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Poetry Classroom: Mohawk January

16 Comments

Poetry Ashes

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Daniel Bowman, author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Dan and each other, and write your own poems along the way.



Hymn for a Mohawk January

Ashes bring hard faith:
in my vision, only the late nigrescence,
the symphony at Stanwix,
and always the open field.

I cross the street,
ignoring light from the corner.
And here, still, my shocked valley
of pumps and furnaces raging.

Photo by Lyla Willingham Lindquist. Used with permission. Poem by Daniel Bowman.

_____

Discussion Questions:

1. How would a hymn for a Seattle January perhaps drive a poem like this differently?

2. What if the poet had titled the poem, “Hymn for the Mohawk Valley”? What new directions and structures could the poem have then taken?

3. Have you heard of the word “nigrescence”? As a poet, why consider using an unusual word like this in a poem?

4. How does the poet bring the poem full circle? Does it create any particular effect?

5. Does the poem tempt you to discover the history of the Mohawk region? If you delve into the history of the region, does it change anything for you about the meaning of the poem?

Your Comments

16 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    I want to think about all the questions, but I’m thinking about number 1 first.

    A title of a poem should do some work. That’s what Kooser says. And this poem does that work by being specific that this is a Mohawk region poem. So then the poem itself can simply open that out and not waste space with it.

    If the poem title had worked towards Seattle, I fancy that even the rhythms of the poem might have been different. Maybe more repetitive, like rain. (I’m assuming rain for a Seattle winter, but never having lived there, I’m not sure :)

    • When I think of how the poem would be different if it was set in Seattle I also envisioned the sounding of rain throughout the piece. Along with the rain there would be the business that comes with a city and this would create a faster pace of the poem and a less settled, more chaotic tone and structure.

      • L.L. Barkat says:

        i like that, Ali. A changing structure for a changing central image.

      • Dan says:

        Thanks for those thoughts, Ali. It’s very interesting and true hat you say about pace–I have several New York City poems in the book, and in fact, one of them is paced very quickly to match the ebb and flow of a night on the town. I even read it very quickly at poetry readings.

        Also, in terms of form, it’s a prose poem. Even line breaks (which ask the reader to take a half-pause) would have slowed it down and compromised the stream-of-consciousness delivery. So in “Hymn…” I’m going for terse, quiet, atmospheric– in other words, a tone that for the first 3/4 of the poem brims with potential, rather than actual, energy. The end explodes a little, but event that is a quiet, personal brand of explosion, if you will.

        Again, thanks for bringing up pace, tone, and structure!

  2. Dan says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on the title. I know a lot of poets who don’t like, or don’t feel like they’re good at, coming up with titles. I kind of like the challenge. For me, the first criteria is for the language to be fresh and original.

    When I read back over a lot of American poetry from the last few decades, I see the same (or terribly similar) titles come up time and time again: something like “The Gift,” for example. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, but it is forgettable and overused.

    As with other parts of a poem, I think that (without being gimmicky) we should work to write something that remains in the memory and commends a second or third or fourth reading. Stanley Kunitz said of the contemporary scene a few years ago that “poetry is getting easier to write but harder to remember.”

    (Can anyone relate to that as you read through today’s work? Or would you refute that?)

    There’s a great Bashō haiku that speaks to memorability and resonance in poetry:

    The temple bell stops
    but the sound keeps coming
    out of the flowers.

    (trans. Robert Bly)

    A great title or a great line can stay with us, can “keep coming out of the flowers,” long after we’ve closed the book. It can, in fact, change the way we see the world from that point on. I aspire, though I fail, to write that kind of poem and to work toward that kind of integrity in every part of the poem, even the title of a tiny lyric like this one.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      oh, what a wonderful Basho poem! All great writing should do that. Yes. How to make it happen is another question altogether. Really love your point on the “forgettable and overused.” (Guilty ;-) )

      Specificity is key, I guess. But that’s probably just one part.

    • Donna says:

      The temple bell stops
      but the sound keeps coming
      out of the flowers.

