Poems to Spur Reflection

While searching for some novels at Bird Library recently, I discovered a poetry collection by an author whose work I would like to share. David Ignatow’s Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, Ltd. 1999) drew me in with its short poems, spare language and universal themes of family, advancing age and death.

I was also attracted to the small, black and white author photo to the right of the title; with his white hair, glasses and mustache, I felt an immediate affinity for David Ignatow. He seemed like a great uncle who would serve you lemonade on the porch of his house in the summer while discussing his crop of tomato plants.

The publisher’s note in the back of the book indicated Ignatow wrote most of the poems in the collection in 1996, a year before his death at age 83. He was born in 1914, raised in Brooklyn and passed away at his home in East Hampton, New York, on November 17, 1997. He wrote several poetry collections, served as a poetry editor and professor and earned numerous honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Robert Frost Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.

In Living Is What I Wanted, Ignatow reflects on his life and presents truths accessible to any reader; you don’t need an MFA in creative writing or a Ph.D. in English literature to understand or appreciate these poems. The most prominent subject is death, which seems to hover like the figure in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; yet Ignatow does not run from death, but rather greets it head on, accepting the inevitable.   

Here are a few selections from the book:

Staying alive

Reason for living.
I don’t have any.

What is your reason for not having a reason?
Is there a difference?

Are you that sour on life?
Can I separate one from the other?

What is your strategy for staying alive?
Isn’t being oneself enough?

Is it worth living without a reason?
Do I have a say in the matter?

Would you prefer not to have been born?
Did I have a mind of my own then?

Would you rather be dead now?
Do I have a choice?

Then you are opposed to suicide?
Isn’t living hard enough?

Then to live is to be brave and on the move.
Are you telling me?

What would you recommend for others?
Can’t they make up their own minds?

Then you should be congratulated.
Have I said something exceptional?

All living is lying

All living is lying:
we are unable to say what this life is.
We speak about it in metaphors
as if it could be other
than what it is, and even of ourselves
we say we are like this or like that.

Patient we wait
so that
once dead
we’ll know perhaps just who we were,
with others thinking back on us.

Where I built my house

Does being born matter
now that I am leaving it behind? Where
is a world I can go to
other than this ground
on which I walk and where I built my house?

Am I complaining of the shortness of life?
I am, and that makes me much like everyone else.
Follow Adam, the leader, into the ground.

Into the circle

To my friends I am in good health
and voluble, but I have moved
into the circle, after many years
in sun and shadow, having walked
as does a sightseer, in no fixed direction.

Into the circle I stand looking back
on that life. I cannot leave
nor seem to want to. As though programmed
I look out in an act of living.

Presence in an empty room

I must accept aches and pains of the body
if I am to accept
my presence in the empty room,
with no motive for being
in an empty room, and so
with no motive for being. If
I can accept aches and pains,
I exist.

Ignatow, David. Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (American Poets Continuum). Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1999.

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Thomas Wolfe: You Can’t Go Home Again

I recently finished reading Thomas Wolfe’s paperweight of a book You Can’t Go Home Again.

The autobiographical novel, published in 1940, two years after Wolfe’s death in 1938, gets bogged down with scenes that could have been edited out with no loss of narrative structure.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten; the Carl Van Vechten Photographs Collection at the Library of Congress

Photo of Thomas Wolfe by Carl Van Vechten; the Carl Van Vechten Photographs Collection at the Library of Congress

However, I enjoyed embarking on a journey of self-discovery with the protagonist, a lonely young writer named George Webber, who pens a famous novel about his hometown, Libya Hill (a fictional setting that could be considered a stand-in for Wolfe’s native Asheville, North Carolina), and then is reviled by his friends and neighbors because the book uncovers the dark secrets of the town.

And although I found myself skipping over sections of the book—descriptions and digressions that slowed down the story—Wolfe’s lyrical voice and ability to construct stunning passages of prose can make a reader stop skimming pages and pay attention to each sentence.

Here are some beautiful paragraphs where Wolfe seemed to capture some central truths about life and humanity.

“So, then, to every man his chance—to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity—to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him—this, seeker, is the promise of America.”

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel, Asheville, NC (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel, Asheville, NC (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

“For four years George Webber lived and wrote in Brooklyn, and during all this time his life was about as solitary as any that a modern man can know. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious circumstance, is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man. Not only has this been true of the greatest poets, as evidenced by the huge unhappiness of their published grief, but now it seemed to George to apply with equal force to all the nameless ciphers who swarmed about him in the streets.”

