Poetically Speaking about The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking with a post every Friday about a favorite poem.

so much depends
upon

 

a red wheel
barrow

 

glazed with rain
water

 

beside the white
chickens.

The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams is arguably one of the best known and most significant modern poems. It’s iconic. It’s one of the first poems I read as a student of poetry in college and it’s probably part of why Williams is a favorite poet of mine to this day. I’ve always thought of him as a poet of the people–there’s something for everyone to love in his work. His poems are easily remixed and retooled and most of them are even social media friendly. I am certain that Williams would have loved Twitter.

Williams is part of the modernist poetry movement. He wrote poetry when our ideas of what a poem could be and what a poem should be were changing; he’s part of why those ideas changed. You can see why with “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

This poem is sleek and elegant but it’s also earthier and more subtle than many earlier poems (like Shakespearean sonnets or Romantic poetry from writers like Blake or Shelley). Williams brings the same intricacy and thought to this poem–that’s the whole basis of what a poem does, after all–but it’s still a bit shocking.

This poem is stark. It’s a flash. A moment. Blink and you might miss it. Read it too fast and the beauty is lost. Unlike many other poetic forms, this free verse poem is also deceptive. Williams effectively draws the reader’s attention away from the complexity of this poem. The simplicity of the wording and the form belie the underlying thought and intricacy. Looking at the way the words are laid out, it’s clearly a deliberate decision. More so, in conveying such an evocative scene with fifteen words (none of which repeat) in just one small sentence gives this poem added weight and significance.

The poem itself seems to be imploring the reader to slow down and really pay attention–a sentiment that is mirrored neatly with the content of the poem. So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. Why is that so? Williams doesn’t need to tell us. Just by saying it, by drawing our attention to it, the scene becomes significant largely because we are observing it as readers.

Poetry is timeless. It is intensely personal but it can also be universal. I wanted to close out Poetically Speaking 2017 with “The Red Wheelbarrow” because it exemplifies all of those things. Our world isn’t the one that Williams inhabited. It may not be the one readers will see if they stumble upon this post a year from now or even further down the line. Everything changes but poetry and ideas endure. In a time when everything is moving faster and faster, this poem is one of the best reminders to stop for a second. To breathe. To look around and to look up. And to remember that so much can change because of one small moment observed.

I hope you enjoyed spending Fridays this month talking about poetry here. I’d love to hear your thoughts about “The Red Wheelbarrow” (or any other poems) in the comments as we close out another National Poetry Month.

Poetically Speaking about Antigonish [I met a man who wasn’t there] by Hughes Mearns

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…

 

When I came home last night at three
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall
I couldn’t see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don’t you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don’t slam the door… (slam!)

 

Last night I saw upon the stair
A little man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
Oh, how I wish he’d go away…

Antigonish by Hughes Mearns is the kind of poem that I feel like everyone knows. It’s catchy, just a bit creepy, and it’s been long enough to worm its way into its fair share of popular culture.

Mearns wrote this poem in 1899 as part of a play. According to the Internet it was inspired, apparently, by reports in Antigonish, Nova Scotia of a roaming ghost. In some ways it makes perfect sense that the poem is meant to evoke a ghostly presence. The cadence and rhyme scheme are just a little eerie as is the concept of a man who isn’t there.

Interestingly, the poem feels much more whimsical and childlike when read in its entirety whereas reading the first stanza in isolation feels much more sinister and seems to refer to more than a mere ghostly presence.

Rhyming poetry can be a bit controversial. People either love it or they hate it. Rarely is there any kind of in between. I’ve always been a big fan and I think this poem is a good example of the versatility that can be found even within the restrictions of an ABAB rhyme structure.

What do you think? Is this poem as much a part of the zeitgeist as I think? Do you think it’s creepy or funny? Let’s talk in the comments.

Poetically Speaking about The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. Check back every Friday in April to chat about poems with me.

