Announcements

November 30, 2010
  • Class will not meet on Thursday, Dec. 2 since we completed our business today.
  • The blog will “close” for grading purposes at midnight on Sunday, Dec. 5.
  • Recitations will take place during our final exam slot, 8:30-11 on Tuesday, Dec. 7.  You must memorize and recite, with reasonable expression, at least 14 contiguous lines of poetry, from one poem or shorter poems that are juxtaposed in a series.  Poems should come from our primary authors for the semester but may be any poem at all from those volumes.  You need to know the page number so I can follow along/prompt as necessary.
  • I will try to finish the interpretive performance grading in the next few days and will let you know when you can come pick it up.
  • If I do not finish earlier, I will bring your graded mutinous poetry projects to the final.

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Plath’s Dance

December 5, 2010

Before this class, the only Plath poem I had “studied” was “Edge,” and that was back in high school. We did–for lack of a better adjective–a rather reductive reading of it, and then it was over, and I said goodbye to Plath. Until now.

Plath’s creative drive was immense; writing so many excellent poems in  just a short span of time (two years) must have been exhausting, and maybe even exhilarating for her. Or maybe it was just a release of her energy into her craft; maybe it was therapeutic for her. It likely could have been all these things.

Reading and studying Plath’s work this semester has been challenging and rewarding, and for both of these reasons (among many others) she’s been my favorite of  the contemporary poets we’ve examined this semester. I had a hard time deciding which poem of hers I wanted to talk about–it being a close call between the wonderfully strange “Zoo-Keeper’s Wife” and the somewhat vague “The Night Dances.” I’ve decided to talk about the latter.

After reading Helen’s post about her thoughts on “what poetry is,” I knew that there was some element in Plath’s poem “The Night Dances” that made me have one of those moments where i felt that “hand to hand” connection–that particularity and personal union that I felt was deeply ingrained in my conscious emotional experience. It’s not something i can really place my finger on, unless I were to say “oh yea, well I feel that she’s questioning the reason behind her inability to contain another’s spiritual essence within herself.” And in a sense that is what i think this poem is about;  but I also feel that there’s something lost in the translation of that emotion into my words. Plath has translated that feeling a thousand times more successfully than I could translate it in any kind of rhetorical language of my own.

And maybe that’s an essential part of what poetry is. I really agree with what Helen has said in her post. In my interpretation of what she’s arguing, it seems that she’s putting forth that idea that poetry is more about communication than representation. I’m not sure that Mr. Heaney would agree with her, but I certainly do. And why can’t it be both representation–symbolic and otherwise–of some essential human experience, and, a communication of that experience? Maybe one doesn’t necessitate the other, but I don’t think that either is mutually exclusive. I think part of the beauty of poetry is that it stretches the limitations of language’s ability to represent an often abstract and yet worldly human experience in a way that communicates some intangible emotional core (contained within the semantics of that language). Poetry necessitates communication; if nothing is semantically understood (by a reader) within the words the poet uses to translate his or her experience, than nothing is gained. Perhaps a second part of that beauty inherent in poetry is our willingness (perhaps unconsciously) to search for that abstract element of emotional communication.

In a way, my brief analysis of Plath’s poem “The Night Dances” is reductive. I think that by trying to represent my own emotional connection to the poem, I am, in a way, performing (not to use too many engl 295 terms) a representation of a representation, and within that space–between the translation of language, there is some essence of the beauty, and perhaps that beautiful ambiguity in the poem that is lost. I’m opening up a gap. I’ve been trying to think of an analogy to describe what I’m thinking, but I’m struggling. The closest thing I can think of is if Plath’s poem is a chord (as in a combination of musical notes), then my understanding and interpretation of her poem is like pulling apart those notes and playing them at separate times, and in a random order. The same sound wouldn’t be communicated–sure the notes would be essentially the same, but the effect, and the “way” in which you heard them would be different. And there would be an acoustic gap between each of the notes too.

However, just because there is something lost in my written explication (and translation) of the poem, doesn’t mean there is that same loss of beauty in what I feel when I read Plath’s poem. It’s my inability to recreate that emotional communication through language that signifies the loss of the poem’s true “essence;” but by the same token, my desire to express what I feel about the poem proves the beauty of the poem in the first place; it proves that there must be some aspect of the poem’s essence which compels me to want to try and describe my emotional connection to it. In that sense, the poem’s communication has succeeded; it is beautiful because it communicates to me some compelling and abstract emotion that I struggle to put into words.

