Is Poetry Literature?

Is poetry literature? Should one consider written verse, poems or prose, to be classified as literature? For someone not really big into labels, I am going to give the tie to the runner in this case so that I can cross off yet another of my self-imposed reading resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature (see below)
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

So, why poetry? Poems are, in a word, transcendent. Badly written verse can make even the most pleasant person go a little mad. But well-written poems can take the reader on a journey into a corner of their soul they haven’t yet seen before.

Pretty crazy, right? Well, not really. Take my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. What makes her my favorite is partly due to the fact that my mom gave me a book of Dickinson verse when I was a teenager. Once I actually started reading Dickinson, however, I did feel a bit transformed. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson once said,

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots…flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life.

Who doesn’t crave a little insight? That’s the thing about Dickinson: it’s like she knew me, what was going on inside of me, things I didn’t even know how to express myself. As a teenager, this was my favorite poem:

My friend must be a bird,
Because it flies!
Mortal my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a bee.
Ah, curious friend,
Thou puzzlest me!

What teenager has a favorite poem? Apparently, this girl! My love for poetry waned over the years, but I always come back to Dickinson. In January the library acquired The Gorgeous Nothings. The book contains actual scans of Dickinson’s handwriting on the backs of envelopes. This is truly an exciting look at this poet’s process:

Envelope

AnotherEnvelope

These scans really don’t do the book justice. Check it out and behold the genius that was Emily Dickinson’s reclusive scribblings. Hold in your hand a tome of untold wonders. Celebrate National Poetry Month.

Carol

Heartwood 3:3 – Apophenia in Blue

speedboat  Bluets  Game of Boxes

apophenia - the perception of connections, patterns or meaningfulness in unrelated things.

As regular readers of Heartwood know (that’s right, all five of you), I am frequently stunned that whatever I happen to be reading seems to connect in surprising ways with other things I’ve read or recently lived through. I find this one of reading’s greatest pleasures.

A couple of years ago I was reading a book that briefly discussed Renata Adler’s Speedboat in glowing terms, especially appreciative of: its collage structure; its quick changes in subject; the aphorisms and miniature stories; the interweaving of ideas, emotions and experiences; and its thematic recurrences or reiterations. This made me think of another book I’d recently read and loved called Bluets, by Maggie Nelson – though clearly nothing in the above description would make one think that Speedboat would have anything to say about the color blue.

Anyway, when my interlibrary loan request for Speedboat came in (it’s recently been reprinted and is now in the EPL collection), I was pleased to find it did indeed share something of the structure and qualities I’d seen in Nelson’s book. Nevertheless, I was completely unprepared for this passage late in Speedboat, which looks like it could be an emblematic entry from Bluets:

We spoke of the quality of the blue in the stained-glass windows of Chartres, which modern science had not been able to reproduce, as though the medieval craftsman who had produced it were a colleague. He had, we knew, billed his diocese for the purchase of sapphires ground up to create that color. Modern science had, at least, established that sapphires played no part in its composition at all. It was our first, most scholarly appreciation of the padded expense account.

Adler’s Speedboat crosses continents in passages that relate the life and observations of a woman who works as a reporter. Nelson’s Bluets takes an obsessive interest in the color blue, which she pursues through philosophy, art, personal experience, and other channels of research. Nelson breaks up these passages with others in which the narrator grieves a broken relationship and assists a friend who has become quadriplegic. Here’s a sample entry from Bluets that also touches on stained glass:

For Plato, color was as dangerous a narcotic as poetry. He wanted both out of the republic. He called painters “mixers and grinders of multi-colored drugs,” and color itself a form of pharmakon. The religious zealots of the Reformation felt similarly: they smashed the stained-glass windows of churches, thinking them idolatrous, degenerate. For distinct reasons, which had to do with the fight to keep the cheap, slave-labor crop of indigo out of a Western market long dominated by woad, the blue-dye-producing plant native to Europe, indigo blue was called “the devil’s dye.” And before blue became a “holy” color – which had to do with the advent of ultramarine in the twelfth century, and its subsequent use in stained glass and religious paintings – it often symbolized the Antichrist.

OK, now for round three. Last week I was reading Catherine Barnett’s smart and sensual collection of poems, The Game of Boxes, and came upon “Which System Is Most Miraculous?” It opens with the poet discussing the subject of the poem’s title, presumably with her partner who has since left her. Some of the miraculous systems they identify are language, vision, conception, and birth. Among the things she doesn’t name, but suggests, are time, love, and – if I can read into it a bit – the significations we attach to important life events, such as in the giving of wedding gifts. But as our lives progress and/or change direction, these systems can also change, break down, become ambivalent, deteriorate – which leads her to question whether she should outgrow her attachments. When faced with it, however, it’s not so easy. She informs us that “A blue glass broke but I can’t throw it away. / There’s room for it on the shelf. / Or there’s no room.” Even though the glass has been destroyed, she notes the absurdity of feeling unable to part with it.

