Wednesday, April 27, 2011

I feel like I've betrayed my best friends.


Rumi, Coleman, Vincent:  I'm sorry.  You didn't deserve it.

And I'm beginning to see that for me, it's best not to read an entire anthology at once: All the poems blur together and I find myself frustrated by the ones with which I don't connect.  Do you ever feel the same?

This week, I went cover to cover with 20th century American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay's Collected Lyrics and Coleman Barks's volume of translations of the 13th century Sufi mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi entitled Rumi: Bridge to the Soul

Beautiful poems pepper the Millay collection, and Rumi's ecstatic cryptic verses - in Barks's perfect tone - are like the most beautiful Pilobolus dance you've ever seen: seeming inscrutable but emotionally mesmerizing. If you experience them on their own terms without over-thinking them, you'll find yourself deepened spiritually without understanding exactly how you got there. 

And in some ways, the Millay poems - many excerpts taken out of their context for this collection - felt similarly disorienting and - to be honest - a bit thin and trite, and sadly without much psychic payoff.  That's possibly less a measure of their innate value than of what happens when an editor clips snippets from whole works and when a reader moves swiftly from one to the next.

So, I'll restate: I do believe I did all these poems a disservice by attempting to swallow so many at once; my own gluttony brought on literary indigestion.

Ordinarily, when I encounter a poem on its own, I offer much more of myself to it, freely giving my attention from start to finish, fully expecting beauty and brilliance.  Slamming through these collections in a fit of voracious consumption didn't allow for that opening to individuals. 

In fact, when I was half way through this feast, I asked a book-blogger pal on for advice on how to keep focused on each poem, and she suggested taking two minutes out to reflect and summarize after each one.  This helped quite a bit, but still, the experience in memory feels and looks like a big clump of grass clippings mowed down and piled up.  All the tiny new clovers and buttercups, the verdant stems of new grass stretching toward the sun that poems should be have collapsed in my memory due to my own overly programmatic attempt to raze them all at once, in neat little rows, en masse.  You can take the reader out of suburbia, but... I suppose.

1. I will attend to my own process and - at least for the time being - seek out a poem a day, all year long, but let go of the misguided need to read whole books of poetry

2. Heartened by last week's Poem In Your Pocket Day, I'm looking to team up with a few intrepid bloggers to establish a weekly Sunday Poem Hop... That way, we can say hello to each other on what's a fairly leisurely day for most, and do a quick peruse of fine poems to return to all week.  Anybody out there want to ante up early?  We'll start on May 1st!

MFB, one at a time,

Want a taste of the Rumi & the Millay, one or two pocket-worthy poems?

Green Writ

From behind a thin cloth
a blaze of straw pretends to be the moon.

There are those who destroy soul growth
by using sacred symbols in their talk.

When you fall in love with clothing,
it is like you ride a donkey
into deep mud and sit there.

Even a dog sniffs greasy bread before eating.
Have you ever seen lions
fighting over a piece of bread?
Why are you drawn to a beautiful corpse?

You are a continuous question about soul.
when the answer comes in,
the question changes,

the way a kindness in grape juice
turns it to wine, the way you
were born into this life.

Fire lightens and rises.
You bow when you hear truth.

Fall thieves the garden barren.
Then a spring justice knocks on the door.

You read the green writ
removing all restraint.

                             -  Rumi, tr. Barks (from Rumi:  Bridge to the Soul)


To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

                                         - Edna St. Vincent Millay, from Second April as printed in her Collected Lyrics

(p.s.  I especially enjoy "Spring" for its uncharacteristic cynicism.)


Miss Good on Paper said...

I love Rumi, too. I think I'm like you in that I can't sit down and absorb too many poems all at once. I like to take a break after reading a delicious poem and savor it.

And I like the idea of a poem a day. A couple websites will also provide new poems each day if you get stuck: will email you a new poem each day, I think. And "Poetry Daily" at provides new poems each day. Or "Poetry 180" is interesting, too.

Thanks again for this post. Very inspiring. Miss GOP

Anonymous said...

Count me in for the Sunday Poem Hop! Just let me know how you think it would go, and I'm on board. I really love reading a poem a day, and taking those few minutes to just let it sink in without trying to dissect it. Even when reading books of poems, I find myself enjoying being able to dip in and out, sometimes just focusing on a single poem and letting it linger, instead of moving on to the next right away.

Knopf's Poem-A-Day selections have been really wonderful: but sadly, they'll end soon!

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