commentary

Submissions are open

232

State Highway 232 is Oxford Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

 

Submissions to North of Oxford are open on a rolling basis. We accept submissions of poetry, reviews, essays and commentary. Our complete guidelines are here: https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/

.

.

Submissions Open at North of Oxford

 

cropped-cropped-north-of-oxford.jpg

Reviews- Interviews- Essay- Commentary Submissions:

Submissions of book reviews, essays, and commentary are welcome. Send your submission for consideration of publication in word doc with any images or photographs attached , Include a brief bio. All submissions are to be sent to:  sahmsguarnieriandreutter@gmail.com Please note in the subject line of the email- submission- your name. Our response time should be less than one month. Reviews, essays, commentary, interviews will be published the 1st of each month

Poetry Submissions 

North of Oxford is now open to submissions of poetry. Please send no more than five poems in word doc with a bio and jpeg to sahmsguarnieriandreutter@gmail.com for consideration of publication. Please note Poetry Submission and your name in the subject line of the email.  Poems will be published the 15th of each month. Our response time should be within two months. We do not accept any previously published poems.

Submissions open for May

 

IMG_5217

Submissions are open until April 28th for our May issue. Book reviews, essays and commentary are  welcome.

Submissions:

Submissions of book reviews, essays, and commentary are welcome. Send your submission for consideration of publication in word doc with any images or photographs attached , Include a brief bio. All submissions are to be sent to:  sahmsguarnieriandreutter@gmail.com  Please note in the subject line of the email- submission- your name. Our response time should be less than two weeks.

Daniel Hoffman – In Poets Words

Daniel-Hoffman courtesy of John Simon Guggenheim Foundation
I had chance encounters with the twenty second Poet Laureate of the United States, Daniel Hoffman, (April 3, 1923 – March 30, 2013). Once at the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia; at a poetry festival in Media, Pa.; and at the book release of Elizabeth McFarland’s Over the Summer Water.
In reading two of his collections, Broken Laws and The City of Satisfaction I was struck by his lyrical intensity, eye for detail. Richard Howard wrote: Daniel Hoffman’s gifts exact a broken music quite his own from the broken laws of the universe in which we carry our identity papers.
I reached out to several poets who have had contact with or knew Daniel Hoffman over the years. Although all those I reached out for could not participate, those included in this post did so in honor of Daniel Hoffman and National Poetry Month. Poet Nathalie Anderson,Poet Gregory Djanikian, Poet Laureate of California Dana Gioia,  Poet Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, Poet Bob Small, and Poet Frank Wilson have been gracious to participate and reveal the reach of the poet Daniel Hoffman during his lifetime and beyond.  – g emil reutter
 
Daniel Hoffman – In Poets Words
hoffman reading at A Murder of Ravens at the Writers House
 
From Gregory Djanikian
 
Reminiscences
 
    
     Dan Hoffman was the first poet I ever met in my life. I mean a poet with published books, with a reputation, with a way of talking about poetry that had the force of experience behind it. He may even have been the first such poet I saw in the flesh.
     As a freshman new at Penn, I was trying to find my way as a writer, wondering if the poems I had written in high school were good enough to catch someone’s eye, or if I would ever have the will and resolve to continue making more poems and shape my life around that making.  But did poets actually exist in the real world? Weren’t they chimeras one read about in books? Didn’t one discuss them as if they were only words on the page? And that’s when I saw Dan Hoffman walking sprightly through Bennett Hall in his sport coat and tie, maybe to a faculty meeting where things of import might be decided, or, what was even more compelling, to the poetry workshop he directed for students where moments of literary history, I was sure, were being forged and lives, changed.
     Poetic careers on campus, in large part, had a chance of flourishing if you were invited into Dan’s workshop. I had tried to enter it a couple of times, submitting a sheaf of my best writing as a passe-partout but, sadly, for all my sincere efforts, I had no success. It was difficult being an exile from it, feeling that the high mysteries of art were reserved for the enviable few, those tested upperclassmen, perhaps, whose raw talent or sheer tenacity had earned them an invitation into that lucky apprenticeship. It took me three tries to finally cross the threshold of his classroom and it began for me a life-long devotion to the craft of poetry, and a life-long friendship with the man himself. 
     If it weren’t for Dan, I don’t think I’d be who I am. As his student, I learned how the constraints of the villanelle might produce an incantatory and beautiful music, how the sonnet was a delightful way of bringing two paradoxical arguments together in one place, how free verse had its own, indelible form, and form itself was an occult rearrangement of language, and how, on really magical days, the muse was a white goddess whose barbarous knowledge could make of the moon a song in the sky.
     Over the years, I became more his friend and less his student, and we shared many memories of our time together which amounted to over 45 years. One of my favorite images of him still is how, after he walked in the door of our house, and almost before he took off his coat, he’d sit at the piano and stride into a ragtime piece, a little Joplin or Luckey Roberts, sip his scotch and water, and launch into another tune.  He seemed so transported and happy when he played music. If you asked him to dinner, he provides the entertainment, and, as an added blessing, a great red wine for the meal.
 
    It’s a wonder sometimes how one life might intermingle with another in the best of ways. As I’ve said elsewhere, had I not known Dan, I would have had to imagine him.  He was a mentor, exemplar, an advocate for all his students’ work, and an abiding friend.  As I think back on it, it was my utter good fortune to have crossed paths with him on that day long ago in my freshman year when I, young and unsure of my writerly prospects, resolved to begin knocking on his door.  What a remarkable change in my life occurred when it was opened. 
 
                           Photo of Daniel Hoffman by Lin Tan. Taken March 29, 2007 on West Chester University campus at a poetry reading by Dana Gioia.                                                        
 
From Dana Gioia
 
REREADING DANIEL HOFFMAN
 
I remember being astonished as a young man by Cyril Connolly’s assertion in Enemies of Promise that it was nearly impossible to write a book that lasted ten years. Ridiculous, I thought, good books last forever!  Young and idealistic, I did not understand the ineluctable powers of oblivion. Connolly listed various reasons why books lost their force and relevance—mostly changes in political, literary, and intellectual fashion. Today we can add our own catalogue to Connolly’s tally, including a general decline in reading, even among writers, the distractions of a media-saturated environment, and a culture obsessed with novelty. As cultural memory grows ever shorter, nearly everything that doesn’t generate a profit slips into obscurity.
 
