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Old 03-01-2014, 05:19 PM View Post #1 (Link) AoP 1: A letter to all of us from Amy Gerstler
Isis (Offline)
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Welcome to the Art of Poetry! If you haven't read the intro to this series, you can find out what's going on here, or just jump into the discussion below.

----

I was going to start my half of this discussion/series/adventure with a different poem, one that fits a little better with the broad view of the world that Space and I are trying to take. And I think we’ll get to it next time. But as I was cleaning off my desk so I could actually use it to write rather than pile mail and bills, I found a photocopy of my favorite poem. It has, no lie, splotchy tea stains on it, probably because I used it as a coaster the last time I wrote here. And this photocopy of a poem has made it six, maybe seven years with me (from New York to New Jersey to Colorado), almost as long as this poem has given me comfort and reminded me why I love poetry so much.

I read this poem in the Best American Poetry 2006. I have weirdly solid memories of carrying the library-bound copy around school, keeping it next to my ancient, enormous desktop, flipping through the pages when I got rainbow wheel. The cover was red, the pages dense with promise and frustration. Reading this poem was one of the first times I felt I “got” contemporary poetry as opposed to the easier to navigate, neatly anthologized stuff from the 50s and 60s. And it was the first time that I felt a poem was addressing me directly. It’s odd what happens when a poem talks to you, invites you inside, makes you feel welcomed. When I first read the poem I was excited. It was as though something had clicked into place. In this poem the poet welcomes her niece into her intellectual world, and I felt welcomed there too, but I finally also felt welcomed into the world of poetry, the poem’s written kiss drawing me forward.

So I figured the best way to start talking and thinking about poetry together, before we get to form and approach and theory and culture, would be to start with joy. Fair warning: It’s a long poem. It goes fast, I promise.


For My Niece Sidney, Age Six
Amy Gerstler
Spoiler:

Did you know that boiling to death
was once a common punishment
in England and parts of Europe?
It's true. In 1542 Margaret Davy,
a servant, was boiled for poisoning
her employer. So says the encyclopedia.
That's the way I like to start my day:
drinking hot black coffee and reading
the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica.
Its pages are tissue thin and the covers
rub off on your hands in dirt colored
crumbs (the kind a rubber eraser
makes) but the prose voice is all knowing
and incurably sure of itself. My 1956
World Book runs to 18 volumes and has red
pebbly covers. It begins at "Aardvark"
and ends with "Zygote." I used to believe
you could learn everything you'd ever
need by reading encyclopedias. Who
was EB Browning? How many Buddhists
in Burma? What is Byzantine art? Where
do bluebells grow? These days, I own five
sets of encyclopedias from various
eras. None of them ever breathed
a word about the fact that this humming,
aromatic, acid flashback, pungent, tingly-
fingered world is acted out differently
for each one of us by the puppet theatre
of our senses. Some of us grow up doing
credible impressions of model citizens
(though sooner or later hairline
cracks appear in our facades). The rest
get dubbed eccentrics, unnerved and undone
by other people's company, for which we
nevertheless pine. Curses, outbursts
and distracting chants simmer all day
long in the crock-pots of our heads.
Encyclopedias contain no helpful entries
on conducting life's business while the ruckus
in your skull keeps competing for your
attention; or on the tyranny of the word
"normal"--its merciless sway over those
of us bedeviled and obsessed,
hopeless at school dances, repelled by
mothers' suffocating hugs, yet entranced
by foul smelling chemistry experiments,
or eager to pass sleepless nights seeking
rhymes for "misspent" and "grimace."
Dear girl, your jolly blond one year old
brother, who adults adore, fits into
the happy category of souls mostly at home
in the world. He tosses a fully clothed doll
into the inflatable wading pool in your
backyard (splash!) and laughs maniacally
at his own comic genius. You sit alone,
twenty feet from everyone else, on a stone
bench under a commodious oak, reading aloud,
gripping your book like the steering wheel
of a race car you're learning to drive.
Complaints about you are already filtering
in. You're not big on eye contact or smiling.
You prefer to play by yourself. You pitch fits.
Last week you refused to cut out and paste
paper shapes with the rest of the kids.
You told the kindergarten teacher you were
going to howl like a wolf instead, which you did
till they hauled you off to the principal's
office. Ah, the undomesticated smell
of open rebellion! Your troublesome legacy,
and maybe part of your charm, is to shine
too hotly and brightly at times, to be lost
in the maze of your sensations, to have
trouble switching gears, to be socially
clueless, to love books as living things,
and therefore to be much alone. If you like,
when I die, I'll leave you my encyclopedias.
They're wonderful company. Watching you
read aloud in your father's garden, as if
declaiming a sermon for hedges, I recall
reading about Martin Luther this morning.
A religious reformer born in 1483, he nailed
his grievances, all 95 of them, to a German
church door. Fiery, impossible, untamable
girl, I bet you too post your grievances
in a prominent place someday. Anyway,
back to boiling. The encyclopedia says
the worst offenders were "boiled without
benefit of clergy" which I guess means
they were denied the right to speak
to a priest before being lowered into scalding
water and cooked like beets. Martin Luther
believed we human beings contain the "inpoured
grace of god," as though grace were lemonade,
and we are tumblers brim full of it. Is grace
what we hold in without spilling a drop,
or is it an outflooding, a gush of messy
befuddling loves? The encyclopedia never
explains why Margaret Davy poisoned her employer,
what harm he might have done her or whether
she dripped the fatal liquid on his pudding or sloshed
it into his sherry. Grievances and disagreements:
can they lead the way to grace? If our thoughts
and feelings were soup or stew, would they taste
of bile when we're defeated and be flavored
faintly with grace on better days? I await the time
and place when you can tell me, little butter pear,
screeching monkey mind, wolf cub, curious furrow
browed mammal what you think of all this.
Till then, your bookish old aunt sends you this missive,
a fumbling word of encouragement, a cockeyed letter
of welcome to the hallowed ranks of the nerds,
nailed up nowhere, and never sent, this written kiss.


