by Melissa Allen
I convinced the Poetry Foundation to send me a poem every day – okay, fine, I’m not special, they’ll do it for anyone who goes to their website and signs up. Sometimes the poems they send are really dreary and sometimes they’re breath-catchingly amazing, because that’s how poetry works. They’re all different from each other because that’s how poetry works too. Some of them skip along rhyming and some of them wouldn’t be caught dead rhyming and some of them are about momentous matters of profound philosophy and some of them are about dogs digging up bones, or something. So far so good.
Then there’s Gertrude Stein. Tell me where she came from. I don’t think she paid a single ounce of attention to anything anyone else had ever said or done about poetry, ever, in the history of the world. She just amused herself tossing the language in the air like flashing juggling clubs and keeping it up more or less indefinitely. She just took out her language-knitting apparatus every morning and knitted up something that fitted her perfectly and would have caused riots if she’d worn it on the streets of Paris. She just got out all the pots and pans and rummaged through the pantry and started throwing together foodstuffs that sounded to her like a great combination but which no one else, I’m saying no one else, would have considered eating together or cooking in the same pot. It’s a metaphor. Go with it.
Did Gertrude Stein care about your opinion of her poetry? It is to laugh. Gertrude Stein was a genius. Gertrude Stein was a three-year-old child. Go read Susie Asado, then come right back here and tell me you don’t think Gertrude Stein was a very good poet and I’ll punch you right in the nose and then I’ll go make mud pies with Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude Stein is who I always think about when people start whining that a poem isn’t any good because they don’t understand it, it doesn’t make sense, what does it MEAN? Excuse me? Go read your vacuum cleaner manual if it’s so important to you to comprehend with perfect clarity the literal meaning of a text. Seriously. Being perfectly comprehensible at first glance is about the forty-ninth most important thing you can do with poetry. Being comprehensible at all is not at all a hindrance to a poem’s being great and good. Poetry is music. What does music mean? Does it have to mean anything? Don’t get me started. You really don’t want to get me started on a cold night in February. Not when I’ve been losing at poker to Gertrude Stein.
A few months ago I took down from a high shelf the works of the ancient Roman poet Horace, which I read in high school Latin class. Inside were still folded-up sheets of lined paper with my translations of some of Horace’s odes written neatly on them in my best high-school handwriting. The first one, which was always my favourite, even before I had any real understanding of what it meant, began, “Alas, how the years fly…”. Yes, so they do.
These are poems with a very definite metre, which rely heavily on sound for their effect. So I read them aloud. And then again, a few more times, because sometimes I’m in love with is the sound of my own voice. They sounded great. I became a little bit jealous of Horace. For one thing, he didn’t have the internet to distract him. For another, even if you don’t know Latin from Klingon, you can tell that this is some kickass poetry:
frustra cruento Marte carebimus
fractisque rauci fluctibus Hadriae,
fustra per autumnos nocentem
corporibus metuemus Austrum:
at least, if you have ears you can; and you might even be able to guess that it has something to do with waves and wind and cold and sickness and death and gut-cracking fear. The gist of it, which is highly relevant to all of us in North America this winter, is that it’s stupid to spend our lives terrified of all the crap nature throws at us when — not to put too fine a point on it — we’re all going to die anyway, somehow, some day. (In a later verse, Horace rubs it in by pointing out that after we die our descendants are going to drink up all the good wine we were saving. Moral [I guess?]: Drink more. Now.)
So Horace and I leave you with these uplifting thoughts. A, if you get worried this winter that if you spend five more minutes outside they’re going to find you frozen in a snowbank in the morning, just remember, worry is pointless – you’ll be waiting to cross the River Styx any day now anyway! B, while you’re waiting, you can take your teeth-gnashing agony and make a kickass poem out of it, or at least a small, unobtrusive poem that makes you feel a little bit better. You’re welcome.
another part of speech
Tonight I attended the first part of a three-part poetry workshop called “Lie, Cheat, & Steal”. I signed up for it within, like, thirty seconds of hearing it existed. Why everyone in town wasn’t there I’ll never understand.
