Elizabeth Acevedo, Hieu Minh Nguyen, LGBT, Mary Oliver, Ocean Vuong, Poetry, Poetry Project, Thomas C. Foster, Timothy Liu, Verse Novel, Vietnamese

A Successful Poetry Month

For the last two months, I’ve pursued some themed-reading. This is something I tried a couple of years ago as a year-long project, changing my reading theme every month, but it didn’t quite work. It seems to work better if I choose something just prior to the new month beginning, because it allows me to read what I’m actually interested in in that given moment. So, in June, I read a whole bunch of LGBTQ+ books (most of which were awesome) and in July, I read a lot of poetry and/or books about poetry.

I specifically chose to read poetry this month because I’ve been writing my own young adult novel, and I found that reading creative works that are well outside of the genre I’m writing in helps me to stay motivated and to think about language without getting distracted by works that are too similar in genre, audience, theme, etc. Considering I finished the first draft of my novel yesterday, I’d say this was a good plan!

Here are the works I read in July, with some thoughts:

How to Read Poetry Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster: This is the third in Foster’s “How to Read…” series that I’ve read, after How to Read Novels Like a Professor and How to Read Literature Like a Professor. As always, I find his style approachable, his sense of humor engaging, and the examples plus explantations that he gives very helpful. Poetry has always been the weaker literary genre for me (fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry, in that order!), but Foster manages to explain a lot about the basics in a way that makes sense. The other benefit is I’ve added to my reading list quite substantially. I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu: What an incredible find, this was! Timothy Liu is one of my favorite poets. I’ve been a little obsessed with Asian-American queer male poets lately and recently re-read Liu’s collection, Burnt Offerings, which inspired me to find his other publications. This anthology covers self-identified gay poets writing and publishing in America since about 1900. It’s a hefty tome, but the diversity of style and theme are wonderful. I was introduced to a lot of new-to-me poets, many of whose works were quickly added to my TBR. I also found some of my favorites in this collection, like Dennis Cooper and Mark Doty. It was fun to revisit them, especially in the context of a gay poetry anthology, where one can see the communication that is happening between poets and poets, and between poets and their audiences. I rated this one 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong: I’ll admit right now that I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong. It’s very strange to me to be a “fanboy” for any living writer (most of my mania is reserved for deceased writers, like Kurt Vonnegut, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck.) The only other living writer I’m so passionate about is probably Joan Didion. That said, Ocean Vuong is giving me everything I need right now, which is to say, an incredibly interesting and poetic exploration of language, life, and all their possibilities and complexities. I read Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, last month and was blown away. Night Skies With Exit Wounds is just as breathtaking. Vuong is one of the most unique, courageous, and honest writers I’ve read recently. I rated this one 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo: This one is a verse novel written as a series of prose poems. It explores the life of a contemporary Dominican-American teenager and her relationship with her very conservative-Christian mother. Verse novels are becoming more and more popular, in large part, I think, due to the successes of Ellen Hopkins, whose stories are compelling and beautifully told. Acevedo’s perspective adds a welcome and refreshing perspective to the genre, and I think it will go a long way to propelling this genre forward. I enjoyed the diary-like entries and the way Acevedo manages to treat the narrator’s road to becoming a poet as a theme in the development of the verses themselves. It’s delightfully meta! I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver: What can you expect from an “On Poetry” book by one of the most recognized and celebrated poetry writers today? It’s an inviting, edifying journey into form, style, history, and all the rules (many of which are meant to be broken.) Reading this one alongside Thomas C. Foster’s turned out to be an incredibly helpful and rewarding experience. They reinforced some of the major ideas, but each took different approaches to the various items of importance for readers and writers of poetry, including the examples they provide. If I could, I would spend an entire semester reading books like this one (and Foster’s). I already feel much more confident reading poetry and will be trying my hand at writing more of it soon. I rated this one 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen: Reading this one in the same month as Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds was fascinating. Both writers are gay men, both are Vietnamese-American, and both write extensively about their relationship with their mothers. (This is a theme for Acevedo, too, which suddenly makes me want to research the theme of mother/child relationships in American poetry.) Nguyen’s collection is held together by intercalary poems about his white lovers and how his relationship to white men has defined, or ill-defined, him as an Asian-American. Nguyen’s pain, even resentment, brought on by racism and fetishization is strikingly powerful and deeply saddening, but his triumphs are powerful, too. I particularly appreciated the end poem, an exploration of depression that reads like an open wound. I rated this one a 4 out of 5 on Goodreads.

