Lunch Poems – Face to Face

(American Poetry of Twenty first Century)

Mohan Kishor Diwan

Sun-struck mornings, rainy afternoons, starry nights of poetry, come back to me now, remind me. I stumbled upon poetry during my recent visit to United States. I was at sea and it offered me a raft, I have carried poetry with me like a flashlight – to illuminate lives, other worlds.

My pursuit was the poetry written in the first six years of the twenty first century. Whatever I discovered, I live with those poems until they have become part of the air that I breathe. While I was told by some of the leading publishers of Europe and United States that publication of collections of poetry is reducing drastically day by day as it has become uneconomical, the English teachers in the University of California maintain that a poetry renaissance is happening in the English speaking countries, mainly United States. It was further stated that from the explosion in creative writing programs and workshops to the poetry slams and open mikes in every city to the reading groups venturing beyond prose for the first time to verse on countless websites, poetry is suddenly everywhere.

The rebirth of poetry is now incredibly diverse. Writers/poets come from every region and are of every race, age, ethnicity, and religion all over the world. The styles that these poets are writing in are also enormously varied. Take for an example the works of Sekon Sundiata and Cornelius Eady, where the language is shaped by the credence and dynamics of jazz.

Sundiata (b.1948) records his poems on CDs more often than he publishes them. He performs with a band, the music behind him part jazz, part rock. When he reads solo, his comments between the poems enter into his performance, changing the pace and adding humour to his set. He recites his poems from memory and remarkably quickly, in a deep, resonant voice.

When asked about the origin of his African name, he replied.” Sekon Sundiata is my nom de guerre.” He is well known as the author of The Mystery of Love, a musical theater piece staged at the American Music Theatre Festival in 1994. Many of Sundiata’s poems have a repeated section or chorus, such as this stanza in his popular poem Blink your Eyes:

“I would wake up in the morning / without a warning / and my world could change:/ blink your eyes. / All depends, all depends on the skin,/ all depends on the skin you’re living in.”

In his poems, Sundiata links words in an unbroken flow using a technique called circular breathing. This technique employed by Australian aborigines when they play the didgeridoo. It has a particularly powerful effect in his work, “Space: A Prose Poem Monologue” which he recites at a breakneck speed to stimulate the speech of a street person called ‘Space’.

Cornelius Eady (b.1954) also like Sundiata does not just recite his poems but when he reads his poems out loud, he uses jazz vocalizes, as if a saxophone could speak. His reading style is like Chalie Parkar playing a riff or like Eddie Jefferson singing words to the tune of a famous instrumental solo. Eady dramatically raises and lowers the pitch and volume of his voice, changes up cadences, and generally amazes the listeners.

He knows how to invite indignation and absurdity into the same room and to get them to talk to each other. Two of his much acclaimed poems are Chuck Berry and Running Man. His portrait of Chuck Berry is neither condensed biography nor a description of a photograph. It’s a charm bracelet of impressions:

“The fury hidden in the words, please./ The dream of one’s name in lights,/ of sending the posse on the wrong trail,/ shaking the wounded Indian’s hand, a brother./The pulse of a crowd, knowing that the police/ Have pushed in the door, dancing regardless.”

The poem Running Man, that’s a part of his book Brutal Imagination (2001), uses a unique lens to focus on the persistence of racism and a biting and lyrical account of being a bright young black man:

“I am a running man / The shadow in the corner / of your eye./ The reason a groove of trees / Turns sinister in the dark./ Why not / Is my blood / my story/ My middle name / God made me pretty / smart / black / which only proves / God’s infinite sense of humor.” It was adopted into a music-drama and produced on stage in New York and was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Inspired by a book by Frank O’Hara, a group of poets organized poetry reading sessions called Lunch Poems. It started at University of California at Berkeley and slowly and gradually spread out in different cities in Libraries, Book Shops, Malls, and Stores etc. Surprisingly, these weekly readings received overwhelming response of poets and poetry lovers from far and wide. I also attended some of these renderings of Lunch Poems and thoroughly enjoyed most of the unhyphenated American poetry of last five/six years which always reminded me Laugston Hughes’ poem:

“What happens to a dream deferred”: Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun? / or fester like a sore - / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat / or crust and sugar over --/ Like a syrup sweet? / May be it just sags / Like a heavy load / or does it explode.”

