Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Loving Poetry

Other than my "Interfaith Days" series, which has been a kind of spiritual discipline and meditation this year, I've not been blogging as much for the past several months. But a new press release for my upcoming Lenten study gives this blog in the author blurb. (Shameless commerce: the press release appears below.) So having my blog thus advertised make me realize I'd better begin writing new posts right away!

I've a recent dearth of posts because I've been focusing upon other things: finishing and then proofreading that Lenten study, creating a new seminar course for this new fall semester, and also writing poetry. Regarding that last one, I was, earlier this year, entirely startled to have a chapbook manuscript accepted for publication (you can order it here :-) ), which in turn has inspired me to develop more poems and work more diligently on style and subject matter.

For a long time I’ve loved reading poetry, especially contemporary poems, and also I hoped I would become a published poet myself. "Long time" is about forty-five years in a so-far 58-year life. My parents had an old book called Chief American Poets (Houghton Mifflin, 1905), with selected poems by Bryant, Poe, Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, Holmes, Lowell, Whitman, and Lanier. I still have the book. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I'd read it as I lay in the backyard to work on my tan (a futile and tedious process, long ago given up so I wouldn't damage my skin, but at the time I wanted to read a good book in the sunshine). I remember that favorite poems therein included William Cullen Bryant’s poem “Thanatopsis,” which he wrote when he was a teenager, Sidney Lanier’s “The Symphony” and his “The Marshes of Glynn.” I also dearly loved Masters' Spoon River Anthology (which I also still have), the often tragic voices of the people of his graveyard.

I had an exceptional English teacher at Greenville College, Dr. Elva McAllaster. Forty years ago right now, I began her freshman writing class; happily, I'm Facebook friends with some classmates in that course. One of my projects was a longish poem of a man with a lost love but that love nevertheless redeemed him---a rather Wagnerian theme before I knew of Wagner, and characteristic of my insecurities of that time. (I really, really wanted a girlfriend!) Dr. Mac, as we called her, praised the poem and gave me an A, but to the benefit of all, the poem is no longer extant.

In the 1980s, in the Southwest, I stopped by a feminist and New Age bookstore and found an anthology called The Morrow Anthology of Younger Poets. I almost left the book there because of the store’s indifferent service, but I purchased it anyway and, among the over 100 authors featured, I discovered several poets I liked (born in the 1940s and 1950s, thus the title of that 1985 book) like David Bottoms, W. S. Di Piero, Stephen Dobyns, Rita Dove, Lynn Emanuel, Louise Glück, Albert Goldbarth, Robert Hass, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sharon Olds, and others. I name these particular authors because, over the past thirty years, I also purchased or checked out books of their poems, and also books by Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, William Butler Yeats, Robert Lowell, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Rainer Maria Rilke (in Robert Bly's translation), Pablo Neruda, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Penn Warren, Michael Van Walleghen, Czeslaw Milosz, Charles Wright, David Clewell, Dan Guillory, Jane Hirschfield, Nancy Schoenberger, Langston Hughes, John Ashbery, Jane Kenyon, Robert Pack, Amy Clampitt, Dave Smith, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Wendell Berry, John Knoepfle, W. S. Merwin, William Stafford, Hayden Carruth, Jeffrey Skinner, George Bradley, Annie Dillard, Richard Kenney, Andrew Hudgins, Anne Sexton, Nick Sturm, Mary Biddinger, and others. I remember an intense seminary friend who picked up my recently-purchased Anne Sexton collection, hated it, and urged me to read Edna St. Vincent Millay instead (and I did love her poems).

That Morrow Anthology amused me slightly because of the photographs of some of the poets: the forced sense of seriousness on their expressions, and a few looked downright hostile. One poet (whom I probably shouldn’t identify) had pursed lips like she was about to spit at you. Perhaps unfairly, I thought those photos made the poets look very egotistical.

Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, is very serious (and often elegiac) in his poets but nevertheless smiles for the camera! I frequently turn to his poems because I love their sound and also the depth of his connection to the natural world. I find that inspiring and I’d like to approach that conviction in my own poems. Images of repentance, redemption, and reconciliation pervade many of his poems, like the "Sabbaths" series.

Berry’s poems remind me of another personal preference: some ambiguity in poems is necessary and beautiful, but if there is too much, I become frustrated as a reader. While I recognize the mastery of Wallace Stevens' poems I begin to think that, without a guidebook, I'm missing important things. I read Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices during our years in Virginia; the ambiguity combined with the urgency and yearning of his poems left me unsettled, like stories for which I missed essential plot elements. I'm sure that's Smith's purpose: to suggest rather than spell out. On the other hand, I dearly love the poetry of Charles Wright, whose poems are intentionally fragmented, and I also like John Ashbery’s poems, about which critics debate whether they mean anything or are artistically surrealist.

Ashbery is often funny (for instance, his "Variations, Calypso and Fugue on a Theme of Ella Wheeler Wilcox"), as is Billy Collins. As I read some of Collins' poems I felt so pleased to be chuckling; oh my gosh, this is wonderful, I thought, glad to find that although his poems could be serious (and they were beautiful) some of them pulled your leg as it were. For instance, Collins' "Fishing in the Susquehanna" is a lovely poem in which the poet admits he's never fished that or any river. I love both the sadness and humor in Michael Van Walleghen's poems, as well; his books are often on my current-reading stack.

I learned about Billy Collins from one of my best friends, Tom Dukes, who is a wonderful poet and teacher whose collection Baptist Confidential is one I turn to frequently. We both taught at University of Akron, and, when I wanted to take a class of his, I had to enroll as a freshman, something about which he still kids me. He sends me University of Akron Press collections that he recommends and also Garrison Keillor's Good Poems anthologies. He is the dedicatee of my forthcoming poetry chapbook.

Until recently I never attended a poetry reading except for one time, and it was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who visited our campus in the mid 1980s. He is a very dramatic reader of his poetry---a performer, really. A colleague read his poems in English first, and then Yevtushenko recited the same poem in his native Russian.

I read a lot of T.S. Eliot in divinity school. For some of us, seminary/divinity school degree can be a time of existential crisis or heartrending introspection, often spurred by a notable author. I’ve a friend who was knocked sideways by Kierkegaard. During my last year of divinity school, I spent so much time studying Eliot! I don’t remember what turned me to Eliot, but his poetry struck me with tremendous force. His now-familiar images--light, shadow, rock, dryness, fire, the dancer, the rose--and the way his poems communicated through their rhythms and sounds as much as by their words--not a new idea, but new to me at that time--awakened me and fascinated me. I "needed" his images at that time of my life.

Around 1981 or 2, I purchased a book called A Reader’s Guide to T. S. Eliot: A Poem by Poem Analysis by George Williamson (Noonday Press, 1964) at a favorite store, Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany, CT. (What wonderful nostalgia that website brings!) The old, used paperback, which I also still have, opened meanings and explained many allusions and quotations. Williamson also described the poet’s influences which made him a leading voice in modernism---Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French Symbolists. Ezra Pound had been so startled, how Eliot had stumbled onto this combination and become modernist on his own.

Williamson quoted Eliot concerning the intersection of poetic technique and experience; both grow, but at certain intersections of the two, superior poetry results. This, too, was a new idea to me and seemed to me an excellent philosophy of life. (The end of “The Waste Land,” and of the poems of the “Four Quartets," express that challenge.) Grad school was for me, as for many people, a circumstance where both my life-experience and my professional training were very much in process. Though not a “waste land,” the time was transitional. So during that time and after, I liked the idea of artistic wholeness (whatever artistry one may be devoted to) and spiritual growth as being two sides of a process--a process of living. Now, after all these years, the writing of poetry has become an important part of my own life-experience, in addition to its pleasure and appreciation.


And…. shameless commerce for my forthcoming Lenten study:

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