So, I planned to read six books of/about poetry for my personal poetry month, and that’s exactly what I did. I feel accomplished, but even better, I feel inspired. Poetry has always been a little intimidating for me, but I allowed myself to relax into it, to read them as closely as I can, and to give myself a little support with the Foster and Oliver texts. All this to say: I can’t wait to read more poetry, and I can’t wait to write more of it.

Do you like poetry? Have any favorite poets or collections/anthologies I should try?

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Six: The Aeneid

From The Aeneid of Virgil (circa 29-19 BC)

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Arms, and the Man I sing, who, forc’d by Fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting Hate;
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan Shoar:
Long Labours, both by Sea and Land he bore;
And in the doubtful War; before he won
The Latian Realm, and built the destin’d Town:
His banish’d Gods restor’d to Rites Divine,
And setl’d sure Succession in his Line:
From whence the Race of Alban Fathers come,
And the long Glories of Majestick Rome.
O Muse! The Causes and the Crimes relate,
What Goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate:
For what Offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a Man!
Involv’d his anxious Life in endless Cares,
Expos’d to Wants, and hurry’d into Wars!
Can Heav’nly Minds such high resentment show;
Or exercise their Spight in Human Woe?


Response:

On this sixth day of my poetry project, I’ve decided to visit Virgil’s Aeneid, which takes as its source Homer’s Greek epics. Book XX of the Illiad tells of a battle between Aeneas and Achilles, during which readers (or listeners) learn about Aeneas’s lineage: this inspires Virgil to write a history wherein Rome is essentially descended from Troy (Aeneas flees Troy after the Trojan War to found a new city).

The Romans were quite adept at borrowing from the Greeks (not just stories, of course, but politics, art, science, military strategies, etc.). Later societies, including perhaps most famously and effectively (though the current climate might speak to the contrary) the United States, then borrowed from Rome. Indeed, there’s an excellent book by John C. Shields called The American Aeneas which puts Aeneas, rather than Adam, at the heart of American foundational cultural theory. Virgil was the most celebrated Roman poet of his age, and for many ages afterward. It took him eleven years to write The Aeneid, but even after all that time and effort, and just before his death, Virgil wanted his manuscripts burned because he felt the story was incomplete. Fortunately, Emperor Augustus (Octavian), published the work anyway.

The passage I’ve chosen to consider is the first stanza of the poem, as translated by John Dryden (1631-1700). Dryden’s translation is generally out of fashion these days, but I still find it to be one of the more beautiful versions. The stanza itself should read quite similarly to the first stanza in Homer’s Illiad. Just as in the original Greek version, this Roman stanza introduces us to the plot, setting, and major conflict, as well as some of the characters, human and godlike. Virgil intentionally paralleled Homer’s introduction and techniques because he was both paying homage to the master as well as writing a new Roman story for his Roman audience — by telling a Roman tale in a style they would be familiar with, there was a greater chance that the population would understand, accept and essentially assimilate it as their own. The English would eventually do something similar, centuries later, and the Americans likewise followed suit centuries after that.

One interesting difference in this first stanza is it alludes to the two Homeric epics, Illiad and Odyssey, in the verse “warfare and a man.” That is, there is something of the journey to come (recalling Odysseus) as well as a great battle (the Trojan War). Virgil reverses the tale, however, first giving us Aeneas’s odyssey and then following it with the war to establish Rome.

