All We Know of Pleasure

A little while back I objected to Fence Magazine’s claim that it published poetry out of the mainstream. If you really want to be out of the mainstream (said I) shunned, censored and (depending on the country) possibly killed or imprisoned, try writing freely and openly about sex—about our erotic lives and imagination in poetry, stories or fable.  Just this December, Tumblr banned all depictions of sex and nudity. And while the ban excludes written erotica, one wonders how long that exemption will last.

So where are all the poets?

Our love of the erotic is what helped make us human. My own belief is that our ability to desire another imaginatively is not the byproduct of our imagination but the other way around. Our imagination is the byproduct of our sexual drive and desire—Eros. If a species doesn’t procreate, then it perishes. Nature’s trick was to use our imagination, to use our most potent organ. (As is often said: Sex is in the brain.) All our art, literature, and music is the byproduct of erotic desire. And that’s hard for the many who conceive of the human mind as made in God’s image rather than the fabricator of desire—or the devil’s as some might say. So, while some quarters are still fussily censoring our erotic imagination, the world’s earliest art, going back even to the Neanderthals, is erotic.

The Kangjiashimenji Petroglyphs

The world’s earliest surviving poetry is erotic—Sappho. In the relatively recently discovered and ancient trash heap at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, texts dealing with erotic subject matter seem to have been significantly more popular than religious or spiritual texts (far more popular than the words of Jesus apparently). Vicki Leòn’s observers, in her book, The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World:

Again, amid the masses of papyri hidden in the ancient ruins of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, archeologists and researchers discovered a tantalizing fragment of a sex manual, a work of art by a Greek woman called Philaenis. This find provided even more shocking because it revealed that women of Greco-Roman times not only behaved as lasciviously as men, but they also wrote about the imaginative sex they’d had (and/or had fantasized). ¶ Philaneis lived during Hellenistic times, on the Greek island of Samos or perhaps or perhaps Leicidia (accounts disagree). She may have been the courtesan that inspired the coining of the word pornography. Whatever her day job, she began her literary odyssey by coming up with the killer title of her book. She called it On Indecent Kisses. her erotic manual was clearly popular (judging by its mention by other writers, plus the number of papyrus fragments found at multiple sites), and centuries later would provide inspiration for Ovid’s bestselling Ars Amatoria (the Art of Love.) [p. 37]

I’m guessing, though I don’t know, that Philaenis’s work might have been poetry, especially if it inspired Ovid.  And it’s telling, perhaps, that Ovid’s work survived while Philaenis’s did not (as is the case with the erotic writing of women throughout history and cultures). Nothing silences women like suppressing erotica.

So, you would think, that in a nation where freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution, far more erotica might be written, and yet poets who veer from the mainstream are few and far between, and the unwillingness of sellers, publishers, and merchants to trade in erotica remains a constant: Amazon, Apple Inc., Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, for example. Never mind the hundreds of “avant garde” poetry publishers too frightened to accept erotic poetry.  Choices are few.

And so, when I read about poets and/or publications touting their bona fides as writers and publishers of trending, out-of-the-mainstream poetry because they’ve invented a new typography, a new way to upend syntax and grammar, or a freer way to make free verse free all in the name of socially accepted and approved content, the whole notion of avant garde flies right out the window.

This doesn’t mean to say that writing erotic poetry is a sufficient end in and of itself. While there’s a lot of bad poetry that gets a pass because of its trending subject matter and style, there’s nothing like bad erotic poetry to spotlight the mediocrity of the poet. If you want to write erotic poetry with any kind of lasting literary value, emphasis on literary value, then it’s the least forgiving (most out of the mainstream) genre you could possibly choose. Which is to say, Erotic Literature is the most challenging and difficult genre to master. Trendy content isn’t going to save you. Not only are you sailing against the headwinds of what’s socially acceptable, let alone publishable, but erotic writing is itself a mine field of cliché and insipid sentiment. Few writers come out of that killing field alive—not even those who should know better. Curious? Here are the winners of this year’s bad sex award.

That said, and having to say it again, if you’re a poet and you really want to be avant garde and out of the mainstream, write erotic poetry. And if you really want to live in Davy Jones’s locker, use meter and rhyme to do it. And if you want to make your mark in history, make it literature.

All We Know of LoveAnd that brings me to All We Know of Pleasure: Poetica Erotica by Women, an anthology of contemporary women’s erotic poetry published just this year—2018. The editor is Enid Shomer. On the back cover of the book, you’ll read the following: “poetry written by women that actually excites the thinking reader.” How’s that for a claim?

Poetry that actually excites the reader.

I haven’t read the collection from cover to cover, but I’ve read enough to include it among my favorites. The poems are, that I’ve read so far, all free verse but for a poem by Molly Peacock called Lullaby, it starts:

Big as a down duvet the night
pulls the close Ontario sky
over the naked earth. Here we lie
gossiping in a circle of light
·
under our own big comforter,
buried nude as bulbs. I slide south
to grow your hyacinth in my mouth.
[…] [p. 40]

Now that’s something you don’t read every day. Though I wouldn’t have minded if some other poets had tried something other than free verse, the quality of their poetry is nevertheless first rate. What novelist has come close to putting together anything like Carolyn Creedon’s erotic cry?

