Wanted to improve my sonnet before I posted it!

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“Inadequacy”

The sun shines over us as we explore
This warm spring wonderland while holding hands.
Your lips curve into that smile I adore,
Yet I can’t fight this thought that we should end.
Your love and smile today fills me so whole,
But when we pass her, I lose all of it.
Your smile, your hands, and love…well, love costs a toll.
And I do understand, I must admit,
She is kind, witty, and so beautiful.
I on the other hand am quite boring;
Lame looks, lame disposition, and so dull.
But that smile, those hands, that love…enticing.

So I think it is time that those hands fall…
Beauty belongs with beauty, after all.

May in Clinton

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A snarl of branches, winter-grizzled, strain
Toward milky clouds beflecked with yellow sun.
Cracked concrete rich with warmth, and smell of rain,
And purple flowers, sprouting one by one.

They burst from rocky, muddy stream-bed soil
These crocuses and orange daffodils,
While in the earth, squirrels’ keen paws daily toil
And flitting breeze disrupts the humid still.

Three fork-tailed swallows slice across the sky,
White underbellies black against the clouds.
Plump honey-bees float, wind-borne, gently by,
And spiders drape their pines in lacy shrouds.

The ice-cream sun drips down behind the hills,
And crickets rustle as the damp earth chills.

~One Last Post~

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I find it surreal and more than a little sad that my freshman year at Hamilton is coming to a close. For this last post, I wanted to leave a little bit of information on a poet we didn’t cover in case anyone else is interested.

Li-Young Lee is an ethnically Chinese poet whose family was exiled from China and moved to Indonesia, then Hong Kong, then Macau, then Japan, and finally the USA.

I especially appreciate how Lee is influenced by classical Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, whose works were translated by “Hamilton’s own” Ezra Pound.

Here are a few of his poems:

I Loved You Before I Was Born

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

I saw your eyes before I had eyes to see.
And I’ve lived longing
for your ever look ever since.
That longing entered time as this body.
And the longing grew as this body waxed.
And the longing grows as the body wanes.
The longing will outlive this body.

I loved you before I was born.
It doesn’t make sense, I know.

Long before eternity, I caught a glimpse
of your neck and shoulders, your ankles and toes.
And I’ve been lonely for you from that instant.
That loneliness appeared on earth as this body.
And my share of time has been nothing
but your name outrunning my ever saying it clearly.
Your face fleeing my ever
kissing it firmly once on the mouth.

In longing, I am most myself, rapt,
my lamp mortal, my light
hidden and singing.

I give you my blank heart.
Please write on it
what you wish.

Spoken For 

I didn’t know I was blue,

until I heard her sing.

I was never aware so much

had been lost

even before I was born.

There was so much to lose

even before I knew

what it meant to choose.

Born blue,

living blue unconfessed, blue

in concealment, I’ve lived all my life

at the plinth

of greater things than me.

Morning is greater

with its firstborn light and birdsong.

Noon is taller, though a moment’s realm.

Evening is ancient and immense, and

night’s storied house more huge.

But I had no idea.

And would have died without a clue,

except she began to sing. And I understood

my soul is a bride enthralled by an unmet groom,

or else the groom wholly spoken for, blue

in ardor, happy in eternal waiting.

I heard her sing and knew

I would never hear the true

name of each thing

until I realized the abysmal

ground of all things. Her singing

touched that ground in me.

Now, dying of my life, everything is made new.

Now, my life is not my life. I have no life

apart from all of life.

And my death is not my death,

but a pillow beneath my head, a rock

propping the window open

to admit the jasmine.

I heard her sing,

and I’m no longer afraid.

Now that I know what she knows, I hope

never to forget

how giant the gone

and immaculate the going.

How much I’ve already lost.

How much I go on losing.

How much I’ve lived

all one blue. O, how much

I go on living.

 

Persimmons 

In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmon and precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
so sweet,
all of it, to the heart.
Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
face-up, face-down.
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu chiu. Dew: I’ve forgotten.
Naked:   I’ve forgotten.
Ni, wo:   you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.
Other words
that got me into trouble were
fight and frightwren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
Fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds out of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.
Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn’t ripe or sweet, I didn’t eat
but watched the other faces.
My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.
Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.
Finally understanding
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.
This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents’ cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired, wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He’s so happy that I’ve come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.
Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.
He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?
This is persimmons, Father.
Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight. 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/li-young-lee

The Observer in “Skunk Hour”

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Much of what comprises “Skunk Hour” are observations made by Lowell. Very little of his descriptions are of himself, and they are made towards the end of the piece.

He describes the hermit who buys all of the properties overlooking the lake, the millionaire who’s passed away, and the “fairy decorator” (19-20). He makes judgments about their lives: “she’s in their dotage” (6), “Thirsting for / the hierarchic privacy / of Queen Victoria’s century” (7-9), “there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry” (23-24). As the reader, we don’t know if he knows these people well enough. These sort of surface-level descriptions, though, seem to show he knows these people only from a distance.

This makes me wonder why people write of those who they can only observe, instead of people they are more deeply connected to. You’re able to obtain more impactful material from people you know better. Yet, for writer’s there’s an attraction to write from the outside, as an observer.

The visual descriptions of a person’s appearance jump out to readers; it’s easy to create a picture and, sometimes, this picture helps illicit more meaning. For people one is more familiar with, the person’s personality comes to mind and overshadows their appearance. It’s akin to the first impression you get when you meet someone; over time, you often forget this and think only of their personality.

Great find Honor, a ballet in which people turn

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I keep going back to Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” particularly the lines “how everything turns away / quite leisurely from the disaster” (14-5).

When I read the poem before Monday’s class, those lines immediately made me think of Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring. The reasons for this connection aren’t super interesting or profound. There was something about that phrase “everything turns away” that made me think of dancing, some sort of choreography that involves a group of dancers turning away from some central image or force. This is a given in a ton of choreography, particularly in ballet and particularly in The Rite of Spring. In the ballet, it’s that special time of year for this rural Russian community to force one of their virgins to dance herself to death as a sacrifice. She does this for the survival and prosperity of the tribe in the coming year.

Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography features two marked concentric circles on center stage. Throughout the piece, different groups of dancers dance around and on those circles, mimicking (sort of) traditional Russian circle dance. In Part II, “The Sacrifice,” the Chosen One (the girl being sacrificed) dances to death within the center circle, first surrounded by the other virgins of the tribe, then by an old woman, and then by the old wise men who supervise her death-dance.

I didn’t think too much about the connection between the poem and the ballet because I thought Auden’s poem is all about ignorance and the ever-present human suffering and The Rite of Spring depicts an entire tribe’s obsession with the suffering and death of this one virgin. No one is ignorant of the Chosen One’s pain in that ballet, so I thought I’d made an irrelevant connection, but then we had class on Monday.

The seemingly obvious message of “Musée des Beaux Arts” is that we don’t notice suffering unless it’s our own. People suffer everywhere and all the time, but people eat, skate and sail everywhere and all the time too. However, that simple message is complicated by Auden’s limited choice of examples. As Onno mentioned on Monday, why would the poem begin with a broad generalization about the Old Masters but proceed to discuss Brueghel exclusively? To do so undermines the poem’s argument about universal ignorance and indifference. That discrepancy is part of the reason why I don’t think that universal ignorance and indifference is actually the poem’s ultimate argument.

Here are three other reasons:
1. The children who didn’t “specially want” the miraculous birth to happen, but (according to Christian beliefs) benefitted from it (Jesus/salvation) anyway. “They never forgot / That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course” (9-10).
2. The torturer’s horse’s “innocent behind,” which isn’t all that innocent since it was that behind that brought the torturer to town and that is fed and cared for by the torturer.
3. I can’t get The Rite of Spring out of my head.

All of these lines/issues/things indicate that the poem’s actual argument isn’t exactly “people ignore suffering even though it happens all around them.” The real argument is that humans don’t ignore the suffering of others. We support suffering, we egg it on, we profit from it, and we do this by turning away from it.

This is why lines 14 and 15 are so important. If everything is turning away from the same event (say, from Icarus drowning) then that event is the center of everything. In Auden’s poem, when everything turns away from suffering, that means everything revolves around suffering.

Here’s where The Right of Spring comes in. The original reason why I thought it didn’t apply to the poem was because the tribe is so invested in and aware of the Chosen One’s suffering, and my initial interpretation of “Musée des Beaux Arts” made such an investment or awareness antithetical to the poem’s message––I’ve since realized it’s not. The children and the horse are analogous to the virgins and wise men in The Rite of Spring. Every one of them turns away from suffering (whether it’s choreographed or not). In doing so, they make that suffering the center of their world, and ultimately they all benefit from it.

