"I Remember the Room Was Filled with Light" by Judith Hemschemeyer
from I Remember the Room Was Filled with Light, Wesleyan University Press 1973
[Saturday, May. 1st]
I originally encountered Judith Hemschemeyer when I was just starting to read modern poetry. I read her first book, Very Close and Very Slow, and I didn't get it. A little while later, I went back and read it again. The second time I loved it. It made me wonder: what had I missed the first time around?
But what really got me thinking was when I went back to read it again about a year later, and didn't like it again. What was going on here?
It turns out the title of that first book is more than just a catchy phrase. It is an apt description of how you need to read her poems; very close and very slow. The first and third time I read them, I was reading too quickly and the images didn't "catch".
Her poems are actually quite flat, almost like a monotone, and her imagery is sparse. This was the first time I had encountered a poetry that required me to read them a certain way. Unless you slow down and read very deliberately, the language seems dull and the metaphors forced.
She was making supper. I stood on the rim
Of a wound just healing; so when he looked up
And asked me when we were going to eat
I ran to her, though she could hear. She smiled
And said 'Tell him...' Then 'Tell her...' On winged feet
I danced between them, forgiveness in my cup,
Wise messenger of the gods, their child.
Writing poems this way is hard, because if you miss the mark, even by a little, the failure is total. And reading poems this way can be equally hard. But in Hemschemeyer's case, it is usually worth the effort.
This poem is one of the rare cases where the poem neither succeeds or fails. It is on the edge. And whether you believe the child as messenger may depend more on the poem you read next than anything this poem can convince you of. Because you have to believe in the narrator... and the poet... to believe in the poem.
"Lumberjack" by Zbigniew Herbert
from Collected Poems 1956-1998, Ecco Press 2007
(trans. by Alissa Valles et. al.)
[Sunday, May. 2nd]
"In the morning the lumberjack goes into the forest and slams the great oak door behind him." The opening sentence of this poem is so like Herbert's poems: filled with images that take us by surprise, stopping us in our tracks. (Is the oak door the door to the house he is leaving or, as it seems, the door to the forest he is entering?)
What separates Herbert from surrealists and other overtly "sensational" poets is that, although his poems are full of surprising turns, by the time you reach the image at the end of the sentence, it is both a surprise and totally inevitable. Required by the story the poet is telling.
That sense of authority and control (or at least awareness) of the psychological landscape is a trait common to the best Eastern European writers. Herbert has it in spades. His poems seem like parables of a life we are only just escaping by chance.
- I first encountered Herbert's poems thanks to the Penguin Modern European Poets series in the Seventies. Those original translations, not surprisingly due to their origin, made Herbert sound very "British"; somewhat stiff and self-satisfied to American ears. Despite that disconcerting overtone, it was still possible to feel the power of his poems, if not fully appreciate them. This new edition of his work alleviates much of that problem. The translations are more direct and the sheer volume of work gives you a better sense of Herbert's overarching themes. (Note that many of the earlier translations are also included in the Collected Poems.)
- The Collected Poems is a beautiful book. The production quality, the printing, the cover, and most importantly the content are beautiful and do justice to a truly great poet.
"Headlights" by Conrad Hilberry
from Man in the Attic, Bits Press 1980
[Monday, May. 3rd]
Conrad Hilberry is very talented. As you encounter his poems line by line, you can't help but be impressed by the finely honed and striking imagery.
[The headlights] are antennae, quivering ahead
of her, naming whatever is to come...
[she] walks a few yards into the spongy woods,
where dark clings like cobwebs..."
He is a master of figurative description, of landscapes. The problem comes when you get to the end of the poem and realize that it just doesn't add up to much. What did all this imposing imagery get us? The protagonist is compared to the car she just stepped out of with some unspoken urge and the trees "sing themselves into fact."
The conclusions of Hilberry's poems tend to be less than the sum of their parts. Which is terrible to say, because he is so much better than many poets in setting the scene. But as impressive as his writing is, it is easy to read one of his books in its entirety and not be able to recall any single poem clearly.