The poem ends in lines that are as awestruck by this particular blue as Maggie Nelson is by the various blues throughout Bluets. Where the interpersonal bond has proven fragile, and where even the power of language has its limits, the immediacy and intangibility of this blue stays vibrant, persists, almost succeeds in holding together what’s been broken:

Words still fortify me but the blue is better,
brighter, almost as bright as when it was first
removed from its tissue and passed
from hand to hand.

*          *          *

I love that Barnett’s poem and the passage in Adler cited above happen to unite with Nelson’s Bluets in these unique, though somehow stylistically similar and excellent books. Yet, astonished and pleased as I am by this, another of Adler’s observations causes me, at least momentarily, to check my enthusiasm:

when invention failed them, they used the fail-safe method for undergraduate work at any solid institution: take two utterly unrelated things or matters and show that they are, if not in fact identical, actually related in the most profound and subtle sense.

Our Poetry Month Competition winner is…

Read it and EatSue Tracy! Congratulations to Sue for her winning limerick:

This is an old book I adore,
A jolly good read to the core,
I laugh and I cry,
I gasp and I sigh,
But my book club thinks it’s a bore!

We’ve all felt your pain on this one! Of course the Everett Public Library can help you avoid the gentle snoring of your book club with some suggestions and ready-made book group sets that can be borrowed.

The Kids' Book Club BookKeep your eyes peeled for Sue’s poem on our Facebook page, as well as our electronic reader board outside the Main Library. Thank you for all your wonderful entries; it was a lot of fun getting to read them. Hopefully you enjoyed our Poetry Month celebration and discovered some new favorites through our weekly staff picks, Facebook posts about poetry resources, and more. We look forward to celebrating Poetry Month with you again in 2014 with new features and competitions.

Poetry Friday – Atmospherics

NPM_LOGOWelcome to our fourth and final Poetry Friday. Every Friday of this month, in honor of National Poetry Month, a staff member has chosen a poem that is a particular favorite. This week we present selections from Lisa.

Atmospherics

There is a thin line between the poetry I am drawn to, and the prose that I love to read. More than a clever rhyming scheme, I appreciate pieces that can draw a vivid picture in my mind. In honor of Spring, I decided to select a couple pieces that invoke the strange and beautiful weather that we are often treated to at this time of year.

My first selection comes from Carl Sandburg, a poet who is more commonly associated with Chicago than the Pacific Northwest. Though most likely written about a different harbor on a different coast, I think that Fog could just as easily have been written about a foggy morning in Everett.

Carl Sandburg

Fog – Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

 

 

Another constant companion during Spring in the Northwest is rain. April Rain Song, by Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, fits the mood of the month well.

Langston Hughes

April Rain Song – Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops
Let the rain sing you a lullaby
The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk
The rain makes running pools in the gutter
The rain plays a little sleep song on our roof at night
And I love the rain.

Both poets evoke a romantic and whimsical vibe that makes me think of green, damp, waiting Spring – preparing to bust out into Summer, as soon as the fog and rain passes.

Oh UPS Man, My UPS Man

I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a book of poems, a hot mug of deliciousness, and delved into the world of poetry. That would be because I hate poetry with the fiery hot passion of a thousand suns. It’s usually either completely esoteric or so aloof that I just cannot relate to it, no matter how hard I try.

All that changed last year when staff were asked to read their favorite poems and have them recorded and posted to YouTube. Ever the narcissist, I was eager to participate but hadn’t a clue as to what I could read. After countless misdirects and let-downs (no, you can’t read your mom’s cousin’s poems—they have to be in the library) I finally discovered Good Poems: American Places, selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor. Now, GK may be a very polarizing personality (love him or hate him, there is no in between, am I right?) but I was hopeful because he’s humorous. Even if I don’t always get or want his humor, he’s funny and so I thought maybe these poems would be funny, too.

