Punishment, by Nancy Miller Gomez

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Gomez’s book, part of the Rattle Chapbook Series, grew out of her experiences teaching poetry in Salina Valley State Prison. These are strong poems, often with a twist at the end that pierces your preconceptions.

I was blown away by the title poem, which describes an incident she must have heard about. She enters into it, using strong verbs to detail the happenings and poignant images to rend the heart.

Some poems seem based on observation, such as “Growing Apples” where inmates are excited about a volunteer: a seedling that sprouted “in a crack of damp concrete”. They transplant it to a paper cup and visit it throughout the day, stunned by this small miracle. There is no need to articulate what this struggling new life means to them, what promise of grace it holds; we can tell. What a beautiful moment to capture!

Other poems draw power from her imaginative entry into the inmates’ lives. In one poem, she describes Lorenzo weaving dream catchers for his fellow inmates out of pillow feathers, paper napkins, dental floss, memories and sounds. The specifics, such as his memory of waking to the sound of his grandmother’s canary, draw us in and help us feel the satisfaction of being absorbed in creative work.

The first of two prose pieces, “How Poetry Saved My Life: Part One”, describes arriving at the prison and the humiliating scrutiny by the guards at the checkpoints. This is perhaps my strongest memory of teaching in a prison myself, and she captures it both vividly and accurately. She goes on to recount poignant moments when men in the safe space afforded by her class are able to drop their prison machismo and show tenderness and concern for each other.

In Part Two, Gomez tells further stories of the changes wrought by poetry in the lives of these men and their appreciation. One man, Manuel, says, “‘I want to share this with my children.’”

Unfortunately, these prose pieces are also the least successful part of the book. It seems to me presumptuous to talk of poetry saving your life because it helped you heal from the shame of participating in reality television, when at the same time you are working with men who know firsthand and experience every day many very real threats to their emotional and physical lives.

Still, given its slender size, this collection is powerful, its images ones I will not soon forget. It is important, too, for the way it helps those who have not been inside a prison recognise the humanity and potential of those behind bars. And Gomez makes a strong case for the uses of poetry, not just for prisoners but for all of us.

What book have you read that smashes stereotypes?

Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon

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In any communication there is a sender, a transference medium, and a recipient. When you whisper a secret to a friend, you are the speaker; the medium is the vibration in the air; and your friend is the recipient. For writers, our medium is our written work and our readers the recipients.

Each of these three components affects the content and quality of the communication. In the various discussion groups and critique sessions in which I’ve participated, I’ve been continually impressed by the different interpretations that readers may bring to the same poem or story based on their personal experiences and associations.

For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through. I recently moved to a different part of the country after spending most of my life in one place. This early poem, about her move to New Hampshire, made me lose my heart to Kenyon’s work.

Here

You always belonged here.
You were theirs, certain as a rock.
I’m the one who worries
if I fit in with the furniture
and the landscape.

But I “follow too much
the devices and desires of my own heart.”

Already the curves in the road
are familiar to me, and the mountain
in all kinds of light,
treating all people the same.
And when I come over the hill,
I see the house, with its generous
and firm proportions, smoke
rising gaily from the chimney.

I feel my life start up again
like a cutting when it grows
the first pale and tentative
root hair in a glass of water.

The initial uncertainty, the gradual familiarisation, the stunning final image: all of these are true to my experience. And as Adrienne Rich so beautifully said in her poem “Planetarium”, the poet “translate(s) pulsations / into images for the relief of the body / and the reconstruction of the mind.”

This book is like a time capsule, holding Kenyon’s intense communiqués. Some read like prayers, some like a succession of images, inviting us to bring our own interpretations. She writes of love and light and herons and wasps, of depression and death and the things that survive or don’t.

Although the language seems simple, it is carefully crafted. An allusion here, a descriptive detail there, internal rhymes and repetition all work to create the music of these works.

One poem that intrigued me is “Briefly It Enters, And Briefly Speaks”. It is a list poem, almost a series of haiku, each starting with “I am”. It begins:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . .

In trying to understand how this succession of images works as a coherent whole, I discovered subtle transitions: a starving girl to food on a plate to water filling a pitcher to a dry garden to a stone doorstep and inside a “heart contracted by joy. . . .”

I’m grateful to have found this treasure chest of poems that speak to me so clearly and illuminate my heart and give voice to my cares and celebrations. The speaker, the writer, may be gone but she has left us these gems to carry her voice to our ears.

