Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One More Poem for the Anthology

What follows is the last of the poems I chose for the Personal Poetry Anthology project. If I think of it, I'll post the introduction to the anthology itself in a day or two.

Introduction to "Brian, Age Seven"

The poem, for me, comes alive in the second stanza as the “impossible legs” descend from the “ball of his torso.” It’s a picture that we all recognize, I think: a child’s drawn conception of the human figure, of what we look like. Elongated legs, blocky or spherical bodies, wide heads, eyes way up at the top, ears wherever they fall, and somewhere above, perhaps fit neatly into the triangle of a corner, a yellow sun, rays extending in perfect straight lines. “He breathes here,” Doty writes. At the same time, the poem catches fire with a simultaneous reflection of the world (what I recognize already as truth) and reconfiguration of the world (what I learn to see as the truth).

If art is, in some way, a reflection of who we are inside, or even of who we want to be as we reshape the world and ourselves and present them to the world anew, then consider what Brian holds inside: a giant smile, happiness almost uncontained by the borders of his face, and the sheer pleasure that the world might offer if we dare to catch hold of it – the sheer pleasure, for example, of a “towering ice cream” half as tall as Brian himself. “So much delight,” the poem insists. A gift from a soda fountain, but imaged here as “the flag of his own country held high,” as if this should be the visual representation of what we believe in, or who we belong to, of what we’ll fight for, or of what we should pledge allegiance to.

I pledge allegiance to sheer delight.

And I feel okay about that. But, then, the last three lines pull me back, stop me, or stop me and then pull me back. I start to feel like I’m running ahead of the poem. What am I to make of, “He shows us pleasure / And what pleasure resists”? What does pleasure resist? I get the penultimate line – a statement of fact – but what to do with the conclusion? I understand that the towering ice cream, the giant flag, might dwarf, in some ways, the boy himself, but why show us the boy as “frail”? Why “frail beside his relentless standard”? Has the drawing gone too far? Has Brian, in imagining such pleasure, in imagining such an impossibility turned it into something negative? Has the illusion, the human creation (rather than the world’s reality) become too much?

Mark Doty: "Brian, Age Seven"

Grateful for their tour
of the pharmacy,
the first-grade class
has drawn these pictures,
each self-portrait taped
to the window-glass,
faces wide to the street,
round and available,
with parallel lines for hair.

I like this one best: Brian,
whose attenuated name
fills a quarter of the frame,
stretched beside impossible
legs descending from the ball
of his torso, two long arms
springing from that same
central sphere. He breathes here,

on his page. It isn’t craft
that makes this figure come alive;
Brian draws just balls and lines,
in wobbly crayon strokes.
Why do some marks
seem to thrill with life,
possess a portion
of the nervous energy
in their maker’s hand?

That big curve of a smile
reaches nearly to the rim
of his face; he holds
a towering ice cream,
brown spheres teetering
on their cone,
a soda fountain gift
half the length of him
—as if it were the flag

of his own country held high
by the unadorned black line
of his arm. Such naked support
for so much delight! Artless boy,
he’s found a system of beauty:
he shows us pleasure
and what pleasure resists.
The ice cream is delicious.
He’s frail beside his relentless standard.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Introduction to "No, Superman Was Not the Only One"

It’s a sonnet. And there’s a wonderful dissonance between the tradition of the sonnet, the formality of the sonnet, the aura that surrounds the sonnet, and what we keep running into in the text of this poem – Superman, Lois Lane, Clark Kent. There’s a wonderful friction between what we assume a sonnet should be and all of the associations we have with comic books, with superheroes, with those over-familiar tropes: the superpowered man, the damsel forever in distress, the secret identity, the bizarre triangle between the fronted identity, the superhero, and the female. In turning over our expectations of what a sonnet should be about, Machan also turns over our expectations of what Lois Lane was, of what she could have been. See, it turns out, we never truly understood her; our knowledge of her, our understanding of her, is just as limited as the average Metropolis policeman’s knowledge of Clark Kent. Simple Clark Kent. Mild-mannered Clark Kent.

See, Lois Lane, too, was just a front, just another public identity. She, too, had a secret. She, too, could tap into powers that the rest of us might be too timid to do more than dream about. She, too, could seem “almost to fly.” She, too, could become “a bird, a plane, super in midnight sky.”

As could, I think the poem insists, all of us, were we not so intent on keeping those truly powerful parts of ourselves hidden, on keeping those things that we love, that we care about, hidden even from those we share so much of the rest of our lives with.

We all have secret identities. We all keep our selves hidden. We might not hide them in such obvious ways as, say, Superman or Batman, but we hide them nonetheless. We hide them by pretending not to care about the things we love. We hide them by prefacing otherwise passionate claims with clauses like, “Well, I’m not sure, and I probably haven’t thought enough about this, but” and “I don’t know but” and “I know it sounds silly but.” We make reference to “guilty pleasures.” We distance ourselves with irony. We reach tentatively toward caring from a stance of light mockery and sometimes never extend ourselves beyond that.

Katharyn Howd Machan: "No, Superman Was Not the Only One"

In secret, Lois Lane wore coins and jewels
draped perfectly against the naked skin
she perfumed with wild jasmine, taunting fools
who’d denigrate her dance as snaky sin.
She called for drumbeat, shook the stage apart
with shift and shimmy, crescent arms upraised
to show the world the power of her art
and how on Earth the Goddess should be praised.
In silvered silk, her pinned-up hair set free,
she swayed and turned and seemed almost to fly
above the smoky air, almost to be
a bird, a plane, super in midnight sky.
No newspaper reported what she did;
even from Clark she kept her cymbals hid.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Introduction to "Louie Louie"

The proto-rock ‘n’ roll shout. The pure chunk of three-chord adolescent nonsense. The primevalest of the primeval garage rock riffs. The teenage attempt at grunting and singing what can’t be said (and, judging from this song, can’t really be sung, either). Pinsky takes his title from the Kingsmen’s two minutes of supposed obscenity, two minutes onto which you can project whatever lyrics, whatever interpretation, whatever meaning you want.

Listening to the song becomes a sort of act of willful fantasy: I declare that he’s saying these lines, these lines and no others. What I hear is the reality of what he sings. What I want to hear is the reality of what he sings.

And, in the same way, I think the poem is a fantasy. A fantasy of a different world, a world that you get to create. A fantasy of ignorance, an impossible ignorance in which you can never have heard of Buck Rogers or Will Rogers. A fantasy of a world in which you were never forced to know, to hear of, Pearl Buck. An impossible world in which an individual can manage to never hear of George W. Bush, which can only mean that he never became noteworthy, that he – in this world – never became President, never became anything more than another failed businessman with a lot of family money keeping him safe.

But, as read it again, I’m not so sure. On a sixth, or seventh, or seventeenth reading, other aspects of it start to stand out, making me question that reading. In the end, while it makes sense that the speaker (of a poem) would have heard of “I Hear America Singing,” why can he not fully remember? If this is fantasy, why not know Whitman better than that? Why erase Whitman along with someone like Bush? Why put Whitman in terms of a book read sometime in high school – or a book simply possessed, simply “had in high school”?

For that matter, I assume that he’s being critical of Pearl Buck, lumping her in the “never heard of” category with the Beastie Boys and Bush, but that assumption, I’ll admit, may be based more in my unpleasant high school memories of The Good Earth than in the text of the poem itself.

Maybe anytime we start to substitute an imagined reality, an illusion, for the world itself, we risk that same tension, that same pulling apart that’s rooted in to being able to have truth cut two ways. That friction, that rubbing where the illusion joins the reality, will wear and wear, erode and flake, while we keep covering it over with temporary patches and band-aids, unwilling to look too closely at the fracture that’s truly there.

Robert Pinsky: "Louie Louie"

I have heard of Black Irish but I never
Heard of White Catholic or White Jew.
I have heard of “Is Poetry Popular?” but I
Never heard of Lawrence Welk Drove
Sid Caesar Off Television.

I have heard of Kwanzaa but I have
Never heard of Bert Williams.
I have never heard of Will
Rogers or Roger Williams
Or Buck Rogers or Pearl Buck
Or Frank Buck or Frank
Merriwell At Yale.

I have heard of Yale but I never
Heard of George W. Bush.
I have heard of Harvard but I
Never heard of Numerus Clausus
Which sounds to me like
Some kind of Pig Latin.

I have heard of the Pig Boy.

I have never heard of the Beastie
Boys or the Scottsboro Boys but I
Have heard singing Boys, what
They were called I forget.

I have never heard America
Singing but I have heard of I
Hear America Singing, I think
It must have been a book
We had in school, I forget.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Poetry Anthology Introductions

Students' anthologies are due Wednesday and Thursday. I'm almost done, too: a couple more introductions to edit and the "overall" introduction to write and then it's time to move on.

I'm in the middle of another Rolling Stone "100 Best" reactions, this time to Joni Mitchell's Blue. Anyone have thoughts on that record?

Introduction to "Deeper Than Love"

When I read DH Lawrence’s “Deeper than Love,” I was immediately taken back to my sophomore year of college, to my class on Latin American short stories, a class in which all of the reading, all of the writing, and all of the discussion was in Spanish. I thought of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s short story “Muerte Constante Mas Alla del Amor” and my struggle, in our discussion of it, to explain that we all carry around with us a belief, an illusion, that love can and will transcend death, but that this might be merely wishful thinking. It’s a hard story to discuss, as I remember, without words like “bromide” or “platitude” or “myth” or phrases like, “It’s possible that I’m just a cynical college student and that I’ll probably grow out of this arrogant cynicism in a few years.”

