Friday, November 5, 2010

Poetry Friday: Seeing Things, Saying Things: UPDATED

I've long been a lover of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry, which subjects the objects, events, and creatures of this world to quiet, intense, but often wry scrutiny. I recall, too, the sculptor Rodin's advice to his secretary, Rainer Maria Rilke, when Rilke suffered from writer's block:  Go to the zoo. Rilke did, and the result was a series of remarkable poems, including "The Panther."

When I was in graduate school, a professor of mine liked to recreate Rodin's directive to Rilke:  Go to the zoo -- and then write a poem for class, she always added. The idea, obviously, was to go and look at animals, until something about some animal had worked its way into our imaginations and taken over, and to write a poem which was essentially about seeing. Seeing isn't everything, as we all know, but for most of us, ie those of us who can see,  the eye is the open window through which the mind begins to know what's outside. Rendering what we see into language both pins it down in a particularized moment -- Rilke's panther frozen in his endless pacing -- at least for the duration of the poem;  and also, inevitably, whether we mean to or not, imposes some conclusion on it. We may see neutrally (maybe), but conclusions are embedded in our words.

Not long ago, facing ongoing writer's block, I set myself Rodin's assignment. I didn't go to the zoo;  we don't have one here in Fiat. But I did look out of the dining room window, in the frame of which a colony of wasps was busy constructing a nest, and I tried to render what I saw of that operation:

The Paper Wasps

Their flaky gray pastry
swells between the storm

glass and the dining-room window.
It crawls with scissor-wings,

prickling needle-legs.
The great work progresses:

chewing, spitting, patting
the clustered abscesses, some

fitted already with cottony
warheads. Each crisp

infant, folded inside,
waits wide-eyed.

It's not Rilke, and it's not Bishop, but the experiment's always interesting to attempt. A highly-recommended assignment, for yourself or, if you're a teacher, for students.

Meanwhile, be sure to visit Teaching Authors today for the rest of the Poetry Friday roundup.

PS:  I don't know whether anybody's still reading out there, but after looking at this poem on the blog page, I thought it got off the ground too slowly, so I messed around with it some more. Like this:

The Paper Wasps

The great work progresses,
a flaky gray pastry

swelling in the window,
crawling with scissor-wings,

innumerable needle-legs.
All day they’re at it:

chewing, spitting, patting
the clustered abscesses, some

fitted already with cottony
warheads. Each crisp

infant, folded inside,
waits wide-eyed. 

So, like the eye doctor, I could ask you:  Which is better? A or B? This way? Or this way?

Cause I sure as heck don't know.

PPS:  Which is better? This way? Or this way? Or this way:

The Paper Wasps

Inside the storm window,
the great work progresses.

The gray pastry swells.
It crawls with scissor-wings,

prickling needle-legs.
All day they’re at it:

chewing, spitting, patting
the clustered abscesses, some

fitted already with cottony
warheads. Each crisp

infant, folded inside,
waits wide-eyed.


PPPS:   'K, so here's the rhyming version (stay tuned for the dance remix):

October Wasps

Inside the storm
glass, their gray

pastry swells.
Kept medium-warm

in late-midday
sun, it crawls

with scissor-wings.
The work progresses:

pattings, chewings.
Some clustered abscesses

are fitted already,
each with its cottony

warhead. Inside,
the infant, folded,

waits wide-eyed.

Don't worry, I'm not throwing away any previous versions. Nor have I settled on a favorite, though your comments are tremendously helpful.

Incidentally, I cut "crisp" in the penultimate line in this version, not only for the sake of something like meter, but also because I'm not sure they are crisp at that stage. I mean, the adults are for sure. I had one in my jacket pocket yesterday in the mountains. I put my hand in, and something stung me;  my fingers closed on a small object which can only be described as "crisp" (well, also "leggy"), and when I pulled it out, it immediately flew away.

