Thursday Poem: Fishing On The Susquehanna in July, by Billy Collins

It seems I have a thing for long titles all of a sudden. Finding a poem this week was harder than most, I had a dozen maybes, but nothing that quite clinched it for me. It’s not enough for a poem to be good, or even great, it has to also spark something in me that warrants elaboration. I was straining for something while searching today and didn’t realize what it was until I found this poem, Fishing On The Susquehanna in July. It begins:

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.
Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I love this opening salvo, and the way it immediately disabuses the reader of any notion they might have had about the poem based on the title. I think titles are often neglected in poetry, they’re not given their due as an extra line, another facet to the poem, and there are few people as good as Billy Collins in using that extra dimension to either get things going, or to re-contextualise a poem once it’s ended. Here, it’s the former of course and we discover for all that this poem is about fishing, Collins knows fuck all about it and you know what? It doesn’t matter in the slightest.

This is a direct attack on the notion that you should only ‘write what you know’, as well as a sly investigation into the imagination, into the role of art itself. But for now, it’s enough for him to not only establish what he has not done, but also to punch through the suspension of disbelief we require in consuming art – this is a meta poem, in that sense, as with the next few lines he brings us into the room he’s writing in.

But before I move past this beginning, let me say how much I love the word Susquehanna. I love writing it, I love sounding it out, and you best believe Collins does as well – not for nothing does he repeat it twice so close together. Let me tell you something, though, if you write a poem about the Susquehanna river and don’t use the unique sounds available in Susquehanna as often as you can without it being overbearing, you’re an idiot.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,
rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

Six lovely little lines, and they do so much. Yes, he counters the unspoken question, other people have no doubt actually experienced fishing on the river, and no, that doesn’t make them anymore qualified to write this poem, as the last three lines testify to so simply, so elegantly. He won’t be doing it anytime soon either, so from where does this knowledge come? It came, he tells us, from a painting he saw in a museum, of a scene like this one – one kind of art birthing another.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,
even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Then comes the clincher. Show me a man who can’t picture that damn hare poised on the brink of motion and I will show you a liar. There is nothing to say, in fact, that the hare doesn’t leap out as imagined – which is the point, that art is not just separate to life but an inimical part of it, that it not only mimics reality, but recreates it in a way that is every bit as real.

This is such a wonderful, skillful poem and I imagine on any day of any week I could have read it and loved it but the reason I chose it today is quite simply because of its tone. Nothing gets me going more than a conversational tone; likewise, there are few things I dislike more than an overly ornate one. I mentioned earlier the strain I felt reading all those maybe-poems, but as soon as I came across this one, I felt myself relaxing into its casualness, almost as though dipping into the liquid bliss of a certain river I no longer need to name. Go on, give the water a go.

Thursday Poem: Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms by Hayan Charara

Let us all be thankful for the wonderful institution of poetry that is the Academy of American Poets, because I had forgotten it was Thursday around midday, and was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a link to this poem, which is part of their Poem-A-Day series. I read it, loved it, went back to work and promptly forgot it was Thursday again, my knowledge of time subsumed by exhaustion, lethargy, stress, and the seemingly unending assault of wants that occupy my mind. Luckily for all, just as I was about to give up on this night and climb into bed with a book, I remembered again, so here we are.

I’m not going to lie, I mainly read the poem because of its hilariously long title – Elegy with Apples, Pomegranates, Bees, Butterflies, Thorn Bushes, Oak, Pine, Warblers, Crows, Ants, and Worms. I thought it might be ironic or at least deliberately comical but it isn’t. I see now on a second read through that it’s actually a microcosm of the poem itself, in that the seemingly mundane details obfuscate the thrust of it, even as it begins so clearly and obviously with the word ‘elegy.’ By the end of the title you’ve forgotten that one word, and that is the intent. But more on that in a bit. It opens:

The trees alongside the fence
bear fruit, the limbs and leaves speeches
to you and me. They promise to give the world
back to itself.

