A Letter from a Curator

Posted on April 8, 2013 by


While Jason, Eric and I do not have job descriptions, (we keep coming back to the idea that we are curators) my focus will likely be on poetry. I can’t help but think of the popular quote of William Carlos Williams from Ashphodel, That Greeny Flower: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” The poems and individual lines I carry along with me are like pages torn out of prayer books or beads on a rosary.

I grew up in a time where memorization was being phased out of education. The one horror I hear about the practice comes from friends’ parents who had to memorize and recite long sections of Rime of the Ancient Mariner. No one I know has ever said they enjoyed it. I would have loved it. So, today I try to memorize poems I like. I don’t have a great facility for it, but I have memorized another popular Williams piece, “The Red Wheelbarrow”:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

I liked this poem for a long time, but didn’t know why. In fact, I still might not understand it, but years after I had memorized it, I made a connection to haiku and the poem opened up for me. Despite my own reactions, what has always surprised me is the level of immediate student response this poem gets. My students are wary of poetry, like animals that have been trapped too often or told they were going to get a treat and then kicked. “The Red Wheelbarrow” suddenly turns my classes into rooms full of wild-eyed Harold Blooms. Not the gushing Bardolator, either, but the razor-tongued and curmudgeonly savant. It’s rare that I see so few words produce so much response and so much disgust.

Once the air is cleared, we tend to have a great discussion. We’ve noticed how important the abstract and concrete is here. What is the abstract “so much” depending on the wheelbarrow and the physical elements of the scene of the poem? We start talking about how we need water for survival. We mention that we also need food and we see that here with the chickens (or, depending on your gustatory persuasion, the eggs or the grain that the chickens eat). Someone usually notices that the chickens are natural, earthly, and while the water is, too, it also has a kind of spiritual element, maybe symbolically connected to baptism. This often leads us back to the wheelbarrow. It’s manmade and stands in opposition to what’s around it, yet is connected through the “glazing.” We have to work to feed ourselves, but also we work to create, to make. The wheelbarrow used in physical labor becomes symbolic for creative labor and even the poem itself. The rainwater has the spiritual connection, but also could be a reference to the “sweat of thy brow” produced in earthly toil. We begin noticing how we can read many of the elements in terms of the physical and the spiritual (or abstract).

Many students come to see that the “so much” is life as we know it on earth. The balance of abstract and concrete in the poem is like the balance of living a good life. We also notice how structured this free verse poem is and even silly things like how each stanza looks like a wheelbarrow. Four stanzas. Four words per stanza. Four classic elements. Four seasons.  Four cardinal directions. (Is the three-in-the-four stanza structure a hint at the divine in the natural in the same way that the wheelbarrow itself stands for the physical and spiritual work?)

So much depending on so few words.

In short, my goal will be to offer works that keep living in the thoughts and discussions of their readers. For me, form will only be important in terms of individual pieces. While I enjoy reading arguments for and against various formal elements in poetry, I don’t adhere to any camp. Instead, I want to offer work that speaks to readers intellectually, emotionally, etc., regardless if that’s discovered in a found or free verse poem.

Because we live in a time of rapid change in the publishing world, I’m also hoping to have extended discussions and interviews with writers, particularly young writers, and see how they view these changes and their craft. Where do they find inspiration? What role does technology play in their writing lives? Do they find hybrid forms of mixed media important, threatening, or something else entirely?

I hope that we can join the conversation of interested readers and writers. But, for now, I must join another conversation. I hear my chickens clucking.

Posted in: Notes