Friday, May 22, 2015

Final Session Considers Stories

In our last meeting for 2015 we considered what else has been lost--the art of storytelling, as explained by Stephen Dunn. "Stories" is in part a commentary on television but mostly an evoking of telling details from the late 40's and early 50's, that innocent time in which most of us came of age. What the hey. Sadly, all the grandfathers died.

Something that has not been lost is the powerful imprint of family and of prejudice on the work of Natasha Trethewey, as contained in "Southern Gothic," part of the collection Native Guard which was published in 2007 and won the Pulitzer. To repeat: if you live in the South and read poetry, you are required to be familiar with the work of Trethewey.

Again, I wish you health and happiness, good reading and good writing, until we reconvene in January 2016.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Connectedness of Things

Week #5 brought us two poets new to us, Stanley Plumly and Faith Shearin. We pondered "those accidents of timing that greets the very nature/ of artifice"--are things connected or not, why do things happen as they do, and what indeed do we think of the "man standing at the dead end of the pier"? With his waving arms he may be tolling a bell. A good example of a poem that seems at first reading easier than it actually is.

With Shearin, we grieve and hope for the luckless geese. There is the casual tone of a neighborhood and a nice tension between "the wet nest of death" and "the soft, heavenly weather of arrival."

We look ahead to our last session and the Stories and Histories of Stephen Dunn and Natasha Trethewey. We might well ask: What else has been lost.

Monday, May 11, 2015

What Has Been Lost

In Week #4 we read powerful poems by Eavan Boland and David Ferry, which seemed to be, on one level, a consideration of writing and communication but, more importantly, spoke in elegiac terms of what has been lost.

David Ferry offers us a very long poem without stanza breaks but, it appears, three distinct sections: first, observations of the lake, outside his office window in Massachusetts, which leads the poet to language ("The surface of the page is like lake water"), and finally to the shortest and strongest section, beginning with "When, moments after she died..." And we learn what has been lost.

Boland leads us forward and backward in space and time and among unidentified people. We are aware of fields and memory occurring twice in consecutive lines, that "an art is lost when it no longer knows/How to teach a sorrow to speak..." We wonder who are the they who will never see the edge of the new town, and what is meant by it in "is it still there?"  One wants to guess the land, the past, Ireland--but one might be wrong.

In "Top of the Stove" David Baker said, "Language remains." That a poem does not admit of paraphrasing, that it contains more illusions and images than one can grasp--these only make it a stronger poem. That is part of the beauty and power of poetry.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Week #3: The Sound of Music

George Bilgere showed us again how to use a light, even amusing tone to make a very serious point. In "Tosca" we considered three couples: the narrator and his sister, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi, and, of course, the narrator's parents. Two "lovely, cornball" melodramas--even Tosca has begun to weep.

Donald Justice gives us "quiet but compelling insights" into the shy boy at his piano lesson. We noted that nothing is said of the teacher (except for the "mysterious scents" of the teacher's quarters). A very hopeful poem--the ritual of dealing with "the dread Czerny" has left us "Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms / of C# minor and the calms of C."

As we look to the wonderful and challenging poems of Eavan Boland and David Ferry for this Thursday, ask yourself "What has been lost?"

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Poems of P.K. Page Read in Week #2

In our second session we read a poet new to us, P.K. (Patricia Kathleen) Page, a Canadian author of some 30 books, as well as an artist whose work hangs in the National Gallery of Canada. Her poetry is praised for "wit, wisdom, moral sensibility and a passionate yet objective view of human nature and relationships." We particularly enjoyed "The Selves" and "Funeral Mass," which reminded us of a poem by Jane Kenyon but took on also the broader topic of "the sacred light of the church."

The full quotation I had meant to read spoke of her as "talented, privileged, outwardly sturdy and elegant, inwardly delicate and searching."

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Appetites for Poetry Whetted in Week #1

Our Spring term began with poems related to cooking. In Paul Violi's "Counterman" we saw that a very funny poem can also make serious points about listening and communicating. We explored the question of how many voices we hear in the poem, and we see Violi's knowledge of architecture used to make a comic and perhaps social point. Next!

David Baker, whose "Never-Ending Birds" we had enjoyed in a previous term, conveys a strong sense of time in talking about a relationship, a period in one's life, about memory and nostalgia--language remains.

In Session #2 we will take up the work of the Canadian poet P.K. Page.

