Poets And Their Craft – Diana Whitney

funding for poets and their craft on Vermont PBS is provided by Phoenix books with stores in Burlington Rutland and Essex Vermont Phoenix books supporting our communities in everything we do from books to authors details and information at Phoenix books dot diz vermont college of fine arts located in Montpelier fosters the excellence of established and emerging writers designers artists composers teachers and filmmakers through its graduate-level programs learn more at VCF a edu northshire bookstores fostering discovery and serendipity for babies to the ageless committed to building community one book at a time with locations in Manchester Vermont and saratoga springs new york and Middlebury breadloaf's school of english and bread loaf writers conferences attract emerging at established faculty students and writers from around the country a summer tradition for more than 90 years hello I'm Mary Jane dickerson not only is Diana Whitney one of Vermont's prize poets but she's also a Rhodes Scholar and the poetry columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle a yoga teacher to in reading her work I feel as if the words of her poems and the scene that I have witnessed coalesced to define what she accomplishes in her poems at barnabys books in Wilmington we joined her for her presentation on the dense fragrance that rises from the earth nature and desire and lyric poetry but first here's Lisa Sullivan owner of the bookshop I think that when you read a poem yourself you are adding your own inflections in and your own experience I'm in the poet reads it you hear it the way that they had intended it and so it's it's a gist can be a completely different experience nature and desire and lyric poetry isn't really a matter of craft it's a matter of obsession so I want to begin with a story about a lost manuscript and its discovery one hot July day this summer I was visiting my mother in the Berkshires the rambling home of my childhood cluttered with 30 years of family paraphernalia crammed basement to attic with clothes toys books boxes of old letters and shoes my mom has always been a victim of nostalgia hoarding evidence of a happier past when her four children all lived in the house and when my optimus father was still alive but lately she's been working with a professional organizer a brisk neat woman with infinite patience and her name embroidered on her apron kathy has labeled all the shelves in the linen closet and sorted all the toiletries into new plastic bins and thanks to Kathy I found a slim beige box marked Diana on my mom's bookcase inside along with assorted photos and grade schools stories written in cursive on construction paper lay my college poetry fuscia thesis vanished for 20 years this was serendipity I had been looking for the half life of desire as it was called ever since I'd started work on my first book back in 2012 which is called wanting it so you may start to see where the obsession lies how had i given away all the copies of this thesis have not even saved one for posterity I'd once even called the Dartmouth English department asking whether they might still have the thesis and the secretary transferred me to the main library where someone said a copy might be stored deep in the stacks but probably not so I reconciled myself to never seeing those poems again but then in my mother's bedroom I opened the faded blue cover of the half life of desire and I scanned my old poems resurfaced suddenly after two decades in the past the central motif of that manuscript was a river the Connecticut River beside which my friends and I lived our senior year in college in a shoddy ranch house overhanging the embankment legendary among generations of students for its high open porch on any given day we would jump off that porch three storeys straight down into the water I remember fear vertigo xhilaration and the sweet relief of immersion we were witnesses to another element but we were also part of it always ready to strip off our clothes and swim to slice through the waiting surface with our bodies how many poems did I right about that River through my two walls of windows I watched and chronicled every season yellow leaves on dark water and October pink blossoms floating in may and the eerie sound the ice made when it formed reverberating like a wire pulled taut and twanged the river could express my longing for me especially in those last month's of college when I was a little in love with all my friends when we knew our life together was ending and each night seemed poignant with loss and hunger the first poem in the manuscript took place on our porch after a party as we witnessed that I on a warm spring weekend so I'm going to read from this College poem we stood outside without shoes watching ice floes emerged from the mist and float downstream a cortege of ghosts on the Black River luminous in the wet air they passed us by on their way from this nowhere to another so by an Associated associative leap this poem renders the ice flows as spirits and the speaker confesses that she wants to be haunted inhabited by some other presence in reality that ice moved on and so did we but 20 years later I was struck but by how little had actually changed in my poetry how I still turn to the natural world as a vehicle for emotion I was out of life crisis and I was walking with my best friend from college the same one who I told this story last night of when I used to