At the beginning of October, I share the first draft of a poem which, in all fairness, was more of a rant. In the meantime, I’ve shared it with my beloved poetry mentor in Provence, Karen McDermott, and also read it out at my local writing group, so I’ve had some feedback and made some changes.
One major area of reader concern was that I need to make it clearer from the outset that there are two people involved in the poem: a couple quarrelling. The other suggestion was to include more ‘out’ words, like outshine, outrun, outdo. I took both of those onboard.
I also decided that one whole stanza, the one with the invalid in bed expecting to be waited upon hand and foot, didn’t work very well (although it was what triggered the furious poem initially). So that came out and I reworked some of the other ideas, extending them into stanzas of their own. The passwords and apps in the first stanza became much more about a certain type of masculinity which uses technology as a weapon and rolls his eyes when women are not interested in constantly playing with gadgets. The scientific depth became more of a weapon of derision in its own ‘mansplaining’ stanza. The Facebook foxiness and offshore squirreling references became more obviously financial with the introduction of a game of Monopoly.
So here’s the second/third draft. The fourth stanza is deliberately longer than the others, which are all composed of four lines. It’s the break in patterns which makes things interesting. As Laura Kasischke said during her masterclass: ‘If I were in the hands of a poet who obviously has no idea where line breaks occur, just chops up a piece of prose into shorter lines, then a break in pattern is random, but if it’s a poet you can trust then you can see it’s deliberate and it adds to the meaning.’ That longer stanza marks how endless the Christmas season can seem when you are trapped in the house with someone lacking empathy and determined to always be in the right.
Outwit with passwords
you outgun me
fat on apps, encrypted accounts,
grin at attempts to follow your technology
Outrun me in the gym
keep yourself trim
belly sucked in and crow superior
while flab won’t cease to haunt me
Facebook foxiness masks
in a Monopoly game where
you outdo my every move
Holiday season and you outfrown
my anxious hiccups
drowning out conversational gambits
with incontrovertible evidence
oh that scientific depth
Outmother me, won’t you,
all laughter and mad tickling
masking the many hours of boredom
which you refused to partake
Soon you will outsource me
but still keep allure of long-distance parenting
Swiss chocolate vs. squished pies
drowned in bitter custard.
I’ve not added much punctuation to the original, but am wondering if it might be more effective to have a large first letter for each stanza, especially if it’s all O, like in an illuminated medieval manuscript. Or is that too artificial? I’d have to change stanzas 3 and 4 to start with O, but can leave the last one as is, for more of a contrast and resolution.
Now for the most difficult thing: the title. I vaguely thought of ‘Outnumbered’, or ‘Outfoxed’, but other possibilities include ‘Outlier’ or ‘On the Way Out’ or ‘Getting Out’. But I am not sure that insisting on the repetition of ‘out’ in the title isn’t overkill. What do you think?
Although I have a business webinar to run later on today, my thoughts are very much focused on a selection of poems I will be submitting for a competition. So here are some poems which will not make the grade, but which suit the season.
Or real curiosity and sympathy and trying to listen to other cultures, subcultures, minorities, humans who have different opinions to us. I still remember with a shudder the businessman I met at a networking meeting in 2009 or so, who said: ‘What’s the need for any cross-cultural awareness training? We all travel nowadays!’
Let Me Help
Your hands pick up, put down, in gestures trained,
After recent events in America, I felt I needed the comfort of some thoughtful women poets, who can uplift and inspire us with their words and their lives.
Maxine Kumin: Jack and Other New Poems
Maxine Kumin has been one of my heroines from way back, when I wrote poetry the first time round, in high school. Her trademark close observation of nature life is often humorous, with just a tinge of fear and wonder at the power of nature, its bounty but also its indifference. She has sometimes been described as a ‘regional pastoral poet’, but her themes seem universal to me, although they often start from personal experiences of farming life. The poem ‘7 Caveats in May’, for instance, describes her dog chasing a bear up a tree and no patrol car being available to help, so she has to ask her neighbour to poke the bear to come down (without tearing apart the dog). The cheeky redpoll birds are described as ‘highwaymen’, intimidating ‘your year-round faithfuls away from the feeder’, yet Kumin notes with tenderness how charming they are ‘in their little red yarmulkas’.
Of course, nature always leads humans to awareness of their own mortality, especially when beloved animals (horses and dogs) die, yet leave their ghostly imprint upon us. The almost unbearable pain of farewell from her beloved old mare Broody, who had a good life, yet the indignity which follows death is always present, no matter how quiet and gentle the passing away itself is.
If only death could be
like going to the movies.
You get up afterward
and go out
saying, how was it?
Tell me, tell me, how was it?
Kumin must have been a delightful person to know, her poems often feel like a personal conversation, with brilliant moments of insight, yet always elegant, restrained, making you work to understand what lies below the carefully constructed and balanced surface. Yet there are personal touches too, like this charming reference to her fellow poet Stanley Kunitz:
Luck of the alphabet,
since 1961 we’ve leaned
against each other, spine
on spine, positioned thus.
Upright or slant, long may we stand
on shelves dusted or not
to be taken up by hands
that cherish us.
Of course, this being Kumin, firebrand and feminist, the poems are not just inward-looking, but expertly mix the lyrical with the political. Particularly striking is the poem ‘Women and Horses’, which asks how poetry and beauty is still possible after the experiences of Auschwitz, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan, after the Towers’ (you can imagine which twin towers this refers to). It is an exhortation that the only way forward is to allow freedom and beauty rather than seek to constrain life, even if the result is messy.
Let there be fat old ladies in flowery tent dresses at bridge tables. Howling babies in dirty diapers and babies serenely at rest. War and détente will go on, détente and renewed tearings asunder, we can never break free from the dark and degrading past. Let us see life again, nevertheless, in the words of Isaac Babel as a meadow over which women and horses wander.
Cecilia Woloch: Carpathia
I’d never heard of Cecilia Woloch before but the title of this collection appealed to me, since a good part of the Carpathian mountains are in Romania. However, it turns out that the poet is referring to the Polish portion of the Carpathians, which is where her family originally came from. She instantly appealed to me, with her nomadic lifestyle and her poetry outreach work in prisons and schools, as well as collaborations with visual artists and theatres.
Growing up in rural Kentucky as one of seven children, she pens a beautifully tender ode to her parents, the love they have for each other and their family, entitled ‘Why I Believed, as a Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms’. Here she is on You Tube performing it.
Poets always seem to find it easier to write about sad things and troubled times, but Woloch has the knack of happiness. She captures perfectly the dizzying moments of falling in love, with the breathless listing of key moments, the repetitions, the simplicity of language:
And hadn’t you kissed the rain from my mouth?
And weren’t we gentle and awed and afraid,
knowing we’d stepped from the room of desire
into the further room of love?…
And were we not lovely, then, were we not
as lovely as thunder, and damp grass, and flame?
Her poems evoke a special kind of tenderness, a profound understanding of the less than perfect situations or humans. In the tour de force of a poem which is the pantoum Le Jardin d’Isabelle, she describes a woman being invited to the home of her lover and his wife. This is a love triangle without rancour or bitterness, although it addresses the shattering of illusions. But the language conveys so much richness, flowing, shimmering brightness, that it feels ultimately uplifting.
Sharon Olds: The Wellspring
I’ve admired Sharon Olds since I discovered her when she won the TS Eliot Prize (the first American to do so) for her collection ‘Stag’s Leap’, which described her abandonment and the breakdown of her marriage. There is nothing she does not address fearlessly and in a very feminine way (strong, feisty feminine way) in her poetry – family, politics, inner life, but I’d never read a whole collection by her. As the name indicates, ‘The Wellspring’ is about the female experience in its entirety: from the mother’s womb, to childhood and sexual awakening, to motherhood and learning to let go, to mature love. It’s full on instantly recognisable moments too, yet always with a surprise twist: a father smiling triumphantly at a daughter who comes last in a swimming race ‘almost without meanness’; the bonding between brother and sister both wearing braces, like a tribe sharing a sibilant language with its ‘orthodontial lisp’; love-making in narrow beds in college.
It’s a very sensual description of the body and emotions – fully-charged eroticism counterpointed with tenderness, humour and wonder at the miracle of giving birth to something so profoundly other. This is poetry which speaks directly to the emotions rather than being a tricky intellectual puzzle, which is exactly what the poet intended. I particularly liked the bittersweet feeling of no longer being needed, so eloquently described in the poem about the smashing (mercy killing) of the cow butter-dish, marking the end of motherhood.
Some critics have complained that her poetry is too accessible (while others usually complain that poetry has become too difficult and unappealing), but I think she is popular without becoming populist, and has the perfect balance between the personal and the universal. Many of her poems start off with a funny moment and then rapidly change into something far more serious and poignant, with a real wind of loneliness blowing through it, as in her poem ‘Forty-One, Alone, No Gerbil’. I’ll have to share it with you in its entirety, as it would be a shame to cut off any part of it.
In the strange quiet, I realize
there’s no on else in the house. No bucktooth
mouth pulls at stainless-steel teat, no
hairy mammal runs on a treadmill–
Charlie is dead, the last of our children’s half-children.
When our daughter found him lying in the shavings, trans-
mogrified backwards from a living body
into a bolt of rodent bread
she turned her back on early motherhood
and went on single, with nothing. Crackers,
Fluffy, Pretzel, Biscuit, Charlie,
buried on the old farm we bought
where she could know nature. Well, now she knows it
and it sucks. Creatures she loved, mobile and
needy, have gone down stiff and indifferent,
she will not adopt again though she cannot
have children yet, her body like a blueprint
of the understructure for a woman’s body,
so now everything stops for a while,
now I must wait many years
to hear in this house again the faint
powerful calls of a young animal.
Sharon Olds seems to be getting more and more honest and uncompromising in her examination of the female body and ageing, according to the critics, in her latest book ‘Odes’. I feel myself attracted to it already…
Karen and Jack’s house in Provence may be a little corner of paradise, but I wasn’t just going to laze around in a night-gown and listen to harp music all day. I had tremendous plans going there: I was going to finish my novel and send it to my mentor for structural edits. But that was based on the flawed assumption I made back in early June that I would have spent a total of 5 weeks on the novel by now. Needless to say, that did not happen between July and October. I wrote precisely zero words since mid-June.
Having all the time in the world and inspiring landscape galore was not immediately productive, however. I wrote about 1500 words and rewrote a full outline of the novel, filling up any plot holes, but no more than that. Now, I could choose to focus on what I did not achieve, but for once I will focus on the positive.
Lulled to sleep in the evening and woken up in the morning by poetry (Karen has a whole room full of poetry books – 4 bookcases full!), it’s to be expected that I succumbed to my old passion. I read 13 books of poetry during those five days, so it was like bathing in sunlight. Of course, you know what it’s like with poetry collections, you don’t read them cover to cover, you find the poems that really resonate with you.
Here are some which I would love to share with you, all by women poets (although I also read William Stafford and Peter Meinke, I spontaneously picked up women this time):
Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.
Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.
What to do if I sound more like you than you do.
Every word an exhalation, a driving out. (Vahni Capildeo)
I keep finding you in ways I didn’t know I noticed, or knew.
Every road, every sea,
every beach by every sea,
keeps lining up with what you loved.
Here’s a line of silent palm trees.
It’s as if you answered the phone.
(Naomi Shihab Nye)
I caution you as I was never cautioned:
you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.
Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth –
Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.
Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive. (Louise Gluck)
I, like a river,
Have been turned aside by this harsh age.
I am a substitute. My life has flowed
Into another channel
And I do not recognise my shores.
