Tag Archives: poets

prayer to be simple

when i was in germany, i picked up a slim little book of poetry, die gebete der demut (prayers of humility) by french poet francis jammes.  he lived from 1868 to 1938.  the poetry foundation says about him that he was

… best known for his poetry of the natural world, in which he praised the simplicity of country life. his literary standing has always been difficult to categorize; blandine m. rickert wrote in the encyclopedia of world literature: “jammes, who has been referred to as a symbolist, neosymbolist, or naturiste, never belonged to any systematic school of poetry. he always was only himself, in the process creating jammisme, which embraces but one guiding principle, ‘the truth that is the praise of god.’ it is innocence, simplicity, and humility; it extols the beauty of the native soil and the virtues of family life; it is adoration of god and love of all he created.” jammes’s poetry counters french literary tradition, so often associated with highly rarefied, intellectual poetics.

for today’s national poetry writing month exercise, i thought i’d do a translation.  yes, i know, it’s a translation from the german translation into english so i’m sure i don’t do francis jammes justice – but it’s enjoyable nevertheless.  i get a lot out of translation – it really brings me deep into the poem.  so here we are:

prayer to be simple

the butterflies, they wave about,
surrendering to every breeze
like petals strewn by gentle children on a path.
my god, it’s early morning and already
my prayer wants to lift itself to you
with all the blooming butterflies,
the crying roosters in the barn,
and with the crushing beat of the old stonecutter.
under the sycamores with their green palm fronds
you can hear – and cannot see – the crickets:
they sing of your might without end.
the blackbird, restless in black watery leaves
sings a few phrases. she dare not twitter any longer.
she does not know what stirs her fear. gives up
and darts up, quick, in one full swoop
straight through across the ground, away to where
no-one abides.

my god, so gently start again our lives, another morning
like yesterday, like many times before.
just like these butterflies, these stonecutters,
the crickets who live by the sun,
and like the blackbirds who are hiding in the cool dark
with the leaves;
let me keep living, god, my life,
as simple and as modest as i can.

the lyric self

this is another guest post by sarah luczaj, a british therapist and writer, living in poland. she runs an online therapy practice  at mytherapist.com and has a poetry chapbook, “an urgent request” coming soon from fortunate daughter press, an imprint of tebot bach.  sarah is a freequent commenter on this blog, and a propos poetry month, she contributes these interesting thoughts:

who is the “i” in a contemporary lyric poem? since the romantic poets brought the self onto centre stage, whether self as discovered through opium or as expressed in nature, the sense of poets as those who speak in some whole, organic way, for themselves and maybe also for the rest of us, has remained, despite the best attempts of modernist and post-modernist writers, or language poets, to break up that narrative of “i am – i feel – i write”. sometimes the self who speaks, as is often the case with “confessional poets”, is a damaged one, sharing dark secrets, despair, its own fragmentation and brokenness, sometimes it is inconsequential, entertaining… maybe we no longer expect the truth from our poets, but maybe most of us expect some kind of individuality and authenticity?

having my poetry published has put me on the sharp end of this dry literary discussion more than once. sometimes the problem has been simple – i have written about real situations, and real people, who were not able to ‘get’ the context in which i was writing, and who would probably not have liked it even if they had (mea culpa for writing about village life in the actual village in which i still live!) and quite rightly took it as an insult. i know i am far from alone among poets in worrying about revealing self and others in poems, but maybe an even more prevalent issue for writers for whom the “i” of the poems is not always even connected to the “i” who does the laundry, is that readers take the poems to be the literal truth.

but while the “i” of the poems, the lyric “i”, cannot be identical with the “i” who makes toast, can the two ever be totally disconnected? what is the difference between writing a diary and a poem, and is it really the case that a diary is necessarily more authentic?

