Friday, October 1, 2010

What is "Winter" Poetry?

In some ways, Winter may seem too easy a category. The season itself is fraught with its own unique mythologies and imagery that has become a sort of second-hand for most of the categories listed here. Of course, the category that seems easiest is perhaps the most challenging for the poet because it is our job to "make it new." How, then, can we take snow and cold and Christmastime and transform these well-worn ideas into something new?

Let's see how a few of the Winter Poets find a way to carve out new imagery and language in the categories of this season...

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years thou'wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
   Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
   Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
   And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lie
   Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
   As what he loves may never like too much.
Jonson takes the pain over his son's death and transforms it into language that is hopeful. The persona of this poem refuses to "lament the state he should envy" and forces himself to see death in a new way. Notice that the rhyme scheme here helps to give the reader this sense of force, of the difficulty to adjust the words to the rhyme... just as the father must adjust to the loss. The pain of the poem comes in the language that follows Jonson's resolve to see the good in his son's death - a language that allows us to see how this father sees the current world around him. It is a world of "rage" and "misery" and a world the father is clearly weary of.

Jonson shows us that pain, then, can be expressed beyond the old tropes.

What kinds of pain can we express in poetry? Physical? Emotional? Mental?
The loss of a child is obviously a painful situation, but can we transform other situations into pain - say, holidays with family or even the birth of a child?
How can we escape the common words associated with pain? How else might we express anguish, heartache, burning, beating, bleeding, etc.?

Do yourself a favor - if you love a fiction writer, a philosopher, a public figure, or a playwright, find out if they ever wrote poetry and find it. This has led me to the wonderful poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ben Jonson, Henry Rollins, and Bertolt Brecht (this doesn't always work - James Joyce's poetry is particularly awful). Just like his plays, Brecht's poetry is often political, which makes it a perfect place to find struggle. Poetry about politics is not easy because it can slip so quickly into propaganda and plain lecturing. In "Lullabies," Brecht details the struggle of a mother trying to keep her child alive during wartime (be sure to read his play "Mother Courage and Her Children" to get a good idea of how Brecht can blow this idea out). Here, the mother in the poem says that giving her child life "was a dangerous thing to give" and her words compare child-rearing to war, both the literal war around them and her war with the forces - including her own will - which might cause her to give up.
I gave you birth when birth was
A dangerous thing to give
When it was brave to conceive you
And a battle to let you live.
from "Lullabies," Bertolt Brecht

Winter poets are great at creating situations where the reader can share in the struggle. Let's face it, nobody wants to read your poem about how hard your life is. Get in line! However, if you can somehow commiserate with your reader, allow him or her to share in your struggle, then you can get them to stick around for the story and the pay off. The pay off is important when it comes to struggle because, I believe, you have to get past the bitching and griping. It's not enough to talk about "the struggle of my people" - you must give me some direction, some solution, some hope. Otherwise, what is the point?

Be careful with struggle. It is the starting point for many a bad breakup poem. Ask yourself what sharing your struggle does for your reader... if you can't think of anything, you're probably just whining. And whining is fine if...

In my opinion, it's okay to display whining or selfishness or any other deplorable characteristic in your poetry if you do it with some wit. Wit is the small flame that keeps us warm through the winter - it can put a shiny gloss on the most morbid of situations and it can lighten up a particularly depressing verse. June Jordan is a genius with wit. The diction of this poem, about "intelligence," gives the reader a supposed "upper hand" because the voice is childish and uses a dialect...
And I’m struggling against this lapse leftover
from my Black childhood to fathom why
anybody should say so:
I try that on this old lady live on my block:
She sweeping away Saturday night from the stoop
and mad as can be because some absolute
jackass have left a kingsize mattress where
she have to sweep around it stains and all she
don’t want to know nothing about in the first place
“Mrs. Johnson!” I say, leaning on the gate
between us: “What you think about somebody come up
with an E equals M C 2?
“How you doin,” she answer me, sideways, like she don’t
want to let on she know I ain’
combed my hair yet and here it is
Sunday morning but still I have the nerve
to be bothering serious work with these crazy
questions about
E equals what you say again, dear?”
Then I tell her, “Well
also this same guy? I think
he was undisputed Father of the Atom Bomb!”
“That right.” She mumbles or grumbles, not too politely
“And dint remember to wear socks when he put on
his shoes!” I add on (getting desperate)
at which point Mrs. Johnson take herself and her broom
a very big step down the stoop away from me 

The reader supposes that they are superion in intelligence to the narrator, who sees herself as superior to Mrs. Johnson. Jordan cleverly gets us on the side of the narrator, but then causes us to turn on ourselves. The narrator cannot seem to get Mrs. Johnson to care and she finally admits that she is "getting desperate." At the final moment, the narrator resorts to something that she thinks is funny about Einstein without catching the irony that Mrs. Johnson, too, in her simple ways, could very well be an Einstein.

