Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

A Cranky Reader on Modern Poetry

I hope you’ve enjoyed the posts about poetry by guest bloggers Carla McGill, Carol Bachofner, and Cullen Bailey Burns. After those C names and for the final post in this series of poetry talks by guest bloggers comes a D name, Deborah J. Brasket who blogs at Living on the Edge of the Wild. Enjoy!

by Guest Blogger Deborah J. Brasket

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry, how some moves me and some not at all. Reading recent issues of some prestigious journals, I found not one poem—not one—moved me. Amazing!

Most seemed like intellectual exercises or obtuse offerings of random thoughts and images. None engaged me intellectually, or stimulated my sensibilities, or even challenged me—let alone invited me—to a second reading. Instead they were studies in disappointment. I left them unfulfilled, still hungry and, admittedly, cranky.

Is it me? Is it them? Sigh.

Just what is it I crave from poetry?

Wallace Stevens once famously said: “You can’t get the news from poems, but men die every day for lack of what is found there.”

That’s what I want: The thing we die from lack of. That’s why I read poetry. What I look for in other works of art too—in prose and painting and music that rise to the level of poetry.

I want what Emily Dickinson referred to when she says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Something that tickles the hindermost parts of my brain, where I feel the synapses stretch and snap, reaching toward something just past my grasp.

I want what T.S. Elliot meant to when he writes that “poetry is a raid on the inarticulate.” Something dark and dormant, lying just below consciousness, rising into the light: a curved fin, a humped back, gliding momentarily along the surface of thought before dipping below again.

We have all felt that, I’m sure. Something deep and delicious, once known and now forgotten, woken momentarily. Something within us re-ignited, flashing briefly before dissolving into darkness again.

In “Ars Poetica,” Archibald MacLeish says: “A poem should be palpable and mute / As a globed fruit.”

He says: “A poem should be wordless / As the flight of birds.”

He says:

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

Reading his poem, I’m with him. I’m saying: Yes!

But then he almost ruins it with the last two lines:

A poem should not mean
But be.

Pointing to something static. Not in motion. Art for art’s sake. An artifact showcased in a museum.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts. Art urges voyages–
And it is easier to stay at home,
The nice beer ready.

If it doesn’t make us squirm, if it doesn’t hurt, if it doesn’t urge voyages, is it art? Is it poetry?

Stevens calls modern poetry “the poem of the mind.” It’s “the act of finding what will suffice.”

He says:

It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.

A poem must construct something that it inhabits, that speaks to the reader, in the “delicatest ear of the mind,” “exactly, that which it wants to hear,” what the reader, that invisible audience, wants to hear—which is not the play, not the poem, but “itself.” Itself “expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two emotions becoming one.”

It must
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.

Stevens is saying that a poem can no more “be” than “mean.” Rather, it must act. It must unite poet and reader in the act of finding what will suffice.

It is not static: It is “a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman combing.” It is always moving. It moves us to capture it in its passing. It moves us beyond ourselves, where the top of our head lifts away and there we go unbounded, grasping for just a brief moment what lies always, already, just beyond our grasp.

That which suffices. That which the lack thereof we die of every day. That’s what I’m looking for when I read poetry.

I want to feel my synapses snapping.

Deborah J. Brasket is a writer working on a novel and short story collection. She has an Masters in English and taught college composition and literature courses for many years near her home on the central coast of California. She features some of her poetry on her blog Living on the Edge of the Wild, where she writes about nature, writing, art, literature, and her travels sailing around the world with her family. Some of her work can also be found at www.djbrasket.com.

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Filed under Books, Essay, Literary Journals, Nonfiction, Poetry, Poetry book, Writing

Snake Weather

March usually means spring in Phoenix. This year, though, February was a lot like spring. I haven’t wanted to say much about it because I know how many of you have been struggling with a rough winter. Let’s hope most of that is behind you now. If not, remember that sometimes we get some negative with the positive. And that’s what I’m writing about here.

Some February days it is so cold in Phoenix that I have to wear a wool coat. But I don’t mind too much because I know that sunny and temperate days await me in March and April. And I am happy to wait for late March when the snakes wake up from their hibernation.

But this year, with the weather in the 80s in February, the local television stations issued warnings during their news reports: “Warmer weather brings out snakes earlier this year.”

So I’ve been on the lookout for snakes for a month now. The snakes to worry about are rattlesnakes, but most people don’t like to find any kind of snake in their path. Most people respond as Emily Dickinson’s persona describes:

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, -did you not?
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun, –
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

That swift intake of breath, the quickening of the pulse, the flipflop of the stomach . . . . Yup, I’m just like most people!

King snake behind my house in a previous year

We have a variety of snakes in this area, but the most common snake near my house is the King snake. These are the big black snakes with beautiful creamy stripes. They are non-venomous snakes that eat baby rattlesnakes, so I think of them as protectors of my property. But they are large and powerful and do bite–and they are snakes, after all. We also have gopher snakes, which are huge and brown and mimic rattlesnakes by raising their shoulders to make their heads look wider and pretending to rattle their tails.

I haven’t seen a snake yet this year, but I am careful not to reach into a pot or behind a watering can without looking first.

I’m telling you all this about snakes so that you realize that the beautiful spring weather we’ve had this winter doesn’t come without “thorns.”  But there is no doubt that it is beautiful.

Many of our flowering shrubs, trees, and plants have bright yellow blossoms.dsc03974

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Nonfiction, Photographs, Writing

Through the Woods in My Cape

Since I’m the new kid in town, I was thrilled to get an invitation from LouAnn at her blog, On the Homefront , to attend her Virtual Christmas Party on December 15.  Ok, I admit it: it’s true that she’s invited virtually everyone (or everyone virtual).  But I choose to think of it as a personal invitation since I enjoy her blog so much.  We’re simpatico (says me) since we share the name Luanne (which technically is the correct spelling, but please don’t mention that to LouAnn).

Party-goers are to come as their favorite author or character from a book.  We’re to bring a 1970s appetizer and a song request selected from specific artists.  As if I were planning a costume for a costume party, I’ve been obsessing over my masquerade identity for days.

It didn’t take me long to realize I want to attend as Little Red Riding Hood.  She’s my writing alter ego.  I figured this out after reading Tristine Rainer’s Your Life as Story.  In this fabulous book on writing memoir, Rainer describes how each writer (read: person) inherits a myth which forms a pattern for her own life.  It’s our duty as writers to understand this and not to get trapped in old patterns to the extent that we follow them to an unhappy conclusion.

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I could see right away, that though I was the princess who felt the pea under 4,000 mattresses and feather beds when I was a kid and Cinderella when I married a rescuing prince, my main storyline has been that of Little Red.  In my journeys as Red, I have travelled from the family home back to my grandmother’s home to save grandmother from her own sad story.  I’ve dodged the wolf many times.  There are hundreds of Little Red versions around the world, and they all have different endings.  I like that Little Red–whether she gets eaten, kills the wolf, or saves her siblings—remains tough and spunky.

Little Red is the pattern for my memoir Scrap.  In this first draft of my book the narrator describes this connection: “This past year, a girl in my kindergarten class had brought her doll for Show and Tell.  The little cloth Red Riding Hood was three dolls in one.  When you turned Little Red upside down, you pulled her skirt over her head, and on the other end you got Granny.  When you took off Granny’s cap and turned her around, it was the Wolf’s face on the reverse of Granny’s.  The difference between Granny and the Wolf was like the difference between Dad’s two sides.  I, of course, was Little Red Riding Hood.”

Facsimile 3-character doll: Little Red and Grandmother

3-character doll: the wolf

Facsimile 3-character doll: the wolf

For years I collected Little Red dolls, without understanding why.  When I taught college-level children’s literature, we read and compared many versions of the fairy tale.  I’m not sure if Red’s story became mine because reading the Little Golden Book version was one of my earliest memories, although it’s certainly possible.

What I do know is that I won’t be attending LouAnn’s party as Nancy Drew or Judy Bolton, as Catherine Earnshaw or Lucy Snowe, as Emily Dickinson or Muriel Rukeyser.  I’m going as Little Red Riding Hood and if my cape and hood look particularly Christmassy, that will just be the frosting on the Christmas cookie.

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory