Alice B. Fogel is poised to become the next Poet Laureate in New Hampshire, following in the footsteps of Donald Hall, Maxine Kumin, Jane Kenyon, Patricia Fargnoli, and others. Governor Maggie Hassan recently appointed Fogel to the five-year position.
Fogel’s third book, Be That Empty, was a national poetry bestseller in 2008, and in 2009 Strange Terrain (on how to appreciate poetry without “getting” it) came out. Nominated six times for the Pushcart, her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Robert Hass’s Poet’s Choice, and she has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other awards. A new collection, Interval: Poems Based upon Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which won the Nicholas Schaffner Award for a literary work that deals with the influence of music, is forthcoming in 2014.
The mission of Fogel’s book Strange Terrain is twofold: to demystify poetry for intelligent readers who just don’t feel all that comfortable with the stuff, and to show that the mystery that remains is something not only to accept, but to be thankful for. The book’s eight steps painlessly, and often humorously, help readers move through a poem, and be moved by it, without having to know—or pretend to know—what it “means.”
One of Alice’s goals as Poet Laureate is to get copies of Strange Terrain into state schools, libraries and reading groups, where she hopes the book will inspire students and adults to read more poetry.
Today Gwarlingo shares one of the introductory chapters of Strange Terrain—“Poetry is an Art.” Then Alice offers up a few challenging poems from New Hampshire poet Jennifer Militello and her new book, Body Thesaurus.
“My intention here is…to start you on your own path through poetry,” writes Alice.
“What happens when we read so-called ‘difficult’ poetry—poetry that does not readily ‘make sense’—is not unlike what happens to us when we look at abstract art. What is being represented is not the concrete aspects of our lives—landscape, portrait, objects—so much as the internal responses we have to them. This is why I find the experience of abstract art—and of nonlinear poetry—to be so valuable. We as viewers and readers do not receive answers; instead we are implicated as accomplices in the conspiratorial search for meaning.”
Fogel’s perspective is a fascinating and useful entry point to poetry. And the poems by Jennifer Militello are the perfect foil to explore her ideas. I hope you enjoy Alice’s essay as much as I did.
Poetry is an Art
Or: How to Not “Get” Poetry
by Alice B. Fogel
The writer Carl Sandburg said, “Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.” You might see these words and think: Huh? Or maybe you work at it and arrive at: Ah: not only the beautiful but the nutritious (OK, so biscuits aren’t exactly nutritious, but they do provide sustenance in a pinch.); not just the frills but the bare necessities. Good answer. Me? I hear these words and I think: Ah: ih, its, synth, iss. In (other) words, I hear the way the three nouns in the predicate (the part of the sentence supporting the subject, after and including the “is”) echo each other’s sounds, blend and diverge, making them connect to each other in a way that seemingly has nothing to do with what the words “say.”
Either way you look at it, Sandburg’s choices are artful; they force us to compare and make sense of two discrete things (hyacinths and biscuits) in a new context (poetry). Assume the poet makes choices based on intention, that even if you think something (a word, a form of punctuation, a comparison, anything) seems strange, it was chosen for a reason. This attitude will give you faith in the justice of the thing, so that even if you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what that reason might be, you will at least trust the poet, and therefore the poem.
A lot of people, by the way, take this approach at their doctor’s office every day. Even though they have their own very familiar bodies and symptoms, they assume the doctor knows a little more about his craft than the patient. You instinctively trust that the medicine will help you feel better if the doctor says it will; that’s why placebos sometimes work. Well, I’m telling you to trust that the poem will work for you too if you start off believing the poet knows what she is doing, and the side effects generally aren’t so bad either.You know that all art requires a little suspension of disbelief; poetry can require more than a little.
And that’s what poetry is: art. Because almost anyone can write some words about a feeling or an experience, poetry is often mistaken for self-expression. It is true that sometimes poetry does express the self, but if I slam my finger in the car door and yell about it, that’s self-expression, and no one would mistake it for art. I don’t write poems to yell about my feelings; I write poems to make new things out of language. Words are my paint, my clay, my dance steps. I like how they taste, look, sound, move, feel, interconnect, come with history, association, archetype, surprise. I love how they can be molded and altered, rearranged, punned with and onomatopoeiaed. I personally think language has virtually no limits, and that whatever limit I encounter in my work with it is mine. This is not the generally accepted view, though; most people, even writers, agree with the belief that “words [can] fail me.” Maybe they’re just smarter than me.