We learn, too, that Virgil will face off against nature and the gods, just as Homer’s heroes did. In addition, we have a first-person voice singing introduction to Aeneas story, followed 10 lines later by a call to the Muse to tell the singer why the goddess was angry and hateful, intent on punishing Aeneas. This is a striking difference from Homer’s version, where the Muse is evoked in apostrophe in the very first verse and asked to relate the whole tale. Here, the muse is encouraged only to fill in the blanks, as it were, clueing-in the audience to the whims of the gods; in other words, the information to which we couldn’t possibly be privy.

Contemporary critics tend to agree that Homer was the better poet, and the Illiad and Odyssey the better tales; still, I respond quite well to Virgil’s Aeneid and especially this Dryden translation. There are some problems in his choices, the use of “heavenly,” for example, is far too Christian for this ancient Roman tale; but of course he was writing to a Christian audience, much like Virgil himself was adapting a Greek story for Romans. That divine justice is being questioned (“For what Offence the Queen of Heav’n began / To persecute so brave, so just a Man!”) is fascinating, particularly as this translation would be read by devout monotheists who would be soundly discouraged from questioning the will of god; did Dryden consider this purposefully when introducing certain Christian phrasing, as Chaucer and the Medievalists often did?

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Five: To Lesbia

Song #5 to Lesbian by Gaius Valerius Catullus (circa 84-54 BCE)

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Come and let us live my Deare,
Let us love and never feare.
What the sourest Fathers say:
Brightest Sol that dyes to day
Lives againe as blith to morrow;
But if we darke sons of sorrow
Set; O then, how long a Night
Shuts the Eyes of our short light!
Then let amorous kisses dwell
On our lips, begin and tell
A Thousand, and a Hundred score
An Hundred, and a Thousand more,
Till another Thousand smother
That, and that wipe off another:
Thus at last when we have numbered
Many a Thousand, many a Hundred;
We’ll confound the reckoning quite,
And lose our selves in wild delight:
While our joys so multiply,
As shall mocke the envious eye.


Response:

Today is the fifth day of my 100-day poetry project, so I thought I’d continue chronologically and coincidentally (but not really) with Catallus’s “Song #5 to Lesbia.” Catullus is one of the most influential late Roman poets; although he lived only thirty years and wrote a limited number of pieces, his poetry remains widely read and has influenced other artists and poets from generation to generation, movement to movement. Rare are the artists who can boast such a level of influence and perpetuity.

My limited understanding of Catallus suggests that he often wrote in hendecasyllable rhyme, of which this poem is an example (whether I chose one that proves the rule, I can’t say; maybe it was just a happy correlation!). The translation above is of course not hendecasyllabic because it has been rewritten into English, but an example of the 11 syllable phrasing from the original is as such: Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus (line 1).

What I enjoy about this poem is that it praises the two-person love, raises it above the “rabble” of opposition, from family or friends. There’s also a great deal of passion in these lines. The lovers bathe each other in kisses, the argument being a type of romantic carpe diem — soon enough, the dark falls on everyone, so it is best to ignore the snide remarks of judgmental busybodies around us, love while we can, and then fade into that forever-sleep having, at least, loved completely, and having been loved.  There’s little confusion as to why Catallus, and this poem in particular, went on to inspire so many others, from the medievalists onward.

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Four: Canticles

The Song of Songs (circa 3rd Century BCE)

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The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love
is better than wine.
Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is
as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins
love thee.
Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me
into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in
thee, we will remember thy love more than wine:
the upright love thee.
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as
the tents of Kedar; as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun
hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were
angry with me; they made me the keeper of the
vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.
Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest,
where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for
why should I be as one that turneth aside by the
flocks of thy companions?
If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy
way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy
kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses
in Pharaoh’s chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with
chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver:
While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth
forth the smell thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie
all night betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the
vineyards of En-gedi.
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou
hast doves’ eyes.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our
bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.


