I read more poetry last month than I think I did in all of 2015.

I didn’t enjoy much of it.

I want to like most poetry more than I do, and I’m trying to unpack my assumptions and standards and guilt. I have a goal: appreciation.

I feel guilty for not liking contemporary poetry as much as other people do. That makes picking up new books rather fraught. And I have no idea why I’m able to put down prose or walk away from a painting without feeling like less of a human being—but not a poem other people are raving about.

There are things I want in a poem in order to enjoy it or to want to continue reading it: music. Reach out to me with assonance, consonance, alliteration, meter and I’ll listen. I’m not saying that’s the only way to make a poem but that is what I enjoy and that is what makes me get into the space of a poem, what makes me want to rail against it and revel with it. Music plus intelligent observation is the fun in poetry.

Certainly there are things I like in prose and things I don’t, but those are less about format and more about content. I would be content to read about most anything in a poem if there were music.

So I come round to my goal: how does one learn to appreciate a piece of art?

Sandy Longhorn writes of “the value of sticking with readings that don’t particularly set one’s hair on fire” and I’m curious what that is and how it works. And why you would want to study something which brings you no pleasure. How is it that prolonged exposure teaches appreciation?

When I read Jane Hirshfield’s The Beauty last month, I was surprised at my own enjoyment. Hirshfield’s poems are beautiful for their surprisingly metaphors—which I found only worked once or twice per poem for me—not any sonic texture. How was I able to appreciate them? Or does perhaps surprise rate as high as music in my standards?

And is that the trick to appreciation? To let my standards go? And if I do, how do I evaluate or experience the art itself?

hearing about here-ness

Heard during yesterday’s commute:

STAMBERG: The show, it’s called “You Are Here,” is up at L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice until February 13. It’s the work of a dedicated artist who wrote this about what painting means to her. It’s almost a poem.

CAMPBELL: (Reading) It’s about tracking ghosts. It’s about selling diamonds to poets. It’s about that slippery little idea of a connection that is deeper than butter and as long as water.

Jane Hirshfield on Revising Poetry

Last summer, I attended a lecture on “Writing Poems, Writing Books” at Vanderbilt University by Jane Hirshfield, an American poet whose honors include election to Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2012 and work in seven editions of Best American Poetry. Her most recent books are Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)1 and The Beauty: Poems(Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)2.

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

Below are my notes on the questions she asks herself while revising (with some paraphrasing, and her copious explanatory comments left out since I can’t write that fast!).

Questions to Ask While Revising a Poem

  • What does the poem actually say on the page? Is it saying what it wants to say? Is it confused?
  • Does it follow its own deepest impulses, rather than my initial idea?
  • Does it go deep enough?
  • Would saying less be stronger?
  • Does the poem know more than I did when I started writing it? Did I discover anything?
  • Is there music? Does it need a more deeply living body of sound? Is the music helping its meaning?
  • Does the visual shape of the poem [lines, line breaks, stanzas, etc.] serve its meaning?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Does it feel?
  • Is there anything that doesn’t belong?
  • Do any digressions serve the poem?
  • Are the poem’s awkwardnesses and smoothnesses in its own best service?
  • Are there places that would be confusing to an outside reader or where I’ve assumed non-general knowledge or mind-reading?
  • Are there any cliches in words, images or ideas?
  • Is the poem self-satisfied?
  • Is it predictable?
  • Is it precise?
  • Does it allow strangeness? Is the strangeness it allows accessible?
  • Is the grammar correct? Does wrong or non-standard syntax serve the purpose of the poem?
  • Are the transitions serving the poem? Are the ideas and rhetorical gestures in the right order?
  • Does the diction [ornateness/simpleness] fit the meaning?
  • Is it in the right voice [first person/second person/third person]?
  • Do each of its moments move it forward?
  • Should it go out into the world or is it the seed for another poem?
  • Is it finished?


1 Buy Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)1from your local bookstore or online at AmazonBarnes & NobleChapters CanadaIndieBound; or Powell’s.

2 Buy The Beauty: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015) from your local bookstore or online at AmazonBarnes & NobleChapters CanadaIndieBound; or Powell’s.

Truth. Sort of.

During the wedding featured in the NYT’s January 9 “Vows” column, the groom’s sister read Taylor Mali’s How Falling in Love is Like Owning a Dog.

I am charmed. Even though my own dog has never managed to get the hang of bringing things back. (She will enthusiastically chase after sticks and walnuts and the like, and she has been known to bring possums and turtles into the house, but it’s never the same thing back to the same place. Then again, I’ve been told that’s my own m.o. as well. That can be for a different poem on a different day…)

the day after Halloween

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”

I was actually thinking about this very poem a few days ago, while writing a note to my friend Tony, who was the narrator of Darrell Grant’s Ruby Bridges Suite when my church performed it this past June. I don’t think there’s a public recording available of that movement (yet, anyway), but it is stirring stuff. I was thinking of Tony’s voice bringing the congregation to its feet as he read Grant’s adaptation of Angelou’s words (Angelou’s poem quoted here):

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

… Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

In the meantime, what is online is Connye Florance, singing as Ruby’s grandmother — “Hold My Hand“:

For the world, child, is not fair
Danger follows everywhere
Lift your eyes, child
You will see
God is watching

[I quote from more of the suite in this entry from that week. Tennis to poetry to church — it is all related.]

The Words You Need

A few months ago I purchased an issue of Sou’wester because they were celebrating poems by women and I really wanted to read that.

The issue opens with a poem by Alison Pelegrin, whose work I admire, and I read it through very excited by it, enjoying it, and thinking, just wow am I going to enjoy the rest of the issue if it’s like this.

It was not like this. And I skimmed the remainder of the issue.

Months later, I re-read Pelegrin’s poem and I wonder, what gave me such a rush last time? Definitely the use of anaphora/refrain, I love that, and it still sings. I think there was something about the particular words themselves, “may you find the words you need”, that resonated with me.

What are the words you need? Once my sister complained that I sent her too many cheerful mix tapes. I’ve thought about that for years and only now—the words I need?—do I realize that I made and sent all those tapes because I needed cheering, I need someone to make that effort to help me stay upbeat. I can’t fault her for not noticing; I didn’t, until this year. But it’s made me look at my own actions differently. Isn’t that what poetry is supposed to do?

While Pelegrin’s titular phrase still eats at me, I find myself less interested in my insults stinging, or being fluent in birdsong, or surrendering to cherry blossoms, no matter how beautiful those images from the poem are. I need the words I need. These aren’t them. They might be them were they divorced from their current company in the poem, I can’t say.

But the longer I stare at the poem, the longer I am certain there are words I need, badly, and I do not have them. I do not know if they are words I am meant to share or if they are words I am meant to hoard. But I am looking now. I am examining dictionaries side-eyed. I am interrogating nonfiction, breaking it into chunks to see what the phrases do distended and distorted and alone. My every breath may be a prayer, as Pelegrin adjures me, but I am too fired up, too dedicated, too much on a quest to appreciate her “silence in the shadows of flowering trees”.

Favorites Fade

This week I’ve had the honor to share some poems with an online community (other than this one). Given the proximity of my birthday, I thought, I shall share favorite poems and promptly went to my bookshelf and took down the stack of books I had specifically put together a few years ago to have when I wanted to read poems that sang to me.

The first one was easy. I pull that one out all the time. It struck me how much of it was free verse, honestly, but the repetition was still there, barely, and the closing couplet was as strong as ever.

I was dismayed to flip through some of the others and be confronted by more free verse than music, though. So I grabbed a poem whose whole purpose was music. And sighed in relief because it is still singing.

