Machado’s advice on keeping your own voice

from Antonio Machado “Portrait”

In my passion for beauty, out of modern aesthetics
I’ve cut old-fashioned roses in gardens of Ronsard,
but I’ve felt no great love for the latest in cosmetics
nor will you find me trilling the stylish airs.

I’m not impressed by those puffed-up tenors’ ballads
or the cricket chorus crooning to the moon.
I’ve learned to tell the voices from the echoes
and of all the voices listen to only one.


the poem I need today

is this, because I am so far from really knowing the lesson of these first five lines:

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

on the dangers of writing in “I”

from Carol Frost’s essay “Self-Pity” in After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

There are two reasons I have avoided the first-person pronoun. First, readers encountering the “I” may substitute an interest in the affairs and concerns of a presumably real person for the experience of the poem. Second, I may be unable to finesse the language, the image, and the line to clarify the emotion and experience with sufficient variety and force to move the poem toward the universal and memorable.

The first-person pronoun seems the trickiest of all, because of the tendency, in present tense, for a persona to be created whose utterances and behaviors seem too tenderly self-regarding. [In poems with too much self-regard, when we are told the speaker feels deeply but shown no other implicit or explicit motivation] the uses of the first person—look at me, listen to what I want—provide one: this is the way I feel. And think. It’s as if the subject of the poem is the poet’s consciousness and sensitivity.

The verbal contraption Auden said a poem is can tell us as much about the writer as a chair; every turn of the lathe and every peg tells us about the woodworker, even if our main purpose is to rest there comfortably, considering our own affairs. We may ask: Is it made of burlwood or tiger maple? What rough or fine brushstrokes applied the patina of lacquer or oil? What economy, what sense of design is present? The handiwork reveals and teaches us what is essential to about the artist—the state of awareness or remembrance, feeling, intent, proclivity, reason, care, regard, trifle, judgment, and imagination; it doesn’t reveal what is non-essential—whether the trees grew in woodworker’s backyard.

And thinking about the poet as woodworker makes me think of this, from Antonio Machado’s “Portrait,” a plea to remember the vital spirit behind the craft of the poems:

Call me romantic or classic—I only hope
that the verse I leave behind, like the captain’s sword,
may be remembered, not for its maker’s art,
but for the virile hand that gripped it once.

Which I love, in spite of the overwhelming masculinity of that sword and virile hand (egads).

So two different poets, one arguing that poetry does and should reveal the maker’s art, both arguing that poetry does and should reveal the intention and character of the maker.

If you’re a writer too—no pressure or anything. Really.

Enhancing, Fudging, Protecting, Lying?

One of the big issues in writing autobiographical poetry is that, as a poet, I can rarely write only about myself. To write about and from my reality, I am inevitably writing about other people. And sometimes what I am saying about them is harsh, strong, and revealing.

So, as a writer and as a human, what is my responsibility to these other people? To be completely honest, to hide their identity, to give them fake names and false details in a kind of Poetry Protection program?

To me, the context matters a lot. I have no desire to hide the identity or protect the feelings of my sadistic great-uncle who did horrible things to children, women, animals, and other living things. Violence, I believe, must be confronted, and speaking the truth about it is vital. And the pressure to say silent, to not reveal, to lie, was part of the violence done to me and others. But what about a poem about, say, an ex-lover, someone who was an ass and a jerk, but hardly evil. To name her, to share details of her life, in the name of “getting even” is, to me, clearly immoral, petty, and well, honestly, behaving like a jerk and an ass. But I do get to write about my experience of that unfortunate affair, or to write about love and life in general driven by emotions stirred by that experience.

So where, then, is the line drawn between truth-telling and causing harm, between protecting identity and caving in to silencing?

Poet Ted Kooser, in the essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems,” tells the story of a woman with a step-child who wrote a first-person poem about how that’s child’s biological mother had cut his face horribly in a drunken rage. Except it wasn’t true — the child had an accident, but his mother had never harmed him, nor was she a drunk. Kooser asks, “How could somebody write something like that, I wondered, just to ‘make a better poem?’ The child’s natural mother was libeled, and who knows what damage might be done to the child to have this distorted version of history on record?”

He explores this question in many interesting ways. What I found most illuminating was his discussion of the manipulation of writing in first person in order to make ourselves look better. He writes:

I am most concerned about poems in which ‘autobiographical’ information is presented in such a way as to effect the reader’s feelings about the poet. In such poems, the speaker, calling himself or herself ‘I’ (and without forewarning the reader in any way), builds a poem around what appears to be autobiographical information, but that is untrue. [he describes a childless man writing about a tender experience with his son, and a woman writing about the suicide of a brother that doesn’t exist] Hundreds of readers may be moved by these fabrications, moved to pity the poet, moved to praise his or her courage and candor.

