High Five: Beth Gylys
(In this issue's High Five, poet Beth Gylys discusses her five favorite poems.)
Surely for most poets, choosing a top five poems, would be a challenging problem at best. There are too many wonderful poems from which to choose, and tastes change, feelings about poems change. I've had books I've loved become books I've questioned and books I've loathed become ones I've later admired. To choose five individual favorite/influential poems is also hard because I have been as influenced by whole books as by single poems. Because I have needed a way to narrow the field, I have decided to focus on five poems/books that were important to me at the beginning stages of my writing career-some were central to my understanding of self as writer before I even had any idea I/one could actually BE a writer in the contemporary world. All five poets I discuss below are writers whose work transformed my notions about what poetry could do and be.
"For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further" by Anne Sexton
Seniors at Allegheny College, where I received my BA, were required to write a long (over 50 page) senior thesis. An editor for the Allegheny Review (our campus literary journal), and having shown a clear interest in poetry, (though, lord knows, prior to my senior year, I was an awful poet), I wanted to focus my thesis around some element of poetry. Two of my advisors and professors, Jeanne Braham and Sonya Jones, encouraged me to write a thesis on the friendship between Anne Sexton and Maxine Kumin. Kumin is still alive and still publishing, and she even generously agreed to let me interview her up in her New England farmhouse over my Christmas break that year.
The result of my working on such a project, aside from that I learned how to generate a lot of stolid prose, is that my writing (specifically my poetry) improved significantly. Further, I fell in love with the dazzling and surreal-influenced early work of Anne Sexton. Sexton's poems, and especially her first three books of poetry, changed me forever as a writer. Her bold and unflinching voice, her craft, her startling and dramatic imagery were not new (much of the work I studied had been published two or more decades earlier), but they were new to me. Sexton's poems taught me that a beautifully crafted image can transform ordinary language into extraordinary metaphor, that I could be boldly dramatic and still pay attention to craft, and that I need not hide the emotional content of my work behind opacity and cryptic gestures toward meaning.
Sexton wrote "For John" after her teacher, John Holmes, pulled her aside and told her she shouldn't be writing the painful, confessional, blatantly autobiographical pieces she'd been bringing to workshop, poems about her suicide attempts, depression, infidelities and so on. This was simply not the stuff of poetry, and, to be fair, Holmes was apparently concerned for her psychic well-being. Sexton responded with this lovely and powerful ars poetica which I copy here in its entirety.
Not that it was beautiful,
but that, in the end, there was
a certain sense of order there
something worth learning
in that narrow diary of my mind
in the commonplaces of the asylum
where the cracked mirror
of my own selfish death
And if I tried
to give you something else,
something outside myself,
you would not know
that the worst of anyone
can be, finally,
an accident of hope.
I tapped my own head;
it was glass, an inverted bowl.
It is a small thing
to rage in your own bowl.
At first it was private.
Then it was more than myself;
it was you, or your house
or your kitchen.
And if you turn away
because there is no lesson here
I will hold my awkward bowl,
with all its cracked stars shining
like a complicated lie
and fasten a new skin around it
as if I were dressing an orange or a strange sun.
Not that it was beautiful
but that I found some order there.
There ought to be something special
in this kind of hope.
This is something I would never find
in a lovelier place, my dear,
although your fear is anyone's fear,
like an invisible veil between us all...
and sometimes in private,
my kitchen, your kitchen,
my face, your face.
