February 24, 2012

Traveling in the Astral: H.D.

Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D.  (1886-1961)

As a young poet, I was often looking for models for myself. Too often, the women poets I admired had committed suicide.  But not H. D. I reached for her, and still do. She still sweeps me off my feet. She was also a poet who became an expatriate. She lived in Europe for many years, was married to poet Richard Aldington, was an analysand of Freud, a friend of Ezra Pound, involved in the new medium of film as an actress and writer, and a lover of Bryer, a wealthy woman novelist who during the war had financed the escapes of several Jewish people.  In the following, H. D. shows her artistic abilities. The poem is firmly embedded in the body-- and it stays physical-- and it draws on both landscape and mythology.


Nor skin nor hide nor fleece
     Shall cover you,
Nor curtain of crimson nor fine
Shelter of cedar-wood be over you,
Nor the fir-tree
Nor the pine.

Nor sight of whin or gorse
     Nor river-yew
Nor fragrance of flowering bush,
Nor wailing of reed-bird to waken you,
     Nor of linnet,
     Nor of thrush.

Nor word nor touch nor sight
     Of lover, you
Shall long through the night but for this:
The roll of the full tide to cover you
     Without question,
     Without kiss.

H. D. is one of the great American poets.  In this poem, her power is evident. The sound and rhythm of the language, hypnotic in its accumulation of nor, causes the poem to rise and break in the last lines in the last k sounds, "Without question,/ Without kiss." In Greek mythology, Lethe was the "river of forgetfulness" or the goddess of the underworld river of oblivion. The poem works on more than one level, decrying the losses of love on the physical body. The river likewise is stripped of the beauty of tree and flowering shrub at its banks, as if the river and the land were lovers.  Wanting to be annihilated by flood, a victim of its own qualities, of too-muchness, the longing is palpable.  It is both real and mythic.  

There is a record of letters between H.D., Bryher, and May Sarton. At the time, May was discouraged in her efforts of publishing. H.D. wrote: "O, my dear--don't worry about your work. It is wonderful, you have wonderful gifts. The fact of the writing is the thing--it trains one to a sort of yogi or magi power, it is a sort of contemplation, it is living on another plane, it is 'travelling in the astral' or whatever it is, they are supposed to do. That is the thing" (July 26, 1941).

Trilogy: The Walls Do not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, The Flowering of the Rod is my favorite. H.D. was in London, England with Bryher during the bombing. This was written afterward. I read it again and again, marveling at the tumble and flow of syllables and her deft use of metaphor.  In The Flowering of the Rod, excerpted here, the migration of geese and Jesus' resurrection speak to new beginnings in life:

I would rather beat in the wind, crying to these others:

yours is the more foolish circling,
yours is the senseless wheeling

round and round--yours has no reason--
I am seeking heaven;

yours has no vision,
I see what is beneath me, what is above me,

what men say is-not--I remember,
I remember, I remember--you have forgot

again, the steel sharpened on the stone;

again, the pyramid of skulls;
I gave pity to the dead,

O blasphemy, pity is a stone for bread,
only love is holy and love's ecstasy

that turns and turns and turns about one centre,
reckless, regardless, blind to reality,

that know the Islands of the Blest are there,
for many waters can not quench love's fire. 

Her poem soars and circles in this series, moving between opposite poles, touching the images of war and the distance of airborne flight, faraway islands, the vision of divine love and ecstasy.

H.D. as an imagist was much more powerful than her cohort Ezra Pound. She deftly used history and mythology in her work, and her vision was much greater. This poem has been my center during change in my life. I am restless by nature, settling and unsettling as a flock of birds. Along the shoreline of Lake Superior where I have lived for so many years, the migrations of birds have entered my internal landscape. Perhaps my grandparents' migration to the U.S. has had a residual effect, the impetus still echoes like waves from the stern of their ship stirring the ocean. 

H.D. has captured the heart-breaking truth of leave-taking, of striving, of being in the air, in the midst of perpetual change. Her words whisper in my ear--in moments of uncertainty, at times of break-up and loss and sorrow--to remember:

"In resurrection, there is confusion
if we start to argue; if we stand and stare,

we do not know where to go;
in resurrection, there is simple affirmation..."