It seems to me that this is what Lawrence’s poem is doing: not discussing a great story with only limited (if technically proficient) Spanish, but asking us to look at what we believe about love, at what power, what strength we ascribe to love and why we insist on giving it those qualities. The poem, for what it’s worth, is not willing to cede the kind of ultimate power, ultimate authority to love than many poems are. “There are deeper things than love,” Lawrence writes. And then, while praising love as life, as like the flowers, as lovely, as like the living life on earth, he proceeds to demolish many of these cherished ideals of love.

You love? Great. You’re still alone.

Love grows like flowers? Great. Underneath is solitary rock.

Love is twoness? Great. But underneath that twoness, you’re still alone.

Underneath, the poem keeps insisting. Underneath. Consider what is underneath. And what is underneath is not worse than love, nor uglier than love, but different: a fiery primordial imperative, a primordial consciousness. Justice.

Clearly, love matters. Connection matters. I believe that. And I very well may believe that love, that a connection between people, can be stronger than death. I’ve certainly argued it before: if I am changed by another person, by the love of another person, and that person dies, am I not still changed? And, in that respect, isn’t love – what it creates, how it manifests itself – stronger than death? The truth, the beauty of the trinity lies not in its religious overtones, or its papal mystery, but in its recognition that any strong love between two individuals creates a third individual. Not a sentient being. Not a sentient spirit. It’s dependent upon the two, but independent of the two. It manifests itself in the world. It affects the world. It changes the world.

Why does that matter?

We know love affects us. We know love changes us. But that does not mean that we have to ascribe to it supernatural power, or that we have to construct myths around it.

We can live quite contentedly, quite complacently, with a surface-level understanding of the world. We can even live relatively contentedly (or at least complacently) only presenting the surface of ourselves to the world. But doing so involves a fundamental denial. You must deny that there is more to yourself. You must deny that you hold things back. You must deny that any part of you wishes to probe further, to ask more questions, to dare more amibiguity, to confront more mystery, or to live more honestly.

Let us confront the occasional myth. Not for the sake of demolishing it, but for the sake of pursuing a genuine, personal understanding. For the sake of taking a potentially rewarding risk: living beyond the surface of the world. Living beyond the surface of yourself.

DH Lawrence: "Deeper Than Love"

There is love, and it is a deep thing
but there are deeper things than love.

First and last, man is alone.
He is born alone, and alone he dies
and alone he is while he lives, in his deepest self.

Love, like the flowers, is life, growing.
But underneath are the deep rocks, the living rock that lives alone
and deeper still the unknown fire, unknown and heavy, heavy
and alone.

Love is a thing of twoness.
But underneath any twoness, man is alone.

And underneath the great turbulent emotions of love, the violent herbage,
lies the living rock of a single creature's pride,
the dark, naif pride.
And deeper even than the bedrock of pride
lies the ponderous fire of naked life
with its strange primordial consciousness of justice
and its primordial consciousness of connection,
connection with still deeper, still more terrible life-fire
and the old, old final life-truth.

Love is of twoness, and is lovely
like the living life on the earth
but below all roots of love lies the bedrock of naked pride, subterranean,
and deeper than the bedrock of pride is the primordial fire of the middle
which rests in connection with the further forever unknowable fire of all things
and which rocks with a sense of connection, religion
and trembles with a sense of truth, primordial consciousness
and is silent with a sense of justice, the fiery primordial imperative.

All this is deeper than love
deeper than love.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Introduction to "Each from Different Heights"

There’s a wonderful honesty in Stephen Dunn’s “Each from Different Heights,” a willingness to push against what we might assume to be true or what we might want to be true. In this case, Dunn asks us to examine the distinction that we want to draw between those times we claim to have been truly in love and those times it turned out not to have been love, and to ask to what extent that distinction is real. How big is it, really? Does it exist at all? Or do we just assume that it should, or wish that it did? How different is that time “I thought I was in love” from the time “I was truly in love”? If I can speak of my love calmly, does that mean that the love is not real? If I sleep poorly and find myself speaking to the wall, does that mean that my love is true?

The distinctions get flattened.

And the hurt that we carry from the loss of love and the falls we take, the pain that seems so overwhelming when love is lost, when a relationship ends, when someone hurts us – that, too, might be subject to this same flattening. Perhaps the “longer fall” leaves a bigger bruise, a darker bruise, a deeper bruise, but it, just like a small one, just like a mild one, fades. Fades to perfect whiteness.