This is an unusual early poem for Sexton because it is a free-verse poem. It is not her best poem, I don't think. But it is a poem that moved me when I read it, and moves me still even as I copy it from her Complete Poems years since I first came across the poem. Here we see some of that surreal influence: "I will hold my awkward bowl…and fasten a new skin around it/as if I were dressing an orange or a strange sun," that became signature Sexton. The poem is more straightforward than some of Sexton's poems, but she makes a gesture in the ending lines that for me changes the poem from complaint to universal statement about the artistic enterprise. "This is something I would never find/in a lovelier place, my dear," she writes, and suddenly the poem has shifted. We don't know quite where we stand. What is the "this" and what "place" is she referring to in these lines? At times, I would quibble with this slippery unspecificity, but in this particular poem, the vagueness works to open up the poem. The place could be her psyche, the workshop, or the poetry itself. The place is all of these, and it is also the place of communion and commonality. Holmes' fear, she knows, has as much to do with his own issues of insecurity and poetic conservatism as it does with the quality of her work. And she calls him on it. Her poem, in the nicest possible way, gives Holmes, her mentor and teacher, the poetic finger. And she's right. She's dead-on right to challenge him. I love the poem for that, for its rightness, its belief in the larger issues at stake, the humanness at the heart of all suffering and all kinds of suffering. The last two lines of the poem move from the domestic parallel kitchens of speaker and reader to their faces. The last image is one of the mirror, two faces juxtaposed beside one another and forced to notice their likeness. At the heart of the confessional writing of Sexton, of Plath, of Lowell, is the idea that even in their most extreme despair, humans are connected, are similar, reflect and grow in their mutual identifications.
"Tomatoes" (from Cemetary Nights) by Stephen Dobyns
I met Stephen Dobyns the summer after I'd graduated from Allegheny. Jeanne Braham had given me a flyer for the Stonecoast Writers Conference in Portland, Maine. As luck would have it, I was bumming around for the summer, living in New Hampshire with an old high school friend. I decided to apply to the conference, and when I got in, it was easy enough to drive to Maine from where I lived near Lake Winnepesaukee. Stephen Dobyns was my workshop instructor. I had not heard of him, nor did I know of his work before I went to that conference. He is absolutely brilliant and was (at the time) absolutely terrifying to me. When I went to talk to him during my one on one conference, I couldn't even look up from the tips of my shoes.
All of the faculty gave readings at Stonecoast, and Dobyns' reading was a reading that would change my life. His poem "Tomatoes" was among the poems he read that evening. I believe now (I didn't know enough then to make such proclamations about poetry) that Cemetery Nights was one of the best books published during the 1980s. The imaginative genius behind those poems is unquestionable. And the poems themselves-at least many of those in the book-are beyond metaphoric: they are allegoric. The scope of the narratives, their delightfully funny postmodern dramas, the dramatic punch of their conclusions, seem to me quintessential Dobyns. In his best work, Dobyns blends formal dexterity with reportorial accuracy, with imaginative acuity to create poems that are absolutely fresh and delightful and poignant—poems with unquestionable authority and human insight.
Before I heard him read, I didn't know poems could work like Dobyns' poems worked. I didn't know poetry could be funny. I didn't know poetry could have a clear narrative line. In his reading, Dobyns was able to debunk so much of my limited view about what poetry should and could achieve and how it might reach that achievement.
"Tomatoes" is one of a number of poems I might discuss from Cemetery Nights. It is, I think, an apt example of the poetry included in this fine collection. The poem is a fairly straightforward narrative about a woman who, after undergoing plastic surgery, is shot on the streets of Rio. After a mix-up at the morgue, the woman's son is called to identify the body, but he isn't able to because of her updated face. Flummoxed, he ends up taking 10 women's bodies home with him and has all of them cremated together. The poem's tone is removed, flat even: "she takes her new face/out on the streets of Rio. A young man/with a gun wants her money. Bang, she's dead." This is not "poetic" poetry. In fact, the poems themselves lean toward prose rhythms, controlled as they are generally by a ten syllable line. But the language fits the prosaic nature of the story. Further, the language in an odd way replicates the odd disconnect in our contemporary world between emotional and physical reality. And that's really what this poem is about, the strangeness of losing a parent juxtaposed against the strangeness of a world where people make so much money, they can change their physical exteriors-sometimes in deeply dramatic ways, a world where grief is often not simply grief, grievingly felt. Few poets have Dobyns' deft comic timing and gift for the apt metaphor: "You've seen/how some people have a little urn on their mantel./This man has a huge silver garbage can." And few poets could move from the parodic, hilarity of this line into the poem's final lines when the son throws himself across tomatoes he's grown in a garden fertilized using "his" mother's ashes:
In their roundness,
he sees his mother's breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries, and flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation, think of his ravenous kisses.
The end is tragicomic, carefully balanced between the humor of the scene, the irony of the son's confusion and the poignancy of his loss. At his best, Dobyns presents us our world: its odd juxtapositions, its excesses, its befuddlements and its grace.
