kinship with a poem

shadows on green cloth

It’s snowing pretty heavily outside, which actually looks quite lovely, despite the fact that I’ve had enough of winter.  But the snow is a sleepy, peaceful, pure sort of image, so I’ll take it for now.  I’ll take it and let it guide me to a warm place in the bed and a nap under cozy blankets while that bluish light sifts into the room.  Yeah, I couldn’t sleep again last night.  But I’m sleepy now. 

After the jump: an annotation on Franz Wright’s book Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems.  And discussion of an insomnia poem.  You can read it while I’m snoozing.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Franz Wright’s Flavor

            To show you how close Franz Wright’s poetry struck to my bones, I present to you the final poem from his collection Ill Lit: Selected and New Poems, and I inform you that I read this poem in the early hours of the morning after a night of insomnia, right at that time when the sky slowly loses its darkness outside the living room windows.

“First Light”

 

It’s raining

in a dead language.

 

The empty house filled with the sound

 

of your name

abruptly whispered,

 

once,

 

before you finally slept.

            So, in some ways, this feels like a poetry that I could have written myself.  Certainly, this particular poem feels that way, except that these are Wright’s words, not mine.  For instance, I doubt it would have occurred to me to use the word “abruptly.”  I probably would have said “suddenly” or perhaps nothing at all, letting the timing of the whisper be described only by the title and the last line.  I respect “abruptly,” though, and it is a decent indicator of what Wright’s poetry is like compared to my own-a little rougher.  More abrupt, even.

            My experience of reading this poem about sleeplessness while experiencing sleeplessness myself makes a nice anecdote, and easily illustrates why I felt an instant connection to Wright’s poetry, but there’s a lot more to my experience of this book that isn’t so easily reduced to anecdote.  And it comes back to that sense of instant familiarity.  The thing is, I’m not used to entering a book of poems exclusively through its subject matter.  My education has trained me to experience poetry from the angle of craft, appreciating word choice, line breaks, rhyme, imagery, symbolism, structure, etc. with subject being just one element out of many.  But some of Franz Wright’s poems engaged my emotions so quickly that they circumvented the education-formed section of my thoughts, and I was left feeling but not necessarily understanding

            Reading this book, I was constantly forced to ask myself whether my reaction to a poem was just because I empathized strongly with its subject matter or whether it was due to Wright’s treatment of that subject matter.  Did Wright’s poetic craft make the emotions sharper, more universal, heightening the intensity of any basic factual similarities between my own life and the events in the poems, or did Wright’s craft have little to do with my reading experience?  Or, in other words, was I affected by something simple or by something complex?  And since my emotions were engaged, I found it that much harder to look at these poems objectively.  At the end of each one I felt a haze, a sense of things slipping through my fingers.  The emotion remained with me, but clarity about the elements of poetry I’d just experienced was lacking.

            Of course I know that it’s really impossible for me to read a poem without having a reaction to the way it’s put together as a poem.  Franz Wright has practiced craft in writing each poem in this book, and even if I can’t see it at first because I’m distracted by other things, that craft is still playing a part in my reading.  If these poems weren’t carefully crafted, then I would have noticed, jarringly, problems and inconsistencies and been ejected from the poems, frustrated.  This did not happen.  I remained engaged with the poetry throughout the book.  But to see and understand exactly how Franz Wright’s craft was keeping me engaged, I had to go back and look at a poem over again until I’d got over that initial emotional reaction that so clouded my intellectual capacities.

            Take that poem “First Light” for example.  My very first reaction to it was a shiver of self-recognition, almost a mystical experience, as if the poem had told my fortune.  If I’m remembering correctly, I think I focused on the idea of my name being called, and thought something about how the poem itself had sort of just called my name.  I would have said “ooooh” if there had been someone else in the room to talk to.  But as I re-read the poem in that moment, and again as I typed it out at the beginning of this annotation, I began to see the many things that Franz Wright had done to craft the poem in ways that went hand in hand with its subject matter to create my strong and vivid reaction.

            I’ve already mentioned the word “abruptly.”  There’s also the way the third line first hints at the sound of the rain, then connects to the sound of the name being whispered, creating an element of surprise.  There’s the way the word “once” stands alone on its own line, reinforcing its own meaning.  There’s the strange idea of the “raining in a dead language,” enough to engage the mind in many rich thoughts while seeking the meaning of that phrase.  And then the idea of the dead language connects to the speech later in the poem, the whisper of the name.  And the fact that the name is whispered rather than spoken.  I could go on.  And I could create similar lists for all the other poems in this book.  But the light of morning is lurking behind my curtain, and I really should get to bed.

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4 thoughts on “kinship with a poem

  1. I enjoyed your remarks, but am puzzled–if craft and all the literary/intellectual melodrama are so fascinating to you, why not maintain the actual structure of the poem in printing it out? Separations between stanzas, for one thing.
    The moment poetry becomes literature, it ceases to be poetry. Fuck literature. Literature is intellectuals murdering to dissect, on college campuses, Baudelaire, Blake, Yeats, &c–people who wouldn’t have been caught dead there.
    Craft is music, or intellectual music. Great music can never be reduced to discussions of craft, not when it is entering the body. Why bungle it in copying it out, though, if craft is so important?
    Your reading is very sensitive and touching, though, and I appreciate it. But you think too much–or think with your head too much.
    Just some insomnia thoughts of my own. Poetry is related to the experience of music, and of love. Everything else is talk, academics making their mortgage payments.
    FW

  2. Wow! I’m fluttering with appreciation that you took the time to comment on my blog. Honestly, I never expected anyone but my friends to read this. And I am very sorry about the lack of stanza breaks. That was an unintentional copy/paste error, moving this essay from microsoft word to online format. I should have checked to make sure everything was ok before I published it, and I will fix it as soon as I finish writing this reply to your comment. The stanza breaks do matter, of course.

    I’d like you to know, if you ever see this reply, that the essay was a school-related endeavor, although I hope that I’m not just murdering to dissect, not just trying to reduce your poetry or anyone’s to a mere discussion of craft. My school is a fairly unusual one–I’m working on my master’s degree in creative writing from Goddard College. It’s a low-residency program, so I’m only on campus for about a week per semester, which I think does help to avoid the ivory tower. I try very hard not to murder poems as I’m writing about them. You’re right that there’s so much more than that academic head space. I really want to approach everything I read as a person and not as a literary critic. So, when I’m talking about craft here it’s more that I want to learn from it to strengthen my own poetry than that I want to define it and reduce it and contain it in a dictionary.

    Maybe being a student does require me to think with the head too much. I appreciate your comment on that, and I will keep it in my awareness. Or maybe it was something I’ve already been aware of, but needed to be told again. For which I thank you.

    Being a student did lead me to your poetry, though. When my advisor and I were developing my reading list for this semester, she insisted that I read your translations of Rilke, and we decided to round that out by adding your own poetry to the list, too. I’m actually working on another one of these essays right now about your translations of Rilke’s poetry. It feels suddenly more personal.

    EB

  3. Yes, & I’m sorry to sound so harsh. I was very flattered by all the thought you put into that little poem of mine, which seems so very long ago to me now. If we are guided primarily by love for poetry, we can’t go wrong. It’s a big mystery, how to learn enough consciously about the manipulation of craft to be able to go beyond mere consciousness. I admire your devotion to poetry itself.
    FW

  4. i’m often pleased that the poetry classes (at the universities) rarely include the writers i love, because (like Wright mentioned), i also detest the breaking down of poetry in the classrooms. i actually get afraid that one of the poems i cherish may be offered for dissection to a classroom of people who don’t really know about poetry—if that happens, then the poem could possibly lose some of its power over me. F’ that! 🙂

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