Archive for the ‘What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?’ Category

What’s Poetry Got to Do With It?: Introversion/Extraversion

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 7: Introversion/Extraversion

In this episode I explore ways that the terms introversion and extraversion can be used as a lens with which to read poems.

The Introvert/Extravert Lens

The terms introversion and extraversion were first significantly put into use by Carl Jung and later popularized by personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type indicator. From there, popular culture has redefined the terms over time. In general, an introvert is someone who is more reserved and leans toward solitary behavior, while an extravert is seen as someone who is outgoing, talkative, and energetic. As with any set of categories, the terms are not strict; rather, it is best to consider them as making up two sides of a spectrum on which everyone exists leaning one way or another to varying degrees.

One of the things that helped clear this up for me was seeing how the terms played out in regards to recharging one’s energy. If at the end of the week, you look forward to going out and socializing, and actually come back from said outing recharged, you might be an extravert. Conversely, if you go out on the same outing and come back exhausted, no more recharged than when you started, you might be an introvert. Seeing my introverted tendencies as me meeting my needs (and not necessarily my being antisocial) did worlds for my understanding of myself as an introvert. It also helped me empathize with my more extraverted friends and see them as meeting their own needs as well.

For further clarification (and fun!), Buzzfeed has several quizzes and lists that can help you find out if you are more introverted or extroverted.

Inner & Outer Worlds

To return to Jung, his original concept of the terms had him regarding people as either focused on their inner worlds and thoughts (introverts) at the expense of losing touch with their surroundings, or focused on the external world and being active in it (extraverts) at the expense of losing touch with themselves.

One poet whose work reflects the complexity of the introvert-extravert/inner-outer world spectrum is Emily Dickinson. Due to having lived a life of isolation, Dickinson is often written off as an introvert. Lines like the following would in fact help make the case:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The draw of these lines is how they take concrete things (brain, sky) and push them for the abstract meanings they imply. While on the surface the poem appears to be making a case for mind over matter, so to speak, a deeper reading shows something more akin to mind within matter. In one stanza, Dickinson does the poetic equivalent of pulling apart two strong magnets to show what lives between them.

In another poem, Dickinson does a reversal of these moves:

A sepal, petal, and a thorn
Upon a common summer’s morn—
A flask of Dew—A Bee or two—
A Breeze—a caper in the trees—
And I’m a Rose!

Here, the poem travels from the abstract act of naming physical things to the speaker announcing/becoming a rose. A sign of the transformation begins early in the second line in the form of sound, specifically the “z” sound (summer’s, breeze, trees, rose). As the poem develops, this sound travels parallel to the transformation implied in the words, and becomes its own physical presence, especially if read aloud.

In these two poems, one can see how the inner and outer world engage and impel one another, never cancelling each other out. In a similar way, one’s introversion never cancels out extraverted tendencies and needs.

Final Thoughts

Usually my introverted tendencies would have me continue with examples, ruminating over other poems and unpacking what I find there. I am going to push myself to look outward, however, and invite readers to share their thoughts in the comments regarding introversion and extraversion. I also encourage you to, in your writing, push past whatever type you see yourself leaning towards. If you write mainly about inner impressions, take a walk or describe the physical world around you. If you write mainly about the physical world, start with rhetoric or abstract thought. In either case, you might find yourself reflecting your true nature in a new and surprising way.

What’s Poetry Got to Do With It?: Meditation

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 6: Meditation

In this episode I explore ways in which meditation can apply to the craft of poetry.

Some Preliminary Thoughts

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, however, it’s worth framing my own outlook on meditation as it has developed over the years. First off, meditation is simply being. While there are a great number of apps (I’m using Calm at the moment, but have also worked with Buddhify and Headspace) which provide guided meditations and/or music and soundscapes which add to the experience, what one essentially does in meditation is make the intention to set aside time to exist within their own mind.

Now, while meditation can be done sitting on the floor, in a comfortable chair, sitting cross-legged, it can also be done lying on the floor, on your bed, lying flat or with your knees up, etc. Meditation can also be done by walking, or even listening to music. I wake up every morning and read a few poems aloud; I don’t study or analyze them, I just let them ring out in the air. As can be seen, most activities can become meditative if approached with the intention to engage in them with full attention.