I’m including a link to the Joffrey’s 1987 staging of The Rite of Spring. I saw a remount of this production several years ago, and it’s the one I thought of while reading “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I’m just attaching the last half of the last part, in which the Chosen One dies, because I think this is most representative of the circle thing I’m talking about, but the whole Joffrey performance is online if you’re interested.

we die soon

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During the class discussion today we talked about the final sentence of Gwendolyn Brook’s “We Real Cool.” Knowing Brook’s background and reading the poem within the context of her living in a predominantly African American city, I agree with people who said that “we die soon” suggests that the boys know they are going to die soon because it’s more dangerous to be living as an African American during the time. I believe someone in class said they might have read this line this way due to their modernist perspective. But, I’m interested in seeing how much of an effect the context has on people’s opinions. If you read the poem and don’t know that Brooks was black or lived in a city of predominantly African Americans, would you think the final line has the same meaning? Like, if you didn’t think at all about race or the poet’s background, would this final line take on the same meaning? I read this poem when I was younger so I had a general gist of the context before rereading it for this class, but I wonder if someone reading it for the first time with no outside knowledge of the situation would just assume that the boys are saying “we die soon” because of the inevitability of death that all humans face?

For me personally, I don’t think I would have read them the same way had I not known that Brooks was an African American female poet. Aside from the possible jazz-like rhythm, I don’t think there are other super obvious cultural hints in the poem so I don’t think I would have been able to get the same meaning out of the final sentence.

Elizabeth Bishop, “Sestina”

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Sestina, by Elizabeth Bishop, places the reader inside what first appears as a cozy domestic scene of a family’s kitchen but soon, a somber mood is set forth.  As a grandmother is making tea for a child, one initially may feel a sense of warmth and security. However, as Bishop references “her teacup full of dark brown tears,” there is a realization of an underlying sorrow and state of despair.  We begin to wonder what has happen to cause this sorrow and for how long has this family endured such sadness? The grandmother wants to fix the situation and make the pain go away: “She shivers and says she thinks the house feels chilly, and put more wood in the stove.” The grandmother tries to carry on with the daily domestic duties of making tea, putting more wood in the stove, but the sorrow will not go away.

Sestina is a reflection of the poet’s tragic life experiences.  Elizabeth Bishop lost her father to death and her mother to a nervous breakdown.  While still a baby, Bishop’s father died. This caused great despair for her mother, leading to her nervous breakdown when Elizabeth was 16 years old.  Without parents to care for her, Elizabeth needed to live with relatives.

Sestina includes a repetitive sequence, which engages the reader.  Each stanza adds to the themes. Themes in Sestina relate to the sorrow caused when living in a dysfunctional family.  In the poem, a longing to escape reality is present. We see the image of a cold, rainy autumn day where a grandmother and child have shelter in their kitchen, warming themselves with tea and a stove.  However, the chill in the air is more than a physical chill. There is an emotional coldness and void that cannot be warmed by a stove or hot cup of tea as much as the grandmother and child wish it could.  The grandmother becomes even sadder when seeing the child’s fantasizing, reading the almanac and drawing pictures of a happier home where flowers are blooming.

Bishop’s Sestina is in fact a poem of 7 stanzas, 6 of which are six lines long,  and the 7th stanza is three lines long.  There is a repetition of certain words and phrases in each stanza:   “grandmother,” “stove,” “child,” “house,” “almanac” and “tears.” However, these words are presented in a different order throughout each stanza.  “The cyclical nature of the grandmother and grandchild existence” can be noted as the grandmother can not escape her sorrow and the child keeps drawing pictures.  The grandmother avoids looking at the child’s pictures but the child continues to retreat into her imaginative world of drawing houses and thinking about the man with buttons. Did Bishop draw these same pictures?  

“Analyzing Elizabeth Bishop’s Deep ‘Sestina.’” The Johns Hopkins News-Letter, www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2016/12/analyzing-elizabeth-bishops-deep-sestina/.

