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Poetry Moment: Forché and poetry of witness

Poets write a particular kind of history. While they might cite dates and names, as normal history books do, what poets record is an essence, their personal and political stories distilled into lines that evoke eras.

Poet Carolyn Forché, known for her own poems about civil war atrocities in El Salvador, spent more than thirteen years collecting work from poets around the world who had endured imprisonment, exile, repression, censorship, war.

In the 816 pages of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché anthologized more than 140 poets from five continents, spanning history from the Armenian genocide to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. And when it was published in 1993, she coined the term poetry of witness, to denote the method of describing history that poets under extreme conditions developed.

“I was interested in what these experiences had done to the poets’ imaginations and to their language,” Forché explained. “And whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether one could feel this suffering and the extremity in the poems.”

The work in this week’s Poetry Moment is a tiny excerpt of a longer poem, “Requiem,” read by Forché, but penned by Anna Akhmatova. Forché remembers being captured by this poem as a student, she says, it is perhaps the reason that her anthology exists.

Akhmatova was a Russian poet and translator who survived the Great Purge and Stalinist terror, more than fifteen years of her books being banned and suppressed, grinding poverty, harassment, and threats from the state police.

While the government restricted her, Akhmatova composed her poem “Requiem.” Subject to constant danger of search and arrest, Akhmatova told the long narrative poem, line by line, to her closest friends to memorize, then burned in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry.

She conceived of the poem while standing in line with hundreds of other women outside Leningrad’s prison. All carrying baskets of food they hoped to smuggle or bribe their way into their beloved prisoners, the women were waiting, like Akhmatova, to hear news of their families. One day, another woman heard that she was a poet, and asked her to get out the news about their vigil.

Akhmatova began writing. Her son was dragged from home in the middle of the night by state police because Akhmatova and his father, another subversive poet, spoke against the government. His father died in prison. Akhmatova waited outside the Leningrad prison for the seventeen months he was imprisoned there, and then at home when he was sent to a forced-labor camp. For decades she wrote in secret and hoped to see again her son, who after twenty years was eventually released and became a historian and translator.

Akhmatova chose not to emigrate, instead staying in the Soviet Union to act as a witness to the horrors around her. Because of its criticism of the purges, “Requiem” was not published in the USSR until 1987.

The Antioch Review wrote that the poems of Akhmatova, as well as the other poets that Forché collected, provide “irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities.”

Forché said her anthology takes its impulse from the words of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times.”

Especially in dark times, poets must sing.

Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life

Credits:
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16605586)
This repression order by the Soviet government condemned those speaking against the government. People placed into Category I were executed by shooting, people placed in Category II were sent to gulag forced-labor camps.

Poetry Moment: Sekou Sundiata hangs out in Harlem

The weather is turning. We can wear layers and hats, but it’s stretching the limits of our cold tolerance to socialize outside. Considering the Covid-19 infection rates, though, that’s the only safe way.

Consequently, we’re all desperately missing hanging out with our friends. This week’s Poetry Moment offers a tiny shot of remembered happiness, a slice of summer. Sekou Sundiata wrote “Longstoryshort,” a portion of which he reads in this week’s Poetry Moment, about a scene that used to be normal: gathering with buddies in a park, sharing a drink, listening to poetry and music.

Sundiata, a poet, playwright, and musician who died too young, was born in the projects in Harlem and taught at New York’s New School University. This poem evokes the pleasures of hanging out with friends in one of those parks ubiquitous in New York City. In these lines we can smell the weed, taste the sweet wine, feel people we love slapping our shoulders or hands, hear the laughter and music.

Though Sundiata toured with his band and other musicians, performing his poetry around and between and over their beats, he did not consider himself a musician. He was simply a poet, he said, who could never ignore music.

