This month my reading is focused on The Modernists, and rather than try to describe it in detail, I’ll share the reading assignment I’m working from as part of the Brooklyn Poet’s Mentorship Program led by Jay Deshpande. For me, getting back to Pound and Eliot and Williams and Stevens, but also Gertrude Stein and thinking of Robert Frost as a modernist, and being shoved face first into Hart Crane is thrilling. But the real surprise on the reading list has been a book called Poems for the Millennium, a massive 800 page compendium (which I got in hardcover, used, but virtually mint condition for $5 on Amazon which came from the DISCARDS of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library in Western Springs, Illinois) which includes MANY MORE poets and writers who were part of the Modernist moment, but also contains a section called “Forerunners” that goes all the way back to William Blake, and includes Friedrich Holderlin, Elias Lonnrot, Whitman, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Isidore Ducasse, Comte de Lautreamont, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme, all of whom, in the editors’ view, had a great deal to do with setting the table for the likes of Eliot and Pound; and the annotations to the brief but on-point poems they’ve included do a lot of good work pointing forward to the Modernists. Some of the annotations are quotes from the poets that were new to me, and keyed into the innovations these poets experimented with that became the stock and trade of the Moderns. Here’s one from Whitman: “I sometimes think the Leaves is only a language experiment—that is, an attempt to give the spirit, the body, the man, new potentialities of speech.” Or this annotation to Fascicle 34, poem 9 by Emily Dickinson: ” “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—’, written in a time of civil war by a woman with little formal education in philosophy, carefully delineates and declines all aspects of the ‘Will to Power’ nearly twenty years before Friedrich Nietzsche’s metaphysical rebellion.” Or this piece of practical advice from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Poetry is in fact speech only employed to carry the inscape of speech for the inscape’s sake—and therefore the inscape must be dwelt on.” Suffice to say if I don’t put this book aside, I won’t get to the actual Modernists until some time next year.
Our workshop on Tuesday was breathtaking, not least because Janet Kolstein (copy NOT attached, sad face) brought a poem called “Google Earth, Petra, Jordan” which continued her a line of poems she started before Covid, that live easily in the online world. Maybe they’re ekphrases, but she goes on google earth and clicks around looking at pictures, and the poem comes out of the meditation. This one begins “Aunt Bess is gone! Bessie, the last of the aunts. Uncles gone too. Parents dead.” And starting from this generational exclamation, the poem goes to Petra and considers, in a not-un-Ozymandias sort of way, how time sandblasts us all. Here’s another great line from this very good poem: “My generation: we’re overlooking the cliffs of eternity, trepidacious.” Of course I love “trepidacious” for its audacity, but also enjoy the way she uses ‘overlooking’ – with it’s double meaning of “looking out over” and “forgetting to notice” – to create two roads.
John J. Trause’s “Marsupial on the Bosporus” was what someone called a ‘snapshot’ poem. It zoomed in on a Turkish restaurant here in Northern New Jersey, then into the dining room, and then to the view out the window to a grapevine where the speaker saw “peering down at the corner table/ was a baby opossum, hunkering down, looking in at the diners. Other than the somewhat misleading title, what made the poem so dynamic was this continual but seamless changing of perspective from outside (the restaurant located geographically, temporally, meteorologically) to inside (the table where they sat), to outside (seeing the opossum) to inside (the opossum seeing them). The poem ends with the opossum scurrying away, and that ending elicited some discussion in the group, discussion as to whether the poem was what it seemed to be: a cute recollection of a surprising encounter expertly delineated, or whether it’s occasion, emotionally, or its outcome, signaled more, or to put it in terms Gerard Manley Hopkins might not have spit on me for suggesting, whether its inscape had been “dwelt” sufficiently upon.
Ana Doina‘s poem “Recurring nightmare” was precisely that, the pinning down of an awful recurring nightmare complete with a wrought iron gate, wooly fog, and empty house, a view out the window at the street outside (Wait! Isn’t that what JJT did in “Marsupial…”?) and the requisite “man in a heavy coat” and “Dark fedora … pulled low over his brows.” At its conclusion, the poem releases us from the mystery of the dream by telling us that it had its genesis in Cold War realities in the speaker’s home country of Romania, so it becomes about the depth of post traumatic stress instead of the millions of things that a dream unexplained could suggest. Perhaps in this way it answers this quotation from Charles Baudelaire in the “Millennium” book: “When I’ve aroused universal horror and disgust,/ I shall have conquered solitude.”
Shane Wagner brought a poem called “Shell” that starts with a close observation of the abandoned shell of a cicada clinging to a tree, which leads the speaker to see for the first time that cicada shells include eyes, or shell-like coverings that once fit over the cicada’s eyes. And this leads the poem in two directions—towards St. Paul (as in ‘scales’), and towards mortality—past and future caskets. The general impression of the group was that Shane was on to something, and it was worth pursuing another draft that did a little more of this and less of that.
