The Poem Stuck in My Head
June 20, 2012 | by Andrew Sean Greer
Nothing suits me as well as the combination of sweet and sour. It explains my love of Thai food and women rockers who sing like robots about heartbreak. It also explains my love of Frederick Seidel’s poetry. Apparently it’s not to everyone’s taste; he has been called the “Darth Vader of American poetry” for such seemingly cruel lines as “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.” Of course, that line is in a poem, “Climbing Everest,” about his own mortality, his own nakedness (a “train wreck”), and the coldness of those words allows the rest to work on us. And I suppose one must have a mind of winter, and been cold a long time, to write a poem about a dying dog: “Spin.”
Which is the poem stuck in my head.
A dog named Spinach died today.
In her arms he died away.
Injected with what killed him.
Love is a cup that spilled him.
Spilled all the Spin that filled him.
Sunlight sealed and sent.
Received and spent.
Smiled and went.
I make my creative-writing students memorize and recite poetry; I want to embed a few lines of precise language and meter in their brains, like a sleeper cell, to be activated when they are at a loss for imagery or words. To prove it can be done, I memorize a new poem every week. So you would think I’d have a multitude swimming around up there. But the one poem that always snakes its way up—intact—through the debris of memory is also the only poem that, when I recite it before my class, makes them break into tears.
May 17, 2012 | by Sam Munson
Edward Lear was born two hundred years ago this month. His reputation, which has outlived many others, rests largely on a book of limericks published when he was thirty-four and a single poem, appearing twenty-one years later, that begins (as you all know, or should):
The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note
March 22, 2012 | by D. A. Powell
One of the pleasures of reading a great poem over time is the way its meanings establish themselves (like the “trees of heaven” that reclaim the space of “quarrels and shattered glass”) and grow sturdier, larger.
I first read Robert Hayden’s “Summertime and the Living...” at an age where I neither understood ellipses nor was hip to the signals of quotation marks. I had scarcely heard of Porgy and Bess, so I missed entirely the allusion to “Summertime” the song. Instead, I thought of the poem as situated in memory, as a man looks back on a boyhood imprinted by the “Mosaic eyes” of those elders to whom “the florist roses that only sorrow could afford long since have bidden ... Godspeed.” If I had known that the next two words indicated by the title “Summertime and the Living...” would be “is easy,” I no doubt would have (knowing what a predilection I then had for irony) seen the poem as a quick “gotcha,” an “oh you thought it was this but it was that” kind of poem, and I imagine it would have taken longer for me to appreciate its nuance. But I was first reading the poem at that tender time when I still took it on faith that nearly all poetry is born of sincerity, and I missed Hayden’s sly joke. It was that sly.
Later, I heard the song. Later, I saw the deft choice in every word. The way “gangled” worked off “vivid” which worked off “unplanned” to suggest a lively disorder out of which dream emerges in the form of “circus-poster horses.” And later still I saw the roses not as a decorative flower (as I’d once imagined them) but as a necessary embodiment of sorrow exceeding frugality in its expensive claim on our hearts. Later, I understood the symbolic power of boxer Jack Johnson setting “the ghetto burgeoning with fantasies” as he leaves in a “diamond limousine.” Read More »
March 15, 2012 | by Miranda Popkey
“It is possible,” George Oppen wrote, in early 1962, “to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet's perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.” “Boy’s Room,” which is about just such a perceptual encounter, and truthful almost to a fault, appears in Oppen’s 1965 collection, This in Which, his second after a silence of more than twenty-five years. Between Discrete Series (1934) and The Materials (1962), Oppen raised a daughter; he worked as a carpenter; he joined, then became disillusioned with, the Communist party; he lived in Mexico; he fought in World War II (not necessarily in that order). What he did not do, for the most part, is write. When he returned to poetry in 1958 it was with a vigor that “Boy’s Room” amply demonstrates. The collection that followed, Of Being Numerous (1968), would win him the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1984, and though the details of his personal life are salacious enough—an affluent childhood, his mother's suicide; a car accident in which his passenger was killed, a first date that led to his future wife’s expulsion from college (they stayed out all night and she missed her curfew)—he is largely forgotten. It’s a real pity. “No ideas but in things” is a line from a William Carlos Williams poem, but Oppen’s work fits the bill as well as Williams’s does.
