May 24, 2019

Poetry Rx

Poetry Rx, as in a poetry "prescription," is a column the The Paris Review. Readers write in with a specific emotion, and resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing poems for them. Once a weekly feature, it now monthly.

For May, the topic was "Then the Letting Go," One reader wrote in asking for a poem because she had come out to her parents and gotten a bad reaction.

Claire Schwartz replied:
"I'm sorry your family did not respond with the affirmation you deserve. Your queerness doesn’t need to be validated. It is valid because it is. You need—you deserve—to find a way to enter the truths of yourself regardless of how other people see you. That is difficult, beautiful work. I want to offer you a poem I hold very close because it stabilizes me to do just that: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck.” 

In another column, when a reader asks for an encouraging poem for her job-hunting partner, Sarah Kay suggest one that isn't about job hunting biut about "loving someone exactly as they are, and wanting them to know that they are enough. It is a poem called “Ordinary Sex,” by Ellen Bass, which begins:"

If no swan descends
in a blinding glare of plumage,
drumming the air with deafening wings,
if the earth doesn’t tremble
and rivers don’t tumble uphill,
if my mother’s crystal
vase doesn’t shatter
and no extinct species are sighted anew
and leaves of the city trees don’t applaud
as you zing me to the moon, starry tesserae
cascading down my shoulders,
if we stay right here
on our aging Simmons Beautyrest,
dumped into the sag in the middle,
that’s okay...

May 17, 2019

Prompt: The Moon

Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madman. - Allen Ginsberg

Fly me to the Moon,
let me play among the stars
 Let me see what spring is like
on Jupiter and Mars   
- Bart Howard

Waxing Crescent Moon
Earth's Moon is 225,745 miles away, yet we have always felt very close to it. The earliest poetry used the Moon for inspiration and its attractions has never waned.

Have you heard the phrase "waxing poetic?" As with the Moon, when we "wax" we grow, become, get, or turn. In the Moon phases, between new and full a progressively larger part of the Moon's visible surface is illuminated and it appears to increase (wax) in size.

"Waning" is the opposite - that decreasing after a full moon. We have created a number of names for these waxing and waning phases: a waxing or waning Gibbous moon when more than half of the moon is illuminated, and a waxing or waning Crescent Moon when less than half is illuminated.

Those phases of the Moon are often compared to phases and cycles of people, both mental and physical. The constant of the Moon is that it is inconstant.

O, swear not by the moon
that inconstant Moon

that monthly changes in her circled orb
lest thy love prove likewise variable.
 - Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

The new Moon, when the Moon is essentially hidden, is also known as the Dark Moon. In the Druidic calendar, the night of the Full Moon is considered a time of rejoicing, and the night of the New Moon is a solemn occasion, calling for vigils and meditation. To the Druids, the new moon represents total feminine energy and an absence of masculine energy.

Everyone is a moon and has a dark side
which he never shows to anybody.  -  Mark Twain Pudd'nhead Wilson

Moon lore comes in many forms. There are the beliefs/superstitions, such as thinking that good luck will come your way if you first see the New Moon outside and over your right shoulder. To see the crescent Moon over the right shoulder was considered lucky, but seeing it over the left shoulder was unlucky.

To get rid of warts, take a slice of apple and while looking at the New Moon, rub the flesh of the apple against the wart and say: "What I see is growing, What I rub is going."  Bury the piece of apple. As it rots, the wart will disappear.

The moon for all her light and grace
has never learned to know her place.  - Robert Frost

The Moon lent its name to other names. In medieval Europe and England, “Moon’s men” were thieves and highwaymen who plied their trade by night. The more current term, “moonlighting,” is similar, originally meaning to hold down an additional night job.

And we have given the Full Moons many names. This month the Full Moon is on May 18 and it can be called the Flower Moon, Corn Planting Moon, Grass Moon, Milk Moon, Planting Moon, the Medieval Hare Moon, Buddha Full Moon , Moon When Frogs Return and many other names based on cultures and geography.

Most people know that it was once believed that the Moon (especially  Full Moon) could cause madness. In German, mondsüchtig, which can be translated as "lunatic," is literally “addicted to the moon.”

There is no shortage of Moon poems. Some are traditional in their approach.

To the Moon by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth, —
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

But some poems use the Moon in other ways.

The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath is one of a group of poems that was published in The New Yorker in August 1963, six months after her death.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.

If the moon smiles, she would resemble you. 
You leave the same impression 
of something beautiful, but annihilating.
-  Sylvia Plath, "The Rival"

Folklore about the Moon is interesting, but so are facts about the Moon. The footprints left by the Apollo astronauts will not erode as they would on Earth since there is no wind or water on the Moon and should last at least 10 million years. If you weigh 140 pounds on earth, you would weigh 23.240 lbs on the moon.The moon is 225,745 miles from earth.

Our prompt this month - as the May Full Moon approaches this weekend - is to write a poem about the Moon, but try to use it in a new way.

Submission Deadline: May 31, 2019

The Moon lives in the lining of your skin.  - Pablo Neruda

April 19, 2019

Wild Nights with Emily

Emily (Molly Shannon) doing what she should be best remembered for -writing
WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

This is not a review but a preview since I have not seen the new film about Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily.  The reviews have been positive.

I have posted a few times in recent years here about poets and poetry portrayed on film. The results have been mixed, but I think it is difficult to explain what poetry's power is to someone who does not read or write it. It would be even more difficult to make it come to life on a screen. It comes to life for many of us on a page, read silently or read aloud.

On the film's website "About" page, they describe the film in this way:
"In the mid-19th century, Emily Dickinson is writing prolifically, baking gingerbread, and enjoying a passionate, lifelong romantic relationship with another woman, her friend and sister-in-law Susan...
Yes this is the iconic American poet, popularly thought to have been a recluse.
Beloved comic Molly Shannon leads in this humorous yet bold reappraisal of Dickinson, informed by her private letters. While seeking publication of some of the 1,775 poems written during her lifetime, Emily (Shannon) finds herself facing a troupe of male literary gatekeepers too confused by her genius to take her work seriously. Instead her work attracts the attention of an ambitious woman editor, who also sees Emily as a convenient cover for her own role in buttoned-up Amherst's most bizarre love triangle.
A timely critique of how women's history is rewritten, WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY remains vibrant, irreverent and tender--a perhaps closer depiction of Emily Dickinson's real life than anything seen before."
Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in bed - WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

Not every filmgoer will know walking into a theater that the film's title comes from one of her poems. It is one of my favorites of Emily's poems.

Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
In thee!

The Atlantic editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Brett Gelman) visits Emily to tell her that her poems are inaccessible, so he won't be publishing them.  WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY - Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment
I liked Terence Davies' film A Quiet Passion, which is a biopic about Ms. Dickinson, but it followed the traditional story - which is at least partially true - of Emily's chronic pain, unrequited love, literary obscurity, self-confinement and isolation.

What makes this new film different from other works about Emily is that it takes some of the evidence that has been found through studying the poems and Emily's erasures which seem to indicate more than just a friendship with her brother's wife, Susan.

If Emily was on Facebook, her relationship status would read "It's Complicated."

Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz) who narrates the film and assembled and edited the first posthumous collection of Dickinson’s poetry was also the mistress of Emily’s brother. Mabel's edits out Emily’s now-famous dashes and deleted the dedications to her sister-in-law, Susan. Fake news.

Madeleine Olnek’s film is a reinterpretation of the somewhat standard story of Emily's life that was taught for many years. I certainly was given a picture of a hermetic poet who never left her bedroom and would gaze out the window at flowers, funerals and the world passing by. She wanted her poems destroyed and forgotten.