I mention Connolly because his brilliant and disturbing book came to mind when I thought of how quickly Daniel Hoffman seems to have disappeared from current literary discourse.  When I mention his work to younger writers, I get a blank stare. It’s not that they haven’t read Hoffman; the new generation hasn’t even heard of him. The situation shows how easily a fine author’s reputation disappears in our accelerated lives. The great dumbing-down of culture includes the intellectuals. Indeed, it includes us—yes, you and me–unless we resist by reading and remembering.
 
A writer is remembered by his or her best works, and I would suggest that Hoffman wrote at least two volumes of enduring originality and power–one in prose, the other in verse.  The prose book is Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (1972); the verse is his book-length poem, Middens of the Tribe (1995). “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice,” Connolly observed. I have read these books several times over the years, and they remain fresh and arresting.
 
Hoffman’s Poe book had an enormous impact on me as a young man—not simply in regard to Poe—but also as an example of a critical work that went beyond scholarship and became a literary performance. His study of Poe was not only insightful; it was also moving, amusing, and compelling. Hoffman’s tour de force was exactly the sort of thing I hoped to write myself. As a student, I had no idea how rare Hoffman’s combination of scholarly and creative talent was in literary life. He was one of the finest American poet-critics of the twentieth century.
 
I want to mention another of Hoffman’s critical books since it seems relevant to my protest against the forces of oblivion. A few years after I had read his Poe study, I discovered his earlier volume, Barbarous Knowledge (1967), a consideration of myth in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, Robert Graves, and Edwin Muir. Forty years ago I admired Hoffman for writing seriously on Muir, a superb and original poet not much appreciated in the U.S. Seen now from the perspective of another century, this book seems more precious still because even Graves, who in my youth had been declared the most famous living poet in the world by Time, has mostly slipped from literary memory. Hoffman’s wide reading and intellectual independence is more valuable than ever. Barbarous Knowledge allows us to remember him and two forgotten modern masters.
 
Finally, let me mention Middens of the Tribe, which is a book almost no one seems to have read. Long gestated and revised over many years, Hoffman published this ambitious volume late in his career. It seems, at least to me, his finest poetic work. It is certainly his most challenging and least characteristic. A compelling book-length narrative poem, Middens of the Tribe is formally adventurous and ingeniously constructed. The poem could best be described as a Faulknerian family tragedy presented in discontinuous episodes. Middens of the Tribe is violent, sexual, fragmented, and enigmatic.  Despite its disruptive modernist structure, the poem has enormous narrative momentum and psychological authority. I wish more readers knew Hoffman’s masterful and mysterious poem. It is one of the few major narrative poems of his generation.
 
I praise these books not at the expense of Hoffman’s other works, but because I feel it’s most useful to recommend specific titles rather than general praise. These volumes are good places to begin reading Daniel Hoffman. If a whole book is too much, at least try a single poem. 
Read “Sonnet,” an incisive and still timely poem (which is not itself a sonnet) about the precarious power of literature. After sampling it, no serious reader will stop there.
daniel hoffman courtesy of newington cropsey cultural studies

From Nathalie F. Anderson

The Real Thing

I first met Daniel Hoffman on the page. As a grad student down south, immured in my carrel, I too often found myself walled in by literary criticism that seemed written to be musty, and literary theory that seemed written to be cryptic. But Dan’s books weren’t like that: Barbarous Knowledge and Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe told their urgent stories complicatedly, grippingly. This was literary history that investigated, literary biography that speculated, literary criticism that illuminated, and all of it — above all — engaging. Although I was reading these books for their content, of course, I appreciated too the personality of the author that was everywhere evident in their pages: his intelligence, his perceptiveness, his sympathetic humanity, his wit. I remember pausing in my headlong rush through Poe to think, “This is work worth doing. This is the real thing.”

It’s significant, then, that when I consider Dan’s own poetry, I think most focally of a passage from the start of Brotherly Love:

Is it real, this life

That you are living, is it

Real?

Whether through history or through personal recollection, Dan’s work often offers us narratives of the “real,” but complicated by that characteristic challenge. What version of events can claim to be true? What currents flow intermingling through what we take to be a simple stream of happenstance or consciousness? What heights transcend or depths intensify the everyday unattended moment? If, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “human kind / cannot bear very much reality,” what is it that keeps us — in Wallace Stevens’ phrase — “coming back and coming back / To the real”? And what distinguishes the “real” from the “Real”? Dan’s poetry appreciates always the materiality of the world we live in, but pushes us towards the larger questions, the ethical questions, the philosophical questions.

Because I knew Dan before I knew him, so to speak, meeting him in the flesh was all the more daunting, like opening the door to a one-on-one Ph.D. oral exam — all that wit, all that erudition, all that rich experience of the world of letters, all that brilliantly incisive discernment trained on you. I’ve never left a conversation with him without feeling that my eyes have been opened to some fresh insight or to some convolution of thought or to some revealing circumstance. Dan lives the intellectual life so fully that it’s difficult not to feel humbled in his company, yet he shares that life so comprehensively and so generously that you leave him energized, grateful for all he offers.

But when I say “he” — as anyone who knows Dan will understand — I really mean “they”: Daniel Hoffman and Elizabeth McFarland went everywhere together, and shared a like intelligence, a similar aesthetic, a honed ethical awareness, that trenchant wit. After her death, which shocked us all, I was moved and complimented when Dan asked me to present her work with him in readings at Swarthmore College and at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. My favorite line of hers is still “She always wanted her kisses back,” because to want something back implies a demand not only for goods returned, but also for reciprocity: if she’s not kissed back, she’ll take back those kisses! That she and Dan found that reciprocity, that mutuality, was obvious to all who saw them together. It’s hard to imagine companions more superbly matched.