The cheating part was tonight. We did found poems and erasure poems.1 The instructor pointed out the most helpful technique of erasure poems, which I had never fully grasped before: Don’t try to actually read the text you’re erasing. As she said, “Once my mind starts to make sense of things, then no poems come.” Yes. Sense is highly overrated.
This is a book called Melissa, by Taylor Caldwell, published in 1948 by Charles Scribner’s Sons.
I bought it a while ago at Goodwill, or something, because it entertained me to have a book with the same name as me. I haven’t read it. It didn’t look very good.
Now I want to erase it, page by page. I’ve only done the first page so far. I read the page after I made a poem out of it and before I erased everything but the poem.
I want to keep erasing it and reading it, a page at a time. We’ll see how it goes.
damp little hands
on top of silence
late November afternoon
had to swallow the green in your blue a long time until dark
This one was hard. Wow. I’m not even going to tell you how long it took me. I almost gave up. It’s almost bedtime now. Sigh. I wanted to write more today. I’ll write more tomorrow instead. Tomorrow keeps coming, it’s very reassuring.
I’m writing this in bed on my phone (this is one of those sentences that would have been incomprehensible, like, ten years ago – there are so many of those kinds of sentences now), so don’t get all judgey if I lapse into inanity and/or have my text hijacked by autocorrect. I just realised I hadn’t written anything today and hadn’t done much of anything else but lie around on my couch reading science fiction and Laura Ingalls Wilder, a curious combination that I highly recommend for cold, sick days. The past and the future, crashing together between your ears and howling in pain and warning. I’m pretty sure those hours of reading set off some kind of chain reaction in my brain that will result someday in either deathless literature or deranged raving. Meanwhile, however, I have to jot down something today because I told myself I would, every day in February. Damn the promises we make to ourselves.
Maxine Kumin died a few days ago. I hadn’t read much of her poetry before but I liked what I had read, and I read her obituary in The New York Times with great interest. This was the best detail: After meeting in a poetry workshop in the fifties, she and Anne Sexton were best friends, such best friends that each installed a phone line in her home dedicated to their conversations with each other. They’d call each other, then leave the receiver off the hook to keep the connection open while they wrote poetry. When one of them finished a poem, she would whistle into the phone to get the other to come hear it.
The Times dryly called this a precursor to instant messaging, which I suppose is true in the sense that both involve electronic signalling, but I’m not sure that’s the most meaningful comparison. The point of this relationship, it seems to me, wasn’t so much the rapidity of these poets’ communication as its intensity and intimacy. You see the same kinds of relationships being conducted by letter before the invention or ubiquity of the telephone – the same meeting of minds. And if Maxine and Anne had just wanted to talk or share their poetry, it wouldn’t have slowed them down much just to dial each other’s number. That’s not what they wanted, though. They wanted to think together. And they didn’t want to do that kind of thinking with anyone else – that’s why they kept the line open to each other, and only to each other.
Now, of course, you can exchange ideas with anyone on the planet so quickly and easily that there would be no point in going to such effort for any one relationship. It’s wonderful, I love it, sometimes I find myself texting or IMing or Facebook messaging with four or five people simultaneously, chattering away, having a great time, sharing ideas, gossiping, whatever…but then each conversation trails off, and each of us is alone again, with our own thoughts. There’s no awareness of the other person still there, on the “other end of the line”, breathing and thinking. There’s talk and no talk, nothing in between. I won’t say there’s no real friendship or intellectual companionship because that’s silly, of course there is, plenty of both. Maybe too much? Harder to discern which are the real voices you should be listening to, when there are so many of them.
I’m thinking on paper as usual and as usual probably making no sense. Feel free to ignore me. But keep that image in the back of your mind, the two poets whistling to each other over the open connection. I have a feeling it might come in handy some time.
an instant message
from the owl
Part 2 of the poetry workshop I’ve been taking was tonight (“Lie, Cheat, & Steal: How to Write a Good Poem”). You may remember that last week we cheated. This week we lied. We wrote persona poems and pretended we were someone else.
