again with “Still I Rise”

It’s not every morning that my tennis Twitter timeline greets me with multiple tweeps urging the world to listen to Serena Williams narrate a BBC montage with Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (a poem I posted about here back in December, that time because Twitter had let me know about Williams reciting it on receiving an award).

The BBC has been roundly criticized for its feeble and at times astounding gormless coverage of women’s tennis this past fortnight (h/t @MBDigital001). Here’s hoping that it does better going forward. While this clip neither mitigates nor addresses the deep-seated attitudes and assumptions undergirding the coverage issues, it was nonetheless lovely to glimpse hundreds of people thrilled and moved by this new rendition of an almost-forty-year-old poem — one barely older than the woman who today tied Steffi Graf’s record of 22 Slam singles titles, and then won doubles with her sister, both of them significantly older than the majority of other elite WTA players.

crowd craning to see Serena
Crowd craning to see Serena Williams in Cincinnati, 2014

Black with White

I recently finished reading Raising Lilly Ledbetter [available here from Lost Horse Press], edited by Carolyne Wright, M. L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo. While I hope to post a review of the anthology later, today I want to rave about a particular poem.

According to the biographical statements at the close of the anthology, Colleen J. McElroy is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and has published nine volumes of poetry.

What caught me first about McElroy’s poem “Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge” was the music, as you will see.

Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge

                                                  1922-1965

A woman unadorned stands out in a crowd of otherwise
Camouflaged women, and takes from her shelf all manner
Of potions and powers, the oils and slick pots of color
That hold electricity and confusion of mimicry
That test the ties that bind deception to reality
A woman in sundappled skin can mislead with mad
Profusion and tricks that others would give an eyetooth for
Who know elaboration gives us our most handsome species
Who teach us disguised animals need not dissolve
Into surroundings when anonymity is not our destiny
Who know to understand the zebra’s stripes, you must get down
     On your hands and knees where the vertical whites vanish
     Into the sky and the blacks take on a shape so indistinct
     The world’s blurred kaleidoscope of the mundane and bizarre

Where Whites say black/ Blacks say black with white

I was also maddened by the choice of endwords but on re-reading and re-reading [because what an emotional trajectory to follow over and over!] I came to love that “otherwise” ending. In the first read-through I loved the conflation of electricity, pots of color, I loved the slap in the face when I, a white reader, got to the end of the poem and had my world shifted.

In so many ways, this is exactly the purpose of a poem, to teach me to see something in a way I did not see it before. Thank you, Professor McElroy.

Other musical textures that really work for me in this poem: “disguised” and “dissolve”, coming out again in the next line in “destiny” and then again one more line down in “stripes”. “Potions”, “powers”, and “slick pots”. “Electricity”, “test”, “ties”, “deception”, and then coming back to the hard T with “reality”.

The music in McElroy’s poems is immense and I look forward to reading more of her work.

May’s Mini Reviews (Neruda, Klocek-Lim, Heppermann)

I wish that I had enjoyed the poems in Pablo Neruda’s Then Come Back : the Lost Neruda Poems as much as the translator Forrest Gander passionately describes them in his introduction. But I found the book bizarrely broken up, all the English in one half, except for the occasional photostat of the original paper on which Neruda wrote, and all the Spanish in another, much more heavily broken up by original reproductions. I guess the publisher assumed most people wouldn’t want facing page translations (???) or that those of us who do would prefer to have to keep fingers in three places in the book to compare original handwritten version, Spanish, and English. This kept all but two poems from catching my eye: I adored the one with the obscure reference to abalone and Neruda’s lover’s ear, as well as the list poem (possibly because, after all these years, I could read much of it without assistance.) But nothing here moved me as much as “Pido silencio”. Possibly the best part of this was that it was funded by a Kickstarter. You can find more details about the book here.