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel Quote (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Thomas Wolfe Memorial Angel Quote (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

“All things belonging to the earth will never change—the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth … they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”

Thomas Wolfe's mother's boardinghouse in Asheville, NC. It's now called the Thomas Wolfe Memorial (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

Thomas Wolfe’s mother’s boardinghouse in Asheville, NC. It’s now called the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. (Photo by Francis DiClemente)

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”

Wolfe, Thomas. You Can’t Go Home Again. New York: Scribner (A Division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), 2011 (first published in 1940). Print.

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Two Great Ladies of Verse

I finished reading two books recently by two female poets from the past. I had always wanted to read something by the 20th century writer Dorothy Parker, so I took out The Portable Dorothy Parker from the library. At the same time, I was reading Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete using the Kindle app on my iPad mini.

Parker, a member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers who met at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City in the 1920s, was noted for her acerbic wit, cosmopolitan-themed short stories that rely on dialogue to carry the plot and poetry punctuated by both humor and pathos.

Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy Parker serves as a good introduction to the author’s work, as it contains a mix of poems, short stories, book reviews and theater criticism. The stories feel dated to the time period Parker lived, but two stories, Big Blonde and A Telephone Call, are worth checking out.

I also felt a pang of sadness when reading this line in Parker’s New York Times obituary: “Miss Parker left no survivors.” No human survivors—but she did leave behind a lot of written material to explore.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

The Portable Dorothy Parker

In both collections, Parker and Dickinson give us little gems in verse form focusing on weighty themes like life, death and love, along with observations on a myriad of other subjects.

These brief poems—gleaming verbal diamonds—carry an authentic voice and pack emotional truth, and both women knew how to play with language in such a way as to delight readers.

I picked through both volumes and selected some short poems worth sharing. They can be consumed in small bites, such as while riding public transportation or waiting in the grocery store checkout aisle.

From The Portable Dorothy Parker:

The Small Hours

No more my little song comes back;
And now of nights I lay
My head on down, to watch the black
And wait the unfailing gray.

Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;
And sad’s a song that’s dumb;
And sad it is to lie and know
Another dawn will come.

Godspeed

Oh, seek, my love, your newer way;
I’ll not be left in sorrow.
So long as I have yesterday,
Go take your damned tomorrow!

The Thin Edge

With you, my heart is quiet here,
And all my thoughts are cool as rain.
I sit and let the shifting year
Go by before the windowpane,
And reach my hand to yours, my dear . . .
I wonder what it’s like in Spain.

Experience

Some men break your heart in two,
Some men fawn and flatter,
Some men never look at you;
And that cleans up the matter.

My Own

Then let them point my every tear,
And let them mock and moan;
Another week, another year,
And I’ll be with my own

Who slumber now by night and day
In fields of level brown;
Whose hearts within their breasts were clay
Before they laid them down.

Two-Volume Novel

The sun’s gone dim, and
The moon’s turned black;
For I loved him, and
He didn’t love back.

Rhyme Against Living

If wild my breast and sore my pride,
I bask in dreams of suicide;
If cool my heart and high my head,
I think, “How lucky are the dead!”

News Item

Men seldom make passes
At girls who wear glasses.

And lastly, the following is one of my all-time favorite poems (right up there with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask and Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson), and Parker’s piece could be considered a companion poem or a bookend to Langston Hughes’ Suicide’s Note.

Resumé

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Parker, Dorothy. The Portable Dorothy Parker (Revised and Enlarged Edition). New York: Penguin Books, 1976. Print.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

And here are the selections from Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete:

The Mystery of Pain

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

With a Flower

I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.

I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Simplicity

How happy is the little stone
That rambles in the road alone,
And doesn’t care about careers,
And exigencies never fears;
Whose coat of elemental brown
A passing universe put on;
And independent as the sun,
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute decree
In casual simplicity.

A Word

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

The Inevitable

While I was fearing it, it came,
But came with less of fear,
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it dear.
There is a fitting a dismay,
A fitting a despair.
’Tis harder knowing it is due,
Than knowing it is here.
The trying on the utmost,
The morning it is new,
Is terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

Lost Faith

To lose one’s faith surpasses
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished, — faith cannot.

Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being’s beggary.

A Book

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

Love

Love is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation, and
The exponent of breath.

Dickinson, Emily. Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete. Kindle Edition.

 

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