Thursday, June 6, 2013

Heather Dobbins on "In the Low Houses"

“No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,/ no one incants our dust./ No one.” 
—Paul Celan

I started “In the Low Houses” in Bennington, Vermont. I had just visited Robert Frost’s grave, and when I added my penny, I made sure it touched another penny. It seemed right, as Frost’s headstone is not his alone. This is why I wrote this poem in couplets, to provide an instant “us,” to allow for contradictions and the slips between meaning, context, and time. I had also just met with Major Jackson, who told me I should write a long poem with a conceit to bind my manuscript together. One of Major’s gifts is to push poets toward what they resist.

“In the Low Houses” is my reckoning with closeness: how close I can get to answers from the dead, lovers, and language; it demonstrates a pervading sense that even though I try, I can’t get it “right,” get the seconds or beats back—all that cannot be held. What I can hold is a poem in my hands, a rhyme in my mouth. A low house is a term for a literal grave, but it represents the domestic sphere, too, where everything seems to be carried: bodies, boxes, houses, language itself. I hope the poem’s antiphonies show how we try to talk to each other, how interiority, with its over-thinking and over-feeling, is so often louder than speech.

I read over a hundred books of elegies in the year before I wrote “In the Low Houses.” Going back to the ancient Greeks, the professional mourners have been poets. My use of repetition refers to formal elements of ritual, ceremony, and refrain dating back to Theocritus. I included so many questions because I had in mind Demeter speaking to Persephone, the muses at Achilles’ funeral, Sacks’s The English Elegy, Vendler’s Last Looks, Last Books, and Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, but also contemporary poetry: Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s “It never ends, this dire need to know,  / This need to see a diagram unfold / In silent angles,” Katie Ford’s “Who sees us plead? I can’t stop looking at the two houses // lit off shore,” Mary Jo Bang’s “The outside comes in / The window, or I go out the door,” and Kevin Young’s The Art of Losing. I find solace in knowing that my questions are the ones that have always been asked, that I keep company with fellow poets in this reckoning.

I have spent years tracking common metaphors across the English elegiac tradition: earth, clocks, seasons (especially winter), light, sand, shore, boats, oars, water, farewells, and the act of watching. I love that we share our metaphors as well as our mourning. Architectural terms are especially important in the poem: I had the pictures I had taken of Frost’s grave, which made me think of framing images, hanging a painting, the house itself as a frame, the frame of the body, the coffin. I included these, as well as flowers—remember Shelley’s broken lily, Whitman’s lilacs, Celan’s rose, Hall’s peonies. I chose irises, Tennessee’s state flower (I’m from Memphis), because when they are spent they look like dead skin.

Spenser writes in 1595: “To you alone I sing this mournful Verse.” What if he was writing to future poets, to say we are never alone? What if Paul Celan got it wrong in his “Psalm”? Other poets incant our dust. Writing poetry is a way to love like Rilke wanted us to love: “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”


  1. Beautiful, moving poem--and I love that you start off this post referencing Frost, because so many things in this poem reminded me of "Home Burial" when I read it (the husband and wife having difficulty communicating; the two of them occupying different spatial planes throughout the poem; the view of the cemetery from the house window that acts as a frame for the couple, intimating their own mortality as well as that of those they have lost). As you say, you're working with a long elegaic tradition, and in such a subtle and lovely way.

    1. Melissa, thank you for commenting. I am always intrigued by how different people reckon with loss, especially the same loss. As you noted, we might as well be on different spatial planes. As a poet, when someone says, "There are no words for this," I bristle. I say, "Yes, there are. Try harder." That's terrible to admit, I'm sure, but "In the Low Houses" is my attempt to portray that effort and how effort can define a person and a relationship. Trying and still not getting it "right" (whatever that is) is crucial for mourning.

      I am glad you referenced "Home Burial." I see Frost's influence mostly in line 3: "Looking back over her shoulder at some fear," lines 23-26: "The little graveyard where my people are!/ So small the window frames the whole of it./ Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?" and the coda: "I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—” The funny thing about "Home Burial" is that I didn't see its influence till my third draft. It is obvious to me now that I had studied that poem and internalized it. Ah, the power of the unconscious! Since my poem started after I visited Frost's grave, it seems like a no-brainer that his imagery and diction would bless the poem. When this happens with poetry, I always want to read more about memory and how we learn. Truth be told, I lean a bit paranormal and imagine my elders helping me. I am also reminded of the power of reading, and how if I keep reading such great poetry, then I will become a better poet.

  2. Thanks you for this, Heather - I can't stop thinking of these little couplet "us"s in conversation with each other, "a little wrong," building on and around each other. And your sense of architecture (in the form and content of the poem) - elegy in defiance - words against decomposition.

    In reference to your last paragraph, re. Celan, I wonder if one doesn't so much incant THE dust so much as a version of, gathered and run through various lenses of experience and interpretation - we are recreating aslant, from nothing but our perceptions of "the thing." So that, it's not so much that Celan is wrong, but that the drive persists to try, to believe we understand enough in order to do so.

    1. Phenomenal. When it comes to the structure of the elegy, have you found a few that also reference wind and burning? I had been thinking about how the other two primal elements of fire and air? The elemental qualities of loss and reflection stick with me.

    2. Liz,

      I've been thinking about "elegy in defiance" since yesterday. Thank you for that nugget. I don't use writing as an act of defiance except for when my subject is more overtly political. These days, my pen is most defiant when writing about gender dynamics, being a Mama poet, and/or the South. Of course there are the important poems about war and battling cancer that are so memorable, but I wonder about the others in the elegiac tradition. I am going to look for that tone in elegies now, too, thanks to you.

      I love your "words against decomposition." I have written "decomposition" in my notebooks a few times and seen that word in many poems and essays. You've given me more to go over because I don't often position words in such a fighting stance like you did with "against." You have something with that. . .

      As to Celan, I must admit to being impish when I wrote that he might be wrong. When it comes to poetry forefathers and foremothers, I get that look of a zealot. Hey, some folks are faithful to a fault. I use all my critical thinking skills with religion, government, fiction, and painting, but when it comes to poetry, I sure do betray all those postmodern theory classes I took in my formative undergrad years. I can be respectful to a fault. Just last week someone was after me to choose between Eliot and Pound. Those conversations are boring to have with me because I won't debate like folks want me to do. For an essay, though, I think it's good to throw in such declarations to help the conversation. I tend to gush about my elders, so I needed some balance in there. They would not want me to be in awe; they were as messy with their striving as we are. I hope that "In the Low Houses" conveys that striving and its futility (at least sometimes).

      The word I get the most stuck on is Celan's "incants" because it means chant, intone, recite, utter, the uttering of words purporting to have magical power, the formula employed, a spell, charm, magical ceremonies, magic, and sorcery. What a definition! To me, Celan's image of kneading emphasizes the hands, and since we write poems with our hands, what if we recite or summon some sorcery while we're at it? Clay was also the writing medium for poets for a long, long time. Once again, it's all about creation and death. Helpless is a word I have heard from mourners, but the definitions of "incants" all pertain to some kind of power. Diana Fuss puts it beautifully: “More accurately, it appears that it is the stillborn words of poetry that animate the poet. Poets are not serving as mediums for the dead; they are themselves dead without the poem to give them voice." When Celan writes about dust, I read that as the dead's remains, what we have left of the dead in physical form, and a return to whence we came. It seems like you are telling me to think, too, of dust as fragments, all those bits likened to experience and interpretation. Is it that dust has been "processed," too?

