Poets and Their Craft – Jay Parini

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novels about Walter Benjamin and Herman Melville his novel the last station about Leo Tolstoy was made into an academy nominated film but Jay Perini is first and foremost a widely published poet and expert on the craft we are especially pleased to have been a part of his presentation at Northshire Books in Manchester where he focused on the role and use of imagery in poetry first here's a thought from Barbara Moro owner of the bookstore people I think want to be moved and inspired and so I think that that's what poets do I love hearing poetry being read and I think it becomes alive when it's being read to you three times a night it woke you in middle summer the Erie Lackawanna running to the north on thin cloud rails you could feel it coming a long way off at first a tremble in your belly a wire trilling in your veins then diesel rising to a froth beneath your skin and you could see the cowcatcher why does a mouth and eating flies the headlight blowing a dust of flies there was no way to stop it you lay there fastened to the tracks and waiting breathing like a bull your fingers lit at the tips like matches you waited with a thunder of wheel and bone the axle sparking a fire in your spine each passing was a kind of death the whistle dwindling to a ghost in air the engine losing itself in trees in a while your heart was the loudest thing your bed is a pool of night poetry is very often especially lyric poetry focused on an image one still vivid image image is not just pictorial it's oral as well and I think then one moves from the image into a larger sense of language a poem can sometimes begin just simply with a phrase I'll be walking in the woods a phrase will come into my head and I might let that phrase linger sometime for years I mean I've had palms fragments at poems in my head for decades before they actually become poems Seamus Heaney was the great Irish poet just coming up at the time I was beginning to write poetry I went to Scotland as a 20 year old and stayed there for seven years met Seamus Heaney in those days and I remember reading Seamus is working thinking wow this is what poetry should sound and look like and he as he told me many a time he learned to write poems by reading Frost's by seeing how the simple language of everyday people could be transmogrified into deep poetic language could be made to stick and so what I tried to do when I really got into writing poetry it took me many years to get there was to get poems that would have an image at their center a deep image and I always tried to make a poem at least in my earlier days that would have one deep good solid image at the center I did one called playing in the mines or remembered when I was in st. and PA my grandparents had been coal miners my uncle's were coal miners and I remember in the summer my grandpa father and my father said don't you ever go into those coal mines they were abandoned all around her house they're dangerous you would you will die they'd cave in and I know they could cave in my uncle Jean was killed he was the day I graduated from high school June 10th 1966 my uncle Jean was crushed in a coal mine collapsed on so I knew that the dangers were vivid and imminent and yet I couldn't resist going in those coal mines and I would and once I worked down there and I walked down the coal mine till I went really really black and then I was frozen with fear and so I wanted to write a poem that got that image I wrote this one called playing in the mines never go down there fathers told you over and over the hexing cross nailed on to the door rat danger danger but playing in the mines once every summer you ignored the warnings the door swung easier than you liked the sunlight followed you down the shaft a decent way no one behind you I'm not looking back you follow the city smell of coal dust glows damp walls with a thousand facets and the vaulted ceiling with his crust of bats so you came to a point with the playing stopped and you heard old voices pleading in the rocks they were all your father's longing to fix you under their gaze and to go back with you but she said to them never never is it chilly bile washed around your ankles and you stood there wailing your own black fear seems you know I learned from frost in that poem I was trying to get a rhythm up frost said if a poem doesn't have a tune it's not a poem a poem has to have a tune so you've got that image that you want the center you want to play with thought metaphor and I was thinking symbol too you know going into the earth going down into the minds literature is a tissue of illusion and I was thinking of Dante going in the inferno deep down I was thinking of Odysseus going into the underworld to visit his father I was thinking of my grandfathers and uncles and so forth in this coal seams and going down it's a tradition it's a trope in Western literature going into the underworld to confront the dead and to recognize your own mortality and maybe with luck get out for a while go back go back to the world of the living I was placing the poem in the past in my life I was working with landscape and memory I think those are all parts of poetry and I was digging into the terrain of my own life I was spiraling into the poetry of the past I had Dante and Virgil from the Aeneid I had Homer all behind me and I felt that was in a groove of some kind here working in a natural place which was also a place that comes from my reading and experience at the st. linking let's think about metaphor I had a translator of frost recently visit me from Japan and he was quite upset about understanding things he said I don't understand this poem something there is that doesn't love a wall he said clearly Frost meant some one there is a doesn't love a wall and it's interesting poetry is asking us to go into regions of thought where we haven't been before into images that rapidly become symbols and they can become quite confusing you know two roads diverged in a yellow wood that's pretty simple but once you get into the poem it's pretty darn confusing two roads diverged in a yellow wood we all know that and sorry you cannot travel both and be one traveler how long many times in our lives we wish we could go to both Amherst and Middlebury for college I had a student recently said to me a freshman advisee said I was accepted at Amherst but I went to middle bearing and I don't know what if I made the right choice and I he said my mother said don't worry Donald if