He blows it eight to the bar; or, On Moving Forward, Breaking Out, Stepping Up, Boogying Down; or, On Writing Better

I have an MFA in poetry. I pursued it because I felt I’d come to a plateau in my work, and I feared I did not really know what I didn’t know. And I felt like an MFA would be a good way to get some outside input into my work and to have a good impetus to focus focus focus. I was largely self-taught before that, reading texts of craft and some criticism, having some conversations, and, of course, reading reading reading poetry.

The MFA experience sort of kind of worked, but as I had never had any undergraduate preparation in poetry, nor English at all, it was not quite enough. Once I got my MFA I felt like I was really ready to pursue an MFA. I am lacking great gobs of history and information and could be more skilled in how to read a poem as a poet.

Fortunately, there is no end of great books about all this, and I try to keep a regular practice of reading them, but have fallen down in the recent past. I am feeling again on a plateau, and am happy to have stumbled upon Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress. He examines the work of a variety of poets, sometimes in depth over the course of a lifetime’s work, sometimes in a more focused way, trying to determine the forces at work in someone’s work over time.

Although I don’t always follow what he’s saying, and am often perplexed at his assertions of examples of a poet’s best work and work that is weak. (It’s not helpful that he uses words like “obviously,” when what he is saying is not at all obvious to me; and assertions such as X work is “the best of the decade,” or Y is “a bit too much.” It makes me uneasy and insecure in my own assessments, and I don’t really need any more of THAT, thank you very much.) But he has a generous and sensitive eye, and for a poet, it must be a gift to be read by Teicher, for all that he can be bit stern in his discernments.

The chapters cover in depth and breadth of work: Merwin, Plath, Gluck; and in more concentrated segments, Ashbery, Francine J. Harris, Yeats, Lowell, and others. Again I’m reminded of the importance of taking one’s time in reading poetry. I cannot be reminded of this enough. And indeed I come back again and again to reading as a primary tool in a poet’s progress.

I have talked before about how to improve: More Better Blues. What I say then still applies now, and in the spiral of life, will apply next time I find myself stopped and slightly confused about how to move forward. But it occurs to me that this moment of pause, lifting my head and looking both back at where I’ve been and forward toward where I might go is itself a part of the process of improvement.

Although the word “improvement” is maybe not quite right, as it implies some scale, some external and rational system of measure. What do I really mean when I say I feel plateau’d? I think I mean I’d like to feel more out of my depth when I’m in the process of creating. If I feel too sure-footed, then I’m not in learning mode, I’m not bobbing around in a sea of possibility. I think I make better work when I’m splashing and flailing a bit, work that is more interesting — to myself, anyway. I guess it’s that old Frost quote about no surprise for the writer, none for the reader either.

One of the things Teicher identifies as breathrough moments in the work of some of the poets he examines is the breaking free of social constraints. I’m not sure if I feel particularly under the weight of social constraints. But of course, does anyone know that until they’ve broken free, or until someone later, in another decade, looking back, identifies what might be considered a zeitgeist, a social expectation or bind, and what might be considered a breaking?

I don’t know that in the moment any of us can understand our time and then act out of it. I think what he means is they broke with their own conventions.

So my takeaway is less that I should examine my constraints and break them than that I try new things. Try this, try that. Scattershot. Haphazard. Downright willy-nilly. Downright boogie woogie. How hard can that be?

You drove me, nearly drove me out of my head; or, On Reading Ocean Vuong and Brian Doyle

I’m a crier. (I’m an ugly crier, so I try to keep it to myself.) I cry at all kinds of things: music, TV commercials, stupid movies that I know have manipulated me into crying but I do it anyway. I cried in front of a Van Gogh painting. I’ve cried at the beauty of nature. But these days I’ve been crying because of two books I’m reading. Give me a break, boys! You’re killing me here!

One is Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, whose title alone is enough to bring tears to my eyes, but then the writing. Every paragraph is so beautiful and grief-filled and yet not tragic somehow. Full, overflowing with grace. I can barely read an entire page without having to put the book down.

