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July 04, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Nature —– June/July 2011.

Writing about web page http://www.facebook.com/nvwritersnetwork

Poetry is often thought to have a special relationship with nature, from the British Romantics to Walt Whitman and Robinson Jeffers. Nature poetry is now sometimes frowned upon as being too sentimental or idealist, imagining utopias that cannot exist in a modern, urban world. Poetry, however, might be a very useful tool for understanding the human relationship with nature, especially when pollution is rife and industry threatens to destroy America’s beautiful natural spaces for the sake of profit.

In his study, The Song of the Earth, the critic Jonathan Bate draws on the ideas of the philosopher Martin Heidegger to put forward the idea of “poetic dwelling”. Though writing is an act of human production, far away from the natural world, Bate notes that poetry emphasizes the imagination rather than possession, something that is particularly important with regards to nature. This poetic attitude can be seen in the poems of Robert Frost, such as `The Need of Being Versed in Country Things,’ which describes a tumbledown house where birds fly in through the broken windows. Frost notices that in this scene of human wreckage, life carries on: `the lilac renewed its leaf’. Human beings do not dominate the landscape and finally nature reclaims the human dwelling. Frost concludes that for the birds, `there was really nothing sad’.

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(This is a column for the NVWN Newsletter: https://www.facebook.com/nvwritersnetwork).


June 01, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Music —– May/June 2011.

Writing about web page http://www.facebook.com/nvwritersnetwork

At a recent event at Penn State, poet Robin Becker opened her reading by noting that poetry had its origins in song, and she quoted the Pennsylvania poet J.D. McClatchy who says: “All arts want to have their birth in music”. Poetry and song do seem to overlap in significant ways. Some poets like the Surrealist Peter Blegvad set their words to music. Musicians also make songs of poems, as in Joni Mitchell’s rendering of W.B. Yeats’ `The Second Coming…

...John Cale’s version of Dylan Thomas’s `Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night…

...or Leonard Cohen’s ‘Take this Waltz’ based on Lorca’s
poem `Little Viennese Waltz’...

Some songwriters, too, have the lyrics of a poet. Many cite Bob Dylan as a prime example, or his forebear, Woody Guthrie, who wrote poetic narratives on the lives of the poor. This particularly American tradition is carried on today by artists like Gillian Welch, who write the stories of the outcast, poor and bereft. Written about the tragedy of American sharecroppers in the 1930s, Welch’s `Annabelle’ recalls Walker Evan’s eponymous photographs of Depression-era poverty. Songs like this also recall the origins of poetry, as an essentially sung form and a means to convey oral histories.


April 28, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: War Poetry —– April/May 2011.

Last year, I joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

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War is all over the news at the moment. The Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East has seen millions of people rise up to demand a new democracy. The news coverage is insufficient to convey their sacrifice. Poetry, however, might fill this gap, because it offers language free from political jingoism.

There have been many solider poets, from the English World War One poets like Wilfred Owen, to the modern day Brian Turner who served in the US army in Iraq. Most recently, however, I discovered Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, which won the $50,000 Dylan Thomas Prize.

Fenton is married to a trauma specialist in the US Army, and_Clamor_ is based on experiences of waiting for him to return from Iraq. The opening poem, ‘Gratitude’, finds the wife listening to her husband describe the grotesque scenes witnessed by her husband. When the body of a burned soldier is delivered ‘beyond recognition’, her husband must be ‘the one to sink the rubber catheter tube’. The distance is frustrating; over the phone, the wife hears ‘rotors / scalping the tarmac-grey sky’. The conversation and the story end, but the question is how long can anyone, let alone her husband, survive? How long before he comes home? The final image might indicate relief or foreboding.


[…] That moment just before we think the end will never come and then
the moment when it does.

March 01, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and the Domestic —–February/ March 2011.

I had a break last month from writing my usual note about poetry for the Nittany Valley Writers’ Association Newsletter. The reason was because chaos ensued after my apartment was flooded last month. I am now getting back on top of my writing workload, however, and things are getting back to normal.

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Poetry is often thought of as an elite mode of writing which focuses on grand themes. Some of the most successful poets, however, place their poem in a familiar domestic space, which nevertheless enables them to work through universal and enduring themes. Take for example, a poem by local poet Robin Becker: ‘The Roast Chicken’.

