A lot of what makes poetry work is accumulation of meaning and possibility. In this week’s poem, “Solitude” by Charles Simic, the meaning begins with the phrase “first crumb” and how a crumb’s insignificance is gestured at before being subverted in the rest of the poem. It’s a move similar to starting zoomed out on something that appears one way from a distance, and turns out to be something completely different when you zoom in. In Simic’s characteristic style, there is both threat and snark in the final image, playing off ideas of solitude in an engaging way.
Solitude – Charles Simic
There now, where the first crumb
Falls from the table
You think no one hears it
As it hits the floor
But somewhere already
The ants are putting on
Their Quakers’ hats
And setting out to visit you.
Happy to report that things are moving along with the, uhm, move to McMinnville. We’re situated in a new home and are piecing together who we are from what we have been — which is to say that all our stuff is here, but not fully organized.
As time has been slipping past me during this move, I thought it only suiting to share this week’s poem by Charles Simic. I continue to admire Simic’s knack for images that read with a riddle-like thrill. The subtlety with which one image suggests the next, until we’re left at the “lip” of the poem’s ending is the work of imaginative intuition. Both poet and reader listen with the same “ear” throughout.
Watch Repair – Charles Simic
A small wheel
A pinned butterfly.
Hands thrown up
In all directions:
One arrives at
In a nightmare.
Higher than that
Number 12 presides
Like a beekeeper
Over the swarming honeycomb
Of the open watch.
That could fit
Inside a raindrop.
That must be splinters
Of arctic starlight.
Tiny golden mills
When the coffee’s boiling
So it doesn’t burn us,
We raise it
To the lips
Of the nearest
A quick note of thanks for those of you who have helped welcome my new book, Small Fires, into the world. Copies can still be found via FutureCycle Press and Amazon. I’m really proud of this collection!
The stone is a mirror which works poorly. Nothing in it but dimness. Your dimness or its dimness, who’s to say? In the hush your heart sounds like a black cricket.
Since I quoted the man last week in regards to the prose poem, I thought I would share some of Charles Simic’s own work in the genre.
In these excerpts from his book The World Doesn’t End you definitely can catch some of that sense of being caught up and driven to rereading a poem in order to continue grasping what the first reading of it had you start to grasp.
This may be an exasperating way of thinking about reading – you not only read but go over what was read to read into it more – but it’s the kind of thing that poetry teaches you to do and the helps the reading of a poem to be at times both illuminating and, well, exasperating.
Simic himself says in one of his notebooks that poetry and philosophy make slow solitary readers.
I know the feeling. In the same way you can’t step in the same river twice, so you can’t read the same thing the same way twice. You change each time.
Stepping into the river with Simic, I always leave surprised. Here’s more:
Things were not as black as somebody painted them. There was a pretty child dressed in black and playing with two black apples. It was either a girl dressed as a boy, or a boy dressed as a girl. Whatever, it had small white teeth. The landscape outside its window had been blackened with a heavy and coarse paint brush. It was all very teleological, except when a child stuck out its red tongue.
We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap. All alone in the cellar, I could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turning in their beds. ‘These are dark and evil days,’ the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear. Years passed. My mother wore a cat-fur collar which she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.
What makes them poems is that they are self-contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again. That’s what a poem does.
Charles Simic said the above in regards to his own collection, The World Doesn’t End, which consists of a series of prose poems. I love how true this idea rings – that a poem – sonnet, lyric, or prose poem – exists as a self-contained experience.
However one may feel about prose poems – and there be much controversy even these days – one cannot deny the poetry of something that fits the above.
I mean, there are things that people have said to me in passing that fit these parameters, those parts of conversation you find yourself quoting later, either to others or to yourself.
Makes me think of that George Harrison line: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there…
In the poem below, Russell Edson goes a few unexpected places.
The Fall – Russell Edson
There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.
To which they said the go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.
He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.
But his parents said look it is fall.
p.s. Newstand Alert: check out my poem “Reading Hunger” published in the current issue of Gulf Coast! Info on this issue here.
So, I’m going to come clean and admit that I’m a geek about astrology. I don’t swear by it but I do check my horoscope daily and find my chart to be an interesting way to keep tabs on myself. I know it is not for everyone. And I’m also not the kind of person to write anyone off once I find out their sign. I’m a writer: we do our art in solitude, which makes us socially awkward. And the socially awkward need all the help they can get.
Also: astrology is listed by Gary Snyder as one of the forms of traditional magic essential for a poet to know in his What You Should Know to be a Poet. **
I bring up astrology because, in an effort to keep things interesting, I am going to make Friday posts astrology-centered. I will call these posts ‘the friday influence’ – ‘influence’ being the old fashioned way of making reference to astrology, as in ‘influence of the stars’.
Today, I found out, is the first full day of Taurus. To celebrate, I have picked out a poem by Charles Simic.
I won’t read too much into his being a Taurus, but one thing that has been a steady coincidence with friends I know under this sign is that they know how to eat good. Case in point, I found myself rushing out to eat a caprese salad after reading a Simic essay where he describes making one. He made it sound awesome.
And it was.
A certain amount of love for food had to have gone into the above four lines. The poem disarms you with the first image, humorous and unexpected. Then the poem brings you in real close to shape (smile) as well as into a visceral sensation. I love quoting this one to people – it always gets a smile.
p.s. I’m a Virgo. My apologies.
* from his book Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk
The phrase sensitivity to language that I have used in previous posts stems from an interview with Charles Simic in which, discussing the practice of writing everyday, he notes that by doing so one maintains “a certain sensitivity to language.”
Reading these words was a paradigm-shifting moment. As a writer, one reads in order to see what is possible, to see what others have and have not done. One also reads for permission. I have for years now made writing a daily activity, but reading Simic point out this one aspect of it gave me a renewed sense of purpose.
Another such moment was reading W.H. Auden talk about what he takes to be signs of a possible poet: if the writer writes because he feels he has something to say, let him go into journalism or politics, but he will never be a poet. If the writer takes pleasure in putting two words side by side and seeing what happens, seeing how they interact, then, maybe, they have some chance of turning out a poet.
With these two thoughts as a guide – sensitivity to language and putting words side by side – I propose to make future posts that focus on short lyric poems. The lyric poem, which I will define for my purposes as usually short and personal in nature, has the ability to pack a lot of life into a few lines. This concentration is what I want to study here. The lyric also has a history spanning centuries and countries. I want to include this too.
In doing this kind of close reading and sharing, it is inevitable that my obsessions will show. In today’s short poem, for example, you have a simple enough observation. Yet, what got me going was not simply the mountains but the way you can get ‘speak’ out of ‘peaks’ by moving the letters around. I am a geek for anagrams and often keep them at hand to thrown into a poem. I love that the same letters can be recycled, the same sounds rolling over themselves and creating new meaning. Which is what poetry is all about – all the words are out there in the world: how do you mean them?
I shared the above poem with a friend of mine in a letter, complete with explanation. I share it here in the same spirit of friendship and shared fascination with words.