 


 

The poems in Christine Klocek-Lim‘s Dark Matter have an intriguing genesis: they were all inspired by the Astronomy Picture of the Day. While those pictures have little in common from one day to the next, Dark Matter has a tight theme: the use of astronomical imagery as metaphor for family life. In these poems, Klocek-Lim tells stories of the narrator, their family, a husband and sons, an elderly mother. Sometimes there is a sister, sometimes a woman who I could only understand as a ghost. There are dreams, there are final days of school, old flames, and the tender epic that is the narrator’s relationship to their husband. As example, in “Stellar birth in the galactic wilderness”, Klocek-Lim writes,

New stars are forming but we are packing
up the house. The dust bunnies know something
has happened but have no explanation for why
the light has suddenly hit their abandoned
wilderness. I can’t answer their questions
because the spoon I just rolled in newspaper
has birthed a galaxy in its shallow bowl:
astronomical broth. I unwrap it to read more
while the boys shriek in our disemboweled
living room. I know there is silence in space.
The article insists that stars are forming quietly
in the galactic frontier but the scientists are puzzled.
There is nothing there with which to make a life,
nothing to eat, not even stone soup, but nevertheless
they appear in that unpredictable pinwheel cosmic wind.
The article claims the mystery is “absolutely stunning.”
Because some things defy explanation, I rewrap the spoon
and box it, knowing it will still be there next week
in the new house, cupping secrets in its quiet silver hand.

If there is a drawback to Klocek-Lim’s collection, it’s that it sounds the same note repeatedly. If this is the pitch to which you are attuned, it will resonate deeply. Even if not, it is definitely worth your while to listen to a few soundings. You can find more details about the book here.

 


 

The shiniest bits of Christine Heppermann‘s Poisoned Apples were, for me, a unique hybridization of popular culture and fairy tales, a blend I had not seen before. Heppermann’s poems include how hell freezes over when an anorexic woman eats, feminism expressed through Simon Says, eating disorders portrayed as though they were the Three Little Pigs’ houses, and exactly why Sleeping Beauty needed that hundred year nap in order to be ready for her marriage—in short, a necessary criticism of the predominant western culture’s views of female beauty. And the poems do it with wit and punch.

“A SHAPE MAGAZINE Fairy Tale” opens

Once upon a time there was a girl who
had a good hair week! Seven cute looks
she could do at home, and their names were
Waves, Bob, Bun, Bangs, Braid, Sleek, and
Party-Ready Ponytail.

One day, while out walking in the woods
at a steady pace with short bursts of speed,
the girl met a wolf and told him, What big
smudge-free lashes you have!

and goes on in the same biting vein.

I found the second half of the volume, which concentrates more on fairy tale retellings, to be slightly less powerful, possibly because their concepts were less new to me. You can find more details about the book here.

“What is a poem?” – index

April 4 – Lisa Dordal

April 6 – Joanne: What is a poem?

April 8 – Joannie Stangeland

April 11 – Dawn McDuffie

April 13 – Joanne: Power in that quiet space

April 15 – Pat Valdata

April 18 – Joanne’s Facebook friends

April 20 – Mary: You can lead a horse

April 22 – Jim Seavey

April 25 – Sherry Chandler

April 27 – Joanne quotes Rebecca Lindenberg and some other writers

April 29 – Peg: Running out of bras before knives

Running out of bras before knives

for Mary

A poem
is a twenty-dollar bill
folded into
a bayonet

slipped behind
the bra without
a secret compartment

left beneath
a mattress in Prague

next to a crumpled napkin

formerly perched
on top of a tray,

a swan set next
to the butter that hasn’t
melted under my tongue

even as
I serenely slice
half-truths to be served
with dinner’s red-eye gravy.

pld

What is a poem?

Some thoughts on poetry from poets:

 

My friend says we never write about anything we can get to the bottom of. For him, this is a place arbored with locust trees. For me, it’s a language for which I haven’t quite found the language yet.

—from “Poetic Subjects” by Rebecca Lindenberg

 

I want my feet to be bare,

I want my face to be shaven, and my heart—

you can’t plan on the heart, but

the better part of it, my poetry, is open.

—from “My Heart” by Frank O’Hara

 

It is a thing to have,

A lion, an ox in his breast,

To feel it breathing there.

[…]

The lion sleeps in the sun.

Its nose is on its paws.

It can kill a man.