Ostensibly, the poem tells a simple story; the narrator cooks a roast chicken, picking over its carcass on consecutive nights. By the end of the poem, however, it is clear that the narrator is actually picking over her own life choices. The tone is rueful, self-mocking even, as the narrator sits down to eat ‘alone’. The use of humor, however, makes the subject matter all the more affecting: the suicide of the narrator’s sister, loneliness, the lack of family life, and the narrator’s fear that she may be taking on the characteristics of her father. Though the poem is confined to a simple, domestic scene, it hinges on a sense of regret, and ends with the image of an old flame who admonishes the narrator for lost chances:

And you’re left
knowing that she was your best chance,
though she would say
your best chances are the ones you take.

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Note: You can find ‘The Roast Chicken’ in Becker’s collection All American Girl.


January 02, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: The Poetry of Dylan Thomas —– December 2010/January 2011.

Last year, I joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

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The State Theatre put on a production of the play “Under Milk Wood” on New Year’s Eve. The play was written by Dylan Thomas, a poet from Wales, an often forgotten region of Britain. The play tells the story of a small town – its hypocrisies, its victories, its small kindnesses, its gossip. Based on a real Welsh town, the play offers a universal narrative that details the beauty and folly of everyday human life.

Thomas is one of the most inventive poets to have ever written in the English language. Take for example “Altarwise by Owl-light”, a poem that retells the life of Jesus Christ:

The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with tomorrow’s scream.

An unsavory tabloid journalist – the atlas-eater – reports the news of Christ’s birth, but there is also the mandrake root, which, in mythology, was said to have a terrifying scream that would kill all those who heard it. Thomas describes “tomorrow’s scream” envisioning the uncertainty of the future, and perhaps the fact of our mortality.

Thomas is an expert at crafting and grafting language, yet he is also a poet of emotion, compassion and nostalgia, and at the end of a long year, I am reminded of the final lines from his prose-poem, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.

I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.


December 06, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Political Poetry —– November/December 2010.

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

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Just a short one this month!

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Politics rages on at the moment. Here in the US, Democrats and Republicans are arguing about how best to kick-start the economy, while back in my home country, the UK, thousands of young people have been protesting on the streets against cuts by the Liberal-Conservative Coalition. Poetry can be a wonderful medium for unraveling political conundrums, but, by this, I don’t mean jingoism – the kind of writing that merely delivers a moralizing message.

More complex is poetry by Nirmalendu Goon (born 1945) from Bangladesh. When the Banglasdeshi President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated by army officers in 1975, Goon was one of the few who protested, even in a dangerous climate of violence. In `Firearm’, Goon describes the police stripping the local people of their weapons. They are now seemingly defenseless, yet Goon suggests otherwise in the final lines:

Only I, disobeying the military order,
am openly returning home a rebel,
still carrying with me
the most lethal firearm of all—my heart.
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Poem translated Sajed Kamul. You can find this and other wonderful poems in the anthology Language for a New Century, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handel and Ravi Shankar: http://www.wwnorton.co.uk/book.html?id=1184

November 01, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Pain —– October 2010

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This famous statement was made by the philosopher Theodore W. Adorno and it expressed his view of the valuelessness of writing after the unspeakable violence of the Holocaust. Adorno’s vision is bleak, yet poetry has a funny way of delving into pain and suffering and commemorating human endurance.

One of the poems that has moved me the most in all my years of reading poetry is John Berryman’s ‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’. Berryman himself had a colorful life as a member of the American Confessional movement – a group of writers who forced themselves to probe even their most disturbing thoughts. He committed suicide in 1972.

‘The Song of the Tortured Girl’ is wonderful because it looks unflinchingly at human suffering, and it is worth remembering that people all over the world are experiencing such violence at this very moment:


Often ‘Nothing worse can now come to us’
I thought, the winter the young men stayed away,
My uncle died and mother broke her crutch.
And then the strange room where the brightest light
Does not shine on the strange men: shines on me.
I feel them stretch my youth and throw a switch.