That story is not accurate. How much closer to the truth is this film's interpretation? The film is rated PG-13 for "sexual content" but it is a gentle intercutting of the edited Emily and the version of her where petticoats fall to the floor. Molly Shannon's Emily is more of a heroine in what is probably a romantic comedy. If that interpretation brings more readers to the poems and blows the dust off Emily's portrait, I'm all for it.

April 12, 2019

No Time in the Garden

I have written before about poet Stanely Kunitz's garden in Provincetown. With the start of early gardening here in the Northeast and the recent passing of poet W.S. Merwin, my thoughts again turn to poets, poetry and gardens.

W.S. (William Stanley) Merwin was the 17th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States. He authored over fifty books of poetry, prose, and translations. He earned every major literary prize, most recently the National Book Award for Migration: New and Selected Poems and the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Shadow of Sirius.

He lived in Hawaii where he was an avid gardener, guardian of nature and raised endangered palm trees.

W. S. Merwin’s collection of poems, Garden Time, concluded his 70 years of writing poetry when it was published in 2016.

He had at the end of his life macular degeneration and so had great difficulty seeing and was no longer traveling or giving readings.

In an article in the American Scholar, John Kaag wrote about a brief conversation he had wit Merwin about how that book had meant a lot to him in connection with John's mother. His mother "gardened with a passion I often mistook for rage."

In their conversation, Merwin said “You have to understand, John: The time of wisdom cannot be measured, and, for me, wisdom is the garden. There is no time in the garden. There is no time in the garden. There is …” He halted, coughed, and let it out, “… no time in the garden.”

I am a gardener and I think I know the timelessness there that Merwin felt.

Kaag thought it could mean several things including how it predates and outlasts us, pays no little heed to the human timeline, flourishes and declines in the “now,” and is a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Garden Time is dedicated to Merwin’s wife, Paula who was dying as he composed the poems. From the article, I learned that she had become his eyes, reading to him, helping with poems and guiding him through the garden.

I heard Merwin read several times and once, at a Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey, I got to speak briefly with him. He had attended nearby Princeton University and I asked him what he remembered about the place. he said, "Walking the campus and the beautiful old trees passing through the seasons."

I told him that I had two lines from his poem,"Place," in a small frame over my writing desk.

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

I said that I considered it the most optimistic message. This seemed to please him.

His poem, "Garden," reprinted on the Merwin Conservancy website, comes from an earlier collection, The Vixen, but is part of the throughline of the garden and nature that runs through his poetry.


When I still had to reach up for the doorknob
          I was wondering why the Lord God whoever that was
who had made everything in heaven and the earth
          and knew it was good and that nobody could hurt it
had decided to plant a garden apart
          from everything and put some things inside it
leaving all the rest outside where we were
          so the garden would be somewhere we would never see
and we would know of it only that it could not be known
          a bulb waiting in pebbles in a glass of water
in sunlight at a window You will not be wanting
          the garden too the husband said as an afterthought
but I said yes I would which was all I knew of it
          even the word sounding strange to me for the seedy
tatter trailing out of its gray ravelled walls
          on the ridge where the plateau dropped away to the valley
old trees shaded the side toward the village
          lichens silvered the tangled plum branches hiding
the far end of the scrape of the heavy door as it dragged
          across the stone sill had deepened its indelible
groove before I knew it and a patch of wilting
          stalks out in the heat shimmer stood above potatoes
someone had cultivated there among the stately nettles
          it was not time yet for me to glimpse the clay
itself dark in rain rusting in summer shallow
          over fissured limestone here and there almost
at the surface I had yet to be shown how the cold
          softened it what the moles made of it where the snake
smiled on it from the foot of the wall what the redstart
          watched in it what would prosper in it what it would become
I had yet to know how it would appear to me

What is a Garden? - a photo book featuring
Merwin’s essays and poems about his palm forest

Merwin died at home on March 15, 2019. I have made a calendar note for next year to reread his poem "For the Anniversary of My Death," which begins:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

The idea that the day of your death is a day you have lived through over and over, like an anniversary, like a birthday, is another one of those things that merwin has written that stays with me.