Field Notes, Week of 06-14-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 14, 2022

The workshop is here so a poet can present a poem to their peers and get to hear what those peers think (1) what the poem wants to be, (2) how the poem goes about becoming what it wants to be and (3) how the poem is doing on that journey. There’s praise for what’s made an impression and “shakes” (or suggestions) for things that may not be working. 

In this conception, the poet doesn’t participate during the discussion. They’re Tom Sawyer at their own funeral, but at the end we open the discussion to questions from the poet, such as “I was trying to imitate Robert Frost’s The Road Less Travelled; did that come across?” Or, “What did you mean when you said my reference to the War of 1812 ‘took you out of’ the poem?” Or, “I’m a little concerned that the poem is too personal, to self involved; did anyone feel that way? Or, “What about the title? No one said anything about the title.  Does the title work?”

We don’t encourage the poet’s advocacy on behalf of the poem or explanation from the poet because those things don’t benefit the poet; sometimes when the poet talks about the backdrop to the poem, or the circumstances it was meant to address, we just say: “oh, that would be good, put it in the poem” because the poem is the poet’s ambassador to the world, and the poet doesn’t generally get to accompany the poem out into the world providing an introduction or post script (although it was pretty common in Milton’s time to have an “argument” before the poem, and I’ve always been charmed by fiction with ‘in which’ headings as in “Chapter 17, in which Tom eats a snake.”

We had a searingly good workshop on Tuesday, charred on the outside, rare on the inside. 

Brendan McEntee brought “At Sunken Meadow.” Poems that start with a place name are great because they give the reader a little ground to stand on, but they still don’t limit what the poem can do.  They suggest an openness to what the poet noticed, and Brendan’s poem was like that, about the speaker standing on the beach throwing rocks, noticing a gull, noticing the clouds, noticing two boys walking by “carrying a bucket awkwardly between them” and picking up a fragment of their conversation, which may or may not be significant before “the rest of their conversation is lost to the waves.”  Brendan does that very well.

Don Zirilli’s poem was “Fool Me Twice” and it was a difficult formal poem, a sestina, which uses the last word in each line of six, six line stanzas where the last word appears in a different prescribed sequence. The seventh and final 3-line stanza features all six of the end words in medial and line end positions for a saturated burst of whatever the poet was getting at (think last minute of a fireworks display). The form is immensely difficult, primarily because of the challenge of making the repetitions interesting, but also because Don has chosen to present his sestina in the form of iambic pentameter. Don’s poem’s six end words were “twice” “oath” “know” “time” “fool” and “heart.” What struck me about the poem was how the first stanza has an almost metaphor free-statement of the poem’s theme – how we humans fool ourselves, particularly when it comes to marriage, when it comes to knowing ourselves or others. As the poem moves on, it becomes more allusive and more reliant on metaphor, personification of the elements, and becomes less plain spoken.  This can be delightful, but it can also make the poem more elusive.

Howard Prosnitz’s “THE L-SHAPED ROOM” presents as a first person narration, with the eponymous L-shaped room as its topic. But this L-shaped room is a metaphor for the difficulties quotidian and existential of fitting into and being comfortable with living.

Susanna Lee’s “Steel Rains” comes hard after the tragedies of war, first anchored in references to the Ukraine war, and then in relation to gun violence in the US. The poem has a strong iambic bounce, some strong iambic pentameters (e.g. “Upon the baby’s cheek, the mother’s tears,” and “they’d bring to murder him, his kith and kin”) but varies line lengths and moves away from meter entirely with lines like “lips and kisses” or “Never surrender!”  Another noticeable feature of the poem is its irregular use of rhyme, such as “Courage, bravery, all that’s good./ A fighter earns the right to fatherhood.” We talked about how the poem creates expectations with regard to matters like meter and rhyme, and how the savvy reader will notice changes and expect them to be significant. 

My poem “There Are People Who Lack Decent Housing” joined Don’s and Susanna’s this week as poems that used iambic pentameter; mine was a blank verse (non-rhyming iambic pentameter lines) essay on the persistence of class divisions and the limitations of empathy when the world is seen from a partially self-aware position of privilege. 

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Who You Talkin’ to In There” starts out as a kind of philosophical or possibly epistemological discussion about sources of authority in “our tradition,” a discussion among the speaker, and “Daniel” “Mark” and “Janelle” who may be in a class in which the speaker is the teacher or may not.  Midway through the poem, the discussion becomes a groan-worthy tale about how someone named Harvey boiled a chicken down to its bones which he then reassembled to a chicken skeleton with wire for a science project in the eighth grade.  It was grotesque and funny, but what interested me was (1) how it raised the question of poetic authority: “In our tradition the inner voice is god.” This is a direct invocation of the Romantic norm which replaced the Enlightenment norm of verifiable fact with allegiance to subjectivity.  That’s the artistic world we live in to this day, where identity is a font of authority.  In a way, this was the same subject I tackled in “There Are People Who Lack Decent Housing” which follows this declarative by immediately declining to be a member of the group: “I am not one of them.”  Maybe this is a new “old farts poetics.”

Claudia Serea’s “Veined hands reach into my dream” is a poem that uses the eponymous hands in the eponymous dream to draw together elements of the speaker’s life, attachment to their parents, their overseas past, their gardening present and a sense of  the nearness of death.

John J. Trause’s “Lemon Yellow Limoncello” was a concrete sonnet based on a 14-times repeated four beat iambic line with an internal half rhyme between “lemon yellow” and “limoncello” made concrete or “chromatic” by having all of the lines highlighted in computer yellow. The last line breaks down visually to what might be the stem of an upside down (i.e. empty?) Limoncello bottle or an emblem for fractured sense, or possibly, a visible musical symbol for retard or slowing down, to bring an end to the chant that has gone on for the thirteen previous lines.  Brilliant stuff.

Jen Poteet’s “Church Street” is an ode to the speaker’s mother, a regular fixture on a particular street in Montclair, a woman who knew everyone (and their dog) and was known by everyone (and their dog, for whom she carried treats in her “enormous purse.” 

I have to apologize to Carole Stone. She sent her poem “Au Clair de Lune” by email, and we discussed it, but I can’t find it on my computer, so please forgive me.

Thanks again to everyone: we had more poems than we could get to, and we’ll keep chugging along next week. See you then.

—Arthur Russell

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