Reflections on the Art of Poetry
Poetry is an integral part of culture both ancient and modern. Serving as scribe to epic tales of legend and witness to countless loves both tragic and eternal, it consoles the grief stricken and inspires the dreamer. As it imagines the soul it paints with the colors of emotion.
Wild River Review asked poets from across the country to reflect on the role this art form assumes in their daily life. To understand its true essence, we asked these men and women to explore the simple question: “How is poetry relevant to life?”
Their responses represent the creative and insightful perspective of individuals deeply involved in writing, teaching, and experiencing poetic verse. The diversity and richness of their musings serve as a testament to the personal and ever evolving nature of the art itself.
Reflections by Marcia Aldrich
This past April was National Poetry Month and the Academy of American Poets sent me a poem a day. Every day
a new letter from the world entered my inbox and I was reminded once again how poems carry “news that
stays news,” as Ezra Pound famously put it in the early part of the twentieth century. That month I
received the news about the myth of devotion, sawdust, stone birds, young cops, Antigua, about understanding
lovers and the river in January, about cold — how it comes from every corner, about being motherless.
No poem has the same rhythm, the same shape, no poem comes at me and enters me in exactly the same way, and
that’s why poems stay new when so much else in life has passed away, become obsolete, irrelevant.
Oh Connie Connie Connie why
Why did you say what you said about your father?
Naked in the backyard moon we danced, baring
Our skinny selves in radiant dew
Like ghosts of crows staggering round the maple
While bottles of vodka, glinting scotch and gin
Poured their acid into receptive ground.
You hid your head inside the crimson tree
And from its deeply parted leaves you said
Atomic bomb. And bomb you said again
As by the moon and black sky
Above my yard I saw mushroom clouds
In Allentown, Pennsylvania
When the grass was brilliant with September dew.
Screaming puking running to and fro we threw
The Jack Daniels, carton of Camels, a bag of ice,
Into the back seat of my mother’s Monte Carlo.
The elder, I drove farther than I would drive again
Flinging down the side of a sandy road
Past a last eastern farmhouse about to harvest
To where they found us dipped in shuffling white
Parked in the peaceable moonfroth sea.
Marcia Aldrich is an associate professor for creative writing at Michigan State University. She has published in numerous literary magazines, such as The North American Review, Witness, The Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Northwest Review and many others. She has had essays selected for The Best American Essays and is the author of Girl Rearing, a collection of linked essays published by W.W. Norton. She has just completed a collection called Impromptu Mourner.
Reflections by David Bergman
Poetry isn’t about life; it is of Life. It is the language that life pushes out of people. It is the language that I couldn’t live without reading, writing or hearing. When we speak under the pressure of experience, we are making poetry.
[ Wie schändlich du gehandelt ]
I’ve kept your dirty secret,
in public stayed aloof,
but I’ve rowed my little dingy out
to tell the fish the truth.
I won’t stop your reputation
from spreading near and far,
but just beyond the shoreline
they know just what you are.
[ Das Meer erstrahlt im Sonnenschein ]
The ocean’s melted by the sun
to strings of beaded gold.
When I die just set me out
to drift about the shoals.
I’ve always loved the open sea
for each wave’s cooling touch
would dim the flame beneath my heart.
Thank you very much.
[ Und als ich euch meine Schmerzen geklagt ]
When I declared my love to you
in simple words of plainest prose,
you looked as if I’d lost a screw
and tilted up your perfect nose.
But when I decked them out in rhyme
filled with references abstruse,
you thought my sentiments sublime
and prayed I’d choose you as my muse.
David Bergman is Professor of English at Towson University in Maryland. He won the George Elliston Prize for his first book Cracking the Code and his latest book isHeroic Measures (both from Ohio State). His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, and The Yale Review, among many other journals. His latest book of criticism is The Violet Hour: The Violet Quill and the Making of Gay Culture.
Reflections by Chris Bursk
How is poetry relevant to life? My concern is that in fifty years from now there is still not only life on earth, but poetry as well. Poetry teaches our mouths to do things they would not do otherwise. Thanks to poetry, out lungs are good for something besides breathing. What a waste to be alive and not be able to take pleasure in the way certain words – like cinnamon or stalactite – entertain the ear. Poetry insists that life is worth living. I hope tha is still true in a not so distant future put at peril by what we are doing to our plant.
A few things I hope still matter in 2056 – You make up your own list
That the tongue never gets bored
what’s left of dessert
out of the molars,
its tireless excavations
the meal’s over
questioning each tooth,
still hoping to strike
if not gold
at least chocolate.
That five year olds don’t grow
to throw tantrums
in the middle of stores
part of their job description:
to pay no attention
to reason, expect the world
their every wish, and
drive parents crazy.
That nine year olds still can’t be persuaded
to throw away anything:
dead moth, snake skin, can of rotting
a one-eyed panda bear that smells
of nine years’
worth of sleep.
That boys still get embarrassed
at the first popping up
of a boner in the locker room;
that girls still can’t quite
get used to the uterus’ sudden insistence
at the most inopportune times,
that kids still manage
to be troubled by important things
like what their bodies ask
That long after horses have vanished
from the countryside
you’re able to surprise
your middle-aged self
with the clip-clop of hoof beats
you used to make
as a kid, the tongue still playing tricks
with the roof of your mouth.
That there are still stars
no one’s traveled to,
that people still look up
at the sky and worry
about the weather,
that the rain still has the power
to ruin a day
That we still have to dig ourselves
out of snowdrifts,
still are free to find the beautiful
nothing but a nuisance,
that accumulation of loveliness.
flake by flake,
that gets us stuck in traffic so we must think
of ways to keep
from going crazy and ramming
the car in front of us
That the day still manages to end before
we get done all
we’d intended to, that there’s never enough
time, that we keep
telling ourselves, tomorrow we’ll have
more luck, yes
there’s always tomorrow.
Bio: Chris Bursk is the winner of the 2005 Donald Hall prize in Poetry from AWP for his book The Improbable Swervings of Atoms published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Winner of Guggenheim, NEA, and PEW Fellowships, Bursk is author of nine books, his most recent being The First Inhabitants of Arcadia, published by theUniversity of Arkansas Press. He teaches at Bucks County Community College.
Reflections by James Harms
Poetry actually notices life. It privileges attention. It celebrates the local and immediate. It moves at the pace of a walk. Until it runs. It admits that more than anything the world is unknowable. That it’s OK not to know. It makes us feel less alone with not knowing. It honors silence by surrounding it with sound. It marries devotion to doubt. It is in no hurry. It reminds us that consciousness needs a vessel if it’s to exist outside of the mind. It reminds us that we exist outside of the mind. Strangely, it reminds us that we have bodies by speaking in the language of the body. It reminds us that we are required to connect to other people, to other things, that the activity of connecting is fundamentally human. Thus, poetry is often, at its best, generous. Generosity is always relevant.
LATE AFTERNOON: KOETHE AND RADIOHEAD
Once again the need to watch
the shadow of one building
rake the face of another.
Once again a misreading:
“atom bomb” for “empty tomb,”
the benign dyslexia of middle age
transforming a meditation on change
(the only imperative) into a tired
political statement, not at all like
Walt’s inspired mishearing,
how he found the doubt in the dream
of a song I kept playing in the car
(on our way home or to school or to
his dojo or to fetch Phoebe from
dance, all of which are ways
of naming the moments as they pass
into pure feeling and little else,
though now and then we remember
the scratch of toe shoes on hardwood,
their mother’s hand out the open window
waving hello), how Walt changed
the refrain “Sail to the moon” into
“Fail again soon, ” a salutation of sorts
for the everyday nihilist I’d become,
a better phrase than “In recovery”
since what I’m recovering from
is marriage, no ribbons allowed,
no room for pity in the overcrowded
self. And the shadow: our ancient
version of time as erasure. To think
we had it right all along, eternity
as a moment imploding, light lost
in a hole: we know it’s there
by how the rest of the universe wiggles.
Or, as Koethe says, “Why can’t we
find it in the way life seems. ”
And though it is transcendence, the
antecedent trace erasing its way up
the page, it could also be change
since one man’s wine is another’s gold,
is another’s word for how a shadow
does to a building what the day
has done to him. What better record
than a sound that, once uttered
or written, sweetens the silence
surrounding a sentence, the emptiness
of lined paper, then lingers, perhaps
forever, though already it is gone?
James Harms is the author of five books of poetry, Modern Ocean, The Joy Addict, Quarters, Freeways and Aqueducts, and the forthcoming After West (all from Carnegie Mellon University Press). He lives with his children in Morgantown, West Virginia, where he directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at West Virginia University.