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

Sometimes finding a new poem is a bit like magic. My mom and I have a Tuesday night ritual: we watch mysteries on PBS. Recently that has included The Doctor Blake Mysteries which is set in 1959 Australia and follows the eponymous Doctor Lucian Blake as he investigates murders around Ballarat in his capacity as police surgeon. Anyway, it’s a great show and The Return of Persephone by A. D. Hope was a pivotal part of this week’s episode. Despite being fascinated by the myth of Persephone since I was a teen, I had never encountered this poem (or the poet) before. I was relieved when I later found the entire thing online (having heard only the last stanza on the episode).

“The Return of Persephone” doesn’t focus on the usual part of the Persephone myth in that it doesn’t start at the beginning. We don’t see Hades get struck by one of Cupid’s arrows (at Aphrodite’s urging) and fall in love with Persephone. We don’t see him kidnap her although it is alluded to in the middle of the poem. We don’t see Demeter’s search for her daughter and the subsequent famine when she refused to allow anything to grow until her daughter is returned to her. Hope doesn’t even show Persephone eating a pomegranate seed forever binding her to the underworld for half of each year.

Instead Hope assumes readers have that knowledge coming into the poem beginning at what is typically the end of the story. The bargain has been struck and Persephone now splits her time between the underworld with Hades and the world above with her mother Demeter. Hermes is coming to bring Persephone back to the land of the living.

I really like that even with a knowledge of the myth, this poem feels unexpected. When I read it for the first time I didn’t realize we were starting with Hermes’ arrival and the revelation feels like a shock–the same jolt Hades and Persephone must have when they realize it’s time.

Hades is, to put it mildly, kind of awful. He kidnaps Persephone and holds her captive. Depending on the version of the story you read he also rapes her and then, to add insult to injury he forces her to eat a pomegranate seed to bind her to him forever. Hope hints at that here when Persephone looks back on Hades and thinks of him as “Lord of her body and being” while he watches impassively from her throne.

I also love the third stanza as it describes Persephone’s transformation back into the maiden of spring as she prepares to leave with Hermes and the way it seamlessly blends into the next stanza about her initial abduction.

And then we get to the end of the poem. Persephone is leaving with Hermes but she’s also watching, waiting, to see if Hades will try to stop her (again) or if he will react at all. And maybe it’s my abiding love for this myth or maybe it’s Hope’s deliberate choice, but it feels like Hades has resigned himself to this parting. He closes his eyes to it and let’s it come to pass. He’s used forced, he’s schemed, but he has to let Persephone go and now he’s left with only “deep despair” as she goes to Hermes and prepares to leave.

Writing this I’ve also realized that my love of Persephone’s story is all folded up with my fascination with Fire and Hemlock–one of my favorite books of all time. In it, Jones offers up a sly retelling of Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer borrowing elements from various versions of the story. Like Hades in Hope’s poem, Polly–the heroine of Fire and Hemlock–has to make a choice to let someone go (though Polly’s intentions are purer and her choices stems from hoping to save Tom and not a mandate issued from the gods). As Polly let’s Tom go she realizes with striking clarity that it has to be forever because “To love someone enough to let them go, you had to let them go forever or you did not love them that much.” And Hades doesn’t do that, of course, because Persephone will be back in half a year.

But it still gives Persephone pause. “Looking her last on her grim ravisher  / For the first time she loved him from her heart.” I love this last couplet. It’s the reason I tracked down the poem after hearing it on Doctor Blake. Hope cuts right to the heart of the dynamic between Persephone and Hades–all of the problems, all of the reasons it’s such an enduring story–in those two lines. Persephone looks at Hades and she knows everything he has done, all of the horrible things that she can’t forget or forgive, but she also sees him letting her go and regretting their parting. For the first time she’s seeing that there might be more to him. Because of that choice to let her go and the vulnerability in watching it, Persephone cares for the first time. It’s such powerful imagery. I can’t stop thinking about it and it is but one of the reasons I absolutely love this poem.

Have you heard of A. D. Hope? Was this your first time reading “The Return of Persephone”? What did you think of it? Am I crazy for thinking Hades has some redeeming qualities (or at least the hint of some)? Let’s talk in the comments.