[…]I want to lay
you, on a bed without a towel, without a curtain, without a good enough
reason. I want to wear a white dress stained with certain possibility, like an autograph
like a river’s ripe with spawn, like a signpost, like a season,
like a dam come all undone. [Wet, p. 116]

Not to miss is the nice internal rhyme of reason and season along with the pun on dam (and damn) in the last line. This is good stuff.

The anthology is divided into three parts: The Discovery of Sex, The Ordinary Day Begins, When This Old Body.  Each section showcases about thirty poems, so this is not a chintzy collection. From June Sylvester Saraceno’s The Ordinary Day Begins

at my desk
the screen blinks on
numbers begin their race
but inside me, the throb
of your last morning thrusts
continue, echo
you in me […] [p. 65]

To poems that aren’t strictly a celebration of temptation and pleasure:

you push your mouth against mine
i want to tell you
you have come to the wounded for healing.
like you, i am
imperfect flesh, and my
experience of violence has made me
no less likely to harm you [….]

[Kai Cheng Thom, the wounded for healing, p. 126]

But grief too. These are poems that refuse to be less than literary simply because they’re erotic. Any poet who aspires to write more than the same mainstream avant garde poetry of the last hundred-plus years, should read this book if only to learn how to avoid the pitfalls of cliché so typical of erotic sentiment. Who would have thought that BDSM could be elevated to the delirious lyricism of Sheryl St. Germain: 

[…]
Tonight when I close my eyes
the sky will fill with lovers
binding the wrists of lovers,
the night will tie its blindfold
over the earth’s eyes, and I will
dream of how to speak—oh
·
kiss me with lips I have to imagine;
hold me in a room I can’t escape.

[Blindfolds, Ropes, p. 104]

Not that’s poetry, poetry that excites the reader, that’s truly on the fringes of the approved, and that carries on the nearly silenced voices of Sappho and Philaenis.

  • The Book About 7 by 5. Good paper. Readable. One poem per page. Nice font. Brief biographies of the poets can be found at the back of the book but, unfortunately, no index.
  • Comparisons This book belongs on your bookshelf alongside The Poetry of Sex, intimate kisses; Passionate Hearts; The Erotic Spirit; The Best American Erotic Poems.
  • In Translation A transliteration of Marlowe’s translation of Ovid.
  • You and your Lover Poems for women to love women, for women who love men, and for men who to want to peer behind the curtains of women’s desires.
  • Embarrassment An understated copy and title makes it easy to read on public transit.

Sex ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Art N/A
Romance ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Look & Feel ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Poetry ♥♥♥♥♥♥
Index

Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • Two Books Added

Reviewed and added the following books to Erotic Poetry, Love & Passion • A review of Poets & Anthologies:

  • Libidacoria: In a Plain Brown Wrapper by Kristie LeVangie
  • 4play by Kristie LeVangie

You will find them appended to the larger review linked above.

Birchsong ❧ A Review

A Review of Birchsong

And the excuse it gives me to digress on anthimeria, the difficulty of accentual-syllabic verse, Animism, Mary Oliver, etc…

Here’s the book that’s been burning a hole in my conscience. This was forwarded to me in April. I promised to review the book and right about that time I was swamped with work. The book is Birchsong Poetry Centered in Vermont, edited by Alice Wolf Gilborn, Rob Hunter, Carol Cone, Brenda Nicholson, Monica Stillman. If you’re wondering whether there are more editors than authors, there are not. The book is an anthology of fifty-six contemporary poets “intimately acquainted with Vermont”. I’m not one of them. I don’t normally like anthologies, but this is a book to which I would have submitted poetry.

Whether because of the editors’ tastes or because poets in Vermont are more predisposed to draw on the natural world, readers familiar with New England (and the world evoked by Robert Frost) will recognize the landscape and certainly be reminded of the poet. A sense of season and place is strongly evoked in nearly all the poems. Maybe it reflects my own predilection, but I prefer the earthbound imagery of these poets to the more discursive abstractions typical of many (if not most) contemporary poems.

The very first poem, Ah, Spring, by Pamela Ahlen, lets the reader know what they’re in for. They’ll be muddy knee’d, caught in the rain, and end up with a thorn in the thumb. These poems are all about a state where the total population isn’t even half the nearest city.

sweet meadow pranked with green
the red-winged blackbird
yessing a sweet potato sky.

