“America I Saw You” by Bridget Meeds

When I taught Leaves of Grass a few years ago the students just didn’t buy it, though they loved Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Their rejection of Whitman’s grand American hope comes back to me every now and then. Was it the poetic claim to omnipresence that irritated them, or did Whitman’s egalitarian vision of hope seem like nothing but hype to young readers in a post-9/11 world, where climate has become a threat and employment prospects are grim at best?

This reaction was all the more striking when they embraced Edward Albee’s anxiety-ridden world of illusion and rage in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so wonderfully captured onscreen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.That world made perfect sense to them, and they loved it on paper and on film.

I thought of those students again when I recently read Bridget Meeds’ stunning Whitmanian poem, “America I Saw You.” Meeds brings the maker of American Religion into the 21st century, and I have a feeling my students would have loved it:

America, I Saw You

America, I saw you leaping from the burning skyscraper, believing in your urgency that you
would survive,
America, I saw you on the on-ramp, smiling with meth-brown teeth, holding a sign that said
“homeless and pregnant please help,”
America, I saw you huddled in the belly of a Chinook, earbudded and solitary,
America, I saw you up at four a.m., ironing your blouse for work,
America, I saw you punching a stop sign, screaming in Chinese,
America, I saw you looking straight with seventeen pounds of pot hidden in your spare tire,
America, I saw you texting while driving,
America, I saw you bite your father in a fury,
America, I saw you put on ten pounds,
America, I saw you walk the winning run,
America, I saw you asking for an epidural,
America, I saw you raise your hand to strike your child,
America, I saw you eating roadkill woodchuck.
America, I saw you drinking a kamikaze by the hotel pool,
America, I saw you at the Super Great Wall buffet with blue swastikas tattooed on your neck and
America, I saw you in your 87 Oldsmobile, wearing your best wig and sunglasses, God radio
America, I saw you in your private helicopter above Manhattan, doing mental arithmetic,
America, I saw you walking a dog who was wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt,
America, I saw you waving a white linen napkin from a broken window in the burning
America, I saw you fall.

To get in touch with Bridget and find out more about her fabulous work, click here.


Should We Need to “Relate” to Art?

In this article New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead rejects “relatability” as a cultural “scourge,” as she comments on popular radio host Ira Glass’s tweeted response to a performance of King Lear: “Shakespeare sucks…No stakes, not relatable.”

Mead provides a quick survey of the rise of the use of “relatable” as a cultural demand vis-a-vis art, and she explains why it’s such a problem:

Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Read this fine piece here. Then go read, watch, experience some art form that feels totally “unrelatable,” and see what happens.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: Impediment Removed

Have you ever read something for years and felt like you never quite got it and then one day it finally clicked? This has happened to me with Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. It’s the one that insists on love as constant and (by implication) true lovers as faithful until the “edge of doom”:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his heighth be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The meaning is clear enough, but I’ve always felt a little cool toward this poem, admiring its virtuosity but not really loving it for some reason. The language has always seemed a bit oddly formal compared to many of the other sonnets, with their precise but colloquial language. Like those brilliant lines in Sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun): “I grant I never saw a goddess go – / My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.”

The other thing is that this sonnet doesn’t seem to be addressing anyone in particular, unlike so many others in its group, the first 126 sonnets dedicated to the young man. By comparison, this poem can read like a boring and not especially convincing PSA. Thank you mom for telling me about true love. Can I have the car keys now?

But 116 comes alive if we read it not as a declaration but as a rebuttal, as the lover talking directly back to the young man, despite the lack of obvious direct address. A few clues invite this reading: The sonnet comes toward the end of those addressed to the young man; many of these later poems, especially 87-90, but others too, chronicle the failure of a love relationship. The young man has evidently moved on to greener pastures.

The poem is also full of “not,” “no,” and “never” (lines 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 11, 14), a hint that the lover is not just making some noble claim about true love; he is arguing against something and responding to someone.

What’s the situation and the argument he rejects? The language of 116 suggests it is something like this: In the process of dumping him, the young man claims, “Things have changed (altered)… I need space…new impediments have arisen.” All the dull standbys when somebody is lame and just wants out.

