Monday, May 16, 2011

Poem: Thanking Diane Wakoski for Poetry Lessons


Diane Wakoski not only taught me about writing poems, she helped me excavate the pieces of my religious past. Last week thirteen of Diane's former students read tributes to her in a reading celebrating her and 35 years as Poet-in-Residence at my university upon her retirement. I wrote this poem a couple of months ago for the occasion and read it to her at Thursday's event as she sat in the front row. The title is an allusion to Diane's poem "Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons". . .

         I want to thank
my mother for working and always paying for
my piano lessons
before she paid the Bank of America loan
or bought the groceries
or had our old rattling Ford repaired. (excerpt from Wakoski's poem)

My poem is a palindrome, and in this case, at the middle the lines repeat in reverse order. (Palindromes can also repeat words or letters in reverse, as in the sentence, "Madam, I'm Adam.") If you are not familiar with the Greek myths of Persephone and Demeter (Proserpine and Ceres in Roman mythology), and of Orpheus and Eurydice, you can link to them in the names. To read about Diane Wakoski's important place in American poetry, go to the Poetry Foundation's page about her here.

Thanking Diane Wakoski for Poetry Lessons

Is it the pomegranate juice you pour
from an earthen pitcher at your table
that draws me into this world of dark fruits
my mother hid from me?

I leave her and the hymned piano lessons,
in a missionary field of corn,
and you, Poetry, appear like Charon
ferrying me across the Hudson.

Even after death she, like Demeter
and Orpheus, searches for me among sepulchers of jazz,
but I am innocent in these tombs of joy!
I crave cigarette torches in dark tunnels
where little deaths are a relief from high heavens.

Where little deaths are a relief from high heavens,
I crave cigarette torches in dark tunnels
but I am innocent in these tombs of joy,
and Orpheus searches for me among sepulchers of jazz,
even after death, like Demeter,

ferrying me across the Hudson,
and you, Poetry, appear like Charon
in a missionary field of corn.
I leave her and the hymned piano lessons.

My mother hid from me.
That draws me into this world of dark fruits
from an earthen pitcher at your table.
Is it pomegranate juice you pour?

Listen to a podcast of this poem here.



Arti said...


This is amazing! Thank You for the poetry lesson. Yes, I've heard of "Madam I'm Adam"... without knowing its proper name. The structure of your poem makes it most interesting and intriguing. And I love the inspiration. Much to savor. I can see Diane Wakoski is a most inspiring teacher. Thanks for sharing with us your poetry experience.

Deslilas said...

Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau would have enjoyed your poem (as I do).

Friko said...

Thank you for introducing me to the form of lyrical palindrome and your inspirational teacher and poet.

You are a worthy pupil.

The Solitary Walker said...

I enjoyed your poem, Ruth - also the piece on Wakoski, whom I knew little about, except through your own connection. I will return to read more.

Ruth said...

Arti, thank you!

There is far too much to say about Prof. Wakoski's influence in my life, but I wish I could convey more. I appreciate your comment very much.

Ruth said...

Ah yes, Daniel, the OuLiPo. I posted one I did of Langston Hughes' "April Rain Song" last month here. Thank you.

Ruth said...

Thanks a bunch, Friko. I'd like to try the palindrome with letters or words some day, which will be much more difficult.

Ruth said...

Robert, thanks. By the way, I found a terrific YouTube of a man reading her poem "Beauty and the Beast" which she wrote after watching a Jean Cocteau film, and it has stills from the movie. I sent it to her and she loved it. It's here.

Robby said...

This is beautiful, far and away my favorite of the poems of yours I've read. Diane Wakoski is one of a kind, and "Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons" was the poem I discovered her with. Thank you.

Ginnie said...

I wish like the dickens I could have been a fly on the wall, or better yet, one who sat midst the chorus last Thursday, Ruth. It must have felt like a coming home for you, a full circle.

Each time I read one of your palindromes, I marvel that I have no memory of them elsewhere. But I'm not literate, of course, as you are. Still, what you have written is a thrill to me...the kind that leaves my mouth wide open. Carry on, Sister!

Ruth said...

Robby, oh thank you, that is wonderful. I feel this is one of my better poems, and one I took a lot of time with in the preparation. When I read a palindrome by another poet, I knew it had to be the form. I love that you know and follow DW. Thank you so much.

Ruth said...

Boots, I would have loved to have you there at the reading. It was a special evening, as was the serenade a couple of weeks before. It has been very good to stop and reflect on this professor/poet/friend who has influenced me.