jump off the porch down into the Connecticut River so the same roommate who used to do that with and she was visiting me here in vermont and i said i just can't really justify taking time away from my family and from work that earns money to write a book of poems that feels so frivolous and she said diana i think it sounds like the most important thing that you could ever do and and it was it was like i needed that reassurance and that affirmation that that it wasn't you know like all our that it that it was an endeavor worth pursuing that it was you know just for the pure sake of hit creativity for my own heart and soul the etymology of desire is from the old French Daisy fa drawn in turn from the Latin and I'm not a Latin scholar but i think it's Daisy O'Dare RA and the original sense translates to a wait what the stars we'll bring dessert or a likely comes from the phrase days the dare a meaning from the stars and so the word desire like originates from the beyond from something outside the human world in lyric poetry we can express our long experience of longing with more subtlety and more power when we write about nature nature poetry is often maligned as dull and sexless perhaps because it's been associated with mr. Wordsworth rambling the lake district with journal in hand writing about snowdrops and daffodils no offense to the romantics but the poems that I want to talk about here tonight possess more urgency and heat arata scizzum is first and foremost a thirst for other pneus says Spanish poet Octavio Paz in his remarkable book the double flame love and eroticism is arata scizzum the same state as desire not exactly but let's assume that the two are kindred spirits and that desire is also an energy directed outwards a movement towards the other in jane kenyans brief poem September garden party she captures an erotic moment a true lyric occasion lyric meaning one moment in time as opposed to a narrative poem which is telling a story an erotic moment using just a few sensual images drawn from nature like many of kenyans poems it is deceptively simple written with transparent Language and clean sand tux we sit with friends at the round glass table the talk is clever everyone rises to it bees come to the spiral pair peeling on your plate from my lap or your hand the spice of our morning's privacy comes drifting up fall Sun passes through the wine so on the outset nothing much happens at this garden party but there is abundant movement in this poem a rising that encompasses the clever talk the entranced bees and especially the lover scent that's drifting up and that final image of Sun passing through wine becomes a moment of transcendence a radiant act of intermingling where light and liquid meet conjures erotic intimacy by transferring the action the bees and the spiral pair peeling are central to her eroticism they embody the purely instinctual animal aspect of desire and it's irresistible sweetness we watch the speaker watching the bees and then we catch a whiff of pleasure that she has experienced the spice of our morning's privacy which remains hidden under the table even more alluring because of its secrecy very very short home it's only nine lines and the lines are short and the sentences are short and yet something happens and this this private experience is shared and we feel privileged kind of better being brought into this secret I discovered a wonderful Scottish poet John Burnside this summer I was lucky enough to review his book for the San Francisco Chronicle so even better it just came to me an envelope in the mail is such a gift and burn sides palms burn with a cold fire in a half feral landscape of fog and ice he's published over a dozen collections in the UK and one his country's most prestigious prizes but he only ventured across the pond in July making his American debut with black cat bone the book reveals an infinite kinship those are that's one of the lines from his first poem between humans and animals and reading it I recognized in burnside a kindred spirit his poems saying of desire and grief their emotion made palpable through clear imagery and musical lines whether the speaker is dreaming of an unfaithful lover or stalking a nameless quarry through the woods my heart like a fettered thrush in the well of my throat she talks about burns a lot I have a dream she's in an attic room with someone else hands in her skirt and that dove sound caught in her throat that i thought was ours she's with him now she bends into his kiss and when she slows his hand they swarm like beez a honey slick and after gloss of meadow easy and damp though not without a trace of venom they are pure as animals and selfless like the rhythm in the heat that now and then mistakes itself for hunger and Blessid strung like pearls on molten wire to bail and cry Beneatha hunting moon they come together live unwarranted a braid in every touch a flame for longing well in this poem does vivid nightmare that the speaker's having of infidelity turns to the animal world for images first the speaker here is that dove sound caught in her throat that i thought was ours and then soon after like in the jane kenyan poem burnside uses bees to illustrate a sexual scene and when she slows his hand they swarm like bees a honey slick and after gloss of meadow these compound words are lush in the mouth honey slick after gloss sibilant they resonate in the body and suggest a visceral desire we feel without knowing their meaning intuitively