Some are. Some aren’t. But in its pages I found this little gem that spoke to me:

Why I Have a Crush on You, UPS Man by Alice N. Persons

you bring me all the things I order
are never in a bad mood
always have a jaunty wave as you drive away
look good in your brown shorts
we have an ideal uncomplicated relationship
you’re like a cute boyfriend with great legs
who always brings the perfect present
(why, it’s just what I’ve always wanted!)
and then is considerate enough to go away
oh, UPS Man, let’s hop in your clean brown truck and elope!
ditch your job, I’ll ditch mine
let’s hit the road for Brownsville
and tempt each other
with all the luscious brown foods—
roast beef, dark chocolate,
brownies, Guinness, homemade pumpernickel, molasses cookies
I’ll make you my mama’s bourbon pecan pie
we’ll give all the packages to kind looking strangers
live in a cozy wood cabin
with a brown dog or two
and a black and brown tabby
I’m serious, UPS Man. Let’s do it.
Where do I sign?

The BEST UPS ManOur UPS Man is a great guy. His name is Monty and he always has a smile on his face and a quip ready to roll. He and his colleagues in the package delivery industry work hard, are highly accurate and stay personable–that’s my definition of good customer service. They are unsung heroes, and as someone who works in an “invisible” public service department (cataloging) I know he probably never hears accolades or has his praises sung. He and his fellow drivers deserve a poem. They deserve this poem.

So I hereby dedicate this poem to Monty and all his counterparts around the world. But don’t read too much into my dedication. It would never work out between Monty and me. I’m happily married and so is he—to different people. We don’t need love to make our relationship work, however. He knows my shopping tastes and I know how adorable his little boy is. We have a working relationship that is professional while at the same time fun. And that’s enough for me.

Carol

Poetry Friday the third

Welcome to our third Poetry Friday. Every Friday of this month, in honor of National Poetry Month, a staff member will choose a poem that is a particular favorite. This week we present a selection from Richard. Also, don’t forget that we are having a friendly competition this month where you can submit your own poems. Click here to learn all the details.

NPM_LOGOrobertfrostChock it up to a short attention span, but I’ve always preferred brevity when it comes to poetry. Some of my favorite short poems are by Robert Frost. My parents introduced me to Frost’s poetry at a young age and consequently his poems have a strange sense of comfort and nostalgia despite their often despairing tone. Photographs of Frost on book jackets always reminded me of a kindly grandfather. A kindly grandfather who takes you aside during a birthday celebration to say “I know you are happy right now, but I’m afraid the universe is indifferent to your plight. Now enjoy your cake.”

Here are two of my favorites:

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I rued.

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Poetry Friday the second

Welcome to our second Poetry Friday. Every Friday of this month, in honor of National Poetry Month, a staff member will choose a poem that is a particular favorite. This week we present a selection from Leslie. Also, don’t forget that we are having a friendly competition this month where you can submit your own poems. Click here to learn all the details

NPM_LOGO

I had to memorize this poem as a young schoolgirl and have loved it ever since. I think of it every year at Spring time when the daffodils bloom – right now! It is the perfect length for memorization: not too long and not too short.  Challenge yourself and see if you can memorize it and then impress your friends and relatives.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

For the more aural poem enthusiast, enjoy this reading by a celebrated poem enthusiast.

Poetry Friday the first

Welcome to Poetry Friday. Every Friday of this month, in honor of National Poetry Month, a staff member will choose a poem that is a particular favorite. This week we present a selection from Ron. Also, don’t forget that we are having a friendly competition this month where you can submit your own poems. Click here to learn all the details.

NPM_LOGOI have to start with a confession: I am not a big poetry fan. However, the poems of William Carlos Williams astound me. Although he wrote in many styles, brief descriptions that create stunningly vivid images are what Williams is known best for.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus is a painting by Pieter Bruegel (see below) depicting a bucolic scene filled with busy people going about their lives. In the distance one can see a small pair of legs sticking out of a body of water. Presumably this is Icarus.

Given that the story of Icarus is a myth of epic proportions showing the folly of hubris, the beauty of this painting for me lies in the triviality of Icarus within the bigger picture of life. Williams describes it quite beautifully.

landscape-with-the-fall-of-icarus-pieter-the-elder-bruegel

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

unsignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Celebrate National Poetry Month with a Friendly Competition

The Ode Less TravelledCalling all creatives! The Everett Public Library would like to hear you wax poetic about the things we love the most: books, reading, writing, our library, or just libraries in general. Throughout the month of April, aka National Poetry Month, we’ll be asking you to send in your original haiku or limericks with library-related themes. Why haiku and limericks? Because both forms are short and governed by pretty specific rules, so that makes our jobs as judges slightly easier.

If you haven’t had (or wanted) to write poetry since high school, that’s all right – I can help refresh your memory on how it’s done.

Haiku

How to HaikuWhen writing haiku, poets are restricted to a set number of syllables (or distinct units of sound) in each line. Haiku are made up of three lines: the first line has 5 syllables, the second line has 7, and the third line has 5. These lines do not have to rhyme, and more often than not, they don’t. Just to show you how it’s done, a couple of our librarians gave it a shot:

Turn this page and read—
A new chapter, a new idea.
This book is like Spring.

