Sunday, June 24, 2012

Radishes pointing my way: Musings on Issa at the farmers market

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.

~ Kobayashi Issa

I found myself in the parking lot of the York Chamber of Commerce farmers market this morning, picking my way through the stalls of organic farmers, bread bakers, soap makers, jewelers, artists one and all. On a practical level, I was seeking tonight’s dinner (and my missed breakfast). Deeper still, my soul sought the moment’s moment. The new. The now. The fresh.

That’s when I saw the radishes. Or perhaps they saw me, pointing my way as in Issa’s picture perfect poem. It is particularly apt in this case that you can read “pointed my way” in this haiku at least two ways: “pointing at me” or “pointing me to the right way.” The first interpretation allows for an almost aggressive interpretation, the farmer brandishing the radish in my general direction. At the very least it could be seen as a bit overly friendly, waving a benign yet mildly threatening radish at me.

The second potential meaning, as in guiding me on the best path, is the more likely.

Either way, I could not pass them by, the radishes. They beckoned me. A halo hovered over their rosy gloriousness. I could hear choirs singing. They were cool and hard to the touch. I never drooled over the thought of eating a radish before, but these rosy orbs called my name. I could barely wait to cut them into spicy thin slivers over my garden-picked swiss chard and beet greens.  

I scooped them up quickly (before I lost my way, before the farmer threw the overly friendly radish at me), paid, and moved as if in a dream to the next stall.

It must have been that Disney film we watched last night, Ratatouille, about a rat who wants to be a chef. At a high point of drama, these grand words were placed in the mouth of a hardened food critic:

“…the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Indeed. Even these new radishes need a friend. That friend shall be me.

Of course, the critic was talking about culinary prowess disguised in the form of the most humble peasant food. But this could have been said about any priceless piece of art, poetry, music.  In fact, the critic goes on to say, “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

And so I found great artists called farmers in a parking lot this morning, pointing my way, with a radish.  Now to the garden to pick my greens on which my perfect radish will rest.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pressing His Ear Against the Hive: Andrew Lazo Reflects on Billy Collins' Introduction to Poetry

Note: By day, through most of the year, All Nine contributor Andrew Lazo works as a high school English teacher, regularly cajoling, threatening, wooing, enticing, bribing, and even tricking teenagers into reading thoroughly and, if and when at all possible, enjoying their reading, especially poetry. As such, he covets such kind thoughts and prayers as you might send his way; here he offers some thoughts as a kind of war correspondent on the front lines of the battle to make poems matter.

Image by Lancia Smith
Pressing His Ear Against the Hive: Reflections on Billy Collins' Introduction to Poetry
Andrew Lazo

Ahhh...summer break. For a teacher, this steamy season of blissful rest and recuperation promises so much more than it can ever deliver—no alarms, no complaints, no Sisyphean and self-replenishing piles of papers. In their place, I draw a contented breath, relishing glorious hours of reading my way down the tower of books by my bedside. Last week I shamelessly indulged in the luxury of pushing everything else aside in favor of a long, captivating book. I didn’t even eat until afternoon, so swiftly did the pages flip before my eyes. And when I was done, I found I’d forgotten about that curious hangover, a kind of stupor that settles over me for a day or two after I’ve submitted to a long book that will not let me go till I’d given it full due.

Summer also affords me the chance to browse lazily through those books I’ve bought not to read right away, but to keep on some shelf in the other room for those insomniac hours that the T’ang Dynasty poet Chang Chiu-Ling calls “the long thoughtfulness of night.”

Do you know such books? Products of casual rambles through a used book store, drifting to the poetry section, or past an author I vaguely remember someone raving on about. I’ll often slip the book off the shelf, roam around inside its covers, check to see if the pages have room for some penciled notes and an almost creamy quality.

And if the random paragraphs or first few stanzas leave me with a little grin broad enough to begin to feel a little self-conscience about visibly enjoying the book in front of others, I buy it. Such a shameless kind of public courtship often enough leads me to hours of delighted engagement once I’ve got such books safely home and into my dark and sometimes sleepless rooms.

