Tuesday, February 10, 2009

EREMITE, by Scott Cairns (from Poetry, January 2009)


Thirteen years ago, when I first became interested in writing as an art, it was poetry that drew me in. At the time I responded most to poems focusing on ideas and poems that had plot. I read a lot of Bukowski. Eventually those same interests--expression of ideas, storytelling--lead me into prose, and for a long time the only 'poetry' I paid attention to was hip hop, especially the verse of emcees like Mr Lif and Jus Allah:

Headline: Bush steals the presidency
He needs the backing of the media what could the remedy be?
The country's headed for recession reminiscent of the Great Depression
Are lives worth a world of power? Easy question
Planes hit the towers and the Pentagon
Killing those the government wasn't dependent on
It's easy to control the scared so they keep us in fear
With their favorite Middle Eastern demon named Bin Laden this year
--Mr Lif

The power that I hold in my hand
could fold a frying pan,
the air and sand do as I command.
And if I want the night to last,
across the sky mass
clouds don't even allow light to pass.
--Jus Allah

I even wrote some of my own rhymes. But for the most part, my writing focused on prose--initially memoir and eventually fiction. The fiction writing reached a peak about a year ago, when I began work on a novel. I wrote about 25,000 words, which I estimated as a third of what I'd need to tell the story, and then I became overwhelmed by the mass of the work. I didn't know how to move ahead. It felt like too much weight to carry. And I didn't want to work on any other fiction because I didn't want to abandon the novel. I spent several months without writing much creative work at all.

And then I started looking at poetry again. A few words would come to me, and I'd feel fascinated by the way they fit together, the rhythms produced by accented and unaccented syllables, the way repeated sounds can bend the speaker's mouth. I became intrigued by the challenge of fitting meaning into such a sonic form, and I started jotting down little word-compositions in a notebook. I could focus on the minuscule, an entire piece comprised of less than two dozen lines. It served as an excellent antidote to the poison my novel had become for me. I was writing again. Poetry.

On a whim I decided I'd try to read a bit more poetry, to see what other people where doing with it. The January 2009 issue of Poetry Magazine, which is shown above, was one of the first things I picked up. I bought it because it was cheap (less than $4), because I'd heard of it before, and because I recognized some of the contributor's names.

So far, the poem that set the deepest hook in me is EREMITE, by Scott Cairns (on page 309). Here's the first half:

The cave itself is pleasantly austere,
with little clutter--nothing save
a narrow slab, a threadbare woolen wrap,
and in the chipped-out recess here
three sooty icons lit by oil lamp.
Just beyond the dim cave's aperture,
a blackened kettle rests among the coals,
whereby, each afternoon, a grip
of wild greens is boiled to a tender mess.

The rhythms, and especially the sounds, strike me as beautiful, and I am especially intrigued by the clever usage of internal rhyme.

I went to the POETRY magazine website, and saw that they're offering a valentine's special subscription rate: something like $17.50 for a year (11 issues). I signed up for it. It's the first literary journal I've ever subscribed to.

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