Thursday, January 31, 2013

George Bilgere: Light Touch, Serious Business

We found the work of George Bilgere anything but “glib and trivial.” Certainly “well meaning,” though.

“Janitorial” In an easy, entertaining style, Bilgere comments on race and class in America, and on college life. The skillful choice and placement of detail (“dumpster-colored/Olds…heads home/Across the barge-laden river in servitude/To East St. Louis…”) suggest why Billy Collins found Bilgere’s work worthy of the University of Akron Poetry Prize.

A couple of small touches not mentioned this morning. “Gleaner” (line 2) is interesting—refers to someone who picks things up bit by bit, but the basic reference is to gathering of grain left behind by reapers. Note also that while Kant, Heidegger and Bergman are identified by name, the ambassador is not.

This link will take you to another poem by Bilgere and an interview in which he says he works at “a sleepy Midwestern college, teaching sleepy Midwestern students.”

“The Garage”  “The Garage” is a more complex poem, which seems to juxtapose the triviality of ping-pong (“the problem of topspin”) with the unspeakable horror of the accidental death of a child (he lets us conclude that the child dies) The narrator speaks of the loss in matter-of-fact terms and may appear at first self-absorbed and insensitive. But it’s more complicated than that: retrieving an “errant smash,” he realizes that his reality can never be the same as the young mother’s—she will have fewer boxes of family history. He returns to the garage, his cave, like Plato’s, a world of shadows. The stanza break before the last two lines lets us breath and appreciate the complexity of emotions, “the white moon of the ball”—a satellite alone in space, “a fragile, weightless thing.”

In Martha Golensky’s lovely poem “For Henry Shapiro,” we have a tender appreciation of the poet/editor, his city, his faith and culture, the first and last stanzas surrounding two stanzas that deal with strangers, nameless, who likewise value language.

Next we will look at poems about fathers and daughters, the first, the more challenging of the two, in the voice of the father, the second in that of the daughter. We will look at two other poems by daughters (Cynthia Schaub’s “Dumas-pere”” and Kathy Coe’s “Business Man”) and, time permitting, another by a father.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Two Poems Stimulate, Invite Different Interpretations

In our second session we looked at poems by Debora Greger and D. Nurkse which set us to pondering pronouns and reminded us that the poet is not bound by the requirement of journalists to make it clear who is who and what happened.

In Greger’s “Autumn.” contrasting images of heat and chill, darkness and light create a tension, things not working (a meow that fails…a garden no longer tended), and we see the narrator alone, deep in nostalgia and loss.

D. (for Dennis) Nurkse seems to be writing about a relationship gone wrong (perhaps more than one). The narrator, a poet, considers human affairs global (bomb the rebel cities) and personal (walk by the breakwater), but the world goes on—the ant under its burden, as the other person (she) seems to chide. The end of the second and third stanzas suggest a darkness and sadness that one critic thinks characteristic of Nurkse: whose poems “trace with rueful accuracy the locked-together waltz of romantic attraction and dissolution.”

A couple of other interesting points about Nurkse: Mike reminded me that Nurkse’s father was a well-known economist. The poet himself has written extensively on human rights issues and has taught at the Rikers Island prison in New York.

We may not know if the “she” in the second stanza of “August” is the narrator or the cat, or what Nurkse’s she actually wrote or said. Asking these questions helps us approach the poet’s art and see different implications. Coming to definitive conclusions may be neither possible or necessary.

Further reading—bio, commentary, more poems:

Here is a link to Richard Blanco reading the Inauguration Poem. Interesting to hear him reading and have the text in front of you. A commercial may come first—be patient!

We also mentioned Natasha Thethewey, the current U.S. Poet Laureate. Check out her fine poems and her life story. (don’t be put off by the name of this site)

Next week will look at two poems by George Bilgere, winner of a competition judged by Billy Collins. Some may remember his “Grecian Temples” from last year. His breezy style is entertaining and moves along quickly, which is not to say his subject matter is not serious.


Friday, January 18, 2013


In our first session for Winter 2013 we looked at poems by Jay Parini and Billy Collins which used the setting of the American high school to make rather different points. Parini sees high school as a crucible, “a kind of furnace...a kind of maw”  where young people are “taken…assimilated, saturated, swept,” a difficult and necessary rite of passage. We discussed possible differences between boys and girls suggested in this poem, and the effective use of repetition. The poem begins and ends: “Everyone must go there/None returns.”

“The Effort” of Billy Collins’ title is explained at the end of the first stanza: “What is the poet trying to say?” Mrs. Parker joins other teachers (e.e. cummings says “the stupidest teacher will almost guess…”) who parse poems for students with baseball caps on backwards,  waiting for “that orgy of egg salad and tuna fish known as lunch…that whirlwind of meatloaf.” Collins’ characteristic wit surrounds the central part of the poem, in which he reflects on the absence of a loved one, details of which are deliberately omitted. This segment is more difficult than it looks. With his characteristic wit and sadness Collins leaves it to Mrs. Parker (and to us) to figure it out.

A couple of other Collins poems on the subject of poets and poetry:   (“Introduction to Poetry”) (“The Trouble with Poetry”)

My favorite school poem is “September: The First Day of School” by Howard Nemerov. Text and some commentary at:

We enjoyed a nice poem by Cynthia Schaub on the subject of a different kind of high school, and one by Martha Golensky with a metaphor that hit home for several of us—an old Buick. You are invited to bring your poems to share with the group--they need not be on the "theme" of the day's reading.

Next week we will look at poems by Debora Greger and D. Nurkse (pay particular attention to the pronouns!).

(e e cummings quote from "if everything happens that can't be done")