“It’s damn near impossible to understand what contemporary Black poets are doing without understanding what’s going on with Black music and its relationship to Black speech and Black literature,” he told Poets.org.
Interviewed by E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet steeped in Black music and poetry, Sundiata explained that he began writing poetry in the late 1960s with a group of people who would hang out, listen to music, and write.
“The poem is really addressing the idea that here we were, outside of school, discovering this poetry on our own and exploring the idea of writing poetry ourselves,” Sundiata explains in the full Writing Life interview. “Looking for voice and sound and rhythms, and having an actual space in a park that we just named Mecca, where we would have these al fresco poetry workshops. It was a hip scene.”

In “Longstoryshort,” poetry and music and friendship surged through these young people’s bodies, invading “the membranes of our hearts,” as the line in Sundiata’s poem reads.

Sundiata didn’t have an easy life. He overcame heroin addiction, cancer, a broken neck, pneumonia, kidney failure and a subsequent transplant. One of his friends donated that kidney. I like to think that friendship saved his life in multiple ways.

Listen to a few of his poems over music and perhaps it will transport you to a place where, without fear, you can shake a friend’s hand, hug them, share a drink and a laugh

We’ll gather again, it will just take some patience. In the meanwhile, put on some mittens and head to the park.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Edgar Gabriel Silex gives thanks for poetry

Besides the turkey, the pies, and the Norman Rockwell sentimentality of the Thanksgiving meal, Americans love the story of that first friendly meal between Indigenous people and the pilgrims in 1621.

For decades, kids have carefully cut construction paper pilgrim hats and Native headdresses and reenacted the message of harmony that the holiday is meant to convey.

Sadly, the story just isn’t true. It’s mostly sad for the Native Americans whose land was stolen and whose treaties were broken by the American government. The myth of the first Thanksgiving was embroidered and invented during the Civil War by President Lincoln to promote unity. This video from the National Museum of the American Indian is a clever take on informing America about the creation of Thanksgiving, and the devastation to the tribes on whose land we now live.

Today’s and yesterday’s politics aside, harmony at the Thanksgiving table is just not historical. But the Thanksgiving story does prompt Americans to think about the Indigenous people who lived here when European colonists arrived. President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Heritage Month in 1990, after almost seventy-five years of advocacy by Seneca and Arapahoe and Blackfoot people.

This week, we’re featuring a poem by Edgar Gabriel Silex, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence and visited students in Howard County schools during the 1999-2000 academic year. With Native American, Chicano, and European ancestry, Silex grew up in a small reservation on the Texas-Mexico border. Author of four books of poetry and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities, Silex now teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

His poem “For Chris” springs from his memory of teaching poetry on a Diné reservation in Arizona, of meeting a young boy who confessed that his father had thrown him through a window. He bared his chest to show Silex the scars. Though the encounter between Silex and Chris took place on the reservation, the issue is not exclusive to Native Americans. Silex’s words address the universal ideas of family, abuse, anger, and love.

The evening after he met Chris, Silex said, he was so enraged that he couldn’t sleep. He tried to write about the boy and his abuse, but couldn’t at first. But as he thought about the boy, and about his own childhood peppered with violence, he began to see beyond “half the story,” as he says in his poem, and toward the idea that love can still exist inside abuse.

Most of his poetry is found, Silex told poet and interviewer Michael Collier: “all of us experience things as we go through life. The poets tend to be the ones who are more like witnesses. They capture and encapsulate the emotive experience of the event. … I found the poem or the poem found me, it was just a matter of getting the most experience per line down.

Poetry’s density sometimes frightens people; the compressing of so much life and feeling into such a small space sometimes feels like a thicket readers are fighting through. But that’s poetry’s magic trick—creating the links in the readers’ minds, sharing experiences that are universal, and letting that meaning bloom on the page for the reader.