More on the subject of language as art: In that last sentence, I made a choice. I know that to be grammatical I should have said “smarter than I,” but I didn’t, for two reasons, which I’ll save you the trouble of figuring out and tell you. One is that because hardly anyone uses that correct form in speech, it sounds wrong to our ears or at least too formal for our sensibilities. The other is an example of language usage mimicking its meaning, a great tool of poetry, and in it I was making a point meant to be funny: I am so not as smart as others that I can’t even write a grammatical sentence. I hope you trust that I know better and “get” the joke.
Poetry is not just an outpouring of feelings into words; diaries are good places for that. Nor is it use of words merely to convey information, as newspapers are purported to do. OK, so we all know that poetry’s medium is words—but don’t be fooled by that “fact” into thinking that poetry is made of words. “Pure poetry,” poet Russell Edson says, “is almost a nonlanguage art.” I think of poetry as a right-brain activity, using image, sensory gatherings, spatial impressions, free associations, music, and creative perception, and only casting its line into the language lake on the left to fish out the words to articulate it. If you read it only for the words (information, feelings, experience) it will not awaken and inform your full feelings and experience but will frustrate you in its seemingly mad illogic and leaps.
In trying to explain this conundrum at the heart of poetry’s challenge, others have defined poetry in terms of how its intensified language creates a new entity, an artifact that as a whole forms what amounts to a “word” (Hart Crane) never uttered before. It is, according to various writers: that which cannot be paraphrased, something that “takes off the top of your head” (Emily Dickinson), something “to eat” (Eve Merriam), a gift we “unwrap” line by line, a “puzzle” (May Sarton) that can “not mean but be” (Archibald MacLeish). These are all valid ways to think of poetry, but they still don’t help you decode its “meaning,” do they? In fact they may seem like more “poetic” abstractions that only serve to confirm the doubts you’ve had all along about understanding poetry.
You know what? When I read a poem, I don’t expect to get it. I go through a process much like listening to a lesson on a foreign language. The first time through, I just listen, letting it wash through me, not trying to make sense of it, and it is, well, Greek to me. The second time, I begin to make connections between the unfamiliar Italian (it never really was Greek) and the English I already know—a word or phrase here, a context there. Next I might try pronouncing the sounds myself. Each time, usually, I feel more, know more. I may get a little excited thinking I’m onto something. Little by little, it enters me, until finally I realize I in turn have entered it. Meraviglioso! I’m speaking Italian!
Of course, there are worthy poems that make themselves clear and felt right away. Poetry comes in a vast array of styles, from plain speech and straightforward to complex or “difficult,” including those that seem straightforward but are in fact complex, and why should we avoid one in favor of another if any might be capable of touching us?
With experience, you may not have to read even a more challenging poem five times before you are speaking its language. On the other hand, a poem that can be read once and grokked entirely is not usually a poem I’m particularly interested in either reading or writing. I want to know, how was this apparent simplicity achieved? Or is it merely simplistic and therefore nothing I need ever return to? I like a challenge. I like expecting that if I spend time with a poem, I will feel and see more than I did at first. The process is interactive. I like feeling and seeing.
True: Sometimes a poem never yields any salient results; it’s probably a placebo. But as long as it’s given me a stirring sensation that makes me know I’m alive, piqued my thoughts or feelings, even if it still feels incomplete or incompletely understandable, I’m going to give myself over to it, get involved in discovering more about it, having faith that then it will give more of itself to me. I like poems that don’t ever feel finished for me, or with me— poems that retain their beauty with age, and continue to fill me with, if not mystery, then at least wonder at how much happens there.