But Mama Nature’s playing
two-stick tricks, paradiddle
pandemonium all shake, rattle

and rain, all flash-frozen roof.
Sweet Mama’s come undone,
her arctic face unsheathed…

What do I like about this poem? What can you learn from it? First off, she uses my favorite poetic technique, anthimeria, to turn ‘yes’, normally a noun, into a verb: “the red-winged blackbird yessing a sweet potato sky.” Historically, especially during the Elizabethan era, the poem was a chance for the poet to show off his ingenuity with language. The coinage of new words and phrases was a point of pride. That original burst of linguistic ingenuity flavored poems for the next 300 years. If new words or phrases weren’t being coined, the poem was nevertheless understood as intrinsically different from prose precisely because its brevity and concentration all but demanded linguistic and metaphoric ingenuity. If not that, then how was the poem justified? So, even though Keats (and later Frost) were no longer coining new phrases and latinisms, they both took great pride in the linguistic ingenuity of their meter and rhyme.

That’s something utterly missing in the vast majority of contemporary poems (which really do little, in terms of language, to justify their existence as anything other than a minor species of prose). So, when I see the kind of linguistic play and inventiveness demonstrated by Ahlen, I enjoy and admire it. I hold it up to the light like a new-stamped coin, all shiny and golden. It’s for poems like these that I write and read poetry.

I also like wildflowers; and Ahlen, in her other two poems, revels in them. I would write more but there are fifty-six poets in this book and 50 of them are liable to wonder why I didn’t mention them. I honestly think there’s something in all their poems worth recommending.

Another enjoyable technique you will find in these poems is an inventive use of imagery. Neil Shepard closes his poem, The Source, with a nice example:

Down at the bottom of the pasture
Where birches bend under all this
White weight, the swamp begins.
And nothing but willows grow
In the boggy hummocks, iced up now,
Their roots lifted up
As if trying to take a first, slow step
Out of the rime and ooze.

To me, it’s those last three lines that ring with the magic of poetry. The poet transforms the land, not just by telling us what he sees, but by going just a little further than Pound’s call for the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’.” Animism is probably the oldest religion in the world – the doctrine that all natural objects and the universe itself have souls. It’s my opinion that the best and greatest poets are all animists. Everyone to an extent, I think, imbues the landscape with their inner emotional lives. When we’re in a bleak mood, the fields look desolate and the woods look dark. When we’re upbeat, the grass is green and forest is light.

Poets go a little further, the best being able to capture our inner lives in the natural world:

From Robert Frost’s Bereft:

“Leaves got up in a coil and hissed
Blindly struck at my knee and missed”

From EA Robinson’s Sonnet The Sheaves:

“A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.”

TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky|
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Neil Shepard’s poem and imagery is written in that tradition. He possesses the poet’s ability to transform what he sees, to imbue it with his own inner emotional landscape, and write it. And although I think Dianalee Velie’s poem, Maple, could stand to be a little subtler, I still appreciate the lovely metaphor at the heart of the poem.

…now the big maple is down
The six sap buckets, once
clinging to her like children,

brimming with her collected
nectar, lay orphaned
in the sugar-lot…

This is a kind of extended metaphor that I see all too little in modern poetry – it doesn’t always work and may seemed forced, but I admire the poet (the poet-animist) who tries. After all, the extended metaphor is at the heart of nearly every great poem prior and into the 20th century.

Although I didn’t pointedly scour each and every poem, all but two of them appear to be free verse. I find that to be a disappointment, but the quality of the verse holds up in other ways. There are some poems that appear to be syllabic, meaning that each line keeps to the same number of syllables, but I’ve never been persuaded by that kind of “formalism”. Syllabics is to accentual-syllabics what staying off the sidewalk’s cracks is to tight-rope walking. It’s a whole different game. When the poet misses a step, the fall goes further and the landing is harder.

Jean L. Kreiling gives the reader a Shakespearean Sonnet and does it with the skill of a poet who knows what she’s doing.

Wishing for Snow

If only winter’s knife-edged cold would bend
and break and finally disintegrate
in tiny crystal fragments, we’d defend
our driveways, and our walks, and celebrate
our strength. If only this unyielding sky
would soften and dissolve into a mist
of icy flakes, we’d raise an awestruck eye
to watch their fall. But winter likes to twist
the knife, to maximize its penetration
and coolly signal its supremacy…

I have my complaints. For instance, the adjective unyielding is metrical padding and unnecessary given that the same idea is implied by the poet’s plea that the sky “soften and dissolve”. The phrase “we’d raise an awestruck eye” also feels contrived, in a 19th century sort of way – something for the sake of the meter and rhyme. These are the challenges that make rhyming accentual-syllabic verse a walk on a tight-rope; they’re obstacles that free verse poets just don’t confront.

However, there’s praise for Kreiling too. This is a poet who thinks beyond the line. The majority of the lines are enjambed and that gives the poem flexibility and momentum. There’s nothing wooden about this verse. Some close readers might even suggest that the shifting and moving lines are trying to invoke the wind-blown weather that the poem pleas for. I would hesitate to make that interpretation without reading more of Kreiling’s poems.

