Maintaining Poetic Fluency

A poet must develop fluency in poetry through constant reading and practice. A poet must also maintain that fluency. As with any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Is poetry really a language unto itself? All I can say is that poetry is a different way of communicating than prose and everyday speech. For example, compression and ellipsis, figurative language, sound patterning, and non-linear movement of time are poetic devices that can distract in prose. And as a language undoubtedly influences the mindset of the speaker, so it is with poetry, which is as much a way of seeing the world as it is a way of talking about it.

Once gained, to maintain poetic fluency is ongoing work. One is neither born with it nor struck with it in lightning-bolt moments of inspiration. Knowing this, I try not to let too many days go by without making at least one poetic decision. Writing a poem is really a series of poetic decisions. But when I am not actively working on a poem, this can be as simple as writing one line or a single image. It can be copying out by hand in my notebook a poem I like written by someone else, and pondering the poetic decisions that poet made. It can be deep readings of poems, during which I ask questions: Where is the high point, the crisis, of the poem? Can I capture it and examine it like a firefly in a jar? How is the poem’s energy generated? Is there action and contrast? Does this poem move me? If I am unmoved, why? Can this poem or something in it become the jumping off point for another?

Image: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th c.

The Light and The Dark

“What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection.”

I like how Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer talked about his poetry:                 

My poems are meeting places. Their intent is to make sudden connections between aspects of reality that conventional languages ordinarily keep apart. Large and small details of the landscape meet, divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art. Nature meets industry, etc. What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection. (Quoted by poet and Tranströmer translator Malena Mörling, here: https://uncw.edu/writers/faculty/morling.html)

These frictions and affinities generate energy.

With this in mind, enjoy two poems by Tranströmer: 

“After a Death”: Once there was a shock / that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail. …    

“Outskirts”: Men in overalls the same color of the earth rise from a ditch.

(Photo by Marcin Ryczek)

Translating Emily Dickinson

Last week, the University of Massachusetts Translation Center and the Emily Dickinson Museum hosted an online event featuring two translators who have taken on the difficult but rewarding task of translating Emily Dickinson into their native languages: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou.  Müller, an associate professor of literary theory at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, has recently finished translating Dickinson’s collected poems into Portuguese (see links, below).  Riera, a poet and editor, has translated a comprehensive anthology of Dickinson’s work into Catalan.  It was a fascinating discussion. Here are some highlights from each speaker’s remarks about translating this unique American voice.       

Adalberto Müller  

It took 7 years to translate Dickinson’s complete work into Portuguese.  Müller got into the habit of translating one to two poems a day.  Now that he’s done, he said he “doesn’t know what to do every morning.”  He was completely drawn into her poetry, joined the Emily Dickinson International Society, and visited Dickinson’s home museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. He found it an extraordinary experience to be in the presence of her everyday objects:  “In the museum, we can feel the proximity of her life in her garden, her clothes, her room… This is so important for a translator.” For Müller, it is crucial for a translator to know not only the text, but the context.  

“Poetry is what happens between sound and meaning.”  Müller emphasized that it was very important to capture the sound as well as the meaning of the original; this is a subtle balancing act.  To not honor Dickinson’s play with sound and rhyme would be “to kill the poem.” 

Dive deep into the work.  To translate a classic, one must become thoroughly familiar with it, including the many translations that have come before.  This familiarity can only enrich a new translation.  As part of his process, Müller read all the great previous translations of Dickinson, not only in the target Portuguese, but in German, Russian, and Spanish.  The translator must ask the question, “how can I do the translation now, considering the translations that came before?”

Dickinson is an important poet for this moment.  Müller reminds us that she “lived in a moment of great divide in America,” and that part of her project was to “break down walls and barriers.”  Despite her circumstances, Dickinson had a cosmopolitan worldview, somewhat unusual for her place and time.  She was aware of issues taking place abroad, and referenced other countries and locales in her work.  Importantly, Dickinson was a founder of modern poetry, and deserves this recognition.  Müller considers this a social justice issue: “It is more important to translate female poets right now.”

Marcel Riera i Bou       

Gaining a deeper understanding.  Riera first encountered Dickinson’s poetry in English as a reader whose interest was piqued.  Wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the poems he was reading, he made copious annotations in the margins, which eventually led to the translation of entire poems.  He called translating Dickinson into Catalan “the most difficult thing I have ever done.”  

