Developed from Adam Sol’s popular blog, How a Poem Moves is a collection of 35 short essays that walks readers through an array of contemporary poems. Sol is a dynamic teacher, and in these essays, he has captured the humor and engaging intelligence for which he is known in the classroom. With a breezy style, Sol delivers essays that are perfect for a quick read or to be grouped together as a curriculum.
Though How a Poem Moves is not a textbook, it demonstrates poetry’s range and pleasures through encounters with individual poems that span traditions, techniques, and ambitions. This illuminating book is for readers who are afraid they “don’t get” poetry but who believe that, with a welcoming guide, they might conquer their fear and cultivate a new appreciation.
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How a Poem Puts Skin on a Mystery
Philip Levine, "Making Light of It"
I was only seventeen when I started as an undergraduate at Tufts University, outside of Boston, but I already knew that I had literary ambitions. Hearing this, an upperclassman said to me, "You should take Levine's class, 'The Poem.' It's not supposed to be for freshmen, but he doesn't care. Come to a few classes and he'll sign you in."
So my friend Risa and I gamely attended while this gruff, brilliant, wiry man with a ferocious moustache brilliantly opened poems to us, interspersed with terrifying workshops and occasional rants about the Tufts administration, American politics, and dogs. "Levine" was Philip Levine, whose hard-nosed lyric poems earned him an international reputation, a cartload of awards, and a post as the Poet Laureate of the United States.
His class was a life-changing experience — he challenged and motivated me, a privileged kid from rural Connecticut, and opened a door to contemporary poetry that started me on a journey that I'm still on. I've saved an essay I wrote for him on which his sole comment was, "Some of this is quite sharp. Some dull."
This was the fall of 1987, so he must have been putting the finishing touches on A Walk with Tom Jefferson, which came out the following year and includes this poem:
Making Light of It
I call out a secret name, the name of the angel who guards my sleep,
and light grows in the east, a new light like no other, as soft as the petals of the blown rose of late summer.
Yes, it is late summer in the West.
Even the grasses climbing the Sierras reach for the next outcropping of rock with tough, burned fingers. The thistle sheds its royal robes and quivers awake in the hot winds off the sun.
A cloudless sky fills my room, the room I was born in and where my father sleeps his long dark sleep guarding the name he shared with me. I can follow the day to the black rags and corners it will scatter to because someone always goes ahead burning the little candle of his breath, making light of it all.
— from A Walk with Tom Jefferson (Knopf, 1988)
Levine's popular reputation is largely based on the hyperrealistic poems he wrote about factory work in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book What Work Is, but he always had a streak of surrealism in him too, built on a love of the Spanish poets from the period around the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. This isn't the venue for a full exploration of Lorca, Vallejo, or Jorge Guillén, but when I return to "Making Light of It," it strikes me how Levine manages to switch back and forth between a gritty, no-nonsense portrait of the Sierras in California and something deeper, darker, and more mysterious.
We begin with a speaker calling out a "secret name," but before we can wonder why he's calling, or who the angel is, Levine steers us into a clear-eyed description of the environment, landing us with the beautiful and perfectly tangible image of the dried out, wind-blown rose petals of late summer. "Yes, it is late summer in the West" helps to firmly locate us geographically but also serves as a helpful pause after the long, complex sentence that preceded it. Meanwhile, the relevance of the "secret name" hangs in the background — who is this angel who guards his sleep? Why does the speaker need to call to it? Is the call an acknowledgement or an entreaty?
I want to point out a bit of music here that is one of Levine's unsung talents. Listen to the open sounds that happen as this first sentence comes together: the blOwn rOse links back to the light (like nO other) grOwing in the east, and later with the rOyal rObes shed by the thistle. As well, I count a full nine Ls in that first sentence and a trio of Es (sEcret, slEEp, East). All of this alliteration and assonance, for me, adds to a ceremonial aspect of the poem — it is consciously composed, almost formal despite the plain language, and moves at a stately pace.
