Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Poems That Keep Paintings Alive

Did you read "The Aquarium," Aleksandar Hemon's riveting first-person account of his family's loss of a very young daughter to cancer?  (The New Yorker, June 13, 2011) This powerful non-fiction is an answer to the question "How would one write adequately about such a loss?"

Hemon repeatedly alludes to W.H. Auden's ekphrastic poem about Breughel's "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus."  The painting's silence, translated in part by Auden's lines, shimmers anew in the light of Hemon's story.  Through Auden's poem, Hemon finds words and images to characterize the divide between those who experience grief and those who only witness it.

Such mysterious and persistent acts of translation from the visual to the verbal are the focus of "The Ekphrastic Problem," one of two courses I'm offering starting September 15th.  (The other course is called "The Difference.")  Both courses promise to be spectacular.

Monday, August 8, 2011

What Lines Sound Like

 The Kenyon Review is running an interview with U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin that takes up two important features of my upcoming course, “The Difference,” a poet’s concern with sound, and the “lineliness” of verse.

Got two minutes?  Then listen to the first 1:31 of this show. You will hear a master poet reading a contemporary poem with a strong emphasis on the line as its fundamental unit!

Notice how Merwin reads each line as a line, and lets the consistent enjambment he’s noted for do its work silently.  (Under his reading of the lines, we hear syntactical units that do not correspond to the line, like “you will be all right whether or not you know” and “long ago my mother said I am going…”)

Here’s the text:

Rain Light

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning.

W.S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius

The interview as a whole is worth hearing.  Merwin expresses his concern that today’s writers have forgotten—or haven’t realized—that poems begin in sound. 

“The Difference” will resoundingly enhance each writer's sense of what that means.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Ekphrastic Problem: A Sample

How does one know when one has written enough—and well enough—about a work of art?
Consider the case of Cathy Song’s poem “Girl Powdering Her Neck,” which is addressed to Utamaro’s wonderful ukiyo-e print from the late nineteenth century, reproduced below:
           Utamaro Kitigawa (1752-1806), Musee Guimet, Paris

Song’s ekphrastic poem “Girl Powdering Her Neck,” closes with an understated and moving metaphor.  These three lines handle Japanese motifs (the chrysanthemum and the poetic form, for example) lightly.  Their account of Utamaro’s work is conveyed by evocation of an imaginary scene parallel to, but not depicted in the print. This use of indirection makes the lines especially strong with regard to the likeness and difference we perceive between the girl and her reflection, and charges the poem with mystery:  

Two chrysanthemums

touch in the middle of the lake

and drift apart.
(ll. 50-52)

Isn’t this almost-haiku an almost perfect poem?  But what, then, are we to make of the other forty-nine lines Song has written?
Welcome to the ekphrastic problem! A poetry workshop framed around such inquiries will commence in mid-September.