Interest grows.  After he had prepared a number of translations of Dickinson’s work, Riera approached an editor to discuss publication.  The editor was dismissive, believing there would be no market for such a volume, miscategorizing Dickinson as “old-fashioned and elitist.”  Eventually, however, Riera convinced the editor to publish a soft-cover collection of about fifty translated poems.  This generated enough interest that the editor agreed to put out another volume, this time of a hundred poems (“but still soft-cover”).  After that, a volume of two hundred poems was authorized —  “and in hard-cover,” Riera chuckled.           

Just look at the difference.  Riera spoke about some specific challenges a Dickinson translator faces. “I can never manage to make things as brief, in a Latinate language, as Dickinson does in English.”  Riera put a Dickinson poem up on the screen (“My life closed twice before its close”), a perfect example of how Dickinson says so much in so few words.  He read his translation aloud, which was displayed beside the original.  The visual difference alone was striking, the lines in Catalan often twice as long.         

About those dashes—.  Other challenges for the translator are Dickinson’s sometimes idiosyncratic syntax, punctuation, and grammar, which include extreme compression and ellipsis.  Indeed, the act of translating lays bare the very bones of a poem’s being.  Riera credits this process with sharpening his own writing skills.  

Dickinson in Translation: Amherst Arts Night Remote, 11/5/20

Presented by the Translation Center of UMass Amherst and The Emily Dickinson Museum

Featured speakers: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou

Links

Event details 

Müller’s volume of translations

Riera’s volume of translations

“My life closed twice before its close” by Emily Dickinson

The Emily Dickinson Museum

The Emily Dickinson International Society

The University of Massachusetts Translation Center

Poetry Reading Review: Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith via Zoom, sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center on 10/21/20

How wonderful to have Tracy K. Smith read her poems in your living room.  While in-person poetry readings are special — the poet projecting from podium or stage, the feeling of community with fellow audience members, the excitement of shared experience — there was a real intimacy to this online reading which was captivating.  

Smith kept her gaze outward toward the listener as she read, something not always possible when reading pages from a podium at an in-person event.  And despite the digital distance between the poet and audience, she easily established a shared space.  

Smith’s selection focused on recent pieces, several of which are found poems.  “I make use of what’s around me,” Smith explained, “what startles, illuminates, and consoles me.”  Working with historical texts, the poet had an epiphany “that history, which I felt was behind us and represented closure, suddenly felt undone, in progress, and very, very near.”  A deeper examination of our past, with fresh eyes and insight, can shed light on our present predicament.  Hers is a process of uncovering the text beneath the text, by paying close attention and hearing other, hidden voices.

For example, while she worked with the Declaration of Independence to create the erasure poem “Declaration,” Smith said the historical text “presented facets of itself I hadn’t recognized before.”  The resulting poem, stitched together from phrases several hundred years old, speaks to today’s continuing struggle for Black lives and equal justice under the law.  Smith then read “The Greatest Personal Privation,” a found poem mined from the family papers of Charles Colcock Jones, a mid-19th century slaveowner and minister.  Out of letters composed a century and a half ago that exhibit an acceptance and promotion of enslavement comes something new, spoken in the voice of a slave.  

Smith read several other found poems, the starting points of which were an essay by Woodrow Wilson that celebrated Robert E. Lee and the correspondence of Helen Plain, president of The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Klan sympathizer.  The cumulative effect of the found poems was indeed a startling sense of history’s nearness and all its unfinished business.  

Smith then read “Rapture.”  An after-image of the last lines, which depict a woman lifted up and carried away, stays with me.  In “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring,” the poet wonders whether movements for justice ever end, or are instead crucial parts of one long, arduous movement.  

She read a new poem inspired by a recent news article about the mysterious elephant die-off in Botswana, titled “The Elephant in the Poem.” There are silences written into the poem, missed beats that stand in not only for the noun “elephant,” but the elephants’ very vanishing.  