Now, clearly, you don’t want to take that flattening too far. To claim that all hurts are, in essence, equal because all bruises fade is to deny, I think, at least some fundamental emotional truth. But I don’t think Dunn takes it that far. The poem remains grounded, wonderfully grounded, especially in moments like this: “Sometimes even the false is tender.”

And that’s true. Hard, but true.

I appreciate that honesty, but, really, what I respond to most in the poem is the speaker, truly in love, discovering “the hidden genius of [his] hands.” Is there any greater spur to creativity, to expression, to getting up and getting out and Getting Shit Done, than love? Have you ever been as inspired as when you decide that you’re “truly in love”? Have you ever felt more like a genius? More like someone capable of creation? More like someone capable of expression? More like someone who should create?

Stephen Dunn: "Each from Different Heights"

That time I thought I was in love
and calmly said so
was not much different from the time
I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud
to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius
Of my hands.
And the times I felt less in love,
less than someone,
were, to be honest, not so different
Each was ridiculous in its own way
and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.
I am astounded
by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights
diminished, which is simply the law.
And the big bruise
from the longer fall looked perfectly white
in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.

The Brothers Grossman

In English 11, we bracketed our study of transcendentalism and Into the Wild with two choice books. For each, we went to the library and chose books from a cart that one of our librarians was nice enough to put together for me. For the first, I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians, which has some fantastic moments and is absolutely worth reading. It's a lot of fun watching Grossman simultaneously celebrate and deconstruct both fantasy and coming-of-age-private-school literature. Plus, it has this passage:

“If there’s a single lesson that life teaches us, it’s that wishing doesn’t make it so. Words and thoughts don’t change anything. Language and reality are kept strictly apart – reality is tough, unyielding stuff, and it doesn’t care what you think or feel or say about it. Or it shouldn’t. You deal with it, and you get on with your life.”

Not bad, huh? It's even better in the context of the novel's consideration of just what kind of life fantasy literature (of the "kids find fantasy world that's kind of like ours but has kings and queens and talking animals and treasure and torches" sort) leads us to expect.

For the second, I read Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, which engages in its own act of celebration and gentle mockery, in this case of superhero comics. It's funnier, but maybe ultimately a little less satisfying than his brother's The Magicians.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Marquee Moon

Television’s Marquee Moon is #38 on that Rolling Stone list from 1987. I didn’t hear this record until my sophomore year of college, after I started working at WCBN, hosting the stereotypical 3-6 a.m. slot one night every two weeks and spending those three hours running back and forth between the broadcast studio and an old production studio so that I could not only get music out over the air, but also dub four albums every shift. One of the first tasks I gave myself was to track down as many of those 1987 top 100 albums as I could. Marquee Moon was one of those.

And I loved it. The vinyl that I taped it from was a little beat up, and the whole thing just barely fit on one side of a tape, but I loved that thing. It was one of my go-to tapes that winter and I have clear memories of walking to my logic class listening to it and taking an extra lap around a hallway so that I could hear those last few desperate notes of “Prove It” before I sat down to an hour of Venn Diagrams.

And God, it’s still good. The tape has been replaced by two different CD issues, but the thing is still magic. It still crackles with this intensity, this tension, this electricity that’s unmatched, for me, by anything else from that mid-1970s New York punk scene. It’s not just the twin guitars of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, either (though they are justly lionized). It’s the skittering drums, always solid, but rarely predictable. It’s Fred Smith’s bass weaving its own melodies around the guitars. It’s the songs themselves, with their interlocking riffs and the bizarre couplets that emerge from Verlaine’s pen, like

My eyes are like telescopes
I see it all backwards, but who needs hope?

Yet it’s the guitars you remember. Lloyd’s more traditional solos and Verlaine’s unexpected jumps and leaps, the flashes of Neil Young rumblestorms and the moments of Richard Thompson fury, the psychedelic raveups and the third-eye explorations. It’s the neurotic, tense quality of Verlaine’s solo on “Friction.” It’s the way the notes of “Prove It” seem choked off, emerging from whatever the guitar equivalent of clenched teeth is. It’s the way the riffs of “Venus de Milo” run around the lyrics with what seems like complete abandon. It’s hearing Lloyd’s solo in “See No Evil” and comparing it to Verlaine’s in “Friction” and wondering just how much of the band’s greatness was driven by fundamental tension between their differing approaches to the guitar.

The only song I’m impatient with now is “Guiding Light,” which, in the context of so much that seems otherworldly, that taps this anxious, desperate nerve so effectively, comes across as predictable, as pat, as out of place. It feels like a song that anyone could have done, whereas the rest of the album is almost dauntingly singular. I remember really liking it in college, appreciating its relative calm, its chiming arpeggios, even Lloyd’s melodic solo, but now I just feel like it drags, and I find myself impatient to get to the glorious barbed wire solo of “Prove It.”