    3. Steven,

      English elegies seem to prefer water and earth. At least this is what I have noticed. Some burning, yes, but with wind, I think it's mostly used metaphorically for breath. In “Vacillation," Yeats writes, “And call those works extravagance of breath/That are not suited for such men as come/prod, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb.”

      I referenced Peter Sacks in my essay. I call him Daddy Elegy because he wrote the definition for "elegy" in The Princeton Encyclopedia for Poetry and Poetics. I have learned the most from him; he is a true scholar. This is all I know, which is really just what Peter Sacks knows:

      He calls conventions our “inherited ideologies" and considers them the elegist’s pursuit. In his The English Elegy, he traces the influences of the pastoral to nonpastoral elegies. One of the best things I learned from him (although hard to rank) is about the flute. That relates to your question about wind.

      The flute is considered to be the most elegiac of instruments because of the breath. Its sound is likened to sighing breath, which I don’t agree with as a former flute player, but anyway. The point is that a flutist can make the sound of a dying breath. With breath, we live. Flutes played at the funeral rites descended from an Egyptian wind instrument. Pan, as you recall, is the shepherd god and can also be called the god of the pastoral and of elegy. With wind and breath, he is called the Great God of Pain. Syrinx is what we call the vocal organ for birds. Poor Syrinx, that chaste nymph changed into hollow water reeds! What we are supposed to hear is a sexually frustrated, unrequited Pan breath. On a personal note, Claude Debussy's "Syrinx" is a popular song for flutists to learn in high school. I played it, too. Now I can't listen to it without thinking of the sexual frustration of high school flutists throughout time, including myself.

      I do live on the same street as a grader for the AP Latin exam. As to wind, breath, and spirit, she taught me that spiro is Latin for “I breathe” (the breath of the world and the expiration of song; to expire means both the breathe out and to die).

      Thanks for writing in. Thinking about what you said is good for me. I didn't know my brain could hurt this much on a lovely Saturday morning.

  3. I find this poem moving and powerful; it's a tour de force as a sustained utterance. I'm lulled by musical repetition as phrases return, shifting and mutating with rhythmic, organic nuance. This anaphora is a balm to the loss and grief at the core of this poem. I also love the release into imperfection at the end. This acceptance of failure at the poem's close works without dampening the force of the hunger to know, or come close to answers, as you discuss in your post. Both your poem and post remind me of a quote by poet Tracy K. Smith:

    "A poem wants to stop time and open up a space where the present moment can always exist, and that’s a futile wish. A poem can never really do that and yet we write poem after poem that seeks to do that, and make bargains with time."

    I'm curious if you might comment on the relationship of the elegiac and erotic in this poem? The marriage of the two is so vivid in your poem with the pulsing between the language of loss and that of intimacy. Is this contrast also a recurring trope in the elegiac tradition, or more your own signature? Do you see eros and the erotic as an antidote to the elegiac grief in this poem? I marvel at how your poem so elegantly explores the "container and contained" with all the wonderful "framing" imagery of rooms, boxes, beds, and of course, coffins. For you, is this poem an elegy that "contains," in a sense, the tropes of intimacy and eros? Or is that not how you see this relationship? I'm curious if you might speak more to these ideas? Thank you for this dialogue, and your wonderful work.

  4. Willa,

    Thank you for those compliments. I always have a couple months of the year full of poetry blues. I'll try to remember the nice things you said next season. Thanks, too, for the great quotation by Tracy K. Smith. She is real role model. Such a thinker, and her poetry keeps getting better! I've never heard a cross word about her from any of her students or friends. I met her at the last AWP and this camera-shy poet was impressed by how well Smith tolerated the incessant photograph requests. As to wishing and futility, I agree with her wholeheartedly. Most of my poems are exactly what she so elegantly describes. That said, I have studied many Confessional poems that were more like time-travel, where the poet went back to a time of rape or another kind of abuse to promise that past-speaker/poet that she would survive and live to write about it. I recently wrote down this quotation from a Mary Jo Bang interview: "And time is episodic. It's only afterward that there is a story, but in fact the so-called story dissolves when you're living it; it's just what's happening. And somebody else later relates it and gives it some sort of cohesion, gives it a selected point of view. But time is always undermining the story because it's still unreeling." I love how she describes this struggle.

    I think I am making bargains with time, but I am also guided by my fear of forgetting. I am making bargains with memory, too. My great-grandmother had Alzheimer's; 8 of her 9 children have had it. In many ways, I was raised by that disease. I am one of those odd people who feels comfortable in hospitals, nursing homes, and funerals. I thought furniture stores were for people who didn't have any family because our furniture was always passed down from the beloved dead. Frankly, I don't have the memory I wish I had. I always have to ask friends and family about the past because I tend to group events by feeling or person and not time. I don't stick to whole truth when I write, of course, but a lot of it is me trying to remember. Often the speaker will stray from me, and that can make for a better poem, so I honor that.

    It is difficult for me to comment on the relationship of the elegiac and erotic in this poem because this is a public forum. Your language to describe the poem is erotic throughout your thoughtful comment: release, pulsing, hunger, rhythmic, and so on. I'm guessing that I can't get away with saying that I have always loved sad, sexy poems, songs, and movies. Always. First, I can tell you that it's kind of like the aforementioned furniture stores: the dead are always with me--not in a creepy, shadowy, or Sixth Sense way. I think of them often; I have keepsakes everywhere. I've held the hands of folks as they died. I can never resist buying a book of elegies that a friend recommends. I maintain it's not gross or necrophilic to have death in the bedroom with me. I went to funerals during my tenderest ages. I don't know how to be without the dead because I never have been without them. More than anything, I love the body and words. I prefer people to use the phrase "body of work" when talking about poems. I could never choose between the two, and I need both when hurting and/or mourning. A few poets prove meaningful and wise to us for our entire lives, and for me, one is Rainer Maria Rilke. In his ninth elegy, he writes:

    And so we keep on going and try to realize it,
    try to hold it in our simple hands, in
    our overcrowded eyes, and in our speechless heart.
    Try to become it. To give it to whom? We’d rather
    keep all of it forever… Ah, but what can we take across
    into that other realm? Not the power to see we’ve learned
    so slowly here, and nothing that’s happened here.
    Nothing. And so, the pain; above all, the hard
    work of living; the long experience of love –
    those purely unspeakable things.

    I think poets are charged with those unspeakable things.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, Heather. I especially love this Rilke quote. Your response and the quote both made me think of the opening to Donald Hall's wonderful essay titled The Unsayable Said. It's been a pleasure to follow this forum and gain insight into your work and process.

  5. Wonderful writing, Heather, both in your prose and your poetry -- though I find the latter a little too "unspeakable" for my tastes. But then I'm an old man not trained in the high poetics taught in the schools you young poets inhabit, and I say that with great respect. Had I been born in your times I would have been there with you, I feel sure.

    But let me, as a visitor from another planet, try to say a bit more about that – and needless to say, I’d love to have your reactions -- all of you, not just Heather Dobbins.

    In the introduction to his very fine translation of The Duino Elegies, David Young tackles the crux of the challenge facing the translator, which is, of course, the literal sense of the exact word in the original versus the creative paraphrase in another language. David Young offers this caution, that "paraphrase...invites the translator to introduce subtle (or unsubtle!) changes that withhold the unique sense of the poetic original." And, of course, he argues for a balance between the literal and the paraphrase, insisting that the object should be to help the reader to "understand what is being said," not what the words mean in another context, or what we would like them to mean personally, in our lives or in our communities.

    It was your translator, Heather, (A. Poulin Jr., born in Lisbon, Maine -- I love that), who came up with "those purely unspeakable things," a superb phrase which lends such a springboard to your thoughts, and mine too, but which I feel has gone over the edge. The German, "lauter unsägliches," is rendered by two earlier translators, the wonderful ‘metaphysical’ critic and scholar, J.B.Leishman working together with the poet Stephen Spender, as “purely untellable things,” while David Young of the above caution, and the most recent of the three (and I’d say the best, as in the most useful to us readers), as “truly unsayable things.”

    Lauter” is an adjective which often accompanies the noun “wasser” in German to mean “pure water” or “clear water” – or, when modifying “the truth” or a “person,” “honest.” “Unspeakable,” to my ear, has all sorts of other suggestions – that something can’t be said because it’s dirty or impious, or because it’s forbidden in the culture, or dangerous politically, or “too deep” as if you were a Mason or Theosophist – and this latter is really important even if it’s not in the air today, at least in spiritual matters, i.e. as if it were esoteric!

    If you read the whole of the “Ninth Elegy” carefully I think you will see that that’s not what Rilke meant at all, indeed that throughout The Duino Elegies, one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century, the poet tries to the utmost of his ability to be “lauter,” i.e. clear, honest, straightforward, even if what he’s trying to say is “unsäglich” – which my dictionary translates as “indescribable,” not "untellable" or "unsayable." And I wouldn’t fault my dictionary for that either, because we just don’t use the word "untellable" what is more "unsayable" in common English very often because we can say or tell it -- unless, of course, we’re poets! And the whole of The Duino Elegies is about just that!

    I have no doubt you can get off on this, Heather, both in relation to your poem and your elegiacs. And don’t worry about my feelings.

    Christopher Woodman

  6. The real challenge as a human being today is to use all our intellectual and creative equipment in order to transcend our very limited physical and sense based equipment. In language we can say anything that language can say -- but as poets we can say things it can't.

    Rilke shows the extent to which we can do this with integrity and care, as do all great poets.

    "Lauter unsägliches -- that's what he says.

  7. Christopher,

    I'm not sure what you mean about your feelings. You took the time to write on the blog. Your comments are more than helpful. I only hurt people's feelings when they make seemingly authoritative declarations that are actually just off-the-cuff remarks. If you know the nuances of German, then you definitely aren't just talking to hear yourself talking. I appreciate your thoughts on the blog. Thank you. I will keep that David Young quotation. That is one for rumination, indeed.

    I'm also not sure what you mean about high poetics. I don't want to assume anything. You mean poetry deemed worthy by the academy (journals and syllabi and whatnot)? You mean the canon and non-mainstream poets? Let me assure you: I don't subscribe to ranking poetics, and I don't use the hierarchy myself. Poetry is the least read genre, isn't it? I come from a working class family of farmers and factory workers. My brother is a painter; we are fine arts anomalies in our large extended family. Rarely will someone talk to me about poetry, and you better believe I do not get snobby. Poetry is so intimidating to regular folks because they often think it's a riddle with one possible answer or interpretation. Somebody along the way made them ashamed and red-faced. Some teacher made them feel stupid. People don't want to talk about it because they think they are wrong. It's maddening because that is the opposite of how I view poetry. I would be part of the problem if I gave into some more-poetic-than-thou school. That said, if I am among poets, I will be more pointed about my preferences. Still, we can't forget for a second how subjective poetry is.

    There was only one English class on poetry offered at my university. There were three for poetry-writing, and we read a lot there, but the rest of the lit classes only gave a couple of weeks tops for poetry. The same goes for high school and middle school. I am a teacher and have helped intimidated colleagues feel comfortable enough to teach poetry. I've taught in different states, public and private, various grade levels, you name it. No wonder poetry isn't popular. An MFA guided me to many schools of thought and poets, and I am grateful for that beyond measure. Mostly, I met other readers and poets. They continue to help me and talk with me about ideas. Over the course of my life, serious poetry study has been a largely independent endeavor for me. I think this is common nowadays. At 37, I am only young by poetry's standards. I hope to have many more years of writing and reading.

    As to Rilke and translation, I agree with you. I have a couple of translator-friends, and they are a barrel of monkeys one day and a mire of angst the next. I can't tell you how many times I have heard versions of this lament: "That is the actual word, but the musicality is threatened if I use that word. How do I honor the intent, meaning, and sound quality, especially when that poet is touted as lyrical and lovely on the ear? How do I get close to that in English?" In my foreign language classes, they always require translation of some text. I always chose poetry, and I can still remember how difficult that was. I think about it every time I read a book in translation. I was using the Rilke quotation to extend a point I was trying to make (with Willa on a previous comment). It was not my intent to speak broadly on Rilke's ninth or generally about his work. Sorry for that confusion.

    I love how you use "integrity and care." You are so right. I hope integrity and care are evidenced in "In the Low Houses, " especially in metaphor, line breaks, repetition, and rhyme. Again, thank you for writing. No one is getting paid, after all! I am grateful for all the comments.

  8. Many thanks for that, Heather – indeed, you’re the one with integrity and care!

    I love this blog but it hasn’t been easy for me here. Indeed, sometimes I worry I put others off as I so often find myself all alone. What I meant is just that you shouldn’t pay too much attention to me.

    Which you didn’t, hurrah – you just answered!

    I’m not going to reply immediately as it’s your thread, and you’ve introduced a whole lot of new material around yourself and your poem. So let’s see where that goes.

    And of course I’m better when I take time to think.


  9. The trick seems to be to write an elegy without being elegaic and the result nowadays is more often than not disarticulation. A scatter of bones instead of…well, instead of “In The Low Houses.” Elegaic, yes, but more. Grief and loss are not merely absence - they can be a kind of failure too, an accusation. At the funeral home (or the bedroom or the kitchen or ‘round the campfire) we tend to drastically simplify, round off the corners, and generally obfuscate our plight. But not here, not “In The Low Houses.”

    Mostly we age, botch and buckle, make difficulty
    where there doesn’t have to be any.

    Yep, the “botch and buckle” of age. But the opposite of difficulty is not necessarily simplicity - and what fuels this poem is a kind of insistent urgency, our nattering “I want” up against The Other Person in the Room’s “I want.” Even if that person is no longer there. Or dead.

