Poetry on the Internet

I imagine that the Internet has really changed the way that poetry is read. The Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets websites, along with countless other pages for accessing poetry, provide readers vast quantities of poetry. We do not have to go to a library or bookstore, but can read an enormous number of poems from our homes as long as we are connected to the Internet. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the number of poets who I see represented on websites like those, unsure of where to turn. The Poetry Foundation will email you one poem each day if you simply sign up on an email list. I wonder if this fosters excitement about the breadth of the material that exists or dulls the value of each poem. Still, it is easier to find new poets when they pop up on the edge of the screen as you’re reading a poem written by one author, or if you can read the Wikepedia page of one poet to see which other poets inspired their work.

When poems are read online, they are often isolated, or within a list of poems categorized by author. In a collection however, even if you only want to read one poem, you still must flip through the pages where the others are printed. The meaning of poems is much different when they are oriented within a collection, and when that they stand alone. I wonder whether the new online poetry world has influenced the way that poets construct their collections, or if it has other impacts on the way that poetry is crafted.

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Examining “Intrigue in the Trees,” by John Brehm

Cecily Parks’ collection stirred in me great interest in the way that poetry allows us to explore the relationship between humans and the earth. I read this poem in The Sun, a magazine of photographs, poems, and prose. “Intrigue in the Trees” shares some similarities with Cecily Parks work, as it focuses on the tension between humans and non-human nature, but Brehm seems to “side with” the earth rather than humans. He begins the poem by implying that if the earth were to extinguish humans, this act would be with good reason.  This is an interesting technique: the speaker in the poem retains a strong voice though the content suggests that his voice does not matter. The speaker assigns positive character to the trees and then admits that he cannot know what the trees are thinking, or if they’re thinking at all.

The same issue of the magazine featured an interview with Robin Wall Kimmer, a Native American botanist. Kimmer is confidant that plants have intelligence, and that if humans dismiss the notions of emotional and intellectual vitality that we see in ourselves, we can observe and learn from that intelligence. She also suggests that humans refuse to see plant intelligence because that refusal gives us ethical license to control or harm them. It seems that Brehm, a poet, is attempting to do what Kimmer, a scientist, encourages: to step outside of ideas about value or intelligence that apply only to his human form, and consider the trees as equal or superior to him.

Intrigue in the Trees
by John Brehm
Often I wonder:
Is the earth trying to get
rid of us, shake us off,
drown us, scorch us
to nothingness?
To save itself and all other
creatures slated for extinction?
The trees around here
seem friendly enough —
stoic, philosophically inclined
toward nonjudgmental
awareness and giving
in their branchings
perfect examples
of one thing becoming two
and remaining one —
but who knows
what they really feel?

Just last night I was walking
to my favorite cafe,
the Laughing Goat,
when I saw a flock of crows
circling raincloudy sky,
arguing, speaking strangely,
suddenly alight on
a maple tree, dozens of them
closing down their wings
like arrogant, ill-tempered
magistrates. Some kind
of consultation
was happening there,
some plan unfolding
(animals think we’re crazy
for thinking they can’t think),
and everybody was looking up,
looking up and watching.

Peace Poetry and Play

Last night I helped to judge the annual Genesee Valley Peace Poetry Contest. Children from elementary and middle schools in the area wrote poems on the topic of peace in their English classes, and Geneseo students determined which poets would be awarded the honor of reading their poem in Wadsworth Auditorium on Mothers’ Day. When I arrived to judge the contest, I was instructed to judge the poems on the basis of “literary merit.”

When I googled “children and poetry,” the first link was to an essay on poets.org, which began with the quote from W.H. Auden, “Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do.” The essay went on to argue that the childhood propensity for play makes children receptive to poetry. As I read the poems for the contest, many of the poems seemed trudged through; they were the product of work. These poems sat directly upon their teacher’s instructions, so that I could have told you how those teachers defined poetry from the content of the poems. There were lists of what peace meant, and acrostic poems, and lists of synonyms for peace that I assume were drawn directly from a thesaurus. The ones that caught my eye were the poems that carried the spirit of play: one boy’s poem was the story of convincing his father not to shoot a deer, another about peace as emanating from pork chops, another a list of onomatopoeias, one in which the words for different parts of a wrestling arena outlined the shape of that arena. These children had evidently committed to play, rather than to the drudgery of another assignment, rather than to some college student’s definition of literary merit, to create their poems.

I imagine that the children who wrote those playful, compelling poems were not the ones who, like I did at their age, agonized over following the rules perfectly. Those divergent poems reminded me that poetry’s strength appears when it is defiant, and self-possessed, and when its construction is enjoyed.