It also reminds me of a very powerful drama and one of a handful of great American plays called ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ along with Death of a Salesman, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and The Glass Menagerie.

Such poetry reading sessions made me realize that poetry is a very strong means of exchange, a form of reciprocity, a magic to be shared, a gift. There has never been a civilization without it. That’s why I consider poetry a human fundamental, like music. It saves something precious in the world from vanishing. It sacramentalizes experience. It’s an imaginative act that starts with breath itself. It’s a living thing that comes from the body, from the heart and lungs, and thus seems hardwired into us. It enters our bodies through the material stream of language. It moves and dances between speech and song. A poem actually beats out time.

I will present herein over two dozen poets who made presentation of their latest poems in such poetry reading sessions called Lunch Poems. D.A.Powell (b.1963) is one amongst them. He taught at Harvard University as well as at the Iowa Writers Workshop and won awards from Poetry Society of America. He has three collections to his credit, Tea, Lunch and Cocktails. He read out “I was anybody’s favourite song: dance into my life / I ran with the big boys.” A poem from his collection called Tea, which has an extremely
unusual shape. Powell has subtle points to make about the way that power figures into sexual role play “must remember to wince when I feel his fangs.”

Elizabeth Alexander (b.1962) is another poet whose poetry is hip, edgy, often funny, and always hard-hitting. She speaks frankly about her own experience and her family’s, including her childhood, combines this honesty with accuracy, insight and panache. Her poem Neonatology from Antebellum Dream Book is graphic but surprisingly lyrical account of giving birth. In the poem’s last section, she focuses on the sudden shift of
attention that takes place in birthing from the mother to the newborn. She does justice to the wildness, beauty and elemental nature of giving birth by comparing it to jazz solos.

“The Truth” and “Each Bone of the Body” two long poems of Frank (i.e.) Paina (b.1960) a local poet born in Cleveland and grew up in Ohio, haunts me till today. Seductive, edgy, gothic and sublime, these poems haunt the body as much as the soul. By turn’s fervent, elegiac and dizzying in their momentum, the poems cast a powerful spell.

Both the poems are from his book Out of Eden. In The truth he tells us the story of a father’s last hours. The poem explores the tension between faith in the afterlife and the stark reality of a loved one die. Experience yourself the pathos:

“My father died every evening, having spent / most of the day straining towards that closure./ In the end I watched the monitor count down / the beats of his hearts surrender, his eyes / fixed on nothing I could see, though I would like to believe / he was looking at something, his own father, say,/ coming to show him the path into a different world./ I never knew dying could take such an effort, as if death,/ at the last, pulls back his outstretched hand./ and we must chase after the shroud of his dark wings”

During this sojourn, I realized that it was natural for me to establish a waive length to converse with writers, poets and other creative people from various countries. I had grown up with the sounds of other people’s languages, echoes of their stories, which became my own, when I traveled to Europe and heard poetry in Spanish, Polish, Italian, Germany and all the Romance languages. I heard two Yiddish poets dueling in a Café in Vienna. I recognized my world in strange and compelling foreign sounds that were chanted and sung. I recollected resonance of Tamil, Telegu, Kanara, Malayalam Verses Gujrati, Marathi, Punjabi, and Pahari-Kashmiri. I heard my ground notes in other people’s songs. The melody resonated with my own.

During these poetry reading meets, I happen to meet poets with absolutely different backgrounds like Li-Young Lee born in 1957 in Jakarta into an unusual family. His father was Mao-Tse-Tung’s personal physician and his mother came of Chinese royal ancestry. Lee’s family fled political persecution in China, only to find discrimination in their new home in Indonesia. After Lee’s father was imprisoned and released on this condition that they leave the country immediately. The family moved to Hong Kong to Macao to Japan before coming to United States. Lee now lives in Chicago and is working in a book warehouse.

Lee read out his poem Tearing the Page from Book of my Nights (2001): “Every wise child is sad./ Every prince is a member of grass./ Each bud opening opens on the unforeseen /Every wind-strewn flower is God tearing God / And the stars are leaves / blown across my grandmother’s Cap: / Or the dew multiplying.”

Dionisio D. Martinez was born in Cuba in 1956. His parents went into exile following Cuban Revolution. Martinez then lived in Spain and then shifted to States. In Jorie Graham’s introduction to his book Climbing Back (2001), which was selected for National Poetry Series, she describes his writings as” heart breaking, overstuffed, seeping with history, lonelier than imaginable and truly in the face of the American Culture.”

Martinez told me that if we listen deeply into a poem, we end up hearing what we expected. We hear that we were right to think that we could have completed the thought

before it got completely said. To prove it otherwise I try to write unexpected thoughts and to prove his point he narrated his poem “Bad Alchemy”:

“Because the government has imposed a news blackout, / we must imagine the ghost crew navigating / that is, sailing the rivers of the sky / A friend recently told me that she noticed / how I‘ve stopped talking about my father /The day he died / I swore I saw him row / up a shallow river in the sky, a kind of secret / mission. You kept me on the phone for hours / nearly convinced me that grief / is a town with two roads out.”

Pinsky, the poet laureate of US (2000), while reading out his favorite poem, explained the secret creativity and power of deaf and visually impaired student poets that proved their eerie silence and explosive imaginations:

“If you could write one great poem /what would you want it to be about?

Fire: because it is quick, and can destroy. / Music: place where anger has its place./
Romantic Love: the cold and stupid ask why? / Sign: that it is a language, full of grace./
That it is visible, invisible, dark and clear, / that it’s loud and noiseless and is combined/ Inside a body and explodes in air/ Out of a body to conquer from the mind.”

There is rich and complicated way that many young Asian American poets, especially women, have been dealing with their ancestry and engaging in the past. These poets create an art that looks forward by turning back. Their work confronts history and comes to term with an array of cultural influences, a complex, divided inheritance.

Poetry speaks with great intensity against the effacement of the individuals, the obliteration of communities, the destruction of nature. It tries to keep the world from ending by positioning itself against oblivion. The words are marks against erasure. I believe that something in our natures is realized when we use language as an art to confront and redeem our mortality. We need poems now as much as ever. We need these voices to restore us to ourselves in an alienating world. We need the sound of words to delineate the states of our being. Poetry is necessary part of our planer There is a rich and complicated way that many young Asian American poets, especially women, have been dealing with their ancestry and engaging the past. These poets create an art that looks forward by turning back. Their work confronts history and comes to term with an array of cultural influences, a complex, divided inheritance.

Some of such women poets made presentations during Lunch Poems reading series. Pimone Triplett’s poems from her debut volume Ruining the picture (2000) contained many scenes from her mother’s Thailand. Triplett employs a golden style to confront a culture that is not entirely her own, but to which she is deeply connected Similarly, Quan Barry’s poems from her adventurous first book, Asylum (2001), are perilously poised between Vietnam, where she was born, and the United States, where she grew up. “Like all effective incendiaries, I won’t only bloom where I am planted.” Barryis haunted by her origins, by the legacy of Vietnam War, by American misconception about the land of her birth. She has developed an elliptical but determined way of approaching her subjects. Sheprese4nted her five-part poem Triage which convincingly offers five viewpoints:

What Duc Said, / What Viet Said / What They Said /What Science Said (There were about 72 million liters of toxic chemicals/ sprayed over Vietnamese land and people / during the war) and what I said:

“By conservative estimates the mangroves will not return /in this century. Neither will the eyes, the limbs twisted like roots. /Today Viet lies deep in mosquito sickness – if he dies / Duc diestoo. There will be no time for separation, no time to airlift / the split being into surgery. Instead, the living half will wait passively /for what invariably will come rolling on, the roofs filling with people./ I didn’t ask to survive.”

