Monday, June 21, 2010

Poem as Prayer

from Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo, 2004) by Ilya Kaminsky:

Author's Prayer

If I speak for the dead, I must leave
this animal of my body,

I must write the same poem over and over,
for an empty page is the white flag of surrender.

If I speak for them, I must walk on the edge
of myself, I must live as a blind man

who runs through rooms without
touching furniture.

Yes, I live. I can cross the streets asking "What year is it?"
I can dance in my sleep and laugh

in front of the mirror.
Even sleep is a prayer, Lord,

I will praise your madness, and
in a language not mine, speak

of music that wakes us, music
in which we move. For whatever I say

is a kind of petition, and the darkest
days must I praise.

Another way in which the poet engages the reader is through the act of "prayer," usually on the outset of a book. Kaminsky's prayer is a steadfast and painful one, as a survivor who must now "speak" on behalf of those that cannot. The poet's address is one to a higher sort of being, or a statement of purpose. Not only can it be construed as the guiding light of the text (the rest of the book), but it may also set the tone.

Here is another sort of prayer, this time from Dan Beachy-Quick, from his book Spell (Ahsahta, 2004). This is from the prologue of the book, and is untitled:


Here are the lines my mind fathomed.
They are tar-dark. I wrote them on pages
Breathless and blank, as beneath water
Men's minds are blank but for needing
A next breath. Sir, turn
This page and the thick door opens
By growing thinner, ever thinner,
Until the last page turns and is turned
Into air. Don't knock. The ocean knocks
Ceaseless on my little craft, and I am
Asking you, Will my craft hold? I send me
To you on a paper-thin hull. Don't knock.
I'm in there. I breathe on one lunch
for both lungs' air; my hand is wet
With knocking my knuckle to wave, and
Though the wave opens, I am never
Let in. I promised you the deep wave
's inner chamber. I'm sorry.
Do you see, Sir--
How the creast of a book builds at the binding
And finally spills over on to no shore?
Don't knock. I will ask the water to open for you
If you'll stop. Don't knock, don't knock, Sir--
Oh, it is not you. My wife's at my study door
And knows the wood won't open from wanting
Wood to. I must seal this craft's las plank
In place, and voyage it over ocean to you.
"Come in." She's knocking. "Come in."
Her hand's on my wooden shore, door--
I go. Send word, send word. If you don't, I'll know.

This is the beginning of a very impressive book of poems that adapts the megalomaniac obsessions of Moby Dick. Unlike the Kaminsky prayer, which has the air of optimism in the face of the cynic (". . . whatever I say // is a kind of petition, and the darkest / days must I praise"), Beachy-Quick's speaker is in a dark obsessive place, deep within the human psyche so that he feels entirely at sea or under sea. The door to his study is his "wooden shore," whereupon his study must be the sea. The "tar-dark" lines "my mind fathomed" are what we, as readers, shall find in this book, but the initial poem is a supplication (to his editor and us) of the poet's self-consciousness in the face of what he's written. Ultimately, the speaker-poet's a desperate man: "I send me / To you on a paper-thin hull."

Just like the opening lines of a novel or the prologue of a non-fiction piece, the first poem in a poetry collection is usually meant as a signal to what the collection will be. Very conscientious poets -- such as Kaminksy and Beachy-Quick -- are sure to do this, usually in the form of prayer or supplication.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Here is a poem by Theodore Roethke, one of his most anthologized poems:

"My Papa's Waltz"

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I clung on like death:
Such waltzing is not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hands that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

"My Papa's Waltz" is an easy poem for any reader to understand, and its double meaning - that of a drunken waltz with the speaker's father, and that of the father beating the child - is easily seen. Violent language pervades: "hung on like death," "unfrown itself," "battered," "scraped," "beat." Yet inside it is a sentimental tendency allowed through the use of the past tense. This is not occurring at present, but in some sort of past, and the speaker is no doubt grown by now. The emotions are therefore convoluted: there is a love of the father beating time on the speaker's head "with a palm caked hard by dirt," which empathizes with the father, a sense of a harder life for the father; "then waltzed me off to bed" is lovely in its own love, an endearment, even while "clinging to your shirt" contains the violence of child abuse.