Though some religions do incorporate meditation into their rites, meditation is not a religion. It is not a diet, not a set of principles or a new way of life. There are many privileged, ableist, and potentially triggering materials out there that put pressure and misguided expectations on a practice that should be about not feeling pressure and expectations. Meditation, like poetry, is about setting the intention to go let yourself be in a room simply breathing (or writing down words). Approached this way, both poetry and meditation offer answers to the question of: How does it feel to exist?

Learning from the Pine

Basho_by_Kinkoku_c1820One of the first poets that came to mind when I began to think about this subject is the classical Japanese poet Matsuo Basho. Famous for his haiku and travel journals, Basho was also a great teacher. One famous lesson begins with the suggestion to “Learn about the pines from the pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.” He goes on to say:

One must first of all concentrate one’s thoughts on an object. Once the mind achieves a state of concentration and the space between oneself and the object had disappeared, the essential nature of the object can be perceived. Then express it immediately. If one ponders it, it will vanish from the mind.

This mix of concentration and expression in the face of moments “vanishing” connects to meditation in terms of how hard it is to exist. Meditation is often considered a calm, easy thing. Yet, as soon as you close your eyes, all you sense is chaos: you daydream; your to-do list and responsibilities come immediately to mind; or a past memory surfaces and distracts you. These distractions can happen even on a walking meditation, when you begin to worry and stop noticing the things you pass on your walk. When any of these happen, it is your attention span and energy that vanish. Meditation is engaging directly with this chaos inside, and, for at least five or ten minutes, letting it go.

The small victory of letting yourself take the time to write, to pull out the notebook or open a fresh document and let yourself begin the process of writing requires a similar mix of concentration and letting go. A poem begins with a few words—but which words? Sitting before a blank page can not only leave you stuck, it can also make whatever nerve you had to write vanish. Writing prompts are great tools for writing into a meditative space exactly because they give us a way to begin. With a set of words or a theme, the mind can focus on creating, following the sense of the words.

Revision Mind

That feeling of being stuck before a blank page not knowing where to start can, with meditation, over time be worked into what I like to call “revision mind.” When meditation forces us to exist in the space behind closed eyes or the space of noticing what is in front of us as we walk—noticing and letting it pass, not studying or analyzing—it places us in the same space as when we sit in front of words.

One thing I like to do when revising a poem is to rewrite it by hand. This act places me back into the same silence as when the first draft was written; it also allows me to consider each word again. One line at a time, the poem gets rewritten slowly, and the full range of emotions—from This is brilliant! to Whose idea was it to let me move around words???—is experienced. If I set the intention to not judge the lines and not get hung up on the inadequacies of the poem (which the ego, of course, sees as a reflection of my own inadequacies), I make room for possible changes as well as acceptance.

pine-trees-1209656_960_720We return to our favorite poems by others because of what we find in them, and what we find is often simultaneously familiar and new. Our own poems work in the same manner, and yield possibilities beyond the first few drafts if approached with intention and consideration. It is too easy to seek the reassurance of brilliance or reflection of inadequacy in our own poems; however, a poem doesn’t need that validation, people do. And we owe it to our poems to treat them like poems, to “learn about the pines from the pine,” as someone more brilliant and more adequate than me put it.


In her contribution to the book A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, poet Jane Hirshfield discusses her time in a Buddhist monastery, when she did “nothing but practice Zen.” She goes on to share:

When I returned to poetry…I brought with me two things I now can see would be useful to any young aspiring writer: the monastic model of non-distraction and silence, and the experience of calling oneself into complete attention. The ability to stay in the moment, to investigate immediate existence through my own body and mind, was what I most needed to learn at that point in my life, and to learn to stay within my own experience more fearlessly.

Because of the attention it asks us to pay to the shifts and nuances of how we feel while existing, meditation is a way to become fearless and be able to stay within your own experience. While my thoughts here only begin to explore the connections between meditation and poetry, if nothing else I hope I have established the value of attention in both activities. Attention, which in meditation talk is often termed mindfulness or awareness, is invaluable to poetry. By having us pay attention to words, poems open ways for us to pay attention to the world.


For more on Basho’s lesson, go here.

To read the full excerpt from A God in the House, go here.

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?: Tarot

Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

Musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 5: Tarot

In this episode, I do a quick study of the ways I see tarot being connected to poetry. As tarot is more complex than can be contained in one blog post, I will focus on my personal experiences with two cards in particular and how I see them relating to poetry writing.