Another poet, Suji Kwock Fimhad the Korean past and the American present. She presented her poems from her first book Notes from the Divided Country (2003), and moved fluently between the living and the dead. Her heartfelt and skillful work is shadowed by the question of what is passed on through a long, blood-soaked history. She tracks the generations through her strong poems for her grandparents and especially, her mother and father. She also traces the tormented, catastrophic history of countless others, who figured in the making of more than half a million new Americans. Lets take look at one of her poems Flight:

“We ran from a home / whenever saw again. / saw nothing / remain ours. / My arm shot / from my body. My wife’s broken / neck. Our son burned / into a wing of smoke. /A peeled face boiling with flies / with his hands. A girl her eyes /blown away. She was still / screaming / I know you / cannot help us. /We will die before you / are born. / Things flee / their names -- / Ash. Bone-salt. Charred embers/ of skull / the soot is / mute.”

Ntozake Shange, who from her appearance could create an atmosphere of performance poetry, launched its current rage with her play Foreclosure girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enough. Originally this play was premiered at the Public Theater in New York, about three decades back and went on to a popular run on Broadway the following year. The play is a linked series of dramatic monologues spoken by women wearing a spectrum of different costumes. Shange calls it a ‘chore poem” because it continues verse, dance and acting. It has the most successful use of poetry on stage in the past half century.

In her poetry, Shange speaks in a sassy voice, often in black English using humor, sensuality, political daring, and snippets of Spanish, Portuguese and French. Her poem “One” is a highlight of the play for colored girls. A sizzling portrait of a woman who entices men, the poem transmits to all five senses.

“Women from Louisiana shelled peas / round 3000 / sent their sons / whistling to the store for fatback & black eyed peas / she glittered in heat / & seemed to be loo in or rides / when she waznt & absolutely / eyed every man who waznt lame white or nod in out / she let her thigh slip from her skirt / cross in the street / she slowed to be examined / & she

never looked back to smile / or acknowledge a sincere ‘hey mama’ /or to meet the eyes of someone / purposely finding sometin to do in / her direction.”

Another interesting poet, Heather McHugh, read out every thought provoking Ghazal and not only adhering to the strict rules of a rigorous form but also playing with it structure and at the sometime with her own identity and consciousness. The poem itself becomes a simile for the poem’s speaker – appropriate, since the ghazal is a self-referential form, where the poet has to mention his or her name in the second to last line. The repeated rhyme by the end becomes a tour deforce, almost like a Lorenz Heart song lyric. She reminds me of a friend Agha Shahid Ali, who died in December, 2001 at the age of fifty-two and was a widely admired, much loved Kashmiri poet. Having xcelled in writing Ghazal in English, he pointed out that one definition of the Ghazal is “ the cry of the gazelle when it is cornered in a hunt and knows it will die.”

Heather (b.1948) is an intellectual poet with a sparkling sense of humor. She twists lines of poetry into puzzles that invite the readers. She loves wordplay and puns. She has written several books of poetry and a highly influential book of criticism, Broken
English : Poetry and Partiality.

I would like to present here one of Ms Heather’s outstanding poems which she read out in a theatrical manner: Etymological Dirge:

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear./ Calm comes from burning./ Tall comes from fast. / Comely doesn’t come from come / Person comes from mask. // The kin of charity is whore, / the root of charity is dear./ Incentive has its source in song / and winning in the sufferer.//Afford yourself what you can carry out. / A coward and a coda share a word. / We get our ugliness from fear./ We get our danger from the lord.”

In this poem, she uses the origin of a word as a metaphor for or reflection on the word’s current meaning. The relationship between the words and their roots is always unexpected and thought-provoking. “The kin of charity is whore, / root of charity is dear.” The poem is written in quatrain form, ending with an intriguing slant rhyme, “word” and “lord”. This nod to an age-old poetic structure works with the poem’s subject, the ancient roots of words. The poem is a funeral song, or dirge ( a word that, by the way, comes from the Latindirige Domine, “direct, O Lord”), partly because it concerns buried meanings. It draws its epigraph from the hymn “Amazing Grace”.

Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa (b.1947) with West Indies lineage, says he earned popularity after his Army duty when he published his collection Dien Cai Dan, one of the most powerful artistic statements to emerge from Vietnam War. Its amazing that Komunyakaa neverdescends to polemic in the book and that he always rises to poetry, even at his most graphic.

