Archive for June, 2011

Week 5 of #PoetrySummer

Monday, June 27th, 2011

Last week I memorized “Here, Bullet” by Brian Turner, and as typically happens I came away with a heightened appreciation for the poem. Brian Turner was a soldier in Iraq (and possibly Afghanistan; I forget his full bio), and wrote about his experiences in several poems, many of them grouped into his award-winning collection HERE, BULLET. I like a lot of the poems in the collection, but there’s a reason “Here, Bullet” is the one they named it after. It’s really excellent.

The first thing you notice is the title, which is daring and almost playful, like he was calling a dog. The poem begins with that same sense of daring, essentially calling out the bullet to come and get him. After that, though, the poem begins line by line to devalue the human life and body: he’s not a person, he’s “bone and gristle and flesh,” describing the processes of life not as a glorious whole but as a sum of mechanical facts. The middle section focuses even less on the body, seeing it only as the bullet sees it: an “adrenaline rush,” and a “puncture into heat and blood.” By the final section the body has become nothing but the other half of the gun–one throws the bullet, and one catches it–with both halves blending into each other.

And then you get the final line: “Because here, bullet, here is where the world ends, every time.” Not only is he recontextualizing the title (“here” no longer means “come here, little bullet” but “me, myself, the thing that is here”), but he gives back to the human life all of the glory he had taken away from it, and then some. A human death is not just a ceasing of mechanical processes, it’s the end of a world. The last two words, “every time,” are what make the entire poem work, because they make it clear that every human life is a world unto itself–that even though the bullet doesn’t end the entire world, it ends that one person’s entire world, and isn’t that just as bad? Putting a single death on the same level as the end of the world elevates the importance of that single life. It’s a tragic poem, but an uplifting one, and a very brave one. I love it.

Next week, if you recall, is our “Prufrock” week, and I hope one or two of you have decided to memorize it with us, but this week, pretty much on a whim, we decided to memorize poems in Spanish. I used to live in Mexico, so I’m fairly fluent (though not as fluent as I used to be) and I’ve read some excellent Spanish-language poetry. I’m not super well-read in the genre, though, so I’ve got good news and bad news: the bad news is, my choice is pretty obvious, both for poet and poem; the good news is, it’s one of the most beloved poets worldwide. I’m speaking, of course, of Pablo Neruda.

Pablo Neruda lived in Chile, where he was justifiably famous, and eventually came to worldwide attention in part because he was a political exile from one or more of the various military coups in the country. He’s a pretty popular character, too. In one of my favorite books, THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS by Isabel Allende, he is a background character known only as “the poet.” In the Italian movie Il Postino, he spends some of his exile on a small Italian island and helps his mailman woo the woman he loves. His readings, especially in his home country once they allowed him back in, would attract thousands of people, like a rock concert, and they would all listen intently for the Big One, the favorite poem that everyone loved, and when he finally started it the crowd would cheer loud enough to shake the rafters: “Puedo escribir los versos mas tristes esta noche….” the title more or less translates to “Tonight I can write the saddest lines,” and it comes from his wonderful collection TWENTY LOVE POEMS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR. Here is the full text in Spanish, though you can find a translation pretty easily if you poke around:

Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Escribir, por ejemplo: “La noche está estrellada,
y tiritan, azules, los astros, a lo lejos.”
El viento de la noche gira en el cielo y canta.
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Yo la quise, y a veces ella también me quiso.
En las noches como esta la tuve entre mis brazos.
La besé tantas veces bajo el cielo infinito.
Ella me quiso, a veces yo también la quería.
Cómo no haber amado sus grandes ojos fijos.
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche.
Pensar que no la tengo. Sentir que la he perdido.
Oir la noche inmensa, más inmensa sin ella.
Y el verso cae al alma como al pasto el rocío.
Qué importa que mi amor no pudiera guardarla.
La noche esta estrellada y ella no está conmigo.
Eso es todo. A lo lejos alguien canta. A lo lejos.
Mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.
Como para acercarla mi mirada la busca.
Mi corazón la busca, y ella no está conmigo.
La misma noche que hace blanquear los mismos árboles.
Nosotros, los de entonces, ya no somos los mismos.
Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero cuánto la quise.
Mi voz buscaba el viento para tocar su oído.
De otro. Será de otro. Como antes de mis besos.
Su voz, su cuerpo claro. Sus ojos infinitos.
Ya no la quiero, es cierto, pero tal vez la quiero.
Es tan corto el amor, y es tan largo el olvido.
Porque en noches como esta la tuve entre mis brazos,
mi alma no se contenta con haberla perdido.
Aunque este sea el ultimo dolor que ella me causa,
y estos sean los ultimos versos que yo le escribo.