Ouch! And wow, yes, exactly. The “I” poem must be about something other than the “I,” or risk descending into the most shallow kind of self-aggrandizement, written only to show off how brave or wise or generous the “I” is. Jeesh, I think I’ve written that kind of poem, or at least its step-sibling, the “look how wrong he/she done me/poor me” poem.

But of course Koontz knows there are all kinds of reasons poets change details: because the poem has to work as a poem, not just a transcript; because we want to protect others; because we are writing emotional, not physical reality. He offers this advice for walking the line between “facts only” and using the power of our imaginations to create the power of the written word. “I credit my friend, the poet Bob King, with coming up with a pretty good test as to where the line should be drawn: does the poet get some extraliterary credit or sympathy from the lie? If the answer is no, the invented detail, the lie, is not bad.”

Koontz closes his essay with this: “It is despicable to exploit the trust a reader has in the truth of lyric poetry in order to gather undeserved sympathy to one’s self. Why do we permit this kind of behavior in poetry when we would shrink from it in any other social situation?”

Me, I love a poet who is willing to use the word “despicable” while discussing what it means to have ethics and morals as writers. And, although he doesn’t discuss the other end of this, the oversharing of what did happen, that can be done in a way that is equally self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and despicable.

So if you ever seriously hurt me, know that I’ll feel well within my rights to take you on, poetically.” But if you merely piss me off, I do have ethics about how much to say. Probably. But also probably best not to push how carefully I, or any of us, walk that particular boundary…

A poem has two subjects

from Richard Hugo, Triggering Town

a poem has two subjects: a triggering subject that gets it going and a generated subject that the poem discovers along the way. The first subject is finally just a way of accessing the poem’s true subject. The first subject is the map, the second the treasure.

Billy Collins adds: “In a poem of recollection, the trouble often is that the memory itself can exert so strong a grip on the poet that the poem never leaves the confines of the past, never achieves the kind of escape velocity that would propel it to another, more capacious dimension. [These are] poems that are primarily driven by the engines of memory rather than the engines of imagination.”

(when I first read this, I thought he had written “capricious dimension,” an idea I find much more intriguing that “capacious.”)

from After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography

Memory at its finest lacks corroboration

Durum wheat
Lisa Martin-Demoor

Memory at its finest lacks corroboration
—no photographs, no diaries—
nothing to pin the past on the present with, to make it stick.
Just because you’ve got this idea
of red fields stretching along the tertiary roads
of Saskatchewan, like blazing, contained fires —
just because somewhere in your memory
there’s a rust-coloured pulse
taking its place among canola yellow
and flax fields the huddled blue of morning azures—
just because you want to
doesn’t mean you can
build a home for that old, peculiar ghost.

Someone tells you you’ve imagined it,
that gash across the ripe belly of summer,
and for a year, maybe two, you believe them.
Maybe you did invent it, maybe as you leaned,
to escape the heat, out the Pontiac’s backseat window
you just remembered it that way
because you preferred the better version.

Someone tells you this.
But what can they know of faith?
To ask you to leave behind this insignificance.
This innocence that can’t be proved: what the child saw
of the fields as she passed by, expecting nothing.

You have to go there while there’s still time.
Back to the red flag of that field, blazing in the wind.
While you’re still young enough to remember
a flame planted along a road. While you’re still
seeing more than there is to see.

“Durum wheat” by Lisa Martin-Demoor, from One Crow Sorrow. © Brindle & Glass, 2008.

walking around the event

I don’t want to tell what is. I want to tell what is with all the radiations around it of what it could be. So it’s not simply a transcription of anything that actually happened but what actually happened, plus all the thoughts that one could think about it if one could walk around it, stop time and walk around the moment. And once you add in all that gradation of the moment it’s no longer the event. The event is just the raw material that goes into your observation of what you see when you walk around it.

Anne Carson, from Poet’s Work, Poet’s Play

On the Omer and counting

A piece I wrote several years ago, “For the Sake of the Innocent Fifty”, has been brought back to my mind this week because so many members of my Jewish tribe continue to believe and say such racist, horrible things about Palestinians as a people. Arguing the facts of 61 years of dispossession is never enough to break through the carefully constructed Zionist cover story, so sometimes, when I have the time and inclination, I try instead to argue from our own story, from the stories we’ve constructed and carried with us for thousands of years as Torah and commentary.

This piece, about counting and morality, was written for Shavuot in 2006: For the Sake of the Innocent Fifty