He presented his small but powerful poem” Toys in Field” in which he depicts Vietnamese children playing in the debris of war, the expensive equipment now as useless as bones. The children only know how to imitate vultures and soldiers. The poet compares the eerie quite of their play to rain in the jungle, or to the evening news that was the window on to the war for the North American public. The boy of mixed race at the poem’s end has no father left to hug, and only a broken machine gun for a toy. I am sure you would like to go through such an excellent poem:

“TOYS IN AFIELD. Using gun mounts / for monkey bars. / Vietnamese children / play skin-the-cat, / pulling themselves through -- / suspended in doorways /of multimillion- dollar helicopters / abandoned in white elephant /graveyards, with arms / spread-eagled they imitate / vultures landing infields. / Their play is silent / as distant rain,/ the volume turned down/ on the six O’clock news,/ except for the boy / with American eyes/ who keeps singing / rat-a-tat-tat, hugging / a broken machine-gun.”

These poetry reading sessions at Lunch Poems demonstrate how poetry answers the challenge of finding meaning in midst of suffering. Such presentations also prove that how individuals can appreciate full beauty of life through poetry. It proved that poetry has a talismanic power. You can hold it as a touchstone. Poetry is made by flesh-and-blood human beings. It lives on a human scale and thrives when it is passed from lips to lips, from hand to hand. It defends the importance of individual lives, and rebel at the way individuals are dwarfed by mass culture. It portrays and communicate on behalf of ,people at the margins of society: exiles, transplants, refugees, nomads, people with the past and the present. Poetry searches meaning in the realm of emptiness, for company in the face of isolation. Poems are always in dialogue with other poems and in conversation
with history, and the invite readers/listeners into conversation, which offers a particular form of communication, communion and fusion.

These Lunch Poems sessions also gave us a unique opportunity to listen to highly captivating and moving human interest stories. Aleida Rodriguez (b.1953) told us that she was born on a kitchen table in Havana and brought to US at the age of nine through operation Peter Pan. That program allowed 14000 unaccompanied children to leave Cuba in early1960s after the revolution there. Her first collection Garden of Exile(2000) won Morton Prize in Poetry. She presented her three poems which were of remarkable range and maturity. Let’s view an extract from her poem “Extracted”:

“When I go out to my garden / all I desire is a world with the mute on,/ but here comes my haughty neighbor, the one /who pronounces words wrong in two languages,/ the one who thinks he’s too smart to work./ … But when I finally leave my work / abandoned inside, on top of my desk,/ I desire a wordless world, desire nothing /more than the silent vines of my mind / feeling into dark places – blood sweet --/ like a tongue exploring the hole left by a tooth that’s been extracted..”

Rodriguez explained about this poem “The day before9/11, the day before the world changed, I was wandering through my garden, when suddenly this poem started coming in Spanish of all things.(I translated it into English next morning). The Spanish words came in a rush, and in very Cuban inflected, colloquial Spanish – it just slid out slippery as a baby. But after writing it I realized that it was in memory of my mother, whom I had lost recently. Her poems, normally, explore the strange reality of poems not penned.”
During these poetry reading series, I realized that for some of the poets, like Aryette Mullen (b.1953) poetry is a form of play, the play often has a serious end. Mullen recited some of the most beautiful stanzas of her poetry:

“ If I can’t have love / I’ll take sunshine / if I’m too plain for Champaign / I’ll go out on red wine./ what can you do / is what women do / I know you know / what I mean, don’t you.”

Tony Hoagland’s (b.1953) poems have a satiric edge. Satire has not had a major presence in American poetry. Satire requires a critical eye and Tony takes the angle of vision. His
razor-sharp essay son contemporary writers have appeared in various publications including The American Poetry Review and in Writers’ Chronicle. He read out his poem “Ecology” from his book Donkey Gospel (2003). Even his titles have satirical ring. Enjoy a few parts from this poem:

“ Mike moved to the city / to begin his life as an adult / and to immerse himself in the cultural milieu / but he wound up being one of those fishes /employed to use their mouths / to vacuum the glass walls of the aquarium, / -- hanging around the edges of the party, / fluttering his gills / trying to get closer to the centre of the room / where the big fish flash / their golden fins expansively…/ And is not that the way it goes / when you traffic with power? / There is always someone with a bigger tail.”

