Monday, December 18, 2017

The Pasture - Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may) :
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother.  It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long. - You come too.

It has been unfortunately too long since I posted last, friends.  I am less able to find time for poetry and reflection than I like.  My love for it has not diminished, but many days I feel unable to engage with it and share it.  Often I feel as though I am not sharp enough at the end of my day to provide any useful commentary or exegesis, but something inside told me that I simply had to try again.  I hope you will read along with me and enjoy.

Today, I've chosen a short Robert Frost poem.  I was inspired by a piece of music I sang recently with a choir, which used this text as its basis.  There's a simplicity and patience at the heart of these words, and they spoke today especially of my need to slow down, relax, and read a poem a day.  There is also something quintessentially New England about the pastoral setting here, and having somehow made my way entirely around the globe and back to New England, it speaks to me.

Often, Frost's poetry fails to speak to me.  This poem, however, has a quiet warmth and patience, and serves as an invitation to stop and partake of the world around us.  The poem is presented as a dialogue between a first person narrator and a second person, the poetic "you."  One can either read this as Frost talking to us directly, or talking another person at the scene.  To me, it makes little difference, and I feel the effect is the same.

The narrator is simply going out to rake leaves away at the pasture spring.  They "sha'n't be gone long."  What they see is simple: clear water, a young calf.  But the way in which Frost presents it as an invitation brings forward a quiet warmth, a tenderness.  It's the tenderness of the young calf so slight it "totters" when its mother licks it.  It's the loving tenderness of the repeated invitation: "You come too."  What better than to enjoy this simple scene with another?  It's the earnest, straightforward desire to share the simplest things with another.  It's like a quiet, warmly extended hand.  This poem evokes to me the warmth one feels in the cheeks on a crisp winter morning, when you return indoors from the outdoors.

Also worth mentioning is the exquisite attention Frost pays to rhyme.  The center lines of each quatrain rhyme, and each quatrain ends with, "You come too."  It's simple but the effect is such that it elevates the poem beyond the ordinary.  It's what has made the poem stick with me, and its warmth is what has driven me to post here once again.  I hope sincerely that I've helped make this poem sensible, and that its invitation to share can touch you as it has touched me. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I Have To Tell You - Dorothea Grossman

I have to tell you,
there are times when
the sun strikes me
like a gong,
and I remember everything,
even your ears.

This wonderful short poem from Dorothea Grossman feels like a natural companion to yesterday's Raymond Carver poem.  This captures the wonderful, heartbreaking feeling of remembering every detail of someone you loved.  I like that the poem avoids clich├ęs.  It's not a lightning strike that jogs memory, but the sun.  The memory's strike is deep and resonant, like a gong.  The memory reverberates through the entire body, even your ears. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

For Tess - Raymond Carver

Out on the Strait the water is whitecapping
as they say here.  It's rough, and I'm glad
I'm not out there.  Glad I fished all day
on Morse Creek, casting a red Daredevil back
and forth.  I didn't catch anything.  No bites
even, not one.  But it was okay.  It was fine!
I carried your dad's pocketknife and was followed
for a while by a dog its owner called "Dixie."
At times I felt so happy I had to quit
fishing.  Once I lay on the bank with my eyes closed,
listening to the sound the water made,
and to the wind in the tops of the trees.  The same wind
that blows out on the Strait, but a different wind, too.
For a while I even let myself imagine I had died -
and that was all right, at least for a couple
of minutes, until it really sank in: Dead.
As I was lying there with my eyes closed,
just after I'd imagined what it might be like
if in fact I never got up again, I thought of you.
I opened my eyes then and got right up
and went back to being happy again.
I'm grateful to you, you see.  I wanted to tell you.

I know Raymond Carver primarily as a writer of short stories, as I imagine do most of you.  He played a significant role in reinvigorating the genre in the mid 1980s, and his frank, unadorned style gave us glimpses into difficult lives.  He engenders empathy, not sympathy, which I feel is an important distinction often overlooked by authors meaning us to identify with their characters.  The specific attention to experiential detail in this poem give us a concrete sense of feeling, and rather than feeling for the narrator, we feel with them.

By my reading, I get the impression that the character of this poem has skipped out on difficult work in order to spend the day wasting time.  I would say fishing, but he seems fairly unconcerned to have not caught anything.  Pleased, even.  The two references the narrator makes to "the Strait" make me think he works at sea, perhaps as a fisherman or some sort of deck hand.  He remarks how glad he is to not be there, on the rough seas.  The whole poem is delivered, as if talking to the titular Tess.  Clearly, this is a person close to the narrator.  After all, he has Tess' father's pocketknife with him.

