Saturday, October 6, 2007

Beautiful Clarity: The Poetic Mentorship

I've been thinking a lot about an article I read in the September issue of The Writer's Chronicle: "Beautiful Clarity: Jane Kenyon, Anna Akhmatova, and the Luminous Particular," by David Harbilas. Harbilas attributes Kenyon's achievement of mastery to a "never-ending apprenticeship." I was immediately drawn to this article as I have long subscribed to its premise. I think our best teachers are the ones who appear on the page before us. I read poetry for pleasure but also for information about craft. When I read a poem that stays with me, that keeps noodling my brain, I begin to ask myself how I might use that poem as a jumping-off point into a new poem of my own. What has that poet done that intrigues me? What new moves are there? I sometimes try to uncover the pattern beneath a poem, extract it, and then build my own poem on top of the pattern or skeleton. The result is never anything like the original so imitation doesn't worry me. I think it's a good thing, a way to learn and move beyond what you are already doing.

But I was also interested in the article because Kenyon went beyond using single poems to influence her. According to Harbilas, Robert Bly once paid a visit to Kenyon and Donald Hall after they moved to New Hampshire. Bly suggested that Kenyon select a single poet as a master. When she responded that she could not have a man as her master, he recommended Anna Akhmatova. Harbilas believes that in studying her new mentor's poetry, Kenyon found "an equivalent in terms of emotion, allegiance to place, and expression of the self." More importantly, she was attracted to Akhmatova's "obsession with clear and evocative language," or a "beautiful clarity." He offers this poem as an example:

Along the Hard Crest of the Snowdrift

Along the hard crest of the snowdrift
to my white, mysterious house,
both of us quiet now,
keeping silent as we walk.
And sweeter than any song
this dream we now complete--
the trembling of branches we brush against,
the soft ringing of your spurs.

I don't know why Harbilas uses a translation by someone other than Kenyon, but I've included Kenyon's translation above. He points out the rural setting, the description of that setting, the address to a loved one--all characteristics that would be found in Kenyon's work. Harbilas is most interested in the power of the images—especially in the last two lines—in how Akhmatova lets them do the work of the poem in conveying "physical joy or sexuality." Yes, I thought, how often do we not trust the image to do its work and instead jump in and tell way too much. Habilas then goes on to discuss three of Kenyon's poems which show her increasing mastery of the image, the last of which is "Let Evening Come," a poem I love.

Harbilas ends by pointing out some differences between the two poets, primarily that Kenyon never became the political poet that Akhmatova was, that her work remained more private and personal in subject matter and that she gave more attention to daily routines and weather.

So I went to the bookstore and bought a collection of Akhmatova's poetry, the one translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward. I'm not sure I'll be happy with this collection as the original poems appear in Russian on the left page and I'm afraid I will find that distracting. But I need to get to know this poet better. Since I very much like Kenyon's work, I'm hoping that I too will learn from Akhmatova.

I'm also looking ahead to another mentor. Not someone wildly experimental but someone who will stretch me in directions I haven't yet gone. Today I ordered Nin Andrews' Sleeping with Houdini, Stuart Dybek's Streets in Their Own Ink, and James Hoch's Miscreants. That should keep me busy. I hope these poets and their poems will set off a flurry of poetic activity. I also bought Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils, a collection of prose and poetry.

Who are your mentors?


  1. Diane, I think you will like Dybek's book very much, as well as Kenyon's.

    My main mentor is Charles Wright, but there are several others that I keep going back to for instruction. Lisel Mueller, for one. And Simic, for stretching myself.


  2. I recently finished Mueller's Alive Together and found many poems to love. Zany but comprehensible.

  3. A few months back I went to a reading by W.S. Merwin. I'd never been a huge Merwin fan or anything, but I try to go to readings when I get the chance. Anyway, as he read, I got this weird, weird feeling that he was going to be one of my teachers. I knew this wasn't literal in the sense that it was highly unlikely I'd ever take a workshop with him -- so I decided it just meant I needed to start reading him in some depth. I bought his humongous selected poems a few days later. Still haven't delved into it though. I guess sometimes I like to try and ignore my teachers. ;)

  4. If you can't ignore your teachers, what's the sense to having them? But the nice thing about a teacher in a book is that he'll be there when you're in the mood.


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