Is there a poet or songwriter you’ve discovered recently whose work seems to speak to you?

Delights & Shadows: Poems, by Ted Kooser

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I hadn’t read any of Ted Kooser’s work before, though I’d certainly heard of him. I opened this early collection at a random spot and started to read rather quickly.

I wasn’t particularly impressed: the rather ordinary language didn’t exactly sing to me and the insights—while making me smile—didn’t make me gasp. However, after a few poems, a sense of well-being stole over me, almost a sense of familiarity. Perhaps I had read them before after all? Or had somehow heard this voice?

I found myself thinking of the title of Alice Munro’s 2012 story collection Dear Life. And of Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir My Beloved World. There was something in this short, seemingly simple poems that I needed. I went back and reread them more carefully.

“Tattoo” recounts a moment at a yard sale: seeing an old man whose tattoo of “a dripping dagger held in the fist / of a shuddering heart—is now just a bruise”, a lingering ache “where vanity once punched him hard”—a brilliant line. Note how the images do double duty: a bruise that is the blurred blue of an old tattoo and also a lingering ache, a punch that vanity requested being also like the needles that poked ink into his skin.

There is no mockery here, only fellow-feeling as the author notes the traces of youthful arrogance. The man is still strong and has “the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt / rolled up to show us who he was,” yet we see him as an old man, “picking up / broken tools and putting them back,” the broken tools again doing double duty. And the final line takes us back to the image at the beginning, now shimmering with all that we have learned about this man and all men in just these few lines.

There is a depth of compassion in these poems and a recognition of the small moments that illuminate what it means to be human. In “At the Cancer Clinic” we see a woman being helped across a waiting room by two others, perhaps her sisters, to where a nurse waits patiently. There’s the slight chuckle at calling the nurse patient, the sympathy at the woman’s slow progress, and then the surprising ending that elevates the scene into an evocation of what is best in all of us.

Another poem I loved is “Skater”. Having myself not started skating until middle age and being quite proud that I finally managed a waltz jump—a baby jump, the easiest of all—I thrilled to this joyous description of landing it, of how that experience changes you. Adding to the joy are the bright colors and the image of her skates braiding a path on the ice, echoing her ponytail in the first line.

My friend Dave has much to say against poetry that seems like prose. When I read the last poem in the book, I thought of him and how this could be prose if written without the line breaks. However, reading it again I saw how the images of time and fading light suggest the idea of aging, even death, with calm acceptance, even perhaps with gratitude for a life well lived.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

Have you read any of Ted Kooser’s poetry? Do you have a favorite poem of his?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 2

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Last week I examined some of the techniques Rukeyser used to write so powerfully about social concerns by looking at a single poem. This week I want to look at some additional aspects of her craft. In doing so, I’m indebted to the participants in my Poetry Discussion Group for their insights.

Born a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Rukeyser’s life was clouded by the wars of the twentieth century. She was in Barcelona at the start of the Spanish Civil War, and traveled to Hanoi in opposition to the Vietnam war near the end of her life. In “Poem”, she writes:

I lived in the first century of world wars.

Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.

This opening is remarkable for a couple of reasons. One is the ambivalent tone of the first line. Is she being melodramatic, self-pitying, or merely stating a fact? Our curiosity is aroused—or mine was, at least. The next few lines, with their wryly humorous, matter-of-fact description of her morning, confirm the latter.

The other rather remarkable aspect is how contemporary these details seem. “More or less insane” is a good description of how I feel ingesting the news these days. And “devices”? Of course, she couldn’t know what that term would come to mean fifty years after the poem was published, but it is an inspired choice.

At this point in the poem, having made us chuckle and pay attention, Rukeyser changes the focus. Using two lines as a transition, she creates a hinge in the poem. We leave the news, the friends, the morning behind and plunge into why she is writing poetry and what poetry can do to heal our horribly damaged world.

Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

Then she ends by repeating—with a slight variation—the first line. No longer ambivalent, it now is filled with emotion which overflows in our own hearts.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

We see these techniques—repetition, hinges, humor—in many of her poems. We also see her use of imagery. In some poems she throws out images with seemingly reckless abandon, with a cascade of images that in a literal sense seem unrelated, yet placed with precision yield a thrilling experience. In an interview, she said she needed “a language that was not static, that did not see life as a series of points, but more as a language of water.”