The lover savagely calls him on it. Well, you can run that crap if you want, but “let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” You can say things have changed, but I say that true love is an “ever-fixed mark.” Love is not this; it is that; x, y, and z don’t matter; what matters is faith and constancy.

The lover also implies that the real issue is the young man’s superficial attachment to beauty, and he attacks this by saying love is stronger than the passing of time and the rosy lips and cheeks that time will eventually ravage.

The idea of a rebuttal makes this poem comprehensible, and makes perfect sense coming from Shakespeare the playwright. And I love this reading, which I learned from Stephen Burt’s and David Mikics’s The Art of the Sonnet and Helen Vendler’s classic, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, because it reminds us not only of what good poetry is but what it does.

The best lyric engages some real person, thing, or situation. It can be a lover, or death, or birth, or something far more ordinary but still profound in its way, like the shock of fresh cream, an afternoon flower, the weird shadow behind the door, the annoying socks you keep having to pick up.

For me, imagining a context for 116 doesn’t just bring the poem to life; it makes it burst into life, reminding us that poetry–all art–is part of life, not some frivolous decoration of it.

Both writing and reading a good poem means there is something at stake. Find it and prosper.




The Marvelous Elizabeth Bishop

Here in the land of western waterfalls snow finally concedes to rain and rain means occasional lightning, which makes me think of my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem.

This poem, “It is marvelous to wake up together,” was not printed during Bishop’s life but was discovered among her personal papers after her death. It’s a love poem, which is somewhat uncharacteristic as Bishop did not typically focus on romantic love in her poetry.

Entirely characteristic, though, is Bishop’s power of vision. In this poem it is both wide and subtle:

It is marvellous to wake up together

At the same minute; marvellous to hear

The rain begin suddenly all over the roof,

To feel the air clear

As if electricity had passed through it

From a black mesh of wires in the sky.

All over the roof the rain hisses,

And below, the light falling of kisses.

An electrical storm is coming or moving away;

It is the prickling air that wakes us up.

If lightning struck the house now, it would run

From the four blue china balls on top

Down the roof and down the rods all around us,

And we imagine dreamily

How the whole house caught in a bird-cage of lightning

Would be quite delightful rather than frightening;

And from the same simplified point of view

Of night and lying flat on one’s back

All things might change equally easily,

Since always to warn us there must be these black

Electrical wires dangling. Without surprise

The world might change to something quite different,

As the air changes or the lightning comes without our blinking,

Change as our kisses are changing without our thinking.

The beauty here is stunning: intimate yet unsentimental thanks to Bishop’s ingenious style, her serenity, the controlled elegant lines, her judicious use of rhyme.

The coupling of erotic and atmospheric electricity is an obvious choice but Bishop makes it work through her brilliant power of observation. Avoiding the trap of clichéd metaphor, she does not liken human eros to lightning but goes the reverse route, beginning with the larger world and imagining a literal storm that both shares its heat with the lovers and contrasts the force of hissing rain with the “light falling of kisses.”

And the image of the house as a “bird-cage of lightning” in the second stanza becomes a rich symbol of the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of love: intimate and prone to ensnare.

But the third stanza is what moves things to a higher level of subtlety, to something beyond a simple love lyric in the hands of a masterful technician.

The idea is that change comes as easily as a lightning storm that delights rather than worries – delights because it’s dark and the speaker is in bed with her lover. With its hints of motion and progress, this joining of eros and change seems hopeful, perhaps a quintessentially American hope, nourished most obviously by the poetic legacy of Walt Whitman. Bishop’s lines in fact recall “When I Heard at the Close of the Day” when Whitman writes of a meeting with a lover in the dark near water in motion:

And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll

slowly continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed

to me whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same

cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face

inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I

was happy.

Interestingly though, Bishop mentions neither happiness nor progress but the more neutral “change,” which could be benevolent, yet there are subtle hints of foreboding: the electrical wires dangling are always there, but they are there to warn of impending change, not to celebrate it. What is this vague “something quite different” the world might become?

I believe the poem deliberately leaves this question unanswered because it wants us to imagine things fortunate and ominous. It allows us the electrified pleasure of eros and the dark house charged with light for just a moment. It wants us to take innocent pleasure in the lovers’ changing kisses, and it wants us to consider that the wires might destroy rather than enchant.