you don't like Middlebury after your freshman year you can go back to Amherst transfer to Amherst they'll take you and then you can do that and I pulled my frost off the pond off the shelf and I said I don't think so I said you took the road less traveled by you've come to Middlebury and you know and it says I shall be telling this the Sun you know it's you you so I kept the first path for another day yet knowing how way leads on to way I doubted if I should ever come back it's not going to happen you can't go back to Amherst next year and start all over again you'll have made friends enemies you'll have had your freshman experience you can't go there frost palm is so full of complexity what looks like the simplest metaphor which were also familiar woods two roads diverged in a yellow wood and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth and took the other as just as fair and that's where that the passing there had worn them really about the same so you know there's no more grass on this one than this one Middlebury is go out of grass on it so does the arm Hurst you're standing there in your life and you're eighteen years old which one of these colleges do I go to will it make a difference not really you'll marry this wife instead of that wife I said to him I said which means you'll have different children and then different grandchildren yeah will it matter not really so much except you'll happy if you go to one college you've become a doctor if you go to this College you become a lawyer metaphor is very interesting it's how we think what is thought and reason but we say hmm how was your day well you say let's compare it to yesterday right how do you like to cover this book well let's compare it to the cover of that book comparison one thing is like or not like another thing is how we actually think isn't it that's all we have the tool main tool we have for thought is similitude comparison contrast how many exams have you taken in your life which begin compare and contrast that's how we think we make comparisons we contrast one thing with another I would be better off tomorrow doing X than Y and we make it in our private lights I often say it thinking of my wife my wife is like a red red rose that's newly sprung in June right the great Scottish poet my love is like a red red rose that new sprung in June that is a simile my love is like a red red rose sometimes we take that metaphor and we collapse it into a symbol right or an actual metaphor not a simile my Shakespeare says Juliet is the Sun whoa Juliet better not be the Sun she might be really hot but she's not the Sun my wife better not be a rose she might be married to a thorn but she's not a rose I mean that's how we think we make a comparison and out of these similes out of these comparisons we make these images how we will never forget two roads diverged in a yellow wood that sticks Frost had the most astonishing way of finding images that just stick in the mind over and over and over again right when I see birches bend to left and right across a line of straighter darker trees I like to think some boy has been swinging them imagery there's a poem of mine called walking the trestle and it's about a time when I was a boy of maybe eight or nine and I was growing up on the Susquehanna River in northeastern Pennsylvania and my friends dared me to go walk out along a rusty train trestle that wavered into the sky over the Susquehanna River and I got halfway out and I froze with fear so that was the image I always remembered that image I would dream about that sometimes and then one day I remember I woke up and I heard you know my friends daring me to go out there they are all behind you grinning with their eyes like dollars and their shouts of dare you dare you dare you broken by the wind you squint a head with a rusty trestle wavers in the sky like a pirates plank and Sun shines darkly on the Susquehanna forty feet below you stretch your arms to the sides of space and walk like a groom down that bear aisle out in the middle you turn to wave and see their faces breaking like bubbles the waves beneath you flashing coins and all around you chittering cables birds and the bright air clapping I kept the fire department out of that problem like I said you can there are places you just can't go in a poem nowhereness Robert Frost always said you got to know when to stop poetry is a way of making sense of our experience we have stories in our heads which are screwed up in some way and poetry is a way of getting a language getting a narrative going in our head that corrects and brings us back to our truest selves and it's a way of discovering and then reifying making real making concrete our deepest selves I remember going to my terrible high school West Grant in high school junior high high school and there was one big side on the left it said boys everybody lines up on the right side it said girls very simple-minded hey or be write diode so I wrote this poem called high school it's something we all remember the horrors of high school right everyone must go their non returns one sees the boys get into line their first mustache more like a wish above their lips the girls stand parallel and pure some of them bleeding all of them afraid they've seen their older sisters taken they have seen their older brothers too assimilated saturated swept the hot brick building is a kind of furnace there it's fuel the hot brick building is a kind of maw that feeds to frenzy everyone must go there nan returns so much poetry today lacks rhythm and lacks rhyme and lacks the sense of momentum right inevitability I'm going to read you a poem about 9/11 I wrote it shortly after 9/11 it appeared in poetry magazine Chicago as their lead poem right after 9/11 and it's been published a lot of anthologies and it's clearly about 9/11 but it's in a villanelle form villanelles one of the most complicated forms in poetry as you well know if you've ever heard of a villanelle it's got one two three four five six stanzas the first five are of three lines of iambic pentameter and they rhyme ABA ABA ABA ABA ABA and then the last the six stanza goes a B a a so well and then the first and third line of the first stanza become the refrain lines in the second third fourth and fifth stanza and in the sixth dance that they become the conclusion the tricking of the villanelle is to get two good lines because they got to keep dancing back and forth each time in each stanza the idea is slightly modified so that it's a little different every time and then suddenly