    And yet how can a poet avoid the worn-out language of elegy, say, “breath” or “light”? I don’t know. But I do know that “In The Low Houses” I wasn’t trudging over the same blasted Deep Image heath, tripping over the same old stones and bones of the past fifty years…Here’s what I mean:

    Can I go to him again? It is both I miss you
    and I miss you altogether. The pull to keep, to keep.

    It’s that “miss you” and “miss you altogether” juxtaposition that really got to me. Damn. Who do I miss altogether? I was so terrified by this passage that I looked up the definition of “altogether” in a desperate attempt to excuse myself from having to answer the question the poem poses. Altogether? I’m altogether selfish, vain, lazy, and deceitful. Missing someone is within my capabilities, but missing someone altogether is possible only in minuscule fragments, despite all my funeral home (boudoir, kitchen, church, campfire) rhetoric. But there is always that “pull to keep.” I wince, but yes. Yes yes yes. And ouch.

    And yet this poem does not foist upon us a Totalitarian Yes of the sorts a lot of American poets try to con us into. No windy profundities. Instead: “Crooked, I get it a little wrong.” Yes, we do, don’t we?


    The discussions here are very interesting, although I must say I felt a little lost at times… This is probably because my ability to apprehend abstractions is almost nil, which causes me to bounce off virtually everything Celan ever wrote and a lot of Rilke. As much as the next guy I want to shore these fragments against my ruin, but they have to be actual fragments and not a metaphysics of fragments. Which is to say Rilke’s panther and archaic torso speak to me more than his windier ideas about angels and Eternity and Love.

    Even when I don’t quite get it, I respect Rilke and Celan. But with contemporary American poets, I often feel mired in a metaphysics of self that seems to consist of self-indulgent and botched Rilke-Celan imitations. Unfortunately, being incomprehensibly vatic while claiming profundity is a pretty good career move - Jane Hirshfield and Frank Bidart come to mind. When I read their poems, I feel I’ve been sent to some awful Poetry Church Camp where my wizened little soul shrivels in the fire of Poetic Truthiness. (Joseph Salemi calls this “the portentous hush”). If I don’t murmur along with the others in the room, I’m a dolt or a grouch. With Bidart and Hirshfield, I often don’t even know what the question is. Which again is why I like Heather’s poem so much. I don’t feel I’m being told the truth - rather I feel I’m part of an on-going expedition led by a skillful guide, not a self-satisfied guru.

    Which leads (finally!) to a question for the poet: how do you approach the ineffable, the unsayable, without resorting to abstractions (or too many abstractions)? How do you dodge “the portentous hush”? On the other hand, how do you avoid the aw-shucks mode of American poetry, the cats ‘n’ dogs plain diction of Billy Collins that tries to josh us into an epiphany? “In the Low Houses” strikes a balance, a very delicate one…how?

    1. You get to call me Heather, but I have to call you M.D., eh? A doctor! I got your heath and heather joke, by the way. Now to move on to the harder questions you posed.

      I think of these questions when I revise. Simply put, your questions are for my whole lifetime as a poet and as a reader. I will try to make sense here, but I know it will take me a lot more time to give you a proper response (or myself, for that matter). Forgive me in advance. You worked hard on your comment. I am honored that my poem could set off so many hard questions.

      Let me start by listing the things I always hear in my head AFTER I've written a poem. I should go back to read my notebooks so that I can remember better (see, I warned everybody about my memory). These are the things poets, usually in workshop, have advised over the years:

      Make sure the poem doesn't end like a present with a little bow on it.
      Sound trumps meaning.
      Abstraction + abstraction= zero
      Work against your strengths/ Don't be a One Hit Wonder
      A poem should never read like the poet knew the ending already when s/he sat down to write; something should have been learned by both poet and reader.
      A dictionary is your best friend, but don't write poems for an SAT prep course.
      Pare down when the poem gets too slow
      Never underestimate the power of a linebreak; its power distinguishes poetry from every other genre.
      Writing a poem should be uncomfortable.
      The muse it great and gorgeous, but what you really need is plenty of ass-in-chair time.
      [As to our obsessions] we must write it till we get it right.
      Always read your poem aloud.
      Memorize as many of your own poems as you can.
      Memorize your favorite poems so that you will always have them with you.
      Have trusted, varied readers.

      On my desk, I keep a cork board full of images and quotations. I change it out regularly. My notebooks are full of quotations, too. I tear out paragraphs from the journals I subscribe to and articles friends send me. Why? Let's look at Christopher's challenge to use all of our intellectual and creative equipment in order to transcend our very limited physical and sense based equipment. I'm just me. My habits are bothersome and annoy even me. I try to transcend myself by connecting with others and mixing it up as much as possible. That means my friends, my job, tennis teams, travel--it's a life investment. I can't get into too much of a rut in my day-to-day life or watch the same kinds of movies all the time. Just as we can be prone to complacency in our daily lives [there are other blogs about this, countless ones, so let's beg off on BPJ], we can be complacent with what we read. We narrow down our "likes." This, in turn, weakens our writing. True, I probably read too many elegies, but I read them across as many "divides" as I can. That is easy since people are always dying, and poets are always writing about it. Ha! I constantly work against my quick judgements of not liking certain poetic schools or movements. I work against my tendency to read the same kind of poetry by the same kind of poets. I read reviews all the time to help me with this.

    2. continued. . .

      Frankly, I think it's lazy to say, "I don't like _________ poetry." I'm not saying you are one of these people--I know I have been sometimes, truth be told, and I may do it tomorrow despite my best intentions--but some folks have one bad experience and then make generalizations. They probably had five bad experiences. That's just not enough for me to say "I don't like _______poetry." When I start to say that, I know I need to ask for some help. I don't live in a vibrant poetry community, so I have to travel a lot and write many letters. I need help finding poets and new-to-me poetry. I make sure that I'm not just asking poets who write like I do--poets in love with my same beloved poets, poets all my age who look like me and come from the same place. I think that's the easiest and worst thing a poet can do. If you ever want to egg me on, just tell me some poet is "too difficult." That intrigues to me to no end because I want to know WHY.

      I make sure my readers are very different from me and from one another. I have one self-identified "literal reader" who doesn't let me get "too abstract." She always writes, "I'm not sure what you mean here." I have one self-identified "experimental poet" who doesn't let me get "too literal." She says I should trust the reader more, that I have provided enough before. I have another reader who always wants more, and another who busts me on "being too lush and getting carried away" with myself. Finally, my mother is an avid reader but not of poetry. Close to a final draft, I always ask her to show me where a poem gets too hard to follow. I revise for years. I worked on "In the Low Houses" for nearly two years. There were months I didn't touch it, but then there were whole days when I did nothing but. I needed that time in between to see the poem better, to let the poem be smarter than I am, to let language win over my intentions, and not to be so close that I smothered it.

      I also record myself reading the poem. My recorded voice does not sound like me (to me), so I am much more critical and can sometimes hear my obvious weaknesses, tonal shifts, and other trouble spots. I'm still not as good on my own as I am after my readers' feedback. I AM much better than I used to be, so that gives me hope. This is also why I started my essay about my penny touching another penny. I get help. I always listen to edits because they are a way for me to transcend my own habits of thought and craft. I can't do what all my readers want me to do, but I can take in their habits, too, and challenge my own tendencies and preferences so that I bore myself a little less! I become a better writer and reader for them, too.

