Friday, April 15, 2011

Diane Wakoski's poetry lessons

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
by Diane Wakoski

for Walter’s Aunt Libby’s
diligence 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
in food?
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,
gleaming onions,
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.


Amy @ Soul Dipper said...

What a post. I'm enthralled with the meat of it all. Many thanks.

The Solitary Walker said...

'A good poem must have at the very least lyrical langauge ...' This had me reaching for the dictionary as the word 'lyrical' has always seemed a bit vague to me. 'Lyrical': 'expressing deep personal emotion or observations; highly enthusiastic; rhapsodic; effusive; melodious, musical; emotional.' Well, yes, but ... I can think of poets who deliberately subvert this idea of lyrical language and write good poems. 'Lyrical', except in its very widest sense, has probably not a lot of useful meaning from TS Eliot onwards.

As for tropes and metaphors - again, strictly speaking yes, but only in the sense that all poems are by definition metaphors - even if the actual content reveals no obvious metaphors (as can occasionally happen).

The mantra 'No ideas but in things' should be pinned up above every poet's desk!

Ruth said...

Thank you, Amy! It's been quite a meaty experience with Diane, great word.

Ruth said...

Robert, hello! So glad to have you "argue" with these characteristics of a "good" poem. I agree, and I think Diane would too, though I don't think I can speak for her (and she might even read my post and tell me she would never say those things, but this is what I remember) . . . I say, I agree that poems do not need to at least express deep personal emotion or observations; be highly enthusiastic; rhapsodic; effusive; melodious, musical; emotional. For me, when I recall Diane saying a poem should at least be "lyrical" I think of the words sounding right to the ear, that the sound of the words and lines are important. I wonder if the word "lyrical" can be used that minimally? There is probably a better word that would indicate "timbre" or something of that sort.

As for a trope or metaphor, this is something I'm a bit of a prude about. Yes, the poem itself can be a metaphor, yes, it doesn't have to have them obviously gleaming on the page. I think of Stevie Smith's "Not Waving But Drowning"—there aren't really any metaphors in the poem: the poem is a metaphor. But if a poem is just pretty language (lyrical even, and some poetry is way too lyrical if you ask me) broken up on the page to look like a poem, is it a poem?

I'm glad we agree on the WCW mantra, because that alone, just by itself, is about enough to start with.

Thanks for your discussion, and for being such a fine poet.

Louise Gallagher said...

And don't you just love being a mother (speaking of the photo of course)

This entire post, including the comments is definitely... meaty, rich, fragrant, replete.


Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

This post is a feast (there, that’s my cliché!). You have often spoken of how important Diane has been to you and this post comes as such a welcome opportunity to see much of the how and why of those strong ties you feel to her. As you know, thanks to my father’s Lebanese ancestry and the Brooklyn banquets that marked all gatherings on that side of my family ever since I can recall, I have a deep love for Lebanese food. So yes, to use another cliché, the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But there is so much more to this succulent poem. The question she poses as to whether she would have had the same appetite and appreciation for food and for the abundance and natural riches of our world had she been one of those beautiful California beach girls, is unique and original and refreshing. And the contrast she draws between precious jewels and the “jewels of life” is wonderful; she does not disparage diamonds, but emphatically refutes their superiority over grapes. Like her, to me a clove of garlic or an olive can say more than a sapphire. The allusion to Rubens and David is also delightful. My mother always used to playfully lament that she has a body from the age of Rubens, but was born in the age of Modigliani.

She signs off as a “failed beach girl”… What a blessing her ‘failure’ is. The Bee Gees may have lost something in the deal, one less California girl to idolatrize, but poetry and all of us are much the richer for it and so, too, I would like to think, are the mirrors of self regard of countless women everywhere.

Ruth said...

Louise, I do love being a mother. Being a "mother" in poetry classes and in the Sapphos group had its challenges. One great thing I recall was when students in my first poetry class educated me on the current music. Natalie Merchant's 10,000 Maniacs will always be one of my favorite bands as a result. :-)

I'm glad you enjoyed the flavors in this post, thank you so much.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, I appreciate your comment so much. I just love the vision in my imagination of your and Diane's Lebanese banquets at holidays. (I believe it is her husband's family that are Lebanese.) I feel sorry for myself and all of us here in the U.S. whose lineage was so watered down that we did not partake of ethnic dishes passed down through generations. I did not know that garlic did not come in a shaker until late my late teens. Olives? They were those awful green things with little beads of pimiento that came in a tall jar. I liked them, but when I tasted "real" olives in Istanbul, my palate needed to "learn" them and grow to appreciate their ferment. But when it did, wow.

But the real meat here is as you say, the poignancy of Diane's personal mythology, of being an unattractive girl who developed true beauty and a love of life. I have never known a person more enthralled with romance than Diane, and I treasure how it comes through her words and life.

As for Rubens and mothers, mine used to say the same as yours! though not the part about the age of Modigliani.