But first, some basics:

A Brief Tarot 101 

tarot-highpriestessHistory: While the tarot card system goes back to the fifteenth century, the tarot as it is practiced today has a history that is only a little over a hundred years old. Today’s main tarot-as-divination methods are split between two camps: practitioners who use the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and those who use the Crowley-Harris Thoth deck. As the RWS is the most prominent in popular culture, its images and interpretations the most readily familiar, I’ll be referring to that deck. (Case in point: Xena: Warrior Princess’s take on the High Priestess.)


How It Works: Tarot presents a system of symbolic images that are used for divination and as tools for meditation. Typically, a deck will have seventy-eight cards divided into two groups or arcanas (“hidden truth” or “secret knowledge”). The first group, called the Major Arcana, comprises twenty-two cards. Starting with The Fool (card zero) and ending on The World (card twenty-one), the Major Arcana is often seen as representing the fool’s journey—a journey through life in which the Fool gains wisdom as they overcome obstacles. The second set of cards, known as the Minor Arcana, consists of fifty-six cards divided into four suits (similar to traditional playing cards). As my discussion below will focus on two cards from the Major Arcana, I will not spend more time on explaining the Minor. (Anyone interested in learning more about tarot in general, please check out the links throughout this article.)

Tarot & Poetry


I: The Magician

As the site Biddy Tarot explains:

The Magician is associated with the planet Mercury and carries with it skill, logic, and intellect. The number of the Magician is one, the number of beginnings. The Magician is the bridge between the world of the spirit and the world of humanity. . . . He takes the power of the Universe and channels it through his own body and directs it to the physical plane.

As can be seen in this brief description, this card implies action and manifestation. Mercury, as an element, is never still, always in motion; in a similar way, I see the poet in the initial act of writing a poem evoking this constant motion. The Magician is all about sitting down to the materials at hand and making use of them. The first draft of a poem can be seen as a setting down of the initial elements, seeing what there is to work with.

This view on the Magician/poet brings to mind a quote from Robert Bly, who in an interview sums up the creative act in terms of dancing:

There is a dancing among all the experiences you’ve ever had and a dancing among the gifts you’ve received from your family, from the wider culture, from your reading. And then the hope is that you can begin to work yourself back into your own life.

When I come across the Magician in a tarot spread, I immediately interpret the card as directing me to do the “poet” work of bringing together the elements of a given moment or reading to see them as a whole. Writing a poem, comparatively, can be seen as doing “Magician” work, conjuring the raw materials for inspiration and seeing how they “dance.”

tarot-towerXVI: The Tower

As Biddy Tarot explains:

The Tower signifies darkness and destruction on a physical scale, as opposed to a spiritual scale. The Tower itself represents ambitions built on false premises. The lightning bolt breaks down existing forms in order to make room for new ones. It represents a sudden, momentary glimpse of truth, a flash of inspiration that breaks down structures of ignorance and false reasoning.

Considered one of the darker and more fateful cards in the Major Arcana, the Tower brings with it a sense of reckoning. In terms of poetry, I see this card as associated with revision. Sometimes the “ambitions built on false premises” that make up the first draft are hard to break free from. This is where the Tower’s informal “destruction” via lightning bolt becomes necessary. Lightning occurs randomly; similarly, an insight into a poem can also come randomly, striking when one is not expecting. The value of revision, then, can be seen as making opportunities for such lightning to strike.

The waiting involved in revision is how this “Tower” work differs from the more active “Magician” work. The distanced nature of revision is also implied by the Tower. If “Magician” work is done on a personal level, “Tower” work is done on an impersonal level. Or, one can say that a poem is revised in an impersonal manner until it becomes personal again. This take on revision echoes what Donald Hall said in an interview:

If the poet wants to be a poet, the poet must force the poet to revise. If the poet doesn’t wish to revise, let the poet abandon poetry and take up stamp-collecting or real estate.

Hall’s stern and task-oriented tone here is totally in line with the Tower.


For further insights into the connections between poetry and tarot, check out this article by poet, tarot, tea leaf reader, and creative mentor Tabitha Dial. Along with making connections between poetry, tarot, and Jung, Tabitha shares some tarot-oriented writing exercises.

Also check out The Poet Tarot from Two Sylvias Press.

