Thursday, March 27, 2008

Seamus Heaney's "The Forge"

Perhaps the thing I love the most about "The Forge" is the way it drags us back into the earliest reaches of civilization. The blacksmith, after all, was one of the most important members of an agricultural community--he kept horses shod, he kept plows sharp after having cast them in the first place, he was able to transmute iron and other metals into the tools humans needed to build civilization.

Heaney's blacksmith evokes Vulcan, the Roman God of the forge. He doesn't speak--he only grunts, and is described as "leather-aproned, hairs in his nose," but he is powerful as well, able "to beat real iron out." Even the "door into the dark" in the first line recalls the caves of Etna in which Vulcan was to have beaten out Achilles' shield, as well as the move back into the darkest, murkiest parts of human development.

It's also wonderful the way Heaney compares the blacksmith's shop to a church. The anvil sits in the center, "immoveable: an altar / Where he expends himself in shape and music." In the church, the altar is where the transformation from sinner to forgiven takes place, whether in the accepting of the host or in the answer to the altar call. Just as the blacksmith transforms raw material into a useful tool, so the church symbolically transforms the raw material of humankind into the useful tool for the church. Even the fact that the altar is "Horned as a unicorn" could be a reference to the medieval church--the King James version talks about unicorns in Job 39.

And yet, this is all pretty subtle in the poem. It's not overtly religious; it allows the reader to stick to a literal interpretation about a man whose job is disappearing as the world changes around him, while also allowing a reader who wants to grasp those deeper images another path into the poem.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 24, 2008

Me. Not me.

There are a lot of people named Brian Spears out there, and a few of them are more famous than I am. That's not a high bar to clear, mind you--I'm a poet, for starters, and even the best known poets in the US are barely recognized at literary conferences. I don't even have a book yet, which gives you a sense of where I am on that totem pole. Somewhere below the footing, I'd imagine.

One of those namesakes, probably the most famous, doesn't even spell his name the same way. He's Bryan Spears, who's the brother of the most famous Spears on the planet. I talked about it in passing here, and the coincidental connections between our families are amusing at times. They generally help me get through the first day of classes--both have mothers named Lynn(e), his sister and my daughter share a name (also different spellings), and we lived relatively near to each other. In fact, at one time, Bryan and I were in college together--Southeastern Louisiana University. I discovered this when a friend asked me why I wasn't in math class--I hadn't had a math class in a year by that time. The story gets less interesting from there.

Then there's this one, who sounds like he has a really cook job. Special effects guy with an IMDB page and everything. Seriously, I'm impressed.

There's this Brian Spears, who works in real estate and is a former Marine, and this one, who's a defense lawyer.

And then there's the other blogger, the other Brian Spears. When I clicked on his blog a couple of days ago, I saw my polar opposite. It was like that episode of Star Trek where Kirk (my middle name, frighteningly enough) gets split into his good self and his evil self. I leave it to the reader to decide which of us is which.

I'm kidding on that last part, of course, but we really are different. He's a conservative Christian who mourns that Huckabee is out of the presidential race. I'm a progressive atheist who wishes the two Democrats were more liberal. About the only thing we have in common is that we both like Macs over PCs. Look at his blogger profile--we could be brothers. At least cousins. Scary stuff.

So anyway, for anyone looking for the poet Brian Spears, from Louisiana, who went to Arkansas for grad school, who was a Stegner Fellow, here you go. Me. Not me. Me. Not me. Me. Not me. I hope that clears up any confusion.

Labels: ,

Thursday, March 20, 2008

What's the lesson here?

The anthology I use in my Interpretation of Poetry classes divides poems up by form and by theme. Since it's an introductory class, I tend to work with thematic similarities more than formal ones--sophomores, I've discovered, aren't as entranced with the sonnet the way I can be, but they can get into a group of poems about, say, politics or war or nature.

The section we're working on now is a bit meta--poems on poetry and poets in dialogue. The usual suspects have appeared: "The Red Wheelbarrow," "Tell All the Truth but tell it slant--," "Ars Poetica." And then there are the poems that make me wonder just what Joe Parini was thinking when he put them into this section.

Like "Kubla Khan." I mean, I get the connection based on the story behind the writing of the poem. Coleridge, in a laudanum fueled fit of inspiration, begins this epic work only to be interrupted by a knock at the door, and when he returns, the muse has deserted him. I guess I can make that work as a poem about poetry.

But the lesson I really get from it is this: a poem that attempts to describe the sublime will always fall short. Xanadu, after all, is a wonderland, another version of Eden "where Alph the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea." And the more Coleridge tries to describe the scene, the more he falls back on generalities: "that deep romantic chasm," and "the sacred river. / Five miles meandering with a mazy motion," and again, the "caverns measureless to man."

Dante had the same problem with Paradiso. Heaven is far less interesting than hell or purgatory, because there are only so many ways one can say that something is eternally beautiful, or can be so overwhelmed that one cannot hope to describe it before the reader tells you to piss off. Coleridge falls into the same trap when he tries to describe the song of the Abyssinian maid.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music loud and long
I would build that dome in air--

If I could only remember, if I only had the skill, I could make it appear before you and you would see the splendor. I think what Coleridge teaches us, although I don't think he does so intentionally, is that some stuff is too big for language to encompass. We get more from smaller bites, well-chewed. And besides, dirty stuff is way more interesting than the pure.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs

In the end notes of his second book, Dismal Rock, Davis McCombs gives credit for the form of his opening sequence, titled "Tobacco Mosaic," to a sequence written by Les Murray. But I'd say there's another influence at play in the sound of those poems. His use of jargon and local description reminds me a lot of Seamus Heaney's early poems. There are similarities in the images as well--dowsing rods and farmland show up again and again. Not that this should be taken as a bad thing--there are worse people to be compared to. In fact, it's one of the things I like most about McCombs's book.

