Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What is "Summer" Poetry?

And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.
It's true I can still see you
With the expert eye of having held you.
To me, the Summer Poets are often preoccupied with  the here and now; they are present in the best possible way. They are, many times, languishing like Orsino over Olivia - there might be a desire on the reader's part to say, "Suck it up!" but I think the "all or nothing" force of these poets can remind us of the importance of letting our guards down, especially as we write.


Passion is big, it spreads itself all over the place. There is always a sense of spilling over the moment.
What I love about Lucille Clifton's poetry (and most of the Summer Poets have this in common with her) is that she is unafraid of finding the universe in a small moment. It feels like this "broadening" is looked down on in writing classes because, for the most part, the writer hasn't done enough to get the reader on board with the huge shift. I mostly agree - when it comes to composition. However, with poetry, I think you just have to know that it is the right time and be true to that time. Here's how Clifton expands out from a daily chore in "cutting greens":
and just for a minute
the greens roll black under the knife,
and the kitchen twists dark on its spine
and i taste in my natural appetite
the bond of live things everywhere.
Elizabeth Bishop makes a similar leap in the last stanza of her fantastic poem "Filling Station":
Somebody embroidered the doily,
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.
As a poet, how can you make your work "spill over" and expand? 
What forms are adept to the spillage? Perhaps the epic?


I tell my students that when they write they must care - if they don't give a crap, no one else will. I think any good poet knows this. The poetry has to reach beyond the words you lay out on the paper; there has to be a little bit of yourself that you lay out onto the paper, too.
You are white -
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me -
although you're older - and white -
and somewhat more free.
Hughes lets the reader know that he's questioning not only the "white" teacher, but also himself; he is not sure which side of his feelings to settle on - is he angry? is he understanding? does he believe this? does it matter? does he care what the white teacher thinks? if so, what does that mean? He takes the reader on this uncertain journey and confesses that he doesn't quite have an answer to all of his questions.

When you write, what do you leave for the reader? an idea? words? a part of yourself?


Let us, then, be up and doing,
    With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
    Learn to labor and to wait.
Because the Summer Poets seem to be so focused on the present, it is no wonder that much of their poetry is about making the most of that present - leaving a mark, taking action, risk.

What do you risk in your poetry?
If poets like Christopher Arigo can add adventure to a library or like Elizabeth Barrett Browning make an epic out of a kiss on her hand, what small moments or small places can you think of waiting to become adventures?


Unlike the Spring Poets, the Summer Poets (who may also be Spring Poets, mind you) are not as concerned with romance as they are with the feeling of attraction - the heat of the moment (that present tense stuff again), desire and fulfillment, the act of sex itself (which may or may not be deemed "making love"). Edna St. Vincent Millay, perhaps associated too much with sensuality, achieves both sensuality and scorn for sensuality in her poem beginning "I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed":
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

Perhaps all of the above are only iterations of willfulness, but I thought it was an import aspect of Summer Poetry to focus on. A poet like John Donne can even be willful in the most unlikely situations - when faced with mortality, he says, "Death, be not proud" and when faced with conversion, he simultaneously gives himself to God while also commanding God (as if he just can't help himself):
Batter my heart three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
Each of the Summer Poets seem to, in one way or another, want to desperately give in... but they do so on their own terms; on the surface, they are all reaction, but, underneath, they seem to be the only ones in control.