Among my favorites of Dan’s poem’s, then — despite his widely recognized allegiance to poetic tradition — is “Words,” where (he says) he’s giving up rhythm and rhyme for the “gutreaction poem / of the soul’s discovering,” “poems that are themselves the / sound of your / slip rustling and the / scent that laces / the air you wear” — poems that we know speak of and to his love. “Goodby, words,” he concludes; “They / do become you,” and that knowing wink — the words that flatter the wearer, the words that create what they describe, the words that home in on their source and reason, the words that know just what they love and live for — explain the speaker’s sudden reticence, his decision to let the said be said: “I’ve / no more to say.” Yes, this truly is the real real thing.

*Reprinted from Per Contra with permission of Nathalie Anderson

daniel-hoffman-and-diane-sahms-guarnieri1
 
 
From Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
 
 
Today, March 7, 2017, I search for one of Hoffman’s books, and extracting it from my library, I revisit Darkening Waters, where once he wrote: Signed with pleasure/ for Diane Guarnieri / Daniel Hoffman//24.X.2002.
 
At that time, October 24, 2002, this was his ninth poetry book, which he read from at Kelly Writers House on that date; and with his consent, I filmed his reading for a graduate course: “Using Technology in the Classroom (Secondary Education).  My presentation, as a Sec. Ed. English teacher, was a lesson in poetry.  My fellow grad students (of mathematics, science, history, etc.) probably not the least bit interested in poetry, were won over by Hoffman’s reading of his poem, “Mean Street.” 
 
I choose that poem’s clip for my technology-in-the-classroom lesson, because I believed it to be his most descriptive and passionate read, videotaped by me, and re-played for a group of Education majors, most of whom grew up in Philadelphia. 
 
From “Mean Street:”
 
In sneaks, in shorts, in tie-dyed tee-shirts
one burly blonde, the other swarthy,
leaner,younger, snatch at each other
cirlcling, till one gets an armlock
on the other’s head…
 
… — the lean one
shoves his knee between the other’s
legs and down they fall, hard
on the cracked pavement…
 
…but  the lean one
prevents and pinions him, then grasps
a fistful of his long hair and beats
the back of his head on the pavement, a thud
and a thud, a thud –If y’ever call
me that again –a thud –I’ll KILL ya,
da’ya hear?…
 
a couple or three more thuds—so easy!—
and the guy’d be dead…
 
 
At 79, wearing his small and thin framed body, balding head with thick- wild- wavy hair still on the sides, Hoffman (who was probably never in a street fight) had witnessed a brutal brawl between two younger men viciously fighting almost to the death of one of them.  He was so moved by the aggression, violence – he penned it.  He wrote what he had witnessed and read it as if he were still there, “grimly within the ring of onlookers.”  He, too, an onlooker – present once again!
 
After giving this powerful strong-arm read, which I filmed for my colleagues, the calm and very often composed Professor Hoffman appeared a bit disheveled and strainfully exhausted.  Looking up from the page and joking rather candidly with Penn’s erudite audience said, “Someone asked why I didn’t try to break it up?”   All laughed, even my colleagues when the film clip was shown to them. 
 
This unapologetic poet knew it was all about the poem, which by the way led Hoffman to another poem, as one poem sometimes can bridge into another one.  Here’s the other poem from Darkening Water. What do you think?
 
 
Violence
 
After I’d read my poem about a brawl
between two sidewalk hustlers—one,
insulted, throws the other down and nearly
kills him—over coffee and cookies a grave
 
senior citizens reproved me: How
could you see such violence and you
didn’t try to stop them?—Oh, I explained,
it wasn’t like that, really –I saw
 
two guys in a shoving match and thought
I’d write about aggression, what
Anger really feels like…Yes
 
and if the one got killed
it would be on your head.
You should’ve stopped them, he said.
daniel hoffman 2
 
From Frank Wilson
 
I can’t claim to be among Dan Hoffman’s close acquaintances. We’ve only met a handful of times and never for any unusual length of time. On my end, however, this hardly figures at all, because I regard getting to know Dan at all as one of the boons of my life.
I think we first met at one of the poetry conferences at West Chester University. What I remember about our first conversation is that it was precisely that: a conversation. Literature figured, of course, but didn’t predominate. Poetry came up, sure, but in a perfectly natural way. It was actually easy to forget that Dan is one of our best poets and a former poet laureate. In retrospect, I realize that one of the things that makes Dan a great poet is that, for him, life comes first and the poetry grows out of that.
But the time with Dan I remember best is when my wife and I visited him one summer afternoon at his home in Swarthmore. We sat on the porch for a bit and, as usual, the conversation covered a wide range of topics. Eventually, though, Dan talked for a while about his wife, the poet Elizabeth McFarland, who had recently passed away. His love for her was palpable. She had been for 13 years the poetry editor of the Ladies Home Journal, and had brought to its readers every week poetry by the best practitioners of the art around. She also paid those practitioners better than anybody else did. At the time of our visit, Dan was putting together a collection of her work.
I reviewed that book. I said that Elizabeth was “someone for whom a poem is not primarily a literary artifact, but rather a necessary utterance, without which a given experience would not be quite complete.” Precisely the same can be said of Dan and his work.
And that is what makes even a casual acquaintance with him so enriching. There is, in fact, nothing ever casual about meeting Dan. It is always what the existentialists call an encounter, an engagement with a person, not a persona. Had I never met him, my life would be the poorer.
 
 daniel hoffman courtesy of academey of american poets
 
From Bob Small
 
Though Daniel Hoffman had attended a number of our readings, (Poets and Prophets), both here and in Swarthmore, we had never thought to invite him, due to his status. However in 2010, we had decided to ask him, being aware that we were a little grassroots organization with limited funding. To our pleasure and surprise, he agreed and the result was his reading that took place on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 at Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia.
 
He gave a great reading and he was a great poet, but did not wear the mantle of an “internationally-known poet”. After that I remembered running into him a few times in our local market, the Swarthmore Co-op, and he would ask me, “How the series was going”. In sum, he was very down to earth considering all he had achieved.
 
