Meaning vs. Being

April 14, 2014

National Poetry Month. 14


“A poem should not mean
But be.”
— Archibald MacLeish, from “Ars Poetica”


National Poetry Month.10

Everything matters:  spacing, patterns, repetitions, punctuation, line breaks

Everything matters: spacing, patterns, repetitions, punctuation, line breaks

“The organization of white space and ink or the vocal tones that signal “poetry” are instructions to reader or listener to enter the changed consciousness that poetry asks.  Each element of a poem is expected to be meaningful, part of a shaped and shaping experience of a whole:  a word’s placement on the page is significant, not accidental; sound qualities matter, even punctuation is thoroughly alive, responsive to itself and its context. . . . form signals us, in reading it, to listen for concentration’s transforming arc.”
— Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates Entering the Mind of Poetry: Essays

“I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function.  And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.”
— Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World





“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toenails twinkle, makes you want to do this or do that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”
— Dylan Thomas, from the Huffington Post U.K.‘s “The 50 Greatest Quotes about Poetry from Poets”

Sean's toes

Sean’s toes

I can appreciate twinkling toenails anytime, but it’s good to know that they are one of the indicators of poetry in life.  I don’t feel called to write poems, but I do read them with appreciation, albeit limited understanding.  Should you be encouraged to try your hand at writing a poems this month, you might find Wendell Berry’s words instructive:

How to Be a Poet
By Wendell Berry, from Wendell Berry: New Collected Poems

(to remind myself)

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

This year's National Poetry Month's poster

I sometimes regret that I haven’t memorized more poems.  I used to know “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by heart, but I no longer remember them.  Memorizing a poem is one of the “30 Ways to Celebrate” National Poetry Month, and I think I will set my mind to that task today.  The Academy of American Poets provides some useful tips here.

Memorizing “The Sun Rising” by John Donne
by Billy Collins, from Horoscopes for the Dead: Poems

Every reader loves the way he tells off
the sun, shouting busy old fool
into the English skies even though they
were likely cloudy on that seventeenth-century morning.

And it’s a pleasure to spend this sunny day
pacing the carpet and repeating the words,
feeling the syllables lock into rows
until I can stand and declare
the book held closed by my side,
that hours, days, and months are but the rags of time.

But after a few steps into stanza number two,
wherein the sun is blinded by his mistress’s eyes,
I can feel the first one begin to fade
like sky-written letters on a windy day.

Today is Arbor Day in Washington State.  (National Arbor Day is April 27th this year.)  So this post is a celebration of tree-ish things.

Jogger dwarfed by big tree at Green Lake

One of Seattle’s public radio stations, KUOW, recently aired a special called “More Than a Tree,”  and it said over half of Washington state is covered in forests, which translates to over 2 billion trees, or over 250 per man, woman, and child who live here.  (You can read transcripts of the KUOW program or listen to podcasts here.)

Blossoming trees at Green Lake

As you know, this year I am trying to pay special attention to trees.  I find them a challenge to photograph and paint/draw because they are so big and often unwieldy, with branches shooting off and up.  There is so much there that it is hard to figure out what to include and exclude in a composition.

Therefore I found it fascinating to read Martin Gayford’s A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.  Hockney’s art frequently features landscapes, and trees are a big part of his latest work.  Gayford says of Hockney’s trees: “Trees are presences in the landscape, but also catchers of space and light.  They stand up as markers, dividing up the surface of the land; but they also contain space within them, especially when their branches are bare . . . A bare tree helps you to sense space within the maze of its structure, in a complex way.  In leaf, on the other hand, a tree functions more as a container of light.”

Trees are catchers of space and light.

An exhibit of Hockney’s tree/landscape art has just ended at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but you can still see some images of his work online at this link.

I am also inspired by photographer Mitch Epstein, who has been photographing trees in New York City.  You can read about him and the stories behind a couple of the trees he memorialized in his photos at this link.

Trees at Green Lake (with HDR-ish effect)

And in keeping with National Poetry month, I’ll end with two tree poems:

Think Like a Tree
by Karen I. Shragg

Soak up the sun
Affirm life’s magic
Be graceful in the wind
Stand tall after a storm
Feel refreshed after it rains
Grow strong without notice
Be prepared for each season
Provide shelter to strangers
Hang tough through a cold spell
Emerge renewed at the first signs of spring
Stay deeply rooted while reaching for the sky
Be still long enough to
hear your own leaves rustling.

Renewing each spring -- buds of big leaf maple

by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Mailbox on Greenwood Ave N

“We’re all poets when we’re little.”
— Naomi Shihab Nye

Are you a poet who doesn’t know it?

Have you ever tried writing poetry?  I have to admit that I am defeated by it.  But when I watched poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s short, humorous video on Poetry Everywhere, I was reminded by how naturally young children speak poetically because their minds and perceptions are still fresh, not jaded by clichés.

In her introduction, Nye quotes the poet William Stafford. When people asked him, “When did you become a poet?” he would respond, “That’s not the right question…The question is, ‘When did you stop being a poet?’”  Nye then reads words she collected from the mouth of her young son, every one a poetic observation.  You can link to the Nye video here.

When thinking about writing poems, I find the following quote helpful: “. . . poetry is a form of attention, itself the consequence of attention.”  (Donald Revell, The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye)  I may not write poems, but I hope that my photos and watercolor sketches are poetry’s equivalents. They are the consequence of my attentiveness to the natural world.

“Whatever things I perceive with my entire man — those let me record — and it will be poetry.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Journals (September 2, 1851)

P.S.  What a resource Poetry Everywhere is!!  Here you can see and listen to poets read their poems, for example Robert Frost reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”  I feel like a kid in a candy store at this website.  Enjoy!