O, how many fine sights I have missed,
How many curtains have risen without me
And fallen too…
And how many poems I have not written
Whose secret chorus swirls around my head
And possibly one day
Will stifle me… (Anna Akhmatova)
This poem is dangerous; it should not be left
Within the reach of children, or even of adults
Who might swallow it whole, with possibly
Undesirable side-effects. If you come across
An unattended, unidentified poem
In a public place, do not attempt to tackle it
Yourself. Send it (preferably in a sealed container)
To the nearest centre of learning, where it will be rendered
Harmless by experts. Even the simplest poem
May destroy your immunity to human emotions.
All poems must carry a Government warning. Words
Can seriously affect your heart. (Elma Mitchell)
The result of this electrolyte bath of poetry? I wrote 25 new poems of my own. All requiring a lot of work still, but more than I’ve written in the 6 months January-June 2016. I will make sure I always have at least one book of poetry on the go at any moment in time.
This is shaping up to be a lovely week full of my favourite things: World Ballet Day, World Teachers’ Day and now National Poetry Day here in the UK. Here are a few favourite fragments of poems to celebrate.
I cannot dance upon my Toes—
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,
That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe— (Emily Dickinson)
…such things are said to be
Good for you, and you will have to learn them
In order to become one of the grown-ups
Who sees invisible things neither steadily nor whole,
But keeps gravely the grand confusion of the world
Under his hat, which is where it belongs,
And teaches small children to do this in their turn. (Howard Nemerov)
Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to those teachers who shaped me into what I am today (caveat: all mistakes my own, etc. etc.)
About poetry – well, I can’t stop thinking about this poem today, by Robert Bly:
Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!
I am wrapped in my joyful flesh,
As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.
Rising from a bed, where I dreamt
Of long rides past castles and hot coals,
The sun lies happily on my knees;
I have suffered and survived the night,
Bathed in dark water, like any blade of grass.
The strong leaves of the box-elder tree,
Plunging in the wind, call us to disappear
Into the wilds of the universe,
Where we shall sit at the foot of a plant,
And live forever, like dust.
Finally, I leave you with this amazing line from Mahmoud Darwish:
You are reluctant to emerge from the metaphor in case you fall into the well of loneliness.
Reading the article by Michael Mohammed Ahmad about the universality of bad writing and bad attitudes towards receiving feedback was an experience which had me laughing and wincing in recognition. It’s a harsh article, but perhaps a very necessary one. I’ve read (and written) an excess of lines which are too pretty, too laboured, trying just a little too hard to RAM the point down the readers’ throat, and I couldn’t agree more with his recommendation ‘to write something honest, specific, tangible, to use original metaphors and symbols that I could see in my mind’s eye, and to write something that was not a rehash of what they had been conditioned to believe a poem should be’.
My particular problem in poetry is that I go too unfiltered and raw, trying to fit in all the ideas and metaphors, all the images and juxtapositions which occur to me. It’s almost like I scribble down from dictation. Which is fine for a first draft, but a poem requires far, far more subtlety and editing!
So I thought it might be fun to share with you the journey of a poem. Here is the ‘raw material’ for a poem which I jotted down following a pique of anger at the weekend. I will be working on it over the next few weeks and provide regular updates, the reasons behind the changes I make, links to poets who’ve done it better than myself etc. I hope it’s a fun way of approaching poetry for those of you who don’t read it so much for enjoyment or find it too ‘ivory tower.’ For the time being, since it’s just an info dump, I’ve not used any punctuation. It’s the way I always start a poem – making a note of certain ideas or feelings before I forget.
Outwit with passwords
you do me
fat on apps, accounts and Facebook foxiness
Outrun in the gym
to keep yourself trim
belly suck and crow superior
Outcry me with your pulled muscles
nestle in your tea-based need
triumphant in your bedrest
you ignore panda-eyed flu ghosts around you
Outmother me, won’t you,
all laughter and scientific depth
masking the many hours of boredom
which you refused to partake
the allure of long-distance parenting
Swiss chocolate vs. squished pies
drowned in custard