Learn more about Daniel Hoffman:
 
 
Daniel Hoffman reads 3 poems by Elizabeth McFarland: https://vimeo.com/73316308
 
Daniel Hoffman reads “”Awoke into a Dream of Singing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bOq7ugyqvU
 
Daniel Hoffman discusses and reads The Raven: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flKaqoHS7Kk
 
 
 
Daniel Hoffman – The Drexel Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVk0d0UmNtk
 
Daniel Hoffman Profile at Project Muse: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/525425/summary
 
 
 

Form plus Content equates Meaning: Form follows Content vs. Content follows Form

stephen-page-in-front-of-wheat-photo
.
By Stephen Page  
 
            In poetry, form and content are related.  They support each other—they are a part of one other.  Form allows the reader to understand content, and content assists form.  It is a symbiotic relationship.  Meaning is derived not only from what the poet says, but also from how the poet says it.  The debate heard round the poetry world today springs from one question: which is more important, content or form?  For the benefit of the reader of this essay and to keep this paper concise, the term form will include not just the shape of the poem, but also type, style, meter, assonance, alliteration, stanza, syllabics and other language techniques.  Content shall include subject matter, plot, place, characters, narrator, theme, and word denotation.   Poems will fall under two main categories, fixed form and unfixed form.
            Let us begin with a fixed form poem, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18:
.
                   Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
              Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
              Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
              And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
             
              Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
              And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
              And every fair from fair sometime declines,
              By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
             
              But thy eternal summer shall not fade
              Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;
              Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
              When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
                    
                     So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
                     So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
 
Without getting too far into the complexities of the sonnet form, and the many different styles, which would take at least ten pages alone, let us cover the basic history and the main techniques.  The sonnet is a fourteen-line poem that most scholars believe originated in Italy.   The word sonnet translates to “little song,” so it should sound musical.  It is traditionally written in iambic pentameter and end rhyme. Shakespeare adapted the Italian “little song” to fit better the English language–since English had fewer rhyming words than Italian, his version has less lines that rhyme.  An intelligent move by an intelligent man.  The lines that rhyme are supposed to be thematically linked, as are the first lines in each of the first three quatrains, the second lines of the quatrains, the third and the fourth.  Thus said, the first three quatrains are stanzaically related.  These first three quatrains are the premise, the argument, or the question brought up in the poem.  The space between the premise and the last couplet is called the Volta, or turning point.  The last couplet is the answer to the premise, or often in Shakespearian sonnets, the moral or the didactic statement.    Considering this, the form requires a poet to consider carefully word choice when creating the poem.  Poets often outline before writing the form, with ideas of word choice and theme for each line.   The rhyme scheme is enough to constrain content, but meter also restricts which words will be used, and the complexity of the line and stanza relations makes the poem a definite content controller.  Contemporary poets have often changed the number of lines, done away with the rhyme, and often loosened up the meter to fit contemporary language, but usually the line and stanza associations, the Volta, and the song-like qualities are adhered.  Here is an example of a contemporary sonnet that follows most of the mechanics of the Shakespearian sonnet, written by an anonymous:
You are a lioness crossing a verdant veldt,
Hungry for flesh, sinewy muscles rippling
Rhythmically beneath a fine yellow pelt,
A bouncing black-tipped tail trailing.
 
In aftermeal, you lounge upon night’s sheets,
Your breath scented with blood-red wine,
Your hair crackling with star-lit cinders,
Your hips and thighs curved as lean cut steak.
 
I dream of evening strolls in Samburu,
Smell the grasses, hear our ravenous growls
For nocturnal meals lying upon rough
Linen scratched by your fine-nailed hands.
 
I hunt in sleep for your carnivorous lips,
And listen for your padding around my den.
 
            Another familiar fixed form is the haiku.  Again, without getting into a book-length explanation of what makes a haiku a haiku, I’ll cover the basics.  A haiku is a “transcendence of the normal self” as Bruce Ross said.  It should be a metaphysical experience, a losing of the ego, a oneness with nature, a capturing of the moment and making it eternal.  It is normally a three-line syllabic poem, with the first and third line having five syllables, and the second line seven.   Somewhere in the poem should be an allusion to season.   Haiku is believed to originate from Japan, and Basho is the most famous of the form users.    With all that in mind, the form restricts the content is some sense—sesonally, thus word choice, and the syllable count, thus the amount of words.  Some of the more learned of writers realize that English is less syllabic than Japanese and more metrical, so those erudites that write haiku often are often lenient on exact 5-7-5.  The problem with most poets is that they think since it is a condensed form, and syllabic, that it is easy to write, but most forget the spiritual aspect, the moment caught in time.  Borges said the thing that make a good haiku is that it “is.”  Another problem with contemporary haiku writers is that they write unoriginally, using the same season seasonal words and images that millions of other haiku writer used, or they write copies of Basho’s and his followers’ poems.  other people think that if you simply use 5-7-5 syllable form it is a haiku.  Here is an example of  one of Basho’s most famous poems:
                        old pond
                        a frog jumps in:
                        water sound
 
In this poem it is most likely summer, though it is not exactly stated, which is intelligent for there are only so many times a writer can say the names of the four season without it becoming old—so a seasoned haiku writer alludes.  The narrator in this poem becomes one with the frog and the water and the keplunk and thus all his surroundings.   He is not himself but a part of everything around him.  As I said, there is a lot of bad haiku being published today, but there are also some good contemporary haiku written, and I recommend to any writer or reader to acquire a copy of Haiku Moment by Bruce Ross to get an idea of the richness of good haiku, and immerse oneself in its particular content-form relation.  Here is a great contemporary haiku, by anonymous again:
.
              high above the weeds
 closer to the sun, white
                        yucca plant flowers
.
            Now let’s start moving a bit away from formally fixed poems and look at how content and form relate there.  Robert Frost’s second book, North of Boston is wonderful for its time, as it kept many aspects of formal poetry and freed them.  It broke away from fixed rhyme yet kept meter.  It was huge break in the sense that many of the poems are speech poems, or mini verse-plays.   The most popular and mootly his best poem ever is “Mending Wall,” and for good reason.  The famous line ‘good fences make good neighbors’ is derived from it, but the shape of it is that of a wall, and the meter mimics the mending action of a wall, the laying of boulder upon boulder:
.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The word ‘spills’ in the third line becomes a onomatopoeia, the word and the meter of the line sounding like the action of the boulders spilling out in the sunlight.  Another poem that I personally like is, “Home Burial”:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: “What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.”
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: “What is it you see,”
Mounting until she cowered under him.
“I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.”
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
But at last he murmured, “Oh,” and again, “Oh.”
 