Poetically Speaking about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

This year I am doing a stripped down version of Poetically Speaking. I didn’t want to drop the feature entirely but I’ve been too bogged down with work and illness to plan the large scale round up of guest posts and interviews that I have had in previous years. Instead, this year I’ll be sharing a Poetically Speaking post every Friday.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
               So how should I presume?

I spend so much time thinking about T. S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock that I was shocked to realize I haven’t featured it before for Poetically Speaking. This poem is sprawling and meandering filled with lines that you have probably heard before both in connection to this poem and not.

Truthfully, this isn’t a poem that I know by heart. There are even pieces that I don’t care about as much as others. Still, I could have quoted a few pieces here (the entire poem is a bit too long to share but click the link in the paragraph above to read it all or listen to the audio version) including the last sentence “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” or “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Instead, I chose the one that I find myself returning to again and again.

The partial stanzas above might be some of the best-known parts of Eliot’s seminal poem. They are also some of the most universal. Haven’t we all asked ourselves if we dare take that next big step? Haven’t we all vacillated and questioned and pondered only to abruptly change our minds again?

Contrasted with that desire to do something or be something grand–to go so far as disturbing the universe–is the mundane reality that sometimes life is measured in smaller scale and quieter things be it coffee spoons or afternoons.

Poetry is inherently subjective and, particularly in this case, I think the reasons for loving (or perhaps not loving) this poem are also personal. For me? I appreciate the reminder that it’s okay to dream big while also being more grounded in the day-to-day. I love the language and cadence of this poem and the way in flows trippingly off the tongue when read aloud.

And, of course, I want to remind myself that I do dare to disturb the universe even if it isn’t always in big ways.

Which is why I have this print hanging above my desk at home:

What do you think of this poem? Do you dare disturb the universe? Have you read The Shadow Society where this poem plays a big part? Let me know in the comments.

Wild Swans: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Wild Swans by Jessica SpotswoodThe Milbourn legacy started with Ivy’s great grandmother–a talented painter who killed herself and two of her children by driving in front of a train. Dorothea survived the crash and went on to meticulously journal her life, win a Pulitzer for her poetry, and be murdered by her lover’s wife. Ivy’s mother fled her responsibilities as a mother and a Milbourn when Ivy was two-years-old. Ivy hasn’t seen her mother since.

Now Ivy is seventeen and looking forward to a summer free of the responsibilities of being a Milbourn and the numerous enrichment classes that Granddad usually encourages in his efforts to support Ivy and find her latent Milbourn talent. Those plans fall apart when her mother comes home unexpectedly with two daughters who have never met, or even heard, about Ivy.

Confronted with the reality of her mother’s indifference and her family’s broken edges, Ivy begins to crack under the pressures of her unexpected summer. Ivy finds solace in poetry, swimming, and a beautiful tattooed boy but she isn’t sure any of that will be enough to help her determine her own legacy in Wild Swans (2016) by Jessica Spotswood.

Wild Swans is Spotswood’s first foray into contemporary fiction and demonstrates her range as an author. This novel is grounded in the creativity and madness of the Milbourn women whose shadows haunt Ivy even as she struggles to find her own place among her talented ancestors.

This character-driven story is a charming and effective book. The story is quiet in terms of action, a fact that is balanced well with Spotswood’s characterization and ensemble cast. This relatively slim slice-of-life story touches on poetry, feminism, family, and even transgender identity.

Wild Swans is an introspective and evocative story about family, inspiration, and choice. Highly recommended for fans of contemporary fiction, readers (and writers of poetry), and feminists (or proto-feminists) of all ages.

Possible Pairings: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

You can also read Jessica’s guest post for Poetically Speaking about this novel and the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay!

Every Exquisite Thing: A Review

Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew QuickNanette O’Hare has spent most of her life doing exactly what people expect of her. She gets good grades. She is the star of her high school soccer team and essentially guaranteed an athletic scholarship to the college of her choice. She works hard. She doesn’t cause any trouble.

When a favorite teacher gives Nanette a worn copy of a book called The Bubblegum Reaper she isn’t sure what to expect. Within the pages of the out-of-print cult classic, Nanette finds a character who seems to understand all of the frustration and fatigue that she has been trying to articulate for years.

An unlikely friendship with the book’s reclusive author and a turbulent relationship with a young poet and fellow fan leads Nanette to discover her inner rebel. As Nanette tries to become a truer version of herself, she realizes that rebellion rarely comes without a cost in Every Exquisite Thing (2016) by Matthew Quick.

Quick peppers the novel with references to canonical literary works of poetry and novels (all by men, almost exclusively white–this is either a glaring oversight or an intentional reference to the insular world these characters inhabit . . . or possibly both). Every Exquisite Thing is very self-aware and intentionally referential to the book within a book (The Bubblegum Reaper) which is summarized, quoted and otherwise integral to the plot of this novel.

Nanette’s character arc is intrinsically linked to her discovery of The Bubblegum Reaper. As she bonds with the author and another fan (the young poet) she learns how literature can change a person. She also learns that idols inevitably fall short of their pedestals in the real world and that fiction–however true it may seem–doesn’t always translate well into everyday life.

Parts of Every Exquisite Thing are poignant and moving–as is to be expected from a talent like Matthew Quick. Other aspects of the story, particularly in the second half, are impenetrable and mystifying. Sometimes, particularly with the one-sided representation of the majority of female characters (besides Nanette) as routinely over-sexualized and vapid. This is a high-tension, introspective novel that won’t work for everyone. Ideal for readers who don’t necessarily need to like a book to enjoy it and who want a text they can engage with on multiple levels.

Possible Pairings: Someday This Pain Will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, The Perks of Being a Wallflower Stephen Chbosky, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, Decelerate Blue by Adam Rapp, illustrated by Mike Cavallaro, The Catcher in the Rye by Lee Salinger

Poetically Speaking with Miss Print 2016: Closing Post

poeticallyspeaking1Thank you for joining my in this crazy month-long celebration of National Poetry Month.

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read these posts. Thank you especially to everyone who took the time to write them. This series would not have been possible without my amazing, enthusiastic guest contributors.

Here is the full schedule of who contributed to this wonderful month of posts:

  1. Intro Post
  2. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about “let it go” by ee cummings
  3. Week in Review
  4. Corey Ann Haydu on “Elm” by Sylvia Plath
  5. Author Interview: Aimee Friedman on Two Summers (with bonus giveaway post!)
  6. Two Summers: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review
  7. Where’s the Party?: A Picture Book Review
  8. Poetry Friday (repost) from Blythe Woolston
  9. Poetically Speaking with Estelle Hallick
  10. Week in Review
  11. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about “Dead Love” by Algernon Charles Swinburne
  12. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about “I Died for Beauty” by Emily Dickinson
  13. The Anatomy of Curiosity: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review
  14. Author Interview: Tessa Gratton on “Desert Canticle”
  15. Author Interview: Brenna Yovanoff on “Drowning Variations”
  16. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about a love song poem I wrote about space
  17. Week in Review
  18. Lesléa Newman on imitation in writing poetry
  19. Author Interview: Estelle Laure on This Raging Light
  20. This Raging Light: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review
  21. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about a poem I wrote about unrequited love
  22. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about a poem I wrote about traveling
  23. Poetically Speaking with Karuna Riazi about her path to poetry
  24. Week in Review
  25. Lindsey Krabbenhoft on what she does to share poetry with the world
  26. Poetically Speaking with Jessica Spotswood about her new novel Wild Swans and Edna St. Vincent Millay
  27. When Green Becomes Tomatoes: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review
  28. Poetically Speaking with Alexandra Hernandez about how poetry became part of her writing life
  29. Poetically Speaking with Me (Miss Print) about a poem I wrote inspired by dystopian books
  30. Closing Post

 

Thank you again for joining me for Poetically Speaking. Regular blog programming will resume next week!