A page from one of my commonplace books, collecting words

Poets are wordsmiths.  They love language and words.

“I loved especially the sounds of words.”
— Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid:  A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden

I am not a poet, but I am an English major, and I find great satisfaction in paying attention to words.  I collect them.  I keep commonplace books, in which I copy interesting quotes, phrases, words, and poems that I come across in my daily reading.  For example, when reading The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen, I copied out the following phrases that did such  colorful job of painting with words:

  • . . . Alick was as stubborn as an ink blot.”
  • “. . . bricks of cheddar cracked like heel skin . . .”
  • [Describing the wind] “It blew, gusted, breezed and roared, a soundtrack to everyday life, like a man with a terrible grievance he couldn’t help airing. . . . Sometimes it sounded like a ghost moaning or a tractor grumbling or a soldier with an agonizing war wound.”
  • “Besides, what good were tears anyway?  As a liquid manifestation of pain, salt water was hardly adequate for what she was feeling.  There should be something stronger coming out of a person’s eyes.  Blood or poison or the molten steel of knife blades.”

I was delighted to see that keeping a commonplace book is one of the “30 Ways to Celebrate” National Poetry Month this year, and I encourage you to experiment with one this April.  Writing teacher Priscilla Long, in her book The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, calls the process of collecting words “Lexicon Practice.”  She says all for all the best writers and poets, “collecting words is a definite, specific, regular habit.”

Words are powerful and help us to see more clearly.  Another writer describes how this works:

“My friend Chris says a woodland plant identification course changed her life.  It reminded her of getting glasses in the sixth grade and suddenly seeing each rock that made up the gravel.  Before the plant class, Chris says, ‘The woods were all just kinda green.’  After the class Chris saw bunch berry, bedstraw, miner’s lettuce, twinflower, twisted stalk and goat’s beard. . . . Not only can we see a thing more clearly when it has a name, we have access to it, a way of calling it forth and connecting with it.  It becomes more particular in relation to us and in a way it becomes ours.”
— Susan G. Wooldridge, Poemcrazy:  Freeing Your Life with Words

” . . . poetry involves a conscious savouring of words . . .”
— Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers:  Selected Prose 1971 – 2001

April is the month for wordplay.  Go for it!

Curious squirrel at Green Lake

I love how poets describe the squirrel — “a furry question-mark of gray,” “a piece of perpetual motion,” or “the curliest thing.”  Enjoy these squirrel-themed poems!

The Squirrel
by Frances Stacy Keely

As quick as fire, as light as flame
His movements lick the ground;
He seems epitome of life,
The verve of life around.
A furry question-mark of gray
He makes upon a tree;
As quick as an electric sign,
Reverse, tail down, is he.
His movements tingle in my mind;
I feel his furry prance,
A spiritual activity,
Soul wrong side out a-dance.


The Ground Squirrel
by Paul Hamilton Hayne

Bless us, and save us! What’s here?
At a bound,
A tiny brown creature, grotesque in his grace,
Is sitting before us, and washing his face
With his little fat paws overlapping;
Where does he hail from? Where?
Why, there,
From a nook just as cosy,
And tranquil, and dozy,
As e’er wooed to sybarite napping
(But none ever caught him a-napping).
“Don’t you see his soft burrow so quaint, lad! and queer?”
Gone! like the flash of a gun!
This oddest of chaps,
Head and ears!
Then, sly as a fox,
Swift as Jack in his box,
Pops up boldly again!
What does he mean by this frisking about,
Now up and now down, and now in and now out,
And all done quicker than winking?
What does it mean? Why, ’tis plain, fun!
Only fun! or, perhaps,
The pert little rascal’s been drinking?
There’s a cider press yonder all day on the run!
Capture him! no, we won’t do it,
Or, be sure in due time we would rue it!
Such a piece of perpetual motion,
Full of bother
And pother,
Would make paralytic old Bridget
A fidget.
So you see (to my notion),
Better leave our downy
Diminutive browny
Alone near his “diggings”;
Ever free to pursue,
Rush round, and renew
His loved vaulting
His whirling,
And curling,
And twirling,
And swirling,
And his ways, on the whole,
So unsteady!
‘Pon my soul,
Having gazed
Quite amazed,
On each wonderful antic
And summersault frantic,
For just a bare minute,
My head, it feels whizzing;
My eyesight’s grown dizzy;
And both legs, unstable
As a ghost’s tipping table,
Seem waltzing, already!
Capture him! no, we won’t do it,
Or in less than no time, how we’d rue it!


The Curliest Thing
from The Book of a Thousand Poems, ed. J. Murray MacBain

 The squirrel is the curliest thing
I think I ever saw;
He curls his back, he curls his tail,
He curls each little paw,
He curls his little vest so white,
His little coat so grey —
He is the most curled-up wee soul
Out in the woods at play!



Re-inventing Valentines

February 14, 2011


Valentine candy display


Valentine for Ernest Mann
by Naomi Shihab Nye

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn’t understand why she was crying.
“I thought they had such beautiful eyes.”
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he re-invented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.
At least, to him. And the poems that had been hiding
in the eyes of skunks for centuries
crawled out and curled up at his feet.

Maybe if we re-invent whatever our lives give us
we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock
in your drawer, the person you almost like, but not quite.
And let me know.

To Read a Poem in January

January 29, 2010

Reading poetry in January

“To read a poem in January is as lovely as to go for a walk in June.”
     — Jean-Paul Sartre