Reading quietly
Hail pounding on the roof
Glad to be inside

Limericks

There Once was a Very Odd SchoolFor those of you who like a good chuckle, the limerick may be more your style. These short rhyming poems are generally nonsensical, and sometimes a little bit naughty. Because we’re an all-ages establishment, we’re going to ask you to keep your entries family friendly, but we’d still like to see if you can crack our judges up. Here’s the how-to:

Limericks consist of five lines written in what is sometimes referred to as an aabba rhyming scheme, with the punch line of the poem landing on the last line. There is also a distinct skipping pattern that puts emphasis on specific words (many nursery rhymes follow this pattern). Confusing? Thankfully there are some really great teaching tools online that help explain how to write limericks. Also keep in mind that your lines don’t have to follow this pattern exactly; the most important thing is where you place your rhyming words.

The bare bones of a limerick can be broken down into dots and slashes to show where the emphasized words fall (source: Academy of American Poets):

The pattern can be illustrated with dashes denoting weak syllables, and back-slashes for stresses:

1) – / – – / – – /
2) – / – – / – – /
3) – / – – /
4) – / – – /
5) – / – – / – – /

Next you can fill in the dots and slashes with sounds to get a better feel for the rhythm (source: Poetry4kids.com):

da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM
da DUM da da DUM da da DUM

Finally you get to the fun part. Think of a topic or sets of rhyming words you want to use and see how you can fit them into the framework. To illustrate the aabba rhyming scheme I mentioned earlier, check out how I label my lines. Rhyming words fall at the end of each line, with all (A) lines rhyming with each other, and all (B) lines rhyming with each other.

There once was a trickster librarian (A)
Who delighted in being contrarian (A)
You’d ask for a book (B)
She’d give you a cook (B)
And suddenly you’re eating vegetarian (A)

Please, hold your groans – I never claimed to be a pro! Hopefully you get the point because now I’m asking you to give it a try.

The Competition!

To enter our competition, email your entries to me at llabovitch@everettwa.gov. There is no limit to the number of entries that you can submit. The deadline for submission is April 26th at noon. From there our judges will select their favorites and allow you all to vote for your top pick. The winner of the competition will get to see their poem printed in our newsletter, featured on our electronic sign outside, announced on the A Reading Life blog, and will have the awe and respect of the rest of us poetry novices. For more inspiration and examples, click on some of the book covers in this post to check out some books on poetry. Happy writing!

Lisa

Heartwood 3:2 – Weldon Kees and Robinson Alone

Robinson AloneRobinson Alone
by Kathleen Rooney

Weldon Kees was a mid-twentieth-century American poet, writer, painter, filmmaker and musician who disappeared one day in 1955, his car abandoned on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge. People who know of Kees at all today probably do so for his poetry (though his talent as a painter was real, and his pieces were once exhibited alongside those of Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning). But even among contemporary poets, many are unfamiliar with Kees’s stylish and often bleakly noir-ish work.

I’ve been captivated by Kees brooding, embittered poetry for a long time now, so it is a genuine pleasure to find Kathleen Rooney’s new novel in poems exploring all aspects of Kees and his alter-ego, Robinson – the anxious, shadowy, cipher featured in several of his poems.

Rooney adroitly follows the rough trajectory of Kees’s life as he goes from his Nebraska home to New York City, where he participates in but is never quite comfortable with its artistic milieu. He and his wife, Ann, decide to leave the city, driving cross-country on their way to eventually settling down in San Francisco. We learn of Kees/Robinson’s nightmares and insomnia, his anxiety regarding success, his fastidious nature and natty style. We also learn of Ann’s drinking and paranoia, and her ultimate institutionalization. Rooney has drawn heavily from Kees’s correspondence in fifteen fascinating entries all titled “Robinson Sends a Letter to Someone.”  And finally, we come to know that in his later life Kees had an interest in taking off to Mexico, which leaves the lingering possibility that he didn’t commit suicide but instead went there to start a new life.

The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees in the Everett Public Library catalogI don’t think I’ve spoiled anything by revealing this general chronology: it is Rooney’s nimble, imaginative and attentive language that forms the heart of this book. Her dedication and skill in capturing the spirit of Kees as man and artist even frees the reader from needing to know his actual work – though her book will certainly spur some readers to explore his brief Collected Poems, his letters, or his striking paintings. Robinson Alone will introduce you to both a lively contemporary poet and to a terrific, neglected, and long-missing one.