I can remember the first time I read “Boy’s Room” because of the physical sensation that accompanied it: I felt like I was falling. The drop occurs in the gulf between the first and second stanza: “A friend saw the rooms / of Keats and Shelley / At the lake, and saw ‘they were just / Boy’s rooms’ and was moved // By that.” I, too, was moved by that.
Of course, the friend is right in a purely literal sense: Keats died at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine. Confronted with their actual rooms, there's a sense of surprise and sympathetic feeling: these towering figures of romantic poetry were not only real people, they were youngsters who had not quite outgrown their adolescence. But from the discrete thing—the rooms of Keats and Shelley—comes the broader idea: “indeed a poet’s room / Is a boy’s room.” Such a sheepish admission for the poet to make, to indict himself. Read More »
February 23, 2012 | by Jana Prikryl
The poet is often taken to be a subspecies of the memoirist, stirred to write about her own experiences—the more intense or “authentic,” the better. Thanks to the Romantics we believe that inwardness is truth, truth inwardness. This aesthetic can produce great lyric poetry, but it also tends to blanket many contemporary poems with a kind of fungus of the first person. Also of solemnity. A strong mid-century alkali to such mildew is John Berryman’s long sequence, The Dream Songs. Its main character is Henry, a concoction of Berryman’s own past, of his reading, and of American history. Henry gives utterance to a thousand shades of thought and feeling, of hesitations and inklings—the most intimate stuff of the inner voice—but he does this via verbal theatrics. He is constantly disputing himself, juggling his first, second, and third persons, and the result reads almost like an improvised vaudeville act. Henry’s entanglement with language becomes the central drama of the sequence.
In “Dream Song #14,” the drama, or antidrama, is Henry’s boredom, a thing that is especially tricky to convey. I never tire of the comic-grave, drooping yet metrically perfectionist, repetitious thespian roundelays of this poem. “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // Inner Resources” is how Henry quotes his scolding mother. It’s a maxim both wearily conceded and richly facetious. If the brunt of some of the best lyric poetry is that we must strip the costumes off our feelings and confess them truly, Henry is strewing his alternative propaganda that—honestly? dishonestly?—he has none just now. No gainful feelings. And the costumes are of greater interest.
This spirit of rebellion, or rapscallionism, that sparks through all 385 of The Dream Songs (and it pains me to leave out the other 384) may feel so vital because Berryman was, among other things, a serious scholar of Shakespeare, well equipped to gauge the tensile strength of a dramatic monologue. In an essay written around the time he published the last of The Dream Songs, Berryman isolates one of the things that makes an otherwise minor play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, important: “The sudden endowing of a clown—against our expectation—with a voice of his own … A second clown comes onstage alone at II.iii.I and begins to talk to himself, or rather he begins to confide in the audience … Here we attend, for the first time in English comedy, to a definite and irresistible personality, absorbed in its delicious subject to the exclusion of all else; confused, and engaging.” The same might be said of Henry, even when he seems most wearily disengaged. Read More »
February 9, 2012 | by Sarah Braunstein
What poem would I write today, if I had it in me? So many titles come to mind. For instance: On Eating an Orange that is Too Wet. Or: On Drinking Coffee Slowly and Finding it Cold. The poem about Failing to Own a Microwave. Poem After Weird Moon. The poem called Patience.
Of course, the name of a poem isn’t a poem. Or is it? This is what James Shea’s brilliant, funny poem “Haiku” makes me wonder. It is a breathless, cluttered, charming, and heartbreaking list of titles. The poems that follow the titles—were they to exist—would be spare and measured. But Shea refuses to measure himself. These unwritten poems speak of ambition and youth, and suggest a flood of feeling that won't be contained by form. It’s a series of ghost haiku. Yet these traces of other poems, taken together, make a whole no less sufficient, no less moving, for its cobbled parts. Read More »