Jane Hirshfield as Scheherazade

hirshfield

In education, lectures are vilified with good reason. They are boring. They are so much bombast. They are inflicted by vainglorious pontificators on passive victims who must endure or find ways to daydream through it all.

What happens, though, when a speaker is so knowledgeable, silver-tongued, and interesting that the restless audience (or reader) begins to sit up and pay attention like the Sultan before Scheherazade? That’s what happens when I read a collection of Jane Hirshfield essays on poetry, last year Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry and these past few days Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

The poetic title points to the ten essays, here as chapters titled “Kingfishers Catching Fire: Looking with Poetry’s Eyes,” “Language Wakes Up in the Morning: On Poetry’s Speaking,” “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Basho, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image,” “Thoreau’s Hound: Poetry and the Hidden,” “Uncarryable Remainders: Poetry and Uncertainty,” “Close Reading: Windows,” “Poetry and the Constellation of Surprise,” “What Is American in Modern America Poetry: a Brief Primer with Poems,” “Poetry, Transformation, and the Column of Tears,” and “Strange Reaches, Impossibility, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.”

As you can see, Hirshfield covers a lot of poetic turf in this collection, my favorite being the lengthy section on the enigmatic but interesting 17th-century haiku master, Basho. Buddhism is a Hirshfield specialty, and if anyone can rescue haiku from American elementary school classrooms (where it is being held for ransom), raising them to the adult art form they were and still are, it’s Jane Hirshfield.

Equally compelling is the essay with the intriguing title “Thoreau’s Hound.” As a fan of Henry David Thoreau (my poetry collection features as an epigraph his famous line from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”), I wondered where this would doggone lead.

Turns out, the essay is based on another Thoreau line from Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail. Many are the travelers I have spoken to concerning them, describing their tracks and what calls they answered to. I have met one or two who had heard the hound, and the tramp of the horse, and even seen the dove disappear behind a cloud, and they seemed as anxious to recover them as if they had lost them themselves.”

Hirshfield pairs this with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir tree.”

The point? Mankind, as Jane Hirshfield points out, “wants to know,” yet there is an equal attraction to mystery, to not knowing, to the chase and the journeys such pursuits entail. This, too, is a province of poetry, which is forever looking at the intangibles of mystery and trying on various concrete forms. With metaphor and imagery comes the hunt for le mot juste, the baying of hounds on the scent, the nearness of capture… and  yet, and yet, despite not finding our quarry, we are often grateful for the closeness, the magical proximity, we enjoy when reading a good poem.

Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of Hirshfield’s essay collections is the number of poems, both complete and excerpts, she introduces as concrete examples of her abstract points. Among these I find new poets, new poems, new possibilities to explore. One of my favorites in this book was an excerpt from Jack Gilbert’s “Going Wrong.” I found one line–about the eyes of dying fish, of all things–that led me to the entire poem online. I leave it for you to enjoy. The line “the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes” is worth the price of admission alone. Only a poet could conceive of the sea as “grand rooms” captured in the eyes of the fish who live there.

GOING WRONG

by Jack Gilbert

The fish are dreadful. They are brought up
the mountain in the dawn most days, beautiful
and alien and cold from night under the sea,
the grand rooms fading from their flat eyes,
Soft machinery of the dark, the man thinks,
washing them. “What can you know of my machinery!”
demands the Lord. Sure, the man says quietly
and cuts into them, laying back the dozen struts,
getting to the muck of something terrible.
The Lord insists: “You are the one who chooses
to live this way. I build cities where things
are human. I make Tuscany and you go to live
with rocks and silence.”  The man washes away
the blood and arranges the fish on a big plate.
Starts the onions in the hot olive oil and puts
in peppers. “You have lived all year without women.”
He takes out everything and puts in the fish.
“No one knows where you are. People forget you.
You are vain and stubborn.” The man slices
tomatoes and lemons. Takes out the fish
and scrambles eggs. I am not stubborn, he thinks,
laying all of it on the table in the courtyard
full of early sun, shadows of swallows flying
on the food. Not stubborn, just greedy.

