Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Windhover by Gerard Manley Hopkins

In case you need some proof of the power of literature, this week I met a retired English professor who remains as passionate about poetry as he was fifty years ago. His literary little blue pill? Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom he praised earnestly and at length. He told me that a circle of his literary friends goes so far as to refer to Hopkins as THE poet.

I’ve always admired Hopkins, and most everyone appreciates his passion, his devout nature (he was a Jesuit priest) and the uniquely charged music of his “sprung rhythm,” demonstrated below in The Windhover. It’s easy to get caught up in the glittering surfaces of Hopkins’ poetry, but, as with Shakespeare, his work rewards you for getting out the dictionary and digging deeper.

The Windhover
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Born at Stratford, Essex, England, on July 28, 1844, Gerard Manley Hopkins is regarded as one of the Victorian era's greatest poets. In 1867, he entered a Jesuit novitiate near London and burnt all the poetry he'd written to date (he was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1877). The wreck of the German ship The Deutschland in 1875 in the Thames river inspired him to begin writing again, and it was then that he invented sprung rhythm (linked above). His talent went unrecognized during his lifetime.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Gatehouse Heaven by James Kimbrell

James Kimbrell's music, while not metrical, is captivating, lulling you quickly into a poem. I would guess it's influenced by Whitman's rolling, free verse rhythms.

Notice the language of death and decay in the first half of the poem, and then the switch to heavenly imagery after the phrase "After that, I thought it all saintly." Images of death and decay come naturally to a poem about illness, but the heavenly imagery is surprising. It lets us see the asylum from the viewpoint a boy trying to make sense of, and even glorify, his father's hospitalization and madness.

from The Gatehouse Heaven
By James Kimbrell

And what did I know of madness or fathers? First,
The old gatehouse guard’s country music, the katydids
And crickets and fire ants catacombed in their mirexed
Mounds. Then a narrow brick road and the groomed

Asylum lawn strewn with fronds of withering mimosas.
Then the fish-boned shadows of limbs, the walls
And barred windows awash in a light the color of rust,
Or river water, of a shade at dusk thicker than I’d seen

In the stain-glassed fields of junked automobiles
Jackson anchored to. After that, I thought it all saintly,
Heroic, the madhouse a heaven the farthest flung
Angels flocked in. And my father amongst them: gowns

And clouds and a ladder I climbed, rung by rung, hand-
Lengths behind them, far from the shock beds and Librium
High above the wing-beats and wailing that filled
The halls he walked, his slippered feet testing the ground.

James Kimbrell teaches writing at Florida State University. His second book, My Psychic, is recently out from Sarabande books.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Winter Stars by Larry Levis

Last week's poet, Tony Hoagland, wrote of Levis: "his practice is to use image as a form of inquiry, as a kind of tentative, speculating finger poking into the unknown." You'll see this in the way Levis uses the recurring image of starlight in this poem. You get the sense that the speaker (like you) doesn't initially know what the starlight represents, but he keeps pushing it forward, and part of the poem's reward is that you discover at the end, along with the speaker, some solace in it.

That's not to say that Levis himself discovered starlight's meaning as you do: in one brilliant, stream-of-consciousness moment. The poem is far too well crafted for that--notice, for example, how the starlight works against the city lights winking out in the father's mind. They are two visually identical images, but one is transient and one permanent--a carefully considered set of images for a poem in which a speaker faced with transience (death) is wishing for permanence. More likely, Levis "tentatively" explored the meanings of starlight in his poem during the writing process, which led him to some resolutions, and he preserved parts of this process of discovery for the reader in the poem's final form.

How does one explore and discover while writing a poem? Well, it comes in part from fostering the organic nature of the writing process. The "organic" aspect works like this: an image (in this case starlight) usually comes with shades of meaning the writer hadn't planned on; and it interacts with existing images and ideas in a poem in ways the writer hadn't planned on, thereby pushing the poem in unexpected directions and leading to unexpected discoveries. It's hard to say exactly why, but the spontaneity (and surprise) of this process tends to translate to the reader. Similarly, a reader can often tell when a poem was meticulously planned and outlined before it was written, thereby stifling spontaneity. A poem feels far more organic and immediate when the writer allows images and their interactions to help direct it--when, in effect, the writer allows what he's creating to help finish creating itself.

Winter Stars
by Larry Levis

My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, and with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.

Sometimes I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of an oak
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
And persisting.

It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them,
In California, that light was closer.
In a California no one will ever see again,
My father is beginning to die. Something
Inside him is slowly taking back
Every word it ever gave him.
Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father
Search for a lost syllable as if it might
Solve everything, & though he can’t remember, now,
The word for it, he is ashamed…
If you can think of the mind as a place continually
Visited, a whole city placed behind
The eyes & shining, I can imagine, now it’s end—
As when the lights go off, one by one,
In a hotel at night, until at last
All of the travelers will be asleep, or until
Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind
Of sleep; & while the woman behind the desk
Is applying more lacquer to her nails,
You can almost believe that the elevator,
As it ascends, must open upon starlight.

I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.
And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.

I got it all wrong.
I wound up believing in words the way a scientist
Believes in carbon, after death.

Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—
Which may be all that’s left of you & me.

When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.

That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.

Larry Levis was born in Fresno, California in 1946. His father was a grape grower, and in his youth Levis drove a tractor, pruned vines, and picked grapes in Selma, California. Levis died of a heart attack in 1996, at the age of 49.

Friday, December 01, 2006

America by Tony Hoagland

“America” is from Tony Hoagland’s recent book What Narcissism Means to Me (I love that title). There’s something of the Beats in this poem—its criticism of American society; its sprawl; its stream-of consciousness quality—and unless I’m mistaken, the entire poem is, technically, one sentence. A lot narrative poets use this sort of fast, stream-of-consciousness style to inject personality and keep the energy up in a poem. Here, it suits the poem’s subject matter (rampant technology and materialism) well.

by Tony Hoagland

Then one of the students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison

Whose walls are made of RadioShacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,

And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,

And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money

That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,

He gasped “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—

And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—

Which was when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,

And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

Tony Hoagland, born in 1953 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is the author of numerous books of poetry. He currently teaches at the University of Houston.