How Poems Work – An Ecstasy of Aloneness
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How Poems Work: on Anne Michael’s "Phantom Limbs"
How Poems Work: Lives of the Great, on Phyllis Webb’s "Socrates"
How Poems Work: Excerpt from "On the Sonnet"
How Poems Work: Latest News
On A.F. Moritz’s "What Way"
There is an apocalyptic streak in the poetry of A.F. Moritz, one composed of moments when he adopts the raiment of a prophet and comments upon our course in the world. This habit is welcome, as one of the functions of the poet is to interrogate our personal and collective means of being. But in this case, Moritz writes an interlocking poem that asks “What way should we proceed?” and, here, answers in terms of the cyclical.
This is a poem of opposites, of counterings, and it begins with an opposite: the table, where people eat and talk and enjoy their lives, and the grave, where people do their grieving. Moritz commingles the two words: the “they” of the poem do not know “whether to grieve or celebrate”, suggesting that both practices happen in both locales, table and grave, borrowing a trick of the elegy to mix the potent ingredients and create an effect that is complicated catharsis. The next pairing comes with “noon” and “dusk”; again, Moritz says that the two are sequential, or cyclical. The worth of either option is not rated; like seasons, these opposites turn into one another. Moritz then comments literally upon our century’s militarism and industrialism with the vowel-rich “locked stockade of heavy machines” but contrasts this dull and “heavy” line with an airborne blue heron–the poet, perhaps, surveying all?–which finds its own way and goes “farther on.” Thus the dead, deadening, grounded aspects of our society are contrasted to a coloured, living, aloft being. At this point, there are two things that are finding their way: the pronoun “they”, which the poem suggests is “us”, and the heron. But where are they headed?
How Poems Work: Excerpt from "On ending a poem"
To come to the end. To stop. Not necessarily the same thing, as far as poems are concerned. In fact, a frequent criticism of a poem is that its stopping place creates a “weak”ending or one that “doesn’t work.” I stumbled into this muddy field recently in asking poet-editors to read and comment on a book I was working on. Critiques of endings dotted the pages, rarely the same view, occasionally even contradicting each other. …
How Poems Work: Lost clauses
On Yehuda Amichai’s "A Precise Woman"
We are often told that poetry is “what is lost in translation.” But if that is true, why has my greatest pleasure so often been the discovery of poems in translation, poems I can’t understand in the original which nonetheless I experience as “original”: that is, as authentic voices unlike any of the other voices I love?
“A Precise Woman” by Yehuda Amichai is ostensibly a portrait, in 17 unrhymed lines, of someone whose tightly cinched waist signals the separation of her worldly concerns into the upper and lower spheres. The poem itself imitates this division, its first eight lines describing the imposition of order and the last nine representing its dissolution. The woman’s short hair and penchant for tidying drawers emphasize her orderliness but her sensuality is revealed in “cries of passion” that evoke bird-calls.