Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September Challenge: Poems in Honor of Poets

Poems in Honor of Poets

Sometimes poets write poems in memory of—or in honor of---other poets. One of the best known examples is “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” by W. H. Auden www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15544). This poem is interesting not only for its content but also its style. The first section has neither rhyme nor regular meter. The second section has rhyme and near-rhyme, but not in an easily recognized pattern. Section II, unlike the others, is addressed to Yeats himself. The last section is in quatrains composed of much shorter lines than those in the previous two sections. The rhyme scheme is easily recognizable as aabb. The rhythm is regular (iambic, except that the first syllable of each line is accented, so there are seven syllables in each line). Undoubtedly Auden picked this form for the last section because Yeats often wrote in metric quatrains.

Yeats died at age 73, a fairly advanced age for a man of his time. One might think a celebration of his life and work would be more appropriate than an elegy lamenting his passing. Part of the darkness of the first section of the poem is probably due less to the death of the poet than to the conflict about to engulf Europe at the time (1939). Europe had been so devastated by World War I that the threat of another major conflagration could not help but influence poets sensitive to world events. This socio-political situation likely impacted Auden’s poem and helped to determine its direction.

Phyllis Wax has written a more up-beat and celebratory poem in memory—and in honor—of a poet she admires. Stanley Kunitz, one of the leading English-language poets of the 20th century, was 95 when he was appointed Poet Laureate of the US, a post in which he served for one year. His last book,The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden(by Stanley Kunitz with Genine Lentine), was published by W. W. Norton in 2005, to celebrate his one hundredth birthday. Instead of an elegy, Wax has written what she terms “A Love Poem.”

A Love Poem
Stanley Kunitz, 1905-2006

Every night I go to bed with Stanley.

I enfold his frail bones
in my arms and am warmed
by his breath in my ear.

The cool pima we lie on
is transformed by his whispered words
to a wooden boat bobbing at sea.
I lick the brine from his face.

Some nights the flowers of his garden
surround us. Lavender suffuses the air.
Seashells crunch as we shift
and the light shining in the window
is the moon tugging the tide
the way we tug the sheets wrapped about us.

The linens wrinkle like the wind-swept beach,
like the wave-furrowed sand, like the rhythmic
grooving on the shells he loved to collect.

Even though the poet has thrown off
his own worn-out shell
he joins me every night
and I fall asleep with his words
lapping the shore of my mind.

Night after night with Stanley.

--Phyllis Wax

From Wisconsin Poets' Calendar 2009, ed. Kathy Dodd Miner and Nancy F. Rafal Published by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, 2009), p. 60.

Kunitz was known for his exquisite gardens. On his Wormwood Hill farm, Kunitz created a garden surrounded by woods. He fashioned a different kind of garden on flat, fertile soil in New Hope, Pennsylvania. At Provincetown, near the tip of Cape Cod, Kunitz tamed a sand dune as he poured his energy and creativity into fashioning a garden near the water. Kunitz designed his beach garden to reflect many elements of the sea, including its fluidity. Kunitz routinely spent summers at his beach home, and had an enduring love of the sea.

Wax’s tribute to Kunitz is an extended metaphor of two people (the narrator and Kunitz) sleeping together on cool pima sheets which become transformed into a wooden vessel (presumably “The Long Boat” [www.americanpoems.com/poets/Stanley-Jasspon-Kunitz/18275] of Kunitz’s poem).

There is a paradox in Wax’s poem, for the narrator tells us she is “warmed / by his [Kunitz’s] breath in my ear.” Later in the poem, we are told that he has “thrown off / his own worn-out shell.” How can both be true? Is Kunitz alive or dead? In this paradox, Wax reflects a central theme of Kunitz, namely that life and death are simultaneous and interrelated. In The Wild Braid, Kunitz says, “. . . death is absolutely essential for the survival of life on the planet” (p. 121). He also said that “Every time we read a poem from the past we resurrect the poet, so that he or she is a presence just as much as anyone living. . . .” (p. 100). Kunitz would be pleased that the narrator of this poem “resurrects” him night after night by reading his poems, and thus hearing “his whispered words.”

That Wax herself reads the poetry of Stanley Kunitz is clear from the metaphors, similes and images she uses in the poem. Most of these reflect the role of gardens and the sea (and beach) in his life and poetry. Light and windows also appear in many of his poems. The moon also plays a significant role in some of Kunitz’s poems, most notably in “Father and Son,” where night is “nailed like an orange to my brow” (On the moon in this poem, see Gregory Orr, Stanley Kunitz: an Introduction to the Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1985), pp. 96ff).

The erotic element in the poem is also appropriate, in light of Kunitz’s declaration that “So much of the creative life has its source in the erotic” (The Wild Braid, p. 105). He goes on to say that “There is always an element of the erotic in a poem about death,” and that to at least some extent, there is an elegy for the erotic in poems about age and death (Ibid.).

Wax has resisted the temptation to bring too many details of the poet’s life into her poem. The last line of “A Love Poem” is a repetition of the first, in slightly different words, forming an envelope for the poem. This is also appropriate in a tribute to the poet who said that repetition, if not overdone, “can unify an experience. . . .” (The Wild Braid, page 74).

For more poems written in honor of other poets see the April 2008, edition of Quill and Parchment at archives.quillandparchment.com/vol82.html.

The Challenge for September: Write a poem in honor of another poet whose work you appreciate. Your poem can be an elegy, an ode, a love poem, or whatever seems appropriate. It can be in honor of a poet who is still living or to one who has died; a contemporary poet or a poet from another era. Use rhymed and metered verse or free verse; the form is up to you. Submit your poem through “comments” (below), by September 15. Winner or winners will be posted by the end of September. Poems posted on blogs are considered published and can be included in your resume. If you have trouble posting using Foxfire, try Internet Explorer (and vise versa).

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