Time for some breakfast of olives and toast . . .

steven said...

such beautiful and tasty writing!!! when i read the writing of talented writers, the journey looks so much longer . . . and rewarding. steven

Ruth said...

Thanks, Steven. I know what you mean about the long road of writing better. It's so important to read good writing to keep holding that bar up, I feel. Yours is some of the writing I read regularly that does that for me: inspiration and challenge.

Daniel Chérouvrier said...

I wish I could be a better English reader. In spite of the language boundary, this poem is makes me watering.

Daniel Chérouvrier said...

Me fait venir l'eau à la bouche !
comme le chantait Serge Gainsbourg

OceanoAzul.Sonhos said...

The jewels of humble life, are the best and the purest jewels.
You are all wonderful in this photo, congratulations.

Tess Kincaid said...

Wakoski is marvelous. Thank you for the introduction.

Bruce Barone said...

I have always liked her poetry and have often read it.

ds said...

Oh, the sensuousness--yours and hers--of this! I am biting olives, spreading cheese, thirsting for gravy. Wanting to be seated at that table. Yes, Mr. Williams, take that Mr. Eliot. Brava, Ms. Wakoski and brava, Ruth!
(you could be their sister, not their mother, in that photo)
No time for more than thank you. So, thank you!

Ginnie said...

I'm guessing Diane will always be a muse of sorts for you, Ruth. She has beckoned forth from you so many emotions!

Shari said...

I read the poem several times and yes, I did recognize myself. It was wonderful. How lucky you are to work in such a rich environment!

Rosaria Williams said...

Bravi! To Diana and to you, and to the commentators ahead of me. Much to digest, to ponder over, to discuss at length.

Maureen said...

A wonderful post, Ruth. And how lovely that you have studied with Wakoski.

I just yesterday ordered the collection you highlighted. (Godine has a great sale of its poetry titles.)

Barb said...

The poem is like a brief autobiography that makes me feel as though I've met your mentor and friend. These lines (among many others) resound: "As some women love jewels, I love the jewels of life."

George said...

I truly enjoyed this piece on Wakoski, Ruth, and love her poem, "Ode to a Lebanese Crock of Olives." I only wish that I could be outside her office window when you recite the poem. What a wonderful gift it will be for Wakoski to hear her poems recited by those who love both her and the poems.

Deborah said...

What a lovely discovery! Thank you for sharing this...I could not stop myself from reading the poem myself in my little downstair's studio. Rich, witty...generous. A real pleasure as is this all that share on his 'blog'.

Vagabonde said...

I could see the still life – and my mouth could taste the cheese and the olives.

* said...

Wakoski, wow!

And this:

"I often wonder why a poem to me
is so much more like a piece of bread and butter
than like a sapphire?"

How is it Diane speaks my heart? And you, blessed lucky enough to be one of her students, pen in hand by her side.

A deep bow to you both, and olives for everyone!

Murr Brewster said...

I"ve been trying for months to remember the quote from some poet or other: that a poem should make sense to the ear even before it makes sense to the heart. Hear. Hear!

Unknown said...

I love the sensual quandary Wakoski's poem puts the reader into. What's the most desirous joy to you? It amazes me when I encounter the rich depths and expanse of such joy, the sensation boils down to an instant on the tongue, a glimmer in one's eye. For all the length our lives exist, the orgasmic instant of pleasure is what we live for, what we paint and what we sing and write about, describing the anticipation, of the craving. Many people in the world lead such frugal lives that such diversity of rich experiences are unknown to them. We are such fortunate creatures to be able know and to understand these joys. Thanks for sharing, Ruth. Enjoy your serenade. =D

Ruth said...

Daniel, good old Serge! It is funny you wrote this and sent this video, because if ever I wrote a poem about food, Diane would close her eyes and say mmmmmm. :-)

Ruth said...

Muito obrigada, OceanoAzul.Sonhos. I wish I understood Portuguese the way you do English. xo

Ruth said...

Tess, glad I could introduce you. She would love your poetry too.

Ruth said...

Bruce, cool! She's not a household name, so I'm pleased you know her work.

Ruth said...

And thank you, DS! Diane is sometimes criticized for her long "blousy" lines. But I find them languorous and beautiful, and they always are tight in spite of their length. (Thank you for the compliment. I love these ladies, who were always much more adept at workshopping poems than I was, besides which I got very sleepy by 9pm and they were still going strong . . . )

Ruth said...

Boots, maybe muse is only the half of it. Mother also comes to mind.

Ruth said...

Shari, I am glad you enjoyed Diane's poem. It really is great to work where I do, I wish we could just sit and talk about poems and literature and not work so hard on other stuff. :-)

Ruth said...

Gratzi, Rosaria! You're so right. What is a poem? is a big topic worthy of long discussions, among other things . . .

Ruth said...

Thank you, Maureen. And seriously? You just bought The Butcher's Apron?? Now that is just crazy. So much food food food, I think you'll enjoy it.

Ruth said...