This comes very easily to me. I know there are some haiku poets who feel that they must always speak in their own voice from a place of authentic experience or whatever but I personally have always felt that making things up, or at the very least embellishing, is far more interesting artistically. Also, who are we really? We’re all our own inventions.
We had some great discussions about the poems we read. It’s been interesting. It’s been fun. I need to talk to poets besides haiku poets more often. Not that you’re not all fantastic. I didn’t mean that! But you know that inbreeding is unhealthy for any community.
I’ve been hearing discussion about this a lot lately — a growing dissatisfaction with the separation of the haiku community from the rest of the poetry world. There are more and more journals whose boundaries are fluidly defined, that publish “short poetry” and really don’t care what other categories it might fall into. There are more and more haiku poets submitting their poetry to mainstream poetry journals without bothering to label it. I think that thinking of ourselves as poets first and haiku poets second is very likely to improve our poetry, however we choose to write it. Haiku has particular limits which are fine to observe, which can actually be empowering, as long as you keep in mind the fact, which I think a lot of haiku poets forget, that you are writing poetry. Poetry is consciousness-altering. Is what we’re writing consciousness-altering, or does it just follow the rules?
Most days I despair of ever writing anything truly consciousness-altering. But I try. I want to try. I try to want.
The final class in my “Lie, Cheat, & Steal” poetry workshop was last night. I feel a little bereft now. I kind of feel like I want to teach my own poetry workshop, maybe one entitled, “I Have No Idea What I’m Doing But Hey, Let’s Just Get Down with Some Words and See What Happens”.
It fascinates me how much more fun it is for me to talk about writing poetry than writing fiction. I took a lot of fiction-writing classes in my younger days, and also in regular English classes they always seemed to be going on about how to write fiction, and even though I like writing fiction it drives me nearly out of my mind to talk about it. I mean, it’s a story. Just tell the damn story.
I have never had a bad time talking about poetry, though. There’s always something to say. There’s always something to hear. Poetry is just crazy. No one really understands it, so you can kind of say anything.
Anyway. We did a couple of fun exercises, the first of which involved looking at a denatured, alphabetised list of all the words in someone else’s poem (we hadn’t read the original poem and didn’t know who wrote it), and trying to use just those words (some subset of them) to write our own poem. The words turned out to be from a pretty great poem by Li-Young Lee called Early in the Morning – we got to read it at the end. It was interesting, I found myself just trying to write haiku during this exercise, which I hadn’t done before in the class. My brain felt slow and small, which I think is probably normal. All I could come up with was this:
she pulls her head out
Which, appropriately, is a slow, small poem. Though I like it a little bit.
Second exercise: Writing a response to another poem. Taking their premise and some of their language to produce your own take on the situation. I’ve done this before, actually a fair amount, with haiku, but not with longer poems. I’m still working on my response, maybe I’ll put it out there when I’m done.
So: I’m a liar, a cheater, a thief. This appeals to my natural instinct to do whatever it is other people don’t want me to do, which is probably a healthy instinct for a poet. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) The thing with poetry is that you’re trying to see things the way everyone else doesn’t see them. It’s really hard to do. If you’re too much in sympathy with other people or find yourself agreeing with them most of the time, it’s even harder. You have to be a little bit contrary, possibly even slightly obnoxious, maybe even mildly criminal, though I would recommend against being positively mean or getting arrested. Unless you feel that a lengthy period of solitary confinement would be beneficial for your creative development, but probably better to just find a cave or something in that case. Let me know if you find a good one.
moonlight where the word is not enough
Editor’s note: This text (including links) originally appeared as several postings on the author’s Red Dragonfly blog in February 2014 and appears here with the author’s permission.
Melissa Allen, who holds BA in Russian language and literature and a post-graduate degree in library science, lives in Wisconsin in the United States where she works as a technical writer at a software company. She has recently become a haibun editor at Haibun Today.