      There is another sentence I hear in my head that isn't from workshop, just me: Don't make a speaker look too good. Goody-goody sages are fakers, and I'm not interested in that vantage point. I think the way I sometimes approach the ineffable is by simultaneously taking everything a bit too seriously but also being humble. I never strive to say something "new" or "original." As I said before, I don't have any answers. I just need to pay attention, and I just need to be still enough to remember. I try to remind readers of such things because I need so many reminders myself. Maybe then we can hear each other. If I am yelling pronouncements, then I am not doing my job as a poet--at least not the poet I hope to be.

  10. Here's a little experiment that might yield an answer of sorts.

    Read this first:

    And so we keep on going and try to realize it,
    try to hold it in our simple hands, in
    our overcrowded eyes, and in our speechless heart.
    Try to become it. To give it to whom? We’d rather
    keep all of it forever… Ah, but what can we take across
    into that other realm? Not the power to see we’ve learned
    so slowly here, and nothing that’s happened here.
    Nothing. And so, the pain; above all, the hard
    work of living; the long experience of love –
    those purely unspeakable things.

    That is, of course, the passage Heather quoted from The Duino Elegies

    Then read "The Dead," a Billy Collins poem everybody knows.

    The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
    while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
    they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
    as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

    They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
    and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
    drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
    they think we are looking back at them,
    which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
    and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

    Finally read this variation on a less well-known poem which could be by either Rilke or Collins. (I’ve changed two words from the original, I confess, but only two.)

    History will never find a way to end,
    I realized, as I left the graveyard by the north gate

    and walked slowly home
    returning to the station of my desk
    where sheets of paper I wrote on
    were like pieces of glass
    through which I could see
    hundreds of dark birds circling in the sky below.

    The last poem’s a joke, of course -- not the poem, but how I use it. But try something – read all three passages once more with an open heart, and then read “In The Low Houses” once again as well. Out loud.

    It's even better now, isn’t it?

    And is that because you weren't trying so hard any more, or expecting so much? Or did you perhaps bring more of yourself to the reading, "to realize it" as Rilke says, something you can do so much more easily with the Collins. Could you let yourself lie there under the boats, for example, or see the dark birds circling in the sky below you which were really the words?

    That’s what Rilke means by holding something in our simple, hands, to realize it with our over-crowded eyes and speechless hearts. Yes, Billy Collins at the right moment can help us become even better readers, of anything!

    What a gift!

    For the quality of a poem is just part of the equation. The rest is up to you.


    1. That is an interesting approach to reading poetry critically. I read somewhere an early negative review of Berryman’s “Dream Songs” that took this approach: fake bad “Dream Songs” being as easy to write as genuine bad “Dream Songs.” Thomas M. Disch did a similar thing when he basically demonstrated that Rod McKuen was really no worse than a bunch of other highly regarded establishment poets. I do enjoy such exercises.

      The problem is that any poet who is not relentlessly experimental will be vulnerable to such a scourging. Those bits of purple passages or clumsy exposition, a reliance on some old trope (such as the “stones and bones” I mentioned above). And yet sometimes, in order to flense a poem of its blubber I find I’ve usually killed it off. Sometimes this is meant to be, but sometimes it seems impossible to write anything at all, really.

      Which can lead to a kind of poetic death, I think. Look at Robert Creeley, who became so abstract that he kind of just disappeared in his later work. There is something profound about this, and perhaps such relentless purging again and again leads to a kind of artistic purity (Simone Weil dying of self-starvation! Emily in her little white dress gone silent!). It also leads to a kind of invulnerability to criticism: it is virtually impossible to ridicule Paul Celan by quoting him out of context perhaps because there is barely any context at all (not counting his tragic biography - we’re not counting his tragic biography, are we?). Isn’t this what the LANGUAGE poets have been doing for 40 years, purging our poetry of our blab-blab-blab tendencies? Great plan, but what have they to show for it?

      Eh. I’m not disagreeing with you, as much as I understand you (but I don’t understand why the last passage is a joke). Billy Collins infuriates me because there is no easy way out he won’t take. And yet I find the saints of purity - Rilke and Celan -- to be too hard. Then I read Illya Kaminsky use Celan as a shield for his Sir Lancelot Man of Letters routine (in Poetry magazine, I mean) and I just get grouchier and grouchier about the whole thing and eventually unfairly take it out on poor dead Celan.

      But I find the Rilke passage quoted above, like the Duino Elegies in general, to be preachy, self-assured in an unearned sense, and overly abstract. I don’t want to dodge my responsibilities as a reader: when something as highly praised as the Duino Elegies just slide by me, I am sure I am wrong. And yet I just don’t get the Duino Elegies. Why is this? Taking the passage quoted above: is it because I find “overcrowded eyes” to be an awkward way to put it? Because “speechless heart” sounds trite (mine goes thump thump thump)? Because “that other realm” sounds like so much 19th Century Graveyard Verse? Because the “long experience of love” is such an trite thing to claim (especially given Rike’s love life)? Because “pain” and “hard work” are so abstract? Because I don’t know why the “unspeakable things” are “purely” so? Because I don’t know what “things” he’s talking about? Not to get all workshoppy about it, but I am being “told” a lot here but not “shown” much. Maybe it’s better in German…

      To my dismay, I rather liked the passage from Collins’ “The Dead” (a poem I did not know; my acquaintance with Collins’ poems is accidental at most). I preferred it to the Rilke. Please don’t tell anyone!

      Heather’s poem is lush and verges on the emotionally fraught. That’s its method or intent, in a way. (Do poems have intent?) But in terms of what she does here (i.e. the actual words she wrote), I like that she undercuts the overly-elegaic risks she takes with a self-awareness that is not, thanks be to Heaven, merely self-reflexively ironic or pointlessly surreal (the way so many younger poets do it these days). Abstractions are grounded with real stuff. Emotions get interrogated but not put in a holding cell (or worse yet, ridiculed). That’s a tough row to hoe these days.

    2. I don't want to step up here because Heather's on deck, not me -- and also because what I managed to say in my last comment was better than I usually manage, younger, healthier -- in reality I'm a real old man. Indeed, I think I'll show on just that, as did the old-man Robert Creeley in his bleached, weathered, transparent appearance in those last poems. Call that "poetic death" if you wish, mister young-man-interesting-critic, or just call it death.

      I also want to say that the last of my three poems was an attempt at a joke on my part, not that the poem was a joke, even in my garbled version. Indeed, I'm very grateful to the poet for having written the poem as he did, even if my changes make it sound more timeless and respectable, portentous hush even, which it wasn't before. Indeed, I'm very grateful for that poet's being there just as he is. And the wonderful thing about him today is that he's obviously aging well -- which is not an easy thing to do.


    3. And before Heather gets to it, I'd like to say that, yes, poems can have intent, M.D.Hudson, but only at certain stages in their composition. If, at least in my experience, you hang in there with a poem long enough it will eventually get beyond that and start talking back to you -- not this, not this, not this, it will say. And usually at that point the revision starts to prune, not accrete. And of course we all know that skillful pruning brings about the best fruit.