Mark Doty (b.1953) introduced his book of memoirs Firebird and narrated the story of his tumultuous upbringing in sixties. He was the child of an unhappy marriage between an army engineer and a housewife who longed for the life of an artist. This affected his life to an extent that he became a gay. His work reflects the glories and grief that the gay community has been experiencing over the past few decades.. He presented his poem “Fish are Us” from his book named Source (001) and it is an example of his astonishing ability to find unlikely beauty and to capture it in description.

One more poet Jimmy Baca (b.1952) with turbulent family background also participated in Lunch Poems. He is of Mexican and Apache descent; his parents also divorced and abandoned him Santa Fe, New Mexico when he was only two years old. He was raised by a grand parent till he was sent toan orphanage at age five, which he fled six years later. He then lived on the streets in a culture of substance abuse and was arrested for drug crime at the age of twenty, which he says he did not commit. His poetries both streetwise and tender. He often writes longer poems, which allow him the freedom to follow a thought or a feeling like a trail that threads through a rocky landscape, often doubling back on itself.

In his readings, he used the full range of dynamics of the human voice, from whisper to shout, heightening the emotions of his poetry. He seems to discover his own feelings as he voices them. Let’s look at a mall sample of his writing:

“ I have to remember / because you're ready to dismember / yeah, you just go ahead this problem full on/ because what if our children come up / hating women / if we don't break this learning / to hate ourselves / to hate women, to hate everything / you think children aren’t going to hurt and hate / you see / we have to talk us and women / you see / we’re both equal human beings /shouldn’t hide lust or love behind a book”

It was our privilege to have so many Pulitzer Prize winners making presentations during readings at Lunch Poems. Jorie Graham (b.1950) had an unusual childhood growing up as the daughter of American parents in Rome, while attending French Schools. She came to States to do her graduation. She originally studied Film before discovering her true calling as a poet.

Jorie Graham has earned many laurels. The critic Helen Vendler`complemented her “She writes poetry of delicate and steady transgression in which the spirit reaches the flesh and the flesh the spirit, melting and dissolving the boundaries thought to separate them.” Find out yourself:

“As far as I could tell, the work they did / with sweat and light / was good. I’d say / they traveled far in opposite / directions. What is the light / at the end of the day, deep, reddish-gold, bathing the walls,/ the corridors, light that is no longer light, no longer clarifies,/ illuminates, antique, freed from the body of / the air that carries it. What is it / for the space of time / where it is useless, merely / beautiful? When they were done, they made a distance / one from other / and slept, outstretched, /on the warm tile / of the terrace floor, / smiling, faces pressed against the stone.”

Lyn Hejinian (b.1941) was introduced as a poet, novelist, translator and essayist having “real, almost hypnotic power, obvious intelligence that is astonishingly beautiful.” Lyn is a leading writer of a school often called Language Poetry, after the literary magazine L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Language poets frequently use a radical version of collage that eliminates the usual thread of literature resulting in a jagged restructuring of words when each reader creates his or her own context from the poem. The intent is to dismantle the standard use of words in order to open the door to new way of thinking. I found it beyond my comprehension.

Hejinian presented poem “There was once an angel” which is a part of a highly ambitious work called The Book of a thousand Eyes much acclaimed by the press.” There was once an angel…” is a poignant reflection on mortality, within angel who is as earthy as his neighbour. Hejinian takes apart the story by creating multiple and contradictory morals that almost seem like literary criticism of her own writing. Let’s take a look at the poem:

“There was an angel who had a neighbor and this neighbor was ambitious. / He wanted more than money or fame, he said, he wanted immortality./ what’s that asked the angel. /

The angel had lived an unnaturally long time, but nonetheless he understood / some things about nature, and here at the end of a long summer day, he was watering / the small garden in front of his house./ “well” said the neighbor, somewhat portentously but also tentatively – he / was a sensitive person but he’d considered this for a long time and he now felt that / his thoughts were correct and important – ‘I don’t want my feelings, so very dear and /strong and uniquely arising from my life, to go suddenly unfelt, as they will be, when / I’m dead.