Silex’s author’s statement for his book Acts of Love, addresses so many reasons for writing (and for reading) poetry: “a state of grace is our ultimate human condition, forgiveness is our highest form of love, awe is our only muse, suffering is our path to salvation, beauty is our only reward, displacement is our human inheritance, passion is our only freedom, restraint is our act of kindness, solitude is our wisest friend, simplicity is our most complex desire, reverence is our highest achievement, and poetry is our most constant state.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Mark Strand was feeling anxious

When Mark Strand was a student at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1960s, he was worried about nuclear war with Russia, among other things. The Pulitzer winner and former National Poet Laureate wrote his poem “Sleeping with One Eye Open” in 1962. “It speaks to a certain anxiety,” he told an American Public Media interviewer.

Right now, his anxiety speaks to a lot of us who are worried about the country’s future, the health of our families and friends, the economy, among other things. So, with Strand as our guide, let’s just embrace our insomnia for a bit, shall we?

Strand’s poem is written in a ragged form, both tightly knit and discomfiting, conducive to restlessness. The endings of the longer lines are echoed in slant rhyme on the short lines, like a caught breath. There’s echo and recall to each line, not exact and rollicking rhyme. Strand would dream up networks of rhymes when “bored in class,” he says in the full interview HoCoPoLitSo taped just after his reading to our audience in 1991. He laughs when telling some of his favorite rhymes to fellow poet Henry Taylor on The Writing Life: “He brews/high-brows,” “Gauloises/galoshes/goulashes.” Sadly, Strand never wrote a poem rhyming goulashes and galoshes.

Modeled on Louis McNeice’s rhyme scheme and form in “Sunlight on the Garden,” “Sleeping with One Eye Open” is woven together with rhyme, but riddled with dread.

Literature professor James Hoff, in his paper titled “ ‘Sleeping with One Eye Open’: Fear and Ontology in the Poetry of Mark Strand,” wrote, “Strand is keenly aware of the tenuous nature of our lives, and the title of his poem–the title also of his first book–seems to suggest a preferred ontological state, a way of existing where the ever-present, often frightening mysteries of the world are both revealed and created.”

The last few months have found me awake late at night, concerned with the tenuous nature of our lives and startled by the “fishy” light of the moon, as Strand describes it. His sleeping poem isn’t reassuring or sleep-inducing, with its open-ended ending: “Hoping/ that nothing, nothing will happen.” There’s no rhyme for “will happen” and we’re left in mid-rhyme, suspended.

Many of us are lying awake at night, bleary-eyed, hoping that tomorrow morning will be better.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer


SLEEPING WITH ONE EYE OPEN

By Mark Strand

Unmoved by what the wind does,
The windows
Are not rattled, nor do the various
Areas
Of the house make their usual racket–
Creak at
The joints, trusses, and studs.Instead,
They are still.
And the maples,
Able
At times to raise havoc,
Evoke
Not a sound from their branches
Clutches.
It’s my night to be rattled,
Saddled
With spooks. Even the half-moon
(Half-man,
Half half dark), on the horizon,
Lies on
Its side casting a fishy light
Which alights
On my Floor, lavishly lording
Its morbid
Look over me. Oh I feel dead,
Folded
Away in my blankets for good,and
Forgotten.
My room is clammy and cold,
Moonhandled
And weird. The shivers
Wash over
Me, shaking my bones, my looses ends
Loosen,
And I lie sleeping with one eye open,
Hoping
That nothing, nothing will happen.

Poetry Moment: Hilary Tham’s verse on free speech

The first amendment to the United States Constitution is first for a reason. Freedom of speech is vital for a democracy.

Adopted Dec. 15, 1791, the amendment is first on the list of the Bill of Rights, and grants Americans the right to assemble, the right to a free press, and the freedom to speak their truth to power and to petition the government.
This week, America held an election. And whichever way it turns out, we the people can protest or support the decision, in the streets, to our neighbors, in whatever media we can find, social or otherwise.

Not every country in the world is this way. The ten most censored countries in the world include North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. China, Russia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia have long repressed their citizens’ rights to speak.

Poets, even in verse that seems light and funny on the surface, know the consequences of repressing speech.