Kreiling’s next poem, To a Hummingbird, also written in Iambic Pentameter, is near perfect:

…Please teach me how to hover weightlessly,
exquisitely escaping gravity,
and how to reach the speed of shimmering
and shapelessness, so that my movements sing…

My only complaint are the short lines that begin and end the poem: the first line: Oh, blur of bird!; and the last: with pleasures blurred. The exclamation, Oh, strikes me as a bit precious and quaint these days, while the grammatical inversion of the last line (as though solely for the sake of rhyme) feels old fashioned. They feel out of place, to me, given how Kreiling otherwise so beautifully unites a modern vernacular with meter and rhyme – no easy task.

Anyway, these are some the things I think about when I read poetry.

Not all the poems are specifically about Vermont. I assume that some poets are represented because they live in Vermont. Regina Murray Brault gives us a nice little poem that could have been written anywhere. It begins:

In the trailer park
where diapers snap on clotheslines
like flags in semaphore
the child cradled in my arms
lies swaddled in
the rhythms of her world.

She hears a thrust song
from the thicket
and searches with her eyes.
Bird I tell her
and wish her wings…

The tone veers uncomfortably close to mawkishness, but I like the little touches of imagery – the diapers snapping like “flags in semaphore”. And this gives me an opportunity to fire off a shot at William Logan (who’s acumen I worship near idolatry). God knows what Logan would say about some, if not many, of the passages in this anthology. His critique might echo his criticism of Mary Oliver – a “bland, consolatory poetry [that] is a favorite of people who don’t like poetry”. But what Logan criticizes in a poet like Oliver is analogous to what critics have said of Vivaldi. (You readers who listen to Jazz or modern music will have to substitute your own analogy.) Stravinsky once quipped that Vivaldi was the only composer to have written the same concerto over a thousand times. And, in a sense, if you’ve listened to one concerto by Vivaldi, you’ve heard them all. The emotional range from one to the next is as varied as the yellow in dandelions. It was said that Vivaldi could write an entire concerto faster than his copyists could copy them. His trademark was the sequence (or sequencing). This is when a musical phrase is repeated again and again (essentially) up the scale and down the scale.

But, know what? – no composer, before or after, could do sequencing the way Vivaldi could. As another critic once wrote (paraphrasing): It’s true that Vivaldi’s music might be one sequence after another, but they’re good sequences. Similarly, it’s true that a Mary Oliver poem might be the same one written a thousand times, but what’s good in one is good in another. Here’s what I mean: all of Oliver’s poems, I’ve noticed, are really composed of two very simple types of metaphor – the simile and the prepositional metaphor. (As with the sequence in music, the prepositional metaphor “is the quickest and easiest kind of metaphor to construct” [The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, p. 181].

Here is the simile (from Their Wings) [italics are mine]:

In summer the bats
fly like dots and dashes

Here is the prepositional metaphor (from the same poem):

I carried it off into the woods and laid it

in a mossy place, in an old stump, where it died
heart-thumping and hissing
in the slump of its wings

What the sequence was to Vivaldi, the prepositional metaphor is to Mary Oliver. I think that Logan misses this when he is befuddled by Oliver’s popularity. Yes, Oliver has written the same poem a thousand times and, yes, they are full of the formulaic structure that defines the simile and the propositional metaphor, but they are good similes and they are good prepositional metaphors. They are the stuff of poetry; and if readers don’t read Oliver for her intellectual rigor or depth, reading her for her poetry is every bit as good a reason (and something Logan could stand to learn from in his own poetry). Contrary to Logan’s snarky dismissal, the readers who read Oliver are precisely those who like poetry. There’s something to enjoy in her lines that is missing from, as far as I know, almost every other modern poet. There’s a reason why she can make a living writing poetry and Logan can’t, except by criticizing it. Basta,

If you read Birchsong, you will find some of this same poetry:

Jack Gundy, Spring Harvest:

Their voices marry
with the thin blood of trees
boiling down
to sweet liquid amber.

Arlene Distler, The Case Against Mums:

I prefer autumn’s tawdry mix
of unkempt rows
,
sunflower’s swollen prose,
stripped-down lily’s
arcs of green

turned shadowy wisps…

Partridge Boswell, Just I Remember I Knew You When:

…Could he hear his own
lightly dredged laughter at parties, cynical
lemon twist of luck he wished a recent graduate

brace enough to admit she was trying her uncalloused
hand at short fiction? Could he taste the gelignite
of early fame
rising in the back of his throat…

Ivy Schweitzer, Snow Day, February 14,

They come, then, smoldering
orange petals with blazing yellow
throats, pitch black at the center,
erect three lobbed stigma
ringed by six slender stamen,
their anthers dusty with pollen and curved daintily outward,
splayed cups of exultation
penned in for their own protection.

Naturally, readers will find some examples better or worse than others, but this all stuff of which poetry is made.