H. D. biography http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/234

Mandell, Charlotte. "Letters Across the Atlantic:  H.D., Bryher, May Sarton, During World War II" This article originally appeared in A celebration for May Sarton : essays selected and edited by Constance Hunting. Orono, Maine : Puckerbrush Press (c/o University of Maine, Dept. of English, 5752 Neville Hall, Orono, Maine, 04469-5752), 1994, p.89-104. http://www.imagists.org/hd/hdcmone.html

Martz, Louis, editor.  H.D. Collected Poems 1912-1944. New Directions, New York, 1983. 

Ponsot, Marie, "Shot Through with Brightness: The Poems of H. D." http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19222

Detesting Ezra Pound

Pound was a literary giant and many have lived in his shadow. Although I have not often liked his poetry, I've have been influenced by those he influenced. His essays about poetry and his translations are still read, and they still resonate. Pound edited an essay by Ernest Fenollosa comparing the pictographs or characters of the Chinese language with poetry. In the Chinese character, image joined with action to convey the essential quality of transformation. So influenced, it was image that drove Ezra Pound as a poet. He edited the work of Yeats and T.S. Eliot.  He was a strong force promoting the work of several other poets.  In the essay "Retrospect" he writes about Imagist poetics:

"In the spring or early summer of 1912, H. D., Richard Aldington and myself decided that we were agreed upon the three principles following:
  1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
  2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
  3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome."
I do agree with these principles. I believe that the image carries meaning like nothing else.  It easily becomes symbol or metaphor.  The image that undergoes change in the poem, like the image of lemon slices in the poem "Miniature" by Yannis Ritsos, goes beyond metaphoric to metamorphic.  It's powerful.

H.D. was a powerful poet. Her spare lines still emit her radiant skill with sound and image. Other poets, also called modernist, used these tenets well: William Carlos Williams (although in a letter to Ezra Pound, he criticized Pound's first book of poetry as bitter), D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Hart Crane, and Gertrude Stein. In the lineage, Wallace Stevens, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, and Amy Lowell.

On the subject of influences, even unwanted influences, here is a poem he wrote about Walt Whitman: 

A Pact
by Ezra Pound

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman--
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root--
Let there be commerce between us.  

The powerful poetry of Whitman with its sweeping democracies and celebrations were not those of Pound's.  Pound complained that sometimes he detected Whitman's rhythms emerging in his own lines, but he brought the focus of his poems back from such abundant multiplicity to the single image, defined as "an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

Some of Pound's work seems to me as mysognist: "The Garden," "Portrait d'une Femme" or "The Lake Isle." Sometimes his endings seem clunky. I do much prefer the other modernists to him.  Only this poem of his, so deeply influenced by the Chinese poetry he studied, I love:

In a Station of the Metro
by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It is an instant of time, the intellectual and emotional complex, that fascinates. His choice of word, "apparition" means sight, yes, but it also means haunting.  This small haiku: a stream of faces, perhaps going to the front, or returning to it, faces of women who are saying good-bye or reuniting, the endless motion that is captured by the strong counterpoint of "petals on a wet, black bough."  His equivalent image captures the brevity, the fragility of full blossoms in the rain.

A translation of Li Po, "The River-merchant's Wife: A Letter" Pound did beautifully.  This is the work that will let me have commerce with him. 

While in Italy, Pound became involved with the Fascists. He was anti-Semitic and pro-Mussolini and Hitler, and he referred to President Roosevelt as "that Jew in the White House." When Mussolini died, Pound was arrested and returned to the United States.  He was charged with treason (the penalty was death by execution) for broadcasting fascist propaganda by radio to the U.S., but he was found incompetent to stand trial by reason on insanity. He was committed as mentally ill to a St Elizabeth's Hospital, a federal asylum, in D.C. in about 1946 where he remained until 1958.