That’s a long poem, and it’s not my first language, so it’s going to be hard, but honestly: we didn’t resolve to memorize a poem every week because we thought it would be easy, right? Faint heart ne’er won fair lady. Also, we finally sold Spanish rights to the John Cleaver books, so I feel like celebrating. Vamonos!

Week Four of #PoetrySummer

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Poetry Summer, for those who don’t know, is my goal and challenge to memorize a poem every week this summer. So far it’s going great, and lots of people have joined in.

The great thing I’m learning as I memorize these poems is that no matter how much I liked them before, I like them even more as I go through them and commit them to memory. This week I did John Keats’s “To Autumn;” he’s a poet I love, but that’s a poem of his I don’t know as well as some others. I’d always given it the very cursory reading of “each stanza is about a different sense,” and that’s still true, but as I studied it this week I saw that it was so much more. It’s about how Autumn is the time of harvest and food and warm, lazy days, but it’s also about how Autumn is the death of summer, and the last mournful pause before the world slips into winter and everything grows old and cold and dead. In the first stanza there are apples on the trees, and in the second the apples are crushed in a press, and by the third the fields are stubble and the sun is setting and the world is going to sleep.

The third and final stanza is hushed and still; the only verbs are soft sounds, like the “wailful choir” of gnats, and then suddenly a vast flock of birds lift up from the trees and flap south for the winter. This last line is my favorite, because he never comes right out and says it and yet you can see it, and hear it, because the structure of the poem creates the image so perfectly in your mind. We start with the setting sun, and the wailful choir, and already your mind starts to think of quietness and stillness. Saying it out loud you can’t help but lower your voice. The penultimate line is about a single bird whistling in a garden–a soft, static, solitary image–and then the final line has an entire gathering of swallows up in the skies, chirping and singing. This sudden shift of one bird to many, from whistle to twittering, from garden to sky, creates a strong visual image of a flock of birds suddenly lifting up and flying. It’s gorgeous, and brilliant, and if I didn’t think it was possibly to love Keats any more than I already did, well, “To Autumn” has proven me wrong.

My friend came over and we recited our poems to each other (he did the sixth section of “A Song of Myself”), and we realized that two of my three poems have been about nature, and all three of his have been about death. We decided that for this week we’d switch topics, so I’ve spent the last few days looking for a good death poem. I settled on “Here, Bullet” by Brian Turner, the titular poem from the collection he wrote after serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire collection is wonderful (I especially love his poem about the burning oilfield, but I can’t remember the name of it), but I chose “Here, Bullet” because of it’s direct connection to my theme of the week. And because the title alone is completely brilliant, and he gives it multiple meanings. Here’s the full text:

Here, Bullet

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

How did your third poem go? Any insights to share? I love reading the poems you guys link here, so keep ’em coming.

Week Three of #PoetrySummer

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

It is not my intention to turn this blog into pure poetry memorization and nothing else, but look on the bright side: at least I’m posting something. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I tend to set such a high standard for my blog posts that more often than not I just don’t post anything because I know it won’t be world-changingly brilliant. But that’s a moot point during PoetrySummer because I can just post other people’s poems, and they ARE brilliant! Huzzah! So thank you ee cummings for writing my blog for me is I guess what I’m saying here.

Last week, as promised, I memorized cummings’ “I carry your heart,” and recited it to my loving wife, and she was suitably impressed. She didn’t have time to do Langston Hughes “Mother to Son” like she’d wanted, but she did do Emily Dickinson’s “Success Is Counted Sweetest,” so we’re both still on track. My daughter memorized A.A. Milne’s “Twinkletoes,” because she’s awesome.

This week I want to push myself a little harder, so I’m going to memorize “To Autumn” by John Keats. If I had to pick a favorite poet in the universe, it would be a very hard call between Keats and Emily Bronte, but in the end I’m pretty sure Keats would win. His facility with language and the richness of his imagery is just stunning. “To Autumn” is a great example, with three stanzas each focusing on a different sensory experience of Autumn: smell, sight, and sound. It’s a perfect confluence of form and purpose; every line, every word, every mechanical element is aimed directly at the evocation of a specific place and time and mood. Here’s the full poem:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
        For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
    Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
        Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
        Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring?  Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
    And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft
        Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
        And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

This is a good time to announce an upcoming sub-challenge within the larger umbrella of PoetrySummer. While Keats and Bronte may be my favorite poets, my favorite poem of all time is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot. I even used it in the epigram of I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. As this is also the favorite poem of my friend Brian, with whom I am doing this challenge, we decided to set a specific week and memorize the whole, gigantic poem together. That week is the first full week of July, ending on the 10th, and you are encouraged to join us; I’m letting you know now in case you want to get a headstart on the memorization, but don’t neglect your intervening poems if you do. “Prufrock” is not easy, to memorize or even to understand, but it’s gorgeous and brilliant and sad and incredibly powerful, and I feel like I learn something new from it every time I read it. I won’t reproduce the entire thing here, but you have Google; do yourself a favor and look it up.

