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.