Sunday, June 8, 2014

Extra Session Features Festive Luncheon

In our extra session on June 5, we enjoyed an excellent luncheon, courtesy of the Penny Byrn retirement community, and good discussion of poems by Laura Kasischke, Janet Warman and others.

In "Hospital Parking Lot, April" we found a haunting and complex interweaving of images, the world of nature and the sad world of hospitals, but winding up in the "Parking Lot of the Sun." "Our Father's War" seemed appropriate to the anniversary of D-Day.

Our annual "Shepherd's Center Poetry Anthology" will appear in September or October. Thanks again for sharing your talent and insight with the group. We expect to reconvene in January 2015.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Journeys of Place and Time in Session #6

In our last regular session of the term, we saw two poets use detail and image to open new worlds for us. Janet Warman's "Gaffney, South Carolina" tells the story of that painted water tower you see driving along I-85 toward Atlanta and how the peach economy came to that part of the world. Knowing the :"inside story" behind all this helped us enjoy a warm and kind poem.

Affection is also what Toi Derricotte feels for Julia in "Weekend Guests from Chicago, 1945," a celebration of the success of an African-American family ("the clunky music/of a pound of real gold soft as old money..."). A poem rich in physical detail hints at contrasts through juxtaposition ("an apron over a French cotton dress"), and we puzzled some over the role of Marilyn Monroe in the final stanza.

We will gather this Thursday at Penny Byrn in High Point. Again we appreciate the hospitality of Penny Byrn in hosting us, and thank Lee, Barb, Carol and Elmer for arranging it. We will look an another poem by Janet Warman, and "Hospital Parking Lot, April," by a poet highly recommended by the critic Stephen Burt, whose "Flooded Meadow" we read earlier in the spring.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Visits to the Exercise Room and a Motel Room

In Robert Pinsky's "A Poetry Reading at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas" we considered the place of poetry in American life--relegated to smaller quarters, poetry ("when the words all agreed to point in one direction") has the power to be uplifting and ennobling: "Maybe we could all do something brave if we tried...Our lives might change today."  We saw again that the actual source material matters far less than the poem itself, and when we suspected that a reading my Robert Bly had inspired this poem (, it was the words of Robert Pinsky that put us in the room with Sister Faith.

In another room--a shabby motel--Peter Cooley's narrator provides telling details (red shoe under the bed...tracery of cigarette ash) and ponders "what has been ended here/or what begun"). But against the tawdry stories of past occupants of this room is the narrator's life, a long marriage with "repeated passages of middling weather." His conference is over, he is going home: a lovely and unusual tribute to a certain kind of love.

In Session #6 will will consider again the evoking of time and place, and then conclude on June 5 with our luncheon meeting at Penny Byrn in High Point.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Sports in Background of Alexie, Halpern Poems

In our fourth session we found games played by the young to be an effective background for serious thought. In Sherman Alexie's "At a Navajo Monument Valley Tribal School," the basic contrast is set in the first two lines: "The football field rises/to meet the mesa..." Native boys enjoy a game that is not theirs ("Everyone is the quarterback") and the fathers enjoy "stomping red dust straight down." But one cannot miss the wistful sense of isolation, echoed by the Greek chorus of the eighth-grade girls' track team: "wild horses, wild horses, wild horses."

In considering "Air" by Donald Halpern, we worked to understand "time made simple by the loss of detail." Again a team of young girls underscores, if only by contrast, what is going on. ("Maybe she knew they were there...") Whether of actual life or perhaps cognitive life, this is an arresting poem of loss.

With Elmer we again had the privilege of sharing an experience of college years in Indiana. Congratulations again to Martha on winning first place in the Light Verse category of the Burlington Writers Club contest.

Here are a couple of links for further reading on George Bilgere

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lighter and Darker Tones in Poems of George Bilgere

George Bilgere, his tone jovial and ironic, continues the motif of encroaching technology that was prompted last week by Stephen Burt. In "Bridal Shower," Bilgere draws us in with the title--where will the bridal shower show up in the poem? He was prompted to write this poem by the sight of people walking across campus or in restaurants talking on cell phones.  He longs for someone, phoneless in a distant cafe,  with whom he can have genuine communication. But what is not stated--and came out in an excellent observation in our discussion: everyone else, albeit via cell phone, is communicating with someone, and the narrator is left with the apostrophe that is both funny and sad: "O person like me..."

With the title  "At the Vietnam Memorial" Bilgere gives us essential information without telling us too much. The poem begins and ends with writing on a wall. The year 1968 hints at what is going on. The tragedy of Paul Castle's life is evident; less so, the outcome for the narrator and others "who trail/obscurely, in the wake of the swift." In rereading the poem, I was particularly struck by the words: "I don't recall his time."

We enjoyed Martha Golensky's "The Color of Loss," with the inherited friend and the spectrum of colors. Congratulations to Martha on winning first place in the Light Verse category of the Burlington Writers Club contest. I have asked her to read "The Tinkerer" tomorrow.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Poems by Barbara Ras, Stephen Burt Focus on Nature

In Barbara Ras' "Our Flowers" we found, amid striking imagery of storms, electricity and clouds, once again, the story of a relationship, probably a couple in their middle years, one that has gone through some failure (like the Internet instructions) but seems to have survived. We noted the obvious differences (his interest in substations, hers in clouds). Dreaming our own painful music, we await the next storm.

Stephen Burt begins his poem's metaphor in the first line--"Low dandelion leaves are zoned commercial--and sustains it throughout. We seem to be talking about "the natural disaster of humanity," surely an ecological statement and perhaps political as well. But we did not resolve the significance of the two lines in Italics at the poem's heart. The idea of "another world" appears frequently, sometimes in a religious context, once by Yeats (I could not run down the reference to Elizabeth Bishop)--but none of that helps us. The enigmatic quality of that couplet is what takes this poem into new and intriguing ground.

