Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe by Elizabeth Alexander

This week, a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, who will read at Obama's inauguration. You can read more of her poems here. Do you like Obama's choice?

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,

is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves,

(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)

digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,

emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find

in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God

in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.

Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Elizabeth Alexander
was born in Harlem, New York in 1962, and is a professor at Yale. She is the author of four books of poetry. Her latest collection American Sublime was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Drum by Philip Levine

Levine, who has long celebrated the working class in his poetry, uses thick, palpable imagery to bring this scene to life. In the third stanza, he conflates the blue-collar with the classical for a powerful ending.


Leo's Tool & Die, 1950

In the early morning before the shop
opens, men standing out in the yard
on pine planks over the umber mud.
The oil drum, squat, brooding, brimmed
with metal scraps, three-armed crosses,
silver shavings whitened with milky oil,
drill bits bitten off. The light diamonds
last night's rain; inside a buzzer purrs.
The overhead door stammers upward
to reveal the scene of our day.

We sit
for lunch on crates before the open door.
Bobeck, the boss's nephew, squats to hug
the overflowing drum, gasps and lifts. Rain
comes down in sheets staining his gun-metal
covert suit. A stake truck sloshes off
as the sun returns through a low sky.
By four the office help has driven off. We
sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside
for a final smoke. The great door crashes
down at last.

In the darkness the scents
of mint, apples, asters. In the darkness
this could be a Carthaginian outpost sent
to guard the waters of the West, those mounds
could be elephants at rest, the acrid half light
the haze of stars striking armor if stars were out.
On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.

Philip Levine, born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928, has written sixteen books of poetry. He lives in Fresno, California and New York City, where he currently teaches at NYU.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Rose is Obsolete by William Carlos Williams

As I've written here before, Williams' power stems from his imagery, his clarity of language, and the "energy" he creates using line breaks. This poem is about what the rose has come to symbolize and what it really is.

The Rose is Obsolete

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting
meets--nothing--renewsitself in metal or porcelain--

whither? It ends--

But if it ends
the start is begun
so that to engage roses
becomes a geometry--

Sharper, neater, more cutting
figured in majolica--
the broken plate
glazed with a rose

Somewhere the sense
makes copper roses
steel roses--
The rose carried weight of love
but love is at an end--of roses

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits

Crisp, worked to defeat
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching


The place between the petal's
edge and the

From the petal's edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact--lifting
from it--neither hanging
nor pushing--

The fragility of the flower
penetrates space

William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1883. He was a practicing doctor, and a principal poet of the Imagist movement, which stressed precision of imagery, and clear, sharp language.