That sort of small detail invites into the poem a type of intimacy.  We're experiencing what feels to me like the peculiar melancholy of a man who is bad at expressing himself.  By the end of the poem we get there, but first we meditate on death.  That the narrator goes so quickly from his feigned, carefree, fishing induced euphoria to laying down and wondering what it would be like to be dead shows that there's some sort of deep disturbance in his heart.  Just when he thinks it wouldn't be so bad to be dead, really, he remembers Tess.  Upon her remembrance, he sits right up, happy again.

What are we to make of this?  To me, it feels as though the narrator carries great respect for Tess.  H says as much in the devastatingly clear last line, "I'm grateful to you, you see.  I wanted to tell you."  This makes me wonder; why could he not tell Tess but in a poem?  Is she gone?  Moved on to a new romance, or beyond the grave?  Who can say?  I find the direct expression of gratitude after a long meandering thought process to be refreshingly brave.  Its directness touches me.  I know that there are many people in my life to whom I wish I know how to so directly admit my gratitude, or love, or apology.  I'm sure if we examine our feelings and relationships, we can all feel that in some way.

I love that in Carver's poetry and prose.  He finds a way to cut right to the heart of things, to make you feel with rather than for.  The poem may be For Tess, but it serves as empathetic experience for us all.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Early Morning - Billy Collins

I don't know which cat is responsible
for destroying my Voter Registration Card
so I decide to lecture the two of them
on the sanctity of private property,
the rules of nighttime comportment in general,
and while I'm at it, the importance
of voting to an enlightened citizenship.

This is the way it was in school.
No one would admit to winging a piece of chalk
past the ear of Sister Mary Alice,
so the whole class would have to stay after.
And likewise in the army, or at least
in movies involving the army.  All weekend
privileges were revoked until the man
who snuck the women and the keg of beer
into the barracks last night stepped forward.

Of course, it's hard to get them to stay
in one place let alone hold their attention
for more than two seconds.  The black one
turns tail and pads into the other room,
and the kitten is kneading a soft throw
like crazy, pathetically searching for a nipple.

Meanwhile, it's overcast, not pewter
or anything like that, just overcast period,
and I haven't had a sip of coffee yet.
You know, when I told that interviewer
early morning was my favorite time to write,
I was not thinking of this particular morning.

I must have had another kind of morning in mind,
one featuring a peignoir, some oranges, and sunlight.
But now there's nothing else to do
but open the back door a crack for the black one,
who enjoys hunting and killing lizards,
while blocking the kitten with one foot,
the little cottontail fucker who's still too young to go out.

Happy New Year, friends!  It isn't every day that a poem makes me laugh out loud, but not every poet can be Billy Collins, who as I've stated on multiple occasions, is my favorite living author.  I felt it fitting to start a new year of poetry blogging with some levity, especially seeing as I received Collins' most recent collection of poems for Christmas (thanks mom!). 

Collins has a unique talent for capturing in words the exact tone of a moment.  Anyone who has ever cohabitated with a cat knows exactly the absurdity of trying to lecture a cat for their wrongdoings.  I would say cat owners, but let's be honest, as Collins is, we really only share our space with them.  What this poem, and really all of Collins' poetry does so well, is capture in clear, relatable terms the wonderful absurdities of the mundane.

Our everyday lives are fundamentally mundane.  We rise, eat, clean ourselves, dress, and engage in some sort of occupation.  We repeat this nearly daily.  We are creatures of habit, and but for small variations, there is little true difference day to day.  I do not mean to depress, but rather to zoom out the viewpoint on a typical day.  What Collins does so well here is capture the humor that permeates the human experience.  His cats messed up his things, he's mad at them, he lets one out because what else can you do?  Laugh at yourself and move on.

When I got to the final line, "the little cottontail fucker who's still too young to go out" I burst out laughing.  Partly, it was the unexpectedness of the cursing.  Collins typically doesn't employ much foul language in his writing, so it came as a bit of a shock.  More than that was how relatable it is.  My parents' cat, Yoda (who I still think of as mine, despite not living there) is commonly referred to as "asshole cat" by my father and me.  Any cat person knows what it's like to lovingly curse out a pet. 

Collins expertly captures those moments of everyday life that make life worthwhile.  He sees and communicates the poetry present in every day life.  It's a simple poem, but it's guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.  Right now, I think that's what we all need.  I will do my best to bring you more poetry this year.  I made a paltry eight posts in 2016, and I have resolved to do better this year.  I hope to laugh, smile, cry, ponder, and read much more poetry with you all in 2017.  Thank you all for your continued support, and please continue to seek out the poetry and beauty in your everyday life.