I love the simplicity of this beginning, the way it has seemingly nothing to do with anything else – love too, ‘the limbs and leaves speeches’. It is almost inevitable that a poet will at some stage write about the wind and trees and the dialogue they create, I myself have done so before, be it a song of leaves or some other such phrase, but this line in particular is quite deft in its approach to that idea. The word is so specific in conjuring a type of oratory as well, one you wouldn’t typically apply to that scene, that it shouldn’t really work but it does; you can almost picture each tree as a lecturer, each breath of air a new impromptu speech.

The following line definitely aids in solidifying the oddity of ‘speeches’, in grounding the poem as we enter a somewhat more surreal space, where the landscape is literally speaking, and the poet listening. ‘They promise to give the world back to itself‘ as they fall, such a lovely line, because of course they do, they must, there isn’t a choice in it.

The apple apologizes
for those whose hearts bear too much zest
for heaven, the pomegranate
for the change that did not come
soon enough.

Now the poem begins to gather pace, nature and all it has to offer commenting  on us. My favourite part of this quote is the line break toward the end, so dark, ‘for the change that did not come / soon enough.’ It makes its bleakness palatable by showing what could have been, the change did arrive – not when we needed it to, not when we yearned most for it, but ah, it happened eventually at least did it not?

The poem continues in this vein, a collection of wonderful images, of life coming to life, so much so that the ending comes as a distinct surprise – as all endings tend to do, but even more dramatically than that, in revealing itself to have been about death all along, and not just on a conceptual level, but a deeply personal one at that.

My neighbor looks like my mother
who left a long time ago
and did not hear any of this.
Just for a minute, give her back to me

On the second read through, I realised that actually, death permeates the poem not just from the first word in the lengthy title but from the opening lines of the poems too – limbs and leaves giving the world back to itself, falling. Apples feeling sorry for those who went to heaven, the pomegranate with its bitter regret. Even the neighbour leaves before she can hear any of this. Loss is in every line of the poem, but the imagery is dense and tight and lush enough that you might not notice it on first read (unless you are more perceptive than I, which is entirely possible, given my constant tiredness). On the second read, however, you see just how skilfully the whole is woven together, and it is all the more affecting for that.

As ever, I urge you to read it. There’s plenty I left out for you yet to savour.

Thursday Poem: How To Be A Poet by Wendell Berry

Thursday, it occurs to me, was probably a poor choice for this weekly lark on poems. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – each of these days amount to the same kind of nothing, a kind of beige blur where nothing happens worth mentioning except, perhaps, the release of new episodes in the shows you may or may not be watching. In short, I would have oodles of time to write on those days, and yet, Thursday, the day preceding three on which I am always stupidly busy, is the one I arbitrarily chose a year ago and I’m stuck with it now. It always manages to sneak up on me, so I’m either forgetting or rushed, and neither is an enjoyable sensation; the former only stokes the constant fear I have that every moment of forgetfulness is a sign I’ll have Alzheimer’s one day, and the latter leaves me viscerally unsatisfied, unhappy that floating on the web are words of mine that do not measure up. Not to a moment’s thought.

In saying that, there is value in learning to accept your imperfection, that the words will never measure up – value in the spilling of whatever is inside without being so damn persnickety about form and style, value in trusting that quality is in the content, that your intent will come across regardless. Writing on Thursday also means that there’s no way for me to put it off, as I so often want to do when I’m sitting here, having just got home from work and 8 hours of staring at a screen, furiously typing, tired and empty and dreading continuing in the same vein on a seemingly endless loop. Which brings me to this week’s offering,  by Wendell Berry.

Generally speaking, I dislike any attempt to tell me how to write poetry. Frankly, it’s ninety nine percent nonsense – at least to me. Free verse is a wild thing and you should lose yourself in it, not take the hacked paths of others. For the formal poets out there, I reserve the one percent for learning the structures of those constraints they choose to employ. So while the title initially had me wary, I was ultimately charmed by this poem, as its advice is universal, not instructional. It begins:

Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill — more of each
than you have — inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity.

