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Posts Tagged ‘daily writing’

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That’s what this poem makes me think of: the episode of The West Wing when there’s only a year left in President Bartlett’s last term, and so everybody is basically like, “what can we do now? might as well just start moving out!” And then Leo comes back to work after his heart attack and just sits in an empty room with a whiteboard with the number of days left in the year written on it. At first it’s really awkward, but then people start coming up with things that they want to make happen in their last year in the White House. But before that it was just, “The barbarians are coming, the barbarians are coming!”

I admit, this poem isn’t really my jam. It seems inescapably political to me, and while I have a respect for political poetry, I can’t love it. I’m not sure what Cavafy had in mind particularly, but to me it works pretty well as a commentary on our two-party system. Each party thinks the other party is “the barbarians,” and nothing ever gets done, because everyone is always just waiting around anticipating what the barbarians will do or say or think. But if the barbarians don’t show up, in whatever way they were expected (actually, it’s all just people), then that’s a problem too, because “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

 

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On Saturday I got two books in the mail, the result of a gift certificate I earned by doing a very easy and enjoyable good deed. That seems like a really good deal.

The first book was Alana Chernila’s The Homemade Pantry, which I’ve been coveting for a long time – almost as long as I’ve been a devoted fan of her blog, Eating from the Ground UpMan, she’s awesome, and the book is too. My stomach is already well-acquainted her toaster pastries, aka my favorite thing to eat in the world, and today I simmered up some chai based on Alana’s recipe, minus the cardamom, because my walk-to grocery store didn’t have any. It was also delicious and soulful, though it would have been better with the cardamom. And a toaster pastry….

The second book was a much more impulsive buy, something I happened across through an interest in Ilya Kaminsky. Not only is this guy a remarkable poet, he also seems to have my exact taste in poetry! Which is to say, he clearly likes all the poets that I like, because he’s translated or edited new volumes for a number of them, and then he knows about way more poets beyond that. It’s okay, he’s older than me. Because apparently now that’s how I measure my success in the world and whether or not I need to feel like a total failure: if I find out about some person who has done amazing and inspiring things, I feel (mostly) unambiguously amazed and inspired as long as said person is older than me – if not, then I feel amazed, inspired, and like a total failure. Anyway, the point is that Kaminsky co-edited this book: The Ecco Anthology of International PoetryIt’s such a treasure-chest of poets that are completely new to me. (As well as some that are not completely new to me. I do know something.)

Having already made the chai, and mentally bookmarked a lot of other recipes, I tried to think how I could use my new poetry anthology in a equivalent way. Read a poem every day, I told myself. Quickly, I reminded myself that if I stop at reading a poem, I forget about it. I remember poems, and learn about them, by writing about them, or by talking about them – in a classroom, usually. Two of my best intro to lit class periods all semester have been the result of me walking into class having no idea what to talk about other than suspecting it would be whatever poem I had assigned my students to read. (Best classes for me, at least – the students were either captivated, or may have been asleep.) So instead, because I have a lot of papers to grade and therefore, obviously, a lot of procrastinating to do (and my iPad deleted my virtual-library edition of The Five Red Herrings, when I was just getting to the best part! how can I be expected to read a 900-page mystery in fourteen days? especially when I forget I downloaded it until there are only four days left? and it’s not like I didn’t try! I tried! Lord Peter, come back!) I decided the best thing to do would probably be to read a poem every day, and then write something about it. Every day. That’s probably the best thing to do, right?

Right.

Because I can’t live with student papers being the only things I am reading habitually. Because there has to be something beautiful. Because I miss writing. Because I’m tired of writing about bad things, and trying to do that in a way that makes them seem beautiful.

So I’ll just get to it.

Day 1: Rabindranath Tagore, “On My Birthday”

I read it twice, then looking back at the beginning, I wondered why it’s called “On My Birthday.” Did he really write it on his birthday? And does that affect the meaning? Do I need to be thinking about birthdays while reading it? I wasn’t, before. Now I’d better read it again.

Okay, yeah, it’s kind of about birthdays. Word birthdays more than people birthdays. It’s also kind of an ars poetica. He imagines “suddenly fetterless” words saying, “‘We who were born of the gusty tuning/ Of the earth’s first outbreathing/ Came into our own as soon as the blood’s beat/ Impelled man’s mindless vitality to break into dance in his throat’.” First of all, this translator (William Radice) is so good. The translation rhymes just enough, but not so much that it seems suspect, and otherwise the lines go every which way, and seem like that’s what they’re supposed to be doing. Against images of words incarcerated “in the fortress of grammar,” “captured,” “bridled and reined,” and “curbed…like a breakneck stallion,” forced into “word-armies/ Drawn into battle-lines,” Tagore assures us that, “…sometimes they slip like robbers into realms of fantasy,/ Float on ebbing waters/ Of sleep, free of barriers,/ Lashing any sort of flotsam and jetsam into metre.” Also sometimes words are “Like a dozen puppies brawling.”

So, not about birthdays that much, really. About poetry more. Poetry is the flotsam and jetsam, and the puppies. All the other stuff – the armies and sadly curbed stallions and fortresses – that is associated with “grammar,” “the constraints of sentence,” “intelligence,” “sense,” “literary decorum,” “complex webs of order,” “reason,” all in order “To enable him [man] to pass on his messages to the distant lands of the future.”

Oh. Hm. I’m not sure I like what’s going on here. To be honest, while I think puppies are adorable and flotsam and jetsam… are eels in The Little Mermaid… I like all the other stuff better. I think it’s important to “pass on…messages to the distant lands of the future.” And I’m actually a big fan of “complex webs of order.” And I think that’s a pretty good definition for what many poems are. Tagore must know that. This very poem is a “complex web of order.” Some disorder, too. And, like the puppies, whose “bites and yelps carry no true import of enmity,” whose “violence is bombast, empty fury,” I don’t think he’s really trying to be polemical. He’s playing around. He’s not, on the other hand, using “words thus shot of their meaning” – except kind of at the end – but even though he has kind of drawn up some battle lines within his own poem, he’s probably not trying to fight with “word-armies.”

But some poets are. Some poets are trying to create “complex webs of order,” and some poems do carry a “true import of enmity.” As they should. I’m not advocating the weaponizing of poetry, but on the whole I would vastly prefer a world where we fight with “word-armies” to the existing world of people-armies. But then he ends with the phrase “into the fray,” presented as part of some “nonsense nursery syllables” – which it is not! It’s a battle cry!

What’s going on here? It’s either really subtle, or not. I’m confused. And that’s the perfect time to stop writing.

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