“What is it—what?” she said.
 
                                                                     “Just that I see.”
 
“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.”
 
“The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound——”
 
                                “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,” she cried.
 
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”
 
“Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”
 
“Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.”
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
“There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.”
 
“You don’t know how to ask it.”
 
                                                                     “Help me, then.”
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
 
“My words are nearly always an offence.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With women-folk. We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.
Though I don’t like such things ’twixt those that love.
Two that don’t love can’t live together without them.
But two that do can’t live together with them.”
She moved the latch a little. “Don’t—don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied——”
 
“There you go sneering now!”
 
                                                            “I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it’s come to this,
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.”
 
“You can’t because you don’t know how.
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand—how could you?—his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
 
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.”
 
“I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.”
 
“I can repeat the very words you were saying.
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlour.
You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”
 
“There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!”
 
“You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you——”
 
“If—you—do!” She was opening the door wider.
Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”
 
The shape and meter help emphasize the stairway, or the location and setting, where either one or the other of the characters speaking in the poem are upon.  The shape is like a staircase, with the beginnings of some of the spoken lines tabbed over to the right margins.  And the meter helps in the visualization of the stepping up and down of the characters and moves the plot along.  The white spaces between the two characters lines can be seen as stanzaic but also as sepration between the two characters, as one of them is usually at the top of the stairs and the other at the bottom.  And they are obviously distant spiritually and physically, as they fight and do not communicate well nor comfort one another with words, and the female character has been having one or many affairs.
            Further along the unfixed spectrum we have frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.  Here is a poem entitled “A Step Away From Them”:
 
It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
                         cabs. First, down the sidewalk
 where laborers feed their dirty
 glistening torsos sandwiches
 and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
 on. They protect them from falling
 bricks, I guess. Then onto the
 avenue where skirts are flipping
 above heels and blow up over
 grates. The sun is hot, but the
 cabs stir up the air. I look
 at bargains in wristwatches. There
 are cats playing in sawdust.
  
 
                                                            On
 to Times Square, where the sign
 blows smoke over my head, and higher
 the waterfall pours lightly. A
 Negro stands in a doorway with a
 toothpick, languorously agitating
 A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
 smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
 suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
 a Thursday.
 
 Neon in daylight is a
 great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
 write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
 I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S
 CORNER. Giulietta Maina, wife of
 Federico Fellini, é bell’ attrice.
 And chocolate malted. A lady in
 foxes on such a day puts her poodle
 in a cab.
  
 
                       There are several Puerto
 Ricans on the avenue today, which
 makes it beautiful and warm. First
 Bunny died, then John Latouche,
 then Jackson Pollock. But is the
 earth as full of life was full, of them?
 And one has eaten and one walks,
 past the magazines with nudes
 and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
 the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
 which they’ll soon tear down. I
 used to think they had the Armory
 Show there.
 
                       A glass of papaya juice
 and back to work. My heart is in my
 pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
.
O’Hara wrote the poems during his lunch hour while working a nine-to-fiver with a half hour to an hour for lunch, just enough time to go down to the streets, walk a few blocks, take in a bit of the cityscape, pick up a hot dog and sit on a bench to eat and write a brief poem, and return to work.  The poems, like this one, are mostly quick reads. They are this way because they are generally short and written in everyday language.  This allows the reader to read one or two of them on his own lunch hour. And the form of the book itself is small so one may keep it in suit pocket and carry it around at lunch time.  The lines in this poem are turned before they end, to  give the effect of movement, so the reader feels he is moving along the streets, stepping around construction sight barriers, turning on corners.  The stanzas end as if there is a stop on a street corner for the red-crossing sign, then where the narrator steps off the curb to cross or the scene changes O’Hara begins the next stanza on the right side of the page to give a feeling of onwardness.  The language, though simple and everyday, is vivid—rich nouns, sharp verbs—so the effect is that of the reader looking through the eyes of O’Hara and seeing the scenes, not being told what the scenes look like.
.
            Somewhere in the middle of the form spectrum, there are semi-fixed poems. like Christopher Bursk’s poem “You Only Get a few Chances to be of Interest to the Gods,” from his book The Improbable Swerving of Atoms:
.
                        When you pulled free from the man’s encouraging hands,
when you grabbed for the door,
 
when you left your coat, sweater, schoolbag in the car’s front seat,
when you ran down the street, shirttails flying,
 
when you crouched in the dark of the firs trees you recognized,
when you wiped the spittle from your hands
 
and began to think of how to explain losing
your algebra book, your pocket atlas, your Latin dictionary,
 
you know that you had failed the first real test
of your life.  All the man asked for
 
was a few moments of undivided attention, kindness
in return for kindness.  A kiss.
 
If a boy is going to be scared of something
that pathetically eager
 
to please, that naked
and exposed, the penis’s trembling
 
entreaties, how can he expect to brave anything
else that the gods might ask of him?
 
Fortitude.  Self-abnegation.  Compassion.  The valor
of  the Latin, the polysyllabic’s
 
magnanimity.  You’d been given and opportunity to prove
you too had a large heart
 
and a deep soul, and you had zipped up your fly
and ran for your life.  
 