However, having written this much, here is what I like most about the poetry in this anthology – and the kinds of poems I like best: the poetry of the concrete, tactile, and sensual, poems joyfully aware (as I wrote at the outset) of season and place. Here is the close to Janice Miller Potter’s poem Potato Paradise:

One evening, then, when burnt yellow vines
had fallen in tangles upon the ground,
you pulled the fork from where it stood
like a scarecrow among the corn,
and called me to come and to share –
you could not harvest this work alone.
Mapping a circle around a stem,
you plunged sharp tines into the earth
and gently parted its fragrant threads.
Where one potato eye had lain,
now lay a multitude of dusky forms.
So on we fared – with fork and with hands,
exclaiming at our row of new potatoes.
From slivers, I sang the miracle of girth.
But you, with your tenderness for lesser gods,
bade me to gather in the small ones, too.

If this kind of poetry is to your liking as well, then you will find more like it in Birchsong. As the subtitle states, these poems are Poetry Centered in Vermont. If you live in Vermont, then reading this anthology will be like an afternoon talk with your neighbors about familiar things; and if you used to live in Vermont, then the poems will feel like a visit to a familiar place with its cold winters, short summers and the ever present presence of nature:

Harvest Time by Kimberly Ward

Red moon this morning.
I am walking barefoot
in puddles and find
the hogs have been killed
uphill.

In terms of the book itself, the poems are beautifully presented, a poem to a page, readable and accompanied by the occasional artwork of Betsy B. Hubner. The height and width of the book is generous, meaning that the poems don’t feel cramped. There are a 112 pages and brief biographies of all the contributing poets is included in the final pages. Enjoy.

Published by:

P.O. Box 175
Danby, VT 05739

CALENDARS by annie finch

  • September 18 2009 • Cleaned up typos. Oddly, Firefox keeps mucking up WordPress Javascsripts. I’ve switched to Google Chrome. This is the  third time I’ve had to correct the same typos.

How the Book Faired

Not many reviewers hold poetry books to the same standards I do. In fact, none that I know of.

I am unique among reviewers.

Annie Finch CalendarsLet me begin by stating that I received the book straight from the publishers. The copy that I ordered was hardcover. The book was beautifully wrapped in a fine tissue paper and lacked only a wax seal. The care taken in its presentation leaves the reader with the impression that this is a book (and poet) that the publishers are proud of.

After receiving this beautiful book, I promptly left it on the roof of my car and drove off. Several hours later, I recovered the book from the off-ramp of I-91. This alone is remarkable. The book was able to stay on top of my car for some 23 miles at speeds of just over 70 miles per hour. This bespeaks a slender volume with subtle curves able to withstand gale force winds.

I then put the book next to my favorite chair.

Whereupon one of my little girls knocked over my freshly filled glass of ice tea (I had just been preparing to review the book). CALENDARS was soaked (along with some other books). I then did what I do with all my books that get caught in lemon iced-tea downpours.

I put it in the oven (which has a pilot light) underneath my 1940’s edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

I then forget that the book is in the oven and crank the oven to a pizza-ready 475 degrees. As any good lit major knows, paper burns at 451 degrees, hence Fahrenheit 451. Fortunately, the smell of broiled Columbia Encyclopedia and roast Finch alerted me to the impending book burning. I removed the books. Very hot. Very dry. Very bent.

I noted that the binding and glue had withstood both gale force winds and a controlled propane explosion. I promptly placed the roast Finch under my beloved 1938 Webster’s Encyclopedia (all 11 or 12 pounds of it) to straighten it out. Finch is small. Webster’s is big. I forget about the roast Finch until last week. Upon recovering Finch from her premature burial, I discover that the book is straight and, to the untrained eye, looks good as new.

So, I can now say without reservation that the quality of the book is outstanding and highly recommended.

Printed by Tupelo Press.

About Annie Finch

A brief biography of Annie Finch states that she was born in New Rochee, New York in 1956. She studied poetry and poetry-writing at Yale. (I’m not sure of the distinction between poetry and poetry-writing, but then I didn’t go to Yale.) Of interest to me is her collection of essays called The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self (2005),  A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women (1994) and After New Formalist: Poets on Form, Narrative. And Tradition (1999). She’s a formalist. (I normally don’t care for the term because I am not formal, but Finch uses it.) Finch is currently directing the Stonecoast Masters of Fine  Arts program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine. And of final note: Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreward Poetry Book of the Year Award.

Annie Finch is incredibly productive.

Now to the Poetry:  Understanding Them

Reading Finch is a bit like reading Yeats in the following way: They are both steeped in a spirituality that uses “code words”, symbols and associations that the average reader may or may not be familiar with. Anyone who does a little research on Finch will learn that she’s Finch Study Guidea practicing Wiccan and that to more thoroughly understand her poetry is to more thoroughly understand her spirituality. Fortunately for readers of Yeats, a reader’s guide is available and indispensable. But what if you’re reading Finch? Well, as it turns out, the publishers have provided what they call a “study guide“. Clicking on the image at right will download a PDF from Tupelo press.