in my own work, i sometimes recount events from my own life, sometimes recount episodes from other people’s lives, in the first person, and sometimes i use personas to express a kind of composite story made up of the distilled essence of many stories. sometimes, i know from feedback, the personas seem to have more resonance with readers (more “authenticity”?) than when i speak personally from the heart. in fact readers probably automatically assume that i have experienced what is recounted in the poem first hand.

maybe i have? can i notice something which i don’t already know about? do the things which i hear, see, touch not fuse inside me in a kind of chemistry by which they become inseparable from myself? what is this self thing anyway – and is the act of taking experiences inside and then writing ‘as if’ they were yours not a pretty good way of intuitively understanding it?

this seems to be what we are doing all the time, taking people’s stories inside and being changed by them. it seems to me that there is nothing very pure in ourselves that can be extricated and stand alone, and that maybe this is exactly who we are, the individuality which comes out in the act of writing the ‘poem’ or of speaking as “i”, it is what we choose to use, and what cannot be left out, and what must be left out, and the range of tones which we can enter. the act of distilling the essence, and how we do it. the tones when i am writing as a young girl with an eating disorder and as a middle aged mother, for example, are utterly different. some might recognise that these two poems are by the same writer, probably not knowing how, but picking up something about sentence structure, or use of grammatical forms, or vocabulary, which is consistent and recognisable. others might not. but it is the poem that matters, and the poem is always “true”. the rest is speculation.

as a poet, am i happy when i am always recognisable, with my own distinctive voice, or am i happy when i can carry off another voice so successfully that people feel the realness and mistake it for biographical experience? am i putting on these voices artificially, in some way channelling them, or are they really a “part” of “me”? as i have never written a poem “on purpose” – with the clear intention to convey something in particular which i knew in advance, or fulfil any kind of function with my poem (“need one by an old lady about mortality for p 39”), i can say that for me, the use of personas is not an intentional act of putting on a character. i write poems to find out what can be said about something, and sometimes i find ‘voices’ other than my own, yet also mine. i do not wish to appropriate anyone else’s experiences as mine, or even hold on to the finished product as mine, but the writing of the poem is.

so to go back to the first of this series of questions – who is the “i” in the poem, when i am writing the poem?! the answer is, very often not who you think it is.

poetry, meaning and ‘arse dribble’

today, i’d like to serve you up – arse dribble! that’s what stephen fry calls experimental poetry.

don’t worry, there’s more on the menu.

jim murdoch over at the truth about lies has a good post on poetry and meaning, where he lays out two styles of experimental poetry – ‘decoder ring’ and ‘the emperor’s new clothes’. i’ve picked a few words off his post, and will give you examples of my poetry – i have one from each category he discusses.

jim: ‘decoder ring’ poems are fine up to a point. my wife writes them all the time, usually about me and i never get them. of course, when she tells me what the poem is about it’s obvious but no one else would have a clue to the poem’s ‘true’ meaning. that does not mean the poem is necessarily meaningless to them. they will impose their own meaning on it.

my poem:

ha’aha’a: humility.
beyond this and that,
above servitude,
below arrogance
not higher not lower –
just that:
here i am.
naked.
let the winds blow …
ha’aha’a.

here’s the decoder ring (i’ve written a whole book of decoder rings here, by the way)

these are words of aspiration. i aspire for them to be words of description, i aspire for this to be the truth: that i am indeed humble, equal, in no need for clothes that hide who i am, meeting the winds of what-is as they come.

i don’t know if i’ll ever get there – but i can reach for it. as i am reaching, i leave a trace, i leave crumbs like hansel and gretel, and together, these crumbs are a poem.

or: the poem is part of the path that leads to

ha’aha’a: humility

footnote: ha’aha’a is hawaiian for humility. when the spirit of aloha is explained, ha’aha’a has a place: A – akahi (tenderness); L – lokahi (unity, harmony, oneness); O – olu’olu (kindness, being pleasant and agreeable); H – ha’aha’a (humility); A – ahonui (patience and perseverance)

back to jim.