      Poems are very rarely taken right to the end of the process, it seems to me, because if they were they'd be dead. They would get more and more and more complex over the youthful years, and then start stripping it off until they eventually sounded like Robert Creeley.

      I think "In the Low Houses" is perilously close to the peak of the curve, and suspect that Heather won't stay there for long. It's exhausting to be that intense, and for longevity's sake she's going to have to let go a little sooner, or hang on just a little bit longer.

      And that's a compliment, Heather, as much as it's a caution. "In the Low Houses" is "high poetics," as I said before, indeed about as high as you can get and still remain honest (and you're certainly that). Indeed, show me a poem that has a greater concentration of energy and accomplishment in each and every line and I'll show you an unreadable poem.

      In actual fact, I'm not that crazy about Rilke -- there are just too many words, and I feel swamped. I want my poetry in smaller doses so that I can carry it in the breast pocket of my shirt -- that will give it the time and space to make a real difference. Or very long and slow by the fire or on the front porch like epic, or Billy Collins.


    4. Christopher,

      What a terrific contribution you’ve made with these poems. I love it when I’m shown a poem by a poet or two, especially one I don’t read often like Collins. You’ve put them together in the elegiac tradition! You know I am partial to that and to close reading. Thank you for your insistence that we read the poems aloud with an “open heart.” It is ideal for me to have “In the Low Houses” read with other elegies. I could not have asked for more. Thanks so very much for enriching our blog conversation.

      This is the ending of “Nightfishing,” a poem by Gjertrud Schnackenberg. (I cited her in my essay.) I will never understand why she isn’t more famous. Her poem is connected to this conversation, too:

      “We drift in the small rowboat an hour before
      Morning begins, the lake weeks grown so long
      They touch the surface, tangling in an oar.
      You’ve brought coffee, cigars, and me along.
      You sit still, like a monument in a hall,
      Watching for trout. A bat slices the air
      Near us, I shriek, you look at me, that’s all;
      One long sobering look, a smile everywhere
      But on your mouth. The mighty hills shriek back.
      You turn back to the lake, chuckle, and clamp
      Your teeth on your cigar. We watch the black

      Water together. Our tennis shoes are damp.
      Something moves on your thoughtful face, recedes.
      Here, for the first time ever, I see how,
      Just as a fish lurks deep in water weeds,
      A thought of death will lurk deep down, will show
      One eye, then quietly disappear in you.
      It’s time to go. Above the hills I see
      The faint moon slowly dipping out of view,
      Sea of Tranquillity, Sea of Serenity,
      Ocean of Storms…You start to row, the boat
      Skimming the lake where light begins to spread.
      You stop the oars, mid-air. We twirl and float.

      I’m in the kitchen. You are three days dead.
      A smiling moon rises on fertile ground,
      White stars and vegetables. The sky is blue.
      Clock hands sweep by it all, they twirl around,
      Pushing me, oarless, from the shore of you.”

      Note the use of “oar.” I haven’t used oar in an elegy yet, but I am chomping at the bit to do so. It is a classic elegiac metaphor. Elegists use lots of eyeballs and birds in their poems, too (like the ones you included.) Schnackenberg’s “Nightfishing” exemplifies the effectiveness of a long poem. She writes so tightly and carefully; nothing can be omitted without detriment to the poem’s metaphorical associations, theme, and feeling. How does she do this and with end-rhyme, that poetic element that can be too predictable or cliched? In the lightening night before sunrise, the speaker notices all of the in-between places in sky and water, as well as faces. The line ends with “black”—all that is unseen, guessed at, and unknown when we are children. It also represents the past—what the speaker cannot get to any longer—when they were together, and death was seemingly far away. She compares the clock’s hands—always going and going out of her control—to the ones that held the oars of the rowboat so many years ago: “It’s time to go.” Time moves on, and people are separated, but still we mourn on. Again, the lack of control sets the tone of distance, loss, and grieving. She will never be in that rowboat (as in life) with him again. This poem makes me think of Whitman’s “my sand is sinking.”

      “What a gift!” is right. Elizabeth Bishop advises, “practice losing farther, losing faster.” This is the life! Peter Sacks says that poets speak to the past and to each other, and that elegies are where poets make offerings of tribute and rewards with their own poems. That’s where the quality does come into play. Poets can’t put it all on the reader, but reading aloud and in company of others like you did is the best way, indeed.

    5. M.D.,

      Because of the poetic death you reference, I never allow myself to think about any of those things—flensing, blubber, old tropes, if I’m being experimental “enough,” if I’m hitting the reader over the head—when I write a first or second draft. This relates to what I was saying earlier about not trying to be original. I remember doing that when I was 16, which is just hilarious, of course. Then I saw a phrase of mine (I was so proud of it) in an Anne Sexton poem. Her poem was a hundred times better than mine. I was deflated at first, but what I felt afterwards was hope and relief. I knew that I could become better and that I was a youngun. Mostly, I hoped in some super earnest, poetry-religious way that Sexton was giving me a go-ahead-and-do-this-thing nod. I still feel this way when I see a phrase like mine (or vice versa) in another’s poem.

      I went through a “sciency” period for a few years. I wrote about love and loss (big surprise, I know) via physics metaphors. That was fun, but folks kept saying the poems were “too heady” and missed my more overtly emotional poems. There was ample emotion in those science poems, so that response frustrated me. I was not using my ear much. I was so sick of myself and wanted to write really different poems from the ones pre-sciency period. I found many new-to-me writers from varied traditions. I think that was an important time for me, even though only bits of those poems lasted. It was an investment that many would call poor because I couldn’t keep anything. What I did gain was a greater field with all those new readings and attempts, which made me want to explore more. I had a limited conception for what and how I could write, which is an awful thing for a poet.

      Most of my knowledge base is on English elegies. Influences don’t always cater to centuries or borders, so I’ve seen Celan and Rilke in a ton of English elegies. Because I don’t know another language well enough to translate it with any semblance of finesse, when I read poems in translation, I am fully aware of what is lost. As a reader, I aim for the feeling and gist—that’s all. The other poets and books I listed in my essay are more relevant to my work.

      It’s good to get bothered about poetry and poets. I’m glad you are prone to argument. Bring back the salons! I support getting grouchy and articulating it. For example, I loved the Dove vs. Vendler hubbub over the Penguin anthology. Keep going to town! I think this is beyond what we can do on the BPJ blog. The only way I can figure out how to tie it in is to say that I don’t support hiding behind a famous poet in order to gain legitimacy for my own work. I think we should speak for ourselves but also be clear that our aesthetics didn’t come from a muse or take place in a vacuum. I write from all the poems and teachers I’ve loved. I don’t think most of us have found a way to be critical about what we love, at least not at this historical moment. Some of that is because we are such a small community, and we don’t get a lot of attention outside of ourselves. If we did, I think folks would be less sensitive to someone pointing out our drawbacks. Every poet I know gets hung up on that single less than flattering remark in an entire glowing review. Our place in the world is so undervalued that we have internalized some insecurity. At least in the U.S. It can be hard to take a complaint from a fellow poet and/or poetry lover. If we had more conversations that mattered, maybe we would be tougher? So much of our resiliency is tested in our solitude with email rejections. I don’t see a lot of heated poetry exchanges in my daily life unless I actively seek them out, but then, clearly we are hungry for poetry exchanges or we wouldn’t be HERE.