I have heard argument that Roethke was not careful enough with the language, and the double meaning should not be there: it is either one or the other, not both. I see no reason to believe this. Poetry must, in all cases, pay close attention to a word's connotation. A word can give a feeling that the poet must be careful toward, and a group of words creates an image that must be viewed from all sides. Interpretation is usually what people say when they, as readers, attend to a poem. Sometimes an interpretation can be made the poet was in no way expecting, and plenty of interviews confirm this (there are others, such as interviews with Bob Dylan, in which Dylan is quite perplexed at some of the interpretations his interviewer comes up with). But what should be understood, and what I try to continually express in these posts, is that the poet is also being careful to interpret and examine, and usually wants to be in control of the connotations. A reader, therefore, should allow themselves the opportunity to feel the connotations - how they react emotionally to the poem. This again, is an argument for breaking down the wall between poet and reader: inviting the reader to engage in the poem from the level of connotations. Once the reader feels free and courageous enough to react to their emotions, the reader is engaging at the level of the poet. If the poet is strong, the emotions will follow course.

Here is another poem in which the poet is careful to construe connotations on an emotional level, but in a more playful manner:

"I Knew I'd Sing" -- Heather McHugh

A few sashay, a few finangle,
Some make whoopee, some
make good. But most make
diddly-squat. I tell you this

is what I love about
America - the words it puts
in my mouth, the mouth where once
my mother rubbed

a word away with soap. The word
was cunt. She stuck that bar
of family-size in there
until there was no hole to speak of,

so she hoped. But still
I'm full of it -- the cunt,
the prick, short u, short i,
the words that stood

for her and him. I loved the thing
they must have done, the love they must
have made, to make
an example of me. After my lunch of Ivory I said

vagina for a day or two, but knew
from that day forth which word
struck home like sex itself. I knew
when I was big I'd sing

a song in praise of cunt -- I'd want
to keep my word, the one with teeth in it.
Forevermore (and even after I was raised) I swore

nothing -- but nothing -- would be beneath me.

The emotion that is driven home is comedy, a chance for us to laugh at the play of language and the situation. This is a very easy example of how connotation is chosen, how images are allowed for the sake of pun. This is at play in many poems, and is always a good starting point: allowing your own emotions to fall in or out of line with the poem's.

Friday, May 21, 2010

55 Versus 95

In his essay "Statements of Faith," Richard Hugo muses on the qualities of self-reflection inherent within a poet, and how a poet harnesses that self reflection:

"Poets who fail (and by fail I mean fail themselves and never write a poem as good as they know they are capable of) are often poets who fail to accept feelings of personal worthlessness. They lack the self-criticism necessary to perfect the poem. They resist the role of a wrong thing in a right world and proclaim themselves the right thing in a wrong world . . ." (p. 70, my emphasis)

I find it continually useful to look to the poem and the poet through this eye of self-criticism. Some of the best American poetry in the 20th century comes out of this idea of wrong in a right world (Lowell: "my mind's not right" [Skunk Hour], Eliot: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / scuttling the floors of silent seas." [The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock]), but for this post I wanted to look specifically at John Berryman.

Briefly, Berryman published some minor poetry while he saw most of his peers (Bishop, Plath, Lowell, Schwartz) recognized and honored. An ambitious poet, he suffered from personal turmoil and the desire to be recognized by the literary community. He became a intense alcoholic. For eleven years he worked on a sequence of poems, 77 Dream Songs, which, when published, was awarded the Pulitzer in 1965. The poems are from the point of view of Henry, a character loosely (or not so loosely) based on Berryman himself; and another voice that sometimes breaks into Henry's thoughts in a black vernacular, referring to Henry as Mr. Bones, or Sir Bones. In total, Berryman, after the first 77, continued writing the Dream Song seequence, producing 385 Dream Songs in all.