The lines that follow "Yes, it is late summer in the West," are all rich descriptions of the landscape — the tough, burnt fingers of the grasses, the royal robes of the thistle. The mystical import of the first line seems to have departed for a moment, while the speaker adjusts himself to his waking life in a specific, beautiful, but also punishingly dry landscape. But there's a progression there too: the matter-of-fact "Yes, it is late summer in the West," leads to the more elaborate description of fingers of the grasses and the royal robes of the thistle. The metaphorical leaps here are not out of reach, but they feel increasingly evocative, scratching at the mystical. Why would the thistle wear "royal robes"? Yes, they can be purple, but why would the poet evoke royalty in a plant that is so small and unassuming?
What I'm getting at here is how the poem is training us to make bigger and bigger leaps in our metaphoric imagination. All metaphors ask our brains to do some work, to make connections between two unlike things. Because metaphors are not explicit in how the connection should be made, our brains get the pleasure of making the connections themselves. If I use a simile like "Frank's as big as a house," you know exactly the parameters of my comparison — bigness. But if you say, "Frank's a tank," you are asking me to invent the ways in which Frank is like a tank. Of course size will be a part of this, but in the case of "tank," I might also think about hardness, unstoppable movement, and a potential for violence. Levine's personification of the plant life at this point in the poem sets us up for the magic that follows. So that when "a cloudless sky fills my room," we are prepared by the natural metaphors in the previous lines, ready to be taken by surprise by the fact that the cloudless sky that fills this room is not limited to the weather.
The last two sentences of the poem form an elaborate metaphor for the spirit of the speaker's father, who is sleeping "his long dark sleep" and also guards "the name that he shared with me." What is it about guarding and names? At the opening of the poem, the speaker uses a secret name to summon an angel who guards his sleep. At the end, his father guards the name they share. In both cases, the speaker seems spookily cared for, looked after by these spirits. He even has the freedom to "follow the day" as far as he likes, because "someone" (a third spirit? a living person?) continues to make light of his father's memory, "burning the little candle / of his breath." This image reminds me of the ceremonial yahrzeit candles Jews use to commemorate the dead. The candles give off little light, but last a long time, and are meant to provide a warm, lasting comfort to those who mourn.
I admit I'm not fully sure how the angel and the father's spirit fit together in the mind of the speaker. I'm also not sure whether the "making light of it" at the end of the poem is literal or figurative. Are the people who burn the candle of his father's breath making actual light of his memory? Or does he mean the colloquial "making light of it" that suggests that others dismiss the speaker's obsession? Does it have to be either one? Either way, I keep returning to the poem, reliving its mystery because it seems like a crucial discovery for the speaker, the way he understands his inheritance, and his place in the beautiful harsh world he lives in.
Phil Levine is now sleeping his long dark sleep with his father. But I know there are plenty of others alongside me who make light by burning the little candle of his breath.CHAPTER 2
How a Poem Shapes Memory
Deborah Digges, "Stealing Lilacs in the Cemetery"
If Philip Levine was my first inspiration as a teacher, Deborah Digges was my first mentor, the first person at Tufts who took real care and time with my young slapdash poems. She was patient, learned, and, I must add, languorously gorgeous in a way that gave my still-adolescent heart a distinct, extracurricular thrill during our occasional one-on-one conferences. The central lessons I remember learning from Digges concerned the shape a poem makes — on the page, yes, but also in the mind as it travels across its subjects.
Stealing Lilacs in the Cemetery
for my son
Down the lilac alley we picked stars within stars, each cluster the one thing among many.
It was your fourteenth birthday, and morning and Sunday. The lilacs were for the table. I saw you
watch me at a distance — I wished you might remember me this way, stepping toward you over
the perfect squares of sod covering the new graves like doors into the earth,
my arms full of flowers.
