Monthly Archives: April 2012

Carolyn Forche – Poet of Witness

On the final day of April and National Poetry Month 2012, here is an acknowledgement of American poet, professor and activist, Carolyn Forche.  A friend of mine (thank you, Carla) introduced me to Ms. Forche’s poetry with her 1981 book of poems, The Country Between Us.  It was Ms. Forche’s second book of poems and features poetry where, during Forche’s travels to the country of El Salvator in the late 1970s, a civil war happened to be erupting there.  These poems about El Salvator reflect a third world experience that is both enlightening and horrifying.  The poem “The Colonel” is one of the best known poems from The Country Between Us.

The Colonel

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried

a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went

out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the

cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over

the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.

Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to

scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On

the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had

dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for

calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of

bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief

commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was

some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot

said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed

himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say

nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries

home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like

dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one

of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water

glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As

for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-

selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last

of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some

of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the

ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

—May 1978

 

Ms. Forche has gone on to publish additional books of poetry, The Angel of History (1994) and Blue Hour (2003), along with a well received anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness.  Forche has said of this anthology and political poetry “we are accustomed to rather easy categories: we distinguish between “personal”  and “political” poems…The distinction…gives the political realm too much and too little scope; at the same time, it renders the personal too important and not important enough.  If we give up the dimension of the personal, we risk relinquishing one of the power sites of resistance.  The celebration of the personal, however, can indicate a myopia, an inability to see how larger structures of the economy and the state circumscribe, if not determine, the fragile realm of the individual.”

Normally I would shy away from exploring political poetry, however reading The Country Between Us was really an eye opener.   It’s also interesting for me that 30 years after this book of poems was published I, myself, am living in a U.S. city where many of the residents have immigrated in recent years from countries in Central America.

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Kevin Young — a living poet (born 1970)

                             

Rounding up April and National Poetry Month, I wanted to feature a living breathing poet.  A person I thought of is Kevin Young.  He was initially formally acknowledged in 1993 when he won awards for his first books of poems Most Way Home.  Since then, Young’s published a number of books of poetry including To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor (2001), a poetic tribute to painter and graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; Jelly Roll: A Blues (2003); For the Confederate Dead (2007); Dear Darkness (2008); and Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (2011).

Kevin Young is regarded as a poet and a writer “who finds meaning and inspiration in African American music, particularly the blues, and in the bittersweet history of Black America.”  I believe it was his collection of poems Jelly Roll: A Blues where I first heard of him.  I had hoped to find a copy of this collection at a local library and wasn’t able to.  Instead I found Mr. Young’s 2008 book of poems Dear Darkness.  Here are three poems from this collection:

Quartet

I am tired of this place & want to take

a slow train to the moon—

Just jump the rails out past the pale

Peeling walls of this here room.

I feel like a dog that done lost his tail,

& keeps barking: soon? so soon?

Lay down outstretched among hail

& fallen stars, the rain’s raggy tune.

On Being Blind

Hard to compare pain—

So when the shortsighted

Pale girl lost her glasses

Whirling her hair

And arms on the dance floor

We all quit dancing.

To look.  From the stand the blind

Blues singer stopped to announce

Someone has lost their specs

But she shouted back, No, eyes!

I’ve lost my eyes! Beneath his shades

The black and bluesman just smiled

And reached further

Into his monogrammed

Holster of harmonicas.

Lullaby

Sleep, shelter me.

Shuffle

me back into the deck

where I belong—

Sing no shout

your favorite song

until I fall

into your empty arms.

Let me be what

dust has to be, settling

over everything

& I promise to dream

of new houses & old

loves not longer, I swear,

sweet sleep,

I will summon no one

if you make me

again mine.

**A review of Dear Darkness: Poems by Kevin Young can be found at this web page: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/10/30/DDUE1391MV.DTL

Arbor Day — It’s all about the trees!

        Along with Earth Day appearing every year in late April, there is also National Arbor Day.  This year it falls on Friday, April 27th.  According to the Arbor Foundation it is “a time to celebrate the wonders of nature, and to plan for an even greener future by planting and caring for trees.”

I looked around for some poems about trees and found these.  While one of these speaks fondly of a nearby city tree, the other tree poem dredges up some not so friendly vibes…

A London Plane-Tree

Green is the plane-tree in the square,

The other trees are brown;

They droop and pine for country air,

The plane-tree loves the town.

Here from my garret-pane I mark

The plan-tree bud and blow,

Shed her recuperative bark,

And spread her shade below.

Among her branches, in and out,

The city breezes play;

The dull fog wraps her round about;

Above, the smoke curls grey.

Others the country take for choice,

And hold the town in scorn;

But she has listen’d to the voice

On city breezes borne.

