Sunday, January 29, 2012

Seven surprising lessons from dead poets about blogging

For the past four weeks my blog posts have focused on one theme: engaging with those poetic giants who have hovered over my reading life for the past few decades and have provided enormous shoulders on which to balance my own meager efforts in the writing craft. 

This week I decided to take a break from the conversation and reflect.  Several ideas have started to take shape and a few practical lessons have emerged. I share them with you now.

  1. It is easier to write more frequently with a consistent theme than less frequently on a whim.
  2. I cannot fully know what I know about any given thing until I write about it.
  3. Many reviewers are useful; one trusted editor is priceless.
  4. Tweeting more than once about a new blog post is not nagging or bragging.
  5. The discipline of poetry reinforces the value of concision.
  6. Poetry is dialog: No one writes in a vacuum.
  7. The imprint of the Creator is everywhere.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Love is not a transaction (and other lessons from dead poets)


Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
               Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
               From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
               If I lacked anything.

"A guest," I answered, "worthy to be here."
               Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
               I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand, and smiling, did reply,
               "Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
               Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
               "My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
               So I did sit and eat.

~ George Herbert  (1593–1633)


As part of my undergrad degree in English Literature, I had to memorize poetry for several classes. That was over two decades ago, but I still can recite a few lines from Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and from the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If I’m ever deprived of other means of entertainment, I can always snicker out a few lines of “whan that april with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote…” (Dr. John Skillen, who taught Medieval Lit, always made us feel like we were reading something hilariously inappropriate. I will be forever grateful to him for that.)

Herbert’s Love [3] was part of 17th Century Brit Lit, also taught by Dr. Skillen. I forgot that I had committed this to memory until yesterday when I was browsing through that old green text book.  Reading “Love bade me welcome,” I felt an old ache, like a long unused muscle. Having memorized it, the poem was branded into my mind, yet in a place I seldom looked until recently.  It was filed somewhere under “Dead White Guy Poetry,” cross-referenced to “Stuff I learned in College.”
But this poem was always different than the other poems I was required to learn. It was not an academic exercise. It lived and breathed for me something of the dramatic dialog that was my relationship with God. This poem was easy to memorize because it so perfectly expressed for me how I felt about the love and grace available through God’s “meat.”

And so Love still bids me welcome, and my soul still draws back. Love is not interested in my worthiness, just in my presence. There is something in the human soul (or at least in mine and in George Herbert’s) that is repulsed by our lack of holiness, and in our utter lack of worthiness to be God’s guest. We want to somehow earn our way to the table.

So we go back and forth. “Quick-eyed Love” sees me pulling away, and says not so fast (or, more precisely, asks if I “lacked anything”). And then it’s the “I’m not worthy” moment of truth (“A guest… worthy to be here”). And Love: that would be you (“You shall be he”).

Love counters over and over my weak excuses (“Who made the eyes but I?” “Who bore the blame?”). I (and Herbert) finally give up. We sit and eat. There never was any other way it could end.  Herbert was a gentle genius, carefully and concisely explaining the argument we all must have (and will eventually lose) with Love.

While this primary reading remains, I now am struck by the further thought that even with human love, I am not good at receiving without some transactional give back. But isn’t the way I love others a way I show my love for God?  Isn’t the way I accept love from others an expression of my acceptance of God’s love?  “Sit down, have a drink,” says my dad.  “I made chicken soup, grab a bowl,” says my neighbor. When there is such a command to take from the selfless giver, I am flummoxed. I see that other people struggle with this as well, shifting uncomfortably under the weight of an unconditional gift.  Could someone really mean that there is no expectation of reciprocity? What would happen if we took them at their word?

Maybe, if we allowed Love its full expression, it would not be emptied of intent by our trying to even it out. Maybe if I got better at accepting unconditional Love, I would get better at giving it. But once again, even in considering the possibility, I am trying to even the score.  I still don't get it.
Once again, Love must issue orders: Sit. Eat.


