Archive for July, 2010

Ted Kooser (born 1939) won the Pulitzer for his book Delights & Shadows. He served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. Other Pulitzer finalists in 2005 were William Matthews for his book Search Party: Collected Poems and Brigit Pegeen Kelly for her book The Orchard.

The following poem is from Kooser’s book Delights & Shadows and the excerpt is from his book The Poetry Home Repair Manual, Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, published in 2005.

Screech Owl

All night each reedy whinny
from a bird no bigger than a heart
flies out of a tall black pine
and, in a breath, is taken away
by the stars. Yet, with small hope
from the center of darkness,
it calls out again and again.

A Career As A Poet?

You’ll never be able to make a living writing poems. We’d better get this money business out of the way before we go any further. I don’t want you to have any illusions. You might make a living as a teacher of poetry writing or as a lecturer about poetry, but writing poems won’t go very far toward paying your electric bill. A poem published in one of the very best literary magazines in the country might net you a check for enough money to buy half a sack of groceries. The chances are much better that all you’ll receive, beside the pleasure of seeing your poem in print, are a couple of copies of the magazine, one to keep and one to show to your mother. You might get a letter or postcard from a grateful reader, always a delightful surprise. But look at it this way: Any activity that’s worth lots of money, like professional basketball, comes with rules pinned all over it. In poetry, the only rules thinking about are the standards of perfection you set for yourself.

There’s no money in poetry because most of my neighbors, and most of yours, don’t have any use for it. If, at a neighborhood yard sale, you happened to find the original handwritten manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, you could take it to every quick shop in the city and you wouldn’t find a single person who would trade you ten gallons of gas for it.

Part of the reason for our country’s lack of interest in poetry is that most of us learned in school that finding the meaning of a poem is way too much work, like cracking a walnut and digging out the meat. Most readers have plenty to do that’s far more interesting that puzzling over poems. I’ll venture that 99 percent of the people who read the New Yorker prefer the cartoons to the poems.

A lot of resistance to poetry is to be blamed on poets. Some go out of their way to make their poems difficult if not downright discouraging. That may be because difficult poems are what they think they’re expected to write to advance their careers. They know it’s the professional interpreters of poetry — book reviewers and literary critics — who most often establish a poet’s reputation, and that those interpreters are attracted to poems that offer opportunities to show off their skills at interpretation….

My teacher and mentor, Karl Shapiro, once pointed out that the poetry of twentieth century was the first poetry that had to be taught. He might have said that had to be explained. I believe with all my heart that it’s a virtue to show our appreciation for readers by writing with kindness, generosity, and humility toward them….

One other point: Isaac Newton attributed his accomplishments to standing on the shoulders of giants. He meant great thinkers who had gone before. Accordingly, beginning poets sometimes start off trying to stand on the shoulders of famous poets, imitating the difficult and obscure poems those successful poets have published. That’s understandable, but they soon learn that, somehow, no literary journal is interested in publishing their difficult poems. If these beginners were to study the careers of the famous poets upon whose work they’re modeling their own, they’d find that those writers were often, in their early careers, publishing clear, understandable poems. In most instances, only after establishing reputations could they go on to write in more challenging ways. In a sense they earned the right to do so by first attracting an audience of readers, editors, and publishers with less difficult poems.

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Will I always be eleven,
lonely in this house,
reading books
that are too hard for me,
in the long fatherless hours.
The terrible hours of the window,
the rain-light
on the page,
awaiting the letter,
the phone call,
still your strange elderly child.
Franz Wright (born 1953) said about this poem in a Sept. 2007 article in MiPOesias magazine, “A short poem like “Untitled (Will I always be eleven…)” gave me an even more startling example of a certain knack I was trying to develop for a certain form of devastating understatement — while still preserving, behind its apparent plainness of diction, in a denial or seemingly effortless way, an acute awareness of music and form. I learned to count every syllable in an eleven-line poem like that one.