"The Old Fools" by Philip Larkin
I ended up attending graduate school at Syracuse University, where Stephen Dobyns had just secured an appointment. He is a fan of Larkin, and he introduced me to Larkin's poems in a class focused on poetics, a class I took with him my first year there. I believe he brought this piece in one day. I know we explicated a number of Larkin's poems during the course of the semester. He is a poet I continue to admire and learn from each time I read him. I love his dark broodings. I also love and emulate his formal genius. Few poems are as rightly phrased as This Be the Verse: "They fuck you up your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do." Few poets produced so little work and had such a profound influence. American poets-in their fervor to publish as much as humanly possible-certainly could learn from Larkin that less can indeed be more.
"The Old Fools" works on a turn and a surprise. It is a poem that showcases Larkin's many gifts. The poem begins accusatorily: "What do they think has happened, the old fools,/to make them like this?" Readers are placed in a state of suspension as they read this opening. We don't know who "they" are. Nor do we know whether the speaker's gripe is personal and specific or more general and global. As the initial stanza unfolds, the poem continues to dance along the lines of the ironic, but does not show its cards:
Do they somehow suppose
It's more grown-up when your mouth hands open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can't remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there's really been no change,
And they've always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don't (and they can't), it's
Not knowing if the tone is straight, if we take the voice at face value, our sympathies lie with the "they" here. We know the aged have no choice but to age. We know we will probably one day be like the droolers and dreamers. The speaker seems to us intolerant and foolish in his or her own right. But then the poem shifts: "Why aren't they screaming?" asks Larkin's speaker. Suddenly we are in another realm altogether. Is this speaker then afraid to die? Or is Larkin merely playing us? The second stanza of the poems is demarcated by a dramatic tone shift. The poem turns quietly descriptive, its affect nearly flat:
At death, you break up: the bits that were you
Start speeding away from each other for ever
With no one to see. It's only oblivion, true:
We had it before, but then it was going to end
Oblivion before birth and prior to consciousness doesn't have the same stakes as it does after death.
Next time you can't pretend
There'll be anything else. And these are the first signs:
Not knowing how, not hearing who, the power
Of choosing gone. Their looks show they're for it:
Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines—
How can they ignore it?
Larkin's no longer accusing anyone. His tone has shifted to bafflement. It will turn from this to a kind of tender acquisitiveness:
Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know yet can't quite name.
The poem's graceful in its querying—graceful, eloquent, and empathetic. Our speaker now has shown us his hand. He is terrified and challenged by the facts of our aging. He approaches it from a different perspective in each of these four stanzas and thus reveals to us a complex of ways we all might experience aging and declining toward death. We can be at the once angry, baffled, sad, incredulous, and resigned to our fate. Larkin understands that he is connecting here with the ultimate question of what it means to be a human. And he is attacking this question using highly stylized, highly crafted language. The four stanzas of the poem are comprised of 12 lines, eleven of which follow a loose pentameter and the last of which is written in trimester. And each stanza rhymes following this scheme: A-B-A-C-B-D-C-E-D-F-E-F. Even faced with the chaos of deterioration toward death, Larkin maintains and imposes order on his language and on his thinking. The tonal variations of the poem are enacted by and accentuated by the formal elements of this piece. His poem is a cage, just as our bodies are a cage, but oh, what beauty we might make of our words and our lives.
Bishop's Complete Poems
Of the writers who have shaped me, Bishop may be single most important. I read her Collected when I was 22 or so years old, and I have continued to read her and teach her over the course of my career as an academic. I admire her for her restraint, her uncanny eye, her intensity, her care. Like Larkin, she is a poet whose output was slim, but whose genius is unquestionable. It is difficult to choose a single poem from this book that captures all of what I have learned from her. There are far too many poems that seem to me to speak to why I love her and why I am forever drawn back to her poems. "The Filling Station," for example, is a poem that teaches us the importance of specificity, not only in creating a clear scene, but in ratcheting up humor, and in infusing a scene with emotional import:
Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.