Cecily Parks and Environmental Sociology

I would like to propose that Cecily Parks, author of O’Nights, is an environmental sociologist. Last semester I took an Environmental Sociology class in which we explored the history of the way that humans have thought of and interacted with the environment, and the way that that history has cumulated in the current human-environment interactions. In the collection O’Nights, Cecily Parks explores the tension between the “natural” and the “human.” She expresses a sense of envy of characteristics and activity of the non-human world that she is excluded from simply by the fact of her species. She writes of a swallow that she follows, “She dips her wings in her reflection/but I cannot.” She also points out the absurdity of her human thoughts and desires when set in the context of the ecological system of the earth. She writes, “I asked the stars, will you be my jewelry?” This reveals her desire to possess what is impossible to possess, and the absurdity and impossibility of human desire.

Parks also questions whether human concern with the environment is part of a desire to possess. She writes, “My fields were ill. They weren’t my fields./My trees were being killed. They weren’t my trees.” Environmental sociologists have proposed that theories of human-centric environmental conservation have damaged the ecosystems that they hoped to help. She writes, “We ask the snow to be wool for us.” Some of the ineffective environmental reform was the result of the assumption that a state of nature is perfect, simple, and predictable in the realm of human logic. Parks has a revelation that escapes many environmental theories when she writes, “Wilderness isn’t paradise.” Parks acknowledges and unpacks her own sociological biases, intellectually examining her relationship to nature but never shirking from her inherent human bias.

Parks’ poetry seems an appropriate, though unexpected medium for environmental sociology. The poems are aware that their content is shaped by the fact that they are poems, just as Parks is aware that her feelings about the natural world are shaped by the fact that she is human. In the second section of the collection she writes about her daily habits in contrast to those of the world outside the human world, acknowledging her insignificance in the context of the greater system of wilderness. She is able to synthesize her observations with a calculated awareness of her lens being shaped by her place a human and as a poet. She writes


if I in our dining room


dance, wheezily

singing so not even

our infestation of moths can hear: I will never be daughter

of the maple tree! I will never be

sister of the leaf!

Poetry In the Moment

Activity that immerse the mind is often identified as providing an opportunity for living in the moment. This sounds ideal—of course, the only piece of time that we can absolutely influence or tangibly experience is the one happening just now. Participation in art can be cited as an opportunity to live in the moment. When I write a poem I am not devoting conscious energy to any time but the present: putting words on the page. As I read a good book I am not thinking of my past or my future. However, I would not have developed the taste and skills that allow me to be immersed in that experience without my past, and I would never have started reading the book were I not looking toward a future version of myself when I began the act of reading.

I am inclined to say that poetry does not truly allow one to “live in the moment.” Poetry comes from a writer whose art is influence by his or her personal past and future, and is influenced by that individual’s position in the trajectory of history on every level.

In the context of our conversation last week about the political nature of poetry, I find it interesting that the basic skills that make up poetry are determined by the individual’s personal position in time. If an individual has the ability to write, he or she lives in a society that records by making markings on paper, and that he or she had the opportunity to be educated to write. The socio-political climate in which an individual creates or reads poetry influences factors like vocabulary and the way that poetry is presented to the public (or not). Rather than being a way to transcend tethers to the progression of time, poetry is, in part, a reflection of a particular place in time.

Writing and Practicality

I have been thinking about the question, “Why do we write?” I am taking creative writing senior seminar this semester, and preparing to graduate and remove myself from the bubble of academia that is college. Much of the content of senior seminar focuses on the “practical” value of writing: how to make money, or prestige. I find myself thinking cynically about the reasons that we write publicly. Why must writers subject themselves to criticism, a relentless judgment of good and bad, an entrance into a system of capital and an exclusive network of social connections? Does all of this serve the purpose of writing?

I recently read The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, a correspondence between poet James Wright and writer Leslie Marmon Silko. The letters highlighted the value of writing at its most simple: a way to communicate thoughts to another. The correspondence began when Wright wrote to Silko after hearing her read at a writer’s conference. Wright reveals in his first letter that he felt he needed to reach out to Silko after reading her novel Ceremony. He writes, “I am trying to say that my very life means more to me than it would have meant if you hadn’t written Ceremony.” The relationship forged through these letters is built on a foundation of mutual admiration of published writing, and reveals that writing is really about attempting to add something to the world that will be of value to others.

The letters show us the raw building blocks of a close relationship, exemplify incredible craft, and are a testament to the power and necessity of writing. Both writers express their confidence, and frustration that their relationship exists beyond the reaches of the written word. The correspondence ended when Wright died. His last writing to her was a postcard on which he wrote only, “I can’t write much of a message. Please write to me.” In her response, which arrived after his death, Silko wrote, “No matter if written words are seldom because we know, Jim, we know.” This record of the interaction of great writers reveals that writing is not about selling books, or getting awards, but about building something powerful enough to defy the hold of the words that comprise the practical existence of the writing.