The other one is One Long River of Song, by Brian Doyle, a book I pulled off the library shelf because I liked that title too. I had never heard of Brian Doyle, to my recollection — although he is an essayist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Orion, Harper’s. A blurb on the front stated, “These essays are truly staggering,” and I thought, okay, I like essays, I like staggering.

And they are lovely, joyous little things, along the lines of Ross Gay’s Book of Delights, only mostly longer than Gay’s daily dosages. But oh my, they are lovely. And I am indeed staggered by them, their seeming simplicity, their humility and wonder. A religiosity permeates them but more spirit than doctrine.

I have been thinking recently about beauty, and about how where I have been living of late is so beautiful that I feel like it’s spilling out of my hands, dribbling down my chin, and I can’t slurp it up fast enough nor keep it. Now with the beauty of these books, well, I’m a puddle on the floor, people, all tears and blurble.

Born Before the Wind; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part Two

If you missed it, here’s part one: https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2020/03/09/you-want-it-dark…o-parts-part-one/

Wiman has been dealing with a disease that has made mortality a reality for him (whereas at this moment, my mortality is merely theoretical).

But here is what he says about reality: “If reality is, as this entire book has been arguing, perceived truly only when the truth of its elusiveness is part of that perception…, and if poetry has any reach into ultimate reality at all, it is the abstract element of music in which that connection is most deeply felt.”

Well, that’s one of those statements he puts out there as if there can be no argument. But music is music, and poetry is music with, of course, words, and all their layers and shiftiness, their sniffs of time past and echoes and currents, their pictures and arrows — their meaning, let’s just make it plain. Words have meaning, and poetry is made of words, chosen carefully for music and silence, for form and function, for all that’s conjured, for double-entendre and some je ne sais quoi. That’s why it’s so great. And “reality” is, of course, no different: layered, shifty, circumspect, changeable.

Wiman writes about “…bringing eternity into one’s immediate consciousness rather than, as so many poets have tried to do, as so many people try to do in one way or another, projecting their consciousness into eternity.”

Eternity. Art and faith — why is an old atheist like me interested in this stuff? Is it an anthropologist’s curiosity about a strange subculture? Do I long for some force that can act on my behalf in the face of the random clatter of life unfolding? Of course. Do I fear the loneliness of oblivion? Nah, I think when I’m dead I’m dead. Do I fear having come and gone with no impact? Well, I’ll be dead — so what do I care?

Maybe it’s that human impulse to believe in something larger than ourselves, and I’m too human to ignore that impulse, yet too hard-headed to indulge it. So I read about and contemplate it. And maybe that in itself is a kind of faith? Or an appreciation, anyway, of the process of thinking, a practice of consideration of the mysteries of this life thing.

Wiman says this: “…there is a persistent mystery at the center of our existence, which art both derives from and sustains.” And you know, I can’t really argue with that.

You want it darker; or, On Encountering Christian Wiman’s He Held Radical Light, a Post in Two Parts: Part One

I strut around thinking I know stuff, so it’s good for me to encounter minds that reveal to me readily that I don’t know shite. Marilynne Robinson does this reliably. Anne Carson. Doug Glover. Sometimes you. But lately it’s been Christian Wiman giving me my comeuppance. Wiman’s engagement with poetry is gut-level and reaching, such that I feel like I’m a kindergartner struggling to learn my ABCs.

His latest book, He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art, is difficult in many ways. I am not always following his thought process as he grapples with art, the spirit, faith, death, and poetry. There is a bitterness to it as he confronts his own mortality in the midst of all that he loves. As the book goes on, he does begin making grand statements that I can’t always get behind, statements that seem arguable but he neither expands nor explains, and often leave me thinking “Hey, but wait a minute.” But he offers up some incredible poems, his own and others’, and deeply interesting ideas.

