Wednesday, September 6

poetry 4: simple

Lisa S. asked whether simplicity has to do with it. I think it does: simplicity, and clarity, and precision, and grace.

The way lines look on the page.

The space taken up by breathing/breath.

The meaning of what isn't put down. Elision.

I don't mean the easy idea, the easy image, the easy word. The expected. The cliché. I mean what is most fitting, what is beautiful unadorned. The poems I wrote as an undergrad I look at and squirm, mostly because they drip with words. I didn't know when to be spare. The poem needs the marrow-bone just as much as it needs the fancy vegetables.

No more writing just for writing's sake.

Mary Oliver can do this sometimes, but sometimes it feels cold. One poem where she accomplishes simplicity (in balance with--what?--poetic excess? humanity? physicality?) is the stunning "University Hospital, Boston," from American Primitive. The poem blends narrative and lyric so seamlessly that I'm carried through it, from her descriptions of the hospital, to the speaker's relationship with the beloved, to the musing on the hospital's history, to the hair-raising final stanza.


The trees on the hospital lawn
are lush and thriving. They too
are getting the best of care,
like you, and the anonymous many,
in the clean rooms high above this city,
where day and night the doctors keep
arriving, where intricate machines
chart with cool devotion
the murmur of the blood,
the slow patching-up of bone,
the despair of the mind.

When I come to visit and we walk out
into the light of a summer day,
we sit under the trees--
buckeyes, a sycamore, and one
black walnut brooding
high over a hedge of lilacs
as old as the red-brick building
behind them, the original
hospital built before the Civil War.
We sit on the lawn together, holding hands
while you tell me: you are better.

How many young men, I wonder,
came here, wheeled on cots off the slow trains
from the red and hideous battlefields
to lie all summer in the small and stuffy chambers
while doctors did what they could, longing
for tools still unimagined, medicines still unfound,
wisdoms still unguessed at, and how many died
staring at the leaves of the trees, blind
to the terrible effort around them to keep them alive?
I look into your eyes

which are sometimes green and sometimes gray,
and sometimes full of humor, but often not,
and tell myself, you are better,
because my life without you would be
a place of parched and broken trees.
Later walking the corridors down to the street,
I turn and step inside and empty rom.
Yesterday someone was here with a gasping face.
Now the bed is made all new,
the machines have been rolled away. The silence
continues, deep and neutral,
as I stand there, loving you.


1/ The end-stopped stanzas work here, I think, because they are a natural closure and connection of information. They mark subject/topic changes--almost small poems within the poem.

2/ If you're familiar with Oliver's poetry, you can probably imagine how terrifying and horrible a "place of parched and broken trees" would be. I never thought of that until typing this poem out--how personal and awful that image really is.


Anonymous van said...

off i go to check Mary Oliver's poetry.

9:39 AM  
Anonymous laeroport said...

the murmur of the blood... black walunt brooding... thanks

10:03 AM  
Anonymous martha said...

"the way the lines look on the page" -this is important to me too. Funny, but I actually like READING poetry more than listening to it.

Spareness is important to me as well -in everything.

12:45 PM  
Blogger bugheart said...

i really
the notes
on these
not only are
they poems
that deeply
i have no
of poetry
so your
just makes
it more
for me.

4:03 PM  
Blogger lisa s said...

firstly... thank you for the intro to mary oliver....

secondly... thank you for the notes... i can imagine how lovely it must be to have you as a teacher

thirdly.... clairty, precision and grace. that is such a potent combination

fourth [ly].... deep and neutral silence is a profound idea....

thank you eirann for sharing with us!

7:13 PM  
Blogger Austen G. said...

Yes! I am enjoying this too. Elizabeth Bishop, Mary Oliver...yes. Have you read anything by Anne Simpson?

I appreciate the personal nature of these entries. Anyone could stand at the front of a classroom and run through the basics, mechanics, symbolism, bla bla bla, of a poem (and we've all had teachers like that, I fear) but to make a poem real, to make it matter, the discussion around it needs the sort of personal insight and enthusiasm that you are providing here (teachers like that seem few and far between). If you can share that, then you're providing another sort of entry point to the writing.

I like what you wrote yesterday about innovative and interesting use of language, about clarity, about using language that is evocative. The idea that comes to mind for me is "resonance," which lives somewhere in my memory at the intersection of critical theory and creative writing. For me, a poem is good if it gets me thinking past the immediate subject and exploring the ideas that resonate at its edges.

Anyway. Just wanted to say thanks. It's been awhile since I spent any time in this territory...long dormant parts of my brain are stirring, and it's a good thing!

9:04 PM  
Anonymous meowgirl said...

hi, i just found your blog and am gratefully enjoying your posts about poetry.

i've not read Mary Oliver before; she will be on my library list now. i love the contrasting phrase durations in this poem, especially the long, long one (... wheeled on cots off the slow trains...) that drains readers of breath, wondering if they'll make it to the end. that and the simple, haunting one--you are better.

thank you.

12:12 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home