Seventeenth Century Prose and Poetry, Second Edition, Enlarged, Selected and Edited by Alexander M. Withersppon and Frank J. Warnke (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, New York, 1982)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Small victors in unintentional contests: Issa’s lense

Little snail,
slowly, slowly,
climbs Mount Fuji.
~ Issa (1762-1826)


This afternoon I make bread. Just a basic white bread. After mixing the few ingredients (yeast, water, milk, butter, sugar, salt, flour) together sufficiently to make a solid lump, I’m to dump it out on a floured surface, and start “slapping it around a bit to activate the gluten.” (Thank you, Judith and Evan Jones, for this delightful cookbook, The Book of Bread, which I have enjoyed on many Saturday afternoons for the past two decades.)

Slap it around a bit, indeed. Dough is slow and comfortable, and at times it needs a good slap to get it moving. Ah, but dough is also deliberate – intentional – and doubles its presence when its purpose is fulfilled. Before long, at least in comparison to how long it takes us humans to double our bulk, the house will be filled with the yeasty aroma of fully activated gluten. 

The ancient haiku poets wrote of such homely things. Basho had his frogs (“kerplunk!”). Shiki wrote of crickets and snakes and even wearing his socks to bed. And there was Issa and his snail.

I love this haiku (a “little story about a little snail” if you will), mostly because it gives me a reason to not only forgive myself for, but take certain joy in, one of my own most persistent characteristics: deliberativeness. Those who know me well might even say I am slow. But I say, slow and steady wins the race… or climbs Mount Fuji.

In this haiku, Issa is part painter, part suspense novelist, part action film director. First our eyes are drawn to this little snail. Just a snail, so small, where could he be going, and why should we care? But before we realize we do in fact care, our thoughts are moved to action in the next line, though ever so “slowly, slowly.” We know something is coming, but at a snail’s pace. And then the reveal: “climbs Mount Fuji.” The purpose and the panorama open up to us. Small is made large. Unremarkable is made remarkable.

Issa was artful. And funny. This poem makes me laugh because of the ludicrous juxtaposition of snail and Fuji, as if the little snail had intentionally conquered the great mount. I believe Issa meant us to laugh. It is funny the way life is funny sometimes. So much of the time we are unsuspecting and small victors in unintentional contests, if we only had eyes to see it that way. Mountain yields to a slow and steady snail. Gluten gives way to kneading.  

Empty spaces fill with our stubborn insistence on making art, no matter how homely. We just keep writing, singing, painting, baking, talking, meeting, thinking-doing the next idea that will change the world. Or our lives. Or just this day.

I am grateful for the glasses Issa provides to see such victories. Time to punch down my dough and claim another win for the team. 

Classic Haiku: The Greatest Japanese Poetry From Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Their Followers, Edited and Introduced by Tom Lowenstein (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2007)

Sunday, January 8, 2012

cummings on the unimaginable

i thank You God for most this amazing

By e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


There is something in this cummings sonnet that makes me want to go all Sound of Music, running with arms outstretched on a hilltop, singing at the top of my lungs.  He just piles descriptor on descriptor, verb on verb, and upon and, until you are babbling white water. 

The combination of reading this poem of great thanksgiving alongside one thousand gifts (Ann Voskamp), that I recently received in the mail from a dear friend, has me just about bursting with gratitude.  I feel amazed and curious about everything lately. The year is new, and so am I.

The cut holly in this glass bottle on my desk – it points up while it pulls down, into the water, beckoning. The late afternoon sunlight pierces the glass starfish. I finger a small pile of old photographs, newly found.

Discovery. Life – this life, my life – is remarkable.

Of course, cummings was not always so vital.  Another reason to love this poem – it is honest.  He tells us “i who have died am alive again today.” He was not unfamiliar with that heavy blanket of despair that feels like a death of sorts. And he wants us to know it. The last couplet assures us: “now”… but not before. Now I finally can hear properly. Now I can see clearly. But it has not always been this way.

That journey from “the no of all nothing” to being awake and open is what makes it all so leaping and greenly and most amazing. Cummings was no Gnostic. He did not separate spirit and flesh. To experience the infinite one has to endure and enjoy the illimitably earth. Such are the gifts of the unimaginable God.