Which presents two problems for me as a reader.
- Is it me? Am I not giving him the benefit of the doubt? Am I missing some deeper meaning?
- Or perhaps I am expecting too much. Is description enough? Not every poem has to have some deeper meaning every time, does it?
No, it doesn't. But it has to have something. That ineffable that makes poetry worth living -- and dying -- for. Too much to ask? Perhaps. But why else read poetry?
"Recycling Center" by Brenda Hillman
from Bright Existence,Wesleyan University Press 1993
[Tuesday, May. 4th]
Brenda Hillman is also very talented, but in a very different mold than Hilberry. Her poems are also full of well-crafted images, but for a different reason. Her descriptions are bursting with meaning -- explicit or not -- often overwhelming the physical description itself.
Bye, bottle! She shouts,
tossing it in; and the bottle lies there
in the two o'clock position, temporarily itself,
before being swept into the destiny of mixture...
Hillman is not a poet of the physical landscape, although her descriptions are beautiful in and of themselves. She is instead a poet of the psychological lives that inhabit a place.
In her earlier books, it was almost as if the psyche and the real were in combat. Each struggling for primacy of place, neither giving in. In her later books there is more harmony, more acceptance of physical items as a stage, if not actors themselves, in the narrator's emotional life.
"May All Earth Be Clothed in Light" by George Hitchcock
from One-Man Boat, Story Line Press 2003
[Wednesday, May. 5th]
It's impossible to say anything negative about George Hitchcock. He's not a very good poet, really. But his single-handed contributions to modern poetry over the years make him almost immune to criticism.
Morning spreads over
the beaches like lava;
the waves lie still, they
glitter with pieces of light.
For years Hitchcock was the editor of Kayak magazine, being the first to publish many of the best poets of the time (Charles Simic, James Tate, etc) and offering encouragement to many, many others. A rejection note from Kayak (always with a personal signature from George, and occasionally a word or two of comment) was almost like a badge of membership in the secret society of aspiring poets.
Does that excuse his writing? No. But it doesn't have to. Because even as amateurish his own writing was, Hitchcock was trying -- and trying something new -- in each poem. Different typography, different approaches to the image, different images, different approaches to writing (found poems, etc.). These do not necessarily make the poems better. But they make them all serious efforts at creating poetry.
And every once in awhile, despite the odds, he succeeds. The following is one of my favorite poems from the book:
Today I sat
on my knee.
"A Color of the Sky" by Tony Hoagland
from What Narcissism Means to Me,Graywolf Press 2003
[Thursday, May. 6th]
Tony Hoagland's poems make me cringe. Not the poems themselves, but the topics he chooses.
Some poets write as if every moment is some crucial defining moment in one's life. (No insult intended, because she writes great poems, but Brenda Hillman for one fits into this category.)
In reality, our lives are filled with thousands of lesser moments that we often choose to ignore but that define us, cumulatively, as much as any single event.
And it is these smaller moments that Hoagland chooses to write about. The problem is that these are dangerous poems to write. It is easy to fall back on pastiche or stereotypes, making the narrator appear either self-righteous or condescending. Which is why I cringe when I see a poem attempting such a topic. But it is exactly this tightrope that Hoagland's poems walk, even dance, across.
Make no mistake about it, Hoagland writes beautiful poems; inspiring poems carved out of the minutia of everyday life. And once you get involved in one of his books, rather than cringing, you start to look forward to experiencing these moments from the inside.
And that is how Hoagland makes it work where so many other poets fail. He takes these lesser moments completely seriously (even though his narrator may joke) and describes the reaction, the internal dialog, in beautiful detail.
To the point where, when he describes a blossoming dogwood as "losing its mind.. like a bride ripping off her clothes," you're right there with him celebrating a life composed of a thousand trivial moments viewed in bright relief.
"Manifest Destiny" by John Hodgen
from Grace, University of Pittsburgh Press 2006
[Friday, May. 7th]
There's a tendency for many poets, once they've established their voice (usually in their second or third book) to turn to their own personal history as subject matter. All poems are driven by the poet's experience to a greater or lesser degree. But poets seem to have a particular urge to take on their past -- and particularly their childhood -- head on.
Len Roberts did it in Sweet Ones. Other poets have gone that route as well. And John Hodgen follows suit in Grace, as in this excerpt from the poem about his mother:
never knowing for over thirty years her sweet secret,
that it was because she was out of food for the week,
that it was all she had left to give us.
And certainly not now, not when I hold the slim reed
of your arm, your withered, feathery hand,
and you shudder telling me you will not live to see your daughters
graduate, get married, have children of their own.
There are a lot of adjectives here, like sponges that bear far more meaning than can fit on the page. And rather than dealing with this extra meaning, it is left like a ominous curtain of portent over the entire scene.
For the poet, these poems are very meaningful, because they are real. However, for the reader, fairly or unfairly, they are just a story like any other. And all the unexplained foreboding acts more like a blurry cloud of unexplained intent than like the clarifying lens the poet sees.
Which is a shame because, as I've said before, Hodgen is a very good, understated poet. The good news is most poets do seem to exorcise this need to explore the past and return in later books to the clarity and precision they showed to start.
"ROCK'N'ROLL MYTHOLOGY" by Bob Holman
from The Collect Call of the Wild, Henry Holt 1995
[Saturday, May. 8th]
I want to like this book. I really do. But it is so hard.
First, Holman is into poetry as a performance art. (He is the co-author of Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.) But I am reading the poems on the page. Even if I read them aloud, I doubt I am doing them justice. They seem like they would benefit from a smoke filled room, flashing lights, a loud P.A. system, and several drinks.
But even then, it is hard to see anything but a thin veneer of surrealism with the hipster volume set to eleven:
got the heavy-duty political intent
got the worm farm free-form diamond noodle content
I got breezy ways & boppin' rays
when the word explodes the mother lode is where I'm at
I want to like these poems for the sheer passion and energy they give off. But when the smoke clears there is nothing there but noise and the poems end up being little more than the cheap joke the title of the book implies.
"Two Morning Poems" by Yevgeni Yevtushenko
Translated by Anselm Hollo
from Red Cats, City Lights Books 1962
[Sunday, May. 9th]
This little book of translations by Anselm Hollo is not "original" work as usually defined. But the poems are as much a result of Hollo's efforts as that of the three Russian poets he interprets. It is the product of its age (the 1960's), from its bold red and white cover, to its Cold War title (Red Cats) and its hip colloquial language:
They accuse me
of many things.
There are many around
who don't love me at all.
I tell you,
I get a big charge out of this --
their raging just goes to show
can't make it!
Despite bearing the marks of its generation (or perhaps even because of it) the poems end up being far more successful than any other translations I seen of Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Kirsanov. Hollo's "Beat" interpretation seems to be a perfect match for the brash, assertive personality of the Russian originals. In other translations, Yevtushenko comes off as pompous, self-righteous, and thoroughly unpleasant. Hollo manages to bring out a lively, self-confident, and emotionally alert narrator far more recognizable and interesting to modern audiences.
"Dinner" by Miroslav Holub
Trans. by Jarmila & Ian Milner
from Notes of a Clay Pigeon, Secker & Warburg 1977
[Monday, May. 10th]
Miroslav Holub isn't the best Eastern European poet of the past fifty years. But that's kind of like saying Rimsky-Kosakov isn't the best Russian composer. We in the west have been blessed with a slim but constant flow of translations of Eastern European poets over the past 40 years, starting with the Penguin series back in the 60's. Holub is one of those poets, with clear roots in the semi-surrealist, parable-like style that makes poetry from that region stand out.
I accuse the small towns of not becoming cities
All the worse for them.
I accuse the small nations of not becoming powerful.