If you download it, you will find that the guide consists of a series of leading questions for each of the book’s poems. The questions are meant to provide readers with avenues of investigation that will presumably provide clues to or reveal the poem’s associations, symbols and meaning. By way of  example, here is the first poem (normally I wouldn’t reprint an entire poem, but readers might enjoy following the text as Finch reads the poem in the video below):

Landing Under Water, I see roots

All the things we hide in water
hoping we won’t see them go—
(forests growing under water
press against the ones we know)—

and they might have gone on growing
and they might now breathe above
everything I speak of sowing
(everything I try to love).

Here is the first of the two questions found in the study guide:

Finch dedicates this poem to Rita Dove in the “Acknowledgments” and has mentioned during readings that this poem came to her after reading Dove’s verse play The Darker Face of the Earth. The play, which retells the story of Oedipus among slaves on a nineteenth-century plantation, concerns the influence of a family’s past history on the present. Are these themes reflected in “Landing Under Water, I See Roots”?

Is one to assume that one must read “Acknowledgments” in order to fully appreciate Finch’s first poem? This seems to be the implication. How many readers are going to want to pursue this research? I, for one, am not. I have a whole pile of books yet to read, all on the floor next to my chair, all ready to soak up my next glass of iced tea. I generally don’t care for poetry of this sort. My own bias is to believe that a poem that isn’t self-sufficient, whose meaning can’t be plumbed without the aid of footnotes or endnotes, hasn’t done its job. It’s unfinished. But that’s my bias. I know that other poets enjoy this kind of poetry, as do many readers.

And here is the poet reading the poem:

As it stands, Finch’s first poem is beautifully written (if obscure). Who hides things in water? I don’t. And if we don’t take it literally (which I don’t think we’re meant to) how exactly are we to interpret “water”? Another reviewer, Tim Morris at the University of Texas at Arlington, has this to say:

Annie Finch’s work consistently makes us read a line twice. You are never sure just where a line or a thought is going. But in contrast to one dominant poetic school in America at the moment, descended from John Ashbery, where the reader does not know or for that matter care where the next thought is going, in Finch’s poetry one always cares.

I would modify that second sentence just a little: You are never sure just where a line or a thought went.

OK, never is too strong a word, but perhaps you take my point. There can be an opaque quality to Finch’s poetry, the feeling that you just had to be there. Finch’s poems can be like sentences without nouns where one is never quAnnie Finchite sure what’s being described or conveyed. I’m dubious but, as Morris asserts, Finch’s associative leaps pale in comparison to an Ashbery. There are readers who enjoy this sort of opacity and  I do think it is possible to enjoy Finch’s art without fully understanding her references. In no way do I want to dissuade readers from reading her poetry. My reactions are to be taken with a grain of salt.

But besides that, what’s with the study guide anyway? A whole host of questions beg to be asked.  Was it thought to be necessary? If so, why? Is the text to be considered complete without it? Why wasn’t it included with the book? Doesn’t it imply a certain level of presumptuousness? Is Annie Finch so established that her poetry now comes with study guides? Are readers obligated to read the study guide alongside her poetry? I’m certain she and the publisher would say no, but there it is. I must admit, I would probably have a near death experience if my own poetry were issued with a study guide, but I would also be just a little embarrassed. Shouldn’t I be dead before this happens? Mind you, only some of these questions relate to the quality of her poetry. That said, they’re questions I inevitably ask myself. If a book of poetry comes with (or requires) a study guide, what’s missing in the poetry?

All the same questions could be asked of Yeats, but then Yeats was Yeats. He was writing, unapologetically, for the Irish. Who is Finch writing for? – other women who happen to be wiccans? It’s a question that will occur to some readers through the course of the book and in poems like The Menstrual Hut, Without a Bird, Summer Solstice Chant. None of this, by the way, is a criticism so much as a description of what you will find.

On the other hand, not all of Finch’s poems are so oblique.

A Wedding on Earth is rich with earthy exuberance. At Religioustolerance.org the Wicca religion is described as  neopagan, earth centered religion. Finch’s poem is nothing if not earth centered. It’s imagery is concrete, sensuous, and erotic, reveling in the fecundity of the earth. There is no “earth as it is in heaven”. Heaven is earth.  Religious Tolerance, by the way, defines neopaganism as the following:

A Neopagan religion is a modern faith which has been recently reconstructed from beliefs, deities, symbols, practices and other elements of an ancient religion. For example, the Druidic religion is based on the faith and practices of the ancient Celtic professional class; followers of Asatru adhere to the ancient, pre-Christian Norse religion; Wiccans also trace their roots back to the pre-Celtic era in Europe. Other Neo-pagans follow Hellenismos (ancient Greek religion), Religio Romana (ancient Roman religion), Kemetism (ancient Egyptian religion) and other traditions.

Unlike with some of her other poems, it’s not essential to know that she’s a Wiccan or to know what Wicca entails, but it does inform the poem.

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over an ancient face,
we all hold seeds that vibrate alive within,
and every hardened pod pulls the world’s embrace
from a new hiding place.