      Wow. Love this. :) Things/poems/people/art/songs that touch our hearts are exactly like this…

  3. Vic says:

    The ashes in the beginning that brings hard faith originally makes me think of death, which can bring hard faith, or hard anger or other kinds of hard.

    Then we go into this dreamy poet’s melancholy–the darkening day, music, empty space–that is shocked by this place that is itself shocked. Shocked why? Well here’s the source of the ashes. Not death at all, but hard struggling life. Shocked still to be alive, hard as that is, particularly in the dark hard-frozen month of January. The result: hope.

    Full circle, ashes to ashes, death to life.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      such an interesting observation… about hope being the result of the shock of still being alive. (Sorry, that was a mouthful.)

      taking that thought with me to ponder.

    • Dan says:

      “Shocked still to be alive, hard as that is, particularly in the dark hard-frozen month of January. The result: hope.” Vic, thanks for that insight. That is a fabulous reading of this tiny lyric.

      I was trying to think of the best way to respond, and my thoughts centered on a quote from a book I read this past year, Madeline L’Engle’s WALKING ON WATER. She said, “…to serve any discipline of art is to affirm meaning, despite all the ambiguities and tragedies and misunderstandings which surround us.”

      I think that may be true here–to your point, the speaker is “affirming meaning” (hope) through the making of the work, the telling of the story. Life goes on, “rages” even, like those pumps and furnaces. And there’s authentic meaning and hope in that, the discovery of which might even be shocking.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

  4. Donna says:

    Never thought about title in quite this way but it is powerful…. move over ego – time to shift the comfort zone. I love the idea that the title is PART of the piece which I know may be utterly obvious but I still never “got” it. I love to come up with titles that summarize the piece… it’s like a fun sport for me. But now I realize that I may be giving away too much right at the beginning… spoiler alert!… it might just be an exercise in redundancy and isn’t that the opposite of what poems require? I just never thought about that before.

    Nigrescence… I had to look it up —- So here now you have taken and broken a bad habit by using this word here. I would bet many are not familiar with what Nigrescence actually means, and how culturally we have given it away – stopped using it – in our shame and hurry to forget our own history – we dub words Politically Incorrect and then immediately bury them in our efforts to be loving or courteous or ‘current’. And so this word strikes a very loud cord and splinters into many different meanings simply by being there. The word is unfamiliar, yet once I read the definition I see it is VERY familiar. So, to answer your question, using unfamiliar words can, among other things, scaffold the reader to a new level of being with the poem. Thank you! I’m so glad I ventured into Hymn for a Mohawk January.

    • Dan says:

      Donna, thanks so much for your insights here…I was especially thinking of the title as a major part of the poem in light of the fact that “Hymn…” is such a short poem, and a lyric poem at that, in which case every word has to register at a really high level–including the title.

      It’s possible that the title of a longer narrative poem, for example–where story and character are preeminent–may not have to place such importance on the freshness or memorability of a title. But in a short lyric, it’s as important as any line in the poem, to my way of thinking.

      “Nigrescence” is a strange word, and anything that uses the Latin root “niger” (black) will often be looked upon with suspicion for hints of racism or political incorrectness, etc. And yet it seems to me a perfectly good word to use in this instance: “the process of becoming black” as the word is defined is not limited to skin, though that is the first connotation many people think of. Words like “dusk” and “twilight” also have cultural baggage, along with being overused, commonplace, and not accurate for the phenomenon I wanted to describe.

      Those words don’t capture what actually happens on a summer night in a rural place… “twilight” refers to the soft light itself after the sun has gone down, and usually wants to denote the quality of that light in its fleeting moment. “Nigrescence” on the other hand describes the process of getting dark (even black) if you’re in a place with no street lights or home lights. And “late nigrescence” speaks to how the process begins and ends much later in the heart of summer.

      The speaker says, “In my vision…” so we see that the speaker is reflecting on summer though it is January–not an uncommon practice for many of us! And one of the elements of January that is so difficult and depressing is that nigrescence begins and ends very early–say, 4:30 in the afternoon–while in summer, the process of getting dark is not completed until after 9:00 PM. So there’s a common but deep longing wrapped up in that word (at least for me).

      Thank you again for your insights, which prompted me to go back and think through the poem and its individual parts.