the poet has created new words out of his longing and his Envy honey slick after gloss embodying Octavio Paz is claimed that poetry is an erotic ISM of language burnside's lyric exists in double it is both a dream and awaking threat the lovers meet simultaneously in an attic room and they're out in nature pure as animals and they bail and cry Beneatha hunting moon in this poem as in many of his others burnside emphasizes the sense of sound there's the Dove caught in the throat and the swarming bees and then finally those verbs Bell and cry and i love how he's turned the word bell into a verb which i don't think i've heard before but it is sent that i want to revisit jane kenyans private spice drifting up which in turn evokes the neruda line that inspired the title of this talk I don't love you as if you were the salt rose topaz or arrow of carnations that propagate fire I love you as certain dark things are loved secretly between the shadow and the soul I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom and carries hidden within itself the light of those flowers and thanks to your love darkly in my body lives the dense fragrance that rises from the earth I love you without knowing how or when or from where I love you simply without problems or pride I love you in this way because I don't know any other way of loving but this in which there is no I or you so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand so intimate that when I fall asleep it is your eyes that close Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote with exuberant abundance about love and sex humming birds and bees wine and fruits and vegetables and socks among many other vast subjects the 100 love sonnets proved him to be one of poetry's most sensual and imaginative voices of desire this sonnet to me reads like an intimate letter it precedes by negation and repetition it begins with the ways he doesn't love his beloved and then it reveals the secret shadow world of his devotion like Jane kenyans spice Neruda's fragrance is private and it becomes more powerful for its clandestine nature the poem invites the reader into the dark interior of the body it acts because it asks us to picture these imaginary flowers and their strange light this fragrance rises unbidden uncontainable dense and vegetative it comes from beyond the human world but also suggests female arousal and this vital erotic life that these lovers share it also makes the confessions of the final stanzas more tangible if you notice he he doesn't have any images really the in the last two stanzas and so that that image of the plant that doesn't bloom and then the fragrance really anchors this whole poem I believe that it is the most potent image in the sauna we want some experience of transformation which that's a big word but I would say the best poems there's a there's an aliveness in there and then we have a response of you know I don't want to say from the heart because that sounds a little cheesy but that something internal seems to shift after you read the poem Louise gluck also writes about sent in one of her most famous or infamous poems mock orange I remember being shocked the first time I read mock orange in my contemporary American poetry class in college masterfully taught by Cleopatra Mathis its lines were stark declarative and almost devoid of imagery the tone was cold to the point of being hostile I couldn't decide if I hated or loved the poem or both but the voice fascinated me it's jaded discontent and its mythic authority as if speaking from on high about human intimacy it seemed to reveal truths about men and women that no one else dared to utter it is not the moon I tell you it is these flowers lighting the yard I hate them I hate them as I hate sex the man's mouth sealing my mouth the man's paralyzing body and the cry that always escapes the low humiliating premise of Union in my mind tonight I hear the question and pursuing answer fused in one sound that mounts and mounts and then is split into the old selves the tired antagonisms do you see we were made fools of and the scent of mock orange drifts through the window how can I rest how can I be content when there is still that odor in the world it's interesting because I actually chose the poem intuitively without without realized like that I think mock orange is like the poetic inverse of the narrative poem it uses some of the same techniques repetition but Louise black repeats hate rather than love and in curiously she uses similar details in her images the light of flowers in the dark the scent of blossoms drifting but rather than being captivated by desire this speaker has been shamed by it the low humiliating premise of Union mock serves as the key word here although this is what I love so much and this is I think what the best poets do mock orange is an actual plant it's a deciduous shrub that blooms in the late spring with delicate white flowers and a distinctive heady citrus fragrance that perfumes the garden so this isn't just something that Louise black has created for the sake of the poem you know it lives and breathes and has a smell out in nature we were made fools of that's one of my favorite lines the speaker states this mercilessly the memory of shared passion mocks her and torments her as does the floral scent that drifts through the window so she's the the shame of this past imbecile intimacy with the smile of the mock orange it drifts through the window to where she lies