Thursday, April 12, 2012

Poem on a Plate

The Farmer Takes a Wife: The Poetry of Love and War


The fictional Clovis Fossey, a farmer from the pages of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, does not want to attend any book meetings. "My farm is a lot of work, and I did not want to spend my time reading about people who never was, doing things they never did." He's not much interested in poetry, either, but thinks that it might give him an edge in wooing an eligible widow. Mr. Fossey's exploration of poetry leads him to Wordsworth on behalf of the widow and then to Wilfred Owen for his own edification. Owens' WWI poems struck a chord in Fossey's heart because he, too had served in the trenches.

A friend put The Oxford Book of Verse- 1892 to 1935 into Fossey's hands. The revered William Butler Yeats chose the verses in this anthology, and Clovis Fossey has a strong opinion about his selections:

"They let a man named Yeats make the choosings. They shouldn't have. Who is he and what does he know about verse? I hunted all through the book for poems by Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sasson. There weren't any--nary a one. And do you know why not? Because Mr Yeats said--he said 'I deliberately chose not to include any poems from WWI. I have distaste for them. Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.'

Passive suffering? ...I nearly seized up. What ailed the man? Lieutenant Owens, he wrote a line,
 'What passing bells for those who die like cattle? 
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.' 

What is passive about that, I'd like to know. That is exactly how they do die. I saw it with my own eyes, and I say to hell with Mr. Yeats."

I love Mr. Fossey, the literate farmer. He imbibes poetry that embrace the great themes love and war--classic fodder for the poets' pen. Some folks think poetry is for dreamy-eyed visionaries, but  this war veteran-cum-farmer finds it of great benefit. The Wordsworth poems roll off his tongue and he snags the charming widow. The war poems of Owens and Sasson are healing salve, helping him make sense of the horrors he witnessed.

Most of all, I love how poetry makes Clovis Fossey a man of confident opinion. He has a view of the world, and he isn't afraid to defy even the great William Butler Yeats.

It was Wordsworth who noted that  "poet is man speaking to man".  The Clovis Fossey vignette is a perfect illustration of this lovely truth.


Sunday, April 08, 2012

Book Review: The Tehran Initiative

The Tehran InitiativeThe Tehran Initiative by Joel C. Rosenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was the most exciting of Joel Rosenberg's books, in my opinion. Fast paced, full of intrigue and numerous twists and turns, the reader is allowed a glimpse inside the CIA, the Mossad, the Middle Eastern Caliphate, and the Iranian ring of nuclear scientists. The time comes when Israel must take a pre-emptive strike on Iran in order to spare their country from a nuclear holocaust. The action wins the displeasure of the U.S. Commander in Chief, President Jackson. Jackson drags his feet on taking any action to assist Israel, instead taking the bait of the Twelfth Imam (Religious leader of the Caliphate) by agreeing to seek diplomatic measures.

This book is a great adventure novel, but is so accurate in portraying our country's  precarious position in world affairs that it renders me a little uncomfortable. There are no easy answers to the problems in our world today and this novel reveals the sad consequences of weak leadership and ignorance of the great destruction that can result from misplaced religious fervor.

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 07, 2012

On Teaching Poetry

"Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm," according to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Do you agree?
As a teacher, I greatly desire for my students to "catch" my enthusiasm for poetry. It can be disappointing when they look bored or stare blankly at my best efforts to share a literary favorite. I know better than to take it too personally; I just keep on reading a poem everyday and have confidence that as I sow beautiful words, some are bound to take root.

 The wait is worth it. When I witness that "spark" from page to pupil, I inwardly rejoice! The late John Ciardi, whom some knew as "Mr. Poet", expresses it perfectly: 

"I don't think it is possible to teach anything until the teacher has elicited some enthusiasm. That is where teaching begins. As far as poetry is concerned, the job is not simple, but it reduces to one thing. Somehow the student has to be led to read a poem, to put it down, and to say, "Wow!"  From that point on he is teachable, but until that excitement has been elicited, until that response has been there, no teaching is possible. You may train, you may discipline, you may cause poems to be memorized by unexcited people, but only the excited can learn." ~ Ciardi himself: fifteen essays in the reading, writing, and teaching of poetry

Enthusiasm. Now that is a God word.  The archaic en + theos means inspired by God.  The second member of the trinity is called "The Word" in the gospel of John. And that whoosh! of enthusiasm that transpires between written word and student is an evidence that we humans bear His image. How mysterious this transfer, and what a privilege I have as a teacher to witness the edges of His ways.


