Friday, February 23, 2007

In a Station on the Metro by Ezra Pound

This short poem is a good example of Imagism, a movement Pound put forward based on traditional Chinese and Japanese poetry. Imagism stresses clarity, precision, and economy of language. The poem's structure leads you to consider the two independent images together.

Some ways of thinking about the poem: Why did Pound choose these two images? What's the reward of reading a poem like this?

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Ezra Pound is generally considered the poet most responsible for defining and promoting a modernist aesthetic in poetry. In the early teens of the twentieth century, he opened a seminal exchange of work and ideas between British and American writers, and was famous for the generosity with which he advanced the work of such major contemporaries as W. B. Yeats, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, H. D., James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and especially T. S. Eliot.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Morning Song by Sylvia Plath

An aubade (morning song) is typically a joyous song sung by lovers at parting. Morning Song is a sort of reversal of the tradition. The couple isn’t parting here, in fact, they’ve added a child, a product of their “love,” and the mother, at least, seems quite unsettled by it. The voice is typical of Plath: cryptic and haunted. Notice the distance the descriptions build between the mother and child. The baby is a described as a machine, a statue; the parents stand around blankly as walls. Critics argue about how autobiographical the poem is. Some suggest the speaker's feelings are typical of post-partum depression. I’d be interested to hear thoughts from any mothers (willing to share).

Reading Plath always makes me feel unsettled. Her demons are always scratching at the surface.

Morning Song

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat's. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932. She spent part of her short life in England, and married the English poet Ted Hughes. In 1963, Plath published a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Then, on February 11, 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record, Plath wrote a note to her downstairs neighbor instructing him to call the doctor, then she committed suicide. She was the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize after death.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Gift by Li-Young Lee

Eastern poetry tends to be more overtly sentimental than Western poetry, and you can see an Eastern influence in The Gift—the poem is immediately and unabashedly lovely and nostalgic. I find it refreshing.

One interesting stylistic note: notice how the first, third and fourth lines of the poem are in iambic pentameter, and then how Lee doesn’t come close to repeating the meter again. I’m not sure why he does this. The rhythm does help to lull you into the poem, I guess. Poets will often write with the ghost of an iambic pentameter, but will rarely show it and then stray so far from it.

The Gift

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

Li-Young Lee was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. His father, who was a personal physician to Mao Zedong while in China, relocated his family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959 the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Friday, February 02, 2007

First Memory by Louise Glück

One common problem with confessional poetry (poetry in which the poet is confessing) is that it can come across as merely selfish or solipsistic. Good confessional poets have a way of opening a poem up to the world—giving it a more universal appeal. It’s difficult to say how to accomplish this. Maybe it starts with the poem’s purpose—the poet has to want to say something for others rather than to them.

This short poem by Louise Glück is about her own experience, but it also says something about what it is to be human.

First Memory

Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.

Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently, Averno, a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry. In 1999, she was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. In the fall of 2003, she was named Poet Laureate of the United States.