  5. Darryl says:

    As a preamble, I think I should expose myself as born and raised in the Mohawk Valley (although a long time removed and living in Europe). This is not to staple credence to any of my views…just might help to explain where they come from. :-)

    I am torn between two images when reading the first line but both are very cold (being January). For me, the ash could be a fire which has gone out, leaving only the ash and the creeping cold which then leads to the subsequent darkness. But I am tempted to see the ash as methaphor for snow, too….that fluffy stuff that a dry, miserably cold January can bring.

    To answer the second question, bluntly, I think using vocabulary that the assumed reader is likely to not recognize is a more of a distraction than anything else. It breaks the flow and alienates the reader. Unfortunately for me, that was what that line did to me, too. The poem does bounce back, however.

    The symphony at (fort) Stanwix bring to mind the daily canon volley, while the field feels like Oriskany Battlefield a few miles away. I have no logical explanation for that and know it doesn’t make much sense

    But it was the last line which spoke to me the most: the pumps and furnaces. Growing up there, many homes were wood heated (and the heat pumped through the houses) and the seemed to work at top speed at time of year as chord upon chord were shoved into them to fend of the bitter cold. Plumes of white smoke made thick scared the sky. I feel this does bring the poem full circle.

    • Dan says:

      Darryl, glad to meet you here, and thanks so much for your insights. I LOVE the idea of the ashes as a metaphor for snow. It feels right–sometimes in the most difficult stretches of an upstate winter, more snow is not a blessing, the final scene in a made-for-TV Christmas movie, but rather something deadening and dead, like ashes.

      And I appreciate the way you relate to the image of the pumps and furnaces. You nailed it.

      I was doing some further thinking on using the occasional unusual word in a poem. One of my favorite books of the last five years in Marilyn McEntyre’s CARING FOR WORDS IN A CULTURE OF LIES. (The title sounds aggressive, but it’s actually a super-smart and thoughtful and inviting book.) My copy is at my office, so I was poking around the internet to find a passage from it.

      In a review by Public Discourse, Stefan McDaniel gets to the heart of the book; he writes:

      “McEntyre…wants us to be sensitive to euphony, layered meaning and double reference, allusion, ambiguity, and association, to relish words that are ‘not just meaning or reporting or chronicling or marching in syntactic formation, but performing themselves, sounding, echoing….’”

      I guess my feeling is that reclaiming an old out-of-work word gives the poet another tool in his or her toolkit, and that finding that precisely right word–even if it’s not in regular usage–is worth it if it carries something unique (“layered meaning, association” etc.). That having been said, I don’t do it often. I’m put off by writing that flexes it lexical muscles just to draw attention to itself.

      Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long here–thank you again for your great thoughts!

  6. Tania Runyan says:

    Having read this entire beautiful book, I would say I have received an education on this region and feel drawn to it. I think Dan should start a January writers’ retreat there. :) I grew up in a very different place (Orange County, CA) and don’t write about it all too often. Some of my reticence is based on fear. Not exactly sure of what, but it’s there. How do I tap into what is real? How do I break through all the Hollywood stereotypes? Do I want to unearth memories and images from what often feels like a foreign place to me? I have firmly identified myself as a Midwesterner, but I can’t deny twenty-one years of my life. I really appreciate how Dan brings truth and beauty to his Mohawk background but now embraces his new home with so much passion and energy. Some things for me to think about.

    • Dan says:

      Tania, thanks for your thoughts here! I am very fond of Scott Russell Sanders’ book of essay WRITING FROM THE CENTER, and the way he talks about place. (In fact, there’s a wonderful piece in that book called “Imagining the Midwest.”) The quote I’m often fond of busting out when people talk about place is this one, from the essay “Buckeye”:

      “For each home ground, we need new maps, living maps, stories and poems, photographs and paintings, essays and songs. We need to know where we are, so that we may dwell in our place with a full heart.”

      For me, writing (and reading) about place helps my heart be full, helps me be content and present to the moment.

      Incidentally I have a long essay coming out in Books & Culture July/August issue. It’s called “Living Maps: Into the Heart of the Heartland.” :)


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