This is from the first stanza. The rich imagery and Whitmanesque rhetoric continue, unabated, through the entirety of the poem. Not all of the allusions or images make sense:

…bring
sand to emptiness, memory to the full..

Sand may have some Wiccan connotation of which I’m unaware. Without knowing, lines like this sound a little like words for the sake of words. They are like the witch’s chants – more incantation than meaning – creating a sort of sound and wall of imagery that’s meant to be like sounds and color. Like a magic spells, the words aren’t quite meant to make sense but to create a mood. The poem works. She moves in and out of incantation and exhortation:

Let your bodies make a body of bodies – cool
with the pores of a question, rich and warm
with answers quickening to beat and roll and spool
through the lost space anchored only by love’s vast charm,
where pools of kiss and hope and remembering meet,
crossed in a sculpting heat.

While we’re talking about content, you might not notice Finch’s mastery of form. And that’s the way it should be. Of all the poets who still write in the aural tradition, which is to say she uses meter and rhyme,  she is the most skillful. Her lines are rich with enjambment. This is a poet who can think beyond the line ,whose inventive powers move over many lines at once. One doesn’t get the sense that she writes line by line – as one does with so many other formalist poets. Her thought and meaning move through the form – that is, Finch gives the illusion that the form is accidental. The poem feels as though it has created the form rather than the form creating the poem.  Her poetry is mercifully free of metrical fillers and archaisms (in terms of word choice and grammar) that so frequently mar the efforts of other modern formalist poets. This is Finch’s singular gift and mastery.

The study guide provides a brief explanation of the meters and a sample scansion of all the poems in Calendar. Of the Wedding on Earth, the study guide writes:

This invented stanza uses the same line lengths, with the rhyme pattern of the Spenserian stanza. As befits a meter related to the Sapphic stanza—a meter that does not lend itself to Wedding On Earth Scansionsubstitution, since a particular pattern of different metrical feet constitutes its identity—this invented meter does not usually use substitution within the line. However, it does tend to leave off the final unstressed syllable of a line, lending the poem a more insistent, drumlike and ceremonial quality.

Notice the emphasis on the insistent, drumlike character of the meter – all in keeping with the feeling of the poem as incantation. This aspect of the study guide is especially useful and one wishes (or at least I do) that the publishers had included an appendix in the book itself – though I can understand why Finch, the publishers, or both opted not to. I fully admire Finch’s passion for the aural tradition, along with the varied exploration of the moods the different meters rouse in her. One gets the sense that the various stanza forms and meters are like musical keys to her. Different composers reacted differently to C Major, C# Minor or E♭major; and one gets the same sense that the different meters evoke commensurate moods and subjects in Finch.

And speaking of the study guide, I find some of its scansions puzzling.

For instance, the study guide scans the first poem as follows (trochaic tetrameter):

Landing Under Water ScansionNotice that the second and fourth line of each stanza shows a missing unstressed syllable. This implies that the meter is what’s called Long Meter, which has a syllable count of  8,8,8,8 . In other words, the ballad meter should be read as Long Meter with a missing syllable in the second and fourth line. In fact, Finch’s ballad meter is a trochaic version of 8s, 7s. A wealth of examples can be found here at the Fasola web site.

I might be accused of quibbling.

The study guide adds: Line 2: The rest or omitted syllable, very unusual in the middle of a trochaic line, creates an emphatically strong stress on “won’t.

I wouldn’t scan it that way. If this was Finch’s intention, then she didn’t quite pull it off. The tug of the trochaic meter pulls too hard against her intentions. At best, one might scan the line as follows:

spondaic Finch

This would make the second foot spondaic. However, I suspect many readers would read it as follows:

weak spondaic Finch

This scansion makes the word won’t more of an intermediate stress. If Finch had created some syntactic pause after won’t, I think readers would be more apt to heavily stress the word. But such is the art and science (the nitty-gritty) of writing meter. And I love Finch for trying.

Finch’s poems are full of metrical niceties like these and even if I’m dubious as to the success of some of them, I’m in no way criticizing her. Her poems are richer for the effort and the scansions available in the study guide give the interested reader something to think about. Did it work?  Did it not work? If so, why?

It’s refreshing to read a skilled craftsmen and, in effect, have her share her thoughts and poetic ambitions with the reader. In the hands of a master, the tools of the aural tradition add a layer that free-verse  simply can’t reproduce. And Annie Finch is a master.

Her Imagery

Finch’s imagery is curious. It is primarily visual.

She rarely touches on the sense of smell; and when she does, it’s only in the most conventional way. In A Wedding on Earth, for example, she refers to the “fragrant dust” – a rather abstract allusion that carries few, if any, associations. Her sense of touch is also muted – which is strangest of all (especially for a poet so devoted to the Earth). She rarely goes beyond the most conventional descriptions. A stone is rough, the earth is damp, lips are soft, or hands are warm, for example. Other than that, she will frequently use the verb touch (in many of her poems), but rarely explores the sensation other than to say that she or something was ‘touched’.

