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Transcript of POETRY
What poems are made of
& where they come from.
What a Poem
Can Be & Do
Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
from ex- out + phrazein to speak
to point out, to explain
"An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the 'action' of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning."
For the month of July, I stay in a room in an apartment in the Lefferts Garden
neighborhood of Brooklyn.
There are two other people who live here, one a close friend and one an
The room belongs to a third friend, Eric.
He, like me, thinks often of the breaking of ice or glass.
In the living room is a small round table with a lamp at its center.
Surrounding the lamp is a pile of individually wrapped candies, thirty or forty
maybe, all of them a crisp and glistening blue.
I am sentimental, but continue to be surprised by how quickly an event, while
retreating into the past, gains its nostalgia.
It is not simply that seemingly tragic events are palliated with time, but instead that
the texture of those moments appears to have woven into it a gentler fabric:
the day my last girlfriend broke up with me, how we confirmed our love for one
another and I then turned to a close friend for comfort;
my grandfather dying, the immediate family around him and exposed to one another
in a way we rarely are;
even the fall from a ladder and the hazy, concussed afternoon I spent lying on a
porch and listening to the creek run.
In this way, nostalgia seems to me to be dishonest;
I am not convinced the fabric of loss has any texture but that which it had when my
hand laid upon it.
The first time I walked up to “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in LA) I stood before the
sculpture for two or three minutes, a few feet back.
A friend had earlier explained the piece to me, so I knew I was allowed to step
forward and take a piece of the candy.
I selected one wrapped in bright yellow foil.
I knelt, lifted it and fingered it for a moment before unwrapping.
I placed it in my mouth.
I ate the candy as I continued to look at the pile, slightly diminished.
I felt for a moment an acute sense of loss and beauty, each indistinguishable from
The candy was very sweet and melting.
I consider this to be the most affecting encounter with a work of art that I have had.
The Glass Essay
I can hear little clicks inside my dream.
Night drips its silver tap
down the back.
At 4 A.M. I wake. Thinking
of the man who
left in September.
His name was Law.
My face in the bathroom mirror
has white streaks down it.
I rinse the face and return to bed.
Tomorrow I am going to visit my mother.
She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books—
some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.
Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,
my lonely life around me like a moor,
my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation
that dies when I come in the kitchen door.
What meat is it, Emily, we need?
Emily’s habitual spelling of this word,
has caused confusion.
in the first line of the poem printed Tell me, whether, is it winter?
in the Shakespeare Head edition.
But whacher is what she wrote.
Whacher is what she was.
She whached God and humans and moor wind and open night.
She whached eyes, stars, inside, outside, actual weather.
She whached the bars of time, which broke.
She whached the poor core of the world,
To be a whacher is not a choice.
There is nowhere to get away from it,
no ledge to climb up to—like a swimmer
who walks out of the water at sunset
shaking the drops off, it just flies open.
To be a whacher is not in itself sad or happy,
although she uses these words in her verse
as she uses the emotions of sexual union in her novel,
grazing with euphemism the work of whaching.
But it has no name.
It is transparent.
Sometimes she calls it Thou.
“Emily is in the parlour brushing the carpet,”
records Charlotte in 1828.
Unsociable even at home
and unable to meet the eyes of strangers when she ventured out,
Emily made her awkward way
across days and years whose bareness appalls her biographers.
This sad stunted life, says one.
Uninteresting, unremarkable, wracked by disappointment
and despair, says another.
She could have been a great navigator if she’d been male,
suggests a third. Meanwhile
Emily continued to brush into the carpet the question,
Why cast the world away.
For someone hooked up to Thou,
the world may have seemed a kind of half-finished sentence.
But in between the neighbour who recalls her
coming in from a walk on the moors
with her face “lit up by a divine light”
and the sister who tells us
Emily never made a friend in her life,
is a space where the little raw soul
It goes skimming the deep keel like a storm petrel,
out of sight.
The little raw soul was caught by no one.