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?: Astrology (Virgo)

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

Musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 4: Astrology (Virgo)

In this second astrology-themed round of this column, I scrutinize my own sign via a tour of quotes from three Virgos of American Poetry: Charles Wright, Kay Ryan, and William Carlos Williams.


First Stop: Charles Wright

In my previous post, I spoke of Pisces poets as having in their work “a sense of being forgotten, dismissed, and misunderstood, as well as being generally okay with that. Kind of.” Virgo being the polar opposite of Pisces, I want to start this tour by connecting with this previous thought, amending it further for Virgo by saying that the work of poets under this sign is driven by a sense of not wanting to forget, to dismiss, or be misunderstood. I like to think of it in terms of being polite as well as wanting everyone included. In the Virgo poets I admire, this inclusion is done by focusing on indirect clarity and openness of form.

To get a better idea of what I mean by indirect clarity, here’s a quote from an interview with Charles Wright in response to his work being seen as shying away from “straight narrative”:

“It’s simple, really. I can’t tell a story. Only Southerner I know who can’t. And, in truth, I have no real interest in telling one. The point of telling a story is the telling; the story itself is not the point. I always wanted to get to the end and find out what the point was. Still do.”

I often think of this quote when I find myself in conversation, going off on tangent after tangent, unable to tell a story or anecdote in a linear fashion. While this may make for tedious conversation in real life (at least in my case), on the page it translates for Wright into an elastic lyric sensibility, as this excerpt from his poem “The Appalachian Book of the Dead” illustrates:

Something like water ticks on
Just there, beyond the horizon, just there, steady clock . . .

Go in fear of abstractions . . .
                                                      Well, possibly. Meanwhile,

There is a mixing of worlds here; the meditative and the informal live side by side along with the Ezra Pound quote in italics. By juxtaposing these various elements, not only is a singular poetic experience created for the reader, one rich in voices and meaning, but there is also the sense of a conversation being had by the speaker beyond themselves. In approaching the line this way, Wright is able to present Pound himself as well as engage with Pound in the space of the poem.


Second Stop: Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan’s version of what I term indirect clarity and openness of form occurs on a more intimate, yet still indirect, level. To the question “Why do you avoid the hot emotions that are often associated with confessional poetry,” Ryan, in an interview, responds:

“If you put ice on your skin, your skin turns pink. Your body sends blood there. If you think about that in terms of writing, cool writing draws us, draws our heat.”

A good example of what Ryan means here can be seen in this excerpt from her poem “Surfaces”:

Surfaces serve
their own purposes,
strive to remain
constant (all lives
want that).

Here, there is a transparency at the level of craft that is pleasurable: from the internal (indirect) rhyme of “surfaces” and “purposes” as well as “constant” and “want,” to the use of the short line to let the thought develop at a straightforward pace. The language in many ways charms the ear/eye immediately; the indirect clarity and openness of form come into play then when the purpose of this charm is considered. There is gravity to what is being said in such a musical and engaging manner, and one that could easily weigh the lyric down. The subversion of rhyme’s aural appeal to engage casually with a matter that might not necessarily appeal is one of the ways in which Ryan’s work wins me over. In a short, concise statement, the reader is being asked to consider a specific perspective on mortality (“lives/want that”). The decision to place this in a open tone is part of what keeps the reader included and listening closely.


Final Stop: William Carlos Williams

Building off the idea of keeping the reader included and listening closely, I turn lastly to William Carlos Williams. Williams is famous for championing what he calls the American idiom, which he describes in Paterson as “a language which is not English . . . [with] as much originality as jazz.” While much has been written about how these ideas influenced the work of the Modernists, Imagists, Objectivists, and the Beats, there is work being done currently that explores what the American idiom means for Latin@ poets, both in the US and in the rest of the Americas.

Reading through the work of Julio Marzán* and Jonathan Cohen**, I have been heartened to learn about the role Williams’s Puerto Rican heritage played in his work. He was one of the first American poets I know of to have to decide whether to hide that heritage at the level of author name. The story of his having to choose between W. C. Williams, William C. Williams, or to write under his full name is one familiar to Latin@ poets from various backgrounds. The move to stand with “Carlos,” so to speak, is one of the critical moments of subversion in the history of American poetry. Pound often referred to Williams as having “muddled blood”; that Williams continues to be read today with as much pleasure and interest (if not more) than Pound is a testament to Williams and his work as well as a win over such misguided and problematic institutional prejudices.