(Published in Dearest Creature by Amy Gerstler and anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2006)

1. A poem organized in strands, woven and unwoven.
At 17 I photocopied this poem for its ending, but re-reading it closely now it’s the way it’s woven that strikes me the most. The speaker winds through different subjects, different ways of speaking to her niece. These things seem separate at the beginning of the poem, but they don’t remain that way. We learn a number of facts, courtesy of old encyclopedias, that might make us either interesting or shunned at parties (depending on the party). Margaret Davy was boiled for poisoning her employer. Martin Luther nailed his grievances, all 95 of them, to a German church door. We learn about the internal world of the speaker and the tumultuous one of the niece. And at the end of the poem, all of these things come together, the encyclopedia’s facts transitioning into descriptions of life, into musings on the types of knowledge that encyclopedias cannot contain.

Where do you think the different threads of the poem come together? What happens for you when you read that section of the poem? What do you think of the poet’s strategy to use one set of ideas (encyclopedia knowledge) to inform a description of something else entirely?

2. How do we know things?
Another thing I find interesting in the poem is that different types of knowledge are discussed. It seems to me like there are two types: facts that you can learn from an encyclopedia, and other truths that you have to learn from experience. What parts of the poem fall under ‘book knowledge’, and what parts are more experiential? Is it possible to split the poem up this way? I wonder if the poem contains a contradiction. Encyclopedias only contain so much, despite their volumes; for those of us who love books and learning, there can be a hard road of competing loves, of mental ruckus, of fighting with being normal. And this road is not mapped out on the page. Or is it? Is the poem filling a gap? How might the kind of ‘book knowledge’ you can gain from a poem be different from what you can gain from an encyclopedia?

3. Sound
Let’s take a closer look at a few parts of the poem:

Did you know that boiling to death
was once a common punishment
in England and parts of Europe?
It's true. In 1542 Margaret Davy,
a servant, was boiled for poisoning
her employer. So says the encyclopedia.
That's the way I like to start my day:
drinking hot black coffee and reading
the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica.
After the opening of the poem, a question and a fact that pulled me in, sound starts to make the poem move forward. Try reading this section out loud (or really imagine yourself saying the words if you’ll get weird looks for reading aloud). There are lots of rhymes and half-rhymes within the lines linking ideas together, holding together sentences that are broken across multiple lines. To me, those rhymes feel playful, the mark of someone just enjoying words and what they can do – a joy that comes through both in what the poem is saying and how it’s written. But it also helps create emphasis: “boiled for poisoning her employer” sounds so fantastic that I can’t help remembering it.


Dear girl, your jolly blond one year old
brother, who adults adore, fits into
the happy category of souls mostly at home
in the world. He tosses a fully clothed doll
into the inflatable wading pool in your
backyard (splash!) and laughs maniacally
at his own comic genius. You sit alone,
twenty feet from everyone else, on a stone
bench under a commodious oak, reading aloud,
gripping your book like the steering wheel
of a race car you're learning to drive.
In this part of the poem, I feel like the repeated sounds help to separate it from other parts. It sounds different, and it is different: the first time Sidney is addressed directly, and also the first time the poem describes something in the moment, rather than talking about facts or about the mind. The sound gives me a feeling that jives with what the poem describes: someone at home in the world. What kinds of sounds are repeated here? What kind of feeling do you get from those sounds? Do they enforce the description, or do they go against it? Does the sound change at any point in this section – and if so, why do you think it changes?

What other parts of the poem have repeated sounds, or rhymes within lines? What do you think of that choice – do you like it? Why or why not? If there’s a part that sticks out at you as full of sound devices, what impression do you get from the sound? What does it emphasize?

4. Overall impressions
Finally, I connect really strongly with this poem. I identify both with the speaker and with her niece. I’m curious to know how other people feel about it. What did you get out of the poem? What do you like about it, or not like about it? I love the whole thing, but the ending still gets me, even when I'm expecting it - maybe because I'm expecting it. I didn't pick the end apart and discuss its pieces because I'm hoping some of you will try.

5. Resources
You can read an interview with Amy Gerstler over on Chapparal.
Or, if you liked this poem, check out her bio and more work on The Poetry Foundation.



Anything people want to say about this poem is welcome! Take a stab at answering a question or two from above, or just give us your view on the poem.
  
						Last edited by Isis; 03-24-2014 at 03:05 AM.
					
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Old 03-05-2014, 07:43 PM View Post #2 (Link)
Spacepirate (Offline)
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It's interesting how you felt the poem was speaking to you - it is obviously directed to the author's niece, yet I still felt myself being spoken to. At the same time I felt a little bit like a voyeur, as if I had just stumbled into something private. The first few lines are so visceral, I feel as if they were meant not for me but for the eponymous niece. There's a doubleness to the narration of the poem, both private but also public. And because of that doubleness, there's a kind of forced fictionality in it. (There's a difference between the relationship of the piece: narrator and reader, narrator and niece, narrator and both.) The 'you' isn't us, the readers, per se but it's the niece - who may be real or may equally be imaginary, so whenever the poem dictates in second person, there's an ambiguity to it, as if we are coming into the poem in an around-about way.

In the same way that the encyclopaedia is supposed to encompass everything, it still has ambiguity to it. 'So says the encyclopaedia', and immediately there is doubt and unreliability thrown upon the poem. Can we trust encyclopaedias? Like you said the poem is about knowledge, but not just any kind ofknowledge. It is a very specific kind of knowledge you glean from encyclopaedias, yes - but there is also this idea of the poem as knowledge. We do not have the encyclopaedias to hand, so much put our faith in the writer. (For some reason we as readers are obsessed with authors to tell 'true' narratives, even if we dissonantly know that what we read is 'fiction/made up'.) When the narrator addresses us with 'Did you know', that in itself is an imparting of knowledge; taken into a larger context, the poem is a showcase of re-used, passed down knowledge, through each era. In the same way that her encyclopaedias rub off on her, the letter is to rub off on the impressionable, young niece. (Furthermore, do we not think that to direct an address to someone aged six about boiling seems odd?)

So whilst there is the narrative of the encyclopaedia at play, there is equally this idea of the narrator trying to impart some great life lesson - something akin to if you could go into an encyclopaedia and look up 'Humans', and it would come out with this great description:

'None of them ever breathed
a word about the fact that this humming,
aromatic, acid flashback, pungent, tingly-
fingered world is acted out differently
for each one of us by the puppet theatre
of our senses.'

It reads almost like a warning and in fact the next few sentences seem like they are to prepare the niece for what is to come. To me I get the sense that the poem both finds solace in the type of knowledge found in encyclopaedias but also distrusts it; it warns against this rigours labelling and fitting of life into neat categories. There is a contradiction in there something. Books are supposed to be 'living things', but the books in the poem seem like anything but - they are brimming with depictions of life, with knowledge, but seem lacklustre compared to the vividness of how the narrator describes human life.

(Wrote this in a blind fit - ignore any meaninglessness. When I get my head around the poem a bit more, I will come back and explore the ending. I must say at the moment, I'm not in love with the poem; there's something that is both tricky and elusive, which for some reason I find irksome.)
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Old 03-08-2014, 12:46 AM View Post #3 (Link)
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This poem interests me in its movement: that weaving and unweaving you mentioned. It begins very dramatically, and moves immediately into a space that undercuts that drama. Flawlessly, partially because of its overall tone, but also because the detail is just too entertaining to feel jarred by:

That's the way I like to start my day:
drinking hot black coffee and reading
the 1910 Encyclopedia Britannica.

This speaker both captures a sense of routine and surprise, all at once. The routine is evident, but too, is the surprise of whatever the page will tell her that day. Maybe today is about boiling as punishment, but maybe tomorrow will bring something completely different, completely unremarkable.

To me, the movement also works like an argument (like SP mentioned). Not quite a meditation, or an observation, though it involves both of those things within it. It introduces something in order to completely unravel--unweave--it, to contradict it and oppose it, yet never undermine its intrigue or beauty. "These days..." It is marrying these two things: definition with experience, both through this opposition, but through the language itself:

How many Buddhists
in Burma? What is Byzantine art? Where
do bluebells grow?

This is poetry, not definition, and poetry is (I would arguably argue...) experience.

I think the most jolting movement, the least seamless, is the next opposition. This poem works that way: contrasting and undoing, but this next one (the nephew contrasted with the niece) is intimate, and private. It doesn't sit at the rim of this poem (leisurely, comedic) like a hot coffee and an encyclopedia do. I don't dislike it, but I question the impulse to keep this one long, traveling, stanza. You mentioned in your questions that the poem relies on other devices to package its parts, and I agree, and usually I find it seamless. But I wonder if anyone else feels surprised by the privacy?

I suppose it's working in the way that it is contrasting, again, the objective, firm, notion of an encyclopedia, with a lively, private scene. Surprisingly, the next move, the meditative/observational move doesn't have the same impact. When the "you" becomes the focus, I mean. maybe because the characterisation feels more precise? More interesting.

I like this poem a lot. I never did feel like it was speaking to me per se, but I did think that I would also find myself in a situation where I am drinking coffee, reading something completely dry and stoic, like an encyclopaedia, and thoroughly enjoying it. That's the cinch for me; this poem is enjoyable, and vivacious, and living, and bright. Even though the warning definitely is there. I love that.

I agree with SP. I never did look at this poem in a logical way, which is probably an error, because the information is so logical.

But it's true: "(Furthermore, do we not think that to direct an address to someone aged six about boiling seems odd?)" I should have--I felt it a little, at the suddenly heavy historical insulation later. Maybe I felt the poem didn't exactly move into an address until later. Dear ______. It brings up another tension.

And again, it makes me question this long, traveling, poem as opposed to a blatantly sectioned one.

-- this relay of information, this imparting, almost solidifies the inability to really direct or impart knowledge at all. It's futile; aardvark, zygote, or not, understanding has to be cultivated, in some sense.

"but seem lacklustre compared to the vividness of how the narrator describes human life. " -- total agreement.
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Old 03-08-2014, 09:33 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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I read this in BAP2006, too, in a library book (though I read it in 2012). I collect old dictionaries like the speaker collects encyclopedia. I connect strongly with both people, but more with the aunt-- not a troublemaker, not howling in class.
Speaking of which:

'Last week you refused to cut out and paste
paper shapes with the rest of the kids.
You told the kindergarten teacher you were
going to howl like a wolf instead,'

"kid" is a baby goat, and Sidney becomes a danger to the herd. With the love of words in the poem I think this is intentional, and I love that double meaning. I love, too, just how wrong this action is-- to refuse and howl: even the most sympathetic teacher won't tolerate that. It can't be tolerated in a classroom. Sidney isn't just misunderstood, she is being a problem.

And the poem passes over this -- you know, her aunt reaches out as from inside a book. She offers no help now ("If you like,/when I die, I'll leave you my encyclopedias.") and no moral judgement, just trivia, and knowledge that someone else has experienced this. I'm here, I'm watching you, I don't condemn you.

Throughout the poem there's this gulf between people-- between the aunt watching and the girl, the girl 10 feet away from the rest, the "eccentrics" and their ruckus in the skull. There are questions about Margaret Davy. I get the feeling that our eccentrics are too aware of these gaps. They can't communicate or ignore it "normally": they find elaborate ways to reach across (Martin Luther's nailing). So the poem tries, with encyclopedia facts and reassurances.

Reassurances: the speaker becomes less and less sure as the poem goes on. "It's true", she says in the fourth line; then she starts to doubt the encyclopedia, and by the end she is asking questions. She wants to discuss things with her niece-- not that Sidney would have the answers? She doesn't really understand grace, that's one thing not her in encyclopedias. Grace, a bridge for an even bigger gulf, between oneself and God. "normality" and her encyclopedias create gulfs. But I don't know that the poem bridges them. It highlights them. Does it open a way across? If the Bible (which I've always considered poetry) is supposed to contain grace and to connect man and God, is poetry the link between man and man? Is there a sloppy essence in the poem we can link to grace-- or is that what experience is?


The winding form is kinda hard for me to stick with, and read all through. But then I like recurring images...
"gripping your book like the steering wheel/of a race car you're learning to drive" & "to be lost/in the maze of your sensations, to have/trouble switching gears"; the encyclopedia holding Martin Luther and boiling, the gushy inpouring of grace connecting to boiling water and Margaret Davy's food.
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