She didn’t have friends, children, sex, religion, marriage, success, a salary
or a fear of death. She worked
in total six months of her life (at a school in Halifax)
and died on the sofa at home at 2 P.M. on a winter afternoon
in her thirty-first year. She spent
most of the hours of her life brushing the carpet,
walking the moor
or whaching. She says
it gave her peace.
“All tight and right in which condition it is to be hoped we shall all be this
day 4 years,”
she wrote in her Diary Paper of 1837.
Yet her poetry from beginning to end is concerned with prisons,
vaults, cages, bars, curbs, bits, bolts, fetters,
locked windows, narrow frames, aching walls.
“Why all the fuss?” asks one critic.
“She wanted liberty. Well didn’t she have it?
A reasonably satisfactory homelife,
a most satisfactory dreamlife—why all this beating of wings?
What was this cage, invisible to us,
which she felt herself to be confined in?”
Well there are many ways of being held prisoner,
I am thinking as I stride over the moor.
As a rule after lunch mother has a nap
and I go out to walk.
The bare blue trees and bleached wooden sky of April
carve into me with knives of light.
Self Dialogue Watching Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip
What of stepping outside the door on fire?
What of running down a faceless road
Let alone a busy strip, enflamed? Got-damn!
There must be 10,000 selves in an epidermis. Imagine
Yours. Imagine the skin-peeling flame of each self-
Inflicted arson. Imagine the freedom to say God
Damn! To consider what that feels like. To speak
A wild geyser spraying from a busted hydrant.
You watch Richard Pryor in a loud fire engine
Red suit— all flashing lights, sirens: 10,000 selves
Visible to the world, & consider what that feels like.
To think, you may or may not be God damned.
To know, at least, your dick is intact.
"Self-Dialogue Watching Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip" was penned during a period when I was spending too many hours engaging the Ars Poetica, interrogating my own modes of construction, and cataloging first ideas about poetry. I remember switching off the Pryor DVD one night thinking, "
What if, tonally, I set everything I wrote on fire?
Came in hot?
What if I merged a few things I love—comedy, profanity, repetition, circular thought processes—and let them rattle around awhile?
Can my unapologetic obsessions work toward new statements? Understandings?" And then I continued talking to myself, except on the page. I went on this way for several lines before deciding the voice behind the questions was more important than the answers.
Whole Messy Thing
This sadness is bigger than B vitamins, it
is not interested in working around my schedule,
or all your good ideas, it arrives anyway
on wings of fog and stays awhile
“Love Is a Messy Broken Thing, Part 6,” Jacks McNamara
Depression, the word, is useless. There’s no music
no romance, no reclaiming it. Neither word nor illness
can be made into bedroom play. Comedy, maybe?
“So a guy walks into a bar…I mean the ER,
no I mean a bar … no I mean ER.” Same difference.
Divorced from the root
depression divvies, clinically scores me
into that and this and this and this.
But sadness is bigger than my last relapse.
This sadness is bigger than B vitamins,
is bigger than the SAD lamp that brightens my desk.
Bigger than ten milligrams twice a day.
Sadness holds more than all the second-
hand coffee mugs at an AL-ANON meeting
takes more time than the self-help
workbook my poetics professor gifted me
longer than the long-distance collect call
my mother refused to accept.
Too urgent to be wait-listed, it
is not interested in working around a schedule, or
another referral from the Red Book.
So tremendous, sadness
doesn’t know where the world ends
and my body begins.
Sure, no bullshit about communing with the universe
but you won’t catch me being laissez-faire
about upper case “W” Wholeness.
I practice sadness because it subsumes
all my shady moods and
all my good ideas. It arrives any way
it can and yet it is always here
like a lake forever fed by a cold creek.
Damn right a nature metaphor!
Want more? Sadness always has more
to offer. Its occupation is fluid. It’s air.
Notice you’re breathing? Sadness
is as wide as rain on one end of town
and a heaven-sent break in the clouds
on the other and on the other
wings of fog, and all of it stays awhile.