Some people have argued he not mentally ill, and some think he must have had bipolar disorder.  I've worked in the mental health field for thirty years. I know that at the time he was committed, patients often went into a patriarchal and brutal system. Medications were just coming into use; the heavy tranquilizer Haldol had disabling and sometimes permanent side effects like tongue rolling and uncontrolled hand movements (called pill rolling). This was the era of lobotomies, high voltage electroshock treatments, strait jackets and shackles. Commitments were also done on people with mental retardation, epilepsy, and homosexuality. In 1981, when I first walked through a back ward in a state run psychiatric hospital, I thought of Dante's circles of hell. Patients were over-crowded. Some people spent their life time in these hospitals; often their bizarre behaviors were related to the environment, lack of privacy or control, assaults or intrusions of other patients, and punitive or demeaning systems (like an M&M economy--a system of exchange based on candy M&Ms). I don't know what the conditions were in St Elizabeth's when Ezra Pound was there, but I know they were difficult in general for all mental health patients.

During his commitment, he convinced Eustace Mullins, another writer, of a conspiracy of "The Rothschild system" which was a group of bankers, corporations, and secret governmental agencies which yielded world power. Pound's theory of monetary control leading to the Federal Reserve influenced Mullins went on to write a book, Secrets of the Federal Reserve, updated later in The World Order: A Study in the Hegemony of Parasitism (1985), and The World Order: Our Secret Rulers (1992). Pound continued to rant; perhaps he was delusional. Clearly he was racist, and this also I detest about him. When he was released, he returned to Italy and lived there until he died in 1972.

Despite his political involvement, his literary contributions were recognized in 1948 with a Bollingen-Library of Congress Award.


Aldington, Richard. "Images" http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/21788

Doolittle, Hilda (H. D.) http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/234

Ezra Pound Biography http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/161

Ezra Pound Biography http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/ezra-pound

"Insanity on Trial," Frontline, PBS. c1995-2011, WGBH. retrieved 02/24/2012. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/crime/trial/other.html

Pound, Ezra, Editor. The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry by Ernest Fenollosa. City Lights Books, San Francisco. c1936 Ezra Pound.

Pound, Ezra. Selected Poems

Pound, Ezra. "In Retrospect" and "A Few Don'ts" (1918) http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237886

February 20, 2012

Wendell Berry and William Carlos Williams

The Poetry of William Carlos Williams of Rutherford
by Wendell Berry

I've always lived in the northern forest. I grew up near Lake Esquagama (Ojibwe translation: waters flowing to Superior) and have lived for many years in Duluth in view of the Great Lake, and the farthest inland seaport. For many years, I've loved to read Wendell Berry's poems and savor his connection to place. His voice rings with the solid ground on which he stands.  

Wendell writes an impressive critical analysis of the writing of William Carlos Williams. Honoring Williams' commitment to his own local community, Berry praises his efforts to find a language that expresses Rutherford, New Jersey and the people and things of that locale.  At the time Williams was writing, New Jersey was considered "provincial."  Most of his poetry peers traveled and lived in Europe.

As a doctor, he was of use to his community and as a poet, he sought to be of use to Rutherford and America. Instead of separating himself, becoming academic or writing in the classic forms with meter and rhyme, Williams had the courage to inhabit his own place in the world of writing. Berry borrows the ecological term "local adaption" to express the effort to connect oneself to place.  This is the goal of the writer, to find the right relation to the land and community where he or she lives; Berry contrasts this with the focus on self or autonomy in the phrase "identity crisis." 

"Williams in his writing moved more and more decisively toward a sense of the poet as a local maker of a kind of order, spokesman and teacher...Since his time, the understanding of place as the right context and measure of work has become as urgent and articulate among some scientists as among some poets."

Berry also defends Williams' proscription, "no ideas except in things."  It was not that he was mindless or unconcerned with thought:
"He was accepting a limit (for himself and his work, first of all) that would protect things from the limitlessness of abstract ideas, abstract definition, abstract rules and case. Things--or, by implication, persons, places and things--properly mark the limits of ideas."

It is such a pleasure to read Wendell Berry. He so fully inhabits his place in the world, he brings the wisdom and time of his land to all that he writes.  Berry inspires me to grasp the roots of my own heritage here in this place where my grandparents arrived as immigrants from Finland. Finland also is a land of northern forest. As a child, I was aware that my family and the community where not the first people to dwell in that place.  I knew it because I'd found in the forest of Norway pines where I lived burial mounds of the Native American culture; the mounds were large, like small hills in an otherwise level ground, and my mother had warned me to respect those grounds, not to climb on or slide down, as a child is tempted. This feeling of people before my people, a layer of history, was strong even as other areas of our land was unearthed and the iron ore taken.