now, an ’emperor’s new clothes’ poem is another thing entirely. it is where you are presented with an arrangement of words on a page and are told, “this is a poem – make of it what you will,” whereupon you are left to your own devices. now, you can look stupid and say, “i don’t get this,” or you can hold you hands up and go, “this is simply wonderful!” to cover your embarrassment. i think too many of us are unwilling to play the role of the wee boy who shouts out, “hey, the emperor’s got no clothes on,” for fear of ridicule. we assume that the poem has a solution.

here’s one i dug up from sometime in 2005, and i have to tell you i don’t really know whether there even is an emperor

it’s all still better when
the crap stops
or the crab stops
running sideways
rouge
baton rouge
roller coaster baton
crab rouge stop
when all the crabs
stop over in baton
rouge when it’s over
it’ll better be over

and jim:

which brings me to the term ‘experimental poetry’ a one-size-fits-all expression which can be used to excuse the author no matter what, if i might quote stephen fry here, “arse dribble” is served up to us in the name of poetry. i have no problem with poets experimenting. i encourage it. i do it myself. i think it is essential. in the best scientific tradition that is how we learn; we have a crack at it and see what happens.

so here’s an example of arse dribble. i had completely forgotten about it. i rather like it:

i have a candle on my left of hand.
i have a candle on my left of amber-on-black that
beshadows itself from light –
candle not reach it for angle will not allow.

candlefire tip so light and bright and white on also-white
waxcandle. transluces many things. though
a-many questions beg: reaches it me, my inner
brainlight?

my inner brainlight as it lies these latter days
under a clog cloud of furry, heavy fog
drogged by itselves and other shrumpy co-oms and panions.

no-ony-bod will ever stand under the tree of this beminion.
no tressy croog will sot beneath or over shullden hexmons.

berwong sut yoot.

i have a candle on my hand that’s left of me.
that screen that sits bestaring me in yellow-black
can see not candle while it angles wrong.

bright fire stares at me, my eyes, my cheeks, my brows and lips
bright candle cuddle fire.
in midnight. while that brain of mine unsure is whether
it long have wait until it drinketh light.

(okay, i have to decode one thing for those of you who haven’t used computers before the internet: first monitor screens came only in green-on-black; the next great evolution was amber-on-black!)

jim: as far as i can tell, there are two kinds of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poetry.

here’s a poem that’s a song

take the braces off your legs
come sister, take the braces off your legs
tear the rags off your skin, sister, tear the rags off your skin
take them off and dance

take the shackles off your hands
come sister, take the shackles off your hands
tear the black glasses off your eyes, sister, tear the black glasses off your eyes
take them off and sing

take the irons off your feet
come sister, take the irons off your feet
tear the noose off from your neck, sister, tear the noose off from your neck
take them off and dance and sing

dance, sister, dance, be the wind
sing, sister, sing, be the moon and sun
let those chains and shackles be the instruments
that celebrate your freedom

dance, sister, dance, sing, dance

let me stand by and see you
dance, sister, dance, sing, dance
let me see you celebrate your freedom

and one final word from jim:

why can’t you just say what you mean?” is another good question. sometimes i do, sometimes however it’s easier to write about one thing when you’re really talking about something else. that’s nothing unique to poetry. i had a girlfriend once who used to let me know she was menstruating by using the colourful euphemism: “the painter’s arrived.” we use picturesque language all the time. we very rarely call a spade a spade.

here i call a spade a spade. or a tomcat a tomcat. it’s all pretty straightforward. or is it?

wet camelia leaves
glitter under the street lamps.
a tomcat runs home.

my virtual bookshelf

i’m still battling this cold, so i’m just playing around. this personalized bookshelf from shelfari is something i found on virtual wordsmith today. i played around and stocked it with a few of my favourite books, trying to choose some that i hadn’t mentioned here much yet.

what a great waste of time!

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shelfari: book reviews on your book blog