I believe we will find George Bilgere entertaining but not without very serious content.

Monday, April 28, 2014

First Spring Term Session Considers William Matthews

In the first session of the spring term, we looked at two poems by William Matthews (1942-1997), a poet with a North Carolina. connection. In "Clearwater Beach, Fla." the poet is looking back on a family vacation. The poem is partly about Florida--the scenery "another language," including :"topknotted bromeliads, and the jellyfish like clouds of clear brains trailing rain..." But it seems mostly about being a very precocious eight-year-old, observing and describing a new world.

"Directions" is a more complex poem. It is two very different poems, depending on whether you think there are two or three people in the cast. If two (the narrator and the local), then it is a meditation on place. But we heard the opinion that Matthews requires rereading, and so, on reflection, I am drawn to the notion that there is an additional person, who is together with the narrator, and that the poem is about relationships.

Next week we will read pieces by Barbara Ras and Stephen Burt that begin as nature poems.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Abbreviated Term Concludes with Ancient Text

In our final session February 20 we began with poems by Martha, Ellen, Seena and Lee, taking us on winter walks, to Yankee Stadium and back to Sebec Lake in Maine. Following the spring term, we will again post our online Shepherd's Center Poetry Anthology.

We found in Gary Whitehead's poem "Lot's Wife" the interesting interface between scholarship and poetry. We saw in the person of Lot's wife, unnamed in Genesis, a metaphor more far-reaching than  is sometimes interpreted, a figure of longing, the girl whose finger brushes ours at the market register.

I hope that you will be able to attend our luncheon/make-up session on Friday, March 7, at 10:30 a.m., in the Terrace Dining Room at the Twin Lakes Retirement Community in Burlington. We will look at Kathleen Graber's "The Drunkenness of Noah" and "The Clerk's Tale" by Spencer Reece.

Again, I have enjoyed our time together, albeit cut short by the weather.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Beyond the Imagery of Sports

After a week's hiatus we returned to Christ UMC on February 7 to consider poems by Robert Pinsky and Jessica Greenbaum that contained central images of baseball and basketball.

Pinsky's multifaceted piece hinged on the relationship of three elements: the contrast between the Village and the City, a metaphoric baseball game used to encourage boys in learning Hebrew verses, and the fate of the "foolish, stupid boy" in that group, who may have learned more than the others.

In "Next Door" we were intrigued by "the space between the reader and the page" and what we inferred about the three people in the poem, especially Robbie Gross and the narrator. Our discussion of what may have befallen Robbie ("..his last June..") underscores the point about the reader's right to interpret: if Jessica Greenbaum had wanted there to be no ambiguity about that issue, she would have worded that line differently--and that would have made it less of a poem.

This Thursday, February 13, weather permitting, we will conclude last week's agenda with poems by Ellen and Martha, and one other. This may leave us time for only one of the two poems for Session #4. "Lot's Wife" contains some of the motifs of Pinsky's poem; Kathleen Graber's "The Drunkenness of Noah" seems to me the more complex of the two.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Second Session Features Seasons

In our second session January 23, poems by Linda Pastan and Billy Collins gave us a platform from which to look at the change of seasons as a very familiar poetic motif. In her carpe diem piece "Autumn," Linda Pastan claims the poet's right to reject a glum and not uncommon metaphor and insist on celebrating color.

In "Spring Cleaning" Billy Collins, in that off-hand style that combines his characteristic wit and much learning, warns us that even the coming of spring has a cost--I suspect we will remember the "thunderous sneeze."

Kathy and Martha offered very telling additional insights into the seasons and Elmer drew upon another powerful family memory.

I think I mentioned hearing Billy Collins do a reading in New Hampshire in October. He read "Table Talk," a poem we had enjoyed last spring, in which a group of erudite professors is having dinner discussing "applying the paradoxes of Zeno in the martyrdom of St. Sebastian." Collins brought down the house with the following line, "I think I''ll have the trout," reminding us again how he juxtaposes the serious and the light and lets the air out of pompousness.

Collins would warn us against this, but if you insisted on turning over the rocks of allusion, you might find a dark side to what we know about the Druids (notice in "Spring Cleaning" he uses lower case) and even in the story of Persephone.

Next week, however, I am certain that Jessica Greenbaum and Robert Pinsky would tell us their poems are not about basketball and baseball.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Winter 2014 Begins with Music

The Winter 2014 term began January 16 in the Disciple Room at Christ United Methodist Church--ample table space for our group of 17. In "To Play Pianissimo" by Lola Haskins and Adam Zagajewski's "Cello" we found that behind the metaphor of music were quiet, deeper thoughts, these two short poems, as is often the case, more subtle than they first appear.

We also read another piece from Haskins' 44 Ambitions for the Piano, "Fortissimo." It appears at the bottom of this posting and contains in its last line a word of advice to us about last lines.

Zagajewski's translator, Clare Cavanagh, is a professor of Slavic Languages at Northwestern University. More information about her at, including audio of her interview with Zagajewski.

Next week we will read Linda Pastan and Billy Collins. There will be time for two and possibly three poems by members of the group. I have poems by Elmer and Kathy and am expecting ones from Martha and Dave. Remember that your poems need not address the morning's topic or theme.

Linda Haskins

To play fortissimo
hold something back.
It is what the father does not say
that turns the son.
The fact that the summit cannot be seen
that drives the climber on.
Consider the graceless ones:
the painter who adds one more brush stroke,
the poet of least resistance
who writes past the end of his poem.