Thursday, May 8, 2014

Culturally Relevant

A few times over the past 4-5 years, I've gone for trips over-seas to countries I never thought I'd travel to. I've always had an appreciation for traveling to different places around the world, and I love learning anything culturally different. I just never thought I'd have the opportunity to travel, or at least not until I was older and out of school. The interesting thing about my travels is that out of the 12 countries I've been to, I was only able to speak the language of 2 places, and I had to rely on translation for the other 10. I'd love to know everything about every culture and learn every language, but since I can't, I've gained a heavy appreciation for people who graft two different cultures together. Sylvia Plath and Hilda Morley both bring together two different cultures, benefiting anybody who comes across their poetry.

Hilda Morley, with her poem "Hanukkah", brings together my Christian, American culture with the Jewish culture in a way that I haven't experienced before. Here are the lines that caught my attention most:

One more on the seven-branched candlestick for
the seven days of the week,
But let it be seven in the sense of luck in dice,
seven of the stars in the constellations:
Orion, Aldebaran in the sky, 
lively over Jerusalem

By using these lines, Morley opens the eyes of an outsider to experience a culture in a way I normally wouldn't have seen. This reading brought me to a better understanding of a holiday I've known of all my life, but helped me to see it through fresh lenses. I love poetry like that. I love poetry that helps me learn something new as much as I love poetry that helps me relive a part of my past, and this poem by Morley helps me do that.

In the same way that Morley uses "Hanukkah" to enlighten my understanding of the Jewish culture, Plath uses her poem "Mother and Sphinx" to enlighten me to a part of Egyptian culture that I never knew of. Here are the lines that caught my attention most:

I know no king but my dark-eyed dear
That shall ride the Dream-Horse white;
But see! he wakes at my bosom here,
While the Dream-Horse frettingly lingers near

Grim is the face that looks into the night
Over the stretch of sands;
A sullen rock in a sea of white--
A ghostly shadow in a ghostly light,

This Egyptian folk-song, translated by Plath, opens my eyes in the same way as Morley's poem did, but for a different culture. I don't usually come across this type of stuff on my own, mostly because I spend more time on my heavy interests instead of pushing outside my boundaries. I love this poem for that very reason though. I wouldn't have normally read this poem if I didn't push myself outside of my comfort-zone for the sake of this blog, but I loved it. For that reason, I love poems and poets that can take two cultures and graft them together, so that people like me can see different cultures as culturally relevant.

Helpful poetry post of the week:

Past vs. Paaaaaast

As we've progressed through the semester, this question has surfaced many times; What is the Poetic Tradition? One part of the poetic tradition is to construct poetry that points to the past and pay tribute to the poets and poetry from centuries before, but then another question arises; How far back in history must you go to pay proper tribute? I don't think the answer to that question is quite as easy. Robert Lowell and Adam Kirsch point back to history, but they point back to multiple different time periods, which creates a much more diverse effect.

In Robert Lowell's "Children of Light", Robert refers back to the past by telling a tale about how the Pilgrims came over to America, specifically those that came from Holland, as shown in these lines:

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redmen's bones;
Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,
Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva's night

But Lowell doesn't stop there and only point toward the Pilgrims. Lowell also points all the way back to Genesis, as shown in these lines:

And light is where the landless blood of Cain
Is burning, burning the unburied grain

Lowell takes the part of the poetic tradition, where a poet is supposed to dedicate their poetry to the past glory of poets and poetry, and mixes it with a more recent history of the audience he's writing to. Personally, I find this poetic style very...delightful, if I may, to read. I love reading poems that look back to history, and the mix of histories in this poem by Lowell is very refreshing for me.

As a comparison, Adam Kirsch writes a poem called "Farming Family, 1912" that resembles this very same style of looking to the past. Kirsch writes this poem based off a picture taken by August Sander of a farming family in 1912. Crazy, right? Anyway, Kirsch uses this poem to not only point back to the year 1912, but he uses some lines to describe the history of that family also. Kirsch also uses the picture to comment on human nature throughout history, through lines such as:

The cruelty of men when they're alone,
The women's tiredness and resignation,
Do not get multiplied as you'd expect,
When the extended families collect.