from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 (Knopf, 1994)

Dean Young on Reckless Poetry

dean-young

Here’s my review on Dean Young’s _The Art of Recklessness_. I read it because I could use a little shaking up. Hell, everybody can. Seems everyone’s writing the same poem sixty-seven different ways (that look amazingly similar), my and self included. Young, who has a facility for flights and fancies, makes it look easy–then talks about it as if it’s easy. If you’re interested in his little book, here’s a preview:

What? There’s an ART to being RECKLESS? Seems I took no classes as a kid, as a teenager. I just had at it, the devil take the hindmost (because he seemed little interested in the foremost). The title, though, is chosen because it is part of Graywolf Press’s “Art of…” series. Dean Young (who else?) got the call for recklessness because, well, HIS recklessness (called “poetry” in some rhomboids) is quite artful. Came this close (holds fingers an inch apart) to winning the Pulitzer Prize for his collection, [book:Elegy On Toy Piano|147931].

What did I gain from this book? A lot of what, a bit of why, but not much how. That is, if you’re looking for Dean to share secrets to his controlled anarchy, keep looking. Instead, he shares a few opinions on the wild and the crazy, on the Dadas and the Surrealists. And though he claims John Ashbery to be our greatest modern poet, he mentions him but once, giving the lion’s share of attention to poets we don’t immediately consider when we think “reckless”: John Keats (with his wild and crazy Odes), William Wordsworth (who never met a word he didn’t consider worth writing down), and Walt Whitman (leaves and the grass electric).

“If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what will be produced will be sleep without the dream, a copy of a copy of a copy,” The Dean of Recklessness tells us. He also is a great cheerleader. Any poet would love to have him as a teacher (U of Texas, Austin, methinks). “Our poems are what the gods couldn’t make without going through us.”

Dean Young may seem playful as hell in his poetry, but this book can be scholarly as all get-out at times, throwing around some big-boy words (the kind where I say, “Huh?”). He also quotes with abundance. Here’s a Wallace Stevens, for instance: “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.” Oh, I love it. <i>The Art of Being an Amateur</i> I have nailed! Where do I begin collecting checks and raves?

And there’s humor here: “Poetry, as everyone knows, is in competition with girls’ volleyball for the crowd. It’s all about numbers… And in regards to the common bellyache that the only audience for poetry is poets: but it’s been noted by many that poetry is like a foreign language; you need to learn grammars and idioms to get it, so what’s so terrible about people who know Portuguese being the people who are interested in listening to and reading Portuguese? Arcane specialization? Elitism? Surely no more than girls’ volleyball. Poetry’s greatest task is not to solidify groups or get the right people elected or moralize or broadcast; it is to foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish. Then we may have something to say to each other.”

Dean also calls complacency the greatest enemy of art, with an aside about the hidden “me” in “poetry”: “It is also worth entertaining the notion that the least important time in any workshop is when your own work is being talked about. It’s called ‘Poetry Workshop,’ not ‘Me Workshop,’ after all. The imagination wants to say something you can hear and often what you say about someone else’s poem is exactly what you need to hear about your own. The way in is to go out.” Clearly Dean Young has trafficked with a few poets in his day. Self-promotion (while pretending not to self-promote) is the name of the game.

As for examples of reckless poems, they are few and far between, given the brevity of the book. It’s more Young providing the Old history of imagination’s resistance. All in all, equal parts cheerful and depressing. Cheerfully, you might wing it next workshop or on-line critique group, even though you know the mavens of tradition are waiting in the wings to nitpick your punctuation, your grammar, your syntax. On the other hand, he warns, sometimes reckless art is bad art.

Great. Just when I was beginning to take wing and feel the exultation of freedom, I get the overheating rays of the sun again, melting my wax. You can write bad poetry conventionally OR unconventionally, I’m afraid. The World of Art takes no prisoners, even in a minimum-security prison like Recklessness.