The first 77 songs are meditations on self-loathing. The first line to the first poem is "Huffy Henry hid the day." Continually Henry finds himself in situations where he can only conclude that he is wrong in a right world, that "there ought to be a law against Henry." However, by the beginning of the other Dream Songs, we see a shift in Henry's perspective, a sense that Henry has more authority with his readers, and less personal hatred. I wonder how this shifts the poems, how do the quality of the poems morph?

Here are two dream songs, the 55th and the 95th - one in the first 77, and the other after. Note the similarities in personalities and action:


Peter's not friendly. He gives me sideways looks.
The architecture is far from reassuring.
I feel uneasy.
A pity, -the interview began so well:
I mentioned fiendish things, he waved them away
and sloshed out a martini

strangely needed. We spoke of indifferent matters--
God's health, the vague hell of the Congo,
John's energy,
anti-matter matter. I felt fine.
Then a change came backward. A chill fell.
Talk slackened,

died, and he began to give me sideways looks.
'Christ,' I thought, 'what now?' and would have askt for another
but didn't dare.
I feel my application failing. It's growing dark,
some other sound is overcoming. His last words are:
'We betrayed me.'


The surly cop lookt out at me in sleep
insect-like. Guess, who was the insect.
I'd asked him in my robe
& hospital gown in the elevator politely
why someone saw so many police around,
and without speaking he looked.

A meathead, and of course he was armed, to creep
across my nervous system some time ago wrecked.
I saw the point of Loeb
at last, to give oneself over to crime wholly,
baffle, torment, roar laughter, or without sound
attend while he is cooked

until with trembling hands hoist I my true
& legal ax, to get at the brains. I never liked brains--
it's the texture & the thought--
but I will like them now, spooning at you,
my guardian, slowly, until at length the rains
lose heart and the sun flames out.

In "55," we have Henry appealing to a person of authority, the one that can slosh out martinis. There is an "application" which fails. In 95 the authority figure is certainly more vague, but also its actions are to look at Henry (similar to Peter's action of the "sideways look"). The sense of worthlessness that Henry feels in 55 comes in gulps of straightforward language, a lack of ability to seek out metaphor or symbol because of the overwhelming sense of worthlessness. There is something concrete in Henry's summing up of the interview.

In 95, Henry is not in the least bit curious to explore his own feelings of self-worth. He sees himself as an "insect" in the eyes of the cop, however this is only the insult Henry believes the cop is capable of. Henry's duty to this authority figure denies any self-reflection, because it is a not a particular - like Peter - but a figure of a whole, a bureaucratic symbol. Easier to attack. The language here, instead of being subdued like in 55, is expansive, climaxing at the best of the poetry here: "until with trembling hands hoist I my true / & legal ax," the point of the execution of the cop, and Henry imagines spooning out the cop's brains. What? Are we, as readers, supposed to follow this fancy with Henry? Why is Henry in a hospital gown in the first place? What happened to his "nervous system some time ago wrecked?"

Not only is Henry a manic self-loather, he takes aim at people he can claim superiority to. The cop has nothing on Peter - Peter is allowed the enigmatic final words of Dream Song 55, whereas the cop is not allowed a voice, even as Henry dances around him delighting in the idea of spooning out his brains. The poems are much different stylistically, but that difference seems to draw itself out of the situation: in 55 the line is paralyzed into the situation and Henry doesn't have the confidence to move into an imaginative space, while 95 prances in degradation and psychotic language. The key to the difference comes out of Henry's attitude toward himself: when is the time to be wrong/right in a right/wrong world?

The level of language, in all of poetry, must come from the consciousness of the poet. Sure, a poet can manipulate feeling and sensibility in the reader, but inherent in all poetry is an attempt to make an ally of the reader. Can we align ourselves with the Henry of 95? Does Berryman understand our failing to do so? Does he expect it? Berryman, by the time he had won the Pulitzer, could act as courier from a position of poetic authority to us the reader. What was sacrificed in that shift? Would we ever have the same Henry who hid the day? Answer this question yourself: read the Dream Songs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Invitation Within the Poem

Contrary to what is ingrained in our schooling, the poet is just a normal person. Somehow in our education, we come to see the poet as the "Poet," something almost mystical, which means the poet's words take on a (superfluous) double meaning - there is what is written, and there is what the reader thinks is being hidden from the reader, the real meaning that is a puzzle, a riddle. But don't be so fooled.