Kirsch comments on the history of the family by writing;

Proves that his father's beard is obsolete;
Denying one another, they complete
Their likeness to the contradictory
God who commanded us to multiply
So He could manifest, in every birth,
Another of His attributes on earth.

Part of keeping the poetic tradition is to use your poetry to point to the past glory of former poets, epics and poetry. Lowell and Kirsch approach this tradition in a style all their own, by not only pointing back to Biblical times, but also by pointing to a more recent history that matters more to their readers. Both Lowell and Kirsch point back to Genesis, and both point to a time in the past few centuries of American life. I personally like poetry that looks at the dichotomy between the past and the paaaaaaaaaast.

Helpful poetry reference of the week:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Exaggeration of Pessmism

Have you ever known somebody who won't watch a sad movie or listen to sad songs, just because they don't want to experience sadness? I know a few people like that, and I haven't ever been able to fully understand their mindset. I like experiencing different genres of art to see exactly how they will impact me, for better or for worse.

Now, why would I start a post with so personal? Well first of all, it's what I do. Second, I found that William Carlos Williams' poem "Memory of April" and Joanne Monte's poem "The Betrayal" are both poems that I personally found pessimistic, but the beneficial type of pessimistic. Both of these poems portray mankind in a dark light, and the nature of humans isn't much brighter for either author, though the degree is pretty exaggerated.

In "Memory of April", Williams discusses the idea of love. The poem reads:

You say love is this, love is that:
Poplar tassels, willow tendrils
the wind and the rain comb,
tinkle and drip, tinkle and drip--
branches drifting apart. Hagh!
Love has not even visited this country.

This poem paints a very pessimistic idea about love. At first, Williams is entering into the poetic discussion on what love is, and you can tell from the very beginning that he's going to state his own view at the end. Instead of the pleasant examples from poets past that Williams uses, Williams' own approach is the opposite. Love hasn't even visited the country, he says. Obviously, Williams is portraying a pessimistic view of love in this poem, but it's also obvious to see that he's exaggerating this pessimism. What I find interesting is that the poem ends there. There is no explanation provided for why love hasn't visited or how it hasn't.

In "The Betrayal", Monte uses a similar approach. Actually, all of her poems I read were very pessimistic in the same way that some of Williams' poetry were, but "The Betrayal" definitely shows some of the strongest pessimism. The last stanza of this poem reads:

The room abandoned
and the drapes drawn, but still clinging
to the one ray of light in the window
as though it could reach into those dark corners
and deflect the desire for vengeance.

This poem's style is more similar to other Willams' poems, but the main things that bring these two together is the dark overtones of the poetry. Williams has a dark overtone about love, and Monte has a dark overtone about vengeance. The darkness is symbolized in Monte's poem from the dark room, with only one small sliver of light coming through the blinds. The dark corners are where the desire for vengeance resides in the room. Both Monte and Williams exaggerate their pessimistic views into these two poems in a way where you know it's not completely real. I like poems like this, as long as I know the author isn't acting based on these views that they're penning.

Helpful post of the week:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

It's the Subtle Things

When speaking of voices, some people are naturally loud while others are quiet. Just the same, every person also has a voice of influence, and it should be no secret that some people are naturally loud while others are quiet. Are these volumes set in stone? Not in my opinion, and since this is my blog post, my opinion is all that matters until I hit "Publish" at the top. That being said, I prefer reading the work of someone who knows how to use their loud influential voice to speak softly and in a subtle tone. I'm not big into having someone throw their views in my face, and I don't think I'm very alone in that. Another quick side-note is that I prefer written work that enhances or changes a mindset vs. personal poetry, but that's also just me and only relevant until that orange button at the top gets clicked.

So why say all this? Well, for this post, I'm going to compare two loudly influential voices in the poetry of Muriel Rukeyser and Maya Angelou, but I only prefer the poetry of Rukeyser, because of the two reasons stated above. Both Rukeyser and Angelou are considered feminist poets, but to me, Rukeyser's poem "Myth" kicks the tail of Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman", though most people have never heard of "Myth".

