Envelope poems

Yeah been weeks. And nothing now much to say of my own. Goes that way. But saw this on my friend Barbara Nickel’s blog and wanted to share. She’s been perusing Bervin & Werner’s compilation of Dickinson’s envelope poems, and a lovely blog post’s the fruit borne –

The Yarrow Graces – magnolia, forsythia, peach, even the bleeding heart – have been serviced lately. Town abloom on the first day of Poetry Month; thank you Emily Dickinson for getting it right – spring always seems – at least in this part of the world, not on the prairies where I grew up – somehow too gorgeous, masking the inevitable sting; the other day a violist died.

Read the all of it here, with vis poem, rejection slip made projective,

Barb's arrow

and regrets into egress.


Not much to say, except, don’t eat foraged morels and drink wine, or not much anyway. Lost a coupla days there. Viz. Probably should have sautéed them longer, too. But hells they was tasty.

 

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Word.

We had a good chat, our first class on the word, about parts of speech and their different powers. I laid a trap by asking, Which part of speech has the most bang for the buck? Adjectives, I was waiting to hear, adverbs. They didn’t fall for it. Verbs, they said, nouns. Yup.

Acts and actors are the meat of it. Things and what they do. Acts and the things they act through. (That one is easy to say, one a bit contorted, says something about the bias of our language.)

But I was headed for the lowly preposition. To get there I told a story. I had been backpacking a couple weeks earlier in the North Cascades. The first day we were sunriddled.

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The next day some clouds came in.

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Through the afternoon they kept on coming.

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The two peaks are Shuksan and Baker. It was spitting rain by the time we set up camp 4000 feet lower by the Chilliwack River.

All the next day was rain. Sorry no pictures. Had to keep moving. We climbed back into the subalpine and set up camp in the pouring rain.

And there we were, huddled under a little tarp stretched between two mountain hemlocks, soaked to the bone, heating water for our freeze-dried soup. And I thought to myself

I’m under a tarp, but it’s raining on me.

And it struck me how much I would give to be able to say instead

It’s raining near me.

Small little word. Big huge diff. And then I thought, pissily,

It’s raining at me.

And thus was a lesson plan born.

We (I’m back in the classroom now) sounded out the changes. What other prepositions can we sub in? How does that one change change the meaning, the feeling?

It’s raining in me (metaphor for sad)

It’s raining for me (God complex)

It’s raining above me (virga)

It’s raining through me (a diffuse or dissolved body)

It’s raining from me (God complex squared)

The nouns and verbs stay the same. The pronouns stay the same. Only the lowly preposition changes. And yet with each change the whole carnival picks up stakes and shifts in a flash to a different world. The word for it is proprioceptive. I take the word from Olson and the image from Dickinson.

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent
To wrap its shining Yards
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear
Without the sound of Boards
Or Rip of Nail—Or Carpenter
But just the miles of Stare
That signalize a Show’s Retreat
In North America

No Trace—no Figment of the Thing
That dazzled, Yesterday
No Ring—no Marvel
Men, and Feats
Dissolved as utterly
As Bird’s far Navigation
Discloses just a Hue
A plash of Oars, a Gaiety
Then swallowed up, of View

Check out those nouns, those verbs, those preps. (I count one adjective.) And the feel of being in a mountainous vastness she can never have seen with her physical eye.

Exercise: Strange surfaces

Write a fragment, prose or verse, on an unconventional surface. In other words, what Emily Dickinson does in The Gorgeous Nothings, you do too, on some other inscribable surface.

For instance, you might take a paper bag and cut a shape from it. Triangle, rhombus, hourglass, angel wing? Make sure it has interesting surface features. Seams and ledges and creases.

Then to write on it a text that heeds the shapes available. Do you ride right over seams between paper zones? Or arrange your thought to accommodate ledges, flaps, secret corners? Does the form of the surface maybe inflect the words you set down there?

The distinction between prose and verse starts to decay here.

FOR ADVANCED USERS (that’s anyone). Pay attention also to your writing implement. Dickinson’s envelope poems leave traces of her process — for instance, some variants were surely pencilled in later, after the whole was composed, if the quality of pencil line (darker, slimmer) is any guide at all.

The word for it’s materiality — that the matter matters.

Etymologically, matter is mother.

Hebrew: Adam = “red earth.”

Haida: human = “ordinary surface bird.”

We’re earth children you and I. Squawk and g’night.

Exercise: Punctuation poem

Next week we turn to the gorgeous Gorgeous Nothings, a collaboration across oceans and generations by Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin, and Marta Werner. My students’ first exercise will be:

Compose a poem made entirely of punctuation. Then write a short paragraph describing what the poem “means.” Treat the paragraph as a creative extension of the piece — as playful creative nonfiction, not straight-faced literary analysis. Be ready to present both the poem and your explanation to the class.

The examples they’ll have “read” are retrieved from Rasula & McCaffery’s Imagining Language — up next.