And last thing: this is Television’s debut. The debut. The first record. How many other groups can claim such a debut? How many other first albums are this strong? Big Pink, maybe? Freak Out? Appetite for Destruction? Please Please Me? Slanted and Enchanted?

I don’t know that I’d move it any higher than #38, but I have absolutely no problem with this making the list.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Introduction to "Rock Polisher"

What an illusion this one presents. What a dream this one becomes. What a fantasy. What a wish: take all the less-than-perfect aspects of your life, all of the nostalgic longings, the disappointments, the memories that hurt and the memories that simply drag, the embarrassing haircuts, the useless items, the hopes that went unfulfilled and the seemingly promising moments that slipped by without delivering anything that mattered, anything that would last. Take all of this and toss it in the rock polisher. Let it churn for a week, let it all tumble around, the disappointments with the loss, the petty nonsense with the hurt, and let it emerge brilliant, perfect, and pure.

A fantasy. A beautiful fantasy (at least at first), but a fantasy nonetheless. And in this fantasy, even God’s mercy gets perfected (“at last”). I love that, love the implication that the mercy had been imperfect, had been in need of polishing – that that mercy, like a Christmas without snow when snow was all one wished for, had disappointed. And I love how the poem compresses everything that gets put in the polisher, how it equalizes everything: your school shoes, your eighth grade haircut, your parents, your God, all get elevated to the same status, to the same level. They are made equal. The poem reminds us that it’s a nonsensical pursuit to try to rank our disappointments, our failings, to try to claim that one thing hurt more than another. It’s not a matter of one thing needing polishing more than the next, but that all things are imperfect, and that if we’re going to polish one, we better be prepared to polish them all.

And with that, the poem reveals that this fantasy is not as beautiful as it may have appeared. It took me a while to catch this fragment of a line from about the middle of the poem: “It’s way past lights out now.” But there it is. See it? See the suggestion that this process becomes a trap, becomes a prison? Once you start, once you make the decision that all of these disappointments should be polished, should be perfected, you become trapped in the process. You can’t stop. It imprisons you. You try to perfect the way you love. You try to perfect the ocean, itself a rock polisher, but one that works too slowly. You try to perfect the sky, the sky that was good enough for Christ, good enough for Mozart – but not, in this prison, good enough for you.

Why can’t the moment when the girl on the track team touched your wrist be enough? Why can’t you see that as a perfect moment in and of itself?

Or, as Robert Bly, in “Wanting Sumptuous Heavens,” puts it: “There is no end to our grumbling: we want comfortable earth and sumptuous heaven.”

Chris Forhan: "Rock Polisher"

Your father bought it, brought it
to the basement utility closet, waited
while a test pebble tumbled in it.
One week: he’d willed it to brilliance.
The grit kit’s yours now, the silicon
carbide pack. Split it, have at it.
Jasper, agate, amethyst crystal,
it’ll churn to a luster. Listen
to small rocks grind the big one down.
Stones in the driveway, pry them up, why not,
they’ll fit, glass knobs on your mother’s
bathroom cabinet, your baseball
and mitt, polish them, polish that
zero-win Peewee League season.
The thing your sister said and then
took back, you still have it, polish it,
polish the snowless Christmas
when all you’d hoped for was snow.
It’s way past lights out now, you’re crouched
above the barrel, feeding it
your school shoes, your haircut
in eighth grade—flat bangs
to the bridge of your nose—the moment
that girl on the track team touched
your wrist, then kept her fingers there,
the way you loved dumbly
and do. If the sun’s up, it’s nothing,
you’re polishing, you’re pouring in
the ocean rolling rocks into cobbles
too slowly, and the sky, it was
Mozart’s, was Christ’s sky,
no matter, dismantle it, drop it
into the tumbler, and you too, get in there
with your Dad and your Mom and the cat,
one by one, the whole family,
and God’s mercy, perfect at last.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Introduction to "Practicing"

I first heard this poem when Orlean Anderson read it at a Northern Virginia Writing Project party in the summer of – what was it, 2002? 2003? I remember her reading it to us as we sat on the floor of someone else’s living room, the lot of us, for the summer, if not forever, writers, professionals, teachers, committed to our teaching and our writing, our learning and our students’ learning. And I remember thinking, as I heard the poem, that someday, maybe, I’d bring that poem into my classroom.

I never did.