But in the pupal stage, which is what I guess those cottony warheads indicate? I'm not so sure. According to some book Lissa Wiley read, butterflies at that stage are soup. Not so sure about wasps. Maybe I can sell this to someone in my house as a research project. At any rate, while one wishes to be poetic, one also wishes to be accurate.


Andromeda Jazmon said...

Wow I love this! The idea of visiting the zoo, of course, but also your way of adapting that to fit what was available. Very cool poem about paper wasps! The last stanza especially.

Toby Speed said...

Graphic and chilling. Very nice, Sally.

I'm a major fan of Rilke's and have collections of his poems in two translations.

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks! They really were kind of chilling, those wasps, on close examination -- it was an interesting ongoing"found" science project.

I love Rilke, too, especially the Duino Elegies.

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, and the zoo assignment was always loads of fun. Once a group of friends and I went in a snowstorm -- this was in Salt Lake City -- which turned out to be a fascinating time to animal-watch.

Paul said...

You ask which is better. I can't answer that question, but I can say that I far prefer the second version (although I think "prickling" might be better than "innumerable").

That might just be because I don't really know what "storm glass" is, though.

Paul said...

More to the point, perhaps: very enjoyable poem, either way.

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks, Paul. I'm still mulling changes. The beginning doesn't seem settled to me yet (end seems to work), and I'm about to conclude that, as much as I like the image of the nest as a pastry -- which is what it looked like -- it's distracting and off-key somehow. Moving from baked goods to sewing to warheads . . . I dunno. I think it could do with two of those motifs, but not all three.

think think think . . .

I wish it didn't take me a hundred years to write one tiny thing, but apparently it does.

steve said...

I prefer the second because something happens sooner. One alternative to the pastry metaphor might be an outpost or fortification, a "great work" in gray paper:


I think it's a neat little poem.

Sally Thomas said...

Thanks, Steve. One thing I'm coming (sloooooowly) to realize is that when people love the ending of a poem, it's probably a good idea to re-evaluate the beginning. Not that the ending shouldn't stay with people, but you hope what precedes it deserves the payoff, and doesn't dawdle on the way to the bank.

Carlie said...

Nice. I really like it. Very sinister.

I've never read Rilke, but I'll go check it out now.

I like your first layout version best.

Sally Thomas said...

Woo hoo. A vote for Version A!

Maybe I'll let the audience vote off one or the other version.

And yeah, for a mild-mannered person, I do seem to have a sinister streak.

Sally Thomas said...

Let's all write my poem! This is one way to spend a weekend.

Melanie B said...

I'm torn. I do like the first line of version two: "The great work progresses"-- as you say it jumps into the action. But then you lose that great enjambment from version one: "swells between the storm / glass and the dining room window". That momentary pause where I rest on storm before I realize I'm looking at a window.

I grew up with storm glass, remember my dad putting up the second layer of heavy window frames. I can see that layering much more clearly in the first: the nest between the window and the storm glass, the crawling insects.

I rather like the pastry metaphor. It's unexpected and a nice contrast with the warhead at the end. I guess pastry to sewing to warhead seems apt to me because I see the first two as almost of a piece, domestic arts.

Version three also loses the enjambment and doesn't feel as crisp to me.

I think on the whole I like version one best.

laurasalas said...

I like the middle version best, Sally. It does get into it faster, but feels more thoughtful somehow than the 3rd version. I adore the scissor wings, the needle legs, and those crisp, folded infants. Oh my!

Amy LV said...

I love that gray pastry, and the way you tell how you wrote this poem. It's great to see your two versions as well. As a person with a great wasp allergy, this poem helps me appreciate them a bit more! A.

BettyDuffy said...

I like the last one!

(And happy belated birthday!)

Sally Thomas said...


Amy, I really feel for anyone with a wasp or bee-sting allergy. The world is so full of stinging things, and it's bad enough to get stung by them in the ordinary way. At the same time, they are fascinating critters.

Melanie B said...

Ok now you've got me really curious about whether wasp larvae turn to soup like butterflies.

Sally Thomas said...

I'm still trying to frame that question for