‘think on the slug’s white belly, how sick-slick and soft’

A Way to Love God by Robert Penn Warren new up at Pizzicati of Hosanna. I felt one way about this poem when I read it online, another way when I recorded it, and another way still now it’s uploaded.

It reminds me of Olduvai Gorge Thorn Tree by Sarah Lindsay.

Meanwhile, the Helen in Egypt project is progressing. I am sinking into it, or it is sinking into me. Still not sure why I am doing this, but there are 20 books in its three sections, of which two are up. Which makes the project 10% complete.

Easter poem & remembering Paul Stevens

April

I woke from my nap and heard the goldfish
whistling. I got up and pressed my face
to the glass: Goldfish,
I said. Please stop.
It unpuckered its tiny orange lips
but didn’t stop whistling.

I went outside and a warm blanket
of bees fell upon me.
That’s it, I said,
but the thrumming crept
into my ears like dormice
and you threw a bucket of sun
over me and I became so bright
I closed my eyes.

That was my first-ever published poem, accepted in 2006 by Paul Stevens, late editor of the Shit Creek Review, The Chimaera and The Flea, who died last week. Paul had a wonderful sense of humor (check out this last message!) and was a tremendous force-multiplier in the poetry blogosphere. Read an interview with him from Very Like A Whale’s Ten Questions for Poetry Editors series.

RIP, Paul, and thanks for everything.

‘A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means’

Love this, and not just because I’m an Yvor Winters fan:

A poem is a state of perfection at which a poet has arrived by whatever means. It is a stasis in a world of flux and indecision, a permanent gateway to waking oblivion, which is the only infinity and only rest. It has no responsibilities except to itself and its own perfection – neither to the man who may come to it with imperfect understanding nor to the mood from which it may originally have sprung.

from the Volta Blog, quoting a foreword by Yvor Winters.

‘as scars attach and ride the skin’

Lucille Clifton VoicesYes. Strong. Bare-bones simple. Open-hearted. Wide-hearted. Highly recommended. I liked all of this collection, particularly a series at the end called a meditation on ten oxherding pictures. The images she refers to are here (in the far left column, the ones by Kuoan Shiyuan, 101 explication here).

I love how she interpreted these pictures, how her work is so quiet and understated, yet so forceful.

‘sistering the moon’ and ‘bars of rage’

Lucille Clifton MercyMaya Angelou Collected Poems

I’m writing about these two collections together (Maya Angelou’s Complete Collected Poems and Lucille Clifton’s Mercy), although they couldn’t be more different from each other.

This is really the first time I’ve read work from either author in any concentrated way, beyond simply skimming the odd piece found in anthologies and in random places.

The Clifton gets a big thumbs up from me. Excellent tradecraft, and her spare, concentrated and understated style showcases the substance of her poems beautifully. This collection is divided into four parts: last words and stories are the first two and september song and the message from The Ones the last two. Unfortunately, the last two did not work so well for me – one is a series of poems about September 11 and its immediate aftermath, and the other seems to be a series of other-worldly communications (received by a psychic?) commenting on the human condition. I felt the themes in these two sections were too large for the poems, leading the latter to attempt too much and end up with too much abstraction and a loss of connection with the reader (or at least with this reader). On the other hand, the first two sections, which dealt with families, individuals, specific individual scenarios and events, packed some serious poetic punch and everyone should read them! One beautiful example online: dying.

As for Angelou’s poems, they did not work at all well on the page for me. The tradecraft was less noteworthy and I found her work lacked subtlety – was indeed often fairly raw, heavy-handed and sometimes even clunky. It’s easy to see where her considerable reputation comes from, though, if you do an internet search for her reciting her own work (see The Mask and Still I Rise, for example). She has a great, super-sensitive relationship with her words, a terrific voice and amazing delivery, which make her poems-as-voice much more formidable than her poems-as-text (as we might put it at Voice Alpha.)

Beyond those technical differences between the two, however (and this is why I decided to write about them together), is the big difference between the emotional places from which I felt each was writing. Angelou, it seems to me, writes from a tight, angry, bitter and sometimes rather triumphalist place. Her world feels divided into the good and the bad and in it, she robustly defends the side of the good and faces down the bad. ‘Committed’ poetry, in other words. Which has of course been important and necessary in every age, and always will be.

But, right now, other things, not these, resonate for me in poetry. Like Clifton’s more subtle, wider, and more ‘humane’ approach, with its signature underpinning of universal compassion. I like that in Clifton. Must go and find some more of her work…

‘it leaps like a bike with a wild boy riding it’

Grace Paley Begin Again I just read this Grace Paley collection again. A search on this very blog reveals I have already mentioned it three times – once in 2010 and twice in 2008. At some level, I must like it even more than I think I do.

I wrote the first time: “Rather mad and hectic in a great Stevie Smith ee cummings deadpan cartwheel razorblade sort of way. I feel I know what she means and am interested in it and like how she says it most of the time, which I realize is not such a frequent happy coincidence with me.”

And later: “Dainty white bird bones and little chameleon’s feet that pick-pick their way all the way up you then whoa your stomach parachutes out at 13,000 feet.”

The third time, I just copied out one of my favorite poems from the collection: Come back, you fucking sea.

This time I’ll just add that, although I have no idea how old she was when she wrote these poems, to me she writes like one of those cool old people who have become properly young again without losing the good things about their oldness. And she’s funny too.