How do we know it's Spring? Ice is mostly out, buds are swelling on the local trees, and it's World Poetry Day!
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.
maple buds swelling red
Photo by J. Harrington
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?
THERE are no handles upon a languageWhereby men take hold of itAnd mark it with signs for its remembrance.It is a river, this language,Once in a thousand yearsBreaking a new courseChanging its way to the ocean.It is mountain effluviaMoving to valleysAnd from nation to nationCrossing borders and mixing.Languages die like rivers.Words wrapped round your tongue todayAnd broken to shape of thoughtBetween your teeth and lips speakingNow and todayShall be faded hieroglyphicsTen thousand years from now.Sing—and singing—rememberYour song dies and changesAnd is not here to-morrowAny more than the windBlowing ten thousand years ago.
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