Links for further reading:

Paul Violi obit from New York Times:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Disappearances and Reappearances in Week #5

We found in David Harsent's "Ghosts" a challenging and fascinating poem with the shades of the departed returning with "tokens of themselves," to find a Peaceable Kingdom turned upside down ("horizons gone askew"), with "long-lost hopes," personal and societal goals abandoned, a "matchless sorrow, as would, for sure/stop the heart of whoever it is they take you for." The dead hope we would recognize them, and they us. The "dew of death" reminded us of Franz Wright's visit to Zanesville, Ohio.

Charles Simic's "The One Who Disappeared" is more straightforward, but with the tantalizing riddle and the end--"as if she already carried a secret,/Or was heartbroken that she didn't have one."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ohio with James and Franz Wright

In week five we visited Ohio with James and Franz Wright, father and son and both Pulitzer winners. "Autumn Begins in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, " a frequently anthologized poem written in 1963, shows us how in a depleted social environment, violence--in the form of football--becomes acceptable, even hopeful. Part of the sadness of this poem lies in the fathers, beaten down by the world, failing to move up a ladder of success, failing even as husbands; the other sadness lies in the sons, the "suicidally beautiful" sons who in 1963 had only a life in the mill to look forward to. In 2015 the mill is closed and those jobs are no longer there.

Kathy provided us with further insight into Martin's Ferry with memories that were happier but nonetheless poignant.

Franz Wright's prose poem pictures the writer returning to the house he'd lived in as a teenager. Dust permeates the poem. The final third of the poem admitted of different interpretations: some saw the narrator going to his father's grave at a cemetery; others saw the son sitting down with the father in death. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but no one is home in Zanesville, Ohio.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Air Travel in Week #3

Our consideration of the subject of "Flying" centered on Norman Dubie's "Sky Harbor," which we felt could also have been called "Traveling to a Funeral." Who is meant by the person "I" in the fifth stanza? Several thought it refers to the mother; but there is the possibility it might refer to another relative, another narrator on the plane, other than the brunette. The other interesting person is the man at the end who "has recognized her," knows why she is flying. The tension between grief and triviality is perhaps what he means when he says "nothing happens."

One small point we did not explore: why does he use ellipsis in the sixth stanza (the three dots). What has been left out for us to understand.

The most striking image in the poem by my New Hampshire friend Andrew Periale's is the luggage carousel at the end, joining the company of other metaphors such as the River Styx and the Pearly Gates.

Our travels this week take us to the Midwest, to the work of James and Franz Wright, father and son who both won Pulitzer Prizes. We will have additional insight on Martin's Ferry, Ohio from Kathy Coe.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Second Session Features Pulitzer Winners

In our second session for Winter 2015 we read poems by Pulitzer Winners Rae Armantrout (2010) and Natasha Trethewey (2007). The spare lines and stanzas of "Prayers" offered many contrasts and opportunities for interpretation (we took seriously the responsibility the "Language Poets" give us to "bring meaning out of a poem"): between praying and asking, between the personal and the global, between verbal shots and real shots--"the fear/that all this/ will end./The fear/that it won't."

Trethewey's poem is based on the experience of her maternal grandmother in Mississippi in 1937. We see the details of time and place through specific choice of words (e.g., Octagon soap), but are left with a much broader theme: "dandelion spores, each one/a wish for something better."

This Thursday we will consider airports and air travel as metaphor, again with poems of descending difficulty.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Winter 2015 Begins with Fireflies

In our first Winter 2015 session we saw how three different poets use the image and metaphor of fireflies. Fireflies were compared by Linda Pastan and Marilyn Kallet to "constellations cut loose from the night sky," or "flashes of insight" or "the presence of ghosts." Dave Smith's narrative is more complex--"that's the trick of it all." In all three fireflies (lightning-bugs) recall past time and range from sparks and tiny headlamps to bugs at windows. In two of the three poems, it matters that the blinking light of the firefly is its mating call--a fact some of us had not known!

Next week we will read Rae Armantrout and Natasha Trethewey--thanks to Cynthia for the heads-up about Trethewey's reading at UNC-Greensboro at 5:00 p.m. next Tuesday, January 20. More info at:

Mewling means "whimpering." As Lee mentioned, Shakespeare uses the word in the "All the world's a stage" portion of As You Like It.