Instead, the poet - lower case "p," please - is usually inviting the reader to walk alongside her, to see through the word-images that she writes and be a companion. In almost any poem there is an invitation. Some poets are more complicated than others, and expect more from their companions. But they are not difficult once the reader reads the poet, and by that I do not mean reads into but simply falls into line with the poem's melody, its thinking, and its rhythm, just as you might with any new acquaintance.

Here are two poems that contrast in levels of difficulty, but both, in some way, invite:

A.R. Ammons

It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies
or going ashore
to rest, regard the leaves

or talk with birds and
shore weeds: hire a full grown man not
late in years to oar you
and choose a canoe-like thin ship:
(a dumb man is better and no

costlier; he will attract
the reflections and silences under leaves:)
travel light: a single book, some twine:
the river is muscled at rapids with trout
and a birch limb

will make a suitable spit: if you
leave in the forenoon, you will arrive
with plenty of light
the afternoon of the third day: I will
come down to the landing

(tell your man to look for it,
the dumb have clear sight and are free of
visions) to greet you with some made
wine and a special verse:
or you can come by shore:

choose the right: there the rocks
cascade less frequently, the grade more gradual:
treat yourself gently: the ascent thins both
mind and blood and you must
keep still a dense reserve

of silence we can poise against
conversation: there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among
the insects: come.

This poem has no sense of urgency, no secret underpinning. The best guide to the place where the poet is, is a dumb man "the dumb have clear sight and are free of / visions" and once you have found the poet he will "greet you with some made / wine and a special verse . . . you must / keep still a dense reserve // of silence we can poise against / conversation . . ." poetry is always inflected with silence - with pausing through the middle of language. It is important to remain free of visions.

Here is a more complicated poem, but lovely, and also invites:

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
John Ashbery

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the yellows the green of the maple tree. . . .

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the sun
Long than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn't.

The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.

Similarly, there is no secret meaning in this poem, it is all there on the surface. The title might be misleading, if it were "One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat" a reader might expect the image of that to pervade the poem, but the title is a simile, a comparing (in the abstract), so it is "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat." Everything that is to be determined about what this poem is about is on the surface, in the words.

"A look of glass stops you / And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived? / Did they notice me, this time, as I am / Or is it postponed again?" Those lines may very well be the speaker's own anxiety of his poetry, of being understood - or postponed from that understanding. He offers this to the reader.

The poem itself is engaged in the act of writing: "I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free" is the attempt to write. Then there is the invitation for you, the reader: "You have slept in the sun / Longer than the sphinx and are none the wiser for it. / Come in."

And then, as Ashbery always does, he whirls away from that invitation - alighting on the idea before whirling away from it. Ammons wants to sip wine with the reader, Ashbery wants to waltz. What is lovely about this is that it is your right, as a reader, to decide which poet you will accept the invitation from. And nothing about that is restricting.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Srikanth Reddy and the "It" in Po-it-try.

Yes, that's the title.

Here's a poem I read this morning and thought I could write about. It is from Srikanth Reddy's first book, Facts for Visitors.

"Evening with Stars"

It was light. Whoever it was
who left it under the gumtree last night
forgot to close the gate. This morning when I stepped
out on the breezeway I had to shoo off a she-pig
& three rag-pickers before I could tell
what it was they were carting away
through the leaves. I had the houseboy bear it
into the sunroom. After attending to my & my employer's
business, I returned sometime after midnight
to examine it. A pair of monkeys
were hoisting it over the threshold
toward a courtyard of fireflies. When I shook my fist
they dropped it & I settled down at last.
It was gilt. It was evening with stars.
Where a latch should have been, a latch
was painted on. Over the lid, a procession.
Chariot. Splintered tree. Chariot. Chariot.
In the lamplight the hollows
of the footsoldiers' eyes were guttering.
I'd say they looked happy.
Tired & happy. Their soil-flecked boots
sank down to the buckle in weeds
& lacquered nettles, six men to a burden.
It was light. I could see
in the middle distance a bone priest
picking his way through crop rows
toward the wreckage of an iron temple.
Scarlet clouds moving out. Jasper clouds moving in.
Here, on a cistern, a woman
keeps nursing her infant.
She is unwell.
The workmanship is astonishing.
You can pick out ever lesion on her breast.