Williams also chipped away at these prejudices in his actual poetry, often incorporating Spanish into the titles of books and poems. A good example is “El Hombre”:

It’s a strange courage
you give me ancient star:

Shine alone in the sunrise
toward which you play no part.

This short lyric has meant different things to me at various points in my life. When I first read it in my early twenties, I was immediately charmed by the clear logic of the address; it’s the kind of move that nods to the Romantic tradition while being grounded in the Imagist camp. As I grow older, though, the title more and more seems to add another layer, and makes a manifesto out of the four lines. The “Hombre” of the title could easily be the poet, and the courage spoken of could easily be the courage needed to forge ahead in an at times prejudiced literary field, one that bristled at the use of Spanish as much as every day talk in poems.

The arc of Williams and his work is one forged by indirect clarity and openness of form. In his use of Spanish, Williams added to the possibilities and depth of American poetry as well as created a legacy as valuable and influential as his ideas of the variable foot by doing so. I personally connect with this legacy as an American poet with a Latin@ background facing similar decisions on and off the page.

And as a Virgo, I can’t help but see this side of Williams as an innate championing of what would be forgotten, dismissed, or misunderstood.

(* Julio Marzán has written about this aspect of Williams’s work in his book The Spanish American Roots of William Carlos Williams. ** Jonathan Cohen edited the book By Word of Mouth: Poetry from the Spanish by William Carlos Williams, for which Marzán wrote the foreword.)

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It: Rock Stars

Thursday, January 14th, 2016

by José Angel Araguz

Episode 3: Poetic Interludes with Rockstars

[prologue: Counting Crows with Peteroy]

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Crow_on_a_Branch_-_Kawanabe_KyosaiOn the first of December, Associate Editor Don Peteroy walked into the Cincinnati Review office and made a casual reference to the song he had in his head that morning, “A Long December” by the Counting Crows. It was the kind of perfect, totally unexpected yet apt thing to bring up, not only because it was the beginning of the month but because mentioning the song brought up the opening lines:

A long December and there’s reason to believe
Maybe this year will be better than the last

These lines pretty much summed up the air of the end-of-semester/season change happening around me then. Most of the leaves that were going to fall had fallen; the rest were either hanging there dried and stubborn (like memories of 90’s songs) or hidden within the stark branches waiting for spring.

Don being our resident rock star musician, this interlude got me thinking about rock stars in general, how much of what lives beyond their music is often the musician’s own humanly perfect and totally unexpected yet apt things said either in concert or interview.

[interlude one: Bono]

It’s like landing a 747 onto your front lawn

paul-david-hewson-434933_960_720This statement was said by U2’s Bono during an impromptu concert in December of 2000. The band had set up at the Irving Plaza in New York City, a venue whose capacity is capped at 1,000. For a band that can sell out stadiums on back-to-back dates worldwide, Bono’s simile rides a fine line between hyperbole and truth.

Whatever else (good, bad, South Park) can be said about the man, I have been a big fan of Bono the artist since I was a kid. I’m talking albums, but also books, magazine interviews, bootlegs, etc. I actually heard the quote above via a live radio broadcast of the concert that I recorded (on cassette, no less). When asked in college for tips on how to introduce a fellow poet at a reading, I have been quoted as saying, “You gotta be all Bono about it,” meaning you have to go up and share your enthusiasm and admiration for the work of a fellow artist, really bring forth those personal connections you feel. Here’s Bono himself demonstrating at Bob Marley’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

I know claiming Bob Marley as Irish might be a little difficult here tonight, but bear with me.  Jamaica and Ireland have a lot in common.  Naomi Campbell, Chris Blackwell, Guinness, a fondness for little green leaves – the weed…

 But I must come back to the artist himself. There’s a quote I’ve carried with me for about seventeen years now, writing it on the first page of every notebook I’ve had in that time along with other quotes that inspire me at the page. The following words come from an interview during the promotion for All That You Can’t Leave Behind:

…the ability to surrender, to give yourself, either in reverie or revelry. And the journey of the artist is surely the journey away from self-consciousness.

Words like these bring forth the man behind those infamous sunglasses. I keep these words with me for what they say about what I experience working on poems. Whether it’s working toward a first draft or pushing myself into a fifteenth draft, the journey to the next words is exactly “the journey away from self-consciousness.”