As the file of poetry grew – first on overhead transparencies and later simply stored on the school’s server as a whole mess of zeroes and ones – it somehow never made the cut. It was just a little too much, I thought. It went just a little too far, like the one line about a “stifled come-cry” in Galway Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” a poem that, like “Practicing,” I’ve also never read in class. And while I like the poem, like both poems, there never really seemed to be a compelling reason to offer it to the class. It’s somehow more acceptable, I suspect, to read something like Sherman Alexie’s “On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City,” with its line about “Don-fucking-Henley” than it is to read of girls sucking each other’s breasts and leaving marks, lifting their nightgowns and letting the straps drop.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re both unacceptable. Maybe I’m fooling myself into thinking that either one was so much merit (either as poetry or as motivation to kids to read more poetry) to warrant its presence in my classroom. Maybe it’s just an illusion I sell myself: that we’re old enough, mature enough that this isn’t a problem, that the fact that AP English is a college class justifies treating it as such, as possessing the kind of freedom you might find in public university classroom.

Here, in any case, is what I like most about Howe’s poem: the pretense of what the girls are doing, the artifice with which they cloak their actions: this is practice, just practice; now you be the boy (for one of us has to if this it to be merely practice).

And what is kept internal, what is thought but not said, and the two ways that that works in the poem: first, the girls thinking (but not saying) “that feels good” and “I like that, and, second, the truth of the first kisses kept, for the most part, unmentioned, though obviously remembered.

And how there is something left unrevealed in the daylight, kept hidden, no matter how pure that “unreluctant desire” might have been.

And the imagery that constantly reminds us of childhood and of youthful indiscretion and experimentation: we were stoned on kisses, sleeping bags, Linda’s basement being like a boat, etc.

Growing up might mean learning how to acknowledge the truth of such desires, learning how to bring them into the daylight, but it also means learning how to hide others, learning how to be less and less emotionally open, emotionally available in order that the world, the others, the other selves, the other lives, can’t press quite so insistently, quite so painfully, and quite so joyfully on your own.

The poem calls it “practicing.” And that is what we call it. Getting ready. We tell ourselves that so much of being young is practicing, is preparing. Preparing for adulthood. Preparing for real life. We call it practicing, but I’m afraid we rarely have the courage to actually participate in the game itself, to move beyond rehearsal, to stop getting ready and start being ready, to stop preparing and start living, start participating, and start being.

Marie Howe -- "Practicing"

I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade,
a song for what we did on the floor in the basement

of somebody’s parents’ house, a hymn for what we didn’t say but thought:
That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each others’ mouths

how to move our tongues to make somebody moan. We called it practicing, and
one was the boy, and we paired off -- maybe six or eight girls -- and turned out

the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses, and lifted our
nightgowns or let the straps drop, and, Now you be the boy:

concrete floor, sleeping bag or couch, playroom, game room, train room, laundry.
Linda’s basement was like a boat with booths and portholes

instead of windows. Gloria’s father had a bar downstairs with stools that spun,
plush carpeting. We kissed each others’ throats.

We sucked each others’ breasts, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs
outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was

practicing, and slept, sprawled so our legs still locked or crossed, a hand still lost
in someone’s hair… and we grew up and hardly mentioned who

the first kiss really was — a girl like us, still sticky with the moisturizer we’d
shared in the bathroom. I want to write a song

for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire,
just before we made ourselves stop.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Introduction to "Keeping Things Whole"

Mark Strand’s poetry confuses me. It’s often, though not always, a pleasant confusion, but a confusion nonetheless. This might be what that AP prompt from twenty years ago refers to as a “healthy mix of pleasure and disquietude,” though I have a feeling they mean something more along the lines of the fractured chronology of, say, Catch-22, or the fantastic imposition of a nightmare upon reality in Metamorphosis. Strand’s words, his images, give me pleasure (think of “Eating Poetry,” with its panicked librarian, its dogs on the stairs), but they also unsettle me, not because they raise uncomfortable questions for me (like, say, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), and not because they disturb me (as, say, The Road, might), but because I feel like I don’t quite get them, like I can’t quite put them together into a coherent whole. I understand the words. I can make sense of the images. He’s not writing sentences like “toothbrush flies painted a dog,” sentences that syntactically and grammatically work but which convey no meaning. But they resist – just a little bit, just enough to unsettle me – quick readings, quick understandings.

That said, I enjoy this poem a lot. I’m continuously startled by the opening stanza, by the sense I have, reading it, like I’m seeing a fundamental truth fresh and anew, like I’m seeing something that I should know but have never thought about, like I’m seeing something that was always there but whose thereness I couldn’t see until Strand pointed it out to me. “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” How perfectly true, no? If I step into a field, I fill a piece of that space that was formerly field. I replace a piece of field. I become, in essence, what simultaneously becomes missing from that field, from that space.

And then, when I move, the field returns, becomes whole again.


And made better by the turn: the speaker then tells himself, insists to himself that this is why he moves: in order to keep things whole. What a perfect reason. I move to keep things whole. It’s justification and rationalization all at once. It’s what we tell ourselves whenever we can’t handle what we’ve become, whenever we don’t want to accept the responsibility for being the absence of the thing that we have replaced: this is what I do. This is who I am. It’s my responsibility. I have to move or things won’t stay whole. “We all have reasons,” Strand writes. And he’s right. We do. We might invent them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re there. Nor does it change the fact that we might invent them because we’re unable, or unwilling, to face the truth of what they cover, to face the reality behind the illusion they create.

Note, by the way, how the last stanza moves from four words, to two, to two again, and then back to four. Symmetry. And the total: twelve words out of four lines. Twelve words that could have been twelve lines, that could have been the foundation of a sonnet, that could have been everything but a sonnet’s payoff – that payoff that, in a sonnet, is revealed in the final couplet, in the final comment that tells us how to read what came before. In this poem, in this stanza, that final couplet is missing. It is the absence.

Note, too, the absence of sense in that last paragraph. It’s a nonsensical argument. It’s a desperate reach – albeit a deliberately desperate reach, an attempt to create an understanding where there isn’t one. An attempt to cover a truth that I might not be willing to face, to create an illusion that allows me to live, to live both with the poem and with myself. After all, we all have reasons. For moving. For creating. For believing.

Mark Strand: "Keeping Things Whole"

In a field
I am the absence
Of field.
This is
Always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
And always
The air moves in
To fill the spaces
Where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
For moving.
I move
To keep things whole.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Beloved - 2009-10

Students sometimes ask whether it gets dull teaching the same books over and over again.

And it doesn't, really.

Or, to be more precise, when I find that teaching a book is dull, I take a year or two off of it and see if it returns to life again.

But books that I return to again and again tend to stay alive, tend to continue to spark a response in me for a few reasons:

1. Students have new insights into them.
2. Students get to encounter them for the first time.
3. I'm a different person every time I re-read these texts.

The first one is great when it happens.

The second one is a reason, in and of itself, to teach.

And the third one surprises me just about every year. And because I'm a different person -- even if only a little -- every time I re-read a particular text, different issues, different ideas, different questions, pop out at me with any given reading. And I notice things that I was apparently too dense to notice before.

Toni Morrison's Beloved gave me yet another how-was-I-so-dense moment this year as I read the final few lines before the internal monologues:

"When Sethe locked the door, the women inside were free at last to be what they liked, see whatever they saw, and say whatever was on their minds."

How did I miss that before? "The women inside were free at last..." How could I have breezed right past that over the last eight or nine readings?

Free at last. Deliberately taking from Martin Luther King, from the spiritual he cites itself, to shed light not on three women who are, finally, free, but who -- in the most terrible of ironies -- are probably less free in that moment than they've been in the last 18 years. Free at last.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Introduction to "What Work Is"

I love the turn that Phillip Levine’s “What Work Is” takes, how it opens, essentially, with “You know what work is” and (assuming that you read on, that you’re not left behind either because you’re not old enough or because you know what work is but don’t do it) then ends with “You don’t know what work is.” And in between we get the picture of how much it takes to look for work, to wait for work, to stand in line in the rain trying not to surrender to despair, to the truth that there is no work, that your life, your status, your ability to provide (much less pursue the stuff, the life stuff, that you actually care about) is completely dependent on someone else. How much work it is not to have work to do. How much work it is to know that you’re wasting this time, that these hours will never be given back, nor accounted for, nor made right.

I’ve thought a lot about that kind of work in the last decade or so. It comes, I think, with the seemingly simple revelation that your parents, your mother and father, are real people. That they have lives. That they have – and had – dreams and desires and goals and passions. That at least some of them got subsumed into family, into the raising of a family, into the raising of you. That at least some of them got subsumed into responsibility. And responsibility is ever the enemy of dreams, of desires, of passions. Here, in the first third of the poem, I find that reflected, and I find the poem pushing me in that direction: think of how much work it is to exchange your life’s minutes and hours for responsibility and the need to stand in the rain waiting for work that won’t materialize.

But we understand, with the turn in the final third, that this work, this terrible backbreaking work, is nothing next to what it would take to do “something so simple, so obvious” as take your brother by the shoulders, look him in the eye and tell him that you love him. That, the poem insists, is work. We hide that away. We keep it from those around us. It becomes a part of our inner lives, our secret selves, what we sometimes (and maybe mistakenly) think of as our true selves. We make excuses for it (“I’m too young,” or “it’s too obvious,” or “I’m incapable of crying in the presence of another man”). But the truth is that we just don’t want to do the work.