    6. M.D.,

      I wasn’t trying to convert you to Rilke. I was making a certain point to answer another commenter. In high school and college, Rilke formed many of my ideas and ideals. It’s true what they say about first impressions. The poets who got to me first are still supremely powerful. Rilke became a model for pushing myself and for being dedicated to poetry. There are poems I don’t like, too. I don’t feel like I have to convince you of his mastery. There are so many to choose from, yes? Did you read the essay by Sven Birkerts in April 2012’s Poetry? I think that has your name written all over it.

      You wrote, "Maybe it’s better in German…" Of course Rilke is better in German. I have an 82-year-old German friend. He lives two doors down, and at least once a moth, he recites some Rilke he memorized from his boyhood to me. That makes me happy. No one else does that.

      You wrote, "To my dismay, I rather liked the passage from Collins’ “The Dead” (a poem I did not know; my acquaintance with Collins’ poems is accidental at most). I preferred it to the Rilke. Please don’t tell anyone!" Ha! This often happens to me when I try to write off a poet. Someone will say, “What about this one?” And I like it. Rarely do I get more than a pleasantry after I’m asked if I’m a poet, but when I do, the person usually acts sheepish and asks me if I like Billy Collins, Maya Angelou, or Mary Oliver. They look at me like they’ve just confessed to loving New Kids on the Block. They wait for me to crush them, which I don't.

      I appreciate your vote of confidence. Truly. I often mess up and get in my own way. However, I am always intentional and have a point. That can be especially awful when the poem is sucking because then I am intentionally, pointedly making that happen and unable to blame it on anybody else.

    7. Heather,
      This reply is going to come way below your reply to me so I will keep it very short -- we've had our moment and now there are many other new matters arising.

      I just want to thank you. I will read what you say carefully, including the Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and then see if there is anything I want to add toward the end of the thread -- just a week to go now, and so many irons still in the fire.

      Including that OAR, which is very much in my fire too, all the time.

      I love that mysterious moment in The Odyssey where it is prophesied that after the Homecoming has at last been accomplished, Odysseus will have to leave home yet again and won't know he has arrived at his final destination until the local people mistake the oar over his shoulder for a winnowing fan.

      I could really get off on that in relation to the end of life in general, as I have been both a serious sailor and a farmer and am now quite old. I also live in a part of the world where small farmers still thresh their grain by hand, tossing it up in the air with winnowing fans.

      I’m sure you can use that image in an elegy, Heather -- the oar brings us to our destination but there’s still all that winnowing to do...


    8. I have been at Squaw Valley Community of Writers all week. My house didn't have internet, which was good for poetry but hard for other things. I DID get to use "oar" in a poem, though, and thought of you. At Squaw, we all write a poem a day and then workshop it friendly-style the next day, even the famous poet-teachers. Yay for the oar! I also heard Forrest Gander give an insightful lecture on the problem with translating. It is so exciting how so many conversations from this month continue. Even Robert Creeley came up again and again.

  11. "In the Low Houses" is stunning for its contained energy. All that movement and momentum, reaching and pulling, and it's all contained in frames, boxes, rooms—static places. I see this as your reckoning with closeness, which demands all kinds of endless energies, no? And this seems like a mirror to poetry, generally: energy in form. You write a bit about form above, namely the couplets. Can you write about how the form of "In the Low Houses" came together, and about writing a long poem?

    1. Dear C.E.M.,

      I have been thinking about your "contained energy." I think I was working on that consciously because of my conceit of the frame. That is where my "even force" comes from with all the sides containing equally. I enjoy thinking about force with closeness and how it never works in a relationship to force closeness. Or, at least, it doesn't prove lasting. Thank you for noticing my attention to movement, which I think I mostly do with my linebreaks and sentence variety.

      I have never thought about "In the Low Houses" as a sort of ars poetica. I am struck by your "energy in form." Maybe some of the better poems we write can be read/operate on that level. I definitely was not thinking about the act of writing poetry. I tend not to like poems that reference writing (unless they are political poems that need to place the subject and the subject's and/or poet's responsibility to the landscape and locals). I tend not to like poems that use colons and commas as metaphors and similes. That's just a personal pet peeve. But as far as thinking about "In the Low Houses" as you describe, I am not sure. I read again with your thoughts in mind, and I do see the speaker dealing with when to let the body speak and when to say what has needed to be said for a long time. I do see that struggle within herself of what she says to herself and what she says to the man. There are many kinds of talking shown in the poem, and I maintain that they are equally important. Whenever I revise my poems, I do find that I will scold myself, "Get out of the way of poem." I talked about that some above in previous comments. I can mess up a good poem with my tastes and preferences if I'm not careful. So, in that way, I can mess up what the poem wants to be with my own dumb intentions. If I think I know the ending of a poem, I realize I am just being a fool. Those poems are always the worst! Maybe my relationship with myself as a writer is another low house. I thank you for making me think about this. You can tell I am still thinking about it. Sorry if I am not making sense here. I am still trying to make my own sense of the exploration. . .

    2. continued. . .

      I do spend a lot of time on form but not when I am first drafting. Two of my dearest friends identify as formalist poets, and I have learned so much from them and with them over the years. "In the Low Houses" began as an uncomfortable challenge. I sat with a whole manuscript and wrote down bits of lines from each poem. I was thinking of unifying the whole, of pushing myself beyond just the difficulty of sequencing to see how it all could be joined. I then had all of those lines, which I chose mostly for their musicality and strangeness (that is my word for when phrases give me pause and make me scrunch up my eyebrows; I love that strangeness in poetry). I thought of a scene: a couple hanging up a new picture in a house. I thought I could use that as a way to hold--another container metaphor--the poem together. The hardest part for me to clarify and unify was all the time travel and different voices. That is when I turned to form for help. I always need the form to make the poem what it is, to make the poem better heard. When I hear folks say they never think about form, it's hard for me not to hate their poem automatically because that is such a loss. Form is so key to what we do as poets. I get riled up about its importance just like I get riled up about folks who only want to read free verse or think free verse isn't even a form! But, anyway. The long lines seemed to work to mirror the interiority and the actual dialogue and action. The couplets were chosen because I am obsessed with binaries and have been since early exposure to Hegel and Marx: for the couple involved, living vs. dead, house we live in vs. house we are buried in, word-communication vs. sex-communication, man vs. woman, how one reckons with loss vs. how the other reckons with loss, hurt vs. heal, miss as gone vs. miss as pining, quiet/speaking, looking away vs. looking at, touching vs. not touching, and trying vs. giving up. I mean these "versus" tongue-in-cheek, of course, as one binary defines the other. I read every draft and record the poem. I have the distance needed then to make some needed cuts and sometimes add. When a poem gets closer to done, usually about six revisions, I will count the syllables in each line. I chart them and compare. That level of attention is fun and takes me away from the themes and feelings for a while, which is necessary. It helps me better articulate what is working with the musicality and movement, too. I have two drafts of "In the Low Houses." This one is shorter because it needed to operate on its own. The other is a page longer because it unifies a whole collection of poems. Some days I want to keep both, and other days, I think I should just use this shorter one. I am in no hurry to decide this, but it has been interesting to think about what I want a single poem to do in a journal, what I hope for a group of poems to do in a journal, and what I want them to do in a manuscript.

      Since "In the Low Houses," my poems have been longer. Before "In the Low Houses," they were half a page or smaller; after, they are a full page or page and a half. I have written in series, but none have continued for several pages like this one.

      Thanks for writing me and for caring enough about the poem to ask me about it.

  12. Forgive me for coming in again right at the end, but there’s so much more to be said. I’d hoped that somebody else might build on what was started so well, and by so many too – indeed, I’d hoped that this month we might construct a fitting (good word in the context!) memorial to Heather Dobbins’ elegy -- such a passionate and skillful celebration of its/her/our own love-life in death!

    Above all I want to say that this is a woman’s poem, at least that’s how I see it. It’s written by a woman who is writing it to hold on to life in the embrace of death, a love affair in and out of the grave – her grave in the low house, in her very own body, "said and skin," indeed in everybody’s body-ground under their feet. I too love elegies, but this one, in quite an exceptional way, rises from the grave of a woman quite specifically, and lives!

    In a fairly recent interview, that most macho of contemporary painters, John Currin, talks about the “reverse logic” that takes place in the “completely ambisexual atmosphere” of what he calls his “boudoir” – i.e. his studio. “It’s that [my] pictures of men are about men and the pictures of women are about me.”

    It’s in that sense that I say this is “a woman’s poem” – because, when I say that, I’m talking about a woman as a man myself, and the woodwork shop in the poem becomes my “boudoir,” my womanly bed.

    That’s how sex works, and why it can be the key to almost everything any man or woman knows.

    I’ve read the poem countless times and could write a whole essay on the topic citing phrase after phrase, image after image – but that would be destructive, the poem is so delicate. If a reader can’t see it, feel it, experience it in the context of his or her own life, then he or she isn’t ready yet -- and if we aren’t ready, then pointing out what is as yet still invisible will only serve to translate the incomprehensible parts, provide a literal paraphrase for them, so to speak -- a process that often obliterates the secret. (It might be interesting to look back at the Rilke discussion for another angle on that -- lauter unsägliches.).

    “I am used to resting” v.s. No one can fix this but me. Man and woman -- “an amplifier and a low chord” -- ditto love and death, reader and poem.

    "The threshold to togetheris between our legs,
    a split for heat, where we know what we cannot in the low houses."


    I have furious arguments with a very good poet-friend because she hotly maintains that a poem is just a poem, words organized, revised and edited, and what those words mean has no bearing on how they are written. I say a poem becomes a good poem because the words have been deeply realized in the poet’s own being, and I think that "In the Low Houses" is a beautiful example of that. What worries me is that too much workshop talk about a poem’s mechanics may actually delay a reader’s development on a more significant, lonely, difficult and inexpressible level.


  13. I'm sorry to hear that a couple of folks lost their comments. They typed them out, but for some reason, they weren't saved. I get so frustrated when that happens to me, so I know how that feels.

    Christopher, thanks for that connection to John Corrin. That's a wacky quotation. My brother and a couple of close friends are painters. One friend lets me write in her studio from time to time, and those poems are usually better first drafts because of her inspiration (that and the paint smell, which I adore ha ha). Thank you for reading "In the Low Houses" enough times to have such a close reading. I am grateful.

    When you talk about workshop, I think it depends: some workshops feel like beating a dead horse or attempts at impressing others with what you know instead of helping others with their poems, but most workshops (in my experience) are about loving poetry. People get tired, lazy, and nervous, but overall, my workshops have been insightful. I like sitting with other word nerds and poetry lovers. The worst workshops are usually facilitated poorly or they are full of people who don't want to read as much as they write. Then there are the people who just use your poem to talk about themselves! But mechanics mean so much. I love the mechanics. It's all working together and can't be separated.

    When you said that the poem will talk back to you, I agree. That is what I mean when I say that I try not to get in the poem’s way and trust its intelligence. This works for me more than it used to, but there are still many poems I am unable to write yet. Luckily I inherited a patient temperament. Some poems, though, I did kill with my paring. I keep the first drafts because I had a teacher make us all swear to save, save, save because she lost some poems forever. Occasionally with the first draft of an overworked, over-pared poem, I can’t feel that charge anymore. I can’t return. I might not have been ready. I might have been cowardly. I might not have lived enough. Once I stopped treating every poem like it was a fragile heirloom, I started doing the writing that needed to be done and letting myself off the hook for when the poem just wasn’t effective.

    I’m on a perilous curve, eh? Poetry can be dangerous. I need to be cautious? How grand. I hear you, Christopher. I am not making light, but luckily, I’m not my poetry. I can still cut up, dance, and good-time with family and friends to save myself from my "intensity." The healthiest poets I know do this. I pay attention to how they live.

    This has been a kind of front porch or fireplace--these conversations this June. I am grateful to BPJ for this place. I’m listened to what everyone said and will remember it, I promise. Dear commenters, thank you for your contributions.

    From The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, edited by Kevin Young (2010) “One modern aspect of elegy is the way in which death seems our one certainty, and yet the one thing we cannot easily discuss. These poems seek to remedy this . . . The contemporary elegy offers testimony that both describes and defies what Auden speaks of in ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’: ‘About suffering they were never wrong,/The Old Masters.’ The new masters of the elegy here agree with the notion that the world goes on without noticing loss, even as their poems disprove it” (xxiii). As poets, we always write through our lives, and I think it is safe to say that we hope—usually in a quiet held breath rarely spoken of because to speak would be to let it out—that poetry will care for us when we have lost everything else.

    1. There are two things about that painting and death. First of all, the two conspicuous figures are both involved in activities that require enormous concentration. The plowman is not only plowing a very straight furrow on a hillside while controlling a big animal with his hands but is, at the same time, carefully tamping down the curling sod with his foot while balancing on the other. Quite something. And the fisherman, needless to say, is fishing, and we all know about that. Or is he actually catching a big fish that's flailing about in the water? Look at that right arm extended, and just how he's bent over in the direction of the arm, and the perilous straining – he’s right on the edge of falling in, isn’t he? Being pulled in by the fish that’s fallen from heaven?

      Look at Winslow Homer for that, for transcendence through hooking the other in general, even with nobody watching in the wilderness as nobody is watching in the Breughel. Or the line in the air again and agin.

      The second point is that the small figure of the shepherd does see something, doesn't he, or is his head just in the clouds? Whatever, the shepherd's head is in the exact centre of the framed space of the painting, right in the crosshairs of the event, so to speak. The point that has no dimension.

      Which all goes to show how much a painting can say to a poet even if the painter is dumb, and even, let's be honest, if the poet is dumb too, and doesn’t believe any of it. It’s sort of like how much a pointer can say to a hunter, or the ball in the hole or the pocket in how many sports.

      Or as you put it, Heather, in the workshop -- “Is it even?” Or catching him even if it hurts. Oh my!