Sit down. Be quiet.

Just reading that is like taking a deep breath, like my whole body is exhaling to the tune of this simple truth. That is what I need more than any other thing, a place to sit, and silence. I love, too, the aside here that comes after listing what you need, “more of each than you have”. It sounds paradoxical, but I understand exactly what he means here. Or at least, I have derived two meanings from it. The first is that you never seem to have enough of any one element to do what you need, to achieve what needs to be achieved, and the second is that you succeed anyway. When I sit down and I am silent and it seems the world is silent too and words pour out, I am as close to thoughtless as a sleeping man – no, more, because even in sleep you think in the form of dreams – just following one word to the other, not knowing what is being written under the word is there, startling in its permanence, and then when it’s over, I sit and read the poem…

And think, where the fuck did that come from? Sometimes, with reflection, it becomes clear but I am often surprised by the affection or the knowledge or the skill – shocking, I know, but I sometimes think well of what I write – that is on display. The hope, and the love too. I think, ‘I didn’t know I had that much of it in me.’ And so, the line that to be a poet you must rely on more than what you have, to me, is quite telling, in that you don’t have it until the moment you reach for it, and find it is there as it perhaps always has been, merely waiting for you to bother to stretch. What else do we need, Mr. Berry? Work, he says, and time, and patience. Yes, yes, and yes.

Work and time need no explanation; age and discipline in concert produce wonders. Patience, however, is most important of all I would say. Poetry is ninety percent waiting, ten percent writing, I have found. I can’t say I’m entirely patient enough yet, I’m still irritated when I have a thought or feeling lurking around in my chest, and want so much to get rid of it, but can’t, knowing it will only be spoiled if I jump the gun, that if I just wait long enough it will gestate and emerge the way it is supposed to…And so have to spend days, sometimes weeks almost physically uncomfortable, until I can sit and be quiet in such a way as to work with it. Suffice to say, even knowing that, I fuck up plenty of times. I did it just the other day in fact. Now I have three useless lines lying around, which burns me all the more because they were good lines and they have been wasted.

I’ve only spoken about the first ten lines and somehow this is already a thousand words, so I’m going to shut up now, especially as this is only a short poem, and I’m sure you know by now how I feel about giving it all away. Go, read it here. It is good advice and I only wish I had read it sooner.

Thursday Poem: The Language of the Birds by Richard Siken

Two weeks ago, at the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, I met another poet and she mentioned Richard Siken as someone I should look up. Today, I did just that, and I’m so very glad I did. It led me to this wonderful little poem, The Language of the Birds, which begins:

1

A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.

Oh, boy. Prose poetry and ambiguity? This is my jam right here. In this poem, Siken grapples with the purpose of art and the concept of meaning itself, using the metaphor of this bird being seen through the prism of a man.

He sees this beautiful creature and wants to paint it but is overcome with existential despair. Why bother? Every writer on the face of this planet (and probably others) can relate to this angst, this battle between practicality and art — every other facet of our lives is geared toward tangible results, to definite benefits. Build a house and you can live in it, or someone else can; you are sheltered from the cold. Hunt an animal and even in creating death you are continuing life, you get to eat. Write a poem and… what? Who benefits?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation?

For me, the satisfaction comes from the work itself. A good line can give me a satisfaction beyond just about anything else; in the moment, it somehow feels more real than just about anything else, strong enough to support me even if all else was to suddenly fail. I write, too, because for me, this creative outlet is incontrovertibly tied to my mental health: the last time I stopped writing for a protracted period of time, I had a complete mental breakdown and was consumed by thoughts of suicide, every single day, until I almost gave in.

