number5Jonathan Hobratsch, writing in the Huffington Post, celebrated National Poetry Month by posing “5 Questions for Poets” by readers of poetry.

I’ve tried to answer each of his questions (this is the 5th and final). You can find my answers to other sets of questions, herehere, here, and here. Here’s a link to Jonathan’s original Part 5 post and the other poets’ answers: 5 Questions for Poets.

And here are my answers:

1. How hard should you work at a poem?

As hard as it takes to get the poem where it wants to go and get the author out of the way.

2. According to The Atlantic, over 50 percent of people think computers will be able to write great works of literature in 50 years. Do you hold with the majority prognostication?

Great works of literature? I doubt it. But then, when artificial intelligence takes over, great will be defined by a different standard.

3. What would poets like for undergrads to know about poetry?

Poems are pleasure, as Donald Hall wrote in “The Unsayable Said: an essay,” “Poems are pleasure first, bodily pleasure, a deliciousness of the senses. Mostly, poems end by saying something (even the unsayable) but they start as the body’s joy, like making love.” I think if students had this in mind — maybe a few teachers too — poetry would be better taught and more widely read.

4. What interests outside of literature work well with writing poetry?

Many and various interests outside literature work well with poetry, sports, romance, hiking, travel, even work. I found my work with The Nature Conservancy exposed me to so many of nature’s wonders and details that it proved a storehouse of inspiration for my poetry. But even now, when I work for a Big Four firm’s cleantech practice, I’m in one of my most productive periods. It’s all about paying attention.

5. If you were poet during a different era, when/where would you want to exist?

In a workshop long ago Gary Snyder accused me of having a 17th or 18th century sensibility as a poet. So, maybe that’s where I’d find a home. But I’m very happy where I am right here and now.

 

 

Jo Bell; photograph ©Alastair Cook

Quite possibly the best thing about the Internet for a poet is the ease with which one can learn about other poets and their work from far-flung corners of the world.

Over the past few years I’ve come in contact with the poems of some remarkable poets whose work I may not ever have discovered through the traditional means of poetry publication and exchange.

And their work grows increasingly important to me as I get to know it better and, in some cases, get to know the poet through Facebook and other social media.

One of my absolute favorites is Jo Bell, to whose work I was first introduced by Alastair Cook. Alastair, who has made a couple of filmpoems featuring my poetry, has done a few with Jo as well.

Jo holds the unique position of UK Canal Poet Laureate, and lives on a narrow boat, “Tinker,” making her way around England. She’s a self-described “poetry freelancer,” sharing her wares like the tinkers of old their tin works. Only it’s poetry she’s repairing.  Her performances are brilliant and enjoyable (see her reading as part of Poets & Players at the Rylands Library).

Her signature verse is “The Shipwright’s Love Song,” and it’s a tour de force: replete with her timeless language, the double entendre of the ship/woman, her deft use of enjambment, such as “rudderless/ and yawing,” and slant rhymes “swell –/the smell,” the exclamation, a kind of gasp of recognition that begins the second stanza, “Oh, her skin was salt!” – and that ending, which you have to hear her read to truly appreciate the rhythm. Simply remarkable.

Much of Jo’s poetry does what poetry should do, makes you see things differently, to notice worlds new to you, and worlds you only thought you knew. Jo’s poems have what all well-written poems have in common, as I’ve written elsewhere: “They sing. They make you dance. And they give you a new way of looking at the world.”

Here is Jo Bell’s poem, “The Shipwright’s Love Song,”

 

Oh, but the lines of her!
The curve and glinting swell –
the smell, as sweet as pitch pine,
thick and hot as tar.
Oh, I was launched and splashing in the slipway,
happy to be rudderless
and yawing, mast head
touching to the foam.

Oh, but her skin was salt,
was starred with gasping salt beneath my tongue,
and slowly
she came round to me –
bucking and slipping at my touch,
making way in fits and starts
to reach me and be calm.

Later, long before she rocked me into sleep
I saw the seas, saw all of them in one blue ache:
unlandmarked, vast; horizonless.

