October 6, 2010

Putting the night away

I am really enjoying reading the book, Poetry In Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America's Poets, ed. by Alexander Neubauer. The book contains many "sparkling exchanges" about the craft of poetry, as discussed in interviews the late Pearl London had with various poets at the New School in Greenwich Village. From Maxine Kumin in 1973 to Eamon Grennan in 1996, the book includes chats she had in class with what is arguably the Who's Who of poetry in the last few decades. (I do not mean it is a comprehensive list of all poets; just that the poets she spoke to are famous poets of the last 40 years: from Robert Pinsky to Louise Gluck to Charles Simic, and Muriel Rukeyser, Robert Hass, Philip Levine, James Merrill, Paul Muldoon, Amy Clampitt,  Stanley Plumly, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, Li-Young Lee, Edward Hirsch, and many others.)

As you may expect, the book is full of quotable quotes and while I have not taken the time yet to transcribe many of the quotable lines, I felt the urge this morning to write down these lines from the Hirsch interview because it speaks to so much of what poetry is about for me.

"...the idea of alienation. And loss. I believe that that's the beginning of poetry. Poetry begins with alienation, and poetry speaks against our vanishing. The lyric poem in particular seems to me to have the burden and the splendor of preserving the human image in words, as the most intense form of discourse. Poetry speaks about and against loss in its root function. I see the writing of a poem as a desent. The descent is psychological. That which is darkest in human experience. It can be in yourself, it can be in others, it can be in the death of someone you love. It's a descent into the unconscious. You try to unearth something. You try to bring something to the light."

Note: After that question, Pearl London mentions a phrase from one of the poems in Hirsch's first books which inspired the title of this post. The context of "putting the night away" may be different in this lovely nostalgic poem but I am interpreting it here in the context of "putting the night away" and trying to "bring something to the light" with the help of poetry.

Here is the poem, in its entirety:
My Grandmother's Bed 
How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
when she climbed under the covers
in her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me-

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally, swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue...

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother's
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.

I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her disappeared without a trace.

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