Here is something he says that I’m still pondering. He’s referencing A. E. Stallings’s poem “Momentary,” but he says this: “…it’s not simply that the hunger that gives rise to art must be greater than what art can satisfy. The hunger must be otherthan what art can satisfy. The poem is means, not end.”

I think the “hunger” he is talking about is the human need for answers, for explanations, for meaning, for something other than randomness at work in the world, for something at work larger than our meager efforts. The art is the reaching, the inquiry. If art — or the poem — attempts to be an answer, it can only be an echo of our own noisy voices. Is that what he’s saying?

Here’s another interesting thing: He considers whether art is a redemptive activity, and bristles at the idea. “I think it’s dangerous to think of art — or anything, actually — as a personallyredemptive activity…For one thing, it leads to overproduction: if it’s art that’s saving you, you damn sure better keep producing it….” He writes: “You need grace that has nothing to do with your own efforts, for at some point — whether because of disease or despair, exhaustion or loss — you will have no efforts left to make.”

I had never thought of making art in quite this way — I don’t look to it as something to do something for me, but rather as something to do with myself and my energies, proclivities. If I get anything external from it, accolade or opportunity, it’s chance and luck. Grace? If grace is that inner peace that comes from a transient sense of oneness with all things, then a walk in the woods can do that for me. A poem is me nattering in the dark, my yelp as I bark my shins on life.

More on my encounter with this book next week.

You know, I took what I could get; or, On Spam

A blog is one of the magnets for spam. My blog host site reroutes spam messages almost daily, and periodically I view them, just to see what’s coming in. Amid the Viagra ads and other odd sales pitches are some bizarrely worded messages whose spam purpose I cannot begin to imagine, but which have a sweet funniness to them that makes me fond of them. There’s even some good advice offered, however ungainly the language. Here are some of my favorites over the years:

I admire your supply on time and exquisite flower.

Article writing is also a fun, if you be acquainted with afterward you can write otherwise it is complex to write.

Do you have to attend your son’s baseball game? Now, that is not the man has obviously that you should stop doing what a person already taking.

It’s appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it is time to be happy.

No matter if some one searches for his necessary thing, so he/she wants to be available that in detail, thus that thing is maintained over here.

I precisely needed to say thanks again. I do not know the things I would’ve used without the entire tactics contributed by you over such a topic. It absolutely was an absolute troublesome dilemma in my position, nevertheless taking note of a new specialized avenue you processed it made me to jump over joy.

It’s lovely value enough for me.

It’s Murder; or, On Some Crow Poems

It’s been a funny couple of weeks of running into crows. My encounters started with this one:

The Crow from Home

David Graham

It is the crow from home 
that cawed above the immense 
gaunt bear eating sweet pea vines
and wild strawberries.
                  —Jim Harrison, “Time Suite”

In morning’s maple it is the crow
from home, hunched cackling
on a bare branch as usual,
all disdain and dismissal
just as in 1963, when I labored
up the drive in my snow suit,
a laughable puff of nothing
yet utterly earthbound, sweaty
and pale.  And silhouetted
atop a flagless pole as dusk rose
like a river over the deserted
playing fields of Hanover, NH
in 1974, where I walked
and walked my mind blank
as the snowy streets.  I knew
that crow also.  Same shape
perched on a nearby tombstone
when I poured ashes into
a fresh hole in 2001—not even
an omen, just a torn-off scrap
of night on morning’s lawn.
That black shape also crossed
in front of my car when I drove
down Switzer Hill one last time,
fishtailing, going too fast
in the freezing rain, yet it seems
we both made it from dark
to dark.  Whether bent over
road kill, picking scraps from
the dumpster, flying alone
at twilight over a bare corn field,
that crow from home finally
has nothing in its beak
but the sound of a rusty
door-hinge in the wind, and
nothing to do but swoop low
over me as if in attack,
then up to a roadside pine
landing light as a shadow.