 

c) 2003 Jo Bell. Used by permission of the author.

 

Here is Jo reading the poem: Shipwright on Soundcloud

And here is a videopoem version by Marc Neys (aka Swoon): Shipwright by Swoon

If you enjoy this poem, do yourself (and her) a favor and order Jo’s book, NAVIGATION, which is available through Moormaid Press in the UK: NAVIGATION

The Telegraph has a nice profile of Jo this weekend: Jo Bell in the Telegraph

And, finally, you can follow Jo’s blog, here: Bell Jar Blog

 

Block Island Southeast Lighthouse, 1875. Photo by SEA.

Block Island Southeast Lighthouse, 1875. Photo by SEA.

When you read this, I’ll be on yet another island with Samantha, this time Isla de Vieques, an island-municipality of Puerto Rico in the northeastern Caribbean, part of a group of islands some call the Spanish Virgin Islands.

Much of the island was formerly a bombing range of the US Navy (most of that area is now a National Wildlife Refuge), so much of Vieques was long closed to tourism.

Islands always make me think of lighthouses, of which there are two on Vieques, the ruins of Puerto Ferro and the restored Punta Mulas lighthouse.

Thinking about visiting those lighthouses reminded me of Alfred Corn’s poem, “Lighthouse,” which closes his latest collection, Tables.

I first became aware of Alfred’s poetry when I worked on the editorial staff at Viking Press in the late 1980s. Viking published his collection The West Door and his essay collection, The Metamorphoses of Metaphor. I also worked on his anthology, Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament, which featured writers such as Annie Dillard, Robert Hass, Anthony Hecht, and John Hersey.

According to the biographical entry on the Poetry Foundation’s website, “Early in his career, Corn says, he aimed to write poetry that sounded like conversation and to find ‘verbal equivalents for visual realities.’ These conversational patterns have evolved into an attention to rhythm and an eye for detail. He often employs strict formal and metrical devices in his personal and social histories.”

As poet Thomas Disch has written about Corn’s poetry, “It is not the regnant mode among poetry academics at the moment, but since at least the time of Byron and Wordsworth it has been the kind of poetry that most commends itself to readers of poetry.”

I commend to you, dear readers of poetry, Alfred Corn’s poem, “Lighthouse”:

 

Pilot at the helm of a hidden

headland it steers free

from convergence with the freighter

when fog and storm clouds gather

 

Sparking communiqué no full stop ends

its broadcast performed in a three-sixty sweep

the cycle burning up five solar seconds

 

Midnight eye that blinks away

invisibility a high beam

revealing as it scans whatever seas

or ships return terra firma’s landmark gaze

 
c) 2010 Alfred Corn, used by permission of the author.

 

5 Questions for Poets

April 2, 2014

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth (American, 1883–1935)

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth (American, 1883–1935)

Jonathan Hobratsch, writing in the Huffington Post, celebrates National Poetry Month by posing 5 questions by readers of poetry to some of the “top poets” writing today. Alfred Corn posted the questions to his friends on Facebook.

Here are my answers:

1. Do the Internet and social media contribute to the well-being of poetry?

On the plus side, my work has reached audiences beyond the reach of traditional publishing venues, and I’ve met and been exposed to poets from around the world whose work I could not have otherwise found. My community of poets has grown and challenged my work in new and fascinating ways.

2. What do most poorly-written poems have in common?

Language or structure that doesn’t serve the poem. Over-writing or lazy writing. Sentimentality. Lack of music. Basically, when it’s clear the poet hasn’t listened to the poem.

3. What do most well-written poems have in common?

They sing. They make you dance. And they give you a new way of looking at the world.

4. How important is accessibility of meaning? Should one have to work hard to “solve” the poem?

Poetry should be neither a Rubik’s cube nor a road sign.

5. What book are you reading right now?

All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship by Kathryn Miles; The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert McFarlane; Orr: My Story by Bobby Orr; and Navigation by Jo Bell.