“So you think you want to be immortal.” Yes”/ “But it is precisely the immortals” said the angel “who are dead.”

Moral: Certain experienced continuums—for example, time space, the ego – are bridges

But without chasms.

Moral: Even when an angel makes you fly, you are the wings.

Moral: An angel’s pugnacious twaddle may be as irrefutable as a pistol and in the same

way wrong.

Moral: It’s not the length of a life but the tension of its parts that lets resound all that it


Some of the outstanding figures of the modern US literature like John Ashbery (b.1927) were also invited to participate in the Lunch Poems presentations. Ashbery has developed a unique structure and texture for his poems. He creates word collages without seams, as if an artist had figured out how to paste images on paper while making the edges between the elements disappear. He has an exquisite ability to describe difficult-to-capture moments. He adds to his materials from popular customs, daily life, philosophy, and art history in a way that is both meditative and extremely funny. Hisknowledge of art and literature is voluminous – he worked as a critic and editor for ART news magazine.

Johnshbery narrated his poem “Some Trees”. The poems logic is elaborate, may be too dense to unravel. But is that the point? The poem is the puzzle of oxymoron’s, the poet is ‘arranging by chance’ what he sees and thinks. The poem ducks in and out of observed world to the realm of literature and art till they can’t be told apart. But their presence and beauty, the trees in the poem affirm the connection between the speaker and the person he is addressing to. Let’s go through a part of the poem:

These are amazing: each / Joining a neighbor, as though speech / were a still performance / Arranging by chance. / To meet as far this morning / From the world as agreeing / with it, you and I / Are suddenly what the trees try / to tell us we are / That their merely being there / Means something; that soon / we may touch, love, explain /And glad not to have invented / such comeliness, that soon / We may touch, love, explain.”

Lunch Poems gave us an opportunity to meet and listen to one more Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awardwinner Galway Kinnell (b.1927) who presented poems from his New Selected Poems (2000) collection.

Kinnell can take the most mundane of subjects such as eating breakfast by himself in the poem “Oatmeal”, and turn it into jubilation. His mind transforms this humdrum moment into a realization about the imagination, sparked by laughter. The speaker’s fanciful encounter with John Keats seems especially appropriate, since the romantic poets were champions of the imagination. Keats wrote in” The Fall of Hyperion”,

“Every man whose soul is not clod /Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved / And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.”

When Galway Kinnell reads his poems to an audience, he uses his deep, resonant voice to tug his listeners into the world of his poems. Let’s enjoy a part of Kinnell’s “Oatmeal”:

“I eat oatmeal for breakfast. / I make it on the hotplate and put skimmed milk on it. / I eat it alone./ I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone./ Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you. / That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with. / Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion. / Nevertheless, Yesterday, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal with John Keats.

Keats said I was right to invite him: due to its glutinous texture, gluey lumpish ness, hint / of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate, oatmeal must never be eaten alone./ He said that in his opinion, however, it is Ok to eat it with an imaginary companion, / and that he himself had enjoyed memorable porridge with Edmund Spenser and John Milton.”

Gary Snyder (b.1930) came of age as a writer during the Beat Generation of fifties. He continues to write poems with deep impact, expressing an original worldview that has grown into a global movement. During the Lunch Poems session he presented “Mid Augustat Sourdough Mountain Lookout” which states that book is a meditation. The speaker pays close attention to surroundings and thoughts, but lets each moment drift through consciousness without clinging to any of hetman’s products. The words group themselves around breath. The simplicity of the description and speech is mirrored in the landscape’s clear panorama. Have a taste of the poem:

“Down valley a smoke haze./ Three days heat, after five days rain /Pitch glows on the fit-cones / Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies./ I cannot remember things

once read / Swarms of new flies.//I cannot remember things once read / A few friends, but they are in cities / Drinking cold-snow water from a tin cup / Looking down for miles / Through high still air.”