All the worse for them.
And Holub is very good at it. His poems inspire reflection, surprise, and private smiles of recognition. But they never quite reach the sort of revelation or emotional climax you find in Herbert, Popa, or Szymborska. But then, Rimsky-Kosakov didn't write the 1812 Overture either. He's still worth listening to...
"Just Plain Beauty" by Paul Hoover
from Somebody Talks Alot, Yellow Press (undated)
[Tuesday, May. 11th]
Paul Hoover is a surrealist poet, in the tradition of the French surrealists. Which is unusual for an American poet.
French surrealism has had a strong influence on American poetry, but mainly in its imagery. Modern American poetry is still tightly bound to recognizable human situations as the basic theme and plot. (Think American neo-surrealists like James Tate, Edson, etc.). The Americans are interested in adopting the wildness of the vision but not willing to give up control of the poem itself as the French encouraged with their automatism and devotion to the subconscious.
Hoover holds closer to his French predecessors than his American peers. Even when the poem starts with a fairly ordinary topic ("a model in a painting class") he is willing to let the poem lead him rather than vice versa:
The students are studious.
He says, "On the fourth floor in a broom closet
a bulb has been burning for several days.
Find the man responsible."
Sir, we have found his green uniform,
for the ideal does exist, like grammar,
and the possible happens every minute.
It is refreshing to see surrealism used with an American idiom. However, because of the nature of the writing, there are no "great" poems here (too much jumping from idea to idea). But still plenty to enjoy.
It was probably a mistake to attempt a month of poems while the company I work for was launching V1 of the product. But then it would have been equally problematic while I was looking for job, starting a new job, on vacation, etc. etc... I apologize of the lapse in entries. I kept up with the reading, but couldn't find the time to write the entries.
But there never is a good time. So rather than spend another year waiting for the right opportunity, I'll just pick up where I left off, continue into the next month, and accept the gaps when they occur. I appreciate your patience and hope my ramblings are of interest.
"In the Valley of the Elwy" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
from The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oxford University Press 1967
[Saturday, July 3rd]
It would be silly of me to talk about Hopkins. Not that I don't like him, I do! But I have a hard time explaining why.
I don't like rhymed verse. And Hopkins is, if anything, excessively rhymy. He rhymes at the end of the line; in the middle of the line; he stuffs rhyme and alliteration throughout his poems. It's as if he is trying to overwhelm you with sound.And that is perhaps the sensation I like about his work. Hopkins is, aurally, a very sensual poet. Ascetic in his personal life, his poems can barely contain the ecstatic abundance of language, in a way no other poet is willing to do.
"Late Disturbance" by Joan Houlihan
from Hand-Held Executions, Del Sol Press 2004
[Sunday, September 5th]
I know nothing about Joan Houlihan except what is in this book. I confess that I bought it, at least partially, because of the blurbs on the back. (If poets you like have nice things to say about a book, there is at least a chance of there being something worthwhile inside.)
And indeed there is. There is an urgency about these poems that is very attractive. Not a hurried stream of consciousness, but a frankness where the poem is stripped of its literary "skin" and left to fend for itself.
Quite frankly I find many of the images in Houlihan's poems to be tantalizingly beyond the reach comprehension. They slip out of my grasp at the last minute leaving me with the sense of empathy, but nothing I could clearly articulate:
Treated with chalk and medical salt,
feigning misgiving, tears -- is this complaint
or welcome? I am not easily taught.
What bound us now deforms.
This sort of cat-and-mouse with comprehension is a dangerous game for a poet to play. If it works, the poem has a depth like the water in a quarry: deep, dark and mysterious. But let the image run a little too far into the ungraspable, and the poem is exposed (at least to the frustrated reader) as a shallow con game: tricking the reader into believing there is depth where there is simply confusion.
But Houlihan manages to play the game to perfection. Each image has sufficient visual lucidity and emotional weight to keep me thinking, keep me wondering, keep me reading.