This week’s Poetry Moment highlights Hilary Tham, a poet born in Malaysia to Chinese parents who studied literature and immigrated to the U.S. Tham’s famous persona poems, usually in the voice of a Chinese mother very like her own, were collected in a book called The Tao of Wei.

“Tham is able to capture the idiosyncratic, topsy-turvy world-view, a combination of superstitious and unthought-out religious beliefs, housewifely thrift, termagant courage and humorous generational differences of a particular Southeast Asian woman. Some of these poems are absolutely hilarious,” writes Shirley Lim about the Mrs. Wei poems in Calyx.

The poems’ speaker, which Tham says is based on her pragmatic, superstitious, spunky mother, dispenses advice to the lovelorn, yells at a lecherous monk on a bus, berates her children for holding their chopsticks the unlucky way. The poems are ironic, and funny, but also illuminating. Writing persona poems, Tham says, “gives me the luxury of having two points of view on something.”

Tham explains in the full interview from which this week’s poem is plucked, “When I get caught up in my mother’s stories, I find it very hard to disbelieve her totally, but I don’t believe her totally either.”

In this week’s poem, “Mrs.Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment,” the fictitious Mrs. Wei, having been “raised” in a more authoritarian country, is shocked that the First Amendment protects Americans and their freedom of speech.

Tham remembered being worried when her American husband wrote a letter to the president critical of his actions. “I thought the FBI would be on our doorstep,” she said. “In the third world, we do not have freedom of expression.”

Americans still have the right to speak. Make your voice heard.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: W. S. Merwin and living in the dark

This weekend, we give in to the dark. At least for the winter.
On Sunday morning, we turn our clocks back, and our evenings grow darker and darker until the shortest day of the year, the solstice, Dec. 21, 2020. It’s not just the upcoming Halloween (or election) that sends shivers in the dark.

North of Dublin, along the River Boyne in Ireland, lies a one-acre prehistoric phenomenon called Newgrange. Before Stonehenge was pushed into place, before the Egyptians built the pyramids, the Irish brought stones from all over the island to build this circular passage tomb, 90 meters in diameter. Massive carved stones ring the 39-foot-high grass-covered mound over a central stone tomb, where remains of the dead were burned and sometimes buried.

But at the entrance of the passage into Newgrange’s interior, the builders calculated carefully and constructed an open slot in the stone roof, through which at dawn on the solstice, the sun’s first light streams through and lights up the tomb’s caverns. There’s a lottery every year to celebrate the solstice inside the tomb.

Photo: The David Hobby.

My family felt chills in that tomb when the docents doused the artificial lights, then replicated the sunrise spilling into the stone chamber. The Stone Age builders, so connected to the seasons and the land when winters were cold, long, and hungry, were determined to show that the light would return. They celebrated the turn in the season that assured their clan that spring and another planting was possible.

W. S. Merwin understood the significance of the solstice, the way people wait for a sign of hope or light in the dark winter, and the way it reminds us of the fleeting nature of life.

A practicing Buddhist and environmental activist, Merwin wrote much of his poetry after the 1970s from a rambling disused pineapple plantation in Hawaii that he carefully restored to rainforest. He watched the seasons, the plants, and the skies from his hillside house, which is now a conservancy dedicated to supporting arts and ecology.

A double Pulitzer Prize-winner, Merwin was anti-war (he donated his Pulitzer money to the Vietnam War draft resistance movement), but very much in favor of humans connecting with the natural world. Merwin visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences for a triumphant reading in 1994, just after he’d won the first annual Tanning Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He recorded the television program that same week, reading “Solstice” in his jeans and chambray shirt in the company of host poet Roland Flint. Merwin died in March 2019.

This week’s Poetry Moment verse, Merwin’s “Solstice,” addresses the ideas of light disappearing and time passing quickly, but also the comfort humans can provide one another. The final lines are, “but we are together in the whole night/ with the sun still going away/ and the year/ coming back.”
Merwin wasn’t convinced poetry could save the world. But he believed not only that he had to try, but that despair over a natural world rapidly being blighted was useless.