[interlude two: Shakira]

Ahora vamos a ponerle un poquito de sabor a guacamole a la noche

[And now we’re going to add a little taste of guacamole to the night]

Shakira_-_Live_Paris_-_2010_(12)Shakira spoke these words during her classic MTV Unplugged set as she introduced the mariachi band Los Mora Arriaga. Together, they then performed her song “Ciega, Sordomuda” restyled as traditional mariachi song. To boot, the song’s breakdown had the singer and band snap into a Ramon Ayala-worthy Tejano beat.

My reaction as a seventeen-year-old brown kid in South Texas: *swoon.*

What is swoon-worthy about this performance is the tip of the hat to both Mexican as well as Mexican-American culture via the mariachi/Tejano mix. Here is Colombian rock star Shakira fusing together two Latinidades vital to North American Latin@s. Furthermore, what is poetic about this performance is summed up in the casual cool of Shakira’s statement above. In the quick analogy hinting at the nature of things to come, Shakira is being “all Bono about it.”

I found myself echoing some of Shakira’s swagger recently as I described my latest book as taking the prose poem and adding a little more guacamole and South Texas to it. If Shakira comes looking for me, tell her Bono made me do it.

[epilogue: a cento for David Bowie]

16260046973_0561915cd5_oI had written the first half of this post in December, before the winter break. Coming back to it this week, I realize I can’t write about rock stars and their apt and unexpected human moments without honoring the memory of David Bowie.

Lunatic’s Lyric – José Angel Araguz

 a cento for David Bowie composed of one line from the last songs on each of his albums

Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
of tombstones, epitaphs, wreaths, flowers, all that jazz,
where sad-eyed mermen tossed in slumbers
sighing, the swirl through the streets.

Like the leaf clings to the tree:
Share bride failing star
through morning’s thoughts and fantasies.

And the clock waits so patiently on your song.
She’ll lay belief on you;
Please heal these tears.

Let it be like yesterday,
with just a hint of mayhem
that burns your change to keep you insane.

That a man is not a man,
and it’s no game:
It’s the place that I know well.

You chew your fingers and stare at the floor.
Buildings they rise to the skies.
Made for a real world,
we scavenge up our clothes
with the sound of the ground.

So I’ll spin while my lunatic lyric goes wrong.
Trapped between the rocks,
black eyed ravens
stab me in the dark, let me disappear,
seeing more and feeling less.


Song Sources:
“Memory of a Free Festival” “Please Mr. Gravedigger” “The Supermen” “The Bewlay Brothers” “Wild is the Wind” “Subterraneans” “The Secret Life of Arabia” “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” “Lady Grinning Soul” “Untitled no. 1″ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” “Big Brother” “Fame” “Red Money” “It’s No Game (part 2)” “Shake It” “Dancing with the Big Boys” “Bang Bang” “Heathen” “Strangers When We Meet” “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” “Lucy Can’t Dance” “Heat” “The Dreamers” “Bring Me the Disco King” “I Can’t Give Everything Away”

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?: Astrology (Pisces)

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Musings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 2: Astrology (Pisces)

In “What You Should Know to Be a Poet,” Gary Snyder lists what he feels to be some indispensable resources and skills for poets, including:

your own six senses, with a watchful elegant mind.
at least one kind of traditional magic:
divination, astrology, the book of changes, the tarot;


As I am knowledgeable about astrology, its inclusion drew my attention—especially as it can be a touchy subject. Reactions range from “What, you believe in Santa Claus too?” to “You may know my sign, but you don’t know me!” Both statements are true (word to K. Kringle). Still, I can’t help having grown up in a Mexican-American household, which, for me, meant having several depictions of the Last Supper around the house (painting, mirror, clock, etc.), as well as saint candles and rosaries by bedsides. It also meant enacting several rituals to combat the Evil Eye (¡Ojo!), one including an egg.

Most relevantly, though, it meant this man:

This is Walter Mercado, a television personality and astrologer. Whether on TV or on the radio, Mercado’s horoscopes for day to day life were a definite presence and influence in my formative years. (Speaking of, the word influence has an older use specifically tied to astrology, i.e., the influence of the stars, because of how the stars, uhm, influence one’s life.)

Fast forward to my reading Snyder’s poem . . . and to pondering what poetry has to do with astrology. As a poet, I work hard to stay away from generalizations and clichés. What is of interest always is specificity and possibility. Once I read past the generic horoscopes in the newspaper and learned about my chart, I began to form a specific narrative lens with which to view my life. Astrology as theoretical lens, if you will. In my reading, I have learned that each sign has an essence that plays out in poets’ work in various ways.

