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: 


  1. This is beautiful, Julie--That stranded moon made my throat close up. Thanks for sharing this poem/poet with me. I'll have to look for his book.

  2. Stunning work, Julie. Thank you. I can't wait to read more of James's poems. Subtlety and precision on this level are certainly hard-won, I agree.

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  4. I will go check James's site out right now. Thanks, Julie.

  5. Wow. Definitely a new poet to watch for!