Like his first book, Ultima Thule, much of Dismal Rock takes place in rural Kentucky, where McCombs was born and raised. This is especially the case in the opening sequence, as well as in many of the poems that make up the second half of the book. And Kentucky comes alive in these sections. From "The Last Wolf in Edmonson County":
Autumn lit the wicks of the leaves; the river, foaming,
garbled, recovered its voice. I did not climb
the flash-lit, switchback trail to the rockhouse.
I did not stand before the petroglyphs again
nor rake at the midden ash below them with a stick.

And there are echoes of his last book in "Salts Cave Revisited":
I was following
Bill Cutliff, Tom and John
Lee, their bootprints
and a whiff of acetylene
far ahead, and I went searching,
as they did, for the jolt
that might come once
in a life or not at all
I can't say that I'm enthralled with every poem in the book, but then again, I rarely am, and there's way more to like than not. McCombs's lines are tight, and his images are taut and lively. Get both of his books.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Wendell Berry

Berry's on my mind because I just taught his poem "Enriching the Earth" to my second-year poetry students this week, and was dismayed (though not at all surprised) at how little they knew of the world they inhabit. We live in the industrial age of food, where an ever smaller number of people grow the food we all consume. It's been the focus of many books and discussions recently--Fast Food Nation, and The Omnivore's Dilemma to name a couple--and yet it doesn't seem to be making much of an impact on public consciousness.

Berry's poem begins with a straightforward statement: "To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass / to grow and die." Death is the focal point of the poem, in fact, in the sense that death must occur for life to be possible. His speaker plows in not only "the seeds / of winter grains and of various legumes," but also stirs in offal, generally associated with dead animals, in order to "[serve] the dark."

But it's not that the farmer is separate from the cycle he or she moves in sync with. Berry's farmer, even though he or she may not understand the cycle fully, is still linked inextricably to it, it "gives a wideness / and a delight to the air," he says.

It's the following lines that are the most powerful to me, though:
It is the mind's service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
Those are strong words, that one lives at the expense of life, and yet most of us do to some extent. We don't put back into the earth what we take out of it. The environmental challenges we face today and into the future are directly tied to that problem--Berry's world of using legumes and offal to enrich the earth is quickly vanishing. As Michael Pollan points out ably in the Omnivore's Dilemma, we're eating oil, because of the ubiquity of petroleum based fertilizers.

A couple of my students looked shocked when I pointed that out to them--the sad thing was that most didn't seem to mind.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, March 8, 2008

What I'm Reading

I am woefully ignorant for a contemporary poet about the history of 20th century poetry. Part of that has to do with my graduate school, which focused on the New Critics and the Southern Agrarians when it focused on the 20th century at all, and I was far more interested in Dante in translation and 17th and 18th century French poets than in the moderns. I read my Eliot and Pound and Wallace Stevens, some Stein and H.D. and then forward to Merrill and overseas to Heaney, Wolcott, that sort of stuff. While at Stanford, I got into some Niedecker and Oppen, but not in any real depth. So this book is a real education for me, and it has the added attraction of being a pleasant read.

Get it. Read it.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Summer reading list

Yeah, I know--it feels like summer outside down here in south Florida, but we're still weeks and weeks away from it. Nonetheless, I have to provide our book purchasing system a list of texts for my class this summer. I've been given a terrific opportunity this summer--a 4000 level Modern Poetry class. It's only six weeks long, so I don't want to kill them (or me), so I'm limiting the scope a lot. I'm looking to make it more of a contemporary poetry class, focusing on the variety of voices in contemporary poetry. So here's the list, in no particular order.
Chinese Apples: New and Selected Poems by W. S. DiPiero
Talking Dirty to the Gods by Yusuf Komunyakaa
Boss Cupid by Thom Gunn
The Moon Is Always Female by Marge Piercy
Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey
Emails from Scheherezad by Mohja Kahf
Nine Horses by Billy Collins

Yes, gods help me, I'm teaching a Billy Collins book this summer. I figure at some point, I'll need a break, and so will they. I still have a couple of days to toss this around, and maybe add a book or two. If anyone has a suggestion, something published in the last 20 years or so, that a class which won't have a ton of time will be able to digest, let me know.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 3, 2008

Sex in Poetry

I'm always amused by how younger generations are convinced that the poetry of the past was stolid and conservative, that the people of 400 years ago certainly would never have mentioned sex, and if it did, with only the mildest euphemisms. One of my first-day-of-class activities every semester is to give my students a handout of poems, names removed, and have them try to place them in chronological order. Last fall, I gave them a surprise in the form of Robert Herrick. Here's the poem:
The Vine

I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which, crawling one and every way,
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Methought, her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise:
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced
About her head I writhing hung
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner).
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke,
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.

The class discussion that day was, ahem, vibrant.

Labels: ,