Follow-Up To Breathing

Lost in the responsibilities of teaching middle school, starting a new business, and my new duties as PSOV President, I didn’t realize four weeks have passed since my last post. I thought it had been two. That’s what happens when you don’t “show up” every day. Another lesson learned.  But in these four weeks I’ve been thinking…

In the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to snowshoe in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado. After a couple hours of climbing at eleven thousand feet, a shift in perceptions occurs.

POEM:
Follow-Up To Breathing

Into Arapaho
I begin the ascension
on snowshoes:

James Peak
and the daily grind vie
for time. Tracks

lead under the water
pipe six feet around,
installed:

no efficiency in water
falls. Clambering
to a higher ground,

all the outside
leaches in through
porous skin:

sun, wind,
caribou scat, a bobcat’s
print, a mountain

chickadee’s flash
and dee-dee-dee
slice my thoughts.

With every step
closer to the crown,
blood pushes, pounds

to escape: my shirt
thumps, a panicked
heart shatters

this solitude,
this silence
that I sought.

My heartbeat echoes,
scatters clouds
from electric indigo.

Sweat seeps, visions
creep in then clear.
I lumber through

a tunnel of pines;
snow ghosts leap
from dancing boughs,

waft down, swirl
around my body.
Is it there? Trudging,

I appear in open
skies; pines’ shadows
blanket untouched snow.

Rainbow clouds ring
the cascading face.
A hawk scolds

in a sun of gold;
my breath:
wood smoke.

ELEMENT:
Eco-poetry

Eco-poetry is a relatively new term in literature that distinguishes itself from “nature poetry.” In eco-poetry, we take on a more sophisticated and complex view of nature, one in which we recognize that we are not above nature or separate from nature. In eco-poetry we don’t romanticize nature, but recognize that we are responsible for our role in it.  Here is a minute and 48 second introduction:

“Eco-poetry,” really, has been around as long as poetry itself. Songs, philosophizing, and story-telling – that is, relating to the world through words – are a deep part of who we are on this planet. Haven’t our interactions with the stars and oceans, blizzards and each other been recorded in poetry since we were capable of doing so?

One of the great “eco-poets” and by that I mean “poets,” is Joy Harjo. Read her book, How We Became Human. You’ll understand.

One of the shifts occurring with “eco-poetry” is the analysis of how we use language in our relationship to the natural world. Walt Whitman and and Emily Dickinson certainly wrote about their place in nature, and did so with very different methods. What impact did their styles have on their viewpoints of the world, and what impact did their viewpoints of the world have on their styles?

In the above poem, “Follow-Up To Breathing,” the short haiku-like stanzas found themselves on my page after much experimentation with the line break.  After getting down the basic descriptions of my experience in Arapahoe, I turned to the line. I tend to create lines of 6 to 10 syllables that are generally iambic. This wasn’t working so I lengthened them, almost doubling the length, making it twice as bad!

The lines were way too long and wordy for what happened up on that mountain – it wasn’t an experience that was so premeditated; it was an experience that came in spurts. As I climbed higher in elevation, little things were beginning to happen to me, and I worked at remembering the sensual experience of it, all those sights, sounds, smells, particular to those hours on that trail that day.  Short spurts of stanzas that mirrored the short spurts of sensual experiences were the natural selection for this poem.

Side note: Two of the best books regarding nature and “eco-poetry,” in my opinion, are John Elder’s Reading the Mountains of Home and Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth.  It took me a few starts to get through Elder’s book; in it he analyzes Frost’s “Directive” while traveling and exploring Vermont and reflecting on the link between past and present, nature and person, poetry and place. Only after attending a lecture by Paul Muldoon on Frost’s “Directive” was I able to go back and understand Reading the Mountains of Home. I have to admit though, I need all the help I can get when I comes to the analysis of anything.  As for The Song of the Earth, it is a book that I could read many times and get something more from it each time. Full of historical, cultural, and literary connections to ecology, the environment, and nature, the book provides a detailed overview of why poetry IS the song of the earth.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
What is Eco Poetry – a blog post from The Poetry Foundation
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry – an excellent anthology recommended by Tim Seibles
One of my go-to poems that tells me what a poem should/could be, from the above anthology: Down From the House of Magic, by Cyrus Cassells
Walt Whitman and the earth – A study of eco poetics
Conference on Ecopoetics, Berkeley – This just ended on Feb. 24, but is an annual conference held every February.
An Ecopoetry Anthology

About Nature

We need a paradigm shift in order to save the planet. It is a shift to some very simplistic thinking that, if we believed it and followed it, would make all other decisions and efforts regarding the environment easy. This is a shift to caring for each other, for each individual’s well being. Saving the planet begins with the respect of each other.

Walt Whitman had this idea and said it this way in Leaves of Grass:
+++In all people I see myself; none more and not one a barley-corn less,
+++And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we are above the rest of nature. I am saying that we are such a part of nature that not being as concerned with each other as much as we are concerned with the land, ocean, and air will stymie all of our efforts in these other areas. I am saying that we have to approach caring for each other as we would approach caring for the jaguar.

