Monday, March 21, 2016

New beginnings

How do we know it's Spring? Ice is mostly out, buds are swelling on the local trees, and it's World Poetry Day!

maple buds swelling red
maple buds swelling red
Photo by J. Harrington
In honor of the latter, today's posting is about a book I started reading last week, a book of poetry by a non-American writer, Helen Macdonald, author of the wonderful, award-winning memoir H is for Hawk. I'm about half way through her Shaler's Fish volume and am frustrated and confused. I haven't yet been able to understand, interpret or "deep read" any of the poems in it. I have read enough poetry to be fairly certain it isn't just me, but, rather than simply put the book aside, I decided to double-check and did a Google search on "Shaler's Fish review". I was hoping to find something by Helen Vendler. No such luck. I did, however, find confirmation that it's not just my limitations affecting my enjoyment of the book. A blog, "Displacement," by the English poet Fiona Moore, writing about Shaler's Fish, uses phrases like "difficult, dense book, ... The poems’ fractured syntax, their language sometimes drawn from science, periodic archaisms and very unlinear shifts of thought made them hard to inhabit at first." Other reviewers expressed similar reactions. Moore further writes that re-readings haven't helped her to better understand the poems but that she doesn't think that's what difficult poetry is about.

I resisted an urge to end the prior sentence with an exclamation point or a question mark. Instead, I'm going to try taking it at face value and see if I can reach my own conclusion(s) on "what difficult poetry is about." Helen Macdonald's memoir contains some of the best writing I've ever read. I doubt that her poems, if they continue in the vein of Shaler's Fish, will ever attain anywhere near the level of popularity H is for Hawk has attained. In fact, if I had read Macdonald's poetry first, I might never have opened the cover of her memoir. But, I'm sufficiently enamored of both what she said and how she said it in "Hawk" that I'm going to "inhabit" the lines of Shaler's Fish and become familiar with its territory. I firmly believe in the need for accessible poetry but there's more than one way to cook a fish or "read" a poem.

You may be wondering what all of this has to do with Minnesota. Admittedly, the relationship is a tenuous one but it's there. It goes like this. Spring is finally here in Minnesota. Spring in Minnesota is difficult for me to understand but Spring is a new beginning. Successfully engaging Shaler's Fish requires a new beginning and, at a minimum, will be a growth experience for me. Furthermore, Minnesota has some poets that I find difficult, or at least I find some of their works difficult. I can use Macdonald's poems as a training exercise in how to fillet a poem. Last, but not least, I live in Minnesota, write in Minnesota, and purchased Shaler's Fish at a Minnesota book store. That works for me. How about you?


By Carl Sandburg

THERE are no handles upon a language
Whereby men take hold of it
And mark it with signs for its remembrance.
It is a river, this language,
Once in a thousand years
Breaking a new course
Changing its way to the ocean.
It is mountain effluvia
Moving to valleys
And from nation to nation
Crossing borders and mixing.
Languages die like rivers.
Words wrapped round your tongue today
And broken to shape of thought
Between your teeth and lips speaking
Now and today
Shall be faded hieroglyphics
Ten thousand years from now.
Sing—and singing—remember
Your song dies and changes
And is not here to-morrow
Any more than the wind
Blowing ten thousand years ago. 

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