I have not written other palindromes, though it may have sounded like it in the post. As for me being literate, I'm only learning! Thank you for your wonderful encouragement, always.

steven said...

hi ruth, the moebius strip of this poem is a perfectly formed gift of gratitude to the teacher who in letting her hand slip from yours allowed you to in turn become the teacher. steven

Ruth said...

Steven, thank you for that kindness.

Susan said...

This beautiful and haunting poem of yours proves that you can have more than one mother in a lifetime, learning something different from each one, yet not taking away from the love we feel for our true mothers and the lessons we learned from them.

I love palindromic numbers...they're always finding me. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you, Susie. When I found the palindrome form for this tribute to Diane, I knew the back and forth movement would fit my story perfectly, for Diane truly gave me back my own mother, and herself as mother, and so much that is centered in NYC. Thank you for seeing it.

You must share some of your palindromic numbers with me sometime.

Brendan said...

Lot of sweat equity in this poem and it shows, because it encompasses so much that counts inside a tight proscenium of lines: the liaison between history and mystery, maternity and education, womb and knowledge, world and words, all giving thanks to one who helped the speaker find words for "cigarette torches" (which were the swords of rebellion in someone's youth, eh?) and burn them into plowshares of a making, growing a field of corn exactly over all a mother wouldn't say. The harmonics are brilliant, Ruth. And Wakowski must have felt that special pleasure when the student outshined, in this moment, the mentor. The sense of weaving on a loom so many careful lines comes out in the podcast -- big pause after every line, letting it sink into tapestry, becoming not simply a daughter's burden explicated, or teacher's imperative sustained, but "pomegranate juice" -- stained lips turned to a smile. Kudos. -- Brendan

Ruth said...

Brendan, years of sweat.

I think the work we do is a light and feathery thing, compared to what is being worked under the surface, sweating itself out. Strange that I have tears now, writing this. The intensity of it, the life, the living, as you say it is condensed here. Oddly enough the poem wrote itself in a matter of an hour or so, but it was after finding the palindrome that it happened, and the lines spread around my rumbling, plodding, wooden wagon like water from a spilled barrel, flowing away, and back again after reaching that outer line.

Before seeing you had left a comment, I was elsewhere, thinking about your writing. Yours is not feathery, of course, and you manage to draw the intensity from underwater into the words themselves, and into the shape of each piece. It's a magnificent gift, and weighty.

Thanks so much for your kindness here. It means a lot to me.

Louise Gallagher said...

I am in awe.

I had never known of palindrome poetry -- only the numbers my daughters and I play with on license plates when driving -- who can spot the palindrome? -- our favourite game long ago. Extra points if both the letter and the numbers match the form!

Your poem is echoes of such deep sentiment and experience. I too would have love to have been amidst the crowd.

I would have loved to have had a professor/mentor/guide/teacher such as she.

Thank you for sharing a bit of your professor.

Thank you for sharing your gift.

The Bug said...

What a gorgeous tribute. I'm sitting here trying to decide if I could write one of these myself, but I'm pretty sure the answer is no - at least until I have a very long space of quiet time. Maybe while my boss is on vacation next month :)

ds said...

Yes, Demeter rescued Persephone (more or less)--the only woman in Greek mythology to descend to the underworld, which says a lot about her, and about motherhood. I love your palindrome, seemingly without effort & so rewarding on multiple readings (which I have come back to do. Again.) As DW has been more than mentor to you, offering perhaps not just pomegranate juice, but also ambrosia?

So beautiful, Ruth. You do both your mothers proud. Thank you.

Maureen said...

Love this, Ruth! Your skill is so evident in this beautiful tribute poem. I've always admired Wakoski's poetry. What a gift you received in being able to study with her.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I'm glad Terresa Wellborn introduced me to your work. This poem is truly wonderful; I admire it so much - inspires me to try the form.

Terresa said...

Wakoski, Greek mythology, palindromes, beauty, beauty in this, everywhere. It is a magnificent piece, one, I'd imagine, Diane enjoyed as much as me.

PS: Glad Mark found you, he has a poet-heart and eye, both of which I'm fond.

cathyswatercolors said...

Hi Ruth, lovely poem, thank you for the explanation it helped me enjoy it even more. Quite magical actually.

I am sure you will miss your friend and co-worker as the lucky gal enjoys her retiremet!

Nelson said...

Bravo, sister!