Ray Turco brought “The Shepherd of Many Turns” that starts out with a vision that might’ve come from Ana Doina’s poem: the poet banging on the door of the church, stalked by the hour of their death, listening to a church bell toll and getting the marrow in their bones chilled. Then the poem turns to embracing the speaker’s transcendental view of themselves as a shepherd who, after a life of whooping and bellowing, “will pass from man/ to ewe/ to plant/ to ant/ to dust.” In its final lines, the poem turns again, to a confession of what seems to be a fear of dying alone.
Don Zirilli‘s poem, “Spiral” was a duet set up in two columns read aloud by two readers, Don and Brendan McEntee. Some of the time, Don and Brendan took turns reading their lines, but in the middle stanzas, both of them read simultaneously, as if it was a Charles Ives composition, in which the soundscape (inscape) was dwelt and dwelt and dwelt upon. One interesting feature of this conversation was that it wasn’t the typical bifurcation of interlocutor and witness, teacher and student, or even a philosophical debate; it had two nuanced and distinct personalities not so much working through a problem as talking (“My Dinner With Andre”?) about the news, the future news, “the problem of disguised repetitions,” getting called out on pronouncing someone’s name wrong and not being able to hear the correction (Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”?), and other miscellaneous subjects all of which create the image of a spiral, even this one on futility: “Everything is going down the drain,/ so root for the drain.” It was a thrilling, thrilling poem, which brought to mind this 1807 quote by Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843, German poet and philosopher) taken from the “Millennium” book: “I believe in a forthcoming revolution of attitudes and conceptions which will make everything that has gone before turn red with shame.” (Get this! Holderlin went to school, actually WENT TO COLLEGE with Hegel and Schelling).
Yana‘s poem “The tree breaks into the house” is many things disguised as one thing; the ‘one thing’ is the relationship between a house and the tree outside the house; the many things include a revelation that the house in question was the speaker’s childhood home, though that doesn’t come out until the end; and an investigation of memory, and even of identity, and the limits of poetry and perhaps an ecological manifesto (a small one). The poem starts out with a simple statement: “In a story/ the tree smashes a bedroom window,/ breaks into the house.” But that invasion triggers a meditation that touches on whether the tree owns or serves the house or whether the house owns the tree. And while the first section of this two section poem (“Window”) seems more concerned with the physicality of the situation, the second section (“Gap”) introduces the speaker as a storyteller, a frustrated one at that: “The story I tell refuses completion.// A gap opens –/ an entrance to a cavernous space/ of dark pools, of echoes.” The introduction of this figurative language, heralds the beginning of a wider philosophical discussion, and when the speaker wonders what a house can “know,” she is also wondering what she can know of the house or the tree: “What can I know/ about the past/ that roosts in trees,/ that dwells in houses?” And so the story she imagines telling at the start of the poem disintegrates: “Pages scatter,/ ink blurs,/ the meaning changes, as new words appear.
Frank’s poem “Sleeping on My Friend’s Floor” is about a rare sort of nostalgia, the kind that pines for something it never had, in this case, a photograph that a friend (the one with the floor) took of the speaker in the morning after they—speaker and friend—slept together naked….. chastely, a photo the speaker “always thought … must’ve been the best picture ever taken of [him/her/them].” And the feeling associated with this absent picture or possibly the speaker themselves, is presented in a simile as “up the mountainside a ways like a thunk/ off the rock.” Elaborating still further on this strange nostalgia, the speaker imagines themself both as the rock and the tree whose root has split the rock. So, yes, a very complex emotional connection to this photo the speaker has never seen. In the last movement/stanza, the poem discloses its occasion—it’s after hurricane Ida, and the speaker is cleaning out their basement. The things they encounter in the soaked basement evidently remind them of the naked photo they never had: a catalog of Korean War “slides” (remember them?) belonging to the speaker’s father, “a set of vintage dishes in a box labeled Richard; & a fat volume of Chinese poetry,/ whose soaked page had “a senseless, unending vigilance.” So, it seems, in this final trope, the poem finds its motto in the fat volume of Chinese poetry. “A senseless, unending vigilance” may be gnomic, but it may be a found instruction on how to make inquiry of the world. A very dynamic piece of work.
OK—for those of you who are interested, Brooklyn Poets has locked down Jay Deshpande to give a craft talk webinar this coming Sunday 9/19 from 4-7 on Zoom. The talk is called “I and Others: Selfhood, Identity, and the Management of the Speaker” I couldn’t recommend a presentation of this type more strongly. Jay’s talks tend to get at the poetry connections we make intuitively but he’s got them articulated in a way we recognize but still feel surprised by. Check it out on the Brooklyn Poet’s website, and register if you have the time.