alone now questioning I particularly love how sent morphs into odor in the poems last line she the word changes it's a subtle change in diction and it feels somehow distasteful and punchin when you read silently it's just you it's a very private experience that it happens through the eyes rather than through the ear so the words or the text comes in through a different sense than it would if you just receive it orally and poetry was originally an oral tradition so in a way it's the most I think authentic way to receive a poem it is to have it read which isn't to say that being alone with the page or with a book isn't all so lovely but it is different and and it's probably different for all people in terms of what kind of a reader you are I think some people would always prefer to have something read to them and others want to be have their eyes on the words on the page I want to fall all over you like a farm to bless your fields with weeping fists of hail black feathers in a frenzy out of the wreck nests simple gracious rain on your white grapes or a holy blizzard of pain my tornadoes tearing up your prairies my red wind licking its initials in the dust I love this is astonishing love poem it's actually dear earth this is a love poem from the sky so take a time and read it later and it ends with this frenzy of action my tornadoes tearing up your prairies my wet red wind licking its initials in the dust what an unexpected metaphor for passion to represent desire as red wind and dusty earth rather than with two human bodies so when I was 21 I was moved by that River I observed it and I swam it and I wrote poems about its seasons and in a sentimental gesture that now feels impossibly young I even mentioned it in the acknowledgments section of my thesis the half life of desire I said to the Connecticut my sixth housemate thank you for keeping watch over me in the past nine months these days it's usually the woods that move me the oak and maple stands shading the rolling foothills of West brattleboro and the dirt roads near my home I guess that's something that is always surprising to me that even with our you know high-tech world and here we are on our phones and texting and on the internet doing all this remote stuff that's not actually real and tangible that especially living where we live here there can be these experiences which are just profoundly embodied for example you know biting into a peach or walking out the door in January when it's 3 degrees and you're feeling that you're in a way an emergency at the mercy of the seasons I mean that's what we are here you can't deny it that that the seasons the rhythms of the seasons the changes of the seasons do determine our experiences so I wrote this poem in a rush of elation following a run of a mountain trail in May it was the precipitous hot spring of 2012 when the mercury reached about 90 degrees in March and then the season never slowed down the trees leaving out two weeks early running through the green world I felt like a conduit for the life force that spring I was intoxicated with another writer and I channeled that longing into new poems that sang a verb verbal abundance and traced the unfolding of plants and the movements of animals occurring around me now it does feel presumptuous to discuss my work following that of my literary heroes jim kenyon pablo neruda Alois Glueck but channeling also invokes the dense fragrance that rises from the earth and it merges nature with desire in a single lyric moment I told you may was too much too much knee deep in butter cups I run again to the mountain beat a path through drenched clover to the cut in the trees that quiet Arbor where woods transform into rain forest luxuriant air at skin temperature though I am almost skinless I can feel the canopy photosynthesizing green cells drinking light making sugar sweet ferns unfurl in a spiral from curled packet to lush frond striped maple leaves spread wider than a man's palm stinging nettles edged the path beside wild geranium but I slip past unscathed again to the summit where hunger surprises me rising in a fever of chlorophyll and memory your hand on my thigh your words in my mouth as i lie back on ma and grass open to the sky hot Sun burns through cloud and light light light blooms around my eyes a tremor spiraling from deep within the body leaving my fingers glazed with honey that smells of rain water leaves mosses and ocean there's a point I just liked it sure which one is on page 68 okay oh my gosh this is the shortest pump one of the shortest poems I've ever written yeah and actually sir this was from the same may that I was talking about in channeling so it was I don't know if you remember that three years ago we just had this incredible spring and everything happened or you know if you're a gardener you're aware that when your Papi's when your peonies open and if it's happening you know so fast and so quickly so days of you in May thunderstorms beat the pollen from the trees swell the river wide as a foreign Delta I wake to the poppies half shattered their silks disheveled fur centers Baird like a woman stepping out of a red dress culture matters because it captures the touchstone moments of our lives our griefs our loves our fears our hopes that's what we turn to when our own voice or even the pros language which is more pedestrian or more ordinary feels insufficient we want that heightened language you you you

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