Plato compared poets to painters, but not in a flattering way. 'The poet,' he wrote in The Republic, 'is like the painter in two ways: first he paints an inferior degree of truth, and secondly, he is concerned with an inferior part of the soul. He indulges the feelings, while he enfeebles the reason; and we refuse to allow him to have authority over the mind of man; for he has no measure of greater and less, and is a maker of images and very far gone from truth.'
This month I'm inviting poems that are both painterly and soulful, that pay close attention to concrete detail while at the same time conveying a superior degree of truth. We demand to be included in the Republic! Utopias are us.
Send your poems pasted inside the body of an email headed SLiP May poetry workshop to SLiP Project Manager firstname.lastname@example.org by no later than Sunday May 6, 2012. Please give your poem a title. I’ll respond with general comments about all the entries, and select a few of the best for publication here.
I look forward to your poems in response to any or all of the following prompts.
- Look at this ‘List of Colours’ and then write a poem inspired by it.
- Find out what an ‘ekphrastic’ poem is and write one.
- Read ‘Things I didn’t know I loved’ by Nazim Hikmetand then write your own poem in which things you are looking at right now inspire memories and reflections on things that have passed. A train, car or bicycle journey would be ideal for this exercise.
- Read ‘One Train May Hide Another’ by Kenneth Koch and then write your own poem inspired by a strange sign, sentence or graffiti.
- Read ‘What the Living Do’ by Marie Howe and then write your own poem addressed to a dead person, but using ordinary, natural speech rhythms and content.
- Read ‘Daily Life’ by Susan Wood and then write your own poem that refers to the ineffable while remaining grounded in the mundane.
- The well-known phrase goes ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Write a poem that challenges or responds to the old cliché. You might, for instance, try to paint a picture in 127 words.
- Write a poem that obeys Arthur Miller’s injunction, in his play Death of a Salesman, that ‘Attention must be paid’ to people who are not great or heroic.
- Any poem on any subject.
Train carriages underwater
Inspired by a 3rd class train ride to Salt River
The air is a mix of smoke and stress
and something I'd rather not place.
Thoughts are written on faces,
in purple beneath weary eyes.
Shadows stretch out ahead
hoping to reach something,
but they can never quite get up,
destined to slide along the dirty ground.
Amidst all this, there’s a secret:
blank swaying bodies never noticed;
At a certain time, like now,
the sunlight is softer and spills
into the carriage in streams
And when passing things & places
the shadows of objects break
the steady flow of light.
Fragments of light dancing on the floors
on the sides of people’s faces
on everything and everyone.
[We’re all scrambling for entrances and exits
Falling in and out of carriages]
Spring in New York
As if the buxom tulips weren't enough,
opening greedily, lapping the sun's juices,
there are the magnolias, on every avenue
wanton buds are crimson with the strain of thickening.
Not to mention the too-close couples who,
too far still from kiss and tell, stay busy on the subway
with kiss and murmur – and that annoying nibbling
they do. All over
Manhattan is in musth. Plus
someone let the elephants out so that
every day there they are, leafing
through parks, turning
up on book covers, dancing
in Union Square sculptures, lining
that skirt in the West Side window, arsing
around the platform at West 14th, reminding
me, all of them, along with every vivid petal loosening
itself to die underfoot on the sidewalk,
that this love, ancient and wise and always, failing
– foolishly – to shamble
off to die in some mysterious valley,
measures the beat of my heart.
Hong Kong is a pear
I once spent more than five rand on a single pear, simply because it was like those Hong Kong pears. It was a Hong Kong pear: rounder, squatter, paler, beiger, freckled more delicately than ours. I saw it in Grahamstown, this Hong Kong pear, and I bought it – five-rand-something for a single pear!
But it wasn't just a pear. It was you. It was Hong Kong. It was streets and diffuse light blurring the edges of buildings, it was hands squeezed tight on high-rise journeys, it was that cigarette poem in orange. This pear was a rack of shoes, a lit stick of temple incense, a punched star on a ferry seat. It was pale lemon souffle bed linen, bucking hips and dark lights.......this was a PEAR. I would have paid ten-rand-something for it!
I took my time choosing a pretty one – a gorgeous one, a plump one, a leaning one, a get-me-one. I paid more than five rand for it and I took it home.
