Reading Poetry on Planes: Part 1 of 3

I’ve been traveling a little for business, so I’ve been on a few airplane flights.  Flying always gives me a strange sense of being in-between.  It gives me time to think where no one else can reach me: no phone, no internet (at least, internet is avoidable), no email, no appointments, no one dropping in ‘for just a moment’.   I finished my MFA in Poetry in large part on airplanes.  At that time I was traveling 2-3 days a week, usually between Dallas and New Orleans.   So when I get on a plane, I feel like I am getting some poetry time and some “me” time.  This is the first in a three-part series discussing the poetry I’ve been reading on my latest trips.  First up:   Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night: Poems.

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck

Between locales, between groups of people, between images of myself, between worlds.  While flying between Atlanta and Albany last week, I recognized this mood again. It’s the same feeling I get while reading Louise Gluck’s newest book, Faithful and Virtuous Night: Poems.

It’s the feeling of being held static, yet conscious that change is possible.    Neither here nor there, then nor now, yet dwelling in time.  Perhaps I can best describe it as is the feeling of crossing a time warp, feeling out of any place or time yet living in a timeline nonetheless, and expecting that I might emerge into any place or time.  I suppose if that is my best description, it needs a little work.  Some examples from Gluck’s new work may help.

In “Afterword” Gluck writes:  “Surely this was the desert, the dark night.”  Followed later in the same poem by:  “Now, nothing escapes, nothing enters — // I hadn’t moved.  I felt the desert / stretching ahead” … / … “constantly / face-to-face with blankness”.

That sense of  emptiness, blankness, also occurs in “Cornwall,” but this time the focus is sound: “It was all behind me, all in the past. // Ahead, as I have said, was silence.”

“Midnight” picks up the repetitive nature of the experience, the idea that one has lived something already: … “we moved into the future / while experiencing perpetual recurrences.”

Then, in “The Sword In The Stone,” the poet expresses the sense of being simultaneously inside and outside one’s own life, living it and questioning it: “All this time I had the giddy sensation / of floating above my life.  Far away / that life occurred.  But was it / still occurring: that was the question.”

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, yet I like it.  There is a sense of possibility, the idea that emptiness, silence, nothingness holds the potential for anything to happen.  Anticipation drawn out while consideration of all options can occur.  Where there is anticipation and unconstrained potential, there is also the possibility that hope may enter.

The future may be empty and silent from the vantage point of 30,000 feet in the air.  However, when the plane lands and one disembarks, life has occurred and continues to occur, and anything might yet happen.  Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night: Poems is full of looking back, not wallowing in melancholy but living “recurrences” patiently and thoughtfully while leaving open the potential for the future.

Squee!!!! The Book appears on Amazon

Sooooo excited!  Finally cracked the code on some of the more complicated formatting of a couple of poems in my ebook, Stars Crawl Out From Their Caves, and put it up on Amazon tonight.  Hit that exciting “Save & Publish” button, which is not exactly the “Easy” button, but is close enough.  Here’s the Amazon Link.   $3.99 is a steal, I say, a steal!  Or, if you participate in Kindle Unlimited, include it in your monthly reading with no additional charge.

Hurray!  Hurrah!  Huzzah!

Blog: A Grand Journey

Colorado Rive in Grand Canyon

I was journaling but felt like it could add up to more. I made notes about what I read, but didn’t fully flesh out what I’d learned. It was like leaving bread crumbs for myself. When I looked back over the trail of crumbs, I was unhappy with the path as a whole. Thoughts were not sufficiently developed. Sometimes I passed interesting views but didn’t have a way to find my way back to them.

I’d had the feeling I was discovering something. A map to the way I thought about poetry, writing, reading. But my journal didn’t live up to this idea. It didn’t capture my thoughts well enough. At the moment I write, I know what I mean. Later, maybe, when I have turned a corner or canoed around a bend, it isn’t so clear anymore.

I don’t want to resort to academic-style formality. But my journal is too casual. In between? A blog. That’s how the idea for this blog hatched. Where I end up? Still to be determined.