Here’s a link to the original article: 5 Questions for Poets

 

 

adalimonAda Limón’s poetic world is one where dislocation leads to an opening up rather than a shutting down, an unfolding rather than sequestration, and where doors are open, not closed. She isn’t afraid to confront her emotions or to let the reader in to observe her reactions to those emotions.

Yet, Limón’s is not a confessional poetry or, at least, not in the derogatory sense of that word. Limón tells stories and she’s proud of that fact.

“It’s ingrained in human nature to crave stories,” Limón explained in an interview. “We want them read to us as children, to be told around the fire, we want to see ourselves, our lives in these stories, and to have a sense of both escapism and transformation. People don’t know that poetry can do that, because they have the preconceived notion that poems take a tremendous amount of work to even comprehend, let alone be moved by.”

Her poems are not meant solely for the page, but to be read aloud. Her language is fluid, whether describing dreams or reality or the blurring between the two.

As Jeffrey Cyphers Wright wrote in The Brooklyn Rail, “She personalizes her homilies, stamping them with the authenticity of invention and self-discovery.”

Born March 28, 1976, Ada Limón is originally from Sonoma, California, and now divides her time between there and Lexington, Kentucky. Her first collection of poetry, lucky wreck, won the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is also the author of This Big Fake World, winner of the 2005 Pearl Poetry Prize, and Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions, 2010).

Here is Ada Limón’s poem, “Sharks in the Rivers”:

 

We’ll say unbelievable things

to each other in the early morning—

 

our blue coming up from our roots,

our water rising in our extraordinary limbs.

 

All night I dreamt of bonfires and burn piles

and ghosts of men, and spirits

behind those birds of flame.

 

I cannot tell anymore when a door opens or closes,

I can only hear the frame saying, Walk through.

 

It is a short walkway—

into another bedroom.

 

Consider the handle. Consider the key.

 

I say to a friend, how scared I am of sharks.

 

How I thought I saw them in the creek

across from my street.

 

I once watched for them, holding a bundle

of rattlesnake grass in my hand,

shaking like a weak-leaf girl.

 

She sends me an article from a recent National Geographic that says,

 

Sharks bite fewer people each year than

New Yorkers do, according to Health Department records.

 

Then she sends me on my way. Into the City of Sharks.

 

Through another doorway, I walk to the East River saying,

 

Sharks are people too.

Sharks are people too.

Sharks are people too.

 

I write all the things I need on the bottom

of my tennis shoes. I say, Let’s walk together.

 

The sun behind me is like a fire.

Tiny flames in the river’s ripples.

 

I say something to God, but he’s not a living thing,

so I say it to the river, I say,

 

I want to walk through this doorway

But without all those ghosts on the edge,

I want them to stay here.

I want them to go on without me.

 

I want them to burn in the water.

 

 

–Ada Limón

#

 

Robert Browning

Next month marks the bicentennial of Robert Browning, who was born on May 7, 1812, in Camberwell, England. My Samantha recently sent me his poem “Now” and it spoke to me, although it was not familiar to me.

Browning is a bit of an enigma: simultaneously overshadowed by his more famous wife, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and lionized as one of the great creators of the dramatic monologue.

Victorian readers found his work somewhat difficult, in part because of his sometimes arcane language and obscure references. He was home-schooled and self-taught – subsequently, many of his allusions were lost on his more conventionally educated audience.

Ultimately, Browning, as Wordsworth said of all great poets, had to “create the taste by which [he was] to be enjoyed.”

One of Browning’s enduring themes was “ideal love,” which for the poet meant the consummation and culmination of an intuitive course of action wherein a pair of lovers pierce the barrier separating them to become one in an all-consuming spiritual union — the “moment eternal” between two human beings.

To Browning, the passion and intensity of romantic love was often at odds with conventional social morality. Ideal love in Browning’s conception required giving up everything, what others have called “the world well-lost for love.”

Here is Robert Browning’s short lyric poem, “Now”:

 

Out of your whole life give but a moment!