This isn’t a fairytale – I didn’t overcome my depression through writing again, not exactly anyway. I got through that rough patch with therapy and the support of my friends, but I realised in the process just how integral a relief valve writing is and that with it, I need never fall so low again. With all that said, this poem goes a little deeper than just asking the question ‘why write/paint/make art?’, it goes on to query what happens in the process once it’s underway, how it all changes, the relationship between the object and its representation. The bird is no longer a bird, it is somehow more and somehow less, it is text, it is within him and not.

But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Hence the ambiguity I mentioned at the beginning, which is more a constantly shifting state of being than it is any coyness on the part of Siken, I believe. He goes into it further here, this investigation into the transformation that occurs as part of the artistic process.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

Okay, I’m now just doing that thing I do with poems I love, which is quote from it endlessly, so I’ll leave it at that — there are so many wonderful lines in there, so many I haven’t spoken about, not to mention layers of meaning waiting to be untangled. Yes, actual meaning, because however slippery it is for us creators to grasp, it is somehow always startlingly clear to the reader, and this poem shines with it. Some lines I’ve yet to completely unravel and that’s okay, that just leaves more for me to chew on when I read it again.

And again.

Thursday Poem: For My People by Margaret Walker

So, last week’s experiment where I left the commentary up to you, dear readers? Epic fail. Y’all failed to get back to me. Luckily – or not, depending on your disposition – it’s a writer lot to shout into the void and expect nothing back, so I’m not terribly fussed by that. Also, WordPress gave me this nifty and weirdly specific notification the other day which made me feel better about it all.

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Right, let’s get to the goods. I was a little torn about what to choose today, I had two great poems I read yesterday but ultimately I’ve decided to go with For My People by Margaret Walker. Although it is the better of the two poems, often that’s not the deciding factor in my choices – better is a meaningless word when the default level of quality for any section is fucking good. Which is to say, it becomes subjective very, very quickly and what I’m looking for is something that resonates with a thought I’ve had recently, or emotion, or experience and Margaret Walker’s poem pretty much hit all those points.

I woke up today to yet more news about the Baltimore riots, about further (completely understandable) unrest in the States, and saw once more the familiar dispiriting narrative around young African American men unfold, the same abdication of responsibility from authority figures, the same obfuscation about what really happened, about the abuse regularly meted out by police officers. It is an ugly, ugly time we live in precisely because it’s not as bad as it used to be, not as clear cut — which is to say, that racism has gone underground and even when it erupts nowadays, those who shape media narratives do their best to cloud the picture.

Quite frankly, it fills me with despair. Not the individual tragedies themselves, though they break my heart, but the repetition. The mindless repetition, and what it says about our society, our capacity for change, that we allow it to continue. Well, some 70 odd years ago, Margaret Walker published this poem ‘For My People’ and in many respects it feels like it could have been written yesterday. It resonates just as strongly. 

It begins:

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
     repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
     and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
     unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
     unseen power;

It’s always hard to write about a people. Speaking as an Arab Australian writer myself, a man often forced to define himself and his people, his culture, in opposition to a dominant narrative or preconception, I can tell you there are about as many ways to go wrong as there are people. Perhaps more. The sheer range and scope of individual experience mandates this truth; we cannot all be encapsulated in words. There is a limit to the universal. With that said, Walker does about as good a job of it as you can, she ranges across all professions and emotions, from the hardworking to the lazy, and she spares no one from her love.

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
    gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
    washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
    hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
    dragging along never gaining never reaping never
    knowing and never understanding;

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
    backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
    and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
    and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
    Miss Choomby and company;

This poem makes great use of the polysyndeton technique, one of my favourite literary devices, which you see in her rolling and relentless use of ‘and’ to push and build a powerful rhythmic momentum. It is not just in this that she succeeds, but as I continually say, also the sounds of the words she uses, which comes to life so wonderfully when read aloud, all of it combining to paint a deep picture of a diverse people who do not fit into any kind of easy categorisation.

In truth, there are many reasons to highlight this beautiful poem today, but for me, the main reason was for its optimistic ending, its call to future generations, for a new earth to rise. Do I actually think it will happen? No. I haven’t her hope, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful.