Monthly Archives: January 2017

T.S. Eliot: Preludes

This is a very complex poem with a lot going on so I’m going to try to just focus on what jumped out at me at first.

The paraphrase this poem (if that’s ever really possible), this is about lower-class working people, and especially one woman, probably a prostitute. We get the drudgery of modern life in a city, the sad end of reality, the lost dreams and faded hopes of millions.

The first stanza evokes a dingy, smelly tenement house. People are cooking meat in their rooms (just as they sort of stew in their little hovels), and we smell, in fact almost taste the stale cigarettes (“burnt-out ends of smoky days”). And though we know there are people everywhere, we only get the traces of them, their trash, their smells. The only life we get is a “lonely cab-horse” who seems nervous, as if it’s being surrounded and can’t escape – we know it’s probably harnessed to something since it’s for a cab service.

His “lighting of the lamps” is interesting because even though we are physically turning on the lights, it feels as if things are darker now.

Section II continues the remnants of human activity, as well as the horse with the saw dust streets since that was used to take care of all the smelly horse poop. I wasn’t confident I knew what he meant by “masquerades”, but I imagined that everything going on was like a show, a fake activity, like  going through the motions of life. The word is well used since we don’t get any faces and everyone is masked by the things they leave behind.

III shifts to our first real character (sorry, horse), but it’s still not a happy image. The blanket is “tossed” – a violent word. Who wakes up and tosses their blanket unless they are already mad? And then we get the word “sordid” as it pertains to the images (life experiences) that make up this person’s life. We already start to intuit this is a woman and that she is probably a prostitute. Even the word soul evokes soil, as in soiled, like the stains on the bed. We later get a rhyme between “shutters” (shudders), and “gutters” (in the gutter – and this word feels very physical = gut, our guts, meat, our physical being bereft of a soul).

We do finally learn this is a woman because she’s taking the curlers out of her hair. But her physical position is unusual because what does it look like if someone grasps the soles of their feet (soul, sole) with the palms of their hands? It’s a contorted image, but it also feels like a bastardization of a buddha sitting, like praying all gone wrong.

IV: And I think the praying image is reinforced when he he “His”, capital “H” (typically religious for Jesus, or God), but it could also be a long-lost love? It’s ambiguous to me who this is.   We get another reference to feet (I count 6 references, including the horse stomping, and the word trampled) which is very much an image of people moving but also there’s a Christ-like allusion of Jesus washing the feet of the poor. Everyone here is poor and in need of redemption, these are literally the meek who shall inherit the Earth.

There’s so much more here, but the final image of her mouth and how he creates an image of her broken teeth with that of women gathering coal or broken logs (and “vacant lots” would be her missing teeth. The only face we see is an ugly one, but her laughter is unsettling, as if she is conducting all this. As if the only life force here is one of evil, or malevolence.

This is another one of my favorites! I could write about this poem all night!!

Mina Loy: Mexican Desert

Very much reminded of Cormac McCarthy.

Very minimal language here to evoke so much more. She uses “belching” wut we see the smoke and we can even see and hear distance with her use of ghost-wail, a smoky, far-off beast lumbering towards us. How do we know the train is headed for us? She evokes sound again with “rattling wooden tail” 3-2-1, as if it’s getting closer to us. And her use of jazz-band, a cacophony of sound, but also rhythmic. And the sounds blends into the scenery as we imagine a band of light over the horizon as the sun sets.

Her use of the word “set” is very strategic. We have three lines, but not necessarily three sentences. They work on their own and together and in pairs. The mounts set (sit), set pinnacles (set is almost like a verb here, like the mountains are waiting for something), set under as if this was all placed here by a higher power (heaven). But heaven evokes hell (alien, hot, ferocious isolation). Even “row” does not just mean in a line but also as in a struggle.

Vegetable is a wonderful word to use here because we almost feel as if there is something alive here, but she “cripples” it with the very next word. Any hope is quickly lost, life cannot survive in this desert. “Thrust” conjures up an image of a mother bird feeding her chicks, their mouths agape, waiting, but she evokes a sense that nothing here will ever be nourished. The life that is here is twisted (“stump-fingered”, and “hunch-back”), and can barely stay alive.

The final line is wonderful. “Belabour” isn’t just the work it takes to stay alive in this terrible landscape, but also be labor, be work, everything here is struggling and life is just work to not die.  “Cinders of twilight ….” evokes a hearth dying out, the sun having set and the four dots can almost seem like stars rising in the sky as night comes and with its own set of terrors we can’t even comprehend because the poem ends, life has run out perhaps. Hope is lost.

This is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read!

Louis Zukofsky: (Ryokan’s scroll)

I love this poem. So simple, beautiful, peaceful. It only is what it is: nature, orderly. I could live here.

The words drip down the page just like a traditional Japanese scroll, except here we can read the language, unlike the mysterious Kanji. The words seem to drip from being words and into the snow itself, in a simple line down the page. Even time passes patiently “a long while” as we imagine snow piling up silently. and this white contrasts beautifully with the blue sky that “sees”, “spies”, “eyes” the cherry tree petals and in a clever indentation, makes a detour to the pink petals of the cherry tree.

I love minimalist language, flowery language always feels to me is if the author is just showing off their vocabulary. I love simple, but powerful language that works overtime to tell the story and paint the picture. With just a few brush strokes, like a master calligrapher, we get an entire image in our mind that is unique for all of us because the author didn’t try to overdo it.


Allison Joseph: Alternative Facts

This is not a good poem. Everything here is low-hanging fruit that offers no insight into an alternative fact. No rigorous thought went into this. And we all know this is a response to the new President and we are all concerned about where an administration that deals in outright lies will take us. Yet nothing in this poem explores these anxieties, it’s just flippant, as if the subject matter is not important. Which begs the question: why did the author even bother writing this?

Probably to be the first to the punch with a poem with this title.

The first stanza shouldn’t even be a stanza, the line breaks do not stand on their own and add nothing to making this more poetic, it’s just masquerading as a poem. And I’m not going to buy that this poem’s lack of poetica is a postmodern critique of alternative poetry – it’s just lazily written.

In the second stanza we get arbitrary examples: losing=winning, infidelity=dating, and raccoons=pets?! This is literally the definition of arbitrary. This is followed by a pointless line break as if we were going to be surprised about what the author was going to tell us about racoons.

We weren’t.

And a delinquent bill can’t be paid even with alternative money, it’s delinquent because it wasn’t even paid with an excuse. The line makes no sense.

Next we get the first of 3 overt health food / junk food examples: cake=celery, dounut=apple, and Doritos=carrots. All three of these do the exact same thing and even do it in the same order= junk food > health food. So not only do we have arbitrary list making faking itself as poetry, the author can’t even come up with different ideas.

The only good line here is in the final stanza where we learn something about the author and how she stuffed her bra, but then this is suddenly dropped and is not explored at all, it’s just a random fact in this endless list of unthoughtful ideas. Also, we don’t need to call a teenager who is flat-chested “young”, we already can assume that. Even if they were a flat-chested 18 year old, age wouldn’t matter in the context of this lazy disaster.

As an alternative poem it works as nothing more than a total waste of my real time.

I despised this “poem”, but since the poem made me so mad I took the time and rewrote it (and I probably sunk more time into this than the original author did in theirs ).

I took the best idea in the poem and ran with it while keeping in the theme of alternative facts, in this case a family that will not tell the truth to each other and the consequences of those lies.

Archibald MacLeish: Ars Poetica

As with Robert Duncan’s poem, Often I Am Permitted To Return To A Meadow, we are exploring the idea of something that is but also isn’t. Duncan’s poem dealt with an ideal place, real enough for (and within) him, but possibly not a tangible, or to use MacLeish’s word in Ars Poetica, palpable (something we can touch in the universe of our senses) place. Here we shift not to the external object, but to the very form of poetry itself to show how a poem can – in fact should be. The poem is not meant to be a thing outside itself, it is the thing itself.

Our poem begins with the poet telling us what a poem should be, they are speaking with authority (we assume) to us so that we will understand what the craft of poetry (Ars Poetica) is by the end of the poem. And we do get a repetition, a framing (chiasmus) where we are told the poem is not supposed to mean the thing it describes, but rather it is the thing it describes.

How is this possible? How can something be something else? Isn’t all poetry just a way of describing some other thing? MacLeish tells us in the opening stanza a poem should be as (here’s our simile) a globed fruit. What immediately came to my mind was the image of a still-life painting, the old ones of bowls of fruit sitting on ornate tables. The painter captures what it is we desire about the fruit, but the painting is not something we can eat, it only approximates the reality while, in a way, being more real since it evokes what we desire about the fruit. Poetry, too does this by capturing the essence of the object (the fruit in this case) and letting us look at from all its possible meanings.

MacLeish takes us deeper along by appealing first to our sense of history with the old medallions image, what I took to be a connection to the epic poets of the past (think Homer) and all that those images imply. But we get another rhyme here (dumb, thumb) to remind us that it’s not necessarily the medallions that are important as dumb objects, but what they mean to us, what stories they tell, what their innate history is. This idea is strengthened with the next stanza of the casement worn down by years, or perhaps generations of people sitting at that window with their elbows wearing out the stone. We are literally shown time, shown a longing perhaps, shown a whole life watched out that window.

But time can be stopped, too. When we watch birds fly overhead we do not see a freeze-frame but rather the motion of the birds, yet here we see that snapshot in our mind’s eye of a fleeting moment which could not happen in reality but only in our imagination. We are reminded of migrations, of the seasons.

To reinforce this concept we are given the moon, motionless in time yet it still climbs. This is a paradox because how can something both move and not move? Here we have to leave (and we get a wordplay on leaves and leaving) behind the physical and explore what this means to us beyond the “dumb” literal definition of the moon and some winter trees. How does this make us feel? What is being evoked here? Coldness? Loneliness?

However, far from being just a how-to guide on poetry, we have been given poetry all along. Reinforcing our image of leaves is a single maple leaf rhymed with grief. What does this mean? Could this leaf have slipped from the pages of a book where it was to be pressed, a book owned by the woman sitting at the window where her arms rested on the casement as she watched the birds fly overhead and the moon rise up behind those bare, winter trees? Was she waiting for someone, a lover perhaps, her twin star in the sky she waited for eternally but was never united with except in poetry?

Perhaps, and yet it could mean something far different to you. But the poem does not mean, it just is.

Janice Mirikitani: Breaking Tradition

We immediately being with the conflict, but we can tell that we will learn how they are, in fact, alike. Secretive=hidden, and we can all relate to the private lives we don’t share with our parents when teenagers – hatred of womanhood just feels like a teenager thing to say or act out against. A teenager can rebel because they haven’t been burdened with what it means to be an adult yet.

Whispers are like fungus – secrets are a disease. It evokes the image of a dark, empty room with fungus growing all over the place, on the walls, and dripping from the ceiling. We die from our secrets like a cancer. And not just secrets, but pettiness and all the shortcomings about herself (and maybe how she sees other women) and how it’s also a fungus that they can’t escape. But not all are self-inflicted: menstruation is biological and inescapable (and so even worse than the self-inflicted since nature itself is at war with her).

But this pain immediately connects to the image of hands and hands, especially women’s hands are seen as healing, but she keeps playing with the pain imagery and turns the usual gentle, healing hands of a woman into mere clamps, and tools. She is defining herself as being no better than a tool. We even get more suffocating words later with ‘compressed’, ‘smothered’, ‘confined’, and the ‘obi (sash)’ as a constricting device (tool, like the hands).

And she confined by this smothering of being a woman and her traditions. She wants to ‘break tradition’ like you would break ‘bones’ : break the guilt in our bones. But she is part of an unending generational march. We get the image of a foetus, of menstruation , thighs displayed with color which are images of failed generations, children that are not to be born.

But she is taught to be quiet, to be passive, to be confined by ceremony since that is what her mother could make sense of in her world. This is what has been passed down: ritual, but nothing of real substance, just generation after generation going through the motions. She wants the room opened, not locked and dark, and full of lies. She wants to let light in (the light of her hands, the yellow guitars like the sun) but also talk of the real horror (the barb wire – internment camps?) and the miracles and beauty of life – the music of like (guitar and shakuhachi (flute)).

And in the end, sadly, the room will be closed off to her, just as all the previous ones have been closed off before them. The secrets will prevail, the daughter will try to break tradition, but she won’t either.

Nice use of the word mirror followed by the word breaking- broken mirror at the end here.

Seamus Heaney: Digging

In the second line there is almost a violent image contrasted between the Snug pen (a comfortable image) and a gun. His pen is a comfortable weapon. We even start off rhyming – thumb, gun, and sound, ground, and down, but this stoops after like 5. Not sure why.

He hears a sound outside that draws him away from his squat pen. Alliteration of S and G: spade sinks, gravelly ground. And while he (Seamus) looks “down”, we get more ‘down’ language: digging, down. He looks down on his father (which is ironic since he seems to be looking up to him), and his father digs down into the earth. Not to mention the death imagery – digging a grave.

He moves through time by linking ‘straining rump’ to the next line of ‘twenty years’. It’s literally back-breaking work and it’s taking it’s toll – again an allusion to death.