Mostly, I am alone.

Twice in the poem the clause "it was light," is written. When we set down to read the poem, we imagine that "it was light" refers to the day - just becoming light, or near dawn. However, the second sentence throws us off. There is a neutral subject and object in the second sentence "whoever it was / who left it under the gumtree . . ." The vagueness of these objects is not without import in the poem itself. But more on that below.

By the third line we have had to adjust to a world that is perpetually without specifics. Was the "it" in "it was light" refer to the the "it" - the object in the second line? Does it really matter? Not so much. What is this object that seems to be making a fuss, not just for the speaker, but for the monkeys and rag-pickers and a pig? When the speaker finally sets down to study it, we learn "it was gilt. It was evening with stars," a beautiful line, one that could be an adjectival phrase or be the power of the object itself. While maintaining the neutral second we are torn from a reality within the poem: we may assume "it" is a box, but "it" could be anything and therefore "it" takes on the reality of the universe ("evening with stars").

Note how we have had until the speaker sits down with the poem no real focused understanding of the situation. The speaker is somebody's employee, but what he does, we're not sure. The monkeys are absurd and the image of them carrying the object out is startling only in its absurdity. Then, however, we have a scene melt before us, giving way to a scene painted on the whole of the box. It's beauty is what is painted on, not what is inside (the "it was light" may also refer to the box being empty - after all, there are no latches, only painted on latches).

What is even more startling, is that the scene painted on the box moves. The images are given movement through the participle phrases (the soldiers eyes' "guttering," the priest "picking his way," the woman "nursing") and a sort of moral judgment being made on the part of the speaker that we as readers trust.

This is ekphrasis, the dramatic description of a visual work. Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and the chapter in The Iliad of Achilles' shield are famous for their ekphrasis (the description in Homer is amazing). It is when the piece of art (that is still) is given dramatic life (and even consequence) as it is being described through words. What I enjoy most about "Evening with Stars" is how dull and two dimensional the world is before the speaker enters into the artwork surrounding this box and escapes into it. There is a history at work in the art that the speaker sees for himself and draws consequences about. There is also a history in the speaker's real world, but one he is less willing to see (to callously call most things with the neutral second is to not pay attention to life), and one renewed by this mystical workmanship.

It is easy to find a copy of Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and here is a link to the part of chapter XVIII of the Iliad that refers to the making of Achilles' shield.

Enjoy it! It's beautiful.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Volkman sonnets

I think the first post on poetry should be something from Karen Volkman's Nomina, published by BOA Editions in 2008. The book is a sequence of Italian sonnets, although the appreciation of these sonnets does not come from understanding of what they are about, but rather how they sound, the language Volkman calls forth, often quite startling in its beauty. For the reader, Nomina is about allowing the line, the rhyme and meter, to have its play.

Here is one of my favorite sonnets from the sequence:

[One says none is nascent, noon is due]

One says none is nascent, noon is due
when two's bleak blinded hybrid twins the light.
None says no one numbers less than two,
the one who days, the one who darks all night.

Noon's cold name is cloven, frigid height,
a one-division in the random, fault
split in fusion's faction, no one's bright
eyeless acme arching - cohesive vault.

That one were none's skulled infant, second sight
of two's twained woes, and tangled toxic root,
near to nothing, nameless, sequent blight,

as two's black use slits mind a riven fruit.
These sumless parents, two and null, make one
Queen of Quotient, who adds her x to none.