And it wants us to remember that this belief in easy change is rooted in the “simplified point of view” nurtured by darkness, by the vulnerability of sleep, of sudden waking, of love.

And maybe that’s the poem’s genius and its subtlety. These words, deeply generous and not at all naïve, might be telling us something about the inevitable force of a simplified perspective, the force of experience both limited and overwhelming to shape our larger perceptions of things.

Marvelous indeed, and a fitting last gift from one of the world’s best twentieth century poets.

Violence is Senseless, Grief Makes Sense

With participants from around the world, the Boston Marathon is an international event, and so the tragedy there is both local and global. And there was violence in other places this week, a terrible series of car bombs in Iraq, and explosions in Mogadishu, which occur regularly and do not receive the attention they deserve. My heart is heavy as I imagine the grief of others and struggle to feel my own.

Many hopeful messages have circulated. The intentions behind these stories are good and are surely helping some people. I especially appreciate the story of Carlos Arredondo, a peace activist who had already lost both of his sons, one in Iraq and one to suicide, and who helped to save some of the wounded in Boston.

But as blogger Jan Wilberg points out, it might be too soon to barrel ahead and “rush to the healing station.”

Don’t get me wrong – the positive stories have value; among other things, they can help people to absorb the shock, to begin to comprehend the incomprehensible.

But it is also important to grieve. These violent acts were not inevitable, and there is no justification for death from a bomb attack. But when people die, not only anger but grief becomes a necessary part of life, a rational response to loss. Grieving rites exist in various forms throughout the world but the recognition of loss always seems to be there. We grieve the loss of others through formal rituals, which in part define us as humans.

This impulse to gloss over grief is especially troubling given that the updated DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which sets the cultural standard for how mental health is defined in much of the Western world, now encourages grief to be categorized as a mental illness rather than a normal human response.

The change has sparked much criticism and debate, but the result is clear: just as the ravenous beauty industry has turned aging into an unnatural horror requiring treatment, now the misguided arbiters of sanity appear to be doing the same with bereavement. Instead of recognizing grief as part of what makes us human, mental health practitioners will be encouraged to treat it as an illness, which could encourage a cultural stigma around grieving.

Considering the violence throughout the world this week, I remember a haunting poem by Louise Glück called “Vespers.” Glück has written several poems with this title; this one airs a grievance to a distant God over a failed tomato crop. Her spare, elegant language is impressive:

In your extended absence, you permit me

use of earth, anticipating

some return on investment. I must report

failure in my assignment, principally

regarding the tomato plants.

I think I should not be encouraged to grow

tomatoes. Or, if I am, you should withhold

the heavy rains, the cold nights that come

so often here, while other regions get

twelve weeks of summer. All this

belongs to you: on the other hand,

I planted the seeds, I watched the first shoots

like wings tearing the soil, and it was my heart

broken by the blight, the black spot so quickly

multiplying in the rows. I doubt

you have a heart, in our understanding of

that term. You who do not discriminate

between the dead and the living, who are, in consequence,

immune to foreshadowing, you may not know

how much terror we bear, the spotted leaf,

the red leaves of the maple falling

even in August, in early darkness: I am responsible

for these vines.

The poem is not about violence but about the possibilities of grief, what happens when someone grieves a loss. It is firmly rooted in the tradition of Job, a virtuous Old Testament character who loses everything and struggles to comprehend the injustice of his misfortune. Like Job, the speaker here laments a material loss that brings about a larger crisis of faith in whatever metaphysical force is believed to control the mundane world. The speaker has failed to cultivate fruit from the earth granted to her and questions the deity’s indifference to her labor. And this leads her to suspect that this particular god might not be omniscient after all, might not finally understand “how much terror we bear.”

The grief in this poem is different from that brought on by the recent tragedies of senseless violence. Yet for many people in the world, crop failure can be as deadly as roadside bombs, if less sudden. Disasters like these bring crises both practical and metaphysical, making people question their beliefs, like Glück’s speaker who begins to doubt the divine power she addresses.

And that’s one reason I find this poem so remarkable in this moment: it poses as a harmless complaint about a failed garden, but if we pay attention we can see that it is making much larger claims on us.