— from Vesper Sparrows (Atheneum, 1986)
The poem begins with a bit of sonic music ("lilac alley"), and moves quickly into some visual magic. "[W]e picked stars / within stars" is a visual description of the lilacs themselves but carries some vaguely biblical underpinnings ("wheels within wheels," from Ezekiel). And "each cluster" being "the one / thing among many" reminds me of e pluribus unum, a way of saying how we are stronger together. So we start with a precise, allusive voice, reflected in a meandering indented form that seems to mirror the leisurely walk the speaker is taking with her son.
Despite the fact that the title admits the mother and son are stealing, they don't seem too worried about any consequences. The poem is relaxed, careful, and the regular stanzas, with extra white space expanding the shape of the poem on the page, adds to a slower reading experience.
In the second stanza we get some useful information about a special occasion, and preparations for a party. But the poem's central shift occurs in the third stanza with the "watch me at a distance — I." The enjambment in that stanza is awkward, breaking an unwritten rule about how line breaks are usually built to call attention to an evocative word or image. The pause here feels tentative, a reflective shift in the speaker's mind from the image-based memory of the first two stanzas, to a more complicated emotional discovery. If her son is turning fourteen, our speaker must be aware that her days of wandering through a cemetery with him to pick lilacs are rapidly approaching an end. There's the immediate unspoken pull of a mother who knows her son will soon grow beyond her grasp. (We need a word in our language for pre-nostalgia, the awareness that a moment we are experiencing is special, fleeting, destined to cause us sweet pain when recalled later.)
But the speaker's mixed emotions are not just about how her son is changing, but also how she will change. She is aware of herself in this moment as being at her best: at ease, a bit mischievous, and still beautiful in the eyes of her son and herself. So she wishes her son "might remember me this / way" because she knows that this self will also change, fade. She has to be aware of all the less-flattering ways that sons remember their mothers. Keep in mind also that they're doing this bit of thievery in the cemetery, and she can't help but notice that they are surrounded by "perfect squares of sod covering / the new graves like / doors into the earth." No matter how many flowers you steal, in the end the cemetery gets it all back. So her desire for her son to remember her this way is about establishing a legacy for her son's memory.
Of course, by writing this poem, and by framing the scene so explicitly, Digges has slyly ensured that we remember her this way too. So the poem helps to fulfill the speaker's wish, inscribing in our memory an image of a happy mother and her son before whatever comes next for them.
Deborah Digges died in 2009, at fifty-nine, too young. And so my images of her are bittersweet, as I'm sure are those of her sons. But one of those images is unquestionably this one of her with an armful of pilfered flowers. I suspect that would please her.CHAPTER 3
How a Poem Articulates a Feeling
C.K. Williams, "Love: Beginnings"
C.K. Williams' Flesh and Blood was the first book that I carried around with me like a talisman. I did some backpacking in Europe in the spring of 1990 — although for some reason I never got myself a backpack and insisted on carrying a duffel bag thrown over one numb shoulder. I'd often be reading Flesh and Blood while walking on the side of some German highway, brooding on it, muddying its pages. There was something compelling in how Williams' poems capture very specific images or feelings, and his willingness to use prosy language and elaborate syntax in order to get it precisely, trusting that the situation, or image, or feeling, was evocative enough to sustain the weight of the extra verbiage. The poems in Flesh and Blood all follow the same form — eight long lines which can almost be read like prose, except they're too tight, too perfect. It's like prose at its very best, all the time. And the snapshot quality of the poems couldn't find its way into any other form.
They're at that stage where so much desire streams between them, so much frank need and want,
so much absorption in the other and the self and the self-admiring entity and unity they make —
her mouth so full, breast so lifted, head thrown back so far in her laughter at his laughter,
he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual in the headiness of being craved so,
she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again, touch again,
cheek, lip, shoulder, brow,
every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away soaring back in flame into the sexual —
that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin, that filling of the heart,
the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart, snorting again, stamping in its stall.