First of all, let's just acknowledge that this is a cool word. I never had never heard of the term until Henry Rollins came out with his collection Solipsist. Solipsism is about being abundantly concerned with yourself; it is a philosophy "only the self exists" or "only the self can be proven to exist." When we think about poetry falling into this category, we might automatically think of the Confessional poets like Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and, probably the most famous of the group, Sylvia Plath. These poets would certainly qualify, but the category is much broader than one school of poets. Solipsist poetry causes the reader to reflect on his or her self, his or her actions, beliefs, prejudices, desires, motives.
Consider Philip Levine's final stanza of his poem "You Can Have It":

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.
The poem begins as a study of the brother, but the narrator quickly slips into a solipsist point of view. The poem is really a confession, if you will, of the narrator's anger and regret; he even takes his brother's phrase, "You can have it." Don't be afraid to be self-reflective; just do it with some art - there's a huge difference between writing that sort of "dear diary" crap that people call poetry when they just can't scream. Think about it - Levine could have written something like:
Why did I lose my childhood?
What was our purpose back then -
just to work and work and work
and never enjoy our youth
or the company of our brother?
It's not terrible, but there's no art to it. A LOT of this kind of stuff makes it into print and I cannot caution more adamantly against this type of thing. Levine gives his reader a narrative, setting, a time frame, and some wonderful "tricks" (like his repeated "plodding" lines where an action is given a moment by moment account - "shoes drop, one by one" and "one grey boxcar at a time/with always two more waiting"), rather than just ranting away. A solipsist point of view makes for poetry that, ironically, can really make a reader empathize because, as David Foster Wallace once observed, "there is no experience you have had that you were not the absolute center of."
Before I move on to our final category, I want to show you a quick example of how a solipsist character may also serve as a great subject for a poem. Perhaps the most famous of these is Byron's  Don Juan, but take a look at how Robert Browning takes a character created by Shakespeare in The Tempest and really draws out the way a solipsist thinks - Caliban, here, imagines the thoughts of his god, Setebos, and (like a true solipsist) assumes that his god is as petty and cruel as he is (mostly, I want you to read this poem - it's long, but wonderful):
I yet could make a live bird out of clay:
Would not I take clay, pinch my Caliban
Able to fly?—for, there, see, he hath wings,
And great comb like the hoopoe's to admire,
And there, a sting to do his foes offence,
There, and I will that he begin to live,
Fly to yon rock-top, nip me off the horns
Of grigs high up that make the merry din,
Saucy through their veined wings, and mind me not.
In which feat, if his leg snapped, brittle clay,
And he lay stupid-like,—why, I should laugh;
And if he, spying me, should fall to weep,
Beseech me to be good, repair his wrong,
Bid his poor leg smart less or grow again,—
Well, as the chance were, this might take or else
Not take my fancy: I might hear his cry,
And give the mankin three sound legs for one,
Or pluck the other off, leave him like an egg
And lessoned he was mine and merely clay.
Were this no pleasure, lying in the thyme,
Drinking the mash, with brain become alive,
Making and marring clay at will? So He. 
I think that many times the act of writing out poetry is an act of perseverance. That is, I think that the poet is often writing to convince herself that there is reason to go on - go on living, go on loving, go on writing. We record moments and in each of those moments we are trying to extract something worthwhile, something lovely or memorizing. We get a sense of perseverance from the imagery of winter; everyone knows that the buds of spring are right beneath the snow waiting to bloom. We also know this about the human experience.

When I was about nineteen, I was completely crushed over some conflict or other and I remember I was just crumpled up in a corner when this older woman I knew sat next to me and asked me to explain what was troubling me. I told my sob tale and, when I was finished, she said, "Oh honey, it's gonna be okay... you'll see. One day you're gonna forget what this was all about [I did, by the way!] - don't you know you just have to live a little longer."

"Live a little longer" is what the winter poets tell us. Or, as the old proverb goes, "this too shall pass." 
FLY, envious Time, till thou run out thy race;
Call on the lazy leaden-stepping hours,
Whose speed is but the heavy plummet's pace;
And glut thyself with what thy womb devours,
Which is no more then what is false and vain,
And merely mortal dross;
So little is our loss,
So little is thy gain.
For when, as each thing bad thou hast entomb'd
And last of all thy greedy self consumed,
Then long Eternity shall greet our bliss,
With an individual kiss;
And Joy shall overtake us, as a flood,
When every thing that is sincerely good,
And perfectly divine,
With truth, and peace, and love, shall ever shine,
About the supreme throne
Of Him, to whose happy-making sight, alone,
When once our heavenly-guided soul shall climb,
Then all this earthly grossness quit,
Attired with stars, we shall for ever sit,
     Triumphing over Death, and Chance, and thee, O Time!
What we do as poets is we share truth - as much as we know of it. The truth of the human experience of broken hearts and deaths and lost jobs and other disappointments, we know, is accompanied by the truth of the other side of all of that: forgiveness, healing, new babies, new loves, and miracles.Spring always, always comes after winter.