(sorry, that was a really disorganized jumble of thoughts)

I think that last seven lines of this poem communicated to me this strange and resonant feeling. Plath writes, “Why am I given/These lamps, these planets/ Falling like blessings, like flakes/ Six-sided, white/ On my eyes, my lips, my hair/ Touching and melting./ Nowhere.”

To address the notion of representation, I think Plath’s use of language here represents an the abstract emotion of loss, and a questioning of the fleeting nature of life. Plath has compared these physical things–the snow flakes, lamps, even planets–to the abstract memory of her lover’s “gestures” and her memory of what it feels like to be in love. She writes about these lost feelings when she writes that “The comets/ have such a space to cross,/ Such coldness, forgetfulness.” I find the beauty in this poem lies in both the language’s ability to represent abstract emotion through physical things in the material world, and also in that way the language communicates to me some strange, maybe even unconscious feeling that i too have felt Plath’s question–that I’ve also felt the lamps, planets, and snowflakes falling and melting away, captured in that moment only. I don’t think that poetry’s communication–that “hand reaching out to another hand” feeling–and poetry’s representation through language are mutually exclusive terms. But when it comes down to it, that “hand holding,” that immediacy of connection, comes through most directly in poetry’s ability to use language in a way that communicates to the reader that resonant emotion.

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Response to Madonna’s thoughts about poetry

December 5, 2010

When we had our discussion a few weeks ago about what the definition of poetry should be, I became a little bit frustrated. I don’t think I necessarily have the words to describe, without leaving loopholes, what poetry is, but I balk at the idea of attempting that kind of summary, simply because people tend to poke holes in things with unsound definitions and reasoning. When I heard what Madonna had to say in class/read what she wrote on the blog, it seemed to me that she felt similarly: poetry is not something that really has a definition. She goes further and says that poetry is all around us, and even attempting to put all this gloriousness into words is useless because we don’t ever quite capture what life itself has already done.

But, when I think about it, I don’t like that idea at all. It is vague and abstract, and I’m frustrated by that. To say that poetry is an “elusive thing” is avoiding the question of what poetry is, and saying that people can’t write poetry is patently untrue. Great writers create work that resonates with us, and we have read plenty of it in Contemporary Poetry this semester. Certainly, poetry can’t completely capture sunsets, or a really brilliant view, or the concept of loss,  but nothing does. Looking at a sunset or mountains makes us feel a certain way, as does losing something or someone. We use language to gesture toward these experiences, not to recreate them in totality. The distance between what the poet sees/experiences and the reader is bridged by the poem itself when the reader interprets it. We bring our own thoughts and feelings to bear on a work and go from there. Some poems won’t mean anything to you, but others will be special because those poems say things that you truly understand, not just in an, “Oh, I get that” kind of way. There is a wildly famous and over-quoted part of the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett where the teacher, Hector, explains that “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – that you’d thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” I don’t even think it has to be something that you think is “particular to you,” just something that you know and feel and understand.

I think we reduce the act of writing poetry, or writing things in general, if we try to expand the definition of poetry to be anything beautiful or wonderful in the world. I don’t think poetry is a symbol: it’s an attempt to capture some part of the human experience in such a way that it strikes a chord in another person, yes, but it becomes its own object, like Kristin said in her comment under Debbi’s post. I still think poets are trying to capture something, be it a feeling or an experience or an image, but like I said, they’re not trying to make you feel the same way you did when you saw that really great sunset or whatever. The importance is not the recreation of an image, but the connection between the reader and the poet through the poem, the hand reaching out and taking yours.

(These are some pretty unfinished thoughts, so please bear with me.)

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Suffering or Self-Pity?

December 5, 2010

While I was writing a paper for another class, I came across this quote in my textbook Life as Politics by Asef Bayat:  “As Michael Brown rightly notes, when you ‘elevate the small injuries of childhood to the same moral status as suffering of truly oppressed,’ you are committing ‘a savage leveling that diminishes rather than intensifies our sensitivities to injustice.’”

This immediately reminded me of our brief discussion on Plath and her use of the Holocaust her in her poetry.  I really wish we’d had more time to talk about this idea including how other contemporary poets have called upon past “crimes against humanity” in order to relate their personal suffering.  I wish I’d found this quote sooner in order to ask whether or not the class agrees or disagrees.  At least in the case of Plath, I found her use of holocaust imagery sort of desensitizing with regard to both cases of “injustice” (her childhood and the suffering of the Jewish people) and I also found myself relatively unsympathetic to Plath.  I know there is a lot of scholarly commentary on this but I’ll just post one quote I found from Theodore Dalrymple in his book Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality: “…the metaphorical use of the holocaust measures not the scale of her suffering, but of her self-pity,” which, according to Dalrymple, prior to the emergence of Plath, “was regarded as a vice, even a disgusting one, that precluded sympathy.”  Though I don’t know about the latter quote, I think I have to agree with the former.  Any thoughts?