Poetry is a complex art form, made up of many elements that can be studied endlessly in any number of excellent books on the subject. My intention here is not to load you up on the epithalamions, macaronics, anacoluthons and dactylic heptameters (though I might throw in a few enjambments and metaphors) but to start you on your own path through poetry. It is my hope that, after thinking over what I’m saying about the rewards of taking on poetry’s challenge, and acknowledging how different that process is from that of most reading, you will forgive yourself for your past unsuccessful encounters with it and give it another try. After all, poetry isn’t here for us to “get” it; it’s here to join us on the journey we call life.
Jennifer Militello’s Body Thesaurus
Jennifer Militello’s poems are neither lyric meditations nor plain narratives. On the one hand, she doesn’t use “big” words no one would understand, and she rarely eschews normal sentences; on the other, her figures of speech and juxtapositions almost refuse to be possible, and she doesn’t explain anything. When I read her poems in this book, I feel a wind from the north blowing a few leaves, flakes of early snow, and scraps of old paper over dry grass and streets by an empty town square on an overcast afternoon. There is no shelter; what there is is an empirical exposure to raw experience.
While each poem appears on the page looking clean and neat, that structure turns out to be a kind of skeleton for the messier, unpredictable emergencies and incorrigibilities of the mind and body. I think of these poems less as dream or nightmare than as the representation of the reality of being alive between wound and wellness, healing and hunger. —Which is where we all are, because, after all, life is illness, in the sense that it is terminal. In this way, these poems are an examination of an impermanent endurance of self, identity, and embodiment, asking the questions “What is a human?” and “What is a human body?” and “How are these two the same and not the same?”
What happens when we read so-called “difficult” poetry—poetry that does not readily “make sense”—is not unlike what happens to us when we look at abstract art. What is being represented is not the concrete aspects of our lives—landscape, portrait, objects—so much as the internal responses we have to them. This is why I find the experience of abstract art—and of nonlinear poetry—to be so valuable. We as viewers and readers do not receive answers; instead we are implicated as accomplices in the conspiratorial search for meaning.
And if we look carefully, we find that Militello does offer “hooks” for entering her poems. For instance, one of her techniques is to create an accumulation of nouns that are both concrete and full of connotation. These may not be things we would ordinarily connect, but watch how they begin to do so in this poem:
Theory of Relativity
The diameter of a bicep is the diameter of my heart.
The pigeons are the river, the river is rain.
The anorexia of branches is not to be compared.
July beading sweat when the screen door slams,
my glance the smaller animal and the stark beyond
of snow. For once, the mind slows.
And when the streets turn back from the night
they pave, I am left on their dark stoop.
Paper cranes become guests of their pale bodies.
There is no sense answering such gray light.
In “Theory of Relativity,” nearly every one of its 24 or so nouns is something we can visualize: bicep, heart, pigeons, river, rain, branches, sweat, animal, snow, etc. Many of them are archetypes, fundamental to life. Their presence together on the page, and in us as we read them, becomes its own reasoning, and at the same time resists cohering into a finite object in the same way as does a self. The body of the poem is a porous thing, imitating our own being. I can walk myself through each line of the poem visualizing and associating and beginning to feel the truth of the images—not only do I want to, but I can’t help trying—but I don’t have to “get” what it “means” because I am already sensing the “relativity” of internal and external body parts, of streets and dark skies, of physicality and light.
Militello also has a powerful sense of rhythm, often including repetition of phrases and sounds, and while these may not transcribe logical mental messages, they do carry visceral ones.
Conjugating the Void
And I was as cold as the cold root goes,
sources of calling and folded of shade,
knotted of weed and a loosening parting,
I was as cold as the sank ghost does.
And I was as real as the blue unraw,
as naked as amen, as awkward as old,
round as a grieving and ancient unfasten,
I was as real as the ill scrawl of love.
And I was as near as the first moon rounded,
as god-like as sinking and making of light,
as mired by law as the ignorant thousand,
as grave as the pages revisioned in time.
And I was as lost as the famine of living,
as cordless and horrid and envied and dead.
All of the my was a reason to take me:
I believed the lies the world made flesh.