The Birds of British Columbia
From The Birds of British Columbia (4) Upland Game Birds.Victoria British Columbia Provincial Museum, 1971
In no other game bird but the ruffled grouse do the tones
of gray, black, cinnamon and white shade and blend
with such quiet harmony. Child of the wilderness
that he is, in the full dark pupil of that eye surrounded
by an iris of October's own brown, seem always to dwell
the brooding shadows of the great forest he loves
so well. And in the moulding of him Nature seems
to have embodied all the beauty, all the charm, all
the inexplicable strangeness and romance of the autumnal
woods and produced her feathered masterpiece. Always
is he the woodland's pride, alert, instinct with life, and filled
with a spirit and a dash that furnishes, in such mixed cover
as we were hunting this day, the very climax
of shooting with the shotgun.
A poem is a "made thing," and a poet is a "maker of things."
James Schuyler once explained that the poem only came about because Schuyler found two poems that O’Hara had forgotten about folded in a book, and suggested he splice them together with two other short poems to create a four-part work. Schuyler recalled that O’Hara “liked the result and said that since it was ‘my’ poem I had to think up a title — which I easily and instantly did — Frank had (again) been reading Mayakovsky and the book was on his desk.”
“Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is an allegorical representation of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. The installation is comprised of 175 pounds of candy, corresponding to Ross’s ideal body weight. Viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy, and the diminishing amount parallels Ross’s weight loss and suffering prior to his death. Gonzalez-Torres stipulated that the pile should be continuously replenished, thus metaphorically granting perpetual life.
. . .
Gonzalez-Torres was aesthetically brilliant, able to make a string of lights or a photo
of a bed into a site of exhilarating beauty.
In part because of this allure, it is possible to forget his political efficacy.
In both intention and execution, his work is as driven by motors of dissent and
remonstration as by the mechanisms of beauty.
He spoke of his interest in occupying power, in “infecting” it.
Many of his works enter or reference capitalist reproduction
(the billboard, the distribution of objects, the dissemination of information)
while using that power to create modes of freedom and grace for those most damaged by the system,
queers, people of color, poor people, those living with HIV/AIDS.
His work does not simply endure, but rather replenishes itself.
It is a thing that can be broken and put back together to be broken again.
Like so many of my friends, I found my way to the city because of what it had been.
What it had been, we thought, meant what we could be.
I walk up to the pile of candies.
I take one for myself.
This candy is free and it is mine.
And I think of how Ross in L.A. might have died just as slowly, just as swiftly.
Pools in Florida
Self Dialogue Watching Richard Pryor
This is Just to Say
William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!
from "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone
. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists . . . what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them.
I have tried to point out the importance of the relation of the poem to other poems by other authors, and suggested the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.
Alien Vs. Predator
Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.
We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s
berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys
for a living, you’d pray to me, too.
I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.
That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree
making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.
In front of Best Buy, the Tibetans are released,
but where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?
I fight the comets, lick the moon,
pave its lonely streets.
The sandhill cranes make brains look easy.
I go by many names: Buju Banton,
Camel Light, the New York Times.
Point being, rickshaws in Scranton.
I have few legs. I sleep on meat.
I’d eat your bra—point being—in a heartbeat.
Ekphrastic strategies/types of response
From "Tradition and the Individual Talent"
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.
You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided;
what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.
The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
. . .
I have tried to point out the importance of the relation of the poem to other poems by other authors, and suggested
the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.
A voice interacting with a world
Another Poem About My Father
poetry either. Mostly I get cavities,
junk mail. Once, I got eleven hundred dollars
in small change from my father for Christmas.
You've got to work for your money--
meaning you've got to haul it through six feet
of snow to the bank,
Good luck, here's a bag
My father is more like a poem than most poems
are. He once tucked a living loon into his coat
and brought it home to amuse my mother who
loves birds, especially surprised-sounding birds,
especially owls. My nostalgia receptors zigzag
wildly through me when I think of my father
pushing his metal detector across all the parks,
schoolyards and riverbanks of this great nation,
waving it back and forth--
like some sort of
, my mother would say--until it beeps
solemnly above a nickel. With a butter knife
he cuts such slender metaphors from the earth.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainer Maria Rilke
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.