All of your life that has gone before,

All to come after it, — so you ignore,

So you make perfect the present, condense,

In a rapture of rage, for perfection’s endowment,

Thought and feeling and soul and sense,

Merged in a moment which gives me at last

You around me for once, you beneath me, above me —

Me, sure that, despite of time future, time past,

This tick of life-time’s one moment you love me!

How long such suspension may linger? Ah, Sweet,

The moment eternal — just that and no more —

When ecstasy’s utmost we clutch at the core,

While cheeks burn, arms open, eyes shut, and lips meet!

 

–Robert Browning, 1812-1889

 

Cover of The Worcester Review, Vol 32, No. 1 &2

All year long I’ve been celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).

You can read some of what I’ve written about Ms. Bishop and her poetry on this blog.

Today, the 101st anniversary of the poet’s birth, to mark the completion of the centennial celebrations, I want to share my essay “Elegy & Exile: Elizabeth Bishop’s Poem ‘Crusoe in England’.”

Here is my essay as it appeared in The Worcester Review‘s special edition “Bishop’s Century: Her Poems and Art”:

 

A new volcano has erupted,

the papers say, and last week I was reading

where some ship saw an island being born

They named it. But my poor island’s still

un-rediscovered, un-renamable.— Elizabeth Bishop

So begins Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Crusoe in England” one of two fine elegies found in her last collection, Geography III, and her longest sustained narrative poem.

The island is “un-renamable,” which implies it was named by someone once. In fact, the speaker in the poem named it “The Island of Despair,” for its volcanic centerpiece, “Mont d’Espoir or Mount Despair.” He had time to play with names; twenty-eight years, by at least one account.

The speaker is, of course, the protagonist of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, Robinson Crusoe – and he isn’t.

Defoe’s Robinson was Christian, civilized, and strongly empirical in his thinking; Bishop’s Crusoe is skeptical and unsure of his knowledge and memory.

Both are displaced figures, but Defoe’s Robinson feels that displacement most acutely on the island upon which he is shipwrecked. Bishop’s Crusoe feels more displaced after his return to “another island,/ that doesn’t seem like one…” His home country of England.

Crusoe was lonely on the island; its clouds, volcanoes, and water-spouts were no consolation – “beautiful, yes, but not much company.” He experiences a “dislocation of physical scale,” as Bishop biographer Lorrie Goldensohn observed.

He’s a giant compared to the volcanoes, which appear in miniature from such distance; the goats and turtles, too. It is, Goldensohn writes, “an analogue of the nausea of connection and disconnection.”

Then “Friday” arrives, but even their relationship, in the Bishop poem, is tinged with loneliness. They both long for love they cannot consummate, “I wanted to propagate my kind,/ and so did he, I think, poor boy.”

Defoe’s Robinson is much less isolated. His island is visited by native cannibals who take their victims to the island to be eaten (Friday is their prisoner; until Crusoe saves him and names him), as well as Spaniards, and English mutineers. This last group helps Robinson return to England with Friday. There are other adventures in the novel, including a voyage to Lisbon and a crossing of the Pyrenees on foot.

None of this is for Bishop. Her goal was not to re-write the novel, but to re-imagine the story. Her Crusoe possesses, as C.K. Doreski has noted, “a weary tonality of such authenticity her character seems not an extension of Defoe’s fictional exile, but a real Crusoe, endowed with a twentieth-century emotional frankness.”

Bishop’s Crusoe finds even deeper loneliness back “home,” with its “uninteresting lumber.” Once there, he longs for the intensity of life on his island, its violence and self –determination, and its objects full of meaning.

The author at Elizabeth Bishop’s grave, July 4, 2011

“Disconcertingly,” as Goldensohn describes it, “Crusoe discovers that the misery from which he so willingly fled was the chief stock of his life.”

Defoe’s Robinson returns to England to find nothing there for him. Robinson’s family thought him dead after his 28-year absence, and there is no inheritance for him, no fortune to claim, no home.

Crusoe, in Bishop’s devising, also finds nothing for him at home, despite the longing he felt for it while a castaway. His loss is a spiritual and cultural loss.

While on the island, he tries to hold onto his home culture. He makes “tea” and a kind of fizzy fermented drink from berries he discovers, even a homemade flute with “the weirdest scale on earth.”

Alas, he doesn’t remember enough of his culture’s great literature to make him feel at home,

                                                The books

I’d read were full of blanks;

the poems – well, I tried

reciting to my iris beds,

“They flash upon that inward eye,

which is the bliss…” The bliss of what?

One of the first things that I did

When I got back was look it up.

The bliss is, of course, “solitude,” which is the word completing this line from Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” (” I wandered lonely as a cloud…”). We forgive Bishop this anachronism; Wordsworth’s poem was written over one hundred years after Defoe’s novel. By referencing this line she creates a sense of displacement or dislocation in us, her readers.

For Bishop’s Crusoe, solitude approaches bliss by way of banality, especially when he reflects on what was lost – including Friday, who was introduced with the banal phrase, “Friday was nice and we were friends.”

The potency of their relationship is merely hinted at; perhaps reflecting Bishop’s own sense of decorum in matters personal. (“Accounts of that have everything all wrong,” Bishop writes.)

Some critics have suggested that Friday in this poem is a stand-in for Lota de Soares Macedo, Bishop’s Brazilian lover; while others, James Merrill among them, wondered why Bishop couldn’t give us “a bit more about Friday?”

For almost as soon as Friday arrives they are taken off the island. By the end of the poem, we learn that Friday died of measles while in England, presumably a disease to which he had no immunity.

Bishop began writing “Crusoe in England” in the early 1960s – although notebook entries from 1934 hint that the poem may have its origins in her time at Vassar – and picked it up again after Lota’s death in 1967. (Goldensohn postulates based upon her reading of drafts of the poem that Bishop brought Friday into the poem at that time.)

She worked on it again after a visit to Charles Darwin’s home in Kent. She relied on Darwin’s notes from the Galapagos for her depiction of the island, along with Herman Melville’s “Encantadas,” and perhaps Randall Jarrell’s “The Island,” as has been suggested, as well as on her own experience of tropical and sub-tropical locales.

By the time she visited Galapagos in 1971, however, the poem had been delivered to The New Yorker.  She must have been fairly pleased that her description was almost spot-on. (My own experience of the Galapagos has the spitting and hissing she writes about coming from the iguanas rather than the turtles, but no matter.)

Bishop’s friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, thought “Crusoe” to be “maybe your very best poem,” and I’m inclined to agree. (Although the poem preceding it in 1979’s Geography III, “The Waiting Room,” gives it a run for my money.)

“An analogue to your life,”Lowell wrote in a letter to Bishop, “or an ‘Ode to Dejection.’ Nothing you’ve written has such a mix of humor and desperation.”

It’s true this poem has a kind of desperation to it that comes from desolation and longing, for “home,” in particular, be it the island or England. Bishop’s humor is evident, too, in such lines as

                        What’s wrong about self-pity, anyway?

With my legs dangling down familiarly

over a crater’s edge, I told myself

“pity should begin at home.” So the more

pity I felt, the more I felt at home.

“By making [Crusoe’s] life center around the idea of home,” writes biographer Brett Millier, Bishop “brings him in line with her own habitually secular and domestic points of view.”

Crusoe was also an unwitting solitary, who reluctantly gave in to his plight. As such, he appealed to Bishop, especially in his self-reliance. He made things from what’s at hand, just as she made poems from what surrounded her. She, too, had surrendered to her “exile” in Brazil.

There’s an ungentle madness to Crusoe the solitary, which also contrasts somewhat with Defoe’s Robinson. The latter reads the Bible and becomes increasingly more religious. Bishop’s Crusoe is more pagan, painting goats with berry juice, dreaming of “slitting a baby’s throat, mistaking it/ for a baby goat,” and has visions of endlessly repeating islands where he is fated to catalog their flora and fauna.