I had wanted to use Carrie Jerrell’s “The Poet Prays to the 9mm under the Driver’s Seat” because that, too, still sings, but it’s a song I couldn’t figure out how to preface with a trigger warning, because it seemed like the sort of thing, because of its excellence in embodying its subject, to need one. So I put Jerrell’s book back on the shelf.

This morning I picked up half a dozen books, flipped through, following the dog-eared pages that signified past pleasure, and nearly lost it. Because I had lost it: these poems no longer sang. There was still wit, and some of them, even the beloved one that has been a touchstone for a decade, still resounded in a line or two, but the emotion that had made me bend the page was no longer there.

No longer there in the poem? No longer there in me?



Speaking of dog-eared, there’s a page (133) in Wendy Lesser’s The Amateur (New York: Pantheon, 1999) that received that treatment a decade or so ago. It came to mind during the recent discussions about a Sherman Alexie selection for Best American Poetry. Lesser writes about serving on a NEA fellowship selection committee with a middle-aged black woman poet:

On the starting day of the panel, when this woman first entered the room–forty-five minutes late, nearly six feet tall, and wearing a hat and cape of indescribable complexity–I shivered with anxiety. Oh, no, I thought, she’s going to derail the whole process with some kind of endless political rhetoric. (Coming from Berkeley makes you prone to anxiety attacaks like these.) As it turned out, she was one of the best, fairest, and most intelligent panelists I have ever served with, but she was scary. She had, she confided to me on one of our lunch breaks, been thrown out of her high school for telling a bunch of the other girls that she was really an alien from another planet–and making them believe it. This story made sense to me after I saw her in action on the panel. …

Anywyay, it was her turn now to comment on the Asian refugee sequence, to put in her two cents about whether this pathetic but talented young girl deserved a prize or didn’t. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think this was written by any young Asian girl. I think it’s probably some white male screenwriter giving us his girlfriend’s story, or some such thing.” Those of us who were in favor of the poem gasped at this, in disbelief or despair. “I’ve read it over and over again, trying to figure out who wrote it, but I can’t,” she continued. “And finally I decided: Hey! If he can fool me, more power to him. No matter who wrote it, it’s a great poem, and I’m for it.” We all laughed at her then; the response seemed to typical, if atypically wrongheaded. …

One of the more famous names to reach our final list was that of a white male poet, author of several published books–and of the heartrending refugee-girl series. When we heard his name announced in conjunction with our cherished poem, we all shrieked in surprise and, a little, in chagrin. Only the Sister from Another Planet could sit calmly and quietly, Cheshire-cat smile adorning her face. She had been right, or as close to right as makes no difference, and she was the only one in the room who had given him the prize for purely literary reasons. (132-34)

[Posted in response to #100untimedbooks prompt 29: equality]

29 - equality


The publisher of Measured Extravagance, Upper Rubber Boot, posted a hundred prompts as a photo challenge earlier this summer. Prompt 27 is “dog-eared” and that brought to mind one of the two anthologies I’ve revisited the most over the years (the other being John Frederick Nims’s Western Wind, which was given to me twenty-nine summers ago and was my introduction to Katha Politt [“Turning Thirty”] and Muriel Rukeyser [“Effort at Speech between Two People“], as well as the John Ciardi sonnet I would later feature on an announcement, “Most Like an Arch This Marriage“). (Adding to my pleasure in the occasion: I know of at least one co-worker who, on being shown the card by a mutual friend, photocopied the cover for herself because she liked the poem so much, and another who subsequently purchased Ciardi’s I Marry You.)

27 - dog-eared 27- dog-eared 27- dog-eared  27- dog-eared

I’ve owned this book long enough to un-ear some pages, sometimes because I ended up seeing the poem in question elsewhere and knew I would be able to find it again:

27- dog-eared

Thomas E. Foster and Elizabeth C. Guthrie, editors. A Year in Poetry. New York: Three Rivers, 1995.