Berryman offers us a glimpse of the life of the girl – her family, the weather, her community – and then brings us back to the terrifying reality that she must now bravely face: the faceless torturers and her clinical cell. Most wonderful, however, is the end of the poem, which dwells not her current pain and suffering, but on a joyful memory of a better time that she returns to again and again:


High in a pass once where we put our tent,
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.
- I no longer remember what they want. -
Minutes I lay awake to hear my joy.

To read the full poem see this link at my blog, The Midnight Heart:
http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/the_song_of/ Thanks to
George Ttoouli for introducing me to this poem.


October 02, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Love Poetry —–August/September 2010.

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters.

Last month I talked about poetry and current financial crisis, but what could be further away from money than love? Love poetry has a long history and special significance, because it expresses both universal longings and a specific dedication to a particular person. Perhaps this is what is so wonderful about love poetry – that it represents a meeting of the personal and universal. The grief or longing expressed in love poetry is shared by the poet and the reader.

One of my favourite love poets is the Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva (sometimes spelled Tsvetayeva or Cvetaeva). Tsvetaeva is a somewhat tragic character; she lived through the Russian Revolution, she was exiled from Russia in the 1920s and 30s for her radical politics, and she died by hanging in 1941, an event which some suggest was murder rather than suicide. Apart from her heartbreaking life, Tsvetaeva’s love poems are legendary and they have the universal quality necessary for great love poems.

‘No one has taken away anything’ is a poem about being separated from someone you love, yet Tsvetaeva suggests that however far apart the lovers are, the relationship is still intact – no one can take anything away from them. Tsvetaeva goes on in the poem to express her unworthiness and she sets her lover free:


No one has ever stared more
tenderly or more fixedly after you…
I kiss you—across hundreds of
separating years.


Whether we’re straight or gay, whatever race, culture or religion we come from, we can all understand the message of desire, longing and grief in Tsvetaeva’s poem.

(See the full poem here: http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/zoebrigley/entry/poem_by_marina/).

For those interested in love poetry, I recommend the fabulous anthology, The Virago Book of Love Poetry, edited by Wendy Mulford.


September 01, 2010

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Money —– August/September 2010.

Writing about web page http://nvwn.wordpress.com/

I recently joined the Nittany Valley Writer’s Network in Pennsylvania, and I have been trying to convince some of the other members of the wondrous nature of poetry. Consequently, they’ve asked me to write a column in the newsletter on “Why Poetry Matters”, the title taken from Jay Parini’s excellent book Why Poetry Matters .

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Poetry is sometimes dismissed as irrelevant to the modern world, and some see it as a relic of bygone times. Poetry, though, has always and will always matter. Poetry has existed since the time of primitive human beings, when it was the language of prayer and incantation, and even now it reflects the times we are living in. Take for example, Katy Lederer’s 2008 collection The Heaven-sent Leaf, which comments on the current financial crisis. Lederer has some experience of this world, having worked for a hedge-fund in midtown Manhattan. The “heaven-sent leaf” is paper money, a phrase taken from the story of Faust (Goethe’s version) when he was tempted by the devil to exchange his soul for money and power. Whether you know the reference or not, it is obvious Lederer is writing about the temptations of the stock-market. In “The Tender Wish to Buy This World”, she puns on the financial, physical, and emotional meanings of the word “tender”.


The shedding of leaves from the wallet of morning
Down low by the bridge in this city of money,
I will take down this axe, shatter gently this greed.

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Money inhabits the landscape of Manhattan, the printed notes becoming leaves on the trees. The shedding of the leaves also suggests the losses of the financial crisis. In response, Lederer enacts a symbolic ritual that shatters greed, though she does it “gently”. She suggests that it is only human to be greedy, and the evocative language in her poem works powerfully to unravel the whys and wherefores of the current recession.

(Read Lederer’s full poem at http://hcl.harvard.edu/harvardreview/issues/34/Lederer_1.html).

For those interested in getting to know poetry better, I recommend: Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, Neil Astley, ed., a useful and accessible anthology of what actress Mia Farrow calls `truly startling and powerful poems’; and An Introduction to English Poetry by James Fenton, the best introduction to meter and rhythm I have found.


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