Now, I am contemplating the forest as ecosystem and searching for a language, my language, to express its reach and tangle and roots, its constant change.  Wendell Berry rightly gives his blessing to all poets who go deeply into their local culture--the people, places and things-- and in doing so, strengthen it.

February 19, 2012

Archeologists of Morning

Archeology is the study of human culture based on material objects left behind and the place where these are found. I am fascinated by the phrase "archeologist of morning."  This was the title of a collection of shorter poems by Charles Olson.

I traced this phrase back to Thoreau who was also a carpenter, naturalist and in his work on a house, became fascinated with 17th century building techniques in Concord, Massachusetts. He had keen observational skills and was considered "the father of modern archeology."  

Olson's work is full of the material objects and places that would fascinate an archeologist. In form, Olson seemed to favor a longer length and he often about Gloucester, Massachusetts. The images develop and circle. He varies his stanza size and indentations, and he uses parentheses and visual arrangements on the page.  He is known for his experimental work, The Maximus Poems.   
This excerpt is from his poem " As the The Dead Prey Upon Us":

each knot of which the net is made
is for the hands to untake
the knot’s making. And touch alone
can turn the knot into its own flame
                          (o mother, if you had once touched me
                          o mother, if I had once touched you)

Charles Olson is one example of how each poet must find his or her own path through the work.
In 1950, he published this essay, "Projective Verse," as a pamphlet. It was his manifesto.  Instead of traditional forms with their meter and rhyme, he urged a new approach: 

"the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE/
the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE."

1. Poem is a way to transfer energy from the poet and his or subject to the reader.
2. The form should evolve from the content of the poem.
3. The poem must be built with a series of perceptions, one quickly following the other.

To read his essay about poetics in its entirety, click on this link: 

In a biographical essay at the Poetry Foundation website, this paragraph reveals his process:
"Olson did not consider himself "a poet" or "a writer" by profession, but rather that nebulous and rare 'archeologist of morning,' reminiscent of Thoreau. He wrote on a typewriter. 'It is the advantage of the typewriter that, due to its rigidity and its space precisions, it can, for a poet, indicate exactly the breath, the pause, the suspensions even of syllables, the juxtapositions even of parts of phrases, which he intends. For the first time the poet has the stave and the bar a musician has had. For the first time he can, without the convention of rime and meter, record the listening he has done to his own speech and by that one act indicate how he would want any reader, silently or otherwise, to voice his work.' " 
Another good biography is found at http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/739

Judging a Poetry Contest

On this dark winter night, I look out upon the sheet of ice in front of the house. Boot prints pressed into the melting and soft snow earlier in the day are now frozen. I have memories of old ice rinks, fenced with boards, memories of carved lines in the ice, compressed and polished. I remember the empty rinks gleaming in the pools of light around the lamps, and beyond, midnight ink.

It's a privilege to read poems and select winners. As a judge of a recent poetry contest, I want to write about the process of winnowing. I know some of the poems in the stack are from new poets and some are from poets with strong skills and confidence. After reading all the entries carefully, I began separating the entries into two piles: "possible yes" and "definite no."

The table looks like voting day at the township meeting hall. Papers and papers. I take some away to look at, stand by the window, look outside. I lay them down on the table again like a game of solitaire. What poems will I elect?

The poem should be presented in a professional manner, free of spelling errors. Large or ornate fonts are distracting.  Some have too many archaic or "poetic" words, some are goofy.  Humor is definitely okay, but I want the poet to give some serious attention to language. I read more than once, because I don't want to miss a gem.  

I look for poetry that has patterns in sound. Some poets use rhyme (internal or at the end of lines) and others use assonance and consonance (a pattern of vowel and consonant sounds).  Some poets count meter and create a pattern of stresses (like iambic pentameter or trochaic rhythm, etc).  Some poets work with visual patterns on the page or create a circular form or the like. I'm not just looking for formal poems, sonnets or sestinas or villanelles. I'm looking for poems whose form might follow their content. Compression of language is also pleasing. The best way to discover and savor these patterns is to read poems aloud. 

I look for poetry that uses concrete details and figurative language (like metaphor). The best poems engage the five senses.  The best poems have a strong sense of place. I like those with concise and precise language. 