I'm curious that so far there are no comments about the accompanying images. So, this son of a preacher man will confess that upon opening today's blog the image of Persephone took my breath away. It captures me in ways I've never known, ways that are hard to fathom. I appreciate your freedom to publish such an image.

And then the first line of the last stanza stated clearly what was my own experience, and that clarity startled me. I am taken that you expressed your feeling of abandonment so poignantly and that you saw that emotion as contributing to your being drawn to DW.

That you drank of her elixir and that she drew you out is wonderful. That you receive such affirmation from your readers is more wonderful, proof positive of your emancipation.

You are a free woman. Your tribute proclaims it and the image shouts it. Thank you.

erin said...

it's an odd form, isn't it? somehow it undoes the mind with the same doing it initially does. i feel rather naked after reading. i'll have to come and read again.

that must have been a very special gathering:) i'm so glad for you to have had such enriching times.


Loring said...

Few palindromes work as well as this one does, what a tribute to Diane.

Ruth said...

Louise, I feel that gifts are received twice, at least twice, if we're lucky. First when given, and again when recognized for their depth of meaning and influence. Diane's presence in my life is like that. It's good that she can feel this appreciation from a great many of us now. Too often we wait for funerals to express this kind of appreciation!

Thank you so much for your enthusiastic response and ever-present encouragement.

Ruth said...

Dana, give a palindrome a whirl. It may not be as difficult as you might think. I really love how the form adds much without much effort, which says a lot about language, sentence structure, and how much we have available to us simply in the material that is here.

Ruth said...

Thank you, DS, my understanding friend, and kind beyond my deserving.

When we moved to the farm in 2003, I did not know how much I needed the earth, and its mothering, all mothering. Previously I did not recognize how rich I am with mothers!

Ruth said...

Maureen, it's been wonderful finding out that you have followed DW all this time. She is so prolific that I still have much to read of hers that I have not read. She's brilliant.

Thank you very much.

Ruth said...

Mark, thank you, I am quite pleased to have met you through Terresa as well. I look forward to what you might try with a palindrome. Experimenting with forms is a lot of fun for me. And also finding prompts from art, which you are doing to excellent effect with Chagall's sketches.

Ruth said...

Terresa, thank you, it really pleases me that you like this piece. Diane and I have not had a chance to talk about the evening's tributes, as she left for her annual trip out West with her husband. I look forward to hearing her reflections on all of it next month. It is fascinating hearing a poet reflect on her life's work.

I am glad I've found Mark's sensibilities too, through you.

Ruth said...

Cathy, I've missed you! You must be excited that school is almost done. Don is counting the days . . .

Thank you for your kind words. Yes, Diane has mixed feelings about retirement. She feels she should keep going, and she's nearly 75!

Marcie said...

You leave me speechless. Such a magical way with metaphors and words. WOW!

Marcie said...

Oh..and have you read Sue Monk Kidd's 'Traveling with Pomegranates'? Somehow your poem reminds me of that.

Ruth said...

Nelson, I am so pleased that you were arrested by this image of the Persephone sculpture, and that you recognize what is here about me. In fact, your words revealed to me what has come about so gradually that it did not feel astounding until I heard them from you. As you and I talk about this life, bookending our family, I realize how much has been transformed in me. Seeing your own emerging freedom multiplies my joy. We can fly together, wildly!

Ruth said...

Erin, you, feel naked? From something I wrote?



Ruth said...

Thanks so much, Loring!

Ruth said...

Marcie, thank you very much.

And thanks for Kidd's book, which I had not heard about. It sounds like a beautiful mother-daughter journey, and I think I must read it, given the immensity of this world of mothering in my soul these days.

Amy @ Soul Dipper said...

This tickles and delights me to no end. I feel as though I've just been in a fun house with you!

Jeanie said...

As always, Ruth, I am in awe of your poetry, your command of language and the depth of thought that gives such dimension to your work. What a wonderful way to pay tribute to a mentor. Beautifully done.

Oliag said...

I was not familiar with this form of poetry before and now I see why you felt this was the right form for this poem...Just like turning yourself inside out and back again...your mentor/teacher must be bursting with gratitude and pride in receiving this gift.

Old 333 said...

Oo, lovely. Cigarette torches in dark tunnels, little deaths and gorgeous sculptures. Thanks for this - my morning coffee is made much richer by it!

Miss Jane said...

Wow. I don't know how I glossed over this--maybe I didn't think it was a poem because of the title?
Such a moving tour de force. Great work! I just listened to the podcast and your reading is wonderful. I can't praise this enough. Blown away.