 
The poem is in couplets, which has traditions in the heroic couplet, which might be a play on words with the title and theme.  The couplet form is most likely used here for a couple of other reasons.  One, there are two characters in the poem, the main character who is a boy and the pedophile.   Two, the couplet is the duality of the boy’s feeling.  He is feeling disgust at the man and for what has happened, but also arousal at the closeness of the man.  He is aroused and ambiguous about his awakenings to his bi-sexuality.  And he is feeling guilty for not being kind to the stranger to have completed the act—a revelation of his innocence, for the man who preyed upon him is a mentally sick person who should be jailed for his abnormal actions.  The couplets are loosely metered but the line length mostly coincides with the length of the breath and shortens and enjambs where the main character is breathing hard and emphasis is needed on certain words.
            On the far end of the form spectrum, we have, as some might call a misnomer, the prose poem.  B.H Fairchild uses this for his poem “The Decline of Utopian Ideas in the West,” from the book Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest:
The old roughnecks between jobs drunk in their cars outside the bowling alley; the school teacher in her rented room in live with the mechanic and dreaming of moving to Houston: new front tires for the Dodge, bright yellow curtains for the kitchen windows, a TV; the blood sunset in the corners for my father’s eyes after he worked a lather for two days and nights; 3 a.m., the welder on No Doz and Benzedrine smoking his last Pall Mall, listening to Tammy Wynette, waiting for the driller to show; the way the dust would bronze the window ledges and the kitchen table, a dust devil spinning a trash can in the backyard; the dog house at the rig, the good year calendar with a big-breasted nude blonde  kneeling in a truck tire, the empty bottle of Jim Beam, roustabouts passed out on cots; the little bridge that pain walked between astonishment and horror when John Santos caught his hand in the pipe clamps, his eyes dull as glass marbles afterwards; my mother enrolling me in school in the little town, eh, you’re on of those; a necklace of teardrop trailers on the edge of town, Lester Hill lived in one and went to holy roller meetings with his mom and had nightmares; the brown teeth of the trailer kids; revival meeting at the football fiend on Sunday afternoons, Gimpy Nederland saved from booze for the fourth time, the bankers strolling out of the Petroleum Club cleaning their teeth with toothpicks and loosening their belts; the old men in the back room of the pool hall, the click of dominoes, amber beer bottles glowing in the late afternoon sun; the boy with the green hair and lipstick who hung around the alley; Thomas Johnson, the old ex-Wobbly who hauled mud for the Lacey brothers, skull crushed fro a dropped drill collar; his wife, Luanne, who worked the ticket booth a the theater, got drunk on night and lay down on the railroad tracks; the wildcatter walking into the bank with the bad news, noticing for the first  time the plush carpet, the gleam of polished mahogany, the fragrance of orange peels rising form the hands of receptionists; oilfield kids standing in line at the El Dorado theatre in Snyder to see King Solomon’s Mines; my mother listening to Billie holiday and staring at a photograph of my father; my father with his head in bandages as I cradle in my palm the steel burr they removed from his eye; Lester and I waling the dir road behind the trailer, reciting once again the oath of the Green Lantern: In the brightest of day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight.
 
It is perhaps a prose poem in relation to the title, to represent the decline of high or elevated poetry.  If you notice, it is all one sentence, and a long list of different characters—perhaps a statement that ‘everyone’ is in the same predicament: the whole of western subculture, and even the whole of humanity—their dreams of a fair world and an even break, the return for hard working life, all, all is lost and untrue.
            So as you see, form + content = meaning.  Shape, meter, line length, enjambment, and language sound allow content to be better expressed, in other word, allow the reader to better interpret the poem.  It seems that in poems that lean toward the fixed side of the spectrum the content has to fit into the form, thus content follows form and can even be changed by form.  But in unfixed forms content is less contained by form, in fact content uses form as it chooses to help the content be better expressed and thus understood, perhaps even better enjoyed.  That is not to say fixed forms are not enjoyable, they are.  Through my personal experiences, through what I have read in my life, and through conversations with other authors, when a writer is writing in fixed form content is contained and harder to free, but in unfixed forms, form becomes a tool used at will and is only an extension of content (also said by Creeley and Olsen).  Either way, though, a practitioner in fixed forms will tell you that form is in fact liberating, for the writer learns how to use language in new ways.   I believe, and have heard, that most writers today who write in unfixed form let the poems form themselves as they are writing.  Sometime the poems come out naturally in free verse (another misnomer), couplets, triplets, quatrains, metric, rhyming; though it is mostly in the editing process that form is changed and shaped to help the content be expressed and thus understood and enjoyed.
.

Stephen Page is the  author of “A Ranch Bordering the Salt River.”. He can be found at

https://smpages.wordpress.com/

 

Submissions Open For National Poetry Month

sub open

Submissions are open until March  31st for our April issue. It will be National Poetry Month and if you have that book you love or that has moved you and desire to review it, send it along for consideration of publication. Essays and commentary are also welcome.

Submissions:

Submissions of book reviews, essays, and commentary are welcome. Send your submission for consideration of publication in word doc with any images or photographs attached , Include a brief bio. All submissions are to be sent to:  sahmsguarnieriandreutter@gmail.com  Please note in the subject line of the email- submission- your name. Our response time should be less than two weeks.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF’S POETICS

wolf

.

By Ray Greenblatt

.

In this twenty-first century Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is one of the most famous authors in the world. Her many works have been analyzed; movies based on her life and writings have drawn enthusiastic audiences. Woolf wrote novels and short stories. Her non-fiction included letters, diaries, biographies and book reviews. However, I am interested in what we might call her “fantastical prose,” a form very close to the prose-poem. I have discovered these random pieces in two of her collections, MONDAY OR TUESDAY and THE DEATH OF THE MOTH.

I – MONDAY OR TUESDAY and Other Short Stories (1921)

By definition a short story must have a character or characters, or at least some personified thing, in which we see various human qualities. Also, this personage must go through a series of actions in order for some changes in character to take place. It would be even more enriching to the story to observe a vivid background against  which these movements occur.

We can open our discussion of Woolf’s poetic writing with BLUE & GREEN, a prose piece that comes closest to a poem. It can be quoted in its entirety:

Green

“The pointed fingers of glass hang downwards. The light slides down the glass, and drops a pool of green. All day long the ten fingers of the luster drop green upon the marble. The feathers of parakeets—their harsh cries—sharp blades of palm trees—green, too; green needles glittering in the sun. But the hard glass drips on to the marble; the pools hover above the desert sand; the camels lurch through them; the pools settle on the marble; rushes edge them; weeds clog them; here and there a white blossom; the frog flops over; at night the stars are set there unbroken.  Evening comes, and the shadow sweeps the green over the mantelpiece; the ruffled surface of ocean. No ships come; the aimless waves sway beneath the empty sky. It’s night; the needles drip blots of blue. The green’s out.