Things that went into the "definite no" pile were poems that were overly sentimental and lacked strong images.  Sometimes poets sacrifice meaning for rhythm.  A sing-song rhythm can overwhelm and trivialize the topic.  Sometimes the language was too loose and prose-y.  Extra words. Passive verbs.  Jumbles of things at cross purposes. Tired language. A poem is less strong if the writer tells the emotion instead of using a concrete detail to create the emotion.

Show, don't tell. This was a maxim when I was learning to write, and it is still good advice. For example, in a poem I will read a line that goes something like this: "they were bored/ lonely...."
or "...she was happy."   This kind of line does not make use of good writing skills. Instead, it would be better to show the feeling with concrete details like in this example by David Allen Evans in "Neighbors":

Today they are
washing windows
(each window together)
she on the inside,
he on the outside.
He squirts Windex
at her face,
she squirts Windex
at his face.
Now they are waving
to each other
with rags,
not smiling.

Sometimes writers need to get out of the way of the poem. A poem often gets started on a
good thing, and the writer thinks too much, and starts interfering. Not once does David Allen Evans neglect the picture. He uses concrete details so the reader can see the scene. The emotion is evoked. The reader is not told how to feel.
Note: this was not a poem that I reviewed in the contest.

Other "definite no" poems were the ones that had abrupt or jarring shifts in language or their metaphor. Sometimes poets keep jumping to another metaphor. That doesn't work. It's best if the poet can get all the elements working toward their best effect: the images, sounds, details, and form to all become parts of an exquisite whole. 

It's a good idea for the poet to take some time to identify who is speaking in the poem, and to whom. If affects the tone. Poems can be personal, even intimate. Or poems can be addressed to a multitude. Consistency is good. 

After the first sorting of poems, I picked up the "possible yes" poems and examined each one a lot closer. There were a fair amount of "almost" poems. Finally, I found the top ten percent.

These are all good poems, unfortunately, I can't give that many awards. I've been asked to choose first, second, third place winners and three honorable mentions. I put the poems into a stack and come back a few days later to read and read them. Many poems would be better if the poet had deleted the last few lines or even the last stanza. A poem is not the place to make a summary-of-ideas conclusion. Repeating what has been said is unnecessary and depletes the energy of the poem.

Sometimes I notice there is a line or two that should really be omitted for better effect. Sometimes a word will really bother me. But I'm not the editor, so I don't get to advise anybody about anything. This affects the ranking. What is second or third place might have been first if it wasn't for a single glaring wrong note.

I was asked to make comments on the six selections, so I decided to write comments about my top ten percent. I think best with a pen on paper, it seems to help me drop down a level, go deeper. Suddenly the top choices become very clear. Those are the ones that I want to write about.

At the final selection point, I notice that the poems I selected had the strongest voices. Voice is a term that refers to a personality or energy, a compelling combination of story and sound that rises out of specific place. I chose the poems with the best craft and vision. In addition, the winners were those with the best focus: staying in metaphor long enough to explore it with depth, following the image throughout the poem, and inhabiting the world created in the first two lines.

If a poetry competition were a skating championship, then I'm judging the artistry. My attention is on the poetic equivalents of the triple axles: build-up, execution and landings. Seeing the effort, endurance and grace of a good poem is such pleasure.

February 13, 2012

The Question: What Use Is Poetry?

"We have poetry so we do not die of history," says Meena Alexander in this poem.  She also said, "Poetry and place—if poetry is the music of survival, place is the instrument on which that music is played, the gourd, the strings, the fret."

QUESTION TIME by Meena Alexander

Hand raised in a crowded room --
What use is poetry?

Above us, lights flickered,
Something wrong with the wiring.

I turned and saw the moon whirl in water
The Rockies struck with a mauve light,

Sea creatures cut into sky foliage.
In the shadow of a shrub once you and I

Brushed lips and thighs,
Dreamt of a past that frees its prisoners.

Standing apart I looked at her and said:
We have poetry

So we do not die of history.
And I had no idea what I meant.

(Published in the journal Black Renaissance/Noire, 2010)
In the following essay, Meena Alexander examines her influences. She grew up in India, was reared in Sudan, and is a scholar in English literature. She finds her home in the polyglot of her languages. 