Rukeyser's "Myth" is a poetic enhancement of the well-known story of Oedipus. It reads:

Long afterword, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the
roads. He smelled a familiar smell. It was
the Sphinx. Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question.
Why didn't I recognize my mother?" "You gave the
wrong answer," said the Sphinx. "But that was what
made everything possible," said Oedpius. "No," she said.
"When I asked, What walks on four legs in the morning,
two at noon, and three in the evening, you answered,
Man. You didn't say anything about woman."
"When you say Man," said Oedpius, "you include women
too. Everyone knows that." She said, "That's what
you think."

Wow. First of all, I love mythology, and second, I love twist endings that are good. This poem has both, and also, it speaks to the mindset programmed in people for thousands of years without throwing the idea in your face. That subtle end reply by the Sphinx shows the misconception of people throughout all of history, but does so in a quieter tone than you would expect one of the famous feminist writers to use, and I heavily respect that.

Keeping that in mind, let's turn our attention to the poem "Phenomenal Woman" by Angelou. Now, don't get me wrong, this is a good poem too, but I don't have as much respect for the poem. Over and over, the poem repeats the following lines:

I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

The rest of the poem is the description of what makes this woman so phenomenal compared to the other "pretty women", though the phenomenal woman claims not to be cute. I like this poem, and I can see how the poem can be very empowering, but the problem for me is that the poem is personal. I've heard this poem quoted by women many different times, each claiming to be this "Phenomenal woman", even though none of them are Maya Angelou. Personal poems can't be quoted easily, and are prone to be quoted incorrectly and out of context. Angelou echoes the subtle voice, though her influential voice is loud, but the personal pronouns take away from my respect for the poem.

Both these poems are as great as the poets themselves, but my preference definitely lies with Rukeyser. It's a personal preference, and that has been admitted plenty of times, but for me, it's the subtle things that transform good poetry into great poetry.

Suggested poetry site of the week:

What Lies Behind

A few weeks ago, we looked at the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, focusing on his famous poem "We Wear the Mask". For Dunbar, the mask symbolizes the false face that African-Americans had to wear in the late 19th century and into the early 20th century. Though the man behind the mask is bleeding and hurting, the mask will always portray a smile and an optimism that isn't mirrored by the man behind the mask. Years later, now that Civil Rights movements have made a lasting impression that forever changed the way the world looks at race, poets can now shift their focus from the mask to what lies behind the mask. This concept is looked at more in-depth from the past-poet Langston Hughes, and the present poet Imamu Amiri Baraka.

In Langston Hughes' poem "My People", Hughes shifts the focus from wearing the mask to what lies behind the mask. Hughes writes:

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

The illustration of the mask has been made clear by Hughes' time, and the question is no longer whether black people wear a mask or not. Instead, Hughes decides to use his expertise to pen down the idea of what lies behind the mask for those who have been forced to wear it for years. He illustrates a beauty of his people that has been hidden for as long as they've had to dawn the mask. He writes that his people are as beautiful as the night, with their eyes as beautiful as the stars in the sky and their souls as beautiful as the sun. This is an important shift in black history, to where now the mask has been removed to show the beauty behind it.

Imamu Amiri Baraka also constructs a very powerful poem that shares the same effect as Hughes'. The poem "Ka 'Ba" not only illustrates the beauty of a once-masked people, but the pride of their culture as well. Baraka writes:

We are beautiful people
with African imaginations
full of masks and dances and swelling chants

Baraka refers to a different type of mask...the physical mask traditionally worn by African tribes. Baraka wants to show the beauty of not only his people, but the culture as well. The entire poem is a call for black people to stop fighting each other, and a call to unity. He uses these words to highlight unity by tracing a similar background. The issue has changed to a point where we no longer need to see the mask worn by black people, but the beauty of the face and the culture that lies behind that mask.