Blue

The snub-nosed monster rises to the surface and spouts through his blunt nostrils two columns of water, which, fiery-white in the centre, spray off into a fringe of blue beads. Strokes of blue line the black tarpaulin of his hide.  Slushing the water through mouth and nostrils he sings, heavy with water, and the blue closes over him dowsing the polished pebbles of his eyes.  Thrown upon the beach he lies, blunt, obtuse, shedding dry blue scales. Their metallic blue stains the rusty iron on the beach.  Blue are the ribs of the wrecked rowing boat. A wave rolls beneath the blue bells. But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.”

Green: where are we? It might be beside a tropic ocean: parakeets, palms, sand, rushes. But marble and mantelpiece disturb our focus. Is the viewer in her living room, perhaps imagining a seaside scene. “The green’s out” is an awkward sentence, for what purpose?

Blue: we are more sure now of the ocean location: beach, water, boat, wave. This connects with the “green” stanza. However, the striking final line is no longer connected with home: “But the cathedral’s different, cold, incense laden, faint blue with the veils of madonnas.” What could this shift mean? This is indeed an imagistic prose-poem with little overt meaning.  Are the sea and fish sacred? Is the home as well?

The sentences could be readily arranged into poetic lines of two stanzas.

The prose piece of writing MONDAY OR TUESDAY is even more stream-of-conscious. This time it is about real life, but without characters or plot. A heron in flight frames the writing by appearing at the opening and closing:

“Desiring truth, awaiting it, laboriously distilling a few words, for ever desiring –(a cry starts to the left, another to the right. Wheels strike divergently. Omnibuses conglomerate in conflict)—for ever desiring—(the clock asseverates with twelve distinct strokes that it is midday; light sheds gold scales; children swarm)—for ever desiring truth. Red is the dome; coins hang on the trees; smoke trails from the chimneys; bark, shout, cry ‘Iron for sale’—and truth?”

This prose-poem captures the busy—if not dizzying—daily life of an Edwardian city. Today’s poetry uses simpler words; Woolf employs weighty wording such as: asseverate, conglomerate, laboriously, divergently. “For ever desiring” becomes a refrain to discover the motivation for all this urban turmoil. Parentheses and dashes connect series of words, phrases, even sentences to replicate this activity.  As in the last mentioned poem, semi-colons could rope off individual poetic lines.

Rather than the sea or city, THE STRING QUARTET explores what emotions music can stir in a person:

“’But the tune, like all his tunes, makes one despair—I mean hope. What do I mean? That’s the worst of music! I want to dance, laugh, eat pink cakes, yellow cakes, drink thin, sharp wine. Or an indecent story, now—I could relish that. The older one grows the more one likes indecency. Hah! hah! I’m laughing. What at? You said nothing, nor did the old gentleman opposite . . .But suppose—suppose–hush!’”

“The boat sinks. Rising, the figures ascend, but now leaf thin, tapering to a dusky wraith, which, fiery tipped, draws its twofold passion from my heart. For me it sings, unseals my sorrow, thaws compassion, floods with love the sunless world, nor, ceasing, abates its tenderness but deftly, subtly, weaves in and out until in this pattern, this consummation, the cleft ones unify; soar, sob, sink to rest, sorrow and joy.”

“The green garden, moonlit pool, lemons, lovers, and fish are all dissolved in the opal sky, across which, as the horns are joined by trumpets and supported by clarions there rise white arches firmly planted on marble pillars . . . Tramp and trumpeting. Clang and clangour. Firm establishment. Fast foundations. March of myriads. Confusion and chaos trod to earth.”  The alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are powerful.

The audience member—we can suspect Woolf—has mentally floated far away on the music, because a string quartet does not consist of horns, trumpets nor clarions.  Her soul and her thoughts are truly stirred. We can only wonder if with discreet flashlight she jotted down these lines. Or did Virginia Woolf have a compendious memory that would hold all these feelings until she arrived home.

In A HAUNTED HOUSE you might detect two ghosts, but they live up to their wispy personas, not developing, only remaining ghostly observers.  If a plot exists it is nebulous: the ghosts return to see if their past home is intact:

“’Here we slept,’ she says. And he adds, ‘Kisses without number.’ ‘Waking in the morning—‘ ‘Silver between the trees—‘ ‘Upstairs—‘ ‘In the garden—‘ ‘When summer came—‘ ‘In winter snowtime—‘ The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.” “Heart” becomes a key word for Woolf because it leads to love.

“Stooping, holding their silver lamp above us, long they look and deeply. Long they pause. The wind drives straightly; the flame stops slightly. Wild beams of moonlight cross both floor and wall, and, meeting, stain the faces bent; the faces pondering, the faces that search the sleepers and seek their hidden joy.” Certain words stress the ghostly couple’s quest–stooping , long, faces.

“’Safe, safe, safe,’ the heart of the house beats proudly. ‘Long years—‘ he sighs. ‘Again you found me.’  ‘Here,’ she murmurs, ‘sleeping; in the garden reading; laughing, rolling apples in the loft. Here we left our treasure—‘ Stooping , their light lifts the lids upon my eyes. ‘Safe! safe! safe! ‘ the pulse of the house beats wildly. Waking, I cry ‘Oh, is this your buried treasure? The light in the heart?’” Can you detect  subtle rhymes at work in that passage?

Life, a pulse, the heart, and love. The ghost couple recall their love and search for it in the present living tenants of their house. This theme of the search for love will become a central one for Virginia Woolf in most of her future writing.

II –  THE DEATH OF THE MOTH and Other Essays (1942)

One year after Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 and twenty-one years after her first collection of short fiction, her husband Leonard published a book that included some pieces which did not fit the definition of essay. Again, they resembled poetry parading as prose, i.e. prose-poetry. An essay is a discussion of a central topic proceeding logically from point to point. Woolf has a topic, but rather she flows with feelings that shadow logic. Many of her writing qualities are still embedded in these later pieces, but her theme of living life and loving fully becomes clearer.