Her poem “Reading Time: 1 Minute 26 Seconds” is an example of this cascade of images, as well as the use of repetition and vowel sounds to drive the emotional content of the poem. If you actually read it aloud—rapidly, in order to match the designated reading time—the power will come through even more intensely.

The fear of poetry is the
fear : mystery and fury of a midnight street
of windows whose low voluptuous voice
issues, and after that there is not peace.

The round waiting moment in the
theatre : curtain rises, dies into the ceiling
and here is played the scene with the mother
bandaging a revealed son’s head. The bandage is torn off.
Curtain goes down. And here is the moment of proof.

That climax when the brain acknowledges the world,
all values extended into the blood awake.
Moment of proof. And as they say Brancusi did,
building his bird to extend through soaring air,
as Kafka planned stories that draw to eternity
through time extended. And the climax strikes.

Love touches so, that months after the look of
blue stare of love, the footbeat on the heart
is translated into the pure cry of birds
following air-cries, or poems, the new scene.
Moment of proof. That strikes long after act.

They fear it. They turn away, hand up, palm out
fending off moment of proof, the straight look, poem.
The prolonged wound-consciousness after the bullet’s shot.
The prolonged love after the look is dead,
the yellow joy after the song of the sun.

Rukeyser’s work is so rich I could devote many more weeks to talking about aspects of her craft, such as her use of colons and tabs. I mentioned last week her interest in science and the intersection of science with poetry. I especially like the use she makes of James Clerk Matthews’s discussion of the mathematical concept of “singular points” as a “moment of great height, of infinite depth.”

In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in the poems we’ve looked at this week and last. She also speaks of different sorts of unity: unity of imagination, of images, and so on. She embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

Do you have a favorite poem by Muriel Rukeyser?

A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi, Part 1

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Rukeyser has been one of my favorite poets since I first stumbled across her work while in my early 20s. I was drawn to her initially by her commitment to social justice. She spoke out against poverty and racism in poems that didn’t need to preach. Instead, they make you yourself feel what it is like to suffer such injustice.

While still a young woman, she traveled to Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, where scores of people were dying of a new disease: silicosis. It caused by breathing the silicate dust that coated the town, while the mine’s owners refused to admit the connection or provide any protection. They simply fired anyone who was too ill to work.

When the blast went off the boss would call out, Come, let’s go back,
when that heavy loaded blast went white, Come, let’s go back,
telling us hurry, hurry, into the falling rocks and muck.

That poem, “George Robinson: Blues”, is a good example of how Rukeyser worked her magic. It is a persona poem, in the voice of George Robinson (his real name was Robison). It starts off gently:

Gauley Bridge is a good town for Negroes, they let us stand around, they let us stand
around on the sidewalks if we’re black or brown.
Vanetta’s over the trestle, and that’s our town.

Then it begins to turn:

The hill makes breathing slow, slow breathing after you row the river,
and the graveyard’s on the hill, cold in the springtime blow,
the graveyard’s up on high, and the town is down below.

Did you ever bury thirty-five men in a place in back of your house,
thirty-five tunnel workers the doctors didn’t attend,
died in the tunnel camps, under rocks, everywhere, world without end.

We are taken deeper into the anguish, anger buried under the simple facts. Finally Robinson’s voice comes back to a hopeless stoicism and wry humor.

Looked like somebody sprinkled flour all over the parks and groves,
it stayed and the rain couldn’t wash it away and it twinkled
that white dust really looked pretty down around our ankles.

As dark as I am, when I came out at morning after the tunnel at night,
with a white man, nobody could have told which man was white.
The dust had covered us both, and the dust was white.

Deeply interested in science, Rukeyser believed that poetry is “an exchange of energy, a system of relationships.” Energy is exchanged between poet and reader. Connections are made between images, images and words, but most of all between the poet and the reader. The poem asks the reader to feel something. In her extraordinary book The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser says, “One of the invitations of poetry is to come to the emotional meanings at every moment.”

To be continued next week when we’ll look more closely at some elements of Rukeyser’s craft.

What poems of social commentary stand out for you?

Best books I read in 2017

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2017. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

What makes Clifton’s work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

2. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

We start with the story of a notary sailing from the Chatham Islands home to California in 1850. This story is followed by others that moved forward in time to the present and beyond. Part of the fun is detecting how the stories fit together. Each of Mitchell’s eras is written in a different style: a journal, an epistolary novel, a genre mystery, etc. It’s masterful writing!

