Friday, October 19, 2012

Poetry Friday: Barley-Corn Thoughts

Walt Whitman - "This is the city and I am one of the citizens...."
Three weeks before an important election, and I have been thinking about participatory democracy, and about how far removed poetry feels from politics. But partly due to a recent trip to New York City (which is a poem  - a multitude of poems - in itself)  I've also been thinking about the most democratic of poets, Walt Whitman - how he embraced life, embraced people, valued them, refused to assign them "high" or "low" status, simply breathed the multitude in. And that man could BREATHE. I wonder what he would think of America in 2012?Would he have been saddened by the devisiveness? Of course, he lived through the Civil War, so he knew a bit about intransigence and combativeness. Just look at the young man in the picture above, and the Walt Whitman of later years. He still seems to have the ability, with that face, to pull you toward him. He still held multitudes. 

If you last read Whitman when you were a student in high school, read "A Song of Myself" again before you vote.

"...for every atom belonging to me, as well belongs to you...''

"In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less...

"I am large, I contain multitudes."

I'll be thinking about these words - about our deep connection to all people - "none more and not one a barley-corn less" than me -  when I cast my ballot in a few weeks.
The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Irene Latham today over at her blog, Live Your Poem. Head over there to see what other people are posting.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Poetry Friday: James Arthur

For Poetry Friday, I offer up this lovely poem by the talented young poet (and my friend, I'm happy to say - we went through the MFA program together at the Univ. of Washington) James Arthur. He read Tuesday night from his new book, Charms Against Lightning, just out from Copper Canyon Press, as part of the Castalia Reading Series at Hugo House in Seattle.

On Day and Night

And as the neighbors' guests retire, coaxing their cars
into the snow (we're gazing through the curtain
into winter's pale hub), two girls gaze up. They're all
going home, like wheels correcting
into steering hands, or drawn breath returning to the air,
but you can't come back to anywhere—there's no perfect here
and there, or now and then—but here we are,
again. A silverfish crosses the windowpane. We peer
into the street, and up at the stranded moon. White wheel,
black field. Black winter, white road. White silence,
black wind. White cars, black wires.

Just look at how he controls sound in this poem, obscuring to the reader's eye the rhymes and near-rhymes while still letting them chime in the ear. In other words, he allows readers to hear the music of the poem (air/there/anywhere, air/are, hub/up, then/again, we're/steering/here/peer, and the bookended rhyme of "retire" in the first line with "wire" in the last line - like the echo of a bell)  without it becoming sing-song.

And I simply love that ending - white/black, black/white, white/black, white/black, the slight crossing of the order of those just once, in the same way black wires seem to cross at one telephone pole and then uncross at the next as you drive down a long highway. This is what good poetry does - the words are evocative on more than one level. They paint the scene (or, in this case, possibly, photograph the scene in black and white) but they mimic the visual pattern found in the scene, as well as the rhythm of the scene - listen to the heavy syllables of those last sixteen words, like tires turning over and over as they come down a road - boom, boom, boom, boom.  In this way, form approximates content.

This is SO much harder to do than it looks - present rhythm and rhyme to a modern reader who has been trained to think formal elements are fusty and archaic - and to do it subtly. It's even harder if you're not just playing a game with the language but you're saying something meaningful, as James is, something with heart. For me, this poem fulfills Ezra Pound's mandate that a poem must appeal to sound (melopoeia), sight (phanopoeia) and mind (logopoeia.)

James Arthur is a poet to watch - just look at the high honors he's already won (taken from his website): "His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, Ploughshares, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Poetry, a residency at the Amy Clampitt House, and a Discovery/The Nation Prize...He's currently a Hodder Fellow at Princeton."

Definitely look for this book - it's filled with poems that - well -I'll just admit it: that I would love to have written.
You'll find the Poetry Friday round-up this week over at Lura Salas's blog, Writing the World for Kids.  Head over there to see what people are posting.   And just in honor of those last lines of James's poem, I'll post this black/white white/black photo of a road in winter: