines have at least one t. My favorite lines are “How / the whole stunning contraption of girl and rope / slaps and scoops like a paddle boat.” I love the consonance of “slaps” and “scoops,” and those verbs are so precise that they conjure the rope turning in air. I love that the poet makes good on the metaphor in “contraption,” comparing the rope-jumping to the “paddle boat” wheel.
The first time I ever cried in class in front of my students was the day I heard Steve Orlen had died. Orlen had been my teacher at the University of Houston, when he was a visiting professor and I was second-semester MFA student writing absolute crap. Until Orlen’s class. He was such a smart reader and calm person–you felt you could write your real thing, your riskiest thing, and he’d honor it, and tell you how to make it into the poem it needed to be. In his class, I wrote the poem that got me my first major publication, in the Indiana Review. I still thought I needed permission to write, and he humored me and gave me that. When I think of my favorite poems of all time, this poem of his is on the list:
In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas
By Steven Orlen
In the house of the voice of Maria Callas
We hear the baby’s cries, and the after-supper
Rattle of silverware, and three clocks ticking
To different tunes, and ripe plums
Sleeping in their chipped bowl, and traffic sounds
Dissecting the avenues outside. We hear, like water
Pouring over time itself, the pure distillate arias
Of the numerous pampered queens who have reigned,
And the working girls who have suffered
The envious knives, and the breathless brides
With their horned helmets who have fallen in love
And gone crazy or fallen in love and died
On the grand stage at their appointed moments—
Who will sing of them now? Maria Callas is dead,
Although the full lips and the slanting eyes
And flared nostrils of her voice resurrect
Dramas we are able to imagine in this parlor
On evenings like this one, adding some color,
Adding some order. Of whom it was said:
She could imagine almost anything and give voice to it.
It’s a poem about imagination, so that I often can’t help but read it as a metaphor for poetry–that it’s our job as poets to try to give voice to our imaginings as well as Callas did. And when I had Orlen as a teacher, I told him how much I love the line, “ripe plums / Sleeping in their chipped bowl,” and he said, “Thank you, thank you, that means a lot to me,” in a way that made me believe he really did take my opinion seriously, and then he asked, “What makes it a good line, do you think?” At the time, I think I said that the verb surprised me, and so I learned you could pack a metaphor into your verb, you didn’t need to spell it out for people, but also I learned that you could use a line break to set up your surprise. It was a lesson I should have learned in Latin–the first word and last word of the line are places of emphasis and intention, and you could leave your loaded words there. Often, Latin sentences have the important words, the verbs, as the first or last words of the sentence.
Now when I read that line, I think it’s the rhythm, too. Here’s how I scan it: “Ripe plums” is a spondee, “sleeping” is a trochee, “in their” is pyrrhic, and “chipped bowl” is another spondee. All of these are considered strong feet except “in their,” and it’s the perfect softness to set up the precise sound and strength of the “chipped bowl” spondee. The way you put your lips together for the p’s in “chipped” is broken by the pursed lips you have to make to read “bowl,” so it feels really good to read it out loud, too.
There’s a great hint of alliteration in the middle, when we get the archetypal opera plot information–“breathless brides,” “horned helmets.” The longer narrative sentences keep going on their imagination, but also on their music.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Write an elegy for an artist you love, as Orlen’s lyric is an elegy for Callas. Inhabit that person’s art in a way that makes a statement about what work that artist did or has made possible for you. I’m going to write “In the House of Voice of Steve Orlen,” maybe.
One summer I found Susan Mitchell’s The Water Inside the Water (Wesleyan UP, 1983) at a small used bookstore in Sonora, California. I took it back to my in-laws’ house and read the whole thing on their porch in one sitting, completely enraptured by her music and imagery. Here’s one of my favorites, from www.poetryfoundation.org:
So…..I lost the little steno book in which I’d written all the poets I wanted to talk about this month. I’m sure it will turn up. In the meantime, I’m posting all the poets I can remember from it, and at the top of that list is Dana Levin. I introduced her at a reading, once, because I loved her work and was lucky she was coming to my town. I believe that at that reading, in Salt Lake City in the fall of 2011, she read this poem, which I found at www.poets.org:
Letter to GC
I say most sincerely and desperately, HAPPY NEW YEAR!
Having rowed a little farther away from the cliff
Which is my kind of religion
Adrift in the darkness but readying oars
How can there be too many stars and hands, I ask you
I would be disingenuous if I said “being understood” were not important to me
Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech
Between the coin and the hand it crosses
Mercantilists’ and governors’ and preachers’ alike
The imagination and its products so often rebuff purpose
And some of us don’t like it, and want to make it mean
I would never shoot you, even if you were the only meat around
Anyway, I empathize with your lower division semester (which sounds
kinda Dante, to me)
Snow-bound sounds gorgeous and inconvenient
Like the idea of ending on the internal rhyme of psychics and clients
Though I too privilege the “shiny”
And of course, I want to be approved of, so much
Despite the image I’ve been savoring, the one of the self-stitching wound
Yes, I want to write that self-healing wound poem, the one with
cocoon closed up with thorns
We are getting such lovely flourishes from our poets
Fathomless opportunities for turning literacy into event
It’s the drama of feeling we find such an aesthetic problem,
In his essay “A Few Don’ts,” Ezra Pound says not to “use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69409). Which is why I love Levin’s line, “Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech,” which I take to the be the room of poetry–it needs to be more dream-like than “public speech,” but still more public than a dream. I love the reinvention of the metaphor of poetry-as-room, which inheres in our word for a poem’s parts–stanzas, Italian for “stopping place,” or “room.” Here, the concrete is an imagined concrete–we’re already speaking about an abstract concept, a hypothetical poem, so there’s not much of “natural object” to take away from–and, if there were, we have a poem right here before us, conveniently, that we can draw from. And isn’t it FUN to mix the abstract with the concrete, anyway?
Of course, the parallel structure is part of what makes this line so good, that contrast of “ceiling” and “floor,” “private” and “public,” and then the pleasantly unexpected and assonant “dream” and “speech.” That parallelism continues onto the next line, because of the repetition of “between,” but we now have a “mercantilist’s” image–the coin, perhaps the private poem-dream, and the hand that takes it in and “spends” it–perhaps the reader. I get the sense that I’m the hand, and this poem has been placed in it, this poem that as a letter has a quality of public speech to it. It seems to be acting the part it claims it wants to act.
And I love that last image the poet has been “savoring”–“the one of the self-stitching wound.”
She’s one of my favorite contemporary poets; her latest book is Sky Burial (Copper Canyon, 2011). Check it out!
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Read Pounds “A Few Don’ts” (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/resources/learning/essays/detail/69409). Then, do all his don’ts. Or, as many as you can.
Spoiler Alert: Write a poem that:
- Uses superfluous words, particularly adjectives that don’t mean anything.
- Uses an expression such as “dim lands of peace,” that is, “adjective plural noun of abstract noun.” Mix a concrete with an abstract.
- Takes a piece of prose and “chops” it into line lengths.
- Is “viewy” and descriptive.
- Borrows the language of an advertiser of new soap.
- Chops its stuff into separate iambs. End-stops each line, then begins the next with “a heave.”
- Defines one sense in terms of another.
I’ve loved this poem since someone, I think it was Steve Orlen, told me I should read Dorianne Laux’s What We Carry (BOA, 1994). He was right, and this is one of my favorite poems in the book (from www.poetryfoundation.org):
IN THE BROKEN ZOO
They kept us and now they’ve left us.
My marble eye rides blackwater;
prey I can become. Banging on the far wall.
Soon the umbrage of pit and scale, the fur,
the thumbs. The tarsiers founder on snakes
now, but until spring on air I could survive.
I ride this stale water, I am the heir of abiding:
they shook the earth, my oldest ancestors,
they rumble my cold blood still, though
egg-sucking rats and the endless winter
laid them down like logs to die.
So long as the pool was deep enough,
so long as the need was slender,
we got along. So long as
the glass was strong.
This monologue demonstrates Jordan’s lyricism, unconventional point of view, and intelligence, her scientific know-how and her poetry chops. I’m on board as soon as I get to that second line–the alliteration of “my marble” is bookended by the internal rhyme of “my” and “eye,” and I love “blackwater” as one word–some chaos has happened, and it’s dangerous below the surface in the aftermath. I love “the heir of abiding,” a great description of being the result of adaptions that happened longer ago than average–a species, I’m assuming of reptile, that was so well-evolved so long ago that it hasn’t changed much since. I enjoy the delay in the syntax of “they shook the earth, my oldest ancestors,” maybe because it’s iambic pentameter, maybe because it plays on the etymology of dinosaur names like “seismosaurus.” Her last line is great, and it demonstrates a rule of thumb I learned from Jackie Osherow–if you know you have to get away with making a big proclamation, you have to prepare for it, sonically. Jordan does that here with “long,” “long,” “along,” leading into “So long as / the glass was strong.” The zoo is broken, literally, but has led to an explosion of animal life that is both dangerous and thrilling.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Write a poem from an animal’s point of view.
francine j. harris is my fellow 2015 NEA Literature Fellow in poetry, and around the time that we found out the names of the other fellows, I’d read one poem of hers in Poetry magazine, “enough food and a mom.” I can’t get the formatting to work right here, so please go to the link and read the poem there.
I love the fractured syntax of this poem, particularly the way the loaded words “dad,” “mom,” and “ghost” seem to take over and take the place of other nouns, and even other verbs: “to keep him from going into dad” (the ghost? or “dad” as a state of being?), “Come on now, dad. come to ghost,” “the mom with the smell of cracked dad,” “No. says the dad: lost in ashes,” “They ghost like the bushel of a snowflower,” “At night, I have really long dads” (“dads” instead of dreams?), “We are all sappy dad, aren’t we,” and, of course, that brilliant last line: “I mom of you. I mom of you a lot.” I also love the line the title comes from: “a good seance starts with enough food / and a mom.” To me, this poem enacts the disjoint between the material and spiritual worlds by disjointing its language, so that the words “dad,” “mom,” and “ghost” seem to haunt the words we might expect to be in their syntactical place–in that last line, I’d expect “take care,” or “tire,” or “cut the heart out,” not “mom” of you. But that also feels real, that “mom” is a verb very different from “mother.”
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Play with parts of speech. Write a poem where nouns become verbs, verbs become nouns, adjectives become nouns (that’s called a “substantive”), etc. Have that role swap become part of the story of the poem.