“The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us,” Merwin said. “And you know in a way, if you don’t pay that attention, the anger is just bitterness.Whether poems, human contact, the natural world, or just sheer tenacity, humans need something to pull them forward in time, to think beyond fear and anger, to see a turning point toward the light. There is much that is dark in the world today, including the coming winter. But it has been dark before and will grow light again, as Merwin and the ancients foretell.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Marilyn Chin sends protestor a love letter

On a warm June day in 1989, the young man in the white shirt stands in front of the line of Chinese Army tanks. When they steer toward the crowds in Tiananmen Square, he again places himself in the path of the treads. He climbs onto the tank and talks into the cavity. He jumps down and blocks the tanks again. The Chinese Army had cracked down the day before and shot and killed an unnamed number of protestors. But the young man stands before the tank casually, still holding his shopping bag. Two men in blue pull him away and Tankman, as the anonymous youth was nicknamed, has never been heard from again.

Marilyn Chin, this year’s recipient of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize given by the Poetry Foundation, wrote a love poem addressed to that anonymous young man, “Beijing Spring,” which we reproduce here this week’s Poetry Moment. Chin, who was given the big prize last month in a virtual ceremony [http://poetryfoundation.org/video], writes in her poem, “I believe in the passions of youth./ I believe in the eternal spring.”

Tankman’s gentle but insistent gesture reminds me of the Vietnam War protestor inserting a daisy in the barrel of a rifle during the March on the Pentagon in 1967. And of Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit in 2019. And of Emma Gonzalez’s speech after the Parkland shootings during the March for Our Lives. And of the photos of the young protestors in the Arab Spring.

Young people are putting themselves at the forefront of many of the world’s movements. Just this week, thousands of pro-democracy youth are taking over the streets in Bangkok, raising the three-finger salute popularized in The Hunger Games novels to signify youth solidarity against power. In America, young people are stepping up to work as poll judges on Nov. 3 so the usual workers, the seniors, can sequester from the virus. They’re demonstrating and organizing Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Columbia that drew praise from president Barack Obama. Young people are designing signs, giving money, signing up to vote, working to make communities safe, and crushing social media. That’s the spirit Chin was channeling in “Beijing Spring.”

This kind of activism isn’t a new thing. Youth protested child labor laws in the 1900s and school segregation in the 1960s. The movements for rights for Dreamers, for Civil Rights, for Native rights, all have been invigorated by youth participation.

Chin’s poem evokes the white blossoms of a Chinese spring, but also the spirit of youth–passionate, innocent, and determined. Her poem is a loving tribute to young people who work for a better world. Follow her lead, and theirs. Vote. Young people have died for that right, including, possibly, that lithe Chinese man standing in front of the line of tanks.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Trouble on the field with Martín Espada

Baseball is heavily and romantically played in American literature, from “Casey at the Bat” and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural through Gish Jen’s The Resisters. Martín Espada turns that beautiful green diamond on its head when he writes about brown people’s baseball experience in this week’s poem, “The Trouble Ball.”

At the moment, we are hip deep in the playoffs. The World Series starts Oct. 20, and the teams are sure to have men of many ethnic backgrounds rounding the bases. Jackie Robinson integrated the league when he started at first base for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, but before that day, baseball was lily white and aggressive about keeping it that way.

Satchel Paige, hero to Martín Espada’s father, played for the Negro Leagues for 22 years before he was allowed to join Major League Baseball.

Espada’s poem, “The Trouble Ball,” tells the story his father told him, about going to his first American baseball game at Ebbets Field in 1941 as a new immigrant. Eleven-year-old Frank Espada had gotten off the boat from Puerto Rico not long before he and his father went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. Little Frank wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher. In Puerto Rico, Frank and his family watched games with players from the minor leagues and the Negro leagues, and Frank idolized Satchel Paige. Paige named his pitches, one he called Bee-Ball because he said it was so fast it buzzed, and nicknames like Midnight Creeper and The Trouble Ball.