100 Selected Poems by e. e. cummings (Grove Press, New York, 1959)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Unauthorized art: Rilke’s ambiguous dare

My whole life the only thing I've always wanted to do is write; and more particularly, to write poetry. It is what makes me feel alive. I am much less patient and earnest with the poems of other writers, even (or perhaps especially) those that are considered "Great."  As a corrective, in 2012 my blog posts will be an attempt to engage with the Greats, those "others" who I have sadly neglected – or simply peripherally enjoyed. This will not be an academic response, but just what I feel and think immediately after reading one of their works of poetry.  What follows is my first such attempt, a response to one gem from my favorite Great and constant poetic companion of the past two decades, Rainer Maria Rilke.

#3 from A Book for the Hours of Prayer (Das Studenbuch)
By Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

We don’t dare to do paintings of you as we want to:
you are the early dawn, from whom the whole morning rose.
We haul out the ancient color boxes
the same strokes and the same brilliant light
with which the Great Saint kept you secret.

We construct paintings all around you like walls,
so that thousands of walls are standing around you now.
Our pious hands lay a cover over you
whenever we feel that you are open toward us. 

A New Years Day walk up to the neighborhood above us, a few loops around the cul de sac, then my boys and I are back home.  After the “great race” (my five-year-old makes even an ordinary walk into an adventure), we happy three are like reverse polarized magnets, rebounding to our separate corners of the house.  My husband back into his office, working on the next book project; my son playing with Legos; me, lying on the bed, listening to the ringing in my ears while writing on the inside of my eyelids. 

I am not much for napping in the middle of the day anymore, but just to lie there and feel the blood moving through my skin reacting to the temperature shift from outside cool-sunshine to inside warm-shade; it makes me feel strangely alive.  I notice things that move me: the cold numbness of my right pointer finger and my big toes, the tingling of my cheek apples, the smells of sunblock and furniture polish.

I cannot be still another moment.  My fingers must pick up a pen or pick away at the keyboard.  I choose the keyboard this time.

I wonder if Rilke felt this way when his first group of poems in Das Studenbuch came pouring out of him like a flood.  The third in this “Book of Monkish Life” feels that way, like he had something secret he wanted to blurt out quickly before he lost his nerve.  I read this poem as a prayer, as though Rilke was speaking to God, the “you” being the One we try to cover with color and light, paint and hands – whatever will keep him safely distant and Other.

I love this English translation – thank you, Robert Bly – but (and? because?) it makes me long for the ability to read the German.  I see those crisp interesting words on the left page, just across from the more accessible English on the right, and the German blood in me wants to say them and hear them. 

Wir dürfen dirch nicht eigenmächtig malen | We don’t dare to do paintings of you as we want to

I plug “eigenmächtig malen” into an online translation tool and come up with “arbitrarily paint.” How very interesting, and different from the Bly translation.  We don’t dare arbitrarily paint you, God. 

Wir holen aus den alten Farbenschalen | We haul out of the ancient color boxes

No, we need to use the authorized Farbenschalen (“color bowls” says one robo-translator, “color shells” another).  Bowls, shells, or boxes, I picture a worn and formidable thing, sturdy, powerful in its plain way of carrying the light of tradition.

Denn dich verhüllen unsre frommen Hande | Our pious hands lay a cover over you

How ludicrous, this idea that our own tiny dirty hands could cover over (or veil, “verhüllen”) untamable Holiness with our own safe sense of piety.  I believe Rilke was toying with us, daring us to make unauthorized art.  But carefully.

The New Year opens up such dares in the quiet of our minds and the movement of the blood beneath our skin.  We think it is up to us how to respond.  But maybe it is not.   Maybe we need to stick to the ancient Farbenschalen.  Rilke leaves the question unasked and unanswered.

For my part, I am satisfied with this tension and ringing in my ears that proves me living.


Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly (Harper & Row, New York, 1981)