The stuttering clarification with regard to the "color" at the station, and the reference to the hairy plant and the doily are not only funny, but they give us a clear vision of precisely the bleakness of this place. They help to pave the way for the declarative last line: "Somebody loves us all." If our speaker were less observant, less able to look at this scene with humor and with sympathy, that final line could potentially feel flat—or worse-patronizing. Bishop seems to me to have had uncanny ability to get at the heart of the matter in her poems, yet she never quite spells out the heart of the matter. In "Filling Station," for instance, the larger question raised is why is there such poverty in the world, and who is this speaker/who are we to come driving in and be served by the impoverished? Her depiction of the scene allows us to come to these questions through the back door, as it were. We enjoy the beauty of the poem and the observations, just as she bludgeons us with them in the end. And so it is with "One Art" her famous villanelle. She dances around the true loss: the loss of love. So when we reach the poem's final stanza, we are kicked in the gut by it "-Even losing you, (the joking voice a gesture/I love) I shan't have lied." Our speaker has lost much in her life, and the hardest loss has been this last. We know as much by the qualifications of the final couplet "losing's not too hard to master/though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster." It's hard but not too hard to suffer this loss-in other words, our speaker knows it won't kill her in the end. And, yes, it does look like disaster. It also feels like disaster. We hear behind these lines the brave effort to save face. We hear our own efforts to hold ourselves together in the face of loss. We feel this speaker's pain at the same time we feel our own, and we also identify with the speaker's bravery, her unwillingness to give in to despair, though she nearly has. The slight variations she inserts in the villanelle lead us to the final realization: I have lost my lover, and as a result I am also nearly lost. Bishop balances emotional energy with formal acuity and an exacting eye. She is a poet whose work I will never tire of reading.
Rilke's New Poems trans. Snow
Perhaps it is a bad idea to choose for one of my five a poet whose work I only know in translation. However, I can't imagine knowing the poems in their original would make me admire and love the poems less—perhaps it would give me a different/lower opinion of the translations! I hope I one day know enough German to understand Rilke in all his power and richness, though unfortunately, that looks unlikely. I am grateful to translators like Snow, whose gifts have enabled me to appreciate Rilke, even if my appreciation is of poems that are mere shadows of themselves.
A few years ago, I spent part of my summer in the Pyrenees working on new pieces. This translation of the New Poems was among the few books I shipped to Spain. I knew Rilke would spur me to produce new work. I also wanted his intensity and his ability to infuse symbolic meaning into an image to influence the writing I'd be producing while I was there. Many of the poems in this book are stunningly beautiful and rich: "Archaic Torso Of Apollo" "The Leopard" "Corpse Washing". Rilke is able to bring an image to life like no one I've ever read and to change the image into something more than human if that is possible. A passage from "A Bowl of Roses" illustrates what I mean:
Look at that white one which blissfully unfolded
And stands there in the great open petals
Like a Venus upright in the seashell;
and the blushing one, which as if confused
turns across to one that is cool,
and how the cold one stands wrapped in itself
among the open ones that shed everything.
And what they shed: how it can be
light and heavy, a cloak, a burden, a wing,
and a mask, it varies endlessly,
and how they shed it, as before the loved ones.
The precision of this carefully drawn series of images strikes me as profoundly moving. The flowers become like lovers straining and reaching and unfolding. They are as rich as, though less troubling and sexual than, Roethke's greenhouse poems. Rilke in fact moves me as almost no other poet can move me through mere description. The bowl of roses becomes so much its own sentient being that I am transformed by reading these words. And for me, that is the mark of a poem/poet I will want to revisit.
Indeed, I am drawn to those poets who have a keen eye and a clarity of vision, whose work is dazzling but controlled, emotional but contained. I am drawn to those poets who enable me to step into their vision in a powerful and emotive way so that by reading their words I see and feel in a new way. The poems I love grab me in and by the throat when I read them—an experience that is sometimes harrowing but always vivifying.
Currently an Associate Professor at Georgia State University, Beth Gylys won the Ohio State University Press Journal Prize for her collection Spot in the Dark (Ohio State UP 2004). Her book Bodies that Hum (1999 Silverfish Review Press) won the Gerald Cable Poetry First Book Award, and her chapbook Balloon Heart won the Quentin R. Howard award (1998 Wind Press). Awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, The University of Cincinnati, and Syracuse University, she has had work published in many journals, including Paris Review, Antioch Review, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Boston Review, and The Southern Review.
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