3. Thérèse, by Dorothy Day

Social activist Dorothy Day was deeply influenced by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as the Little Flower. Thérèse came from a humble background and lived what would seem to be an unremarkable life until her death from tuberculosis at 24. What sets her apart from other saints is her simple approach to spirituality, one that is open to all of us.

4. Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages. By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the time he spent writing these works.

5. Bread and Wine, by Ignazio Silone

In this 1936 novel by an Italian who worked underground against the fascists and was exiled, the main character, Pietro Spina, much like the author, works against the fascists. Depending on who is talking, he is either a dangerous revolutionary or an admired freedom fighter. The meat of the story, for me at least, is not his political work but his own inner transformation.

6. H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

In this memoir of training a hawk as she copes with her grief over her father’s death, Macdonald lays bare her emotional journey in language that is achingly precise, with moments of grace that left me breathless.

7. The Man Who Knew Infinity, by Robert Kanigel

Subtitled “A Life of the Genius Ramanujan”, this dual biography tells the story of one of the world’s greatest mathematicians and the man whose support made him known to the world. Their stories raise questions pertinent to today’s societies about prejudice, privilege and education.

8. The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

In this new book from Julian Barnes, we enter the world of composer Dmitri Shostakovich. We begin in the year is 1936 when Shostakovich is about to undergo the first of three “conversations with power” that will alter the course of his career, his life, and his self-respect.

8. Collected Poems, by James Wright

Before reading this book I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life. How lovely, then, to find this collection by the beloved and influential poet.

9. The Penderwicks, by Jeanne Birdsall

There is nothing like a good children’s book when you want to take a little break from the world. Jeanne Birdsall’s modern series about the Penderwick family is a delightful romp, reminding me of some of the best books of my own childhood. In this first book, the four Penderwick girls and their father take a cottage unseen for their summer vacation. It turns out to be on an estate called Arundel owned by a snooty woman named Mrs. Tifton, whose formal and conventional life is turned upside down by the influx of rambunctious girls.

10. Hélène, by Deborah Poe

In this chapbook of poems, a young woman, Hélène, works in a factory-convent in 19c France weaving silk. Gently, always leaving space for us to make Hélène’s story our own, Poe juxtaposes the beauty of the silk tapestries with the working conditions of the time. We cannot help asking ourselves what confines us and how we escape.

What were the best books you read last year?

The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010, by Lucille Clifton

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What a treat to reread Clifton’s poems, not to mention finding some new to me! I was thrilled when she was nominated as our poet of the month in my poetry discussion group. I’ve loved her work and been profoundly influenced by it since I first encountered it in the early 1970s.

What makes her work so astonishing to me is the way she uses plain language in what are often quite short poems and yet addresses complex themes. Moreover, she packs her poems with music and emotion.

Many of her poems are sheer delight, simply celebrating being alive. These sing with jazz rhythms and the melodies of speech. Good examples are the well-known “homage to my hips” and the lesser-known “homage to my hair” that starts:

when i feel her jump up and dance
i hear the music! my God
i’m talking about my nappy hair!

Another aspect of her work that astonishes me is how she holds her rage in check. It is there, in the poems about injustice and racism. But she finds ways to present it that enable us, even those of us with privilege, to participate in. There is, to me at least, always love in her poems as well, even the darkest ones.

Her sense of injustice may lurk under humor, as in this untitled poem that starts her first collection that begins:

in the inner city
or
like we call
it home

Another technique she uses is repetition. The lines quoted above are repeated at the end of that short poem, but by then we have a different slant on them. Or several different slants: as we discussed the poems, we found different meanings in them, sometimes because of the diverse life experiences we brought to them and often because Clifton’s lines are simply open to multiple interpretations.

She sometimes uses questions to enhance that openness and to invite the reader to participate in the poem. Sometime the questions even feel like a call-and-response, creating an unexpected resonance. For instance, each of the three stanzas in “the photograph: a lynching” is a question. Details, such as the woman who smiles and fingers a cross as she watches, arouse rage and a burning desire for justice but Clifton ends by asking:

is it all of us
captured by history into an
accurate album/ will we be
required to view it together
under a gathering sky?

Note the ambiguity in these lines as well. In our group we discussed various interpretations of “us” and “we” and “a gathering sky”. And if the latter portends a storm, what might that be? Also, the lynching itself is never described, only the audience’s reaction before the final question.

Her persona poems sometimes function as a container for rage or other complicated emotions. Another famous poem “jasper texas 1998” speaks from the point of view of a man’s head. Again, she does not describe the tragedy, leaving us the title and the dedication “for j. byrd” as sufficient clues. But speaking as the head in a voice that is measured and resigned gives us the opportunity to summon our own grief and outrage.

Many of the poems here are full of love and sometimes a wry understanding, especially those about her parents, husband, and children. This is also true of some addressed to all of us, such as her famous “blessing the boats” and this section from “the message from The Ones”:

the angels have no wings
they come to you wearing
their own clothes

they have learned to love you
and will keep coming

unless you insist on wings

Finally I am astounded by her prolific output. Parenting six children is no joke, even without the financial struggles. I know, too, from colleagues how generous Clifton always was with other poets, especially those just starting out.

As one person in my poetry discussion group said, holding this hefty volume—it is 720 pages—is like holding a life. What a privilege to be able to delve into a lifetime of work from this remarkable woman!

What is your favorite Lucille Clifton poem?

Collected Poems, by James Wright

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If memory serves, before now I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life.

The poem is a perfect example of Robert Bly’s concept of “leaping poetry” which I discussed a few weeks ago. That is no accident. I’ve come to find out that Bly was not only a friend to Wright but also a mentor.

If I liked the poem so much, why didn’t I read more of his work? All I can say is that I meant to. This 1971 collection of his poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good way to do that. It contains a good selection from his earlier books along with a section of new poems and one of translations from writers such as Neruda, Vallejo and Trakl.

As I read the selections from his first book, The Green Wall, I wondered if this could be the same poet. They seemed complex and overly elaborate, like something from an earlier age. However, I did appreciate his themes of estrangement from nature (symbolised in the green wall), the horrors of the modern world, and mourning.

The poems from his next book, St. Judas, went further into the hearts and minds of the poor, the criminal, the disenfranchised. Growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, during the Depression, he witnessed poverty and suffering first-hand; the only thing worse than a soulless factory job was having no job at all.

A bad review from the poet James Dickey led to an angry exchange of letters. However, upon reflection, Wright allowed that Dickey’s criticisms had merit. He let go of 19th century poetic traditions and, working with Bly and others, found a new, more direct style. By concentrating on images instead of stylised meter and rhyme, by using plainer language instead of rhetorical flourishes, he began writing the kind of amazing and transcendent poems that I originally fell in love with.

Wright’s next collection, The Branch Shall Not Break, was widely praised and influenced poets such as W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and Galway Kinnell. I loved the poems here and in the remainder of the book. Of course, some are more successful than others and perhaps he overuses the technique of the leaping last line, but there are real gems here.

Wright dedicated one of the poems in Branch to Dickey, who became such a fan that he wrote a glowing blurb for the Collected Poems, saying:

James Wright is one of the few authentic visionary poets writing today. Unlike many others, James Wright’s visions are authentic, profound, and beautiful . . . He is a seer with astonishing compassion for human beings.

I think this episode with Dickey is a good lesson for any writer. It’s normal to feel defensive when your work is criticised. However, if Wright had continued to hold out against Dickey’s comments, he never would have experimented with changing his style. He would never have become the beloved and influential poet we know today. He never would have written the poem that lifted me out of myself and made me seek out this book.

Have you ever received a criticism that you initially thought was unfair but later recognised had merit?

Accounted For: Poems, by Jeannine Savard

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A chorus of voices fill this 2011 collection of poems from Red Hen Press. People crowd the pages, alone or in company, describing prayers and portents, dreams and deserts. Savard uses the things of this world—donkeys, gold silk, stars, wild thyme—to ground emotions and epiphanies. Like Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being”, each poem holds a cup of liquid light.

However, much as I reveled in individual phrases, sometimes the objects and images came too fast for me, piled on top of one another, without enough context for me to follow.

I first understood what appealed to me in poetry when I read Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry. He says:

My idea, then, is that a great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap . . . The work can have many leaps, perhaps shorter. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.

Graves maintains that the leap enables the reader to access the unconscious. He calls it “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again.” While that may be true, I instead think of it as being given the space to bring my own experience, my own emotions into the poem.

I love when two images come up against each other, the liminal space between them resonating with sounds neither can summon on their own. Similarly, an artist can lay down two strips of color on canvas and where they meet, our eyes see a spectrum of colors faintly vibrating. For example, in one of my favorite poems, “In a Radiant Field”, Savard says:

Touching her own ribs
she overhears the years of a tree

before the lightning struck.

