smoking with george oppen

Some poems are capable of tapping into the connotations or “languages” around a word and making them meet. This week’s poem, “If It All Went Up in Smoke” by George Oppen, for example, does a great job of taking the languages of  the word “smoke” and blurring them to create a visceral metaphor.

First, there is the paradoxical logic of the initial two lines: “that smoke / would remain,” which presents the image of smoke hanging in the air. Then through “light” “footprints” and “grass blades,” the logic of the poem further develops from transient, slight things, only to have that idea pushed against by the solidity of “wells” and the presence of “distances.”

As smoke is always in motion, so is language and, by default, poetry. Smoke is also after-the-fact, needing to arise from a fire. From the fire of experience (“grass / blades”), begins the smoke we write and read in poetry.

smoke-32

If It All Went Up in Smoke – George Oppen

that smoke
would remain

the forever
savage country poem’s light borrowed

light of the landscape and one’s footprints praise

from distance
in the close
crowd all

that is strange the sources

the wells the poem begins

neither in word
nor meaning but the small
selves haunting

us in the stones and is less

always than that help me I am
of that people the grass

blades touch

and touch in their small

distances the poem
begins

*

Happy beginning!

José

* moebius stripping with michael ondaatje

This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

– Alan Watts

I like this quote because of the shift in gears it implies about life and how we approach it. I feel it easily mirrors something done in writing, how one must fight against being caught up in making a point and rather be open to what is at play. In a poem, it is being aware of the possibilities in an image or a turn of phrase, and digging further.

This week’s poem – “The Time Around Scars by Michael Ondaatje” – digs into the image of a scar and ties it to ideas of memory and time. As the poem develops, I feel myself as a reader traveling as if on a moebius strip. Ondaatje, by staying close to an image and emotion, is able to create a reading experience where time is traversed as it only can be in a poem.

* star time *
* star time *

The Time Around Scars – Michael Ondaatje

A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.
Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.

My wife has scars like spread raindrops
on knees and ankles,
she talks of broken greenhouse panes
and yet, apart from imagining red feet,
(a nymph out of Chagall)
I bring little to that scene.
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.

And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion.

I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.

***

Happy occurring!

Jose

* stepping into the river with mark strand

When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger … in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive… —Mark Strand, The Art of Poetry No. 77, 1998

* mark strand *
* mark strand 1934 – 2014 *

What moves me most about the above quote is how clearly it states the power of a poem to color one’s view of the world. You can’t step in the same river twice, Heraclitus said (and Borges quoted religiously 🙂 ). Poetry, then, is a way to document what the second steps into the river – and the third, fourth, etc. – feel like. You leave a good poem different, not for any act of manipulation, but simply an act of listening and attention, words that apply to reading and prayer.

I was happy to share the following poem with my students this week. I told them one of the things I love about it is how Strand gets away with repeating “someone” and “something,” big no-no’s that I look for when I revise my own work. Usually “something” is not pointing to an ethereal wonderment, but at a lack of specificity. In Strand’s poem, the words become the very air of a party, and then the air of the universe.

From the Long Sad Party – Mark Strand

Someone was saying
something about shadows covering the field, about
how things pass, how one sleeps towards morning
and the morning goes.

Someone was saying
how the wind dies down but comes back,
how shells are the coffins of wind
but the weather continues.

It was a long night
and someone said something about the moon shedding its white
on the cold field, that there was nothing ahead
but more of the same.

Someone mentioned
a city she had been in before the war, a room with two candles
against a wall, someone dancing, someone watching.
We began to believe

the night would not end.
Someone was saying the music was over and no one had noticed.
Then someone said something about the planets, about the stars,
how small they were, how far away.

***

Happy planeting!

Jose

* youthful counting with W.S. Merwin

I remember when I came across this week’s poem in 2008.

I was living another life on a street called Olive. The newsprint of the journal I was subscribed to at the time was never more precious, seemingly perishable, as when I read and later copied out this lyric by hand.

I knew then the poem was doing more than I could see.

The lack of punctuation echoed what I had then read and reread of Robert Frost, how he felt the language and phrasing of speech should guide as it does here. Also: how Frost could fill in a fifty character telegraph message with one sentence and no need for punctuation.

The other thing I catch now that I didn’t then is how the poem is worked out in ten syllable lines. I have been doing this kind of syllabic counting for years, but rarely have I caught others in the act. Makes  me want to go over so many poems again and reread them with sharper eyes.

Which is the hope, really, of youth: to sharpen.

Over time, I’ve seen that one does not necessarily sharpen, but things do: memories especially.

Merwin’s last line here is for the ages.

* not so insta-gram *
* not so insta-gram *

Youth – W.S. Merwin

Through all of youth I was looking for you
without knowing what I was looking for

or what to call you I think I did not
even know I was looking how would I

have known you when I saw you as I did
time after time when you appeared to me

as you did naked offering yourself
entirely at that moment and you let

me breathe you touch you taste you knowing
no more than I did and only when I

began to think of losing you did I
recognize you when you were already

part memory part distance remaining
mine in the ways that I learn to miss you

from what we cannot hold the stars are made

 ***

Happy mading!

Jose

* some words from Ram Dass & the friday influence

This week on the Influence: some words from world renown American spiritual teacher Ram Dass!

But first, a confession: there isn’t much that I read – be it novels, essays, cereal boxes, texts, etc. – that doesn’t get filtered through my how-does-can-this-relate-to-poetry filter.  I read everything with eyes looking for a symbol, a metaphor, or simply a set of words that captivates.  I end up thinking (and saying) some goofy things but ultimately I am kept engaged and interested.

I say this as preface to today’s post in order to make it clear that I am no expert on the works of Ram Dass or meditation – I have simply read through his book on mediation, Journey of Awakening, and found in it many things that relate to poetry.  Or at least my sense of it.

Dude, c'mon: there'll be chicken wings!
Dude, c’mon: there’ll be chicken wings!

In his book, Ram Dass exhibits a great gift for sampling works from various cultures and beliefs.  W.H. Auden once said that a sign of a writer’s strength as an essayist isn’t what he says but what he quotes.  In this spirit, Ram Dass rocks.  Case in point:

There is a story that as God and Satan were walking down the street one day, the Lord bent down and picked something up.  He gazed at it glowing radiantly in His hand.  Satan, curious, asked: “What’s that?”  “This,” answered the Lord, “is Truth.”  “Here,” replied Satan as he reached for it, “let me have that – I’ll organize it for you.”

I read the above as a parable on poetry workshops as I have experienced them at times.  There are at times two kinds of readers in a group: one willing to be astonished in their consideration of the words before them, and another who feels compelled to say something, to fix, to organize.

Ultimately, both kinds of readers, like the ideas of good and evil, help make the world go ’round.

Here are two more:

If you do not get it from yourself

Where will you go for it?

(Zenrin, The Gospel According to Zen)

*
It is all an open secret
(Ramana Maharshi)

*

I see the last two quotes as having to do with generating work: the first, an idea Philip Levine shared once: It won’t get written if you don’t write it.  The second, how inspiration is seemingly endless while at the same time being impossible at times to get at – but once you tap into it, that thrill, like learning a secret if only for a moment, a few lines.

*

Happy secrets!

Jose

* William Meredith on the friday influence

This week’s poem is The Illiterate by William Meredith.

This one is a favorite.  I memorized it years ago and come back to it often.

The simplicity of both the subject matter and form is deceptive.  It is a sonnet but note how the rhymes work, how they envelope around the last syllables – man, hand, hand, man – playing out the story of the poem in the word choice itself.

The extended metaphor takes over after the first line and comes back in the turning over of words at the end of the poem.

I won’t say too much  more, seeing as this is a poem about what is left unsaid.

Enjoy.

letter-proud *
letter-proud *

The Illiterate – William Meredith

Touching your goodness, I am like a man

Who turns a letter over in his hand

And you might think this was because the hand

was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man

Has never had a letter from anyone;

And now he is both afraid of what it means

And ashamed because he has no other means

To find out what it says than to ask someone.

 

His uncle could have left the farm to him,

Or his parents died before he sent them word,

Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.

Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.

What would you call his feeling for the words

That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

***

Happy keeping!

jose

* image found here.

* Rilke, winter & the friday influence

I am almost done with The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.  Fascinating stuff.  Rilke wrote something like 400 poems in French towards the end of his life.  Basically a whole Collected Works in another language.  He approached his poems in French in the spirit of starting over in a way that he couldn’t in his native German.

What does it mean to start over?  Focusing on details.

Case in point, here’s one poem from his series The Roses:

II. *

I see you, rose, half-open book

filled with so many pages

of that detailed happiness

we will never read.  Magus-book,

opened by the wind and read

with our eyes closed…,

butterflies fly out of you, stunned

for having had the same ideas.

***

Those last four lines contain within them so much sensation – so much surprise – you read them and go back into yourself, recognizing an experience there in the words.

Rilke’s French poems are where he goes for it and basically becomes a modern version of Rumi – he sings within his praise for the world.

winter, yo
winter, yo

Continuing with last week’s theme of winter, here is Rilke’s take on it.

In the same spirit of starting over, Rilke also left some of his French poems imperfect.  The poem below is such an example.

The last line almost takes me out of the poem.  It is an unfinished thought.  But, read after so many lines of yearning and remembering, the line leaves us lost in as much thought as the speaker.