Not sure what ‘potato drills’ is. Drilling down? Like a military drill? It’s ordered rows of potato planting.

The image of the boot and the knee are very intimate, and this leads to the larger theme of this being generational. By looking t the body parts and not the man we see this repeated generation after generation, row by row (potato drills) over and over. He uses “we picked” and “our hands” to further link this to something larger than just his father.

Yet at line 17 we get a sense of pride towards his father in how much he could dig, and how hard he could work. He feels his own work is inadequate like the sloppy paper cork (and paper is intentional here since our writer uses paper in his craft so sloppy is well served) when he brought his father milk. And this feels like a strange thing to bring a man who has been laboring in the hot sun: milk? Is this something to do with nourishment? Or is it just me feeling it would not be very tasty?

I love the image of ‘cold smell of potato mould’ – you can really smell that! Here it gets very earthy – the ground his father is digging and will forever rest in. And the living roots are what connects the family to each other and to the earth and to the land and it’s all earthy and the good turf is The Good Earth.

Finally he has no spade but a pen, a squat pen, and that feels almost inadequate in comparison with what his father had: a bright edged spade. Is he somewhat embarrassed by this? Shame? Or is he reminding himself how close he really is to that good turf? He may have a pen, but he has dug just as deep.

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Panther

Rilke’s poem first reminds me of Kafka’s short story ‘The Hunger Artist”, written 20 years later. However, unlike Kafka who no doubt saw himself as being replaced with a virile panther after the forgotten “artist’s” cage had been cleared out (his self doubt central to the imagery), Rilke uses this imagery to show us something that is trapped and cannot escape. It’s possible Rilke wanted to show us how mankind had been “successful” in capturing nature, controlling it at the turn of the century. Stefan Zweig describes his WWI ultimately.

The line “The world is made of bars” could represent the world as Rilke saw it. Technological innovation on the largest scale in human history was growing in all direction: iron cities, factories belching smoke, tenement houses filled with poverty and despair. Man might have created a marvel, but it is a prison, too: technology saves us work but it enslaves us. He then juxtaposes “bars” with the imagery of movement, “lithe swinging”, to show us what has been lost, what has been captured. And this evokes the imagery of a clock: a brass casing housing a living mechanism.

Finally there is a theatricality to it all when he uses the word “curtains”, as if it’s all a show and it’s all fake and it’s being run by someone we can’t see. It ends sinister, too with what feels like an assassin but it seems ambiguous as to what or whom is being killed: us or the panther? Is Rilke saying we are killing nature, or is this like a Jurassic Park metaphor where the panther will eventually escape because we are not smart enough to contain it forever?

Charles Simic: Stone

Hiding. Safety. Depression. Mystery. The unknowable. These are the words / images that cropped up in my mind as I read this.

He begins by saying that while some people may chose to bring peace to the world or to bring war against it, his way is to hide from it all, to escape from everyone. I feel as if he is concerned with conflict – and as a Serb who grew up in (and then left) Communist Belgrade he would have seen plenty of conflict and diversity (when he came to America). Perhaps this hiding is his way of protecting himself? Being like a stone can mean closing yourself off from all people, all emotions, all danger.

I feel as if he is trying to say how he has created his own world in that stone, where his imagination lives protected from the dangers of judgment of other people. And there is the idea that if we look hard enough we can see beauty and vitality in there, but it’s faint, and quite possibly not even for us, that the possessor of the faint light does not wish to share it. And so we have to be careful with this stone.

In reading “Stone” and “The Panther” together we get a similar image of vitality being confined, either willingly or not. But the idea is that there is life and vitality that must be allowed to live, either because it is cruel to trap nature, or because it is important to be careful with someone else’s life and feelings.

Marianne Moore: Poetry

She starts by saying what A lot of us believe about poetry: that it’s “fiddle”, unimportant and not useful at first glance. But then we get the images of hands grasping and hair rising-action words that tell us this fiddle is trying to get our Attention. It grabs our physical senses-works its way inside us.

Derivative is an interesting word to use here because it can mean it imitates in that it’s not original. Our interpretations should be original, we should find ourselves in the poem. And by seeing ourselves. in the poem we can understand it, make it our own. That can eventually lead to a greater empathy with others in that we understand their “uniqueness-

the animal images are interesting because animals are not capable of poetry, we, however, can impose poets on them.we create the poet of things not inherently poetic. she takes this deeper she compares these things without inherent poetry to a critic and A statistician, boring, logical and unpoetic. Not that they aren’t important, however, but it is not poetry.