Monday, December 10, 2012

Introductions and Discoveries

This weekend my friend Jake introduced me to the poems of Amy Gerstler. I'd not before heard of Gerstler so I Googled her name. How is it I'd not read any of this poet's work? Her first book was published in 1986. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991, and her latest collection, Dearest Creature, was published by Penguin in 2009. Altogether, she's written dozens of books.

In this morning's e-mail, there was an interview with Donald Hall attached to a note Jake sent. In the interview, Hall briefly considers the problem of fame that gives way to obscurity. He asks readers to look back on the list of Pulitzer winners and ask themselves how many names they recognize.  He also asks, backhandedly, if anyone knows (or cares) what caesura is. All this Donald Hall lamentation could be shrugged off as old man nostalgia. It could also be thought of as a person who hasn't internalized that pithy proverb about the river and stepping into it, twice. And it could be Donald Hall asking "does anyone even remember Donald Hall the poet?" I do, but not necessarily for his poetry.

Here I am weaving many threads together.

It's difficult to keep up with all the poets writing today. Even the really good ones go unnoticed in the river's rushing torrent. The poet's students may recognize her name. The poets who are actively competing with her begrudgingly recognize her name, and some editors and critics recognize her name. Take consolation, though, dear poets: I can drop Mark Strand's name in a group of highly successful physicians and not one of them will recognize his name, which is arguably one of the late-twentieth century's most notable. Poetry is a small pond; so does it matter that we don't recognize all the names or know all the voices croaking in it? Or is it more important to recognize, and honor, the fact that we can be introduced to voices with whom we can, with the tap of a finger, further our relationship?

I'm reading Amy Gerstler's The True Bride. I think Amy Gerstler knows what caesura is. Caesura is internal pause. Initial caesura falls at the beginning of the line; medial in the middle (most common), and terminal at the end of a line. A masculine caesura follows a stressed syllable and the feminine follows unstressed. Caesura is silence. Metrical time is suspended. Many of the lessons given in caesura rely on poems from poetry's past: Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon poetry. They rely on Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Poe, etc. Refreshingly, the link I've provided above discusses caesura in W.S. Merwin. An older edition of Writing Poems (1991) devotes one sentence to caesura. Given the distance and this depth, we might be justified in questioning caesura's importance.

I'm going to attempt to illustrate caesura using some lines from Amy Gerstler. I wonder, though, if poetry is still song.

Caesura in Amy Gerstler's Alice and Lewis from The True Bride:

Once I was, but am no more; // his subject, his concern. I was but ten
when I met him. He babysat for me. // Took me out in a rowboat.
My parents trusted him. // Ink sketches, the box camera, his
eyes: he took my picture // so many times. Drew me to him.
I wished to be his mistress, // whatever that meant: a shepherdess
or milkmaid; the farm girl // collecting eggs in her apron,
pictures in my book. ...
(the poem continues but I don't want to infringe on the poet's rights)

It turns out, I think by being able to identify the caesura in these lines, we can see that poetry is song—


Going back to 1986, there are four Pulitzer winners whose names I don't recognize.  

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