–by Amy Levy (1861-1889), British poet

Cut it Down

By a dim road, o’ergrown with dry thin grass,

A little straggling, wild, wind-beaten tree

Stood, like a sentry, where no feet might pass,

And storm-swept by the sea.

What was the secret of that lonely place?

Had some accursed thing gone by this way,

Leaving the horror of his evil face

On leaf and bough and spray?

I know not.  But the very sunbeams took

The darkness of the gnarled and twisted stem;

The summer air those wrinkled leaves forsook

Nor ever played in them.

–by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge (1861-1907), British poet

And today’s “Poem in my Pocket” is…

Another Walt Whitman poem!

I decided to try and make a random choice of this year’s “Poem in My Pocket” selection by going to the web page http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/409 (where all the sample poems are arranged by topic) and closing my eyes and choosing.  Turns out I landed on another Walt Whitman poem!  Turns out Whitman has four of his poems among the 61 samples (more than any of the other poets whose poems are provided).

Walt Whitman, American poet (1819 – 1892)

A man ahead of his time I began to appreciate Walt Whitman in the past 10 years or so.  He seems to embody the vagabond spirit of the wandering poet at the same time realizing that he, himself, was standing at the precipice of a very changing world.  He recognized somehow that the emerging industrial age that he lived in would eventually change the course of the world as it had been known and what had been mostly farm and agrarian life.  He wrote about himself, the “I” and the “me” in a boisterous manner as if to somehow reclaim man’s solitary identity in the midst what was to be eventually the modern machine age (that we continue to live in today).  Whitman was perhaps the last of the Romantics, however I’m not sure he’s classifed anywhere that way.  Here is his poem I’ll print and carry with me today, “Poem in My Pocket” day.

 

As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days     

As I walk these broad majestic days of peace,

(For the war, the struggle of blood finish’d, wherein,

O terrific Ideal,

Against vast odds erewhile having gloriously won,

Now thou stridest on, yet perhaps in time toward denser wars,

Perhaps to engage in time in still more dreadful contests, dangers,

Longer campaigns and crises, labors beyond all others,)

Around me I hear that eclat of the world, politics, produce,

The announcements of recognized things, science,

The approved growth of cities and the spread of inventions.

I see the ships, (they will last a few years,)

The vast factories with their foremen and workmen,

And hear the indorsement of all, and do not object to it.

But I too announce solid things,

Science, ships, politics, cities, factories, are not nothing,

Like a grand procession to music of distant bugles pouring,

triumphantly moving, and grander heaving in sight,

They stand for realities—all is as it should be.

Then my realities;

What else is so real as mine?

Libertad and the divine average, freedom to every slave on the face

of the earth,

The rapt promises and luminé of seers, the spiritual world, these

centuries-lasting songs,

And our visions, the visions of poets, the most solid announcements

of any.

(published 1860, 1881)

Poem in Your Pocket Day — Thursday, April 26, 2012

        It sounds a bit corny perhaps, this idea of finding a poem, printing it or writing it up, putting it in your pocket and then carrying it around with you all day.  When I first heard of it two years ago, I thought it was just a one time occurrence.  Recently found out this is an annual event every April during National Poetry Month.

I did write about this event in an earlier blog here as I happened to feature the Walt Whitman poem that I’d chosen as my pocket poem two years ago.  For people who would like to commemorate this day and participate in their own way, there is a web page at: http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/406 that discusses Poem in Your Pocket Day and provides 61 sample poems to choose from.  These poems can be found by selecting the poem subject links provided.  For people who are more familiar with poetry, these 61 sample poems are also listed alphabetically by the poet’s name and his/her featured poem.

So if you’d like to feel close to poetry (literally), carrying around a poem in your pocket is one way to do so.  I like the idea of choosing a poem that you like and reading it throughout the day or maybe just one of two times, there are no rules with this.

After completing this blog I think i’m going to randomly select one of the 61 poems provided on the web page http://www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/409 by just pointing to one of the poems listed by subject (with my eyes closed) and see what poem manifests itself.   This way I won’t be limiting the poem selection to my own biases (for example, the poem is too long; it’s too brief; it’s about war; it’s about antiquity and I don’t understand what is referred to, etc. etc).   Here goes…

Happy Birthday, Will S.

                               

William Shakespeare was purportedly born today, April 23rd in the year 1564.  He lived until 1616.  An English poet and dramatist of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean era, Shakespeare is probably the most widely known author in all English literature.  I believe his plays are what people think of when Shakepeare is mentioned.  There are 37 plays that are attributed to him and many of these are still read, studied and performed in our time.

It is Shakespeare’s poetry, and specifically his sonnets that encompass his other literary output.  It’s been said that his sonnets are “often marked by a combination of imagination, precision, and deep and sincere emotion that is lacking in the similar work of his contemporaries.”  Perhaps that is why his sonnets likewise continued to be read, recited and studied.

In accordance with National Poetry Month and in honor of Mr. Shakespeare’s birthday, I would like to feature a sonnet of his and also a favorite passage of mine from one of his plays.

Sonnet XCIV (94)
They that have power to hurt and will do none   
That do not do the thing they most do show,   
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,   
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;   
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;   
They are the lords and owners of their faces,   
Others but stewards of their excellence.   
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,   
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,   
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:   
  For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;   
  Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

********************************************************************************************************

From the play The Tempest, Act IV, Scene 1,147-158.  Prospero is speaking:

Be cheerful, sir:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the golden palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Happy Earth Day April 22, 2012!

Poems for Earth Day (from the collection: Wild Song: Poems of the Natural World)

Morning Song by Don Colburn

Day breaks open artlessly

across a field of switchgrass tossing

wild and easy in the windsell.

The weedy fastness gives way to a widening

brim of eastlight blazing the mist.

Spring is the dangerous season, awakening

this bee-crazed meadow to overgrowing–

and in me, awe, and ache, avid to begin

like birds and the earth all over.

 

Pileated by Ronald Wallace

It’s much too big for words,

this Woody Woodpecker of a bird,

this cartoon creature

all wires and pulleys, that slams

into the old dead elm and,

for a moment, rejuvenates it:

a flicker of fire, a flare

on the gray, decaying bark.

And before we can even say it’s a,

it’s a, a . . . it’s gone,

this remnant, this

premise, taking

the sky, the light, the summer,

our blue eyes with it.

 

The Earth by Andres Rodriguez

She scooped a handful of shiny pebbles

from the riverbed, held them

a long time to her face,

a morning of clear light all around us.

The river stopped, the far hills glowed,

and from where we knelt

on the gritty bank

the soft summer air moved on us.

She took care for the smallest things:

remembering to touch

the unmoved stones, to breathe

with her body the whole expanse of light.

All day I dreamed the earth was rising

from bedrock, from alluvium,

to the wind’s slow motion,

a dance taking ages to perform. 

********************************************************************************************

P.S. And to all those who garden, keep up your good work with the earth!

Poets and Prizes (and what about this Pulitzer Prize anyway?!)

The Best Poet…?

A while back someone told me that there is old adage among poets and that is “the best poet never wins.”  This was in regard to poetry contests including standup slams, I believe.  It’s a humbling thought for the person who does come in first place and also a conciliation for those who don’t.  I’ve always thought this perspective kind of levels the playing field somehow.

Recently with the woman poet, Tracy K. Smith, winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry it made me think about this saying.  Strangely, however, for me is one of the reasons I started this blog was my puzzlement concerning the author, Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel (!) a To Kill a Mockingbird and how she never published another book since.  So what is this Pulitzer Prize anyway?  Is this similar to winning a writing or poetry contest?  It doesn’t seem so.  Is it for a cumulative body of work?  Not necessarily, as in the situation of writer, Harper Lee.

When the Pulitzer Prize began to be awarded in 1917, it was for several categories of the written word: best American novel, best American drama, best books of biography, history and (since 1921) poetry, all of these works having been published by American authors.  In 1962 the category of nonfiction was added for works that did not fit into the other categories.

The Pulitzer is also awarded to the best work done in several distinct fields by American journalists during each year.  In 1942 a Pulitzer Prize in Photography was added to the journalism awards and this was further subdivided into two different types of photography awards in 1968.  Beginning in 2007 online writing awards in all the journalism categories excluding photography were added.  A prize in music composition was also added in 1943 based on Joseph Pulitzer setting aside money for a music scholarship that later it was decided to make it a prize also.

So how did the Pulitizer Prize begin?  It started when Joseph Pulitizer, an American newspaper owner and philanthropist, bequeathed a fund of money in his will in 1911 for the establishment of the Columbia University School of Journalism.  In the creation of this fund Joseph Pulitzer requested that the annual interest be used for prizes in writing.  Currently winners receive a certificate and $10,000.

Looking at a list early literary winners it turns out that most of the novels and plays sound familiar (i.e., The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder; “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, etc.).  A more recent lists of winners includes Beloved by Toni Morrison; A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson; and “Wit” by Margaret Edson.

Just to keep things a bit interesting prizes aren’t always granted in each category.  In fact, announced just this week for the year 2012, no Pulitzer Prize for the best novel was granted; evidently there was not an agreed upon consensus concerning the novel entries for this award.   This has not happened since 1977 and has caused a bit of a stir in the writing and publishing realm.  Journalist Jimmy So writes about this situation in the Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/04/17/pulitzer-board-awards-no-fiction-prize-angering-jurors.html

Thankfully in poetry this year there is Tracy K. Smith — she won for her third book of poem, “Life on Mars.”  Twelve years ago in the year 2000, another Princeton poet/professor C.K. Williams also won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his poetry book “Repair.”