I’m also not saying that a religious approach to this would work. In fact, I would argue that religion gets in the way of respecting each other. We can’t seem to get over whose god is the right one so I’d suggest we set our gods aside if we want to save the earth.

Comedian George Carlin had the same idea and said it this way:

“We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save the snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet! Are these people kidding? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves; we haven’t learned how to care for one another.. . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet in the first place. … Compared with the people, the planet is doin’ great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t goin’ anywhere, folks. We are! We’re goin’ away. Pack your shit, we’re goin’ away. And we won’t leave much of a trace. Thank God for that. Nothing left. Maybe a little Styrofoam. The planet will be here, and we’ll be gone. Another failed mutation; another closed-end biological mistake.”

George was right. We haven’t figured out how to care for ourselves.

If we really truly care for each other, caring for the rest will naturally follow. Cultures in which each individual is not respected – in which women or the poor are oppressed, for example (and you must include our country in this; we are one of the least caring of nations) – will never reach the measures needed to protect the planet. We must look at the bigger cost of our conveniences and expenditures to see who suffers at the price of a bottle of water or a gallon of gasoline. Who really pays for the American nuclear waste site or the oil spill along an African coast or the garbage in the ocean?

As a side note: To learn about how the environmental policies of Obama and Romney fair, read the article “Climate Change and the 2012 Presidential Debate” on one of The Boulder Stand blogs, which happens to be written by my daughter Lucy Higgins. The Boulder Stand, an on-line publication, “publishes and promotes the work of journalists, researchers and thinkers connected to the Boulder community–a nexus of science, technology and environmental research.”

Thoreau wrote: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” I would argue that in the respect of each individual in every culture is the preservation of the wildness.

POEM:
About Nature

See that woman over there?  The one working along side you? Or the one
+++nursing 
her baby? Or the one with the burka? Or the one hauling water? She
+++is not 
your mother, sister, daughter.  She is
You. And because she is you,
You will make sure her water is accessible and clean.
You will not overtake her body, her house, her land because you understand her
 need +++for her to make decisions for her own being, her own shelter, her own
+++
sustenance.
You will care that she has food that is pure, healthy, abundant. Because she is you,
You will make sure the land is rich in natural nutrients, not chemicals;
You will see that cows eat what is normal for cows to eat so that
You eat what is normal to eat.
You will not grow or sell grain for the purpose of profit but for the purpose of
 respect
+++to those who will eat it with you.
You will not hoard water from those who are downstream. How can you drink
+++water 
that isn’t there?
You will not pour hazardous waste in to the streams. How can you drink
+++contaminated water?
You will not dump hazardous waste near any body. If you really care,
You will make sure there is no hazardous waste to dump.
You will allow a patch of garden for her because she is you and your body 
must
+++absorb what it was meant to absorb.
You will conserve, using resources respectfully instead of greedily so that you will
+++always have resources.
You will allow access to education, to the development of her mind, which is your
+++
mind, and allow access to the development of her spirit, which is your spirit.

See the child in that woman’s arms? It is you. It is not your son or daughter, but is
You.
You will allow the child to be a child by providing basic needs.  After all,
You need to eat food that is grown nearby in soil that is rich;
You need shelter that protects you from rain, storms, sun, snow, people;
You need clean water. Because you are the child,
You need access to safe streets, music, trees…

ELEMENT:
Anaphora

Anaphora is a term with its roots in Greek, meaning “a carrying up or back.” As a literary device, it refers to the repetition of an opening word or phrase and works as a type of parallelism throughout the poem or other pieces of writing, such as the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. The repetition of opening phrases can often resemble a litany. In fact, as “one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, anaphora is used in much of the world’s religious and devotional poetry, including numerous Biblical Psalms” (from poets.org – see link below).

The repetition of the beginning word or phrase thrusts the reader into each line, renewing and emphasizing the point. Anaphoric lines can also create a list-like effect. Walt Whitman used the technique frequently in his long poems and it is those poems I used as a model for the one above.  If you skim through Leaves of Grass, you will find anaphora such as in “I Hear America Singing”:
             I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
            Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should blithe and strong,
            The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
            The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
            The boatman singing…
            The shoemaker singing…
            The wood-cutter’s son…

Other anaphoric phrases that Whitman used include “Chants of…,” “I will…,” “See…,” “I know…,” “In vain…,” among many, many others including those found in one of his most famous poems “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

While perhaps we think of Whitman first for the use of anaphora, William Shakespeare used it in many of his pieces and Allen Ginsberg used it in his most famous poem, “Howl.”

Anaphora emphasizes the particular emotional tone of a poem and this is what I hope happens in the poem “About Nature.” Beginning so many lines with “You will” and later in the poem with “You need,” the intent is to constantly connect the reader back to well-being of every woman, child, or man on the planet.  Additionally, the repetition is intended to drive home that each of us has a responsibility for caring for each other.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
More on Anaphora at poets.org
Seeds of Self Reliance
Childhood Poverty Research and Policy Centre
SocialEarth
The Walt Whitman Archive

 

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.