Robert Service: Popularity and Power

The first poem that I knew intimately was “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The poem was written by Robert Service, a banker who moved to the Yukon Territory in the early 1900’s, around the time of the gold rush in Canada and Alaska. Everyone in my first grade class memorized the opening of the pages-long poem, which reads,


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.


The poems of Service, who has been called “The Bard of the Yukon,” detail the charm of the harsh Northern wilderness and the bravery of the rugged men who sought riches and adventure there. Service is rarely celebrated for of exemplifying literary originality or even authenticity. He has been criticized for misrepresenting himself, a banker and a townsperson, as a participant in the gold rush, thus romanticizing a life of hardship that he knew little about. His work has been critiqued as prioritizing appeal to a broad audience over literary integrity. From a literary criticism point of view “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is not great poetry, but it is powerful in that it defines a collective history.

In interior Alaska, where I lived, everyone knows the poem. My Great Uncle Laval whose parents moved to Alaska from the west coast soon after Service wrote the poem recites the whole poem, children like me learn it in school, and books of Service’s poems sit on the shelves of nearly every household that I enter. Why is poetry, and bad, common poetry at that, the medium that carries this memory? Of course there are songs, stories, and visual art from the era that Service writes about, but it is his poems that are at the forefront of the common memory of the gold rush pioneers who many Alaskans identify as part of their heritage.

It appears to me that despite critical scorn for Service’s poetry, his poems fill a need for common representation. The form of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” features easy rhythm and rhyme, which lends the poem to retelling. The relatable language, simple emotion, and sweeping romanticism give voice to a specific, isolated experience. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” conjures sensations that are specifically important to those who live in Alaska. The poem builds a clear picture, weakly constructed as it may be, of the hardy, daring history that Alaskans want to believe themselves a part of. We can critique Service’s style, or accuse him of selling out to the masses, but it is important to avoid equating popularity with weakness. In this case, the power in Service’s poetry is rooted in its easy accessibility, the closeness that many feel with the heart of it.

How to Be a Poet

I was staying in a hostel in the middle of a long hike on the Appalachian Trail when I came across Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”. It was clear and revolutionary. When I returned home after the hike, I read through other work by Berry on the Internet. I came across his poem, “How to be a Poet.” The poems featured the same contained, clear voice, “How to be a Poet” addressed “(to remind myself)” rather than as overt advice to other poets.  At the time I was thinking little about poetry, as a prose writer. Instead, my thoughts were occupied by the incongruity between the mindfulness of the peaceful, deliberate life that I felt I had been living on the trail and the scattered, fast-paced state of my consciousness and lifestyle at home. It was habit and lifestyle that “How to be a Poet” spoke to. Berry writes, “Breathe with unconditioned breath / the unconditioned air. / Shun electric wire.” The poem made me yearn for my life without walls or electricity.

I am now making my way through poetry workshop and I could use instructions on exactly how to write poetry that is good, and correct, and fresh, this poem does not provide those answers. Instead, it starts, “Make a place to sit down. / Sit down. Be quiet.” The poem refuses to honor my assumptions about poetry being written in a mystical, impossible process. It even denies the assumption that poetry is about language. Berry’s advice centers not on words, but instead on the behavior that is conducive to writing poetry. His advice is holistic and simple. In fact, Berry does not say anything about language directly until the last stanza. He writes, “Make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came.”

Szirtes and The Community of Form

When I write poems, form is not at the forefront of my process. The form of my poems is generated by intuition, almost as a side effect. My poetry feels deeply personal and isolated, giving me a sense of ownership that is probably exaggerated. M y poems have no allegiance to common form, though they use the same words, and echo ideas expressed in other poems Szirtes might call this practice, “anarchist,” but it there is something less defiant that marks it: my poems feel alone. For this reason, I was struck by Szirtes’s reference to the community as an attraction of form.

Language is an attempt to distill words from the “mass of inchoate impressions, desires, and anxieties,” that Szirtes identifies as defining the human experience. The common use of form seems to be a rallying point for poets writing about different material, from different backgrounds, and with different intentions. Szirtes writes of all sonnets, “They are not alone in the world.” Often, my poetry does feel lonely, specific to me and hopefully accessible to some ungrounded other. After reading Szirtes I felt some pity for my own poems, wallflowers as the formal poems move through their networked world. Just as those who have mastered a language are able to communicate their complex, specific thoughts to others who know that language well, form provides an opportunity for deeper understanding. Those poems that are written in the same form owe some portion of their creation to consideration for that specific form. This provides them common ground with others in their form. Szirtes gives me reason me to let my poems join the conversation.