Reflections by Joy Passanante
I’m tempted here to give my knee-jerk response to the question of how poetry is relevant to life by stating, simply, that it isn’t. The idealist urge that makes me flippant (if sheepishly) may be rooted in my need to conceive of artistic inspiration — of all the arts, including poetry — as a mystical and transcendent gift. But the teacher in me knows that the concept of “gift” eschews the reality of craft and the teaching-learning apprenticeship that all good poets undergo one way or another. I’m also tempted to talk about how poetry both represents and feeds those qualities that define our humanity — our brains and poetic souls, however they are conceived. In this regard, writing poetry makes us focus all the resources of our intelligence and knowledge on language, its subtlety and its power, and in the process opens up and hones our thought processes. But in spite of these temptations, I must say that what engages me about this question is the practical of the here-and-now. I have of late been drawn to the stories we as a culture cluster under the title of “history.” And at the moment I can think of no more significant relevance to life than of recounting those stories, in poetic form using the poetic tropes that enter our sensibilities through our eyes and ears and stay under our skin. I am thinking particularly of the stunningly lyrical and searing poems of Ellen Bryant Voigt in Kyrie, inter-related sonnets about the 1918 influenza epidemic, of Frank X Walker’s work on York, the slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark, and, most recently, of a new chapbook by R. T. Smith, Ensemble, which features haunting and resonant poems about John Wilkes Booth and other historical figures.
“The Villa’s Quarry” is a fantasy about the first couple in the Villa Politi in 19th century Syracuse, Sicily: Salvatore Politi, from a famous family of Syracusian painters but called “the Last of the Greeks”, and his Austrian mistress, Maria Teresa Laudien. The villa is built on the Latomie dei Cappuccini, the age-old quarries used by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C.E. during their conflicts with Sparta and Syracus. 7000 Athenian slaves were put to work in Sicily’s quarries.
Lady of the villa, you lean over his stony
loge, hold his marsala in your throat,
while you stare at the pit below. You
idle toward the balconies of Ortygia, iron
bowed out for the herringbone hoops
you brought from Vienna, satin snagging
the rails; inside, fans from Paris
splayed like palms. Within the year
you fill in the quarry, order earth
from Catania, seed the foreign dirt
with oleander, bougainvillea, plant
in the stone wall cracked glass
like the turrets of home. Turn
your back to your Sicilian blade
with the groomed moustache,
who secreted you to Syracuse, up
his switchback staircase to the bronze-cast
tub, bolted your corsets in the armoire,
promised you a lace-edged veil, and took
you full on the terrace in the three-quarters
moon, mastering your absolute lunar
crevices, your skin the tint of the marble
maid in the garden, who bends over
papyrus beds, spike-tipped grasses
striping her polished spine. You count
the midnights you scratch zigzags
into his scapula; mid-days, carve
his name, like curses, in the meaty
ears of prickly pear; overlook
the hole below where
seven thousand Athenians, stripped
of their horse-hair crests and plumes,
their cobalt corselets, tin scabbards
and sword straps, once shivered
in the pit. You know only one
slave will be roused at dusk.
Joy Passanante is Associate Director of the Creative Writing at the University of Idaho. Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in magazines such as The Gettysburg Review and Short Story. She has also published a collection of poetry, Sinning in Italy, a novel, My Mother’s Lovers, and a collection of stories, The Art of Absence.
John Moskowitz is a professional business consultant who has performed project management, coaching/training and process improvement for clients in the pharmaceutical, credit card and construction materials industries among others.
John has been responsible for the design of PowerPoint presentations for executive management, training materials focused on financial analysis, project management and process improvement and flow mapping, step-by-step instructions for software self-help menus and templates for teaching six sigma statistical control concepts. He has also authored numerous corporate internal change management communications to reinforce company-wide policy.
Wendy Fulton Steginsky is the author of The Tide of Bermuda’s Light (Aldrich Press, 2014) and Let This Be Enough (Aldrich Press, 2016). She attributes her love for poetry to growing up on the shores of Bermuda where the sea’s rhythms seeped into her bones and stayed. Her work has been published in two volumes of Bermuda Anthology of Poetry, Bermuda Reading and Writing Festival Companion 2014, courtesy of Read*Write*Bermuda Books and the Buechner Society of Bermuda, And The Questions Are Enough, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, US 1 Worksheets, online at tongues of the ocean, Wild River Review and featured in an exhibition, Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania (November 2012 through March 2013). Currently she resides happily in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.