So one night this week after pushing the little paper boat of another school year out into the pond, I did a little late-night browsing of my shelves. The results kept me up long past my now non-existent bedtime, and brought me delighted to former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I must confess a fairly new but rapidly-growing obsession with his poetry, which I plan to indulge until I own every one of his works.

One poem in particular quite literally helped me survive more than one day of cajoling my teenage charges to read and enjoy poetry.  In talking about teaching poetry to his own reluctant students, Collins begins his “Introduction to Poetry” like this:

I ask them to take a poem  

and hold it up to the light  

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

And he ends it saying:

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope  

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose  

to find out what it really means.

As if anyone, even poets themselves, knows what a poem “really means.”

In general, rather than trying to trap some neat and easily-defined “meaning,” I invite my students to explore instead a poem’s ambivalence, its arresting images, and its particular and powerful sounds. I do whatever I can to see that at least once in their lives they’ve read a real poem in an authentic way that might speak to them. I’m happy to report some success, if their end-of-the-year journals are to be believed.

Collins’ poem has helped me to understand why I go to all this effort, for myself deep in long nights and for my students early on bright mornings. It’s all right there in line five. That one line in the poem stands by itself as if holding up its hand and waving it about in the middle of the classroom. Collins asks his students (who by now surely include me, and hopefully you too) to take a poem and “press an ear against its hive.”

Now there’s an image to ponder or to conjure with. Let’s just say for a second that a poem is a hive, and we press our ears against it. What might we hear?

First of all, it implies that, when pressing an ear to a poem, I’ll likely hear only indistinctly what happens inside of it. I find some comfort in the fact that I quite often come away from even the best of poems with only some vague notion about the import of all the activity happening inside it.
Next, it hints that in that hive of the poem, I may well discover that praiseworthy situation where a lot of males scurry busily about, attending to and providing for one female. This refreshing reversal of gender roles and pay equity, this way of turning of things upside down—don’t these alone suggest excellent reasons for visiting and revisting such a poem?

What else do I find by examining the inside of a poem? The structure of beeswax, of course, as deliberately made as it is fragile. Precise and repeated order, all made out of stuff that will easily melt away even as we might make candlelight out of it. Delicate and carefully-constructed containers of a rich and slow liquor—this too gives me an excellent way of thinking about poetry.

And these precise hexagons of course hold a thick, sweet, and golden goodness that will likely get all over me unless I wash it off well. Treasure, and a treasure increasingly rare as something is happening to the honeybees in the world. It occurs to me that poets may be disappearing at a similar rate to bees, much to my distress. Listening to a poem might just make honey drip out into my ears, and slowly sweeten the things inside my head.

I think I like this summer break. I think I like making a little space and time to wander through the pages of a book, as a bee ambles through a drowsy summer meadow.

And so I suggest that you find some new poems, and press your ear against them, especially if some time opens up before you during these swarthy months. And if you do, perhaps you’ll let me know and share some of the rich goodness you happen to find. And maybe that’s what the poem “really means.”

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pen phobia: writing through the fear

 “The real writer is one
who really writes. …
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.”

(Excerpt from “For the Young Who Want toby Marge Piercy)

I remember like it was yesterday not being afraid to write. Maybe because it was yesterday. It may even have been this morning or two hours ago that I wasn’t afraid. But I am afraid now.

That is what it’s like when the bogey man sneaks up, silent, invisible, and pounces with a completely unanticipated panic, this weird phobia of picking up the pen, of moving it across the page. It’s a bizarre fear-feast that combines several sub-fears:

1.       The fear of having nothing to say

2.       The fear of having too much to say that is unresolvable, disturbing, or life-altering (in some nameless though painful way)

3.       The fear of writing crap

There are a number of logical ways to poke holes in these fear bubbles. On point 1, since when have I ever had nothing to say with my pen? Let’s move on.

Nat Goldberg (though I’ve never met this blessed woman, I call her “Nat” because I feel like I know her, having read so much of her work on this subject that I have yet another fear – of plagiarizing her without realizing it) says that (re: point 2) the disturbing stuff is where the energy is, and (point 3) that those of us who consistently practice writing will write crap a good deal of the time.  Crap is fertilizer. Be grateful for what grows out of it.