 

Who Gets to Determine a Poem’s Meaning?

deer

In a 2005 press release upon the death of one of their own former professors, Louise Rosenblatt, New York University published an obituary that included these words about Rosenblatt’s pioneering work on reading theory:

“While teaching literature to college students, [Rosenblatt] developed an approach that broke with the dominant academic model (the New Criticism), which elevated ‘the text,’ declaring it accessible only to those trained in unlocking its code. By contrast, Rosenblatt stressed that every act of reading involved a ‘transaction’ of reader and text in which both were essential. In her view, any text–Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a car owner’s manual, a poem–was lifeless without a reader who is active: active readers create multiple readings of the same text; no reading is uniquely ‘correct.’ At the same time, Rosenblatt argued against the purely personal and subjective approaches more popular in recent years. She noted that some readings were more defensible than others and worked for a community of readers who sought to refine their reading and test their responses against the text. Rosenblatt maintained that this approach–respectful of the individual’s response while dedicated to serious communication and debate–is essential to fostering citizens equipped for democratic life.”

The lead-off batter in my new book, a poem called “Trigger,” could be the poster boy for Rosenblatt’s transactional theory. The 18-line work, first published in Gray’s Sporting Journal in the fall of 2014, is split into two stanzas, the first focused on the speaker, a hunter, and the second on the white-tail deer that is his quarry.

Before I comment on the poem and the assumptions that weigh it (and any poem) down, read it yourself and draw your own conclusions:

Trigger 

This is where I held
my breath—
a stand of red pine,
needles and snowdust
scribed about my boot,
cold crescent
resisting a swollen
finger itchy-numb
with November.

This is where a buck
held its breath—
mouth mid-meal
amid the mast,
a single line
of berry drool
spiking the fur
of his white and
wild-cherried chin.

Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press, 2016)

Seems rather straightforward, no? Most readers would interpret this to be the moment before a hunter pulls the trigger on the deer he has in his sights. And that is a legitimate interpretation, perhaps even the most sensible one.

In truth, however, casting myself as the hunter (I hunted with my father, brother, and family friends when I was a young man), it reads differently. It works instead as a poem about the moment before a hunter decides not to pull the trigger.

Note, for instance, the word “resisting” in L7 of the first stanza. A trigger does not resist without an accomplice, namely the man holding his finger to it. Note also the anthropomorphic portrayal of the buck. It “held its breath–/mouth mid-meal/amid the mast.”

Would a buck, even alerted to danger (and he seems too preoccupied with dinner for that), really hold its breath?

I propose, then, that the poem can work either way, as a frozen moment in time before action or inaction. As the writer-reader, I hold with the latter, but realize that I do not get the last say, given that all poems are subject to a fair negotiation between their readers and writers.

Still, there’s the problem of assumptions. When the poem was first published, a few readers–people I knew, mind you–questioned how I could write about such a cruel act. Why kill such a beautiful creature? they asked (as if words in a poem could serve as hunters themselves).

Let’s play along with that line of thinking, then: Even if these readers’ interpretations are correct, are we to assume that said speaker/hunter did not treat the animal with the same dignity as, say, Native American Indians, who would honor it before cleaning it and using every part of its body for the good of family and tribe? Who can read that deeply into a poem and know that much about the speaker’s character and intentions?

Suddenly, I’m led to conclude, a poem becomes as much a reflection on the reader and his/her background, prejudices, and fairness as a reflection of a poet whose actual intentions remain cryptic.

That said, say and write what I will, my poem about not shooting a deer will remain, for most readers, a poem about a hunter preparing to shoot one. Some will shrug it off as the first of many examples of the world’s indifference, little different from hyenas pack-hunting a gazelle. Others will outright wonder why such topics rate a poem.

Me? In my mind, it’s a simple moment of truth, one where seeing a deer as a personality leads to its salvation–justified or not.

In that case, the poem ends but the deer does not.

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Ken Craft’s new collection of poetry, The Indifferent World (Future Cycle Press 2016) is available at futurecycle.org or by requesting one from me here at kencraftpoetry.org.