Can Poetry Be Science Fiction?

sunrise over planet's horizon from space

Often we think of poetry as focused on expressing the emotions and experiences of our individual lives, immediately, intensely, distilled to the essence of the experience we recall. Poetry can do that. But it can do other things as well.

Lately I have been thinking about genre fiction. You know, those persistent subcategories of fiction, each with its loyal following: romance, science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, thriller… There’s more, and subdivisions of each as well.

We tend to categorize Poetry by form (sonnet, sestinata, blank verse, etc.), by period (Romantic, Post-Modern, etc.), or by Poet’s origin (American poetry, German poetry, Japanese poetry). Sometimes by poet’s gender. Occasionally we subdivide further by subject or other categorization element (love poems, elegies), but those tend to be opportunistic groupings that depend on the subject at hand.

We tend not to focus on the general subject matter as a defining or categorizing force. But maybe we would use genres if we could imagine how they would work. Simplify them enough. The fiction genres are a good start. The implication is that one can write science fiction poems. Do you agree?

I say it can be done. Remember Dante, writing his tour guide to the circles of hell, was effectively writing an early version of epic fantasy. There is plenty of precedent for genre poetry.

More importantly, great poetry often contrasts the what-if with the what-is, what-was, or what-will-be. Science fiction fits right into the what-if. Science is changing our world so rapidly, we can’t help asking what this implies for the future.  It’s happening everywhere you look.

Here’s an example. You might have seen some news articles regarding the networking of rats.  Meaning, a rat on one continent was networked to a rat on another continent.  Implants in each communicated via satellite.  Rat One and Rat Two were more like one mind than two.  Now play that forward.  The mechanism required for linking might be different, the rats might be people, the distances might be much further.  In response to this idea, here’s my poem:


After My Brain Was Yoked

to the collective, everyone out there
got a good look
at everything back here.
On-line all the time.
My hopes, my skin, more,
bare for so many.  Who knew
one rat networked to another
would grow a galactic web?

I replay memories I’m not sure
are mine. Skyscrapers, rottweilers,
a park I’ve never visited,
a meatloaf I made & ate last night.
Or remembered eating.
All so those who brave the long stasis
homesick might find recourse.

I didn’t realize I’d receive. Always
behind my eyes now, that too-yellow light.
In my throat, what they call
potatoes, like mush. They feed back
we miss you, and apples, and please
tune to news of Jo’burg or Houston.
Desires I didn’t expect
rest in my heart like my own.

Coffee, they suggest. Chicory.
Wander by the cathedral windows.
For us. Stroll riverside.
Herons still fish, we hope.
The fainter it all grows, the fonder.
Had we known you before,
we’d miss you even more.


So there you have it: a self-proclaimed science fiction poem. Do you agree Poetry can make effective use of the traditional genres? Or not? Is this a good example or does it fall short of science fiction?

As always, all comments are welcome. I’m traveling the next couple of days on business, so while I want to respond to any comments, it may take a little longer than usual.

3 Reasons to Give Poetry a Chance

Lots of folks dismiss poetry out of hand.  Obscure.  Dense.  Old-fashioned and boring.  Poetry truly does have a poor public image.  Unfortunately, Poetry has done a lot to earn that image, aided by schools and academics that try to instill a love of poetry’s depths and intricacies before getting students to love the experience.  Those in the LovePoetry camp love all sorts of poetry and can’t wait to expose people to it.  We want them to like Shakespeare but forget our own struggles to master the language of his day.  We want to talk iambs and trochees instead of emphasizing the music of the passage.  We get the cart ahead of the horse, and the AvoidPoetry camp gains an adherent.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here are three reasons to give Poetry a try:

1.  Poems are easy to digest in one sitting.  We’re all busy.  We like short, easy to grasp material.  That’s why we like blogs!  It’s a bite at a time.  Sure there are epic poems, but most poetry tends toward shorter pieces.   Pick it up and put it down.  Re-read it tomorrow if you like.  Let it rattle around in your thoughts as you go about your day, then come back and take a quick look.  Poetry becomes an experienced meaning, not a theoretical meaning, when we interact with it.

2.  Poetry tends toward colloquial, modern language.  Sometimes funny, sometimes wry, sometimes evocative.  Sure, poets like their words, like finding just the right word, but how is that any different from architects putting just the right angle on a design?  Wordplay in poetry is similar to wordplay in music lyrics, and just as varied.  There’s something for everyone.  The perfect turn of phrase creates an image that stays with you.

3.  Per William Wordsworth, poetry originates in  “emotion recollected in tranquility”.  It collates and collages an experience so that you have the whole in your mind.  It is the difference between viewing a finished painting and watching the artist paint.  You may not have every detail of the experience, but the essence is before you.  That essence is what translates, what may parallel your own experience.  You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate a painting, and you don’t have to be an academic to appreciate a poem.

If you’re lost for where to start, I’ll give you some names.  Don’t start with the “old dead masters” — they’re valuable but they’re not as accessible as they were in their own times.  Instead look to more contemporary poets.   Try Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver, Louis Gluck, Sharon Olds, Rita Dove.  Try Tony Hoagland, Al Young,  Li-Young Lee, Thomas Lux, Dean Young.   Go to a library or bookstore and find a copy of Best American Poetry (an annual anthology) from a recent year and find out what work speaks to you.

Poetry is every day.  Every memory or point or recollection.  Every hope.  Every sudden insight.  Every what-if?

Run to Tenderness

Have you ever noticed that a small detail triggers a memory or seemingly unrelated subject?  Memories appear roughly 400 milliseconds after the triggering exposure, according to research reported on the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s blog.   This research aims to shed light on the workings of our brain’s neural networks and memories,  in order to help those suffering from PTSD or similar trauma-induced conditions.   We still have a lot to learn about how the brain’s neural networks function.

It makes me feel better to realize how little we understand the brain, because I’ve noticed some repetitive memory triggering of my own, though not traumatic.   At work, I regularly think of a poet friend I haven’t seen in years, though we have some connection on-line.

Now, my day job has nothing to do with poetry.  Several times a day, I go into a room with others and we conduct sensory evaluation of raw materials.  Sounds too  fanciful?  Ok.  Try this:  we taste coffee and tea samples; we slurp and spit.  It isn’t all that pretty, but the syncopated slurping sounds cool.   As we make our evaluations, we note who was present by circling each person’s initials from a list on our note page.   The set of initials that throw me?   MM.   MM stands for Mary M., a member of our team.

Every day, circling MM, I hear a little voice in my head whisper Mary-Marcia.  As in, Mary-Marcia Casoly, the poet.  Recalling Mary-Marcia is not bad in itself.  What unnerves me is the idea I will one day hear myself calling my teammate Mary-Marcia instead of Mary.   If When that happens, I hope Mary isn’t offended.

I wonder if my brain will begin to branch out on the MM theme.  When I see little candy-coated chocolates, will I think Mary-Marcia instead of “melts in your mouth, not in your hand”?  Will I begin to think distance can be measured in Mary-Marcia’s instead of millimeters?

I thought my brain might be trying to talk to itself about something MM related, so I pulled out Casoly’s 2003 book, Run to Tenderness.  I’d been trying to recall a few lines, but I couldn’t remember the words.  I only recalled the memory of the feel of the words.  That is like remembering that a shadow has passed across clouds.  It took a while, but I finally found the lines in “Friend”:

…        You hear bells and I’m astounded
by silence.  Only birds know we both need our wings.
You and I have struggled with this, what’s gone and what comes

That sums it up right there, though the summing is too complicated for standard arithmetic.   What’s gone plus what comes.  Bells plus silence.  Mary  plus Mary-Marcia.  All simultaneously.  MM appears to be a summing operator.

Jack Foley says, in the introduction to Run to Tenderness, that the book’s effect is of “language attempting to understand a mystery which is made more mysterious by the attempt to understand it.”  I think the effect is rather more like the effect of yoga — stretching the practitioner comfortably and uncomfortably, insistently, precisely, and honestly.  Making a new and graceful edge, reaching for it.

Casoly puts tattoos, obsidian, lilacs into the same poem — same line even — and it all feels natural.   Pigeons, peppers, ruins, dreams.  So much specificity, the poems are richer individually and even more so taken together.  The “foggy salt breeze” acts as portal to another time and place.   Put that in your neural network and let me know what happens.