Taste and Sound (Aural) are also muted. It’s really quite remarkable. I wasn’t able to find a single example of taste in any of her poems. However, I’ll concede that I wasn’t looking for this when I first read her poems and have only quickly thumbed through the poems the second time round. Maybe I missed something. The closest we come, again, is in “A Wedding on Earth” She writes:

And as each fruit that drips down the earth’s strong chin
spills new sugar over the ancient face…

But even here, the sense of taste is suggested but nothing more. The mouth appears frequently in her poems, but Finch rarely, perhaps never in Calendar, actually explores the sense of taste. In Butterfly Lullaby she refers to the “sweet question mark”, but the word and the word’s usage are so conventional as to flirt with cliché. It hardly connotes the sense of taste.

A sense of hearing is also missing from her poetry except in the most conventional usage. The closest she comes may be in the poem Belly, where she refers to the “Humming sparrow touching my breast…” There’s the sense of touch again, but the imagery is abstract. Is she describing sound? Is she describing an inner sensation akin to touch? Even in her poem Faces with Poulenc, ostensibly about her reaction to the composer and his music, the sense of sound is conspicuously absent. Her poem, it might be said, recreates her experience of sound through visual motion. And this is what most characterizes Finch’s imagery.

Motion.

Her poetry is full of verbs, adverbs and present participles. Inks interpenetrate. The Sun tucks its way through the ground. Spirals bend into flame. There is whirling, spiraling, breathing, touching, meeting, curling, fish-rushing sparks, floating, evenings ravelling of slats to emerald. The wisteria raises its inchworm head. “Delve for me,” she writes, “delve down.” Then later: cradle the concrete ground till it softens. Things vine and sink and hide and pour. The sky is grass-moving. Consider the following lines: Indian grass lapping up the spattering sun; a great building that breaths under sunlight, currents of earth linger; You reach through your mouth to find me – Bursting out of your body. In the poem Churching she will “stay here looking” with her blood, she will “stay here holding up” her blood and “will stand here with” her blood but she won’t smell, taste, touch or hear it.

Hers is the visual imagery of constant motion. The verb reaching appears in poem after poem. The verbal imagery lends her poetry energy and richness but also, to me, gives them a monochromatic feeling.  Each poem seems written in the same key. Taken one after the other, they begin to feel breathless and hyperactive. As I say, it’s a curious effect. And to be fair to Finch, she is not alone in overly favoring one sense. I can look back through my own poems (most of them on this website) and see that I seldom explore all five senses. In some, like my All Hallows’ Eve, I made a deliberate effort to exploit taste, touch, sound and smell, but that was a much longer poem. I suppose one might wish that she modulated the pitch of her imagery the way she varies the poems’ formal aspects.

To Whom She Writes

Traditionally, the poetry loved by the most readers (the poetry that is considered universal) is the poetry in which the poet, in effect, disappears.  It’s the poetry in which the reader can say to his or herself: If I could have, that’s how I would have said it. The great poets help us find our own voice, help us express our own ideas and dreams. Guy that I am, I  just don’t see myself ever wanting to recite The Menstrual Hut or Chain of Women while I’m bucking logs. To read Finch’s poetry is to see the world the way see she’s it – to experience the earth and spirit the way she experiences it. Hers is a very personal poetry.

The downside is that sometime the poet’s reveries are so full of personal significance, oblique chants and imagery, that the reader will feel excluded. They might feel as though they are watching a self-involved ceremony that is both strangely secretive and exhibitionist.

And, as I wrote before, the reader might feel as though they just had to be there. Her various chants give that impression: Lammas Chant, Summer Solstice Chant, Winter Solstice Chant, the Imbolc Chant. I suppose they ought to be treated as part of a larger performance. (The book, after all, is called Calendars.) On the other hand, I think it’s fair to wonder at their intrinsic value. She herself writes:

Some are poems I decide I want to write for a certain occasion (“Elegy for My Father,” “A Wedding on Earth,” “A Carol for Carolyn,” the valentines, which are an annual tradition for my husband, and the five seasonal chants); in the elegy and the wedding poem, for example, I wanted to provide an earth-centered religious context for certain rituals of marriage and death.

You just had to be there.

Poems like the chants are probably best enjoyed for the mood they evoke.  Enjoy them and her other poems for their rich rhythms and masterful control. Enjoy her poems for the incantatory spell they can cast on you. I wouldn’t recommend reading the book in one sitting. Read it like you would read the calendar, a day at a time. Then you will especially enjoy poems like Lamia to Lycius and the almost metaphysical conceit of The Intellect of Woman (a kind of companion or response to Wilbur’s poem Mind.  You will savor her metrical skill, the subtlety of her enjambment and the vibrancy of her imagery.

She’s one of the best.

So the intellect of woman will not mind
the sight of where the diamond’s edge has moved.
Perfection’s habit opens us to find
cuts in a window we have never loved.

The Intellect of Woman

Note: I don’t recommend her book in any recipe, ovens or cauldron.

Annie Finch reads American Witch (not from Calanders)