In EVENING OVER SUSSEX Woolf seems to hover like a spirit over the countryside. As a poet often does, using personification she compares Sussex to a woman: “Evening is kind to Sussex, for Sussex is no longer young, and she is grateful for the veil of evening as an elderly woman is glad when a shade is drawn over a lamp, and only the outline of her face remains.” Now the human comparison shifts to: “The freckle of red villas on the coast is washed over by a thin lucid lake of brown air, in which they and their redness are drowned. It was still too early for lamps and too early for stars.”

Woolf is not attempting to analyze Sussex as an essayist would do step-by-step. This prose writing is like a lyric poem, which attempts to catch and hold a single impression. Here beauty of a landscape, or even a person, is momentary: “The fields are mottled, marbled—one’s perceptions blow out rapidly like air balls expanded by some rush of air, and then, when all seems blown to its fullest and tautest, with beauty and beauty and beauty, a pin pricks; it collapses.” Notice poetic word repetition.

At most she predicts the future for Sussex, and the world in general, in her conclusion: “’ I think much grossness will have evaporated. Things will have been scorched up, eliminated. There will be magic gates. Draughts fan-blown by electric power will cleanse houses. Lights intense and firmly directed will go over the earth, doing the work. Look at the moving light in that hill; it is the headlight of a car. By day and by night Sussex in five centuries will be full of charming thoughts, quick, effective beams.’”  Fanciful, positive and poetic ideas! Especially with a world war looming.

We could theorize that the piece THE DEATH OF THE MOTH is an intellectual analysis of the natural functions of life and death. However, any structure is minimized by effective use of poetics. As this prose-poem opens: “Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us.”

For Woolf the moth held a spirit like any living thing: “That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.” Yet, the life force in a moth is as powerful as the same life force in a human being.  Notice her poetic usage of a connector and the verbs: “One is apt to forge all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity.”

In the conclusion, Woolf wants us to even witness the moth’s death, as we must all experience our own and loved ones’ deaths: “It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings.; nothing, I knew had any chance against death.”

STREET HAUNTING is sixteen pages long but still not an essay nor even a short story. Not one character is developed nor is there a plot. The structure is composed of wandering observations, which Woolf makes poetically and beautifully. She employed this technique long ago in the 1921 collection when she became a ghost in A HAUNTED HOUSE or concertgoer in THE STRING QUARTET.

STREET HAUNTING has a sub-title: “A London Adventure” but that adventure becomes various forms of lifestyles she collects as she strolls:

“The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful.”

“The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.”

“Here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them.”

“How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings  and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley.”

Then the shops: “The carnal splendour of the butchers’ shops with their yellow flanks and purple steaks; the blue and red bunches of flowers burning so bravely through the plate glass of the florists’ windows.”

“They lie close to those shop windows where commerce offers to a world of  old women laid on doorsteps, of blind men, of hobbling dwarfs, sofas which are supported by the gilt necks of proud swans; tables inlaid with baskets of many coloured fruit; sideboards paved with green marble the better to support the weight of boars’ heads; and carpets so softened with age that their carnations have almost vanished in a pale green sea.”

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Woolf is skillful at combining nature and human imagery. She concludes this poetic piece by saying that to know all types of people and their vitality is the keenest kind of pleasure: ”One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer. And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?”

I mostly allowed Virginia Woolf to speak for herself because it is nearly time to conclude the review; and vividly, originally, elegantly does she write poetic prose.

In her prose-poetry Virginia Woolf has explored the love of house, music, city, nature, love of life itself. However, most of her life she was pursued by a figurative “water wraith,” which drove her to an early death. In contrast to the other written pieces we have explored, I offer the prose-poem OLD MRS. GREY which deals directly with death:

“There are moments even in England, now, when even the busiest, most contented suddenly let fall what they hold—it may be the week’s washing. Sheets and pyjamas crumble and dissolve in their hands, because, though they do not state this in so many words, it seems silly to take the washing round to Mrs. Peel when out there over the fields over the hills, there is no washing; no pinning of clothes to lines; mangling and ironing; no work at all, but boundless rest. Stainless and boundless rest; space unlimited; untrodden grass; wild birds flying; hills whose smooth uprise continue that flight.” Is Woolf hinting at heaven?

“The fire looked like a small spot of dusty light feebly tying to escape from the embarrassing pressure of the pouring sunshine.” A striking poetic image.

An old woman has come to the end of her life and can go no farther now nearly blind: “And now at the age of ninety-two they saw nothing but a zigzag of pain wriggling across the door, pain that twisted her legs as it wriggled; jerked her body to and fro like a marionette. Her body was wrapped round the pain as a damp sheet is folded over a wire. The wire was spasmodically jerked by a cruel invisible hand.”

All that the woman could see out her front door: “The morning spread seven foot by four green and sunny. Like a fling of grain the birds settled on the land. She was jerked again by another tweak of the tormenting hand.”

The image of the wire used in washing is continued. She only wants eternal rest but life forces will not allow it: “So we—humanity—insist that the body shall still cling to the wire. We put out the eyes and the ears; but we pinion it there, with a bottle of medicine, a cup of tea, a dying fire, like a rook on a barn door; but a rook that still lives, even with a nail through it.”

By definition poetry capitalizes on rhythm, imagery, intensity. Prose does not: fiction spins out a tale, while an essay analyzes a topic. No writer of short stories or essays would have time or use space as Virginia Woolf did in her poetic musings. Yes, when she wanted, her stories and novels, her biographies and reviews were clearly shaped and developed. Yet she was also a poet who—oddly to us perhaps—chose never to publish even one chapbook of poetry.

.

To learn more visit: http://www.virginiawoolfsociety.co.uk/index.html

.

Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI

.

 

Submissions Now Open

175px-pa-232-svg

Submissions for the March edition of North of Oxford are now open. Please visit

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/about/  for our guidelines