I put it on the mantelpiece. I surrounded it with flowers and candles and maybe even some angels. I lit the flowers, inhaled the angels, bowed to the candles. The lights of Hong Kong did neon-crazy things across the tides of my mind.
After a few days I took the pear off its altar and split it open. I sliced into the whole of Hong Kong: flesh that was creamy and gritty, and juice that was copious and clear and sweet.
Here the roads which once held us together
Now separate us.
Here the dreams which once joined us
Now divide us.
I just hope that the sacrifices we couldn't make for one another
We will one day make for others.
I just hope that the things we couldn't find in one another
We will one day find in others.
For being alone has made me ponder,
On the illusive nature of perfection.
And I couldn't help but conclude,
That the greatest tragedy is not parting ways;
But parting ways for the wrong reasons.
Sara P. Dias
The widow next door bitches that the tenants in the house behind her
jump her six-foot fence, cross her yard, and then jump the prefab
fence in the back to get to those cheap rooms they rent, can you believe it.
Too far to walk around the block like the rest of us. They know
there’s no husband, so it’s okay to take a shortcut through
her property. Now she’s barb-wired the fence. It’s an eyesore.
She flaps her hands about when she whinges. She explodes her Ps
and drags out her Gs and Rs and I want to decline the offer of tea.
I feel a little guilty sometimes, but dear god, so many slights!
My cat scratching in her garden, the tenants’ boy
who keeps bouncing a ball off that rattling fence …
He’s going to bring it down, she says every time.
On Saturday mornings, the only time we sleep late,
she tears off the branches that reach over the fence from
our garden. Who can sleep through that?
She says only onward. She tells her depressed children –
who can blame them? – not to re-tread the past, but she never stops
telling you how awful her husband was. Always the martyr.
You’ve never seen such a clean and shiny house. I knocked on her door early
one morning looking for Tomcat. Her hair was in curlers and she’d already
tidied the house and she was busy putting on make-up. I have better things to do.
No sense of design, just the odd dried-out calabash and copper jug.
And that bunch of old proteas! And the furniture is covered in plain cream –
the carpet is beige, the walls are white. It is all so vanilla.
Apparently the kitchen floors are sterilised daily. Once a week she moves
the furniture about and vacuums the carpets with arms pumping like pistons.
Our bedroom looks straight into her living room – no net curtains to trap dust.
She says she finds it therapeutic to sit down and polish
the marks and scratches on her copper pots. They all gleam.
You can lift the rug in such a house and find nothing.
Watching and waiting
He lies in a still life rigour mortis
On a dull cotton sheet spread thin
Over a protective plastic cover
That plugged a thousand leaks
Eyes grey and lost in a fixed stare
Mouth open but dry of speech
Memory missing like empty chambers
In the once full revolver of a razor mind
That wrote a thesis many years ago
His life now hangs in unequal balance
Observe now the practiced principles
That governed his life, ghosted his steps,
The price he paid to expose the infidelity
Of his own father, the premium he placed
On doing things right, perhaps overpaying
And staying, at his government post too long
Also the miles he travelled on sunburned roads
For homeland farmers and township gardeners
And his sunspot hands reaching out to his own
Extending to 4 great grandchildren already
Now lying on that unwelcomed bed he hears
A psalm raising and falling from his daughter’s lips
And lifts the wooden neck and his eyes flicker bright
Watching with deep recognition this world ….. and the next
When the hadedahs have screeched all night
and the sullen grey of morning
fogs the day and overwhelms the dawn
If I can still catch
vermilion flare of loerie wing
silver snail trail threading
a nasturtium leaf
glint of raindrop suspended
in a spider’s netted lace
coral streak of oyster catcher legs
against the seal brown sand
then I know
the creeping tide will bring the light.
shades of black
my favourite colour is black
as in riperoasted coffeebeans
and the dark chocolateness of your skin
next to the contrast of your white eyes on a scared dark night
and also the mud-earthy colour of icecream
sweet against my lips tasted shared
without mentioning your lightup twinkling
laughter when I tickle you chuckling joy
and I like the jetblack foreign-ness of your hair
scraping me into wakefulness
from a cape morning’s grey rainfall dreams
to hot dark sunbathing waterplaying
in my summer memories of nakedness
black is the most beautiful colour
I’ll bet you
the smell of paint,
fat blobs of colour
squeezed from tubes
with exotic names,
Indigo, French Ultramarine,
Alizarin Crimson, Carmine,
Cerulean Blue, Scarlet Lake,
Indian Yellow, Venetian Red,
their buttery texture
smeared on the palette,
the dipping of the brush,
the slight give of the canvas,
the wetness of it,
the squishiness of it,
putting my finger in it,
and with the slightest touch
softening a line,
standing back for appraisal,
getting stains on my face
and rubbing my hands on a rag,
It has been too long.