Categorized by what we eat

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Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Bean Eaters” serves as a unique social commentary built almost entirely around describing setting. Right from the first line, “They eat beans mostly”, the reader becomes aware of the couple’s socioeconomic status, as beans are one of the most inexpensive food items, and given the choice, people would not likely choose to only eat beans every meal if they could afford to. This food choice also indicates that the couple might not be educated, and therefore might not be aware that beans aren’t the most nutritious food to be eating every meal. All of the following stanza, “Dinner is a casual affair./Plain chinaware on a plain and creaking wood,/Tin flatware”, also gives off the image of this couple living in a tiny space, never making a big deal out of dinner. “And putting things away”, and “in their rented back room that/is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths, tobacco/crumbs, vases and fringes” only further emphasizes this small, crowded room, full of messy little knick-knacks that they don’t have the space for

One aspect of the poem that threw me off was the line “this old yellow pair”. Yellow could be considered a racial slur, typically towards Asians, but maybe it implies something about malnutrition-yellow here means pale, because they are not getting enough protein from eating beans every meal? In terms of symbolism the yellow color can also represent cowardice. Is this couple cowardly because they are eating beans in their little living space, crowded with all their belongings, rather than going out into the world and making a difference? Or does the yellow signify happiness and optimism, characterizing the couple as not needing much besides each other to be happy? I think it might be considered the latter, but this could easily be up for interpretation, as its meaning would pretty significantly impact the poem and the personalities of our main characters, who we don’t know much about, only that they are characterized as bean eaters.

Real Uneducated

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Supposedly, the speaker of the poem “We Real Cool” is one of the pool players at the “Golden Shovel,” making an attempt at poetry about how cool they are for dropping out of school. This poem strikes me as somewhat comical because of the speaker’s obvious lack of education, which is essentially what he/she claims makes them cool. Those with preliminary knowledge of English grammar would likely agree that “We Real Cool” just screams “We Real Uneducated”, which is far from praiseworthy.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” consists of four stanzas of no more than 7 one-syllable words each. At first I questioned for a long time why each line ended with a capital “We” instead of the rhyming words that come right before. I wondered why only some of the phrases demonstrated alliteration. The brevity and simplicity of each 3-word sentence (subject – verb- direct object) puzzled me until I realized Brooks was trying to make a point about the importance of education by making fools out of the 7 pool players. (I’m not sure however, whether or not the capitalizations of each line also adds to this effect of revealing the speaker’s ignorance or if that was just the way the poem was published.)
I think the end of the poem is particularly interesting because when the speaker says “we die soon,” I interpreted that to mean like #yolo, as that would somehow fit what I imagined the speaker’s mindset to be. It seemed like a pretty dark way to end a poem about enjoying life and not having a care in the world though – which makes me wonder: did the speaker have some slight regret or unease about his and his friends’ decision? Those who appreciate education for what it’s worth might use the same logic to argue that educating oneself is important to make the most out of the short life we have.

The Cape

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When I first read Ann Sexton’s “The Truth the Dead Know,” I was struck by the first line of the second stanza, in which she refers to “the Cape.” Being from Massachusetts, I automatically assume “the Cape” to be indicative of Cape Cod, but referring to Cape Cod as “the Cape” in a poem as high-art and formalized as this, for a number of reasons, seemed highly unlikely to me. Upon a bit of further research, though, I was surprised to learn that Sexton was, in fact, a Massachusetts resident for most of her life, and “the Cape” in the poem is generally agreed upon, by critics, to be referring to Cape Cod.

There’s a certain casualness, and borderline colloquialism, in the usage of the term “the Cape” that’s a bit jarring in a poem like this, which utilizes artsy, sophisticated structure and imagery throughout. To some degree, I think that’s indicative of the extent of Sexton’s poetic prowess; upon a closer examination, none of the vocabulary she uses in the poem is particularly high-art, yet she nonetheless manages to synthesize what she’s got to work with into a melodic, sonically rich and dramatic form.

More acutely, though, there’s a kind of upper-class panache that comes with Cape Cod itself, and, most certainly, referring to it as “the Cape,” that isn’t exactly at odds with, but certainly adds a certain dimension to, the poem as a whole. “The Cape,” as an semi-metaphorical entity, has a melodramatic, faintly Lana Del Rey-esque (or, perhaps, Woolfe-esque) flair that makes the speaker in the poem feel like a certain kind of person, someone who needs never want for anything material but carries a fundamental spiritual emptiness that can never truly be satisfied.