Here, I am focusing on Pisces and my experience reading The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Warrensburg, Missouri, to participate in the Creative Writing and Innovative Pedagogies (CWIPs) conference. Along for the ride was Sei Shonagon’s book, which is filled with lists, musings, and observations of 11th Century Heian Japan. A seemingly impersonal project, Sei’s book becomes personal indirectly via the power and focus of her writing.

At one point in my travels, I had the following text message exchange with my wife (excerpts from Shonagon were shared via photos):

me: Also, been reading Sei Shonagon, thinking of her as a Pisces.
wife: I can see that.
me: Case in point:

84. I Remember a Clear Morning

I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

wife: Nice.
me: Also:

61. One of Her Majesty’s Wet-Nurses

One of Her Majesty’s wet-nurses who held the Fifth Rank left today for the province of Hyuga. Among the fans given her by the Empress as a parting gift was one with a painting of a travelers’ lodging, not unlike the Captain of Ide’s residence. On the other side was a picture of the capital in a heavy rainstorm with someone gazing at the scene. In her own hand the Empress had written the following sentence as if it were an ordinary piece of prose: When you have gone away and face the sun that shines so crimson in the East, be mindful of the friends you left behind, who in this city gaze upon the endless rains. It was a very moving message, and I realized that I myself could not possibly leave such a mistress and go away to some distant place.

wife: Haha. I love it. “That they were not at all impressed.” That could be the entire story of my childhood.
me: The translator comments on her snarkiness essentially, and describes her admiration of Her Majesty as bordering on pathological.
wife: Haha.
me: Has to be Pisces because another famous translator describes her as the greatest poet of her time, a fact “evident everywhere in her prose” but not her poems. Think about it: it’s both the best and worst compliment at the same time. . . .

A few things to note: my wife is a Pisces (I myself am a Virgo; see how neatly all over the place I am). Also, Shonagon’s birthdate is not known. In identifying her as a Pisces, I am going on intuition and the lens I spoke of earlier. My favorite Pisces poets convey in their work a sense of being forgotten, dismissed, and misunderstood, as well as being generally okay with that. Kind of.

In his poem “The More Loving One,” W. H. Auden expresses what I feel to be an essential Pisces sentiment. From the “go to hell” and comments on indifference at the start, to imagining “an empty sky” at the end, Auden’s meditation on the stars presents the complicated nature of being human, of being able to relate only in human terms. His poem is kindred to what Shonagon means when she writes: “What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.”

The More Loving One – W. H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?

Thursday, October 8th, 2015

JoseMusings by José Angel Araguz

Episode 1: Shoes

Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley.
—Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy

One of my favorite moments in the classroom comes from sharing this quote and, before digging into the meaning of this singular definition of poetry, turning to my students and asking: What shoes do you see at the entrance of a dark alley? As students call out their specific visions (High heels! Muddy boots and a sneaker! Sandals!), the suggestive power of this lyrical phrase is made clear. With our respective “shoes” in hand, we are able to go back to the opening premise and work at answering the question: What’s poetry got to do with shoes?

My goal in these columns will be to muse on various everyday ideas and objects that might not naturally be associated with poetry. I believe that no matter how high its aesthetic, a poem lives or dies essentially on its relation to real life. This work of relating one thing to another is poetic at its center, like a set of muscles that is exercised via metaphor versus crunches. I plan on discussing things as varied as astrology, barbeque, and knitting, all with an eye toward how people relate different experiences and literacies to make sense of the world, themselves, and, yes, sometimes even poems.

shoesIn the case of Simic’s mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley, the conversation moves forward in questions: How did the shoes get there? What happened for them to get there? Who’s walking around with one shoe on? All of these questions are poetry, or rather, this questioning after meaning is poetry. Move from the dark alley to the shoe store for a moment, and think of that feeling of finding a new pair of Converse (or your own preferred shodding) in an odd color, that mix of questions to the self (Can I pull these off? Are these shoes really me?); then move back to the dark alley: Who pulled these off?

This piecing together, clueing in and out of ideas of self, are what shoes have to do with poetry. There’s also all sorts of puns to be gotten from shoes (some real “sole” talk, if you will), but that would be another column.