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The Earth Will Come Back from the Dead

Down empty roads gray with rain;
through branches
of new leaves then still
more light than leaf;
from turning alone, unperceived, with its sleeping, the wind
the transfiguring wind
in their leaves . . .
from turning, slowly
turning, turning
when everyone is gone.
Franz Wright (born 1953) won the Pulitzer for his book Walking to Martha’s Vineyard. Other Pulitzer finalists in 2004 were Henri Cole for his book Middle Earth and Heather McHugh for her book Eyeshot.

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Moy Sand and Gravel

To come out of the Olympic Cinema and be taken aback
by how, in the time it took a dolly to travel
along its little track
to the point where two movie stars’ heads
had come together smackety-smack
and their kiss filled the whole screen,

those two great towers directly across the road
at Moy Sand and Gravel
had already washed, at least once, what had flowed
or been dredged from the Blackwater’s bed
and were washing it again, load by load,
as if washing might make it clean.
Paul Muldoon (born 1951) won the Pulitzer for his book Moy Sand and Gravel. Other Pulitzer finalists in 2003 were Frank Bidart for his book Music Like Dirt and J.D. McClatchy for his book Hazmat.

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The God Who Loves You

It must be troubling for the god who loves you
To ponder how much happier you’d be today
Had you been able to glimpse your many futures.
It must be painful for him to watch you on Friday evenings
Driving home from the office, content with your week—
Three fine houses sold to deserving families—
Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened
Had you gone to your second choice for college,
Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted
Whose ardent opinions on painting and music
Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion.
A life thirty points above the life you’re living
On any scale of satisfaction. And every point
A thorn in the side of the god who loves you.
You don’t want that, a large-souled man like you
Who tries to withhold from your wife the day’s disappointments
So she can save her empathy for the children.
And would you want this god to compare your wife
With the woman you were destined to meet on the other campus?
It hurts you to think of him ranking the conversation
You’d have enjoyed over there higher in insight
Than the conversation you’re used to.
And think how this loving god would feel
Knowing that the man next in line for your wife
Would have pleased her more than you ever will
Even on your best days, when you really try.
Can you sleep at night believing a god like that
Is pacing his cloudy bedroom, harassed by alternatives
You’re spared by ignorance? The difference between what is
And what could have been will remain alive for him
Even after you cease existing, after you catch a chill
Running out in the snow for the morning paper,
Losing eleven years that the god who loves you
Will feel compelled to imagine scene by scene
Unless you come to the rescue by imagining him
No wiser than you are, no god at all, only a friend
No closer than the actual friend you made at college,
The one you haven’t written in months. Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you’ve witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you’ve chosen.
by Carl Dennis (born 1939)

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This is your invitation to the Ninth-Grade Play
at Jackson Park Middle School
8:00 P.M., November 17, 1947.
Macbeth, authored by Shakespeare
And directed by Mr. Grossman and Mrs. Silvio
With scenery from Miss Ferguson’s art class.

A lot of effort has gone into it.
Dozens of students have chosen to stay after school
Week after week with their teachers
Just to prepare for this one evening,
A gift to lift you a moment beyond the usual.
Even if you’ve moved away, you’ll want to return.
Jackson Park, in case you’ve forgotten, stands
At the end of Jackson Street at the top of the hill.

Doubtless you recall that Macbeth is about ambition.
This is the play for you if you’ve been tempted
To claw your way to the top. If you haven’t been,
It should make you feel grateful.
Just allow time to get lost before arriving.
So many roads are ready to take you forward
Into the empty world to come misty with promises.
So few will lead you back to what you’ve missed.

Just get an early start.
Call in sick to the office this once.
Postpone your vacation a day or two.
Prepare to find the road neglected,
The street signs rusted, the school dark,
The doors locked, the windows broken.
This is where the challenge comes in.

Do you suppose our country would have been settled
If the pioneers had worried about being lonely?

Somewhere the students are speaking the lines
You can’t remember. Somewhere, days before that,
This invitation went out, this one you’re reading
On your knees in the attic, the contents of a trunk
Piled beside you. Forget about your passport.
You don’t need to go to Paris just yet.
Europe will seem even more beautiful
Once you complete the journey you begin today.
Carl Dennis (born 1939) won the Pulitzer for his book Practical Gods. Other Pulitzer finalists in 2002 were Louise Gluck for her book The Seven Ages and Franz Wright for his book The Beforelife.

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