—from “Poetry Is a Destructive Force” by Wallace Stevens

 

When I am not writing a memoir I am also not writing any kind of poetry, not prose poems contemporary or otherwise, not poems made of fragments, not tightened and compressed poems, not loosened and conversational poems, not conceptual poems, not virtuosic poems employing many different types of euphonious devices, not poems with epiphanies and not poems without, not documentary poems about recent political moments, not poems heavy with allusions to critical theory and popular song.

[…]

I am not writing epic poetry although I like what Milton said about lyric poets drinking wine while epic poets should drink water from a wooden bowl. I would like to drink wine from a wooden bowl or to drink water from an emptied bottle of wine.

—from “Not Writing” by Anne Boyer

 

I loved that harmony in all its stages of passion,

the voices still talking inside me . . . but then, instead of harmony,
there was nothing but rags scattered on the ground.

And maybe that’s all it means to be a poet.

—from “Proof of Poetry” by Tom Sleigh

 

 

Finally, this one is so short it’s pointless to excerpt, but go read “Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry” by Howard Nemerov.

Guest Post: Sherry Chandler

What is a poem?

That’s a question I’ve been trying to answer for as long as I’ve been trying to write one of the devilish things. I’m flying my broomstick without instruments. Let us see where we land.

Once upon a time, as no doubt you all know, the definition was easy: a poem in English was language measured in specified ways adapted from Classical literature, written in high rhetorical style, again borrowed from Latin and Greek.

A poem often rhymed at the ends of lines in specified ways.

A poem, then, was high-toned language poured into a pre-existing mold appropriate for the subject, sonnets for love, rhymed couplets for epic narrative, the ballad for low stories, etc.

These forms, most of them borrowed from the Italian or the French, are called verse, from the Latin versus, meaning “a turning.” They dominated English poetry from the time of Chaucer, that is, the 14th century, until the 20th century dawned on the Modernists.

Modernists and their successors weren’t satisfied with the long-standing definition. Pound, Eliot, William Carlos Williams, et al. found the ornate forms inadequate to express the violence, economic hardship, and loss of faith in a society shaken by the slaughter of two world wars and torn between Fascism and Communism. Moreover, Williams argued that English in the American melting pot had a unique immigrant-influenced sound that demanded new forms. The upshot is they “freed” poems; took linguistic wedges and split poem from verse. As with many previous rebellions, a certain amount of chaos ensued until a new dictator arose.

Free verse—no specified form, ordinary language, commonplace subject matter.

The dictum now was “a poem finds its own form,” but if that is so, how do you know whether the words you found make a poem? You might say it’s a poem but do other people accept it as such?

Somewhere in my reading someone, Annie Finch I think, said, essentially, if you’ve broken the material into short lines, it’s a poem by definition. (I apologize for failing to supply a link or a title but I can’t find this statement again.)

I rejected that definition for a long time, because it seemed arbitrary. I could put instructions for operating my rototiller in short lines, but would that make it poetry?

I held that negative opinion until I read in Kenneth Koch’s Making Your Own Days (Touchstone, 1998) that Line breaks . . . draw attention to tone and sound. In doing so, they make poetic sense . . . One becomes more conscious of the words. (p 30)

Dress appropriately when operating the tiller.
Always wear sturdy footwear. Never
wear sandals, sneakers or open shoes, and never
operate the tiller with bare feet. Do not wear
loose clothing that might get caught
in the moving parts.

I promise you I picked that Operating Manual from among the papers and books lying on my desk as the item least likely to be poetic. And really, the six lines above do not comprise a poem. However the line breaks I chose create a sort of rhyme scheme in the first four lines: tiller/never/never/wear. In turn, that rhyming emphasizes the internal rhyming and repetition of wear, footwear, and bare. Also, placing prohibitive words at the ends of lines strengthens them from advice to warning.

I would not have noticed this language if I hadn’t introduced line breaks.

So okay, line breaks. But what about prose poems?

Back to square one.

For Koch, the one essential ingredient of poetry is music: Poetry, he says, and by extension a poem would just as soon come to a musical as to a logical or otherwise useful conclusion . . . (p 21). But again what about those oxymoronic prose poems?