Since those fears are bogus and neatly dealt with, what is eating at me today? I realize even as I write that last question, the big “What’s-The-Point” horror is hounding me – the terror of meaninglessness. The world is already drowning in too many words. Everybody wants a platform, wants to be heard. What is so special about my words that anyone should read them?

And now I see the elephant in my peripheral vision. It’s over there, in the shadowy corner of my office, snickering. The big hairy elephant with pink bunny slippers, mocking me, taunting me, swaying his ludicrously large gray trunk back and forth, back and forth, slowly while he chants, “So, she wants to be a writer. So, she thinks she is a writer. So, the world could care less.”

Ok, let’s reason with the elephant. Maybe he’s right – I should give up my delusion. What does the world need with another writer? Maybe I can go back in time to a point when I wasn’t a writer, when I didn’t care about writing.

Sure. Maybe I can crawl back into my mother’s womb.

No, I do not remember a time when my hand did not ache to hold the pen, to move the ink across the page, to find out what my mind was holding out on me. For me, meaning is not a reason to write or not to write. I write through the fear of meaninglessness, even as I breathe through it. Neither the words nor the breath create meaning, but somehow I find it, on the other side of the fear. At the far end of the page.

The only cure to the fear of writing is to write. The “work is its own cure. You have to / like it better than being loved.”

Apparently I do like the work of writing better, since here I am still tapping away at this keyboard, meaninglessness yet unresolved. Me, I’m the one still in the room. The elephant… well, he’s long gone.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Poet’s Work: A Reflection on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “The Windhover”

I am honored once again to welcome poet, teacher, and friend Dr. Holly Ordway back to All Nine to share her insights and musings, this time on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Holly is an apologist exploring the intersection of literature and faith, reason and imagination. Follow Dr. Ordway's reflections on the practice of living a holy life at her website at or on twitter @HollyOrdway.

Photo by Holly Ordway
One of my college English professors remarked about The Windhover, “Nobody really knows what that poem is about.” At the time, I let that relieve me from the obligation to wrestle with it, even while admitting its beauty. Looking back, I wonder if I was simply unwilling to see what Hopkins was waiting to show me, for he tells us at least one thing pretty straight, in dedicating the poem “To Christ our Lord.”

I’ve traveled a lot of ground since I was an eighteen-year-old English major, and close on twenty years since I first encountered this poem in the pages of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume II, I find it one of my favorites, a poem that speaks to me in many moods and on many levels. Hopkins always gives me more than I can take in at any one reading.

One of the things he gives me is a taste of pure joy, so that I can recognize it when I feel it in my own life. I need the image of Christ as the windhover, the soaring bird of prey, free and dangerous and beautiful, because in my work as a Christian apologist, it is too easy to forget that my defense of the faith is the work of cooperating with the Spirit; God does not need my protection. Whatever I say or know about Him, He is “a billion / Times told lovelier, more dangerous.”

Most recently Hopkins has helped me as I learn how to be a poet. “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, - the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!” When I feel that my heart will break for sheer joy, Hopkins shows me in the exuberance of his language that this joy can be expressed; that finding the right words and shaping them into the precise and constrained form of a sonnet, can be my response, as his was. “Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume here / Buckle!”

When I do not feel that joy, what then? The Psalmist says, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” He does not say that the Lord will keep him from the shadow, but only that he need not fear it.

Hopkins gives me two images that show me that the dark and weary days, when the spirit is in the valley of the shadow of death, are not wasted days.

He says, “sheer plod makes plough down sillion / Shine”: as the plough’s blade is pulled through the earth, step by weary step, breaking up the hard soil so that it can be planted and yield the harvest, the grinding of the soil will polish the buried blade, removing any rust, so that when it is pulled from the earth at the end of the row, it will be bright and shining.

And again, with another image: “blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, / Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.” The fire is at a low ebb, the embers seeming almost cold; they are dull, ashy. But when the fire is prodded the embers fall out of the grate, and break - and in breaking, show their glowing insides, “gold-vermillion,” the color of blood and royalty.

From a falcon wheeling joyously in the sky, to ashy coals falling from a grate, Hopkins finds beauty and words to frame that beauty. Not a bad way to think about the calling of the poet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Major Works. Oxford World’s Classics.