it has to come as a sudden conclusion and so this is there's a but why did I write a villanelle in response to 911 was a great line in Emily Dickinson she says after great pain a formal feeling comes and I think just that sense after a great chaos you would like to have formality why do people read rhymes at funerals weddings and great feeling you want a formal feeling right okay this is called after the terror and interesting we're not used to poems in this country but I read this soon after 9/11 I read this to a large crowd maybe 800 people in Cairo Egypt most of them were not English speakers but just barely had English but by the time I got to the end of the poem they're so used to the rhythms and the sounds of poetry they were actually repeating the refrain lines with me so when I said the last two lines to a strange crowd of 800 people in Cairo they repeated them they were ready to say the last two lines that's a culture though the Arabic culture is trained in poetry they have an ear for classical poetry they are trained in metaphor rhythms and sounds of poetry and they love forgery everything has changed though nothing has they've changed the locks and almost every door and windows have been bolted just in case it's business as usual someone says is anybody left to mind the store everything has changed no nothing has the same old buildings huddle in the haze with faces at the windows floor by floor the windows they have bolted just in case no cause for panic they maintain because the streets go places they have been before everything has changed though nothing has we're still a country that is ruled by laws the system is working and it's quite a bore that windows have been bolted just in case believe in victory and all that jazz believe we're better off that less is more everything has changed though nothing has the windows have been bolted just in case I've never read this poem aloud so you'll forgive me these are my new poems so if I stumble on this you'll you'll understand why but it's never been read but I'll read this one now Creed I believe in him my father who came down from Scranton with a brand-new wife to Exeter PA to have her and to hold till death did part I believe in all their sons and daughters to the end of time and further on I believe in every living thing especially the worms that make their way through seasons of the skin by lighter shade digging small Runnels in the soil and subsoil knowing that the birds won't find them easily and change their slither world again I believe in change as well however painful it's where we live my good friend says always eternal and the moments burn if not burned out by calendars a waste of pages I believe in stars the dangle over barns and burrows ditches scummy ponds I believe in keepers of the watch by night those lonely shepherds in their sheep who graze their wild eyed children who rise up to live and learn by several degrees of chance becoming what they must become by choice or merely accidents of time and place senior a I believe in almost everything except in those who can't believe who say that he is dead my only father who came down from Scranton on the drizzle cloud of his unknowing and gave life to me which I pass on hey that could start a whole new religion I'd have to become a priest I ended with the traditional and Italian palms when you speak to God finally in the last dance that you go always go Senora when I read the poem I realized because I go to church every Sunday and I'm very focused on that moment in the church where we read the Creed the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed and I love that kind of communal sense of everybody saying we believe in the Father Almighty maker of heaven on earth I think it's very beautiful and I think it gives you the rhythm of of the religious experience and I realized as I was reading this poem I mean I knew it unconsciously of course I knew it even consciously that I was mimicking the Creed the Nicene Creed but I'm doing it in a very irreverent way and I'm turning it into a personal thing I believe in him my father who came down from not heaven but scranton and so I I really and as I read it aloud I really felt I was moving into the various layers of humor and irony that are there in the poem which I heard almost for the first time when I read it aloud and I felt the audience responding to that I have been writing poems as I said for 50 years I filled hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of notebooks with thousands and thousands of poems most of which I just flushed down the loo right most of them are so terrible it does there not worth looking at again I can't bear them but I sometimes feel sorry for all those poems how much time I spent on them the hours that went by sitting in the cafe every morning writing these terrible things and they just go they're just lost so I wrote a poem for my lost pons and I'll leave you with that the lost pons I mourn those lost and lovely poems the ones not written left to founder in the phase of time they came too easily perhaps the fragrant lines the granite images all the lively phrases never turned to sums they felt as real as what I write now maybe more so being fragmentary flushed a flame they came and went as I stepped awkwardly into a bath or looked around me on the gravel path or turned my back toward a wall of sleep their vanishing was eerily complete it took so little just to lose their thread and I'm still missing what was almost said so I think poetry does have some strange physiological function and I think that's always been part of poetry that there's that rhythmic sense of language the pulse of experience and it somehow translating experience into language and that is actually as much a physical thing as a mental thing and I think poetry should operate on the spirit in some way when I read a poem I wanted to call to my spirit somebody else's spirit calling to mine and I think it illumines the spirit that lights you up like the Christmas tree I think there's that poetry has that physiological and mental effect spiritual effect you you

3 thoughts on “Poets and Their Craft – Jay Parini

  1. Jay's friend, Gore Vidal, said the novel is dead and only the essay will endure. I wonder what Jay thinks of that.

  2. uberdriver & scratch-poet @rashaunps wuz here: mfa candidate 2019 @usfmfaw (silicon valley-sf, ca) 1 8 0 5 1 1

  3. 2nd day of Spring 2018 snowing in New York what a lovely way to spend part of my morningšŸŒ¾

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