Welcome from Amy D. Unsworth

Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

Eight Rules & The Bowl of Diogenes

This past week I recieved my copies of Poetry and American Poet. Each included an article on criticism. The American Poet included "Eight Rules" by Linda Gregerson and Poetry featured "The Bowl of Diogenes" by William Logan. I found each of them relevant and helpful to me as a writer who often tries my hand at criticism as well as poetry. I've often thought that thinking critically about other people's work helps me to refine and define what I'm aiming for in my own poetry.

Gregerson's article is brief, yet practical advice for the poet/ critic. Her rules include encouraging the poet/critic to write articles that are significant rather than merely thumbs up or thumbs down, she asks us to write in good faith, she invites curiosity in the world, in history, and in theory. She also suggests that we should be honest about our patronage and friends in the business. I find myself agreeing with her. She says "Both poetry and criticism are forms of thinking through, of attempting to be in the world in such a way that the world shall not be lost on us" (American Poet 16). I think perhaps the most important of her requests is that the poet/critic be well read. I believe to be well read helps us to see the greater picture, to find our niche in society, history, theory, and the world.

Logan's article is a recounting of his experiences in a long career of writing criticism, of the waxing and waning of his desire to write it, and in some ways, an argument for the complex in poetry. He also makes a lot of sense in his article, suggesting that criticism is mostly *for* the critic, and is helps the critic to pay closer attention than perhaps he or she would otherwise. He also says "for what is good about good criticism is that it imagines with the same sympathies as the poet" (Poetry 414). I like how he speaks of the complexity of poetry: "Surely we read poetry because it gives us a sense of the depths of language, meaning nudging meaning, then darting away, down to the unfathomed and muddy bottom" (414). I can imagine poetry as a minnow, reflecting a glimmer of sunlight, iridescent: a small essential beauty. And a critic wading in the shadows, searching in the muddy water, exclaiming aloud when the flash and shimmer catches her eye.

American Poet, Fall 2005.
Poetry, February 2006.

excerpts from "Ward 42"

In a recent conversation with A.D. , we have been discussing poetics and if it is helpful or necessary to attempt to define one's own poetics. I don't know that I'm ready to define my overall poetics, but I can talk a little bit about how I went about creating and crafting a particular poem.

The following are part of a poem titled "Ward 42." Each individual section tries to capture a particular emotion that I related to my experience in the cancer ward during chemotherapy. Thematically, I use the sea and weather throughout the poem to act as an ordering mechanism. Some of the sections seem to contradict each other, especially concerning the I.V. pump that delivers the combination of drugs that is at the same time destroying and rescuing the body.

excerpts from "Ward 42"

I lie on my side,
my body frames the hook of a bay,
when I ask of the future
they reply only with the rise
and fall of the diagnosis’s
changeable weather.


The white bed is a cradle,
the swish of the pump
a mother’s heartbeat.
I awaken with my knees pulled up
my thumb in my mouth.


In his white coat, the doctor
arrives midmorning;
like gulls, the interns stand watching.


These are three of the eleven sections. I tried to create stanzas that were vivid, visual, and could stand alone. I tried to keep the tight focus similar to that of a haiku (although these are clearly not haiku.) I also found that I used a lot of metaphorical language, perhaps because there are few words for discussing how chemotherapy "feels" vs. the technical language for what it does.

Thanks for the conversation A.D.!

What Poetry Does

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about poetry and wondering why it has so fully captured my attention. I also ask myself if it is a worthy vocation. Will it make any difference? Does it need to make a difference? Is reading or writing or thinking about poetry a valuable way to spend one's time? I find I am often quite conflicted in my answers. I wonder why I didn't fall in love with Bio-Chemistry or Agriculture or some other field with empirical, measurable, tangible outcomes. But poetry it is.

Here is the start of a list of what I think poetry (and literature) does that is worth valuing:

1. Pays attention to the world and encourages us to pay attention as well.
2. Praises & celebrates life
3. Acts as a witness
4. Portrays different perspectives
5. Challenges us to think deeply
6. Plays with language in a way that can be entertaining and delightful


Are poets crazy? Can literature make us better people? Will I change my mind after reading Plato?

1. Is "yes, a little; but no a lot" a meaningful answer?
2. I certainly believe so.
3. Ask me tomorrow, when I finish. (But I doubt it.)

Yes, the semester has begun. With it comes Literary Criticism, Irish Literature, The Hebrew Bible, and a little Spanish added to the mix. I felt like I had my "real" life back today as I parked in the lot and walked across campus. There was no sudden sunshine on the faces of the students, or a meaningful flight of birds, although the bells did ring on the hour. Merely a walk in the cold morning air, a few minutes in the stuffy office, and the squeak of the chairs in the classroom. The same mixture of confidence and doubt that I face every time I walk into a new situation still is with me. I'm not quite giddy this year, just relieved.

Where We Are Now

It is hard to imagine that it is already 2006. I remember being a child and thinking that the year 2000 could never come. Yet, it has, and here we are six years later.

Small Branches Poetry (the blog) is a year old today. Thank you for stopping in to read now and again. Yes, it's mostly a monolouge, the sound of one voice speaking, but you're welcome to comment, to agree or disagree, as you wish.

I return again and again to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry edited by J.D McClatchy. This is the book that made me fall for poetry. It collects work from post-WW II through the 80's. Here is where I first read Snodgrass's "Heart's Needle," Levine's "The Horse," and Roethke, and Hirsch, and Snyder, and Kinnell, sixty-five in all. And such great lines, that speak to me as both a person and as a student of poetry:

And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
--Axe Handles, Gary Snyder

Yet I,
who say this, could not raise
myself from bed how many days
to the thieving world. Child, I have another wife,
another child. We try to choose our life.
--Heart's Needle, W.D. Snodgrass

For 2006, I choose more kindness to those around me, more joy, more time with my husband, more laughter from my children, and as always more poetry & conversations with you.


On the Year's End

On the Year's End/Lines from Su Tun P'O
after Rexroth

It snows as we walk out to Yang Chou Gate.
Along the street the doorways fill with white,
like drifts of willow cotton. I watch, wait,
until the glimmer of your lantern light
has disappeared beyond the hills. Tonight,
I'll raise my cup alone, the wine sour
on my tongue. The rooftops shine with ice, bright
as your pendant of jade. From their tower
the watchmen pound their drums, only two hours
until this year will end. Under the eaves,
the icicles drone like swords where plum flowers,
in spring, will spread their scent among the leaves
and willow's cotton. After the rain,
only a drift of petals will remain.

From The Briar Cliff Review, 2004.