Once you have read “Conjugating the Void” in your natural way, regardless of how you feel about it, try it this way next: Pretend it is a typical, rhyming, e. e. cummings poem. Read it as if you are expecting each stanza to have a metered rhyme scheme like one cummings might use (“What if a much of a which of a wind / gives the truth to a summer’s lie; / bloodies with dizzying leaves the sun / and yanks immortal stars awry?”) You will be amazed at what this does to the reading of this poem. In fact there is a good deal of slant or off rhyme here, though it doesn’t call attention to itself, and the rhythms of the poem are like an incantation.
While in Strange Terrain I aim to guide readers through poems by focusing on specific aspects of their composition such as shape, language, sound, and image, I believe the most important skill of all is to develop at first a tolerance and eventually a love of strangeness and mystery. Jennifer Militello offers us an opportunity to experience the beauty and value of what cannot be easily explained about our humanity. Her process is a kind of hypnosis; it informs and grows itself, knitting together out of nonsequiturs and touchstones of truth both oppositions and similarities, both antonyms and synonyms from the thesaurus of life.
Dear body I do not resent,
experiment with me.
I feel my mind grow broad as orchestras,
I feel its oceans weep. How I fall
awake. How all the alphabet
falls from my hands. I feel beneath my skin
the little needles of a life. I listen
whenever an intersection calls, I obey
its schizophrenia, an understanding of the art
in me that cries for me to act.
What I mean by hurt is that the hours,
they lie to me. I have been, but am not limited to,
a tense. Scars personify the mouth, too fragile
to sing or be. At the sills, estuaries. At the sorrows,
speech. I drink at the dream’s atmospheric
embrace, I feel the mouth that bites me.
I beome what is running through the woods.
Like armor unworn, I pose my battle
along the wall, plain as a god, singing like a verb,
sadistic. I wince and bleed with the world
and all its seamless ways to be rid of me,
until its complications octopus in my irises,
until the moment becomes my mother’s sleeve
I once forgot to grasp.
Things too thin inhabit our dreams and we take on
their starving. We live until hunger
takes on such a shape that it is shoulder blades
in everything and sounds up in the trees. Then,
such ghosts. Such bones without skins doubled over.
A starless night every night and starlessness
is ashes or newsprint on the hands. Living
is barely a flock of birds the way it moves
like falling; it must be the cure for something,
the last lit house on a dead end street
or a hunger with two minds, drawing children
to the damp sheds at the far fence of their yards.
There is an entire August storm in everything said,
and to open the violent hives of remembering,
we imagine marigolds, birds drowned in the creek,
the lights left on in a room left behind.
About Alice B. FogelAlice Fogel’s third collection, Be That Empty, was a national poetry bestseller in 2008, and in 2009 Strange Terrain (on how to appreciate poetry without “getting” it) came out. Nominated six times for the Pushcart, her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American Poetry and Robert Hass’s Poet’s Choice, and she has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, among other awards.
A new book, Interval: Poems Based upon Bach’s Goldberg Variations, has won the Nicholas Schaffner Award for Music in Literature, and is forthcoming in 2014. She is currently the New Hampshire State Poet Laureate.
To learn more about Alice Fogel and her work, please visit her website.
About Jennifer MilitelloJennifer Militello is the author of three collections of poetry: Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013), Flinch of Song (Tupelo Press, 2009), winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008.
She has been awarded the Barbara Bradley Award from the New England Poetry Club, the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award from Red Hen Press, and the 49th Parallel Award from Bellingham Review, as well as grants and fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Writers at Work, and the Millay Colony for the Arts.
Militello has taught at Brown University, The Rhode Island School of Design, and The University of Massachusetts Lowell, and is the founding director of the creative writing program at River Valley Community College. She lives in Goffstown, New Hampshire.
To learn more about Jennifer Militello and her work, please visit her website.
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“Afterburn,” “Felon’s Logic,” and “Conjugating the Void” from Body Thesaurus, published by Tupelo Press © 2013 Jennifer Militello. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission. A portion of “Poetry is an Art. Or: How to Not ‘Get’ Poetry” was excerpted from Alice B. Fogel’s book Strange Terrain, published by Hobblebush Books © 2009 Alice B. Fogel. All Rights reserved. Used with permission.