Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Introduction to David Wagoner, his poetry

We will have a few copies of the following when we meet on Wednesday, June 4, 2008 at the Barnes & Noble on Tittabawassee Road in Saginaw, Michigan at 7 p.m. The formatting here is not as you would see in a book of Wagoner's poems. If you have materials you'd like to share please bring them.
This is a Wonderful Poem by David Wagoner
Come at it carefully, don't trust it, that isn't its right name,
It's wearing stolen rags, it's never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won't get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn't decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won't take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you'll learn what's trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

From  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16205 accessed 5/31/08. 
David Wagoner on Adrienne Rich by David Wagoner
Adrienne Rich was the winner of the 1996 Wallace Stevens Award, a $100,000 award given to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry. The judges for the 1996 Wallace Stevens Award were Thom Gunn, Marilyn Hacker, Daniel Hoffman, Rosanna Warren, and David Wagoner, who wrote the following citation.

The poems of Adrienne Rich since the 1950s have helped lead many other poets in this country through a series of important changes. She has helped them make their way into areas of new growth, has brought them further into the heart of American speech and helped them express a wider range of social, moral, and spiritual concerns. Here, near the end of a productive half century, her poems, both old and new, are providing the same illumination for the latest generation of our poets. At every stage of her development, she has not simply pleased her admirers, but has surprised them. Her ingenuity in structure and diction, the variety and intensity of her forms and voices, and the emotional depth they have enabled her to reach--all the while maintaining an integrity of purpose and an unpredictable originality--have made her lifetime of work a demonstration of what the Tanning Prize [Wallace Stevens Award] was meant to reward: mastery.
From  http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15764  accessed 5/30/08. 

For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop by David Wagoner

I've watched his eyelids sag, spring open
Vaguely and gradually go sliding
Shut again, fly up
With a kind of drunken surprise, then wobble
Peacefully together to send him
Home from one school early. Soon his lashes
Flutter in REM sleep. I suppose he's dreaming
What all of us kings and poets and peasants
Have dreamed: of not making the grade,
Of draining the inexhaustible horn cup
Of the cerebral cortex where ganglions
Are ganging up on us with more connections
Than atoms in heaven, but coming up once more
Empty. I see a clear stillness
Settle over his face, a calming of the surface
Of water when the wind dies. Somewhere
Down there, he's taking another course
Whose resonance (let's hope) resembles
The muttered thunder, the gutter bowling, the lightning
Of minor minions of Thor, the groans and gurgling
Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis, the songs
Of shamans whistled through bird bones. A worried neighbor
Gives him the elbow, and he shudders
Awake, recollects himself, brings back
His hands from aboriginal outposts,
Takes in new light, reorganizes his shoes,
Stands up in them at the buzzer, barely recalls
His books and notebooks, meets my eyes
And wonders what to say and whether to say it,
Then keeps it to himself as today's lesson.
From http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=30899 accessed 5/31/08. 

Their Bodies

by David Wagoner

To the students of anatomy
at Indiana University

That gaunt old man came first, his hair as white
As your scoured tables. Maybe you’ll recollect him
By the scars of steelmill burns on the backs of his hands,
On the nape of his neck, on his arms and sinewy legs,
And her by the enduring innocence
Of her face, as open to all of you in death
As it would have been in life: she would memorize
Your names and ages and pastimes and hometowns
If she could, but she can’t now, so remember her.

They believed in doctors, listened to their advice,
And followed it faithfully. You should treat them
One last time as they would have treated you.
They had been kind to others all their lives
And believed in being useful. Remember somewhere
Their son is trying hard to believe you’ll learn
As much as possible from them, as he did,
And will do your best to learn politely and truly.

They gave away the gift of those useful bodies
Against his wish. (They had their own ways
Of doing everything, always.) If you’re not certain
Which ones are theirs, be gentle to everybody.
From http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=24503 accessed 5/31/08. 

The Best Slow Dancer

by David Wagoner

Under the sagging clotheslines of crepe paper
By the second string of teachers and wallflowers
In the school gym across the key through the glitter
Of mirrored light three-second rule forever
Suspended you danced with her the best slow dancer
Who stood on tiptoe who almost wasn’t there
In your arms like music she knew lust how to answer
The question mark of your spine your hand in hers
The other touching that place between her shoulders
Trembling your countless feet lightfooted sure
To move as they wished wherever you might stagger
Without her she turned in time she knew where you were
In time she turned her body into yours
As you moved from thigh to secrets to breast yet never
Where you would be for all time never closer
Than your cheek against her temple her ear just under
Your lips that tried all evening long to tell her
You weren’t the worst one not the boy whose mother
Had taught him to count to murmur over and over
One slide two slide three slide now no longer
The one in the hallway after class the scuffler
The double clubfoot gawker the mouth breather
With the wrong haircut who would never kiss her
But see her dancing off with someone or other
Older more clever smoother dreamier
Not waving a sister somebody else’s partner
Lover while you went floating home through the air
To lie down lighter than air in a moonlit shimmer
Alone to whisper yourself to sleep remember.
From http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=179263 accessed 5/31/08. 

The Good Night and Good Morning of Federico Garcia Lorca

by David Wagoner

He knew he was asleep and was dreaming
Of a beautiful poem. It seemed to be singing
Itself in the night, and he woke
In a bed in a room in an old hotel
And lay there, hearing the song go on
Though he could see the shape
Of his empty shirt on the straight chair
And his empty shoes on the patch of carpet
Made light, half by the moon
And half by the gray beginning
Of dawn. He could see the silhouette
Of his own hand against the window shade
Like a flower, open and waiting. He smiled
At the foolishness of loving his own poem
In his own dream, of accepting praise
From his own shadow. But his mind's eye
Kept seeing that poem and his real ear
Kept hearing that same song. It came from the street
Under his window, and before he knew why,
He was out of bed and shivering his way
Into what were some of his clothes
And one of his shoes and stumbling
Into the hall and down the unlighted stairs
And through the lobby (where the clerk was dreaming
Something else), through the stubbornly locked door
And along the sidewalk to the curb where the singer
Was sweeping trash and leaves along the gutter
With his slow broom, who now stopped, his mouth
Open to gape at an apparition
Holding a scrap of paper up to his face
And begging him to read aloud. The sweeper whispered
He couldn't read. And Lorca took him
Into his arms and kissed him and kissed
The morning air, now stirring what was left
Of the leaves overhead, and went limping back
Through a door that stood wide open
And a grand lobby and up the stairs into bed
To lie there stark awake as sleeplessly
As a poet who'd been told he was immortal.
From http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=30544 accessed 5/31/08.

David Wagoner (1926 - )

Though David Wagoner's work is not widely anthologized nor has he been awarded the celebrity status of many of his literary contemporaries, he has won numerous prestigious literary awards, and enjoys an excellent reputation both as a writer and as a teacher of writing. Wagoner was selected to serve as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 1978 and was the editor of Poetry Northwest, until its last issue in 2002.

Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, Midwesterner Wagoner has been initially influenced by family ties, ethnic neighborhoods, industrial production and pollution, and the urban environment. His move to the Pacific Northwest in 1954, the result of his teacher and friend Theodore Roethke's recommending he apply for a teaching position at the University of Washington, changed both his outlook and his poetry. Writing in the
Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Wagoner
recalls how "when I drove down out of the Cascades and saw the region that was to become my home territory for the next thirty years, my extreme uneasiness turned into awe. I had never seen or imagined such greenness, such a promise of healing growth. Everything I saw appeared to be living ancestral forms of the dead earth where I'd tried to grow up." So it is that thematically, David Wagoner's poems often mourn, as Robert Cording notes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "the loss of the ordinary fertile and life-giving aspects of the world," though David K. Robinson, writing in Contemporary Poetry, adds the themes of "survival, anger at those who violate the natural world" and "a Chaucerian delight in human oddity." Cording also notes several distinctive traits of Wagoner's poetry: a "clarity of descriptive detail," and a "wonderful feel for the metaphorical implications of ordinary situations," both of which justify Paul Breslin's pronouncement in the New York Times Book Review that David Wagoner is "predominantly a nature poet . . . as Frost and Roethke were nature poets." Wagoner's early poetry is logically compared to that of his one-time teacher Theodore Roethke, though Robert Cording also compares him to Robert Frost for his "speaking about our largest concerns," among them "how we go about 'finding the right direction' in 'broken country' so that we may, in time, with luck, arrive with a full and earned
understanding of this 'worn-down, hard, incredible sight / Called Here and Now,' an understanding that involves the acceptance that our lives are what we make of them."
Excerpted from http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=7134 accessed 5/31/08