Almost like the riddle of the sphinx. I have had multiple theories of what the subject is - which might have something to do with the clock between the hours of 10 and 2, but also just a working and a metaphysics of the mathematics between 0, 1 and 2 (which, I note, are the only numerals between the hours of 10 and 2). But although I have never been able to truly wrap my mind off the riddle of how "one says none is nascent, noon is due" (except in the anticipation of the 1 and 0 making ten o' clock, the 0 coming into existence for the first and only time in the hours of the day), but even without this I fall for the line break rhythm at "a one-division in the random, fault / split in fusion's faction . . ." the comma, the single accented syllable, and the line break creates a regular pause (like a tick-tock) that is fun to sound out. Likewise are the phrases "eyeless acme arcing" and "Queen of Quotient."

In my previous post, I quoted one of Shakespeare's sonnets and how schoolteachers ask their students to interpret rather than listen. For much of Shakespeare can be put into context with an interpretation. Even if the line "Let not the marriage of two minds admit / impediment" asks the reader to go over it again, it is eventually understood. But could we ask a high school student to take a Volkman sonnet and do the same? It would be best, instead, if we focused on music and let the student return to the line for its sound and not its meaning. After all, a rereading will always help improve a person's understanding of the poem.

I'll end this post with another Volkman sonnet, for fun.

[Now you nerve. Flurred, avid as the raw]

Now you nerve. Flurred, avid as the raw
worm in the bird's throat. It weirds the song.
The day die darkly in the ear all wrong -
all wreck, all riot - the maiden spins the straw,

the forest falters. Night is what she saw,
in opaque increments deafening the tongue.
Sleep bird, sleep body that the silence strung,
myrrh-moon, bright maudlin, weeping as you draw

white tears, pearl iris in a net of eyes.
The spinning maiden quickens her design.
Cold cut spooling, integument of awe,

a baby's breathing as a bird is wise
(the bird-bright heart that flutters like a law)
which eats the excess. The strangle in the shine.

Beginning Thoughts

Well, here I go, I suppose.

Currently I am at work on a number of reviews of some poetry books I think people would like (particularly Joan Houlihan's The Us), so this first post is something of a mystery to me. A public record that everyone is keeping? Is that what a blog is? A public diary? That's interesting. So then a bit about me (rather than those interests, favorite music, and all that).

This is a blog about poetry and literature, specifically American poetry, my chief interest. While there are some depressing figures about the institution of poetry and the amount of people within that institution who incestuously work together - how many MFA blogs like this one are there? - I'm trying to think up ways in which the public can once again be interested in poetry. I suppose what this blog might be are just some thoughts on particular poems I've been reading, with the hope that those laymen who don't read poetry will take an interest.

Because the problem (I see) with the lack of poetry being read (while the amount of poetry being written is rocketing - the number of MFA programs has never been higher), is that 1) we are taught a classical poetry in school - Shakespeare, Tennyson, Frost is usually the farthest we go - and 2) we are asked as students to "interpret," rather than absorb. At least the school I went to was focused on the ideas buried within the line, not the line itself, not the music of the line. So when a student reads:

"and sable curls all silver'd o'er in white"

we are asked to interpret what the "sable curls" are and what the sonnet means for age and time and love, rather than focus on the beauty of the iamb and the ending stress of the "t" in "white." We are asked to write essays rather than look to the beauty of stanzas like this one from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,"

"I have seen the riding seaward on the waves,
Combing the white hairs of the waves blown back,
When the wind blows the water white and black."

The stoicism of this teaching approach, the absolute puritanism of it which is called "appreciation," has damaged people so much that when they read a poem such as Hugo's "White Center," they say "It's nice . . . but I don't understand it." My theory is that the reader has been caught up in a line, in trying to "interpret" the line - because a poet to this reader has always been hiding meaning rather than giving it to the reader with tea and scones in the afternoon - and have read it with only half an ear, too caught up in meaning to hear the piece itself.

My posts will then be looking at poems for their beauty and not necessarily for their meaning, and hopefully those that follow along will be all the more enriched for it. And I, too, hope to gain some interesting information from others and engage in this strange dialogue that is the blog.