Ready or not
after La Durée poignardée by René Magritte, 1938
Silence like fallen snow,
and the clock fixed
at seventeen minutes to one
before the mirror,
reflects only one of the two
brass candle sticks,
like the rest of the room
the unusual sight
of a surging locomotive,
out of the meticulously clean
fireplace, into the empty
where it will stand stationary
five minutes to one
via the kitchen window,
en route to the Belgian border.
One of the appealing things about this project is the chance it gives me to encounter new and exciting voices. Firdows Talip and Gillian Rennie leapt right off the page when I read the poems submitted for the latest project.
The theme of this month’s homily is restraint, and I thought the best poems in response to May’s prompts were restrained in their brevity and/or their focus on a single idea. The more the poet holds back (using economy, compression, elision), the more space there is for the reader to enter and inhabit the poem, bringing his/her own meanings to bear.
For example, in Firdows Talip’s ‘Train carriages underwater’, I felt there was enough room for me to enter that third-class train carriage and watch the scene transform from ‘purple beneath weary eyes’ to ‘Fragments of light dancing on the floors/ on the sides of people’s faces/on everything and everyone.’
(See what you think, but I would suggest that the punctuation after ‘secret’ is removed. I also wasn’t sure whether the lines in square brackets should be there – I felt that ‘everyone’ made a great ending, a crescendo.)
No one could call Gillian Rennie’s ‘Hong Kong is a pear’ restrained, yet there is a kind of controlled excess about it that suits the nostalgic and erotic content.
What I really loved was her poem ‘Spring in New York’. There are themes – like the seasons, mothers, fathers, death – that all poets will always return to. Rennie returns to the old theme of Spring with an unexpected twist involving elephants.
She also knows that we can only really feel Spring as a pang in our psyches if we acknowledge that lustful, juice verdure - the springiness of spring - is by its very nature only passing through, ‘along with every vivid petal loosening/ itself to die underfoot on the sidewalk,/… to shamble/ off to die in some mysterious valley’.
Ral Ezeabasili was another new voice this month, with a fine, intuitive sense of the restraint of line and stanza length, also the beauty of a call-and-response structure. But there’s work to be done here in getting away from prosaic phrasing (‘parting ways for the wrong reasons’) and in finding images to replace abstractions (‘perfection’).
Two poems that engaged me but that I wanted a little more restrained were Sara P.Dias’ ‘Living unit’ and Stephen Roberts’ ‘Watching and Waiting’. In very different ways we are drawn to the characters in these poems, but because the poems are a little crowded, there’s not quite enough space for us to move into these worlds and secretly observe. In Stephen’s poem I would have cut ‘rigor mortis’ out of the opening line, and let the beautiful mundane sadness of the sheet and the cover say it all, along with the subtle switch to past tense.
Ross Fleming’s ‘shades of black’ is an object lesson in taking an abstract idea (black is beautiful) and making it sumptuously real through a catalogue of concrete and sensual images.
A poem with a similarly sensual array of pleasures was Annette Snyckers’ ‘Abstention’. Both these poems work with economy and focus, and the overall effect is one of satisfying intensity, like paint freshly squeezed from the tube.
One of the ways of keeping the reader with you is to begin your poem with a dependent or subordinate clause, as Lise Day does in ‘Shades’. Our minds are naturally trained to build up anticipatory pleasure when we see a sentence beginning ‘When’. We wait on the edge of our seats for the logical requital that our brains know must follow, however long we have to wait. Scan through any Index of First Lines and you’ll see that poets have always seduced us with this technique.
Finally, I adored Graham Dukas’s ‘Ready or Not’. It manages to be utterly restrained despite its deeply imaginative engagement with a famous work of art.