Response:

Although the Song of Songs is attributed in the Bible to King Solomon, the actual author remains unknown. As with my reading of Psalm 23, I’ve chosen the King James Version of the Bible, not because it is closest to the original, but because it tends to be the most poetic.

What I appreciate about this chapter is that it is blatantly sexual. With the exception of rape and spiritual possession, the Bible is rather short on acknowledging sexual/carnal relations, let alone in a celebratory way. Some read this as religious adoration (love for God) masquerading as erotic love; I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, but I appreciate that the complexity and ambiguity of the poem, and the lack of clear rhyme scheme or structure, allows for multiple interpretations. That’s what makes literary study so much fun.

Reading an ancient piece like this also rekindles my desire to learn languages such as ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, among others (such as Aramaic, which is the language in which this particular text seems to have been originally written). The original texts are rich with indicators, such as gender markers, that have been lost and/or accidentally or intentionally altered over the generations. Alas, my only experience with Ancient Greek is a reading of the first Harry Potter book in that language. (I’ve also read that book in Latin, but I do have a bit more experience with Latin overall). My knowledge of  Aramaic is limited to just a few words.

As for the Song itself, it is another example of the pastoral, this time in the tradition of Theocritus. I also respond to the clear indicators of race, although it should not be surprising that anyone would be darker skinned in these texts, considering the region where they were written (all of these contemporary folks who imagine Jesus was caucasian — I can’t get over it).  Economics is the real factor, here, in that the woman’s skin is dark supposedly because of all the work she’s done in the sun, which would indicate that she was either a poor farmer or a slave. If we are to take the other partner as King Solomon, then, it’s an interesting marrying of two worlds, two spheres.

I also understand that this poem has roots in ancient Sumerian, Hebrew, and Greek religions, but is one that was essentially usurped by and repurposed for use in the Christian tradition. I’m fascinated by Christianity’s great success in assimilating other cultures and religions into its own, thereby rapidly and effectively increasing the popularity and lasting-power of the Christian religion. I find this is a nice contrast to the Psalm that I posted yesterday. The themes, style, structure, mood, tone, and origins of the two couldn’t be more diverse, and yet they are found within the same canonical text. Just another reason why studying the Bible as a literary and historical piece can be such a rich, rewarding, and revealing experience.

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Three: Psalmist

Psalm 23: The Psalmist (circa 6th Century B.C.E.)

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The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. 
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth
me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of
righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of
death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine
enemies: thou anoints my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of
my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD
for ever.


Response:

For believers and non-believers alike, one thing that can surely be agreed on by all is that the Bible as literary text and historical artifact is immensely significant. How can one presume to study western literature or culture without being familiar with one of its most influential foundational tomes? Even Gutenberg chose the Bible as the first book to be printed on his printing press.

Although this psalm is not my favorite passage in the Bible (there are many others I prefer, from the “Sermon on the Mount” to “The Christmas Story;” from Jonah to Jonathan and David; and of course the entire book of Revelations, which has inspired others, like William Blake, to a kind of maddening brilliance); nevertheless, I chose this passage in particular because it is one of the most familiar. Any child who grows up in an even remotely Christian environment will have heard and/or memorized this piece at some point. We read it in works of fiction, we watch as characters on television and in movies recite it. It’s nearly ubiquitous.

Many historians believe that this psalm was written by King David. I don’t have any evidence to the contrary, though I remain skeptical. The penchant for crediting aristocratic and royal figures with creative works, without evidence, has been widely noted (consider the controversies surrounding the “real” Shakespeare and the arguments that it was actually someone like Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon — someone titled– who must have done the work, because a “commoner” could never have accomplished such genius).

Authorship aside, the psalm itself is a great example of the early pastoral, which was popular in much of classical literature, including Greek, Latin, and Germanic traditions, among others. Jesus as Shepherd would of course fit into that idealized, Arcadian vision. The contrast between the first lines of calm purity and the middle section which forebodes danger and death is quite the juxtaposition. The technique aids memorization, but it also creates a heightened pathos which is difficult to remain indifferent toward. Of course, the ending ultimately finds the Shepherd leading us, his lambs, through that danger and not simply into the green pastures, but onward to a place of permanent, never-ending peace and harmony. Religion aside, it is masterful poetics.

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Two: More than a Hero

Sappho’s “He Is More Than a Hero” (7th Century BCE)

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He is a god in my eyes –
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you – he

who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing

laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t

speak – my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,

hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body

and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me.


Response:

Considering what I do for a living, and my area of expertise, my very limited knowledge of and engagement with Sappho is fairly inexcusable. I won’t beat myself up over it, but I do at least want to acknowledge this limitation and include an excerpt from Sappho in this project. What we have left of Sappho’s works are just fragments, but Sappho herself is legendary. Most of her work, from what I understand, explores themes of friendship and womanly love.

What’s going on in this particular poem?  Similarly to yesterday’s poem, we see heightened emotion linked to a particular subject in a particular situation. MY reading of the introduction to Iliad, poem one of this project, was wrapped-up in my current sentiments regarding the love between Achilles and Patroclus, and the rage of Achilles that led him to annihilating the Trojans, and, eventually, to his own death (of course that was reading beyond the first stanza, but these things happen).

I continue that type of sentiment here, where the speaker (Sappho, or a Sappho-like person? This is strikingly similar to Whitman’s autobiographical poetry) is envious of her friend’s husband or lover because that man benefits from the love interest’s proximity, companionship, etc. I find the first stanza particularly interesting. There’s a delightful turn from the first line, where the attention is first drawn to the exulted man, “a god”; but then we’re immediately corrected in our first impressions; the man won’t be the subject of this poem, he’s simply the secondary object of envy. It’s another woman being pined for, here!

It’s a clever start, followed by an impassioned and truly effective description of the physical responses caused by being near the one you love and long for. The sensory details are extraordinary: “a thin line runs beneath my skin”; “paler than dry grass”; “the sweet murmur of your voice.” The tactile, the visual, the aural — every element of human response is explored briefly but precisely.

All of these reactions lead to a final conceit describing “death” which, in many cases in classical poetry, is a euphemism for orgasm (John Donne, anyone?). Voyeurism, envy, descriptive physical responses to a passionate lust — no wonder Sappho endures.

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One: Rage – Goddess!

 Homer’s Iliad (9th-8th Century BCE)

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Achilles’ banefull wrath resound, O Goddesse, that
imposd
Infinite sorrows on the Greekes, and many brave
souls losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that
invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and
Vultures gave.
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom
first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike
Sonne.


Response:

So, why did I begin this poem-a-day project with what is essentially just a very small piece of a very large poem? Because, I’m attempting to cover 2,000 years in some kind of chronology, and because I’m choosing short poems in general every day. This is just a daily mind/mentality exercise, meant to act as something both meditative and creativity-inspiring.

What’s going on in this poem? Well, in this part of it, we have what is essentially an outline (a thesis! – the English professor’s brain never lets up) for the epic to follow. It seems somehow fitting that this poem is one of the first, best examples of its kind in literary history, that it begins this particular project, and that it ultimately alludes to death and the afterlife.

As inspiration, I find these lines ironically soothing (ironic considering the portends, and that most translations for this call attention to one primary word: RAGE). Having read Song of Achilles recently, this stanza also resonates with me because of that story’s influence. Thinking of the love between Achilles and Patroclus, and how well it was written — that idea of RAGE becomes even more profound. Did Homer (or whomever) mean to imply, eventually, the reason for Achilles’ rage as influenced by that particular relationship? Doubtful. In most of the classical stories, his, and other heroes’, rage is simply an awe-inspiring representation of virility and masculinity.

Still, I think our readings are always influenced by where we are in life, what we’ve been doing in life, other things we’ve been thinking about, other books we’ve been reading, etc. So, for this moment, I’m satisfied with my reaction to this stanza. It somehow connects me to my current emotional state: a determined passion, or a passionate determination.

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