It asks us to notice that for many people, a small crop can mean the difference between survival and death.

It reminds us that grief is not unnatural or a luxury. It is not a weird disease or a Gucci bag you wish you could afford, but an inevitable part of life, because loss is inevitable, a reality that the DSM-V is increasingly making a debatable proposition. Some people must now challenge authority for the right to simply grieve.

And on my reading, authority is what the poem finally challenges as well: if we take time to grieve, to voice our sorrow, we too might begin to question authority, like the bizarre imperative to stifle normal emotion. And then we might also begin to question other types of authority, like the roots underlying the patterns of violence in the U.S. and around the world. Courageous writers like Glenn Greenwald are addressing such questions.

Or we could just forget about all that and try to feel happy again.

Maybe some people don’t hesitate to question authority in times like these whether they grieve or not. Maybe some people think art and especially poetry are frivolous and irrelevant to any of this. But I do not read this poem as a frothy sound bite, a feel-good mantra of “grief (not greed) is good.” For me it is a potent reminder to slow down, to claim the right to grieve, to begin to question what is going on, and how and why we respond as we do.

There will be time for hope and strength. For now, Glück brings a message in a bottle on the vital kinship between grief in art and in life.

While I Was Out, Kay Ryan Was U.S. Poet Laureate

One of life’s unanticipated pleasures is catching up on great stuff I missed during the hardcore years of early parenting. Beginning in late 2007 I devoted all waking and most potential sleeping hours to my high-needs infant daughter and to finishing school. Which means that I was oblivious to the appointment of Kay Ryan as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2010.

I wish we’d all missed other things too, like the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, the global financial meltdown, cropped skinny jeans.

But back to Ryan. Discovering her wonderful poems feels like a surprise holiday, or some totally unexpected consolation for awful parenting magazines and rapid aging.

Some fun facts: Ryan lives in Marin County, California and taught remedial English in a community college there for thirty years. For decades she had trouble even getting published but kept writing anyway. Her collection The Best of It: New and Selected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. In 2011 she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Ryan is not overtly historical or political in her writing. Her playful poems, which often include what she calls “recombinant rhymes,” are more concerned with unraveling the intricacies of language and reviving clichés than with personal suffering. But it would be a mistake to think that she writes naively or superficially. Her poems seem light but often harbor a lovely and subtle dark side, somehow both triumphant and totally in the know about the limits of triumph.

A good example of this lyric chiaroscuro is her poem “Relief”:

We know it is close

to something lofty.

Simply getting over being sick

or finding lost property

has in it the leap,

the purge, the quick humility

of witnessing a birth-

how love seeps up

and retakes the earth.

There is a dreamy

wading feeling to your walk

inside the current

of restored riches,

clocks set back,

disasters averted.

I think this poem partly celebrates relief as sincerely wonderful, and I love the way Ryan opens up space to notice relief as an experience, not just a feeling. That is a rare gift in an anxious world of endlessly streaming data where many people struggle to notice their kids let alone the finer points of emotion.

But there is also a subtle irony here that I like. Relief is necessarily a reaction and temporary. It might feel like love, but it is only like love inasmuch as love actually retakes the earth, or as much as clocks set back change the pace of time. Relief is more like infatuation earned in advance.

And this difference implies an underlying hard-nosed realism, because exalting relief like this suggests some previous experience of loss or at least an awareness of it – anxiety at the very least. Otherwise there would be little surprise in finding the lost money or avoiding the house fire even though you accidentally left the oven on all day. If disasters must eventually come, at least we will have humbly earned the “dreamy wading feeling” in the lucky times when they don’t.

Ryan’s poems are not generally dramatic, but this one feels like it’s got stage potential, especially for dramatic irony. I can imagine some modern Hamlet speaking these lines to convince himself that things might really be okay, just before his uncle usurps the family business. Or a slightly silly character reading them straight.

It is a happy moment to find such a talented poet. I dare say it’s a relief to know that while I was fighting sleep and worrying about an infant’s slow weight gain, the U.S. exalted not just the Tea Party and Sarah Palin but the quirky and talented Kay Ryan.

Disasters not averted, and a sign of light in our history.