I’m tempted to see this last reference as almost a nightmare reflection of the poet’s own self-exile and imprisonment by her style: her oft-cited gift for description, which she saw as limiting.

Regardless of whether Bishop saw herself in her Crusoe, her own removal to New England from Brazil – to Harvard’s uninteresting lumber – must have caused equal disconnection, a “dislocating dizziness,” to borrow Goldensohn’s phrase.

“When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived,” Bishop wrote to Robert Lowell in 1948. In “Crusoe in England,” she captures the loneliness, displacement, and loss of an individual set adrift in emotional isolation, which leads to a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

For Crusoe, his island life seemed interminable and insufferable, only to turn romantic and desirable when the experience ended.

It seems likely Bishop was thinking of her life in Brazil with Lota, which had become increasingly strained towards the end, until the latter’s suicide, and the poet’s life thereafter. That makes this poem, along with “One Art,” from the same collection, an elegy with a depth beyond its surface.

Here is a link to the complete text of “Crusoe in England,” which includes an audio recording of Bishop reading the poem: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177903

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

ESSO Station 2

Image by *Kid*Doc*One* via Flickr

I love a poet with a sense of humor and who delights in wordplay, especially when she achieves her poem’s aims while making the reader smile.

Those who know me or read my poetry blog or follow me on Twitter or have been on my National Poetry Month email list for some time know that Elizabeth Bishop is my favorite poet.  And you also know that this year marks the centennial of her birth (born 8 February 1911).  I’ve been celebrating this important centennial in a variety of ways.

I’d like to close this year’s National Poetry Month with a poem by Ms. Bishop called “Filling Station.”  I suggest you read it out loud and pay attention to the alliteration and internal rhymes.

It starts with an observation of a “dirty” family filling station, run by a father in a “dirty,/ oil-soaked monkey suit” with “several quick and saucy/ and greasy sons.”  They are “all quite thoroughly dirty,” which creates an incantation of “oily” and “dirty,” evolving into almost a portmanteau of dirty and oily in “doily.”

Bishop is playful in this poem and when she concludes with the final stanza by repeating “oi” and “so” and “-y” sounds, culminating in that brilliant arrangement of oil cans, I can’t help chuckling no matter how many times I read it.

Somebody loves us all, indeed. Happy Birthday, Ms. Bishop.

Here is Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Filling Station”

Oh, but it is dirty!

—this little filling station,

oil-soaked, oil-permeated

to a disturbing, over-all

black translucency.

Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,

oil-soaked monkey suit

that cuts him under the arms,

and several quick and saucy

and greasy sons assist him

(it’s a family filling station),

all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?

It has a cement porch

behind the pumps, and on it

a set of crushed and grease-

impregnated wickerwork;

on the wicker sofa

a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide

the only note of color—

of certain color. They lie

upon a big dim doily

draping a taboret

(part of the set), beside

a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?

Why the taboret?

Why, oh why, the doily?

(Embroidered in daisy stitch

with marguerites, I think,

and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.

Somebody waters the plant,

or oils it, maybe. Somebody

arranges the rows of cans

so that they softly say:

ESSO—SO—SO—SO

to high-strung automobiles.

Somebody loves us all.

–Elizabeth Bishop

Here’s a recording of Ms. Bishop reading this poem from Poetry Foundation/Bishop

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

Czeslaw Milosz, Miami Bookfair International, 1986

This year marks a couple of important centenaries in poetry, which I will celebrate this week and next.  The first is the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who was one of the giants of 20th-century Polish literature.

Miłosz was born in Lithuania, where his parents escaped the political upheaval in their native Poland.  Late, as an adult, he fled Poland and the oppressive post-war Communist regime.  He could not have picked a place of greater contrast in which to settle: Berkeley, California in the 1960s.

As Seamus Heaney wrote recently, Miłosz “was poised between lyricism and witness.”  Indeed, as Miłosz himself wrote in The Witness of Poetry, “A peculiar fusion of the individual and the historical took place, which means that events burdening a whole community are perceived by a poet as touching him in a most personal manner. Then poetry is no longer alienated.”