Week Two of #PoetrySummer

Monday, June 6th, 2011

I was delighted to see such a great response to my “memorize a poem every week” challenge. How did everybody do on the first week out? I memorized “High Waving Heather” by Emily Bronte, one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets. The first time I read it the last line grabbed me–really jumped out and caught me–and when I recited it for my friend it caught him as well. I was pleased to be able to share the experience with someone. My friend recited “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” by John Milton, and my wife recited “Hug of War” by Shel Silverstein (she didn’t have much time last week, and went for a short one). It was a lot of fun, and even my two older children got in on the act, pulling out some of my old poetry collections. A great start to the summer.

Another of my favorite poets is e.e. cummings, and I already have one of his committed to memory: “who knows if the moon’s,” which I used for the epigram of I DON’T WANT TO KILL YOU. It’s a wonderful poem, sweet and simple and kind of sad (at least in my interpretation), and would be a great choice if you’re looking for something to memorize. Since I already have that one, I’m going for a different cummings this week: “I carry your heart,” which is probably my favorite love poem. Men, memorize this one and recite it for your wife/girlfriend/chick you’re trying to pick up at a literary convention. You’ll thank me.

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

It’s short, like last week’s, but it lacks the rhyme and meter and other structure that made last week’s poem so easy. I’ll branch into bigger stuff later, but for now I want to keep it simple. My wife is going for a similar length, choosing one of my very favorite Langston Hughes poems, Mother to Son”:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

One of my favorite parts of this endeavor has been seeing what poems everyone picks, so please, share them here or link to your own blog on Facebook or Twitter. Use the hashtag #PoetrySummer so we can all find each other.

Quick — recite a poem RIGHT NOW

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

A friend of mine came over the other day (I was experimenting with the concept of stuffing donuts with bacon–no, seriously–and he came to help taste test), and as it inevitably does with him, the conversation turned to literature. The friend in question is Brian “The Lovebasket” Ellingford, the AP English teacher at Orem High School, and a very thoughtful, almost philosophical man when it comes to the subjects of reading, writing, and education. Somewhere in the middle of talking about what kids should read, what kids actually read, what can be done to help kids read more, and so on, the conversation turned to poetry, and we started to realize just how many poems we both had memorized. I can rip out a pretty good array of poems, everything from THE JABBERWOCKY to DEATH OF A BALL TURRET GUNNER and all kinds of stuff in between. How many do you know? I hope that it’s more than you think.

Being naturally competitive, we decided to a) memorize more and b) turn it into a contest. Starting this week, and proceeding through the summer, we’re going to memorize one poem a week, that’s 12 poems. Want to join us? Here’s the rules:

1. It must be a poem you don’t already have fully memorized, but it’s okay if you already have some of it memorized.
2. You must recite the entire poem, out loud, from memory, for at least one other person, on Sunday. That gives you slightly less than a full week for the first one, so pick something easy.
3. There are no length restrictions, but if all your poems are little quatrains or tiny nursery rhymes you’re cheating in spirit. Throw a few multi-stanza poems in there; you can do it.
4. No William Carlos Williams allowed. There will be zero tolerance on this point.
5. Everything is done completely on the honors system. If you say you did it, we believe you.

For my first poem, I’m going to start with one of my favorites: High Waving Heather, by Emily Bronte. It’s a passionate, almost violent depiction of a thunderstorm on the English moor, told with Bronte’s typical intensity. I already have the first stanza cold, so all I need to do is nail down the other two. Here’s the full text:

High waving heather, ‘neath stormy blasts bending,
Midnight and moonlight and bright shining stars;
Darkness and glory rejoicingly blending,
Earth rising to heaven and heaven descending,
Man’s spirit away from its drear dongeon sending,
Bursting the fetters and breaking the bars.

All down the mountain sides, wild forest lending
One mighty voice to the life-giving wind;
Rivers their banks in the jubilee rending,
Fast through the valleys a reckless course wending,
Wider and deeper their waters extending,
Leaving a desolate desert behind.

Shining and lowering and swelling and dying,
Changing for ever from midnight to noon;
Roaring like thunder, like soft music sighing,
Shadows on shadows advancing and flying,
Lightning-bright flashes the deep gloom defying,
Coming as swiftly and fading as soon.