Thursday, April 05, 2012

maggie and milly and molly and may by ee cummings

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach (to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles: and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

~biographer Sawyer-Lauçanno on ee cummings:

 "He consistently celebrated the ordinary, reviled pretentiousness, scourged conformity, ardently championed the individual (and nature) against the machine."

"an American original"

Cummings unique style included his signature uncapitalized "i", jamming words together, the creation of adverbs (example: "sayingly"), unorthodox use of punctuation and parentheses.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Malignant Beauty: The Cancer Cells

 Cancer Cells Image: GE Healthcare

I often read a poetry book at night before dropping off to sleep: John Ciardi's How Does a Poem Mean?  I came across this most unusual poem at about the same time a dear friend was diagnosed with incurable cancer. I've been musing on it ever since.  It is strange that something so murderous--cancer cells--could have such an outward appearance of beauty.

 The Cancer Cells

Today I saw a picture of the cancer cells,
Sinister shapes with menacing attitudes.
They had outgrown their test-tube and advanced,
Sinister shapes with menacing attitudes.
Into a world beyond, a virulent laughing gang.
They looked like art itself, like the artist's mind,
Powerful shaker, and taker of new forms.
Some are revulsed to see these spiky shapes;
It is the world of the future too come to.
Nothing could be more vivid than their language,
Lethal, sparkling and irregular stars,
The murderous design of the universe,
The hectic dance of the passionate cancer cells.
O just phenomena to the calculating eye,
originals of imagination. I flew
With them in a piled exuberance of time,
My own malignance in their racy, beautiful gestures
Quick and lean: and in their riot too
I saw the stance of the artist's make,
The fixed form in the massive fluxion.

I think Leonardo would have in his disinterest
Enjoyed them precisely with a sharp pencil.

~Poem by Richard Eberhart

My thoughts on the poem:
  • Eberhart mentions "sinister shapes with menacing attitudes" twice, personifying the cancer cells.
  • The cells are seen as a gang causing a riot.
  • The author recognizes "my own malignance" in the image of the death cells.
  • "The future too come to" is not a misspelling.  The future is coming too fast, accelerating b/c of the cancer cells.
  • The last 2 lines stand alone and were puzzling to me, until I remembered that Leonardo did autopsies on cadavers in order to improve his ability to render the human body accurately in his art. Perhaps his interest in art made him disinterested in the deceased.
  • "Precisely with a sharp pencil" was/is equally enigmatic. Was he saying that Leonardo would have enjoyed the new scientific knowledge and incorporated it dispassionately into his understanding of the human body?
John Ciardi contributes a bit of insight on the last 2 lines of the poem:
"....note how the last two lines are thrust against the first passage. That is the essence of the poem. I want to argue that a poem consists of one thing thrust against another across a silence. It is like music, in that you set up a passage, you pause, and against it you set up a counter passage. That is not a statement; that is an experience, a shape, a thing made. It is like a statue, like a painting." from his book Ciardi Himself: fifteen essays

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

How To Be a Poet

By Wendell Berry
(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

Monday, April 02, 2012

National Poetry Month: Poetry on the Big Screen

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. ~T.S. Eliot

If April is the cruellest month, the fact that it is National Poetry Month softens the cruelties considerably. I love reading the poems that other bloggers post during this month; invariably these offerings give me the pleasure of revisiting old favorites and discovering new voices.

When reading great poetry, I find myself musing and carrying on an inner conversation. It's very satisfying to the soul, but HEARING great poetry adds another layer of gratification.

Here are three movies that have contributed to my enjoyment of poetry:

Bright Star (2008)- A biographical memoir of John Keats. It is a voluptuous visual feast, with outstanding period costumes and piercing renditions of the romanticist's poems. Although it borders on being sentimental, there was a fair amount of tension successfully portrayed as Keats spent the final years of his short life feverishly "gleaning his teeming brain" but constantly distracted by the captivating Fanny Brawne. A nice review of the movie can be found here.

Wit (2001)--a poignant cancer story, interlaced with John Donne's poetry.The most memorable line was from "Death Be Not Proud" : 
'And death shall be no more' comma 'death, thou shalt die.'
 Nothing but a breath, a comma separates life from life everlasting.

The Dead Poets Society (1989)--one of my all time favorite movies. John Keating is the inspiring and very unconventional teacher in a conservative, stringent boys' school. His own joy of living is contagious and sparks a love of poetry in these boys that is heartwarming to behold. Tinged with a bit of tragedy, but overall a bracing, thrilling, tonic for the soul. I periodically go to YouTube and watch segments such as "O CAPTAIN! my Captain!" and "Carpe Diem".  Memorable and timeless.