Barb, yes, her poetry is much this way, quite full of her story and rich with her rich life. I love to sit and listen to her talk about her days at Berkley, and in NYC with the avant garde poets in Greenwich Village.

Ruth said...

Thank you, George, I'm glad you enjoyed this post and Diane's tasty poem. I have to be sure I can pronounce those French words properly before reading it aloud. Because I think you will come back to read my comment, I will tell you a little story. It's not my story, but I love it. One of the former Sapphos who moved to NYC was riding on the subway going to her job at Knopf. The subway car was packed tight, people standing and sitting of course. Suddenly a loud voice strikes up, reciting something. My friend Laura realized it was Diane's poem "Blue Monday" which he recited all the way to the end. It was one of those situations when the man was perhaps a bit mentally disturbed, and so everyone was uncomfortable. While he recited it by heart Laura thought, "I am the only one on this train who knows this is Diane's poem and knows her!" When he was done he said, "That was Blue Monday and I bet you're glad I'm finished."


Ruth said...

Thank you, Deborah, and how great to read it aloud, which is how poetry should be read!

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, thank you. And you know those cheese well, I bet. (And how to pronounce them.)

Ruth said...

Thanks, Terresa. Diane is one of those people who has lived so many lives and so abundantly that to spend time with her is a real treat, even if we don't talk about poetry!

Ruth said...

Murr, so true. I have found a wonderful essay by Sidney Hall Jr. called The Poem as a Marble, or How to Read a Poem, in which he says, "We have to hear the sound. The words might make sense or not make sense. That's not important. You can go lots of other places to get sense." I love it!

Ruth said...

Hello, Linda! I was thrilled by your comment because it is so rich and so precisely expresses just what I felt this week! That we can experience small miracle-orgasms (yes, I used the same word orgasm about this) every day if we only tap into the energies that are right here. It is astonishing what is here in depths and riches, just as you said so beautifully.

I hope you have a beautiful weekend, Linda.

erin said...

i smile for all kinds of reasons through this post. i smile to know you better, to see poetry through someone else's eyes (or was that mouth or nose or mind?), to see the world, other women. what an opporutnity to study poetry. i laugh. all my years ago in a dark dense haze of halls - i learned very little and studied even less, but never with such an opportunity. and then i smile too for the myth of you that i have created, for we all do this for and of one another, don't we, is tapped upon just a little more and a little more. perhaps one day the shell shall break off and i will see you as you really are.

the poem itself is a marvel. as are you.


Ruth said...

Erin, funny you used that image of a shell breaking off, for just yesterday I was thinking of you in the same terms, but differently. I was the cracked-shell egg trying to hold myself together while I listen to you (marveling). I came to Diane and university almost 20 years after first going to college, which I was not ready for either when I was 18. One of the challenges of being a nontraditional student is that you are so into the learning, and the other students often are not. They look at you with furious eyes as if to say, Stop it. You're making us look bad. But in poetry classes, the students there really were into it, and that was a gift.

Blogs are strange and wonderful. We share what we wish, and we discover what we think we know of one another. Yes, what would we see beyond this veil?

Robby said...

How I love Diane Wakowski.

Ruth said...

So cool, Robby!

More Than Meets the I said...

There's this idea of abundance, of contrasts and unities in beauty, isn't there? Wakowksy has brilliantly captured the essence of beauty. Thank you for introducing her to me, Ruth.

I could read her along these lines:
Oh! beauty, though you never gave yourself to me completely, I still managed to appropriate something of you.

~Odysseus Elytis from Elegies of the Oxopetra(meaning a rock in the Aegean Sea/ also a play on out=exo)

shoreacres said...

No argument here, simply because simplicity is enough in the beginning: lyrical, metaphorical, cliche-free and (to put a different word to Williams' point) concrete.

I'd add one more word for the process, rather than the product. "Patience". Letting the poem bubble up, as I said to ds, letting it percolate, letting it simmer until it's ready to have its own say.

All of this is hunch, rather than conviction, but it's a hunch I'm willing to play.

Barb said...

PS I love the story you told George.

Jeanie said...

First of all, thank you for introducing me to this amazing woman and her work. What an experience to enjoy workshops with Diane and learn from what looks to be the skills of a master. I must say as an olive lover, this poem got me where I lived, and I loved when she wrote about how she wondered if she had looked differently she ever would have learned to eat so well! So true! Thanks, Ruth!

GailO said...

Although you have written often of Diane Wakoski I never read any of her poems until now...and now I am so happy I have...I love this ode. How wonderful to have a mentor like her.

Unknown said...

Ruthie, you may have earned her spankings when you first began writing poetry under Diane's tutelage, but you certainly wouldn't "get the belt" now. She must be the most excellent of teachers, because her star pupil shines brightly.

I love that you all will be serenading her under her window. So much more poetic than standing on a podium.

Loring Wirbel said...

What a memorial to Diane!

Unknown said...

And overwhelming.
And inspiring.
As you always are.

I am so very humbled...
and as always , grateful to be in your class.