Lucille Clifton: Paring Down Poetry

Recently I pulled some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it for a while—not even since her death in 2010. Opening her books now and browsing in them felt like re-connecting with an old friend. The first thing that always strikes me about Clifton’s poetry is what’s missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines.

Opening Sentences

So here it is: a quiz game for Close Reading readers. Below are fifteen famous first lines from famous literary works. The sources (the answers) are given below the line of asterisks after the final quote. But DON’T PEEK; it’ll spoil your fun.

From Pulitzer Prize to Islamic Horizons

It’s the last place I’d have expected to find my Uncle Karl. That’s Karl Shapiro: my mother’s brother, 1945 Pulitzer Prize winning poet who was celebrated in his time, appointed Poet Laureate in 1946-7, editor of Poetry 1959-56, awarded the Bollingen Prize in 1968. But Karl is practically unknown today.

Penelope Fitzgerald, Novalis, and The Blue Flower

My favorite Fitzgerald novel is The Blue Flower (1995). It’s a historical novel, focused on the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801). Hardenberg—or Fritz, as he’s called by family and friends—became famous when he began publishing under the name of Novalis, the` major German Romantic poet.

Circling Through a Sonnet

I like to memorize poems—to have them in my head to recite while I’m exercising on my indoor bike or taking a brisk walk in my neighborhood. Not surprisingly, I find that short poems with rhyming are the easiest to memorize. So sonnets are ideal. Take Mark Jarman’s epilogue to his collection Unholy Sonnets (2000).

Okay, Okay, Okay!

There’s no question that O.K./okay is an American coinage, going back to the mid-nineteenth century. I’ll touch below on the various theories of its origin, but first I want to give some evidence of what Mencken calls its “success.” In fact, without intending any hyperbole, he claims that O.K. is “the most successful abbreviation ever coined, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere.”

Darkness without a Dawn: Theodore Dreiser

It was the disaster in Ukraine that moved me to pull Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie from my shelf. Not having read it since graduate school days decades ago, I recalled nothing about it except its gloom. But that was enough to make it an appropriate companion for current events. Not that Sister Carrie is about war. But it is about violence: the violence with which society oppresses and even destroys individuals. The novel’s dominant color is dark.

The War of the Words

Lately I’ve been interrogating some of the hundreds of books on my shelves. To ones I haven’t read in decades — or ever — I ask: Why do I keep you? This was my question to H. L. Mencken’s classic, The American Language. Mencken, a Baltimore journalist, published his first edition of this tome in 1919.

Our Hemisphere’s First Feminist

I’m referring to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (Sister Juana Inés of the Cross), renowned poet and playwright of her time, who lived in Mexico City (then part of New Spain) in the second half of the seventeenth century. Recently I pulled an old anthology of her writings off my poetry shelf for another project, and she drew me so powerfully into her mind and world that I decided to write this post.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contemporary

“What might Mary as a contemporary of ours in the 21st Century look like? It is that question that the artworks in this exhibition are intended to answer. The objective? To prompt a different way of thinking about, perceiving, and seeing Mary,…and reflecting on what she might mean to us in our society today so that we might connect to her in a more intimate way.” (Curator’s Statement)

Reticence and Recovery in Mary Lawson’s Novels

I talk with sister Amy every Sunday. So while I was reading Mary Lawson’s novels, that’s naturally what we talked about. One time Amy said: “Her novels are about the trouble we make for ourselves when we don’t talk about things.” I see this especially in two of the novels.

Essaying

“Here’s the very essence of what an essay is. If it knew where it was headed, it would be a report, not an essay; if it had already concluded its argument, it would be an article, not an essay; if it had something to teach or censure, it might be a critique, or an opinion, but not an essay.”

Definitely My Cup of Tea

What makes just the right novel be just the right thing for my bedtime reading? Well, it has to be engaging, but not gripping. (Gripping would make me too stimulated to sleep.) No violence (physical or psychological) allowed. And while any novel takes me out of myself, which is exactly what bedtime calls for, the world it takes me into must be one of an underlying peace.

Song of the Open Road

For this post, I want to hang out with “Song of the Open Road.” I wonder why. I think because I’m moved by its all-embracing spirit, and I like where the poem takes me. Or maybe because, with COVID keeping me cooped up at home for so long, I need some expansiveness. And I need a celebration of the fresh air that I can finally breathe.

Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds…

George and I met in English lit. grad school over a half-century ago. Those were (literally) heady days: our laughing conversation was a back-and-forth ping pong with each other’s metaphors; our first argument was over symbolism in Moby Dick. So when we married about a year later, it truly was (to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase) a “marriage of true minds.”

Blossoming Poems

In my part of the country, spring is trying to spring forth. The fresh young greens outside move me to go (inside) to my computer, where I have a folder chock-full of favorite poems. I scroll through for poems that speak in some way or other about springtime: especially the blossoming of flowers or the emergence of green shoots or the headiness of spring scents.

Adam Zagajewski, Poet of Possibility, R.I.P.

Rereading Zagajewski’s poems now, I’m struck by a particular vision often running through them. Of course, any poet who published fifteen collections over forty-seven years will have engaged a variety of themes, moods, moments. But in my current reading of Zagajewski, what’s standing out for me is what I’ll call his “poems of possibility.”

Words about Words about Words

I’ve long enjoyed what are referred to as “meta” art forms: works that take their very medium as their subject. So, for instance, there’s fiction about fiction (say, Borges’s stories) painting about painting (like Jackson Pollack’s drip-action canvasses), film about film (Fellini’s 8 1/2 comes first to mind).

Is Cursive Cursed?

In my pre-computer days, when I wanted to copy out a favorite poem to memorize it, just moving it through my brain to my hand already made it part of me. Keyboarding favorite poems, which is my current practice, just doesn’t do this. Then of course there’s the ultimate laziness of copy/pasting a poem from a website.