— from Flesh and Blood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987)
There's no question that the language is prosy — the whole poem here is one sentence long, and hinges on an elaborate, almost legalistic, structure: "the stage where so much ... that just to watch them is to feel ..." Even cutting out all the asides and details that illustrate the "stage" he's writing about, it's still a sentence more suited to a textbook than an emotional outburst.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How a Poem Moves"
Copyright © 2019 Adam Sol.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
How a Poem Puts Skin on a Mystery: Philip Levine, “Making Light of It”
How a Poem Shapes Memory: Deborah Digges, “Stealing Lilacs from the Cemetery”
How a Poem Articulates a Feeling: C.K. Williams, “Love: Beginnings”
How a Poem Crystalizes an Image: Yusef Komunyakaa, “Yellowjackets”
How a Poem Makes Meaning with Music: Elise Partridge, “Domestic Interior: Child Watching Mother”
How a Poem Snapshots a Moment of Drama: Tiphanie Yanique, “My brother comes to me”
How a Poem Seduces Us with Outlandishness: Diane Seuss, “Free beer”
How a Poem Cooks Up Dark Insight: Philip Metres, “Recipe from the Abbasid”
How a Poem Pushes Us Away and Beckons Us Closer: Marilyn Dumont, “How to Make Pemmican”
How a Poem Wrestles with its Inheritance: Rahat Kurd, “Ghazal: In the Persian”
How a Poem Lives Between Languages: Natalia Toledo, trans. Clare Sullivan, “Flower that Drops Its Petals”
How a Poem Invites Us to Praise: Ross Gay, “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands”
How a Poem Answers Some Questions But Not Others: Amber McMillan, “The Light I’ve Seen in Your Hair I Have Found in My Own Hands”
How a Poem Clarifies Its Blur: Jeff Latosik, “Aubade Photoshop”
How a Poem Changes As We Read: Ali Blythe, “Shattered”
How a Poem Will (Not) Save Us: Raoul Fernandes, “Life With Tigers”
How a Poem Loves a Misunderstanding: Richard Siken, “Dots Everywhere”
How a Poem Mistrusts Its Idols: Cassidy McFadzean, “You’ll Be the Skipper, I’ll Be the Sea”
How a Poem Doesn’t Dish: Damian Rogers, “Ode to a Rolling Blackout”
How a Poem Impersonates a Tomato: Oliver Bendorf, “Queer Facts About Vegetables”
How a Poem Seeks New Models: Shannon Maguire, from Myrmurs
How a Poem Makes Itself Out of Unusual Materials: Madhur Anand, “Especially in a Time”
How a Poem Chooses the Apocalypse Behind Curtain #3: Jennifer L. Knox, “The New Let’s Make a Deal”
How a Poem Assembles a Smashed Record for Posterity: George Murray, from “#DaydreamBereaver”
How a Poem Tries to Connect Us, Despite the Obstacles: Donna Stonecipher, “Model City ”
How a Poem Welcomes Us to the Neighborhood: Bren Simmers, “[night of nesting dolls]”
How a Poem Evokes Wonder: Sarah Holland-Batt, “Botany”
How a Poem Reaches for Transcendence: Eric Pankey, “Ash”
How a Poem Mourns: Don Paterson, “Mercies”
How a Poem Confronts the Limitations of Our Empathy: Soraya Peerbaye, “Trials”
How a Poem Tries to Get Into It: Rowan Ricardo Phillips, “Little Song”
How a Poem Chattily Wonders About Life’s Purpose: Ulrikka S. Gernes, “On H. C. Andersen Boulevard During Rush Hour”
How a Poem Transforms a Stroll into a Ceremony: Joy Harjo, “Walk”
How a Poem Imperfectly Reconciles Complexity: Liz Howard, “A Wake”
How a Poem Haunts: Norman Dubie, “Lines for Little Mila”