July 27, 2019

Octavio Paz

See his reading and thoughts about poetry

Octavio Paz, 18 October 1988 from Lannan Foundation on Vimeo.

Octavio Paz - 1914-1998

At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of speech and the vertigo of death;
the walk with eyes closed along the edge of the cliff, and the verbena in submarine gardens;
the laughter that sets on fire the rules and the holy commandments;
the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page;
the despair that boards a paper boat and crosses,
for forty nights and forty days, the night-sorrow sea and the day-sorrow desert;
the idolatry of the self and the desecration of the self and the dissipation of the self;
the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors; the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl;
the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought;
the migrations of millions of verbs, wings and claws, seeds and hands;
the nouns, bony and full of roots, planted on the waves of language;
the love unseen and the love unheard and the love unsaid: the love in love.
Syllables seeds.

July 13, 2019

The Sublime

Rilke's poem has remained in my memory for a long time. It's one of my favorites. This is from Orchards by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

The sublime is a departure.
Instead of following,
something in us starts to go its own way
and getting used to heavens.  
Is not art’s extreme encounter
the sweetest farewell?
And music: that last glance
that we ourselves throw back at us! 

The Latin word sublimis means "looking up from."  Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, defines the sublime as a quality of art or experience that "excites the ideas of pain and danger" that produces "the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling" (302) and that causes "astonishment...horror, terror;...the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect." The Romantic poets tried to create this emotion.  Kant defined sublime as "that is beyond all comparison (that is absolutely) great, either mathematically in terms of limitless magnitude, or dynamically in terms of limitless power."

I rather like Rilke's definition. In my thinking, as a poet and writer, the sublime occurs when one lets go of the material and allows it to develop on its own. The art leads the artist.  Because of pure attention and deep listening,  the artist is able to break away from the usual and achieve new ground.  He says, "be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love..."  (Letters to a Young Poet)

July 12, 2019

Brigit Pegeen Kelly - Prose Poem

It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish, but maybe God misheard my request, maybe God thought I said not "some sort of fish," but a "scorpion fish," a request he would surely have granted, being a goodly God, but then he forgot the "fish" attached to the "scorpion" (because God, too, forgets, everything forgets); so instead of an edible fish, any small fish, sweet or sour, or even the grotesque buffoonery of the striped scorpion fish, crowned with spines and followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish; instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar prehistoric creature, part lobster, part spider, part bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star, something like a disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat, or even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly does it step, as if on ice, freezing again and again in mid-air like a listening ear, and then scuttling backwards or leaping madly forward, its deadly tail doing a St. Vitus jig. God gave me a scorpion, a venomous creature, to be sure, a bug with the bite of Cleopatra's asp, but not, as I soon found out, despite the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men. In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight eyes and almost no sight, who shuns the daylight, and is driven mad by fire, who favors the lonely spot, and feeds on nothing much, and only throws out its poison barb when backed against a wall -- a thing like me, but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or design, I am now attached to. And so I draw the curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step softly, and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many years, have I been stung, both times because, unthinking, I let in the terrible light. And sometimes now, when I watch the scorpion sleep, I see how fine he is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal Book because of his strange organs of breath. His lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged like the pages of a book -- imagine that! And when the holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood that circles through them touches the air, and by this bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the perishable manuscripts -- a little mirror of the library at Alexandria, which burned.
Brigit Pegeen Kelly is the author, most recently, of "Orchard."
Published in NYTIMES at https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/31/opinion/closing-time-iskandariya.html

July 9, 2019

Tom Sleigh: Traces of the Journey

The Poetry Book Club at Zenith Bookstore meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 5:30 pm. On July 10, 2019, the selection is Tom Sleigh's House of Fact, House of Ruin.  

Book Review:

Poetry is always political. Even if it is not about a political event, the political is expressed in the word choice, perspective, and land that it arises from.  Once I attended a workshop taught by the Irish poet Eavan Boland. She says land is always inseparable from politics. But she also criticized poets who use political events, especially traumatic events such as the Holocaust, as a type of "political tourism." She underlined poetry's ability to recreate a moment, and she cautioned poets against re-traumatizing others. I knew what she meant by this.

Tom Sleigh's poetry reflects his journeys in places of violent combat. His latest book House of Fact, House of Ruin was published in 2018 by Graywolf Press with a companion book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees.  His work is the effort to witness and bring the hard facts into literature. In Iraq, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Dadaab (a large refugee camp) and other places, he has met and talked with military personnel, Red Cross workers, and civilians. His work is also a poetry of witness but also of form (images, figurative language, and sound patterns). Many of these poems are sonnet forms with a subtler rhyme.  It's effective. It honors the tradition while at the same time playing with sound in way that suits contemporary times. This attention to craft and his sensitivity create very good poems.  He says: 
political emotions are always complex, and deeply troubled. So the accurate expression of mixed emotion seems to me to be at the core of the poetry I most care about. Yeats said it in a somewhat more rhetorical way when he wrote that the purpose of art was to hold reality and justice in a single thought.
It would be wrong for poetry to ignore the reality of our world: the wars, the suffering, and the stories of survival. He describes the influence of the poet Bashō on his own work. Sleigh's earlier book uses the haibun form, and this book reflects the "color."  The journey was to Iraq.  The titles are direct but when it comes to the content, the poems have a similar imagistic, evocative, and haunting quality.

In the 1600s, Japanese poet Bashō (1600s) wrote Narrow Road to the Interior:
The moon and sun are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.
The text collects the images and observations Bashō found in his wanderings.  The journey was through the landscape of Japan, and it was also an inner journey. As a scholar of Buddha and Confucius (among others), he created a literary art that held the vivid images of place, detachment from things, and passing of all things including the self. An important term is the Japanese concept of aware. Ivan Morris describes it as "the pathos inherent in the beauty of the other world, a beauty that is inexorably fated to disappear together with the observer."  Also important were the "pillow word" (referring to the double entendre or word that evokes many meanings) and the "pivot." This turn is very important in haiku. It creates an ambiguity that deepens the meaning.

In an essay on Poets.org, poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil writes:
the form is thinking of haibun as highly focused testimony or recollection of a journey composed of a prose poem and ending with a meaningful murmur of sorts: a haiku. The result is a very elegant block of text with the haiku serving as a tiny bowl or stand for the prose poem.
She goes on to list the important elements of the haibun form
  • detachment from the self (no personal pronouns)
  • concentrated use of sensory detail
  • the use of a seasonal word or one that alludes to the season
  • a turn or pivot in the 3rd line of the prose section
  • haiku at the end with approximately the 5-7-5 syllables in the three lines. 
Tom Sleigh writes about the importance of Bashō's work to his own: 
…this quality that I find most galvanizing in Bashō’s work—not the Buddhist trappings, or the delicate melancholy, or his sensitivity to flowers and mist; but his submersion of self in the world as he finds it, a world that is always every moment fighting to restore its equilibrium, but only as a way of losing it.
I like Sleigh's work here in this book. Some of his early poems are not among my favorites, as they feel more cocky and less attentive. This is not the case here. Even when Sleigh is not writing haibun, he is using the elements of this form. It feels right. 

Other writing by Tom Sleigh, available online: https://www.vqronline.org/people/tom-sleigh