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.

 

 

Bald-faced Hornets

I went walking in the woods recently with a friend, and we came across a very large hornets nest – about two and a half feet in length and as wide as a basketball – hanging from a branch six feet above the ground. It was astoundingly beautiful. I learned that it was a bald-faced hornets nest. As you can see from the photo below, these hornets resemble Star Wars Storm Troopers.

Bald-faced Hornet.
www.fcps.edu

With the beauty of the woods that day and the chance encounter with a living work of art, I wanted to write a pastoral poem about it. But it just wasn’t happening. Instead what was happening was Todd Akin. Usually, after several days of the same news story broadcasted over and over again, I tune out, but I became fascinated with this one, mainly because I had no idea some people really believed what Akin said about rape and pregnancy. (This sort of shocking statement makes me wonder about my own ignorance, too. What do I espouse that is just totally wrong? It reminds me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads “Don’t believe everything you think”).

In the Seattle Times, Gail Collins explains in her article “Todd Akin and the theory of the delighted womb” that Akin’s beliefs are not unique and certainly not new. She begins the article: “In colonial America, conventional wisdom held that women could not get pregnant unless they enjoyed the sex. People, who would have thought I’d have an opportunity to bring up this factoid right in the middle of a presidential race? Thank you, Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri!”

It seems as though what I intend to write about never actualizes, and every week I have to trust the winding way of discovery, reflection, and serendipity.

POEM:
Bald-Faced Hornets

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
back up in the woods, we were not looking
for anything. Not the nest, not peace and quiet,
not ourselves. We were just walking, relaxing,
minding our own business.

The first time we came upon the hornets’ nest
was the day the politician was not making
sense about anything. Not rape, not pregnancy,
not women. He was just talking, bumbling,
minding everyone else’s business.

Photo by Higgins

The hornets’ nest, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of bald-faced wasps that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of their home. They were not bothering
anything, yet the potential in that hive!

 

 

 

The politician’s belfry, shaped like an alien’s head,
held hundreds of the bald-faced comments that flew
in and out of the hole towards the bottom
of his face. He was not bothering
with any facts, yet the potential of those words!

Bald-faced hornets chew thin strips of wood
mix it with saliva and spit it out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and beautiful yet functional home. Cells
inside provide each wasp its own space.

Bald-faced politicians chew thin strips of words,
mix them with saliva and spit them out to build
their scalloped layers, creating a fragile
and dangerous yet powerful following. Cells
inside their system provide each belief its own space.

The queen lays eggs and feeds them chewed up insects
after they’ve become larvae. These are only female
hornets, and they hatch to build new cells, collect food,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the queen
lays more eggs – females and males hatch.

The politician lays ideas in people and feeds them chewed up facts
after they’ve become convoluted. These are about female,
or “other” targets, and they hatch, collect momentum,
feed others, protect the nest. In autumn, the politician
lays more eggs – female and males believe.

Finally the females and males mate, after which everyone
dies, even the old queen, all except the fertilized females.
These females burrow into old tree stumps or huddle
underground in winter to survive. Each builds a new nest
in spring. You can see the old ones, abandoned.

ELEMENT:
Metaphor

In the poem, “Bald-faced Hornets,” I use the beautiful hornets’ nest I found to speak of the hornets’ nest of politics. I could have continued the comparison for another stanza, or more, but I was already hitting the reader over the head with it. Despite its shortcomings, the poem does lend itself to discussing metaphor.

In a metaphor something familiar (the vehicle) is used to explain something unfamiliar (the tenor).  See the link below for famous examples – with one of my favorites by Walt Whitman, “And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”

Robert Frost is known for expressing that metaphor is saying “one thing in terms of another.”  This is only part of what he actually said, according to Jay Parini in his book, Robert Frost, a life:  “Frost believed that the ‘greatest of all attempts to say one thing in terms of another is the philosophical attempt to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter’’’ (265).

Parini goes on about Frost’s use of metaphor: “In formulating this, he (consciously or not) is redeploying an aesthetic common to the German Romantics, especially Goethe, who famously wrote: ‘Whoever has truly grasped the meaning of history will realize in thousands of examples that the materialization of the spirit or the spiritualization of matter never rests, but always breaks out, among prophets, believer, poets, orators, artists, and lovers of art’” (265).

While at Stonecoast, I attended a lecture by Alicia Ostriker on metaphor. She discussed metaphor in terms of love. She said that in order to create metaphor you have to look at what you want to know (the tenor of the metaphor) carefully enough to notice, to compare, to connect, to jump, to leap, as you have to in love.  She spoke of metaphor as the erotic in language. Without it, language is chilling and cold, and we see this in the language of legal and medical documents, math and logic. Ostriker went on to say that “the pleasure we take in metaphor is consent, an agreement that the distance between the two things is less.” Metaphors allow us to discover and know something at a deeper level, and are not constructed as a game.

Which, perhaps, is how I constructed “Bald-faced Hornets.” But in doing so, I did think deeper about the world of political propaganda and the systemic workings of politicians who lull people into their camps through emotional speech and unsubstantiated “facts.”  And the last stanza in my poem above leaves the reader to interpret the metaphor for him- or herself.  This is an important piece of the poem, allowing the reader to continue the metaphor with personal knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs.

In her talk, Ostriker pointed out that in a metaphor the two things that are joined can neither be opposites nor be too similar. Comparing two things with no shared characteristics doesn’t work; there has to be enough similarity between the two so that the comparison makes sense. Comparing a woman’s hips, for example, to rain doesn’t really work (and I apologize to the song-writer who used this comparison). Hips are solid, powerful, meaty, sculped or bony. They do not share physical or other characteristics of rain, though maybe I’m missing something. Conversely, if there is too much familiarity (i.e. a teapot and a tea kettle) there is no point in comparing them.

(As a side-note, Ostriker also mentioned that language poetry – post-modern poetry – does not have metaphor which is a response to the increasing awareness of the suffering in the world. It is too painful to get so close to. She explained post-modernism as “modernism without the hope.” Scary).

While Ostriker takes on the serious side of metaphor, Tony Barnstone presents us with a fun exercise that gets to what Ostriker was referring to – getting to know the tenor through the vehicle. Barnstone was one of my mentors at Stonecoast and shared a Power Point he created on the “Controlled Surreal Image.” In it, he included an exercise of writing about shoes in a metaphorical way (see below in links). It is fun and gets to the idea of thinking of “one thing in terms of another.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):

Famous metaphors
Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, an amazing book by Alicia Ostriker, which was recommended by another of my mentors, Jeanne Marie Beaumont. Ostriker’s book is a must read for any poet, woman, or person interested in contemporary issues.
Barnstone Metaphor-Image Exercise