"The first border we cross is that of the body. I put out my hands and touch the stone, the tree, the surface of the mirror and what I mark is the rim of the body, the fleeting surfaces of the world, what we might choose to call the real, irreparably marked by the notations of the body, the unique impress I take of things and the mark I make, however ephemeral in the arrangements of sense. Yet this touching and tasting that my body allows me in the world it creates so I can live, is always rendered up in a density of location, a necessary otherness. My private body, this nest of flesh and blood and bone is already marked and set in place by the temporal passages of a world I have little control over, by others who do not know me, and have never heard of me, and might wish never to do so.
"I think of Simone Weil and her notion of decreation - a stripping down of the self, an emptying out, essential to a burning interior life, no thing there, just a waiting on nothingness, a radical act of attentiveness. There is much in her notion that we can learn from as we try to conceive of the imagination, the image making power which works through a febrile openness to emptiness. It is only by stripping ourselves of what we thought we were that the panoply of circumstance the poem sets up, its minute theatre of sense can achieve itself. And only then is poetry permitted its seemingly serendipitous alignment with the haunting we call history."

Read the full essay
Meena Alexander, "The Question of Home"

For more information about Meena Alexander, visit her website http://www.meenaalexander.com/

February 12, 2012

Poems as Maps

What Do You Do with the Past? 

Writing is built on memory; it preserves and shapes our memories and lives.  In the process of making art, a poet can write from memory.  No matter if you're writing poetry, fiction, essay or memoir, the past provides a wealth of material. We use this material in poetry, but as Ted Kooser points out in his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, an anecdote does not necessarily make a poem.  A poem needs something else. Like Mary Oliver says, poetry is writing that casts more than one shadow. The poem needs to mean more than one thing. It needs to convey the 'is-ness' of things and it needs to employ sound. The poem is the map where the memory is placed. 

Reading other poets allows you to study their maps. Each poem is a map of the breath, a map of the encounter. In an introduction to one of his books of poems, Neruda emphasizes the tactile. He aims for: "A poetry impure as the clothing we wear, or our bodies, soup-stained, soiled with our shameful behavior, our wrinkles and vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, declarations of loathing and love, idylls and beasts, the shocks of encounter, political loyalties, denial and doubts, affirmations and taxes."  Studying these other maps will help you make your own with your own body, out of your own vigils and dreams, observations and prophecies, loathing and love, encounters, doubts and distractions and obsessions.

Good or bad, we can't escape the past, and neither can we escape the inexorable changes.  Every day removes us just as it moves us forward into new experience.  Neruda says it well in his poem, "The Past."  The ending is excerpted here:

Now the heavy eyelid
covers the light of the eye
and what was once living
now no longer lives;
what we were, we are not.
And with words, although the letters
still have transparency and sound,
they change, and the mouth changes;
the same mouth is now another mouth;
they change, lips, skin, circulation;
another being has occupied our skeleton;
what once was in us now is not.
It has gone, but to the call, we reply;
"I am here," knowing we are not,
that what once was, was and is lost,
is lost in the past, and now will not return.

Pablo Neruda, "The Past"

The past: always crumbling and every moment falling into it. We lose everything, even our selves. Things are not fixed, there is no certainty, only this threshold of constant change.

But it is here that we can stand and work, reaching back to our own material to make and shape new poems, and possibly even new futures. Mona Smith, a Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota storyteller and media artist was recently featured in the Minnesota Women's Press. She is working with others making memory maps, an important writing and media project in Minnesota to recover the history of the Dakota tribe.  "Know who you are and know where you are," she says.

Her project involves creating a memory map of the bdote area of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers (a bdote is a place where two waters come together) that is central to Dakota spirituality and history.  She is collecting the stories from many Dakota people in her quest.  In another project, Mnisota Makoce 2062, she aims to bring together dance, recordings, public performance and stories from the tribe's elders to tell what it was like in the region before Europeans arrived, before the mass executions in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862 when 38 Dakota men were hanged, the largest group hanging in the history of the US. For more information about her, see the article http://eedition.womenspress.com/main.asp?sectionid=2&subsectionid=77&pageID=8

I applaud this work and I bring it into the discussion of poetry and the use of the past because I think she offers much wisdom.  She is working on truth-telling on a large scale, using many perspectives. Writers always have done important work when they write about the places and people that have been sacred or important.  For writers and those making art, I recommend the development of a memory map. The more people participating in a project like this, the better. Knowing who you are and where you are brings clarity and strength.  