She gives us a moment to hold these two images, of ribs and rings, and let them echo before summoning the lightning strike.

However, too much obscurity, too much private meaning invested in the image leaves the reader stranded on one side of the gulf. As Bly says of Neruda: “The links are not private, but somehow bound into nature.”

In several of the poems in this collection, the gaps are sometimes too wide for me, rendering the poems impenetrable. Perhaps there were allusions that I didn’t recognise or my brain couldn’t move fast enough. Bly goes on to say:

Thought of in terms of language, then, leaping is the ability to associate fast. In a great ancient or modern poem, the considerable distance between the associations, the distance the spark has to leap, gives the lines their bottomless feeling, their space, and the speed of the association increases the excitement of the poetry.

Other poems, with time, yielded meaning. “Ekstasis”, for example, conjures in cascades of images the experience of different kinds of music, the sound of the words as important as the images themselves, such as “Acoustical honey” and “Nine parrots come pecking at the foot of the porch stairs.”

As writers we struggle with finding the line between saying too much and saying too little. Certainly, as readers we want to do some of the work, not be spoonfed, but finding that line can be difficult. Trusted readers can help. I rely on my critique group to let me know when I haven’t provided enough information or am being too obvious.

To make it even harder, individual readers bring their own preferences and experience to a poem. I’ve participated in a poetry discussion group for several decades, enjoying the opportunity to explore in depth the work of a different poet every month. A side benefit has been hearing how others react. Tastes vary wildly. People interpret words, phrases, images differently. Their disparity has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or bad.

I found many of the poems in this collection difficult. When the juxtaposition of images worked for me, I experienced the excitement Bly describes. Always, I appreciate the vividness of her descriptions and am happy to immerse myself in the music of her words. I love, too, the way she tests the barriers, trying to surmount what holds us apart. As she says in “Sky Treasure”, our history is the “cry of so many hungers, / no boundary in between.”

What excites you in a poem?

Selected Poems II, 1976-1986, by Margaret Atwood

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I came to Atwood through her fiction, but it is her poetry that has come to mean the most to me. For me, her poems from this period expressed my own complicated mix of sorrow, pity, praise, and controlled rage.

As in her fiction, Atwood sometimes uses a female protagonist to shed new light on social issues. Most poems about the myth of Orpheus focus on his divine music and tragedy of his trip to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to the realm of the living. However, Atwood’s “Orpheus (1)” gives us the voice of Eurydice who says, “the return/to time was not my choice.” She speaks of his “old leash . . . love you might call it” and says:

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

In these few lines, Atwood captures the frustration of women wanting to be seen for themselves, not something to be molded to their husband’s fantasy, along with the patient kindness, the desire to spare him hurt that keeps us silent.

Myths and fairy tales are subtexts in many of these poems. In “Variation On The Word Sleep”, she alludes to several fairy tales, including one of my favorites: The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands . . .

Atwood’s Canadian identity has informed much of her critical work, including her landmark book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Published in 1972, it makes a case that Canadian literature reflects a unique national identity, one derived from the harsh conditions in the frozen north and the clear-eyed accounts by early pioneers trying to survive in the wilderness. This somber theme works its way through many of the poems in this collection, sometimes emerging in strong, unpretty images. In “Flying Inside Your Own Body”, for example, she describes

Waking, your heart is a shaken fist,
a fine dust clogs the air you breathe in;
the sun’s a hot copper weight pressing straight
down on the thick pink rind of your skull.

That sense of the landscape as something hostile is tempered by her ecological awareness and sometimes difficult love for the things of this world. In “Marsh, Hawk” she describes a swamp and “a mass grave” of detritus—rotten trees, old tires, bottles and cans—that “spreads on the / land like a bruise.” But the poem takes a left turn in the middle, as so many of Atwood’s poems do, as the speaker wants the marsh rushes / to bend aside, the water / to accept us”, to become one with the complicated beauty of the physical world.

In much of her writing, Atwood draws inspiration from historical figures, particularly Canadian ones, such as Susanna Moody. Some of the poems in this collection seem to draw on this awareness. Sometimes she seems to be speaking for those who came before us.

In Negotiating with the Dead, a collection of her Empson lectures, she says, “Not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”

What themes or preoccupations do you see in one of your favorite writers?