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Recap: Brooks

December 5, 2010

Gwendolyn Brooks has famously said “I’m interested in telling my particular truth the way I have seen it.” I think she has masterfully reflected the “truth” of the lives of poor urban African Americans, and in doing so, frequently incorporated thematic elements of racial and ethnic identity that reverberate throughout her poetry.

My favorite Brooks poem is “The Bean Eaters.” I think this poem’s greatest strength lies in it’s rhythm, especially in the first stanza. The first and third lines of the first stanza each have ten syllables, while the second and fourth lines are notably shorter. I almost see it as a call and response type of rhythmic quality, similar to that of Jazz. The first two lines are “They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair./Dinner is a casual affair.”  The shorter response suggests, thematically, the couples’ meager and “lowly” social status. The abruptness of the line further reinforces this notion, and we see it again in the next two lines: “Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,/ Tin flatware.” The abruptness of the 4th line–which is the response to the third line’s description–again fortifies the idea of the couples’ low social status, and the adjectives “plain, creaking,” and “tin” serve as a concise and resonant characterization of the couple as modest and perhaps even frugal people.

In some of Brook’s other poems, and especially in the Anniad, we see her use color imagery (like “caramel, chocolate,” and “tan”) to categorize different skin colors and races. I wonder if the adjective “yellow” means that the couple is Asian? I’m sure how I want to read into that word choice there. Another strength of Brook’s is her emphasis on words at the beginning of her lines–through the use of repetition and spondee. The first two lines of the second stanza each begin with the words “Two who.” I definitely think both of these syllables should be stressed, and thus,  I read them as spondees, which emphasizes the connection between the two, and lessens any difference between them, as if they have grown into nearly one person through their experience of being elderly, urban, and poor. And as with many of Brooks’ poems, she uses controlled imagery to present the reader with physical objects that perhaps carry emotional weight and represent the memories of the old couple: they “lean over the beans in their rented back room that is full/of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco/crumbs, vases and fringes.” Structurally, it is interesting to note that these lines are much longer, and more fluid than the previous lines in the first two stanzas. Maybe brooks does this because these things exist in the memories of the old couple–maybe their current reality is harsh and stark (hence the short succinct lines earlier) but now that they’re going back and looking through all these old objects, their reality becomes more fluid and less contained in that precise moment. Maybe the flowing quality of the lines parallels their consciousness flowing back through memories. I think Brooks is truly a master of her craft and she comes through as easily one of the most important American contemporary poets; I’m glad we got to study her work.

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Reply to Madonna’s definition of poetry

December 5, 2010

I understand what Madonna is saying about words being symbols that distance us from actual experience.  She also points out that true poetry is the unfolding of a rose bud, not the words that describe the rose.  (Pause while we all think of Shakespeare’s quote about “smelling as sweet….”) 

I don’t, however, agree that men cannot write true poetry.  I believe that poets sense and then communicate those very experiences for others who cannot, or do not, sense them for themselves. 

In our readings earlier in the semester we read “Poems Are Not Luxuries” by Audre Lorde.  I think she hit the mark when she wrote, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought” (283).  Often we do not know what we think until we say it out loud.  I would argue that we often do not know what we feel until it is framed and given form by some kind of symbol, whether it be words, or lines and colors on canvas, or lyric and rhythm in music.  

Words may be mere symbols, but they are all we have to communicate with.  And one impulse all poets share—writers and artists too—is the impulse to communicate what they have seen, or sensed, or realized.  

Adrienne Rich talks about approaching poetry in order to “call up images that were in danger of being forgotten or unconceived” (18).   Poets are archivists of “the moment.”   They try to cup in gentle hands the fragile pieces of life about which Madonna is talking.

(Debbi S.)