Note, too, that the first time the brother comes up in the poem, it’s a mistake. The speaker, who becomes the “you,” misidentifies another man, a stranger, as his brother. And this blows the poem wide open – opens it to the possibility that not only can we not do this simple, obvious thing with our own families, our own brothers, but also that we willfully miss the opportunity to extend that love to the millions of unrelated brothers who, like us, stand in line and pretend that what we know to be true is false: that we’re not responsible to one another; that we don’t belong to anything larger than ourselves; that we know what work really is.

Philip Levine: "What Work Is"

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

Poetry Anthology

The other thing I'm working on, at the moment, is an anthology of poetry. My AP Seniors are putting together "Personal Poetry Anthologies," and I'm participating, too. Each student spends almost two weeks reading poetry in class, finding, over the course of those class periods, poems that speak to him or her, poems that matter to him or her, and poems that might fit together. Each student, ultimately, is responsible for collecting ten poems into a new anthology, a new collection -- a collection whose theme, whose organizing principle, is up to that student. The student then writes an introduction to the anthology and to each poem.

As I type them up, I'm going to post my introductions.

Because I can.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Sgt. Pepper

In 1989, as I discovered an obsession with music that ran as strongly as any other obsession I had in high school, college, or after, I had two guides that kept me hunting for albums that I hadn’t heard, or might not otherwise have heard. Both were mainstream, unconcerned with too much out of the ordinary or in what Neil Young might have called “the ditch.” Any time I found myself in a bookstore, I searched for books of “the best albums of all time” or comprehensive collections of reviews, but it was these two lists – probably because I owned them – that I came back to more than others, that I read over and over, that, in the end, I almost memorized. Both were from Rolling Stone: in 1987, in celebration of the magazine’s twentieth anniversary, the staff published a list of “The Greatest Albums of the Last Twenty Years,” and in 1989, it published its list of “The Greatest Albums of the 1980s.” It’s that first list that I’m concerned with now.

Obviously, it’s limited by the two decade boundary, as well as by the magazine’s boomer bias and its insistence on focusing almost entirely on rock. But I’m not interested in complaining about that, really. Instead, now that I’ve heard, over the course of my own two decades of listening, all of those “Greatest Albums,” I want to go back and listen to them again and think about not only what they’ve meant to me (if anything), but what they mean now and to what extent they hold up.

I’ll choose albums more or less randomly.

But I’ll start with the magazine’s number one: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Everyone’s heard it. Everyone knows it. It’s as enshrined as The Beatles themselves in rock ‘n’ roll history.

But it’s really not that great.

Now, I love The Beatles. I’ll stump all day for Please Please Me and Revolver as phenomenal collections. I’ll make a case for Rubber Soul and Hard Day’s Night as a tiny bit flawed but still great. I’ll argue for “Twist and Shout” as fundamental to what it means to be human. I’ll listen to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Help” absolutely anytime. I’ll take Lennon’s vocals on “You Really Got a Hold on Me” over Smokey Robinson’s, even.

But I can’t get behind Sgt. Pepper’s. Not at this point. In high school, I loved it, but mostly because I felt like I was supposed to. I thought “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was clever. Trippy, even – whatever that means. I figured “Fixing a Hole” had to be a wild metaphor for self-investigation and that therefore it was awesome.. I justified my love of it by pointing to the album’s supposed “concept,” and to the sound effects, and to the way that instruments moved around the stereo spectrum. In college, I stopped listening to anything on it beyond “A Day in the Life.” Now, I find myself most drawn to a couple of tracks that I tended not to like twenty years ago: “Lovely Rita” (mostly for the introduction; after that, it’s maybe a little too cutesy) and “Good Morning” (for the rhythm shifts and for the way it runs perfectly into the title track’s reprise). I still love “A Day in the Life” and probably always will. “Getting Better” is a solid song, but it’s the first one on the album and it’s the fourth track in.

“When I’m 64,” though? Awful. “Will you still need me / will you still feed me.” That’s what McCartney actually sings. “Will you still feed me?” As if the relationship is already one of medical dependence. Meanwhile, “Within You, Without You” is insufferable. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a throwaway, a solid vocal melody obscured by sound effects and silliness. And “She’s Leaving Home” is maudlin and about four minutes too long.

I know that the album has fallen from its lofty mid-80s position as the great rock record, and I know that it was a big part of that Kill Your Idols book, but, even given that, it’s still overpraised. Should it make a list of the 100 best albums of 1967-1987? Maybe. Especially if “importance” is at all a factor in the judging. But should it be number one? Absolutely not.

Writing Again

Two ongoing assignments: for one, I’m working on the Personal Poetry Anthology that my AP Seniors are completing; and for the other, I’m taking a look back at Rolling Stone’s 1987 list of “The Greatest Albums of the Last 27 Years.” Onward.