There was a type of poetry called "confessional" which is the poetry of "I" and usually involved speaking about things that were normally not spoken in polite society.  Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton were examples of this type of writing, and they both wrote about painful experience.  It was truth telling on a personal level. Anne wrote about her time in a psychiatric ward. Other poets later, like Sharon Olds, continue to write about sexual abuse and physical abuse, breaking taboos by speaking out.  I think this is an important wave of artistic work that has helped change the culture. The taboo against speaking has broken and now more people have awareness and understanding.

After awhile, some critics and readers felt that there was too much emphasis was on the "I" and that the confessional had become solipsistic. At this point in time, in the era of Facebook and MySpace, people in our culture are much more comfortable with sharing personal and even private information. It is no longer breaking any taboos at all; the culture's appetite for the personal and private in our lives is not appeased. If anything, it has grown. Consider the reality shows on television. In my work as a poet, and for most poets, the aim is for something deeper. 

Mona Smith's project involves the collection of many individual stories in order to portray a community that was oppressed. As such she is able to uncover the roots of oppression, give a broader context to individual experience, revive the culture and help change the lives of people right now. Because she is also recording dance, music, and art, she can access powerful change. She is working on the larger scale of history. 

Here I speak of poetry as a map. Change may not be a direct mission of many poets, but truth-telling is valuable. In the threshold that all of us stand upon, between the past and "the next," I encourage poets to write with passion about their histories, their places and landscapes, their dances and songs and feasts, and the people and things who are important. From these things, the poem's rhythm and sound emerges. 

The map is about place. A poem is emotional landscape. It is a way of traveling by sound. In this work of making a map, poets need to connect the anecdote or memory to something larger, to cast more than one shadow, to capture that heart-rending edge where things are coming to be and ceasing to be. Therefore the anecdote or the memory in the poem should be juxtaposed with the larger life, the world outside of the individual. The anecdote itself can be a metaphor, a way of describing something else. This connection to the larger expands the poem. Connecting to history expands the poem's range, and connecting to myth or Biblical story accesses deep cultural meanings.

When the mythic or Biblical is invoked, it is not as parable or conveying a lesson. The story becomes a story within a story. It is a way of deepening the poem and making it larger. It's so important to avoid the sentimental and to avoid naming feelings or telling the reader how to feel. The emotional landscape is not traveled by naming the feeling, but by creating images that evoke the emotion. And all this needs to happen without the poet giving up connection to the physical body and the tactile. 

Poets who use memories aren't just writing memoir.  We make the map as a way to access the spirit or breath, in the spirit-to-spirit exchange between poet and reader, the I and thou. In this context, the map is made of the personal scratches or marks, it should be physical or tactile, as Neruda says. It offers a rhythm. In order for a poem to move us, the map must reveal the emotional landscape and terrain of the sacred. If the poem is a map of the writer's encounter with "the larger", if a poem is able to find the way into something that can not be said, then the reader can follow in the same sound and rhythm and find the point of connection. It is this aha! --  this encounter -- that the reader of a poem enjoys.

Moments of Being

Virginia Woolf described the luminous moments of life, the memorable experiences, the things that mark us forever as "moments of being."  These moments of beings are the heart of who we are or who we have become. The following examples are ways that poets take a moment of being and make a poem from it: 

The poet Eleanor Ross Taylor writes about the travel bag that her mother packed for her:

Some days now I wonder if I’ll ever
dare face my given garments—
permanently wrinkled,
surely out of date—
your travel-thought
wasting in its tissue, flesh-corrupt—
till I’ve absorbed it,
like those stitches that dissolve
in an incision
where something’s been removed.
Eleanor Ross Taylor "At the Altar"

This poem by James Galvin, takes a seeming innocuous memory of being in an art class. He enters the drawing itself:

Let us begin with a simple line,
Drawn as a child would draw it, 
To indicate the horizon,

James Galvin "Art Class"

In this poem, Sharon Olds captures the moment her abusive parents were courting, in that moment of possibility before all the mistakes were made:

they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,   
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are   
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.   
I want to go up to them and say Stop,   
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,   
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,

Sharon Olds "I Go Back to May 1937"

In the next poem, Natasha Tretheway takes a story about fishing with an aunt to illuminate her bi-racial identity and the history of racism:

Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.

Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
Natasha Tretheway "Flounder"

History and Poetry: Letters, Photographs, Journals

The following poems use events in history in a way that is personal and arresting. The form of the resume or curriculum vitae is used by Lisel Mueller to tell:

Curriculum Vitae

1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea.

2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into 
confetti. A loaf of bread cost a million marks. Of 
course I do not remember this.

3) Parents and grandparents hovered around me. The 
world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.

4) A cornucopia filled with treats took me into a building 
with bells. A wide-bosomed teacher took me in.

5) At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth.

6) On Sundays the city child waded through pinecones 
and primrose marshes, a short train ride away.

7) My country was struck by history more deadly than 
earthquakes or hurricanes.

8) My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother 
told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets.
to read the full text, see

This next poem by NatashaTretheway is structured as a letter written by a mulatto woman in the south who is "passing" as white but has not been able to find work:

though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive 
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown 
as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite 
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets 
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes 
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, 
a negress again. There are enough things here 
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through 
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall 

Natasha Tretheway "Letter Home"

The poet in this example offers a photographic image.  She structures her poem as a villanelle on that single moment in time, in 1900. The repetition of lines in the villanelle seems to help evoke the scene of five young girls, scolding and shifting as their photograph is taken:

Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch,
are bickering. The eldest has come home
with new truths she can hardly wait to teach.

She lectures them: the younger daughters search
the sky, elbow each others' ribs, and groan. 
Five daughters, in the slant light on the porch

and blue-sprigged dresses, like a stand of birch
saplings whose leaves are going yellow-brown
with new truths. They can hardly wait to teach,

Marilyn Nelson "Daughters, 1900"

The poet in the following example writes a narrative about war. She has a specific time and place, a day of departure in a specific geographic location.  Her offhand tone contrasts with the horror for the individuals in the story, it emphasizes how common this scene is, how it happens all the time. Her tone is ironic, biting, and reminds the reader about how much we tend to blame others and ignore our own complicity.

Some people fleeing some other people. 
In some country under the sun 
and some clouds. 

They leave behind some of their everything, 
sown fields, some chickens, dogs, 
mirrors in which fire now sees itself reflected. 

On their backs are pitchers and bundles, 
the emptier, the heavier from one day to the next. 

Wislawa Szymborska "Some People"

Poems connecting with myth or Biblical stories

In the following poems, the intensely personal story has found a connection to Biblical or mythical stories. It like placing the small within a larger cultural map. The personal voice is immediate and riveting; that these stories are embedded in the larger myth or Biblical story lends them much more power. The poem itself is just a moment in time, but the reader understands the entire arc, the story from beginning to inevitable end.  

Jean Valentine, "Annunciation"

Maureen Gibbon "Magdalena Remembering"

Rita Dove "Persephone, Falling"

Alicia Suskin Ostriker "Demeter to Persephone"

February 8, 2012

Accolades for Poets

A good poem is like an arrow shot from a bow, it penetrates deeply. However, poems do not wound. They heal us. Recently these three poets have been honored for their work. Click on the links to find out more about these writers and their truly great work.

What is a poet laureate? A laureate award honors the poet. The United States appoints a poet laureate consultant to the Library of Congress. Generally, the poet laureate initiates a program that will promote poetry and expand the audience for poetry. Many cities and states have a poet laureate program. It is a great way to recognize the contributions of poets and to create community around the art of writing poetry.

I want to thank the Duluth Poet Laureate program for the opportunity to be the city's poet laureate for 2010-2012.  In May, a new poet laureate will be named and I look forward to the new initiatives that person will create. It's been a wonderful experience. In the role, I offered workshops and completed a Community Arts Learning project, collecting poems and writing about transitions in life. These have been collected in the book, Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions (Wildwood River, 2011). 

Nobel Prize for Literature

U.S. Poet Laureate
Philip Levine
sample poem
"What Work Is"  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182873

Minnesota Poet Laureate
Joyce Sutphen
sample poems
"Homesteading" http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/176/1#20604932
"Aunts"  http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/241314