January 24, 2010

And My Son a Handle

As a senior in college, I was flying home from Maine to Baltimore what felt like every other week. My father was dying. I often spent my visits at his bedside, sometimes at home, sometimes at the hospital. I read him the poems I was studying, some of them naming things I would never have been able, otherwise, to name.

In Gary Snyder's "Axe Handles," a father goes from teaching his son to throw a hatchet to crafting a new axe handle so that his son has an axe of his own:

"We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
'When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.'"

Yesterday, our dear friend lost her father. Her son is four months old. I know some of the contours of grief stretching out ahead of her, and I know that for her they will have textures all their own. I would like to say a long prayer for her that will last as long as her grief will last. I don't know a prayer like that.

As Gary Snyder's poem continues, he remembers that his teacher, "Shih-hsiang Chen," "translated that and taught" him that "in Lu Ji's Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. 'Essay on Literature'" it says in the preface that:

"'In making the handle Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.'"

At the close of the poem, the speaker reflects:

"And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on."

She posted a picture of her father with her son. I think there should be a name for the feeling that comes when you look in wonder at your child and simultaneously feel the absence of a lost parent. It is sweet, full, and empty. Every edge of it is touched on both sides by a kind of love, and on one side by absence, and on the other side by hope.

January 19, 2010

We Only Write What We Know

My students from first semester are typing away at their exams right now, and I am thinking ahead to the poetry course that I start teaching next week. In a recent interview from The Writer's Chronicle, Colum McCann says that he tells his students, "Don't write about what you know. Write toward what you want to know." He goes on to say, "That's the liberating thing. I try to find out what I want to know. And then I see what comes of it. One has to, in the end, discover that we only write what we know. That's the essence of honesty. But in making that peculiar shotgun leap toward what we supposedly don't know, we transform our vision of what we are."

This feels like a way to marry Frost's idea of "No suprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader," to the old adage, "write what you know." McCann's point feels like useful advice for a new writer, and it hits me like a total revelation. Elizabeth Bishop used to tell her students that they didn't need to worry about having "something to say." If they worked at the craft of making a poem, what they needed to say would inevitably surface.

These are perfect reminders for me to carry into the work of teaching poetry next week...

January 1, 2010

Hold It Up to the Light

I'll be teaching poetry in a few weeks. I can't wait. One of the books I'm going to try this year is Poetry 180, an anthology that Billy Collins put together when he was poet laureate. His vision was that poems should be read in schools every morning over the loudspeaker. 180 days of school, 180 poems. I once heard him talk about the project and he referred to choosing poems that could be caught on one bounce. Read it aloud, experience it in real time, and take something with you.

The first poem is -- appropriately -- "Introduction to Poetry," by Collins himself. He says that he wants his students to "take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide." Instead, "all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it."

I'm with Collins. There's certainly a purpose for explicating a poem, unfolding it to see precisely how it is made. But there's a pleasure in words and images that is sometimes best accessed if you can just "waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author's name on the shore."