Two poems of A. R. Ammons, in particular, have stayed with me as touchstones for over thirty years, the much-anthologized “Corsons Inlet” and his lesser-known poem on the nature of thought, “The Misfit.” These poems seem important to me as warnings against the rigidity of a closed mind.
And that’s where “the sound begins.” Mindfulness of hearing. What sound? Here again the poem pauses. Instead of jumping ahead to disclose the source of sound, which is revealed to the speaker soon enough, the poem offers us an experience of what the mind does when it encounters an unknown.
When the magnitude of the possible
Dawned—a morning doubly brilliant—
Many were so near they vanished instantly.
Others ran to the city’s rivers, naked
But indistinguishable, woman from man.
As a black rain fell on the fires, the wounded
Dug for the buried wounded.
I never intended to get Frost’s birds by heart. For some months I’d been memorizing various of Frost’s lyric poems, moving from one to the next without agenda, allowing my taste for Frost’s wit and craft to guide me. But before I knew it, there they were, his birds, some named, some not: quiet, without fanfare, easy to miss, almost wanting to be missed.
Reading poetry is not like reading fiction. A good novel pulls me onward, makes me turn its pages, wondering what the protagonist will do next. A good poem does the opposite: makes me pause, draws me into itself and holds me there.
I’ve learned much from looking at visual art with my brother, John. He approaches a painting in stages, often bending close in search of clues to technique invisible to me. I got to thinking about his interest in how the finished work does what it does while reading two volumes of poetry published this year: Martha Serpas’s Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press) and Claude Wilkinson’s World Without End (Slant).
The initial reason is that Miss Irene Ashley, my ninth and tenth grade English teacher, told me (and her other students) that we had to. Her assignments: A selection from Hiawatha in ninth grade (“By the shores of Gitchee Gumee…”) and from Idylls of the King in tenth (“And slowly answered Arthur from the barge…”)
Probably the best poet to write about her own experience of living with HIV was Tory Dent, who was diagnosed with AIDS at age 30 and died from it at age 47. In between, she published three poetry collections focused mainly on her illness. (One, HIV, Mon Amour, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.)
When the May issue of Poetry dropped through my mail slot, it landed so I got to read the back cover first, lines from classicist/poet A.E. Stallings’s “Daedal”: “To build a labyrinth it takes / some good intentions, some mistakes.” Perfect, with allowances for the imperfect.
Here’s a game: in the lines below, can you tell which are from the Bible and which from an English poem?
Ho, every one that thirsteth,
to the waters,
and he that hath no money;
buy, and eat;
Reading the new poems by Hankins and Paino reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s claim that North American Christianity’s chief enemy isn’t atheism, but sentimentality. Christians, Hauerwas adds, can see just how sentimental they’ve become by their inability to produce interesting atheists.
First, before even coming
together—how ever many of them there were—before
saying one word, there was a wanting. Yet before
even putting that into words—see how far back
this goes?—there was a need. And that’s what’s driven me
to return to these desolate cliffs rising above
an ever-shifting bay.
I’ve been reading Cleanth Brooks’ 1947 classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry,one of the key works that in the post-World War II decades established “close reading” as the main pedagogical tool for understanding poetry as a unified whole (rather than an artfully coded record of attitudes requiring historical and biographical translation).
Adam and Eve didn’t need to be told not to eat from the Tree of Life. Until they ate the “forbidden fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they didn’t know. Didn’t know what? That they were mortal. Lacking that knowledge, what need would they have had for a shot at immortality, that is, a taste of the Tree of Life?
I’m after accomplished poets who can’t stay away from those classic Catholic themes – suffering, death, sex, the pattern of sin and redemption – and habits – self-examination, ritual, memory, the honoring of community over self. Above all, there’s the centrality of the body as contested locus of power and punishment, pleasure and pain.
I keep a few small stones—a couple from Israel, a couple from Whidbey Island, Washington—near my meditation bench in my study. Some days, when anxiety zig-zags around my nervous system, I pick up one of the stones, hoping that its weight in my palm will ground me, as in bring me to solid ground. A body doesn’t fret about work, family, friends, God. With the stone in my palm, whom should I fear?
You could say that Modernity has a masturbation problem. Not that masturbation itself is a problem. There’s nothing wrong with masturbation as a physical practice. The problem arises when masturbation becomes a metaphysics, the only means by which the self can relate to itself, as it were.]
A bee settled
on a rose petal.
It sipped, and off it flew.
All in all, happiness, too,
is something little.
Let’s memorize this poem. I’ll give you three minutes.
Close reading is a way of engaging a text with special attention to its language, tone, techniques. It has gone out of favor lately, as ideological readings have taken over. We’ve named this blog “Close Reading” because we want to model and encourage an engagement with texts themselves: those we write and those we read.