Archive for the Poetry Category

“To be unwatched is good”

Posted in Events, Poetry, Quote of the Day with tags , , , on April 1, 2011 by jaclemens

That notion runs counter to our current social media saturation – indeed to this very blog – yet it was Michael Ondaatje’s message for aspiring writers. Speaking at the University of Utah on Wednesday, the internationally-acclaimed author impressed upon his audience the need to start small: small projects with small presses and publications. This allows an author to experiment with form and genre (like Ondaatje) and discover an individual voice without being subjected to scrutiny too soon.

Ondaatje continues to start small in his writing, beginning with a single scene and finding his characters and his story through his first of many handwritten drafts. It is a lengthy process of discovery, but for Ondaatje there is a “pleasure in rewriting that is magical.” He considers the best time in writing to be when the story is still a secret to be shared privately with his alpha readers, away from the discerning eyes of copy editors, critics, and his legion of fans. Ondaatje was gracious enough to make three public appearances during his trip to Salt Lake City, but he still appreciates those times when he can go unwatched.

In honor of it being the first day of National Poetry Month, here is “The Time Around Scars” from The Dainty Monsters by Michael Ondaatje:

A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.
Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.

My wife has scars like spread raindrops
on knees and ankles,
she talks of broken greenhouse panes
and yet, apart from imagining red feet,
(a nymph out of Chagall)
I bring little to that scene.
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.

And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion.

I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Posted in Events, Poetry with tags , on October 27, 2010 by jaclemens

On Monday I had the opportunity to attend the Intellectual Traditions lecture on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight presented by Professor Tom Stillinger. It was informative, as it dealt not with the plot but with some themes I had not considered in my own reading. Professor Stillinger discussed the linear and cyclical shapes of the poem in time, verse form, and symbolism. He also read a section in Middle English, which helped demonstrate why the poem would have appealed to a scholar like J.R.R. Tolkien, one of its noted translators.

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún review

Posted in Fiction, New release, Poetry, Recommendations with tags , , on May 29, 2009 by jaclemens

Legend of Sigurd & GudrunThe Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is an eminent addition to J.R.R. Tolkien’s preeminent body of work. Here we have two marvelous tales from Norse mythology, the Lay of the Völsungs and the Lay of Gudrún, retold by a renowned philologist. These are no mere translations; indeed translation is not possible when the extant sources are piecemeal variants and prose summaries. Tolkien painstakingly recreated these tremendous poems much like Regin reforged Gram, the sword Sigurd used to slay the dragon Fáfnir. Written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza, these lays are illuminating. A hero who was more highly anticipated for his prowess in the after-life than in mortal life, Sigurd is thus descried by a sibyl:

“On his head shall be helm,

in his hand lightning,

afire his spirit,

in his face splendor.

The Serpent shall shiver

and Surt waver,

the Wolf be vanquished

and the world rescued.”

Reading Tolkien’s poetry is like reading him for the first time again. His son and faithful editor Christopher Tolkien once again provides foreword, midword, and afterword. Yet unlike the insightful commentary he provided for The Children of Húrin (see review posted 02/08), here his notes are overly thorough and clutter up the work. These may be the very challenges that his father overcame in writing the lays, but he performed that feat in order to spare others from the ordeal. The exhaustive notes point more to a need to add length to the book than they do to an understanding of the story being told. I read them all and gleaned some gold from the dross, but I wouldn’t do it again. I would gladly read the lays many times over and I’d be a better storyteller for it.

National Poetry Month

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 17, 2008 by jaclemens

In the spirit of Poem in Your Pocket Day today, here is one of my own poems:

Cherry Tree Elegy

The cherry tree out back

Fills my kitchen window

Like the world-ash Yggdrasil

It is all-pervading

In spring the bright blooms burst

Merry stars in green twilight

A fleeting Milky Way

A pure light so bright it

Extinguishes itself

Self-sacrificial allure

To possess is to defile

To pick is to destroy

To pollinate is death

One can only wait, hope

To see them bloom anew

J.A. Clemens, 2005