Congratulations to poet, Tracy K. Smith!

       Poet, Tracy K. Smith receives 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

Tracy K. Smith, a poet and assistant professor of creative writing (at Princeton University), was awarded this week the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third collection of poems “Life on Mars.”  Not familiar with this poet and her work, I’ve been trying to read up on her and compiled here some information about Ms. Smith and a selection of her poetry.

Ms. Smith’s was raised in northern California in a family that she has said has strong Alabama roots.  Her education background includes receiving degrees in English and creative writing from Harvard College and Columbia University.  She was also for two years, from 1997 – 1999, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

A review of Ms. Smith’s work has stated she is a poet who displays “lyric brilliance and political impulses.” Her first book of poems entitled “The Body’s Question” (2003) won the Cave Canem Prize.  Her second book of poetry, “Duende,”was very well received, having won several awards including in 2008 the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.  This collection also won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, which is the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book. 

Ms. Smith joined the Princeton faculty in 2006 and teaches creative writing there at the Lewis Center for the Arts.  Among her responsibilities is her working with students in poetry writing workshops and guiding other students as an adviser while they write their senior thesis in poetry.  

Flores Woman

A species of tiny human has been discovered, which
lived on the remote Indonesian island of Flores just
18,000 years ago. … Researchers have so far unearthed
remains from eight individuals who were just one
[meter] tall, with grapefruit-sized skulls. These
astonishing little people … made tools, hunted tiny
elephants and lived at the same time as modern
humans who were colonizing the area.
Nature, October 2004

Light: lifted, I stretch my brief body.
Color: blaze of day behind blank eyes.

Sound: birds stab greedy beaks
Into trunk and seed, spill husk

Onto the heap where my dreaming
And my loving live.

Every day I wake to this.

Tracks follow the heavy beasts
Back to where they huddle, herd.

Hunt: a dance against hunger.
Music: feast and fear.

This island becomes us.

Trees cap our sky. It rustles with delight
In a voice green as lust. Reptiles

Drag night from their tails,
Live by the dark. A rage of waves

Protects the horizon, which we would devour.
One day I want to dive in and drift,

Legs and arms wracked with danger.
Like a dark star. I want to last.

(published 2007, from the book of poems “Duende” by Tracy K. Smith)

Stint as newspoet — January 2012

Earlier this year Ms. Smith spent a day at the NPR studios of the program “All Things Considered” as their first Newspoet.  The purpose of this NPR project was for a poet to spend all day in the NPR newsroom, and at the day’s conclusion, compose a poem reflecting the news of that day.

Ms. Smith proved to be a trooper, and while she found the experience “delightful and a little terrifying,” she managed to write a poem at the day’s end before she departed.

(This poem was inspired by the news report “After Bombings, an Exodus from a Nigerian City” where recent attacks by a radical Muslim group resulted in people fleeing the city of Kano).

 

New Road Station

History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman
Corralling her children onto a crowded bus.

History spits Go, go, go, lurching at the horizon,
Hammering the driver’s headrest with her fist.

Nothing else moves. The flies settle in place
Watching with their million eyes, never bored.

The crows strike their bargain with the breeze.
They cluck and caw at the women in their frenzy,

The ones who suck their teeth, whose skirts
Are bathed in mud. But history is not a woman,

And it is not the crowd forming in a square.
It is not the bright swarm of voices chanting No,

And Now, or even the rapt silence of a room
Where a film of history is right now being screened.

Perhaps history is the bus that will only wait so long
Before cranking its engine and barreling down

The road. Maybe it is the voice coming in
Through the radio like a long distance call

Or the child in the crook of his mother’s arm
Who believes history must sleep inside a tomb

Or the belly of a bomb.

Postscript to blog about “Il Postino” (the book & the film)

                            

It turns out while trying to refresh my mind about the 1994 film “Il Postino,” I ran across a reference that said an opera based on this story was produced in 2010 (starring well known opera singer Placido Domingo).  So, it seems, the story memoir of “Il Postino” continues on!

Here is an article from the LA Times describing “Il Postino” the 2010 opera based on the movie and the book:  http://articles.latimes.com/2010/sep/19/entertainment/la-ca-daniel-catan-20100919

There is a quote in the article attributed to Neruda concerning poetry:  “Poetry is like bread; it should be shared by all.”   The same can be said for the story about the postman and the poet — it’s been shared among several genres — from novel to play to movie to opera over the span of 25 years…

***PBS features in its series “Great Performances” a video of the opera “El Postino” featuring Placido Domingo as the poet, Pablo Neruda.