***

Winter – Rainer Maria Rilke *

I love those former winters that still weren’t meant for sports.

We feared them a little, they were so hard and sharp;

we confronted them with a bit of courage,

to return into our house, white, sparkling wise-men.

And the fire, that great fire consoling us against them,

was a strong and living fire, a real fire.

We wrote badly, our fingers were all stiff,

but what joy to dream and entertain whatever

helps escaping memories delay a while…

They came so close, we saw them better

than in summer…, we proposed colors to them.

Inside, all was painting,

while outside all became engraving.

And the trees, who worked at home, in lamplight…

***

Happy working!

jose

* as translated by A. Poulin in The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.

* w. s. merwin & the friday influence

Dusk in Winter – W. S. Merwin

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way

***

 This week on the Influence: W. S. Merwin!

What I love about Merwin’s poem above is how he gets in so much into a few lines.  Not only the brevity but the subject matter.

We are told that the best novels throughout history deal namely with family/love relationships, that there is so much to said within those frames of humanity.  Equally, poems are said to be about either love, life, or death.

What the stock objects – rain, leaves turning colors, rivers flowing, waiting in line at a grocery store – serve are to open up something everyone can identify with while following along with the poet to see how it is they see it.

That personal take on things – whether it is evoked in turns of phrase or particular images and narrative – is the fingerprint on the poem, the echo of the soul passing through the words (through the world, through the reader), what it is that teaches and awes in a poem.  It is the hardest thing to achieve: singularity, an indelible presence.

Merwin’s work in translation (his Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems has been the standard for years) comes through here in the way he turns a sunset into a fable of sorts, works the images down into the emotions they evoke.  The starkness created by not having punctuation cues me in as a reader to engage with the poem, to follow the logic of the phrasing as it unfolds, each turn a little surprise along the way.

***

rains, yo

The rainy season has officially begun here in Eugene.  In honor, here’s one more by Merwin:

To the Rain – W. S. Merwin

You reach me out of the age of the air
clear
falling toward me
each one new
if any of you has a name
it is unknown

but waited for you here
that long
for you to fall through it knowing nothing

hem of the garment
do not wait
until I can love all that I am to know
for maybe that will never be

touch me this time
let me love what I cannot know
as the man born blind may love color
until all that he loves
fills him with color

***

Happy filling!

J

(photograph found on: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2008/sep/26/poster.poems.rain.poetry)

* out to sea on the friday influence

Sea-weed – D.H. Lawrence

Sea-weed sways and sways and swirls

as if swaying were its form of stillness;

and if it flushes against fierce rock

it slips over it as shadows do, without hurting itself.

***

seaweed, yo.

This week on the Influence: an explanation!

This past few days have been kind of rough in my world.  Nothing major, just life.

What that means for you kind readers is that I was not able to do my usual type of post this week.  Things should be back up and running next week, both blog-wise and life-wise.

Until then, enjoy these sea themed poems.

This next one by Greek poet George Seferis makes me hear things.

**

haiku – George Seferis

You write;

the ink lessened

the sea increases.

**

the increasing sea

And one from yours truly:

Correspondence – Jose Angel Araguz

Sin palabras

el mar viene y se va

viene y se va

*

Without words

the sea comes and goes

comes and goes

**

Happy coming and going!

J

* the Borges/Araguz haiku challenge & the friday influence

3 Haiku – Jorge Luis Borges *

They have said something to me,

the afternoon and the mountain.

Already, it is lost.

**

The antique sword

dreams of its battles.

Another is my dream.

**

Is it an empire

that light dying down

or a firefly?

**

luciernaga – much cooler word than firefly.


This week on the Influence – Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges has been a kind of spiritual/writing mentor for me the past couple of years.  He prided himself in being a better reader than writer, and prized the pleasure of reading above any fame and notoriety to be gained in the writing world.

In the introduction to a book of prose poems, he defended himself from those who would bicker over whether the pieces in the book were poems or not, that they were poems to him, some of which took their form in prose.

I took this as permission to take on the prose poem in my own fashion.  But more than that, it gave me permission to own my sense of what a poem is, that it could be many forms aspiring to one spirit.

Which is how I take on haiku.

You take on a form and keep writing until you have a relationship with it, until it is yours.  Whatever gets it out of you, gets you writing, gets it written.

My challenge today is more of an homage.  Here’s to Borges and getting it written.

***

3 Haiku – Jose Angel Araguz

shadow of a branch

across the page

writing

**

the tension

between two

buttons

**

down moon-paved roads

cold morning

walks

**

Happy walking!

J

* translation by Jose Angel Araguz (word to your Obra Poetica!).