Let’s have poetry that fills our voices and minds
by Rob Neufeld
A date to talk with a group about poetry has given me an opportunity me to put some thoughts down on paper; and to trumpet a few new books.
Currently, more poetry is being printed, spoken, and posted than ever in our society, and the phenomenon has contributed to what I will call a republic of shamans. Everyone’s every experience and utterance is significant, and has been shown, through the William Carlos Williams school of conversational haiku, to be poem-ready.
I find myself wanting greater use of old-fashioned craft, without losing the liberating features of modern poetry. I ask myself, “Does a particular poem lead me to want to repeat saying it?”
As an example, there’s the Twenty-Third Psalm.
A new Norton anthology, “The Word Exchange: Anglo Saxon Poems in Translation,” presents our oldest written English literature in fresh versions.
“Beowulf,” “The Seafarer,” a woman’s lament, horror stories, and hoards of riddles cast their spells in words that feel good when spoken and thought about.
For example, Mary Jo Salter’s translation of “The Seafarer” includes this passage, in which the exile speaks out during his escape: “My heart’s thoughts pound now with the salt wave’s surging.”
There are pleasing expressions (“heart’s thoughts”) in this sentence; and drama. The heart-and-mind pounding waits a beat before being connected to the scenery.
In another Norton publication, its mammoth, much-used “Anthology of Poetry,” Richard Hamer provides the translation of “The Seafarer.”
“There knocketh now,” quoth his hoary hero in the same passage, “the heart’s thought that I on high streams/ The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.”
It’s not just the archaic language and diction that are the problem here. The translator has crafted the ancient author’s phrase—translated literally as “the tossing of salt waves”—into a knotty showpiece. “Salt-wavy” is not how a seafarer would see waves; and “tumult” draws too much attention to itself, and makes the seafarer sound goofy.
A master poem, I think, must function beautifully and naturally on six integrated levels: cultural pertinence; personal feeling; narrative; the melody of vowels; the mime of consonants; and rhythm.
A large number of journals and anthologies make it possible to survey and enjoy poetry from all over the country and globe.
One of the treasures is “Asheville Poetry Review,” which has published at least one annual volume every year since 1994.
The new issue, just out, includes favorites from this region, such as Fred Chappell and John Lane; as well as famed poets from other parts, such as Ai and the recently late great, Lucille Clifton.
APR also has a reputation for publishing just-emerging poets. In last year’s volume, it presented Steven Brown, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island who has recently paired his poems with the prints of world-renowned photographer Jerry Uelsmann to produce “Moth and Bonelight.”
Brown’s 2009 APR poem, “Conversions,” is an elegy to his father, whose last days he recalls; and it is also a psalm to the nature religion his father held onto.
While his aunts tried to reconcile his father to Christ, his father saw “just the world/ shimmering like dragonflies/ above clean water, and beetles/ rising from the fields with fire/ on their tongues, a pentecost that he/ could understand at last.”
Brown creates a vision and a sound, and his poem has a story arc, for it concludes: “We prayed/ all through the evening hours,/ while the beetles rose in pitch,/ rebuking our disbelief.”
In the new volume, Tennessee poet Bill Brown offers “The Graciousness of Soil,” also an elegy and a psalm. He recalls his mother as a woman who cared about all people and things.
“In death,” he writes, “she cherished the whistle of finches,/ the cricket whispers of waxwings,/ the shameless antics of egrets/ in their mating.”
Bill Brown’s mother believes in Heaven, and expects that it mirrors heaven on earth.
From various directions, the top poets are finding their voices in hymns. Like early Industrial Age painters such as J.M.W. Turner and poets such as William Wordsworth, today’s poets are speaking up for Mother Earth.
That’s just one vital stream in modern poetry. There are many others, including the one represented by Craig Challender’s poem, “Postscript,” in the new APR—that is, commentary.
I like seeing poets taking their ironic, mystical, modulated phrasings to the world of bloggers and talking heads.
Challender’s take-off point is Joseph Campbell saying that Occidental religions are founded on “an anthology of fictions.” “Don’t allude to that in the Seekers class,” Challender warns, “or while ab crunching with the Methodizers,/ Praise Muzak piped in from WPAX.”
You’ve got to love the beatniks; they’re our wandering bards.
Challender makes references to Christian bumper stickers; the colonial preacher, Jonathan Edwards; and “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” He concludes with a line that he says, “I’m reading now: a voice/ melting into air I make my own.”
The line is from American poet Bill Matthews’ poem, “Self-Help,” which goes: “God weeps for the helpless, and without a sound.”
William Matthews died in 1997, having become an icon. His son, Sebastian Matthews, author of the memoir, “In My Father’s Footsteps,” is a literary leader in Asheville; and a contributor to the APR.
Along with the APR’s noteworthy far-seeking, there is also its weave of community. Janice Moore Fuller, Catawba College writer-in-residence and international creativity teacher, contributes a review of books of poems by Laura Hope-Gill, Pat Riviere-Seel, and Ruth Moose.
Riviere-Seel contributes her talent to the role of associate editor of APR. Hope-Gill is the director and producer of “The Wordfest Poetry Festival,” a path-breaking event in Asheville. Connections with local universities and colleges are fertile here, for, as elsewhere in the country, poetry schools have blossomed.
It’s as if today’s Renaissance bands of bards and Post-Industrial solitary dreamers have formed a kind of Masonic society. What we have here now is a truly stunning development, with the danger being that today’s poets may become large enough to serve as their own audience.
• The Word Exchange: Anglo Saxon Poems in Translation ed.by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto (W.W. Norton hardcover, Dec. 2010, 557 pages, $35). Visit poemsoutloud.net for readings of certain entries.
• The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edition, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy (Norton trade paper, 2005, 2,256 pages).
• Asheville Poetry Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Issue 20 (2010, 215 pages, $13). APR is available also through a subscription. Visit ashevillepoetryreview.com. Submit writings to Asheville Poetry Review, PO Box7086, Asheville NC 28802.
The APR announces its first “William Matthews Poetry Prize,” for which Sebastian Matthews is the final judge. The prizes are $1,000; publication in APR; and a performance spot at the Wordfest Literary Festival. Send one to three poems with a $20 entry fee to William Matthews Poetry Prize, PO Box 7086, Asheville NC 28802. The deadline is Jan. 15, 2011.