-To read a poem is to stroll on a warm October afternoon into the artist square Place du Tertre in Montmartre in Paris, and have an artist tap you on the shoulder and ask if they can sketch your portrait. You read a couple of lines, shrug and say Sure, why not. You hear the poet scratching away with their charcoal pencil, and when you’re done reading, you either say, Yes, I recognize myself! Or you say, Who the hell is that?
Reading a poem by Diane Wakoski is like putting on a long flowing hippie dress of Bohemian cotton and walking through an orange grove in southern California or a book-lined New York City apartment where your friend is making an apple torte while you talk about a movie you just watched together. You become a woman who navigates her life through the sensualities of love, food, movies, and popular culture.
In one of her many, many books of poetry, The Butcher’s Apron, you dance through sensual visions of food and drink, sampling Viennese coffee at a train station or figs on the Adriatic Coast. It is in these poems of hers that I most recognize myself. At Diane’s real pine table, I have drunk blooming jasmine tea and eaten countless fragrant green salads with divine vinaigrette that I can never replicate, and pesto made with twenty-five cloves of garlic and basil her husband Robert grew in their front yard. I have also workshopped poems, first as a student in five of Diane’s poetry classes, then with former students around her supper table, pens in hand and minds ready to try on poems and see if they fit. It has been brilliant to study with a teacher who still maintains personal relationships with her students, inviting them into her home lined floor to ceiling with books.
The essentials for writing good poetry that Diane hammered into us students week after week are: A good poem must at the very least have lyrical language (added note after Robert's comment: lyricism in a limited and minimal sense of "the sound of the words" being important) and a trope or metaphor. (Another note: the poem itself can be the metaphor.) Then it must have absolutely NO clichés. If you write about tears as rain or love as fire, you're gonna really get the belt. Don't forget William Carlos Williams' advice: No ideas but in things. And, if you can possibly include something of your personal mythology, you might have a winner.
Professor Wakoski is teaching for three more weeks as Distinguished Poet in Residence in my English department, then she retires. One evening of her last week of class a bunch of former students will stand under her office window outside our building and serenade her with her own poems. Below is one of the three I’ll be reading, from The Butcher’s Apron.
The Poetry Foundation has a wonderful biography of Diane here.
Ode to a Lebanese Crock of Olives
for Walter’s Aunt Libby’sdiligence in making olives
As some women love jewels
and drape themselves with ropes of pearls, and stud their ears
with diamonds, band themselves with heavy gold,
have emeralds on their fingers or
opals on white bosoms,
I love the still life
of grapes whose skins frost over with the sugar forming inside,
hard apples, and delicate pears;
from the sharp fontina, to icy bleu,
the aromatic chèvres, boursault, boursin, a litany of
thick breads, dark wines,
pasta with garlic,
soups full of potato and onion;
and butter and cream,
like the skins of beautiful women, are on my sideboard.
These words are to say thank you
Walter’s Aunt Libby
for her wonderful olives;
oily green knobs in lemon
that I add to the feast when they get here from Lebanon
where men are fighting, as her sisters have been fighting
for years, over whose house the company stays in
and whose recipes for kibbee or dolmas or houmas
are passed along.
I often wonder,
had I been born beautiful,
a Venus on the California seashore,
if I’d have learned to eat and drink so well?
For, with hummingbirds outside my kitchen window
to remind of small elegance,
and mourning doves in the pines & cedar, speaking with grace,
and the beautiful bodies
of lean blond surfers,
dancing on terraces,
surely had I a beautiful face or elegant body,
surely I would not have found such pleasure
I often wonder why a poem to me
is so much more like a piece of bread and butter
than like a sapphire?
But with mockers flying in and out of orange groves,
and brown pelicans dipping into the Pacific,
looking at camellias and fuchsia,
and abundance of rose, and the brilliant purple ice plant
which lined the cliffs to the beach,
life was a “Still Life” for me.
And a feast.
I wish I’d known then
the paintings of Rubens or David,
where beauty was not only
thin, tan, California girls,
but included all abundance.
As some women love jewels,
I love the jewels of life.
And were you,
the man I love
to cover me (naked) with diamonds,
I would accept them too.
Beauty is everywhere,
in contrasts and unities.
But to you, I could not offer the thin tan fashionable body
of a California beach girl.
Instead, I could give the richness of burgundy,
dark brown gravies,
the gold of lemons,
and some of Walter’s Aunt Libby’s wonderful olives from Lebanon.
Thank you, Aunt Libby,
from a failed beach girl,
out of the West.
from Waiting for the King of Spain
and Emerald Ice
Diane's "Sapphos" when we all read at a reading in 2009
—Courtney, Sarah, Carrie, MJ, Diane, me, Heather—
I am old enough to be mother to everyone but Diane.
I am old enough to be mother to everyone but Diane.