Suggested poetry site of the week:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Lesson in Witchcraft

Sometimes when I’m reading through poetry both assigned by class and not assigned, I find that I diagnose them based on my own opinions on what poetry should be. This isn’t so that I can dismiss anything as being non-poetry, but there are just some types of poetry that resonate with people more than others. For me, I love imagery, and a poet that can paint a scene that I can mentally see clearly is a poet that I’ll enjoy. I also really love stories, both hearing and telling.

H.D. and Zack Strait are two poets that are very good with their imagery and painting the picture in the reader’s head. I found a lot of similarity between H.D’s poem “Pear Tree” and Strait’s “Another Moon”. In Strait’s poem, he tells a story that describes a few images so well that I can see them clearly, though I’ve never seen the same sight in real life as he’s describing. Here are a few well-imaged lines from Strait’s poem:

With its soft surface of bluebells
But there it was, spinning so close to the earth…
So I pulled our red ladder out of the garage,
And climbed to the roof
I stood up and imagined I was balancing, the moon on my head

I really like this narrative imagery style presented by Strait. I can imagine this happening, and follow along with the visual in my head while the story is being told in a poetic style. For me, this is just a great method of sharing your views with other people. Storytelling is such a great tradition, and when you add the style, rhyme, meter or any other part of poetry with it, it’s so captivating.

H.D. has this same captivating style of imagery, as shown in her poem “Pear Tree”. Here are a few well-imaged lines of her poem:

Silver dust, lifted from the earth,
Higher than my arms reach…
No flower ever parted silver, from such rare silver…
O white pear, your flower-tufts, thick on the branch,
Bring summer and ripe fruits, in their purple hearts

Just the way that she describes these flowers, which is something she uses in most of her poetry, paints a picture in my head that makes me appreciate nature, though I’ve never seen what she’s describing in-person. That effect is one of the greatest styles of poetry, to me. It’s so amazing how people can use words alone to create an image in someone else’s mind without them even seeing the visual in real life. It’s so hard to explain, it’s like some type of voodoo, witchcraft magic. 

Suggested poetry blog of the week:

Twist ending or Twit ending?

Ever been to a movie, watched through the entire thing on one plot-line, then in the last few minutes, the director decides to take a sharp left turn toward a different destination than what you originally thought? I’m speaking of twist endings, of course. The use of twist endings has been existent in many forms of art for centuries, and its effect can be diverse. A twist ending can either swap the audience’s perspective on what they’ve seen before to see it from a completely different angle, confuse the audience, or it can infuriate the audience by not feeding them what they expected. For me, Toomer’s poetry uses a type of twist ending that just leaves me with confusion.

This week’s poet contrast will be between Jean Toomer and Heather Christle. Both have poems that twist things around in a matter of lines, but the lasting impression that this twist had on me were very, very different. For Toomer, I’ll use the example of “Her Lips are Copper Wires”. Toomer’s poem starts by describing the yellow globes of lamp-posts, and comparing the beads of water on them to woman’s breath against him, but then the poem, in my opinion, take a turn for the strange. After describing lamp-posts and his wanting for a woman to be close to him, Jean ends the poem with these lines:

Then with your tongue remove the tape
And press your lips to mine
Till they are incandescent

I’m not a professional critic of poetry, nor will I ever be, but I have read this poem dozens of times over, and I can’t figure out why the first line of the three above needs to exist. To me, this is a type of twist ending. What is the tape doing over her lips? Is that weird to anyone else? Because it’s definitely not normal to me.

By contrast, I’ll use Christle’s poem “I Can’t Swim”, because she offers a type of twist in her poetry as well, but a much different type than the strange, confusing twist of Jean Toomer. Here are the first few lines of Christle’s poem:

I can’t swim, because I can’t fit
Into the water
I am
Two million feet tall

Even though this collection is figurative and obviously a slight exaggeration, I like the twist there, because it causes you to view the poem in a completely different light. She continues by saying that if someone wanted to use her as a weapon, they’d ask her to lay down on New York. Her twist at the very start of her poem actually adds to the poem, while Toomer’s twist at the end took away from his poetry, as far as I’m concerned. It’s like the difference is between having a twist ending and a twit ending.

Suggested poetry blog of the week: