Bumping into Our Shadows: Q&A with John Pleimann

In another poem, I imagine the etymology of my surname as though my ancestors were plowmen, and I then tried that metaphor of turning earth for the poet’s task of “turning words / back to life, to light not stellar / but diffuse, like moonlight spread // across some field I must cross / by foot, by dream, by shadow.”

“It Was Good To Be In Chicago”

“It was good to be in Chicago.”
What comes next? How about this: “On the way to Santiago.”
That’s Kenneth Koch in Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. He’s demonstrating how one line of a poem leads to another.

Egyptian Gold

Howard Nemerov, far from an absolutist about form, meter, and rhyme, nevertheless
preferred to write within certain boundaries of poetic tradition. “I like filling out the old forms,” he’d say with a bemused smile as if referring to his income tax returns, “they keep me from being stupider than the law allows.”

The Pilgrim Poet Sings

Here, in his latest volume of poetry—Teaching the Soul to Speak—Murray Bodo is saying some goodbyes. Bodo is in his eighties, as he mentions in several of the poems. His yearly pilgrimages to Assisi are apparently over, but the city and all that it has meant to him stay alive in his poems, filling an entire section of the book.

What is Fixed Fails

Two poems of A. R. Ammons, in particular, have stayed with me as touchstones for over thirty years, the much-anthologized “Corsons Inlet” and his lesser-known poem on the nature of thought, “The Misfit.” These poems seem important to me as warnings against the rigidity of a closed mind.

What Is Poetry?

And that’s where “the sound begins.” Mindfulness of hearing. What sound? Here again the poem pauses. Instead of jumping ahead to disclose the source of sound, which is revealed to the speaker soon enough, the poem offers us an experience of what the mind does when it encounters an unknown.

Into the New World of Fire and Death

When the magnitude of the possible
Dawned—a morning doubly brilliant—
Many were so near they vanished instantly.
Others ran to the city’s rivers, naked
But indistinguishable, woman from man.
As a black rain fell on the fires, the wounded
Dug for the buried wounded.

Birdwatching with Robert Frost

I never intended to get Frost’s birds by heart. For some months I’d been memorizing various of Frost’s lyric poems, moving from one to the next without agenda, allowing my taste for Frost’s wit and craft to guide me. But before I knew it, there they were, his birds, some named, some not: quiet, without fanfare, easy to miss, almost wanting to be missed.

Entering into a Poem

Reading poetry is not like reading fiction. A good novel pulls me onward, makes me turn its pages, wondering what the protagonist will do next. A good poem does the opposite: makes me pause, draws me into itself and holds me there.

Bending Over the Page

I’ve learned much from looking at visual art with my brother, John. He approaches a painting in stages, often bending close in search of clues to technique invisible to me. I got to thinking about his interest in how the finished work does what it does while reading two volumes of poetry published this year: Martha Serpas’s Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press) and Claude Wilkinson’s World Without End (Slant).

Why I Memorize Poetry

The initial reason is that Miss Irene Ashley, my ninth and tenth grade English teacher, told me (and her other students) that we had to. Her assignments: A selection from Hiawatha in ninth grade (“By the shores of Gitchee Gumee…”) and from Idylls of the King in tenth (“And slowly answered Arthur from the barge…”)

Pandemic Poetry

Probably the best poet to write about her own experience of living with HIV was Tory Dent, who was diagnosed with AIDS at age 30 and died from it at age 47. In between, she published three poetry collections focused mainly on her illness. (One, HIV, Mon Amour, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.)

To Build A Labyrinth

When the May issue of Poetry dropped through my mail slot, it landed so I got to read the back cover first, lines from classicist/poet A.E. Stallings’s “Daedal”: “To build a labyrinth it takes / some good intentions, some mistakes.” Perfect, with allowances for the imperfect.

Scriptural Poetry

Here’s a game: in the lines below, can you tell which are from the Bible and which from an English poem?
Ho, every one that thirsteth,
come ye
to the waters,
and he that hath no money;
come ye,
buy, and eat;

The Poetry of Disbelief

Reading the new poems by Hankins and Paino reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s claim that North American Christianity’s chief enemy isn’t atheism, but sentimentality. Christians, Hauerwas adds, can see just how sentimental they’ve become by their inability to produce interesting atheists.

I Keep Moving Toward That

First, before even coming
together—how ever many of them there were—before
saying one word, there was a wanting. Yet before
even putting that into words—see how far back
this goes?—there was a need. And that’s what’s driven me

to return to these desolate cliffs rising above
an ever-shifting bay.

Further up the Slope

I’ve been reading Cleanth Brooks’ 1947 classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry,one of the key works that in the post-World War II decades established “close reading” as the main pedagogical tool for understanding poetry as a unified whole (rather than an artfully coded record of attitudes requiring historical and biographical translation).

Original Language

Adam and Eve didn’t need to be told not to eat from the Tree of Life. Until they ate the “forbidden fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they didn’t know. Didn’t know what? That they were mortal. Lacking that knowledge, what need would they have had for a shot at immortality, that is, a taste of the Tree of Life?

Indelibly Marked

I’m after accomplished poets who can’t stay away from those classic Catholic themes – suffering, death, sex, the pattern of sin and redemption – and habits – self-examination, ritual, memory, the honoring of community over self. Above all, there’s the centrality of the body as contested locus of power and punishment, pleasure and pain.

“A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention.”

I keep a few small stones—a couple from Israel, a couple from Whidbey Island, Washington—near my meditation bench in my study. Some days, when anxiety zig-zags around my nervous system, I pick up one of the stones, hoping that its weight in my palm will ground me, as in bring me to solid ground. A body doesn’t fret about work, family, friends, God. With the stone in my palm, whom should I fear?