Lastly, Smith read a few selections from her forthcoming volume of translations of Chinese poet Yi Lei, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree.  A line from the translated poem “Black Hair” stood out: The story of black hair is my story.  Smith explained that the image of black hair in Yi Lei’s poem has to do with youth, sensuality, and aging.  But the translator’s voice is unmistakably there, too, coming from beneath the text, or perhaps even nearer, in chorus with it.  Pay attention to the multitude of voices around you, Tracy K. Smith encourages.  Train your ear to pick up hidden frequencies.  Turn up the volume.

Links to poems and books from this reading:               

“Declaration” 

“The Greatest Personal Privation” 

“Rapture” & “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring”

About the poet Yi Lei, with 3 poems translated by Tracy K. Smith

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree, by Yi Lei & co-translated by Tracy K. Smith (forthcoming 11/2020)

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith 

Eternity: Selected Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Poetry Challenge

All I’s on Me

Are artists expected to paint only self-portraits?  Authors to write just memoir?  Of course not.  It is interesting to ask why we might place such limitations on poets, then.  If confessional has come to be a default mode for contemporary American poetry, what might we be missing out on? Poetry challenge:  Create a poem without the I-word.

Poetry Reading Review: Thomas Lux

I went to see Thomas Lux read the other night at Smith College.  I hadn’t read much Lux before, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I figured it’s the last night of summer and the chill of fall is in the air, so why not go to a poetry reading?  It was a whim, so I was surprised to discover a voice I’m eager to explore and learn from.  I learned something, too, about how poems actually unfold as they’re being spoken—I experienced them in a physical, concrete way I seldom do at readings.  It was enough to keep my hands warm in the chilly air on the walk across campus back to the car.

It had something to do with the way Lux read.  He was focused deeply on the poems, the experience of them.  I witnessed a poet not reciting poems, but living them.  They had flesh and breath.  He read them slowly and naturally, with a certain amount of emphasis for flavor, but without affectation.  He held the book with his right hand, his left hand often moving freely with the sound and action of the poems.  It gave the poems body.  Sometimes by accident he’d knock the microphone—no matter, it only underscored how ridiculous and unnecessary microphones are.

Lux read exclusively from his forthcoming (2016) collection, To the Left of Time, which contains poems that are mostly odes, he said.  In the poems there was hay dust flying, and all the little cuts that get your arms when you’re haying and which sting suddenly hours later when washing up. There were swords settling at the bottom of river beds and kids venturing out onto untested ice.  There were those pigeon-holing high school aptitude tests and the summer job painting fire hydrants red, the summer everyone asked about your bloodstained clothes.  What struck me is that Lux is in perfect control–of voice and pacing, syntax and image.  There’s nothing extraneous, nothing to distract.  Every word lands just right.  A spare directness is elegantly braided with more complex mysteries.

I’m looking forward to the new collection, and I look forward to becoming better acquainted with Lux’s oeuvre.  Here’s a brief introduction to Lux and his work.  Here’s a poem he read at Smith from the forthcoming book: “Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming.”  And here’s “Empty Pitchforks” from New and Selected Poems 1975-1995.

Ekphrasis

When writing an ekphrastic poem, it’s never enough to simply describe a scene; one must inhabit it.  And to inhabit a scene is to be there as a living being who is a creature in and of time, not removed from time, not observing from the cool distance of timelessness.

It’s true, however, that a picture is time stopped, a moment removed from all the other moments flowing before and, especially, after it.  The way scientists remove a core sample from the earth in order to run tests in the lab, the painter or photographer has taken a core sample of time, the better to meditate on a particular moment.  In so doing, one hope is that from the particular we may experience some larger truth.

An engaged viewer returns a picture to time’s animation.  The poet who uses a work of art as a starting point is doing just this.  And what it means is the picture is allowed to live, allowed all the gifts of time: action and transformation chief among them.  Shadows lengthen.  Icarus disappears into the sea without a trace, and the water’s surface is seamless again.  The girl making lace feels a sudden rush of rebellion in her fingers.

Poetry Resources

I am sometimes asked to recommend resources for students of poetry and for poets looking to hone their craft (or pull out of a rut).  Collected here are just some of the books and links that I have found particularly helpful over the years for myself and my students.

Starting Out:

“Advice for Beginning Poets” from Wesley McNair’s Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser

Creating Poetry by John Drury

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio

Any Time:

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirshfield

The Triggering Town by Richard Hugo

Claims for Poetry, Donald Hall, ed.

