I wrote a review of Amy Small-McKinney’s new book, Life is Perfect. You can see it here at Philadelphia Stories. Do check it out, because it’s a wonderful book.
In my graduate school workshop I was labeled the Tree, River, Fish guy because most of my poems had some combination of those elements in them. I’m not sure exactly how that happened, or how I got in the habit or writing about situations that generally fell in the category of nature poetry, but here I am, 20 years later, still doing it. I like fishing, camping and generally staying away from crowds, so maybe that’s how a nature poet is born.
I’m also drawn to poets who’s subjects overlap mine (though that’s hardly a prerequisite for a poet I like), but it happens. I’m hoping to teach a short class or reading group on “nature” poetry at Musehouse someday, if I can convince enough people to sign up. If you’re interested, and in the Philadelphia area, let me know.
While collecting ideas I came across an anthology, Poems for a Small Planet: Contemporary Nature Poetry. From the title it seemed perfect—I could probably use this for a text for the course, but I think it’s out of print and the press out of business. I picked up my copy used.
Anyway, after Amazon delivered my copy, I opened the book to see who and what was inside, and was struck by the titles. No, it’s not that they were spelled wrong or employed gratuitous profanity. They were boring.
I know I don’t always write the best titles for my poems, but I do take them seriously. I do sometimes struggle with titles, change them several times and think hard about what work they do or don’t do for my poem. To see a book full of “nature poems” with titles like The Deer, Landscape, Spring, Wish, Meadow… you see where this is going. And it keeps going like that… 300 pages worth of poems with one word titles. Open up a field guide to the birds of North American and look at the index. You’ll find as much creativity there as in the table of context of this poetry anthology. Should I go on? Annuals, Wave, Chimney Swifts, The Birds, The Bees (I confess that I have a poem called The Bees too), The Mouse, Cold, Turtles, Slug, Song , etc.
The worst two, from Marvin Bell and Cornelius Eady: Nature and Nature Poem.
But there are good titles here too, a few: I Stand Beneath the Mountains with an Illiterate Heart, A Little Heart to Heart with the Horizon, Lion of God in Vermont in May, The Snow Monkey Argues with God (a David Huddle poem, and one of my favorites in the book), Kicking and Breathing, Protecting the Children from Hurricanes, In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel (I’ve admired this Stanley Plumly poem for years) and so on.
When I was sending a book manuscript around to friends for opinions, one friend told me to look at my titles, because he believed there were only a few that attracted enough attention to warrant a stranger opening up to that page.
Is that what a title is for? In the Musehouse workshop I run, we had a discussion about titles last week. Some, we decided, were necessary to set the stage, establish a place or situation, like the titles in these poems:
In the Nursing Home by Jane Kenyon
She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.
She has stopped running wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed’s dry.
Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.
Turning Forty By Kevin Griffith
At times it’s like there is a small planet
inside me. And on this planet,
there are many small wars, yet none
big enough to make a real difference.
The major countries—mind and heart—have
called a truce for now. If this planet had a ruler,
no one remembers him well. All
decisions are made by committee.
Yet there are a few pictures of the old dictator—
how youthful he looked on his big horse,
how bright his eyes.
He was ready to conquer the world.
Some titles serve to capture a theme, contribute to the mystery, create (or even upset) a sense of context or a hundred other things. There are no rules. But there are a lot of lazy titles out there. Apparently nature poets are some of the worst offenders. Of course some of these boring, single word titles may be a lot more than is obvious at first look when attached to the poem—when used right, a simple title can cast a larger shadow than the word itself. But you’ve got the read the poem, do the math, to find out.
Also, read this post where Jane Hirshfield shares some of her thoughts on nature poetry.
Click this link to read it.
Thanks to Books Inq.
Bernstein on National Poetry Month
Recorded in November or December 2012
More about Yolanda Wisher here.
Many who attend our Fox Chase Reading Series at Ryerss Museum and Library in Northeast Philadelphia are familiar with the story of how the Ryerss Burholme summer home became a museum and library and the grounds a large park for the enjoyment of the people. When touring the museum we learn of how the Ryerss were animal rights activists long before it became popular with stories of Anne Waln Ryerss saving abused horses and bringing them back to Burholme to care for them.
Frequently while reading Miriam Sagan’s latest poetry collection, Seven Places in America, I was struck with waves of jealousy. The book is constructed around her journeys and residencies at what, at least through her writing, must be some of the most wonderful places in the country for a poet to meditate on things great and small. This is especially true for a poet like Sagan, who has an affinity for the more rustic or natural places.
Some of these places were official writers’ retreats, while others were just places that accommodated her, and she accommodated them. Either way, she made the most of these visits, as good writers can, by using the foregrounds and backdrops as gateways for her poems to pass through or stretch out within. Her poems ride “the boat of the mind/that floats on air” tacking through waterways looking for purchase. When they land on hard ground, you know it, as in “10,000 Islands,” part of a series titled Ever/Glade (which, incidentally, made me think of Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia.
I longed for departure
As if it were love
As if it would take me out
Of myself, of my accustomed way—
Sandbar of white pelicans
Lifts off, wheels into the sun
Silver flash of fish before the prow
Maze of low islands, one after the other,
to open water.
Do you see what she did there? The very quiet leap from the silent meditation of longing for departure to the dramatic scene of birds rising and a boat rushing among islands. For me, these poems are at their strongest when she uses her environment as the A in an ongoing Q & A with themselves.
While I found poems to relish throughout the book, I think my favorites are in part V, which were written at Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York. Maybe being a Pennsylvanian drew me to these poems as they describe scenery very like my own home.
In the first poem in that section, Sagan uses, with dramatic effect, the refrain “body of” in a chant-like list of things you might find in any eastern woodland.
body of liberties
body of knowledge
body of research
body of principals
That’s fun, as are a lot of the poems in this book. You can feel the author’s delight coming off the page. At the same time, there are also haunting moments, such as in “Tree House,” where the speaker reflects in attendant language (“The creaks and meows of night,/Shadows of the copper beeches.”) on the material landscape of a childhood while simultaneously acknowledging the psychological landscape.
There were moments I thought the poet may have fallen into her own traps—pushed a metaphor a little too far, took the readers’ trust for granted, but then come moments of wonderful self-awareness, as if she knows where she’s taking us and is grinning a little inside, like here, in the poem “Stone Quarry Hill”:
If this poem were Chinese
I’d say my hair is gray (which it is)
And that I haven’t heard
News of you in a long time.
If I’m being played, I’m OK with it. Even when she asks “Why must inspiration be a vista?” you know she knows the answer is more complicated than that. “An inner self/that also shifts shape” is the visita we’re really meant to contemplate: “how what we ignored or couldn’t explain/remained in plain view.”
You can buy Seven Places in America here on Amazon.
from his book Shakamaxon.
Remember earlier this week when a columnist for the Washington Post Online said stupid things about poetry, and the poetry world reacted with fire and pitchforks? Well here she sorta kinda takes it back. End of story. Now we can get back to fussing with our line breaks and other world-changing stuff.
Today the Washington Post published an article by Alexandra Petri that asked, Is Poetry Dead? The article was a response to Richard Blanco’s poem at President Obama’s 2nd inauguration. I get that Petri didn’t like the poem. So what? But what bothers me more is she somehow decided that she’d been granted the power to decide what poetry is supposed to be, supposed to do, for everyone else.
It’s a stupid and ill-argued article, but it’s also a reflection of what so many narrow-minded people probably believe about poetry. The article makes ridiculous and incorrect assumptions, but my guess is it’s not that far off from what a lot of people were thinking while Blanco recited his poem. Why is that? Why does Petri insist that poetry needs to change something? Does Petri even read any contemporary poetry (I doubt it)? Does Petri understand the enormous variety of poetry flourishing in the US right now?
Possibly even more important–how has an attitude like that spread? Has poetry moved away from popular society or has society moved away from poetry? Was poetry dumped by its girlfriend or the other way around?
But wait, there’s more. John Deming wrote an open letter response on Coldfront. You have to read it.