Which led me to pursue the Jim Harrison source, which turned out to be quite a meandering poem, but here are some crow-relevant moments and some other stuff to give you something of the sense of the thing:

Time Suite

Jim Harrison

Just seven weeks ago in Paris
I read Chuang Tzu in my dreams
and remembered once again
we are only here for a moment,
not very wild mushrooms…

In this cold cellar we see light
without knowing it is out of reach;
not to be owned but earned
moment by moment.
But still at dawn
in the middle of Paris’s heart
there was a crow I spoke to
on the cornice far above my window.
It is the crow from home
that cawed above the immense
gaunt bear eating sweet-pea vines
and wild strawberries…

On my newly devised calendar
there are only three days a month.
All the rest is space
so that night and day
don’t feel uncomfortable
within my confines.
I’m not pushing them around,
making them do this and that.

Just this once
cows are shuffling over the hard rock
of the creek bed.
Two ravens in the black oak
purling whistles, coos, croaks,
raven-talk for the dead wild cow’s
hindquarter in the grass,
the reddest of reds,
hips crushed when lassoed…

O lachrymae sonorense.
From the ground
paced the stars through the ribs
of ocotillo, thin and black
each o’clock till dawn,
rosy but no fingers except
these black thin stalks
directing a billion bright stars,
captured time swelling outward
for us if we are blessed
to be here on the ground,
night sky shot with measured stars,
night sky without end

Then it so happened that I attended a concert of Schubert’s Winterreise, in which Schubert gorgeously sets poems by Wilhelm Müller, and low and behold:

Die Krähe

Eine Krähe ist mit mir
Aus der Stadt gezogen,
Ist bis heute für und für
Um mein Haupt geflogen.

Krähe, wunderliches Thier,
Willst mich nicht verlassen?
Meinst wohl bald als Beute hier
Meinen Leib zu fassen?

Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn
An dem Wanderstabe.
Krähe, laß mich endlich sehn
Treue bis zum Grabe!

(My translation:)

A crow was with me
drawn out of town,
and to this day ’round and ’round
my head is flying.

Crow, whimsical thing,
will you not leave me?
Will you claim me
soon as prey?

Well, it won’t go much farther,
this walking stick.
Crow, finally see me faithful
to the grave.

And in this sudden quick thaw of February, indeed the crows are active and whirling.


The song:

David Graham’s poem is from:


Jim Harrison’s poem is from:

The Shape of the Journey by Jim Harrison


Going out of my head day and night; or, On Finding a Hook to Hang an Idea On

Regularly I cycle through a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing. A poem? What IS that? How do you write one of them thangs? I have this long natter of ideas in my notebook, so I thought, well, maybe this is an essay. An essay?!?! What the hell is THAT? What I suspect is that at times like these I have a bunch of ideas but no pathway into or through them.

Whether poem or essay, ideas need something to hook themselves too — an image, a story — something that can keep the ideas from self-inflating and floating away.

Although I didn’t watch them, apparently on the Oscars, Scorsese was quoted as having said this: “The most personal is the most creative.” I think this is fabulously true. The problem with ideas, mine anyway, is that they tend to be separated from the personal. How do I make these ideas come alive with something from my insides? Why did these ideas or philosophies rise up in me anyway — where in my melange of blood, guts, experience, desire were they birthed?

Without some kind of vivid, visceral structure, these words are just blather, gobbledygooking up the page.

The problem is that I’m a sucker for a well-put idea, even if it’s my own. I get dazzled by thought. I forget that what moves me, stirs something deeper than dazzle, is the combination of idea and that other thing that arises from the body, sensorial, flesh on flesh or wind on flesh or hum on ear, tang on tongue.

Get out of your head, I say to myself. In my head.

It’s funny because lately I’ve been living much more outside, so am filled with fresh air and pines and the rumple of hilltops and dit dit dah of tracks in the snow. You’d think my body would have something to more to say to my head.

Where in my body have these concerns risen? Where is the slant of my truth? Where is the half-open door from which these ideas breathe a scent — damp cellar? root vegetables? cumin and cinnamon? Where do the tracks lead?