A Field Guide to Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, Friebert et al., eds.

The Art of series by Graywolf Press:      

     The Art of Description by Mark Doty      

     The Art of the Poetic Line by James Longenbach    

     The Art of Attention by Donald Revell      

     The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Structure and Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns, Michael Thuene, ed.

Leaping Poetry by Robert Bly

Exercises:

The Practice of Poetry, Behn and Twichell, eds.

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (exercises for artists in all genres)

General Writing Advice:

Writing With Power, Peter Elbow

If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland

Poetry Anthologies, etc.:

The Oxford Book of American Poetry, David Lehman, ed.

The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (two volumes), Jahan Ramazani et al., eds.

The Book of Luminous Things, Czeslaw Milosz, ed.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics

Online:

Poetry Daily

Verse Daily

www.poets.org (Academy of American Poets)

www.poetryfoundation.org

As always, the best education for a poet at any level is to consume poetry widely – in journals, books, online, and at readings.  To write poetry, one must also read and listen to it.

Image: Learn, Learn, Learn by Evgeni Katsman

Overwrite / Underwrite

A strategy I’ve found helpful when working with a recalcitrant poem at any stage is to overwrite/underwrite. The idea is this: take the problem poem and pump up the volume—write in all the little details you left out because you didn’t think they were relevant, add plenty of descriptors, add the action that gets us from point A to point B that your better angels whispered to leave out, get more associations and images in there, go all out. Elaborate. Complicate. Give the poem a hefty dose of growth hormone. You can either take the frame of the existing poem and add to it, or start from scratch and just take the original idea and go baroque.

When you’re as done as you’re going to be, step back and take a look. It’ll seem unwieldy at first, but try to find the hotspots, the power points, the places of essential energy. Then—surprise—reduce the whole thing to a gesture drawing. Try to capture in as few strokes as possible the thing you need to say. Compress until your poem releases the essential oil contained in its petals.

In this process of elaborate and compress, best carried out over several sessions, you’ll learn something important about the poem you were trying to write. Now use that new knowledge, that new feeling, to write the poem as it was meant to be, neither overdone nor underdone, but this time, just right.

Image: Nikolai Roerich

The Troubled Speaker

I keep coming back to a statement by Robert Bly that “every poem has to have images and ideas and some sort of troubled speaker” (Turkish Pears in August).  The notion of a troubled speaker captured my attention right away.  It gets at two very essential questions about poetry:  for the poet, why one is writing a poem in the first place, and for the reader, why one should even care.

“Troubled speaker” means someone bothered by something, trying to work something out.  And all of us are daily engaged in working things out – it’s what makes us human.  But it is the artist’s job to give voice to this process, to acknowledge the uneasiness, the doubt, the fear, the awe, the surprise, the difficulty, the dizziness, the contradiction that is at the heart of the human experience.

It’s a useful question to ask of any poem:  what’s bothering the poem’s speaker?  To pinpoint the unease is one way of unlocking a poem.  Here’s “The Broken Sandal,” a short poem by Denise Levertov.

In this poem, the speaker feels suddenly disoriented.  She is faced with a decision, one she feels ill-equipped to make – either continue moving, which may involve pain, or come to a standstill.  Either way, the unforeseen turn of events disturbs the speaker and raises questions about her present and her future.  There must have been something she was moving toward, she feels, and she wants to work out whether or not it is worth suffering for.

A friend of mine, the poet MRB Chelko, once told me she thinks of poems as questions.  This insight is similar to Bly’s.  I have found it very helpful to conceive of poems this way — as a seeking after, as a search.  And I am coming to learn that a poem without this energy goes nowhere.

More poems that feature a troubled speaker:

To the Snake,” Denise Levertov

Prayer,” MRB Chelko

Image: Mikolajus Ciurlionis

Notebook Excerpts

I have a growing desire to write in three dimensions, to sculpt text rather than paint it.  To use words as mixed media.  More shadow and space where mystery can rush in.  To manipulate poetry, to construct it (not so much a poem as a construction) rather than simply (hear the bland intonation) write it.