. . . a poem comes right with a click like a box says Yeats. Yes, that could be it; even those boxy prose poems can click closed.

But a poem must resonate outward at the end says most every writing teacher I ever had.

Cleanth Brooks asserted that a poem cannot be paraphrased. A text is non-paraphrasable if and only if a paraphrase neither can replace the text nor capture its essential meaning. In that scenario, a poem’s rhythm, style, sound, images, emotional flavour and intellectual aspects, the denotations and connotations of its words, and even its content and graphic aspects, are inseparable. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.7523862.0002.008

This definition makes a poem larger than its component parts, which may well be true but may be as true of poetic prose as of prose poetry. It also implies that the poem clicks shut and not even the poet can make changes. In that case, a poem would be rara avis indeed.

One day at the beginning of second grade, my teacher asked each student in turn to recite the alphabet. I couldn’t recite the alphabet. What to do? Certainly this was no time to memorize the letters strung out above the blackboard; she was already at the head of my row, and now it was my turn. ‘I can’t say the letters in order,” desperation spoke, “but I know them when I see them.” She laughed and I got away with it.

Possibly poem can’t be defined, only recognized by those who are immersed in poetry the way a beginning reader is immersed in the alphabet. Maybe the definition is different for every reader and maybe it is different at different stages of life.

So all I can offer is a sort of paraphrase of what I said to Miss Nell in 1953: I may never be able to say definitely what a poem is but I know one when I read one.


Sherry Chandler has published two chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry, most recently The Woodcarvers’s Wife (Wind Publications). She lives on a small farm in Kentucky with her woodcarving husband and an ever-changing population of wildlife, an ever-changing source of inspiration. For more information, please visit her website.

Guest post: Jim Seavey

I’m tempted to offer the tautology that a poem is what a poet claims as a poem. One of my all time favorite poems is a “found object” poem by Charles Olson: “Barbara Ellis, ramp.” That’s it, the whole poem, taking up a whole 8 x 11 page in Maximus Poems IV, V, VI (Cape Goliard, London, 1968).


Jim Seavey is an artist and teacher in Nashville. View some of his creations at jimseavey.com.

What is a poem?

Crowd-sourced! I asked my friends on Facebook, “Tell me a thing you think a poem is, and a thing you think a poem is not.” Here are some of the answers I got:

  • A poem is original, not a cliche.
    Kirsten Huscusson
  • I think a poem is words and a poem is not words.
    Emily Doolittle

  • Have you read Mary Ruefle? Madness Rack & Honey is one long essay I want to excerpt in answer to your query. I read the book that it is in daily.

    Poetry is often the only way to discover and become and describe that which we so desperately need to have in our world, between the lines of what is or we are – it lives in the spaces between and we carve it into existence with sound and pixels and ink.

    Poems are both birth and death.  Lisa Rokusek

  • Poetry is vulnerability. Poetry is not packaged neatly for the masses.
    Jamie Herron
  • A poem is a distillation of a thought, a memory, or a feeling, but it is not a confession
    Sheree Renée Thomas
  • Poetry is where knowing quickens into music.
    Klyd Watkins
  • a poem is emotional truth/a poem is not factual
    Julene T. Weaver
  • every
    Thing
    is a Poem

    Not what a poem is Not
    rather
    what it need not be

    it need not be prettymoonjuneballoonflutteringlashessunsethandinhandandhearts

    but it can

    it can be
    the sound of choking
    in a hidden prison
    the numbness
    of three jobs two kids no words

    mass graves
    wildflowers
    a roach cleaning her antennae

    it can be
    the devout cliches
    of a dying elder

    the droning angst
    of a teenager
    trying
    to kill a secret

    bad grammar
    bad form

    yet with a voice
    a DNA
    of need

    a sloppy scrawl
    of run-on prose

    rhyme slanted
    hard enough to snap
    stuttered meter
    of a diseased heart

    It can be garbage
    repurposed
    or left to decay
    slipping the bonds
    of language

    the mnemonic
    of atoms whose existence
    writes itself
     Elissa Malcohn