August 17, 2007

Charles Simic, Poet Laureate #15

Charles Simic was named the 15th poet laureate of the U.S. by the Librarian of Congress this monthly. He succeeds Donald Hall. Laureate appointments can be one or two years and come with a $35,000 annual stipend.

The same day it was announced that the American Academy of Poets had given him its Wallace Stevens Award for "outstanding and proven mastery" of the art of poetry.

Simic, 69, received a MacArthur Foundation grant of $500,000 for the period 1984-1989 and won the 1990 Pulitzer for poetry for his collection The World Doesn't End: Prose Poems.''

Simic was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and came to the U.S. with his family in 1954, was drafted into the Army in 1961 and received a bachelor's degree from New York University in 1966.

In 1967 he published his first full-length collection, What the Grass Says. He has published more than 60 books in the U.S. and abroad, including 18 books of poetry. He began teaching at the University of New Hampshire in 1973, where he is professor emeritus of creative writing and literature.

The actual title is Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He will actually officially begin his appointment as poet laureate with a speech at the library's National Book Festival on Sept. 29 and a reading of his work Oct. 17 at the library's annual literary series.

Conicidentally, the previous Laureate, Donald Hall, was also from New Hampshire.

Eyes Fastened With Pins

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death's laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death's supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address somehow wrong,
Even death can't figure it out
Among all the locked doors...
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death's side of the bed.

Charles Simic

August 6, 2007

The Thirst of Mary Oliver

An evening of poetry with some friends this past week sent me looking into the poems of Mary Oliver again.

In Oliver's newest book, Thirst, there are 43 new poems. You'd expect to find poems about nature, and readers familiar with her work might also expect a kind of spirituality. As several reviewers have written, you will also find her exploring in this book grief and faith.

I returned to reading Oliver's poems after my friend, Leon, talked about how approaching her poems recently had been a kind of spiritual reading. Oliver recently lost her long time companion, and in this book she writes through and with her grief into a place that seems overtly spiritual, perhaps even religious.

Some of the poems sound like prayers-

Oh Lord of melons, of mercy, though I am
not ready, nor worthy, I am climbing toward you.
and in the poem, "Praying" she offers:

It doesn't have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don't try
to make them elaborate, this isn't
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice can speak.

Patching a few words together into a prayer, or into a poem (I have long believed that almost all poems touch upon the writing of poetry) is, as she writes early in the book, her doing her life's work - "loving the world."

And the poems are still full of place: ponds, ocean and marsh full of "salt brightness," grass, fields and cattails occupied by herons, ravens, dogs, bees, hawks, snakes, turtles, and bears.

My other poetic companion last week, Susan, might call these Oliver's signature tropes (as Susan is currently deep into a thesis on the topic). That's not a bad path into the poems either, but I might have to walk down several definition roads to see tropes linguistically, as in music, philosophy or in the most obvious literary meaning.

As she spends a "Long Afternoon at the Edge of Little Sister Pond," Oliver writes:

Every day I walk out into the world
to be dazzled, then to be reflective
For me, these poems are a kind of natural praying. They are natural in the sense of nature, full of wonder and admiration for the majesty of what surrounds us, and they are natural in their inherent sense of right and wrong and their higher qualities of human nature.

Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned—
if not enough else—
to live with my eyes open.
I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness—

as now and again
some rare person has suggested—
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

For August, we ask for our new writing prompt that you try to write a natural prayer. You may use any definition of natural, any form of prayer, whether that be overtly religious or spiritual without any religious attachments. This term, "natural prayer," is not my own invention - Celan said: "Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul," so there are precedents for this type of poem.

If you have examples of poets who have written poems of this type, post a link in the comments below for others to follow.

Information on this writing prompt and poem submission is at