But Heaney sums up the poet’s lasting power. “What irradiates the poetry and compels the reader is a quality of wisdom,” wrote Heaney. “Everything is carried and feels guaranteed by the voice.  Even in translation, even when he writes in a didactic vein, there is a feeling of phonetic undertow, that the poem is a trawl, not just talk.  And this was true of the work he did right up to his death in Kraków in 2004.

Probably one of Miłosz’s most famous poems, “Dedication,” was written in 1945 in Warsaw at the end of World War II.  That is, as Stephen O’Connor wrote in an excellent essay on sentimentality in Miłosz’s poetry, “after more than six years of Nazi occupation, after the bloody suppression of the Warsaw uprising, the subsequent deportation of the city’s more than one million inhabitants, the destruction of all its remaining buildings, and its liberation by the Soviet army… under such circumstances, the notion that poetry might help ‘save nations and people’ takes on a rather different character than it had for me when I first read ‘Dedication’ back in 1973.”

Here is Czesław Miłosz’s “Dedication,” in his own translation:

 

You whom I could not save

Listen to me.

Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.

I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.

I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

 

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.

You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,

Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty;

Blind force with accomplished shape.

 

Here is a valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge

Going into white fog. Here is a broken city;

And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave

When I am talking with you.

 

What is poetry which does not save

Nations or people?

A connivance with official lies,

A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,

Readings for sophomore girls.

 

That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,

That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,

In this and only this I find salvation.

 

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds

To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.

I put this book here for you, who once lived

So that you should visit us no more.

 

Czesław Miłosz,Warsaw, 1945

##

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John Haines Photo © Dorothy Alexander

In the spring of 1997, I was living in Anchorage, Alaska, and was invited by the University of Alaska Anchorage to put together a program for their annual Writing Rendezvous conference.

I thought about the fact that I was in Alaska and we were coming to the close of a century and that poetry seemed to be at a crossroads.

And then I thought about John Haines.  Any panel on poetry in Alaska must feature John Haines, I thought. Haines was a kind of unofficial permanent poet laureate of Alaska.

Since moving there to homestead in 1947, Haines had crafted and composed poetry of great solitude and sincerity out of his Alaska experience.

Haines was pleased to join the panel, although he said something about being too old to be of interest to the audience.  Then I told him the panel would be rounded out by a young spoken word poet and an Alaska Native woman poet.  He got a spark and became more interested in the prospect.

I don’t remember much about the panel — and I confess I don’t have my notes at hand.  It was called “Poetry at the Edge of the Millennium” or somesuch.  I do remember the panelists were engaged with each other and engaging to the audience.

And I recall that Haines stirred up a bit of controversy on the panel talking about spoken word versus conventionally printed poetry.  That was pretty typical for the poet.

“He was a cantankerous, insufferable, unbendable old bastard but he was a damn good writer,” longtime friend John Koolstra told the Fairbanks Daily News Miner.  “He is Alaska’s best writer.  He was a standout.”

So when I heard that John Haines died last night in Fairbanks at the age of 86, I thought about his poetry.

From his isolated cabin above the Tanana River in Alaska’s Interior, he learned  “to make things for myself, to build shelters, to weave nets, to make sleds and harnesses, and to train animals for work.  I learned to hunt, to watch, and to listen.”

And there he crafted poems out of a spiritual wilderness where his solitary imagination confronted existence without the comforting illusions of society (to paraphrase poet Dana Gioia).

Here is John Haines’ poem “Fairbanks Under the Solstice”

Slowly, without sun, the day sinks
toward the close of December.
It is minus sixty degrees.

Over the sleeping houses a dense
fog rises—smoke from banked fires,
and the snowy breath of an abyss
through which the cold town
is perceptibly falling.

As if Death were a voice made visible,
with the power of illumination…

Now, in the white shadow
of those streets, ghostly newsboys
make their rounds, delivering
to the homes of those
who have died of the frost
word of the resurrection of Silence.

–John Haines

 

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