***

The question of how to get shorter line breaks.  I don’t want them to seem unnatural.  It’s a frame of mind.  See the line breaks of tanka.  See the slowing-downness.  Not slowness, necessarily, but the process of slowing.  Noticing.  Chewing on something.  Setting a thought apart — not letting the mind race, but letting it settle.  In some ways is it the opposite of a prose poem, which lets the lines sprawl so luxuriously till line breaks cease to be?  There can often be “another ordinary day” feel to prose poems.  Then there’s the setting off from the rest, the highlighting, the calling attention to, the deliberateness, that comes with line breaks, especially shorter lines.  Something arranged, or composed, like a collection of stones on a shelf.  That’s the conceptual art of it.  (The artist Joseph Beuys always left plenty of space.)

***

Saw Adelia Prado read last night.  She was absolutely connected to the words, invested in them, not cavalier about them like some poets can seem when they read.  She read slowly, clearly, and forcefully.

She stopped once to catch her breath from sadness.  She wept.  She placed a fist over her heart.  She raised her palm in the air.  That old auditorium with periodic tables of the elements suspended from the ceiling was transformed.

“I don’t write with my head or my heart,” she said, “but with my gut.”

The Finishing Line

How, as a reader, do you know when a poem is over?  That’s easy – you run out of lines to read.  The question gets tricky, however, when we talk about the poet:  it’s not as easy as saying that the writer knows a poem is over when she runs out of lines to write.  It’s a fascinating question, though, and one that every poet has to grapple with on an almost daily basis.

In a recent interview in the American Poetry Review, John Ashbery asserts that a “timer goes off” when the poem he’s working on is done, and he’s found that it’s futile to keep writing after that figurative ding!.  Reading that, I get this weird and wonderful image of a poem as a mass of yeasty dough that you’ve got to knead and let ferment and then shape into a loaf and toss in the oven – after all that work the cook can only wait for the bread to be done in its own time, and there’s that perfect moment of golden-brownness and hollow thump when you rap it’s underside with your knuckles.

There are plenty of other ways of looking at how a poem runs its course.  In grad school I had a professor say that just when you think it’s done, take one more step.  Push yourself a little bit further over the threshold you constructed, open the door, and walk through.  You might be surprised at what you find.  To this wisdom I’ve added the notion that what a particular poem might need is the very opposite move — for the writer to take a step back, to turn away from that door, to leave something unsaid.

Maybe moving a poem toward its ending is like rock climbing: finding the right foothold.  Do I grab hold of this outcrop here, put my toe in that crack?  Is it wise to try and reach that ledge over there, or should I shoot for that crevice instead?  It’s a game of finesse.  One move may be safe and one may be more risky.  You have to keep weighing alternatives again and again without becoming paralyzed by analysis, but it’s what gets you to the summit.

Taking the poem in a surprising direction, the volta, or turn, usually associated with the sonnet, has the capacity to open, widen, or even detonate a poem as it draws to a close.  That’s exciting.  I’d like to see contemporary free verse engage more in this kind of vigorous movement.  It’s healthy and it gets the blood flowing.

I look at poems I love by Frank O’Hara, Wallace Stevens, Yannis Ritsos, Emily Dickinson, Zbigniew Herbert, and others, and part of what I love about each one is that the ending leaves me feeling like I have witnessed something true, and it leaves me exhilarated or unsettled or grateful, but never indifferent.  It’s true that I want the entire poem to make me feel, and the best poems do, but there is something that a poem’s ending can accomplish which makes the finishing line crucial to the success of the whole.  O’Hara suddenly pleads with his father to “forgive the roses and me” (“To My Dead Father”) in the final line of his poem, and it is a complication of what has come before instead of a closure, but it is the perfect ending.

Energy

A good poem generates energy, or better yet, is energy.  What does this mean?  That there’s action and contrast.  Movement.  Transformation.  To better understand, ponder the opposite:  stasis, inertia.  Passivity and monotony.

To make an image or idea dynamic means to give it something to spark against, to put it into contact with something else.  You could try banging a flint against empty space, but nothing will come of it.  Take a poem you love and examine how the sparks are created.  Do the images and ideas interact, bang into each other like excited atoms, or are they suspended in a sterile environment, cool and aloof?

I try to keep thinking about energy not only during the writing process but also (and perhaps especially) during revision.  Having images and ideas already on paper to work with – to rearrange, expand upon, cut, simplify, complicate, connect – makes the job of activation easier.