Beginning with
Dry Sun, Dry Wind comprised of twenty-two short lyrics and eight dramatic monologues, Wagoner's poems, notes Cording, operate from a basic structure: "a series of natural observations that suggest the imperfection of the world in which we live followed by a more direct linking to the speaker's predicament and estrangement." In this first book, the poet notes how "Eyes are tossed like sandbars / Along whatever crossway the wind takes, / Buried at random with the tree, with love, / With last year's certain light." Wagoner's second book, A Place to Stand, echoes Roethke's influence in its use of journey poems as the poet quests "backward to his own beginnings," observes Cording.

The Nesting Ground reflects Wagoner's relocation physically, aesthetically and emotionally; in these poems, Cording remarks, Wagoner has "abandoned the arid landscapes of the Midwest for the teeming life of the Pacific Northwest; and he has moved from lamentation and complaint to his more typical stance of cataloguing the world around him." The poem "Guide to Dungeness Spit," in which Wagoner notes how "Those whistling overhead are Canada geese; / Some on the waves are loons, / And more on the sand are pipers," offers "a kind of prototype for Wagoner's best poems, which are written as a series of instructions for survival in life," states Cording. James K. Robinson calls the title poem from Staying Alive "one of the best American poems since World War II," offering readers "a profoundly sensible set of instructions to one lost in the woods and valuable to anyone anywhere who is interested in staying alive." In poems like "The Words," Wagoner discovers harmony with nature by learning to be open to all it has to offer: "I take what is: / The light beats on the stones, / the wind over water shines / Like long grass through the trees, / As I set loose, like birds / in a landscape, the old words." Robert Cording, who calls Staying Alive
"the volume where Wagoner comes into his own as a poet," believes that for Wagoner, taking what is involves "an acceptance of our fragmented selves, which through love we are always trying to patch together; an acceptance of our own darkness; and an acceptance of the world around us with which we must reacquaint ourselves."
Collected Poems 1956-1976 was praised by X. J. Kennedy in Parnassus for offering "readable" poems which are "beautifully clear; not merely comprehensible, but clear in the sense that their contents are quickly visible." Yet it was Who Shall Be the Sun?, based upon Native American myth and legend, which gained critical attention. Hayden Carruth, writing in Harper's Magazine, called the book "a remarkable achievement," not only for its presentation of "the literalness of shamanistic mysticism" but also for "its true feeling." Hudson Review's James Finn Cotter notes how Wagoner "Has not written translations but condensed versions that avoid stereotyped language. . . . The voice is Wagoner's own, personal, familiar, concerned. He has achieved a remarkable fusion of nature, legend and psyche in these poems."

In Broken Country shows Wagoner honing the instructional backpacking poems he had first used in Staying Alive, and the twelve poem sequence that concludes In Broken Country "can stand with Wagoner's finest poems" notes Robert Cording, and Leonard Neufeldt, writing in New England Review, calls "the love lyrics" included in the first section to be "among the finest since Williams' 'Asphodel.'" Wagoner's Landfall was slighted by Paul Breslin for using "well-worn pastoral conventions" in its nature poems and showing limitations when he "turns form nature to people" as his poetic subjects. First Light, Wagoner's "most intense" collection, according to James K. Robinson, reflects Wagoner's third marriage to poet Robin Seyfried, echoed in the poem "Loon Mating" in which he recounts "the haunting uprisen mating call, / And again, and now the beautiful sane laughter." Publishers Weekly celebrated Walt Whitman Bathing for its use of "plainspoken formal virtuosity" which allows for "a pragmatic clarity of perception," as in Wagoner's description of his parents during his Midwest childhood: "They stand by the empty car, / By the open driver's door, / Waiting. The evening sun / is glowing like pig-iron."
Excerpted from http://poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=7134 accessed 5/31/08.

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