Black Arts movement revolutionized American writing beginning in sixties and Michael Harper(b.1918) has been a leading figure of this movement. His poetry is a constant dialogue with the greats of African American music. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. Harper has been personal friends with a number of musicians, including John Coltrane one of the giants of saxophonists and composers. This personal tie led to the title poem of his collection Dear John, Dear Coltrane. He read out this poem during the Lunch Poems series. It portrays the musician as ailing but luminous, transmuting even his destruction into grace “your diseased liver gave /out its purity.” The poem is about a life burning down but radiating incredible heat. The power of his choice words and notes in this extremely popular poem “a love supreme, a love supreme” allow both the poet and the musician to “put melody on your heart”

“… there isnot substitute for pain: / genitals gone or going, / seed burned out /you tuck the roots in earth, / turn back and move / by river through the swamps / singing a love supreme, a love supreme; / what does it all mean?”

Another interesting poet has been Ishmael Reed (b.1938).Part of what makes his work so exciting and fun are the myriad literary worlds that converge in his writing. His sources are so diverse as the cowboy culture, the Roman plays, science fiction, Yoruba and Japanese literature, that he calls his spicy mixture of styles “gumbo”. His workis comic, but his uproarious humor always has a satirical blade. He presented his poem

“On the Fourth of July in Sitka, 1982” where in he takes a hallowed American tradition and shows how the US has changed

Another important poet who does not only recite her poem but dances it is Chana Bloch (b.1940). She is fine-tuned to the nuances of human interaction, joyous or painful. Let’s enjoy her poem “The Kiss” which she presented:

“There was a ghost at our wedding./ the caterer’s son, who drowned that day / Like every bride I was dressed /in hope so sharp / it tore open / my tight-sewn fear / you kissed me under the wedding canopy / a kiss that lasted a few beats longer / than the usual / and we all laughed./ We were promising: the future / would-be like the present, / even better, may be / Then your heel came down /on the glass./ We poured champagne / and opened the gates to the garden/ and danced / a little drunk, all of us, / as the caterer made the first cut, / one firm stroke, then / dipped his knife blade / in the water.”

For the listeners, who must always be at least partly listening to herself or himself, a poetry reading is presumably an occasion for the kind of freedom reverie provides. Reading poetry to yourself, usually requires a more active state of mind and you are usually under a great obligation to the meaning of the words, though really you can read a poem any way you want.

Listening to the other people – it’s a human quality that seems to be part of what we mean by “consciousness” – we have this capacity to become them, to leapto the center of other’s recitation and momentarily inhabit it. We alsohave the ability to stand aside and
assess what other people say to us. The deepest, most intimate reading of the poetry requires both capacities. And that requirement is its freedom.

In poetry, as in other arts, we get to experience what it’s like to think someone else’s thoughts, feel someone else’s feelings. Or we inhabit what it’s like to make something –

a mark, a gesture, a construction – out of words, out of intimacy of language and freight of meanings and feelings that it bears. That requires attention. This isalso among the freedoms that poetry has to offer.

The poems presented to us in such intimate readings like Lunch Poems, themselves return to us to the fact of reading. In fact, when it’s read out by the creators themselves, new dimensions get added to their known meanings. Actually, poems have their own personalities and faces. When the poems matter, so does the culture that produces them and so does the social history of this art form in a given time and place, and the poems matter if they come to life inside readers/listeners.

Good-Byes are poignant. They belong to the part of life that’s hard to write about. I’d like to close with a special nod to the readers, whom I think of as a friend. I’d like to sign it with a wave and even a kiss good-bye, the lyric as farewell. As Wallace Stevens writes,

“That would be waving, and that would be crying, / Crying and shouting and meaning farewell. Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu.”

I’d fail in my duty if I don’t place it on record that all those who helped make such magnificent happenings possible and inspiration of the poets who read at Lunch Poems reading series. I, particularly wish to express my deep gratitude to Robert Hass, for his leadership in the series, Alex Warren for hosting the readings and the wonderful Lunch Poems’ volunteers who worked on the details of putting together the material presented and allowing their use for such critical appraisals. Particular thanks to Zack Rogow who have edited The Face of Poetry which has made this brief presentation possible.

Author’s Address

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