The cover of Martín Espada’s book shows his father, Frank Espada, as a 17-year-old pitcher.

The Trouble Ball was a change-up, a pitch that looked for all the world like a fastball, but one that would stall and drop. “It makes the batter swing early and look like a fool,” Espada said on the full interview on The Writing Life. But he named his book after the pitch because “on a whole other level, it refers to other troubles. There was no greater trouble, at that time in history, and for that matter, there may not be today, than the trouble of race and the trouble of racism.”

Little Frank, sitting with his peanuts in the cheap seats at Ebbets Field in 1941, expected to see his hero Satchel Paige and the other great Negro Leaguers he’d watched in Puerto Rico. But when his father whispered to him in the stands that Black players weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues, it became a defining moment. “It was a discovery that resonated well beyond the ball field itself, and had implications for my father for the rest of his life,” Espada said.

While he did play pretty good baseball, his father instead made his living as a photographer who documented the Puerto Rican neighborhoods around him, and as a community organizer, to fight against predatory landlords, to lead marches for safer streets, to register voters. And his son, Martín, became a poet who documents trouble around the world, in hopes of changing it.

“I think memory is absolutely essential to us as a society, and poets have a role to play in restoring the collective memory and retaining the collective memory,” Espada told me in an interview.

And while many share a nostalgic fondness for baseball, Espada tells the field of dreams story from a different angle, so our collective memories also include the trouble in America.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Lucille Clifton’s fluttering grace

How we need this week’s poem, with its voice that calls for grace and saviors. Lucille Clifton, the Lilly Poetry Prizewinner and HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for decades, wrote “blake” and put it in her collection The Terrible Stories. But she didn’t read it to audiences very often, and HoCoPoLitSo recorded the only video of her reading this piece.

In the midst of the poems in The Terrible Stories, which address cancer, mastectomy, Biblical lust, and rage and despair over a history of slavery, this poem calls for a plume of hope.

Clifton said the poem was conceived after she had been living in the South for a while, remembering and living with its history of slavery and racist violence. She was being driven to her home in Columbia, watching out the car windows at the trees flashed by, and remembering William Blake and his visions.

Blake, a poet and artist who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrote that when he was 9, he saw angels in the trees. In fact, Blake said he had visions almost daily, and angels figured heavily in those mystical experiences. He often painted angels, especially in his illustrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Celestial beings fluttered through his poems, guarding him, surveying the world, watching over children. The world has made famous his line: “Cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”

While Clifton didn’t often write about angels or visions directly, she always had her eyes open. In the same collection, Clifton writes about the female fox that often sat by her window, how they watched each other through the glass and acknowledged each others’ power.

“child I tell you now it was not/ the animal blood I was hiding from,/ it was the poet in her, the poet and /the terrible stories she could tell.”

 

“blake” is not an inspirational poem to be put on a flowery background and posted to Instagram. There are terrible stories in it, in the leaden way Clifton writes “the face/ of what we have become” and “this hunger entering our loneliness.”

But she ends the poem by coming home, “back north,” and searching the branches for poems.

Tonight, HoCoPoLitSo will host its tenth annual Lucille Clifton Reading on Friday, Oct. 2, featuring Joseph Ross reading his work based on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s good to remember Clifton’s work this week and always. Her short lines and direct language could evoke whole other worlds, and her words both challenged and inspired readers.

Clifton’s line from “blake” about “the flutter that can save us” lingers with me. I’m watching the trees, waiting for poems or angels. Perhaps they are similar things.


Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer


The Agony in the Garden is a small painting by William Blake, completed as part of his 1799–1800 series of Bible illustrations commissioned by his patron and friend Thomas Butts. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Luke which describes Christ’s turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and Crucifixion following Judas’s betrayal.[1] In Blake’s painting a brilliantly coloured and majestic angel breaks through the surrounding darkness and descends from a cloud to aid and physically support Jesus in his hour of agony.[2] The work is dominated by vertical lines, formed both from the trees and from the two arms of the angel. Two inner lines converge on Christ’s palms, evoking the nails driven through him during his crucifixion.

The Agony in the Garden was bequeathed by Blake collector Graham Robertson to the National Trust in 1948. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery the following year.[3]

Poetry Moment: Li-Young Lee pays attention to reading

If we’re lucky enough, we remember elders reading books to us as children. And then, if we’re doubly lucky, we become readers, and pass the literary love down to successive generations.

In this week’s Poetry Moment, Li-Young Lee distills this moment of everyday parenthood into a poem that transforms the act of reading into something sacred. A mother reads to her child in the next room. A listener can hear the cadence, the love in the voice, but not discern the story.
Lee explains the origin of the poem in the full Writing Life interview from 1995.

“I was waking up every morning and listening to my wife read to our son in the other room, morning after morning after morning,” Lee said. “Every morning I woke up experiencing that, I realized I was in the presence of something really magical and wonderful, and on the one hand, eternal, and on the other hand, very impermanent. I didn’t know how much longer he would allow his mother to read to him like that. I knew that somehow I was in the presence of poetry, and it was up to me to find the place in myself where I could pay attention enough to write this.”

And by paying attention to this moment, Lee calls readers of his poem to attend as well.

“It’s unconscious when I’m writing,” Lee said. “I’m hearing a story being read, I never hear the story, I just hear the voice. The poem is trying to enact the voice. I’m really interested in, not so much the particular stories that are being told, but I feel as if there’s a greater telling that goes on in the universe. That there’s a telling voice that is telling all the time. Everything is discourse–leaves, trees, clouds–it’s all discourse, not only language. Or we can say everything is language. I’m curious about what that other language is. Sometimes it’s clearer when you don’t hear the words, because of the wall that separates you, but you hear the intonation of the voice, so you know you’re in the presence of a telling, but not necessarily what is being told. So it’s the telling voice that I’m really just in love with.”

Lee had a harrowing early start to his life. His father had been Mao Zedong’s personal physician, but his parents fled China as political exiles. After settling in Indonesia, anti-Chinese sentiment rose in that country and his father was arrested and held as a political prisoner for a year. After a five-year trek through Macau, Hong Kong and Japan, the family finally settled in America. But he does remember his father reading to him, even during their flight, and how later his father required him to memorize literature and recite it.

The poetry Lee writes has a quality of mysticism to it, a way of taking a sacred look at everyday events, such as reading a story to a child. He compares writing poetry to praying. In an interview with Poets & Writers, Lee said that part of the mission of poetry was to help build heaven on earth.

“The condition of prayer is a state wherein we have a kind of focus and yet we have a wide peripheral attention, and somehow it seems to me that good poems enact that kind of condition, where we are very focused, very concentrated, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have a very wide periphery, a wide awareness,” Lee said in The Writing Life interview.
Lee’s memoir of his early childhood, The Winged Seed, is an amalgamation of his memories, his father’s sermons, dreams, prayers, and lyrical moments: “My father asleep at a train window is a member of the rain fallen momentarily out of favor. And only he and God know he’s changed his name again to flee yet another country. And the child singing beside him is me. And I am so many things: An expert in tying and untying knots. A traveler stranded on that ancient peak called Father’s Heart. A hidden grape distilling light and time to render news of the living.

A man fallen asleep at his desk while reading is apple blossoms left lying where they fell. The child who comes to wake him by kissing his hands is so many things: Love succeeding. The eye of the needle. Little voice calling the flowers to assembly.

May the child never forget the power of the small.

May the man never wake a stranger to himself.”

Lee never forgot the power of the small, the sacred moment of reading to a child. This poem helps readers do the same.

Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life

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