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Allen Ginsberg photos

December 5, 2010

The National Gallery of Art had an exhibition of Ginsberg’s photographs.  If you go to the NGA Web site and go to their Podcasts, you’ll find a lecture about the photos.

http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/ginsberginfo.shtm

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Paul McCartney: BEATle and Poet

December 5, 2010

A poem Paul McCartney wrote for late great British comedian, writer, and actor Spike Milligan, sold for around 6,000 euros at an auction in the United Kingdom in November 2008. Milligan, who was a neighbor of McCartney’s in Rye in East Sussex, was a major influence and friend of McCartney’s throughout the 21st century. McCartney would often dine with Milligan for tea when McCartney was in the area. Milligan was responsible for The Goon Show, a British program, that gave way to Monty Python. Milligan died from liver disease in February 2002. It is reported that McCartney bought a grand piano from Milligan’s house in an estate sale in October 2008. Apparently, McCartney would play the piano every morning. Anyways, the poem McCartney wrote is entitled “The Poet of Dumbswoman Lane,” and came with a rough sketch McCartney drew entitled “‘The Nutters of Starvecrow Lane” of two people giving the thumb’s up. Here is the full poem and your chance to judge whether the poet lives up to the musician.

The Poet of Dumbswoman Lane:
The voice of the poet of Dumbwoman’s Lane
Can be heard across vallies [sic] of sugar-burned cane
And nostrils that sleep through the wildest of nights
Will be twitching to gain aromatic insights
The wife of the farmer of Poppinghole Lane
Can be seen from the cab of the Robertsbridge train
And passengers comments will frequently turn
To the wages the wife of a farmer can earn
The poet of Dumbwoman’s lane sallies forth
He is hoping for no-one to see.”

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Elizabeth Bishop

December 5, 2010

While searching for more information on Elizabeth Bishop who I found to be one of my favorite poets of the semester I ran across on article (with pictures!) describing her epistle relationship between herself and Robert Lowell. I wish we had been able to learn more about each poet’s personal life and delve more into that. I know some critics disagree with mixing what a poet says with their own life, but I feel that a poet wouldn’t say the same things if they lived another life. Our experiences shape our opinion after all–would Bishop write about geography and loneliness if she hadn’t been forced to move around numerous times, alienating herself from those around her. Would she have been enamored with Brazil if Lola her lover had not been Brazilian and they had not set up a life there?

I hope you all enjoy reading the correspondence of the two writers:

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/11/03/081103crbo_books_chiasson

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/12/20/041220fa_fact

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Adrienne Rich

December 5, 2010

     Adrienne Rich has a special place in my heart. In middle school, i hjad to memorize a poem and recite it to so many people to work on public speaking and stuff like that. I just browsed through several poetry books and authors we had briefly mentioned (in no way comprehensive or a study of poetry class at all) and i stumbled across Adrienne Rich. I picked her poem \”Lucifer in the Train,\”  and instantly fell in love with Rich and her style of writing. Not only, is “Lucifer in the Train” a magnificent and lesser known poem of Rich’s, but the dark imagery and the sinister symbolism in its two 12-line stanzas simply moved me. Plus, after having to recite it so much for my school assignment, i memorized it and came to understand it’s true depth and meaning.  This is a poem i have been dying to share to you all in some form or another, but it is a remarkably hard poem to find it online to link to so i ound a link that should work. I hope you all check it out and enjoy one of Rich’s lesser known wonderpieces.

In case th elink only takes you the contents of the google book the poem is on Pg. 105

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Recap: Bishop

December 4, 2010

I was trying to think of a way to go back and celebrate some of the major poets we studied this semester, and I think I’m going to go about it by talking about my favorite poems from some of the authors. First up: Elizabeth Bishop. My favorite Bishop poem happens to be one of her most popular ones, and one that we have discussed in class: “In the Waiting Room.”

I think this poem, in many ways, is the speaker’s realization of her own identity as a woman, and furthermore, as a citizen of the world.  The speaker’s contemplation of these ideas is best seen in the lines “What similarities–/boots, hands, even the family voice/I felt in my throat, or even/the National Geographic/and those awful hanging breasts–/held us all together/or made us all just one?” Bishop beautifully introduces the idea of a young girl contemplating the threads that weave together women of different races; it’s a thread that transcends cultural boundaries, family heritage, and even sexuality. I think Bishop’s brilliance lies in the fact that she presents a believable speaker who addresses her realization of her sexual identity but has no way to resolve it, except to be immersed back into the “outside” world. One of the more interesting lines is “Then I was back in it.” Is she back in the world where she doesn’t recognize her acceptance of female identity and sexuality? Regardless of this line’s ambiguity, Bishop addresses these “big” issues with accessible language  and wonderful poetic control. She deserves to be studied among the best contemporary poets, and I think “In the Waiting Room” is one of her strongest poems.

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