Instead of telling you of my trials and tribulations pertaining to the writing of multiple poems per week, I thought instead I’d discuss some of my influences – a poet whose work I admire, a poet I read for inspiration, a poet who piss me off because I will never, ever be able to turn a phrase as elegantly as he does.
Some poets I admire because of the way they open a poem, the way, in just a few deft phrases, they suck you right in and next thing you know, you are hip deep in the poem and wading for home. This is Robert Penn Warren for me.
Robert Penn Warren (April 24, 1905 – September 15, 1989) was an American poet, novelist, and literary critic and was one of the founders of New Criticism. He was also a charter member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He founded the influential literary journal The Southern Review with Cleanth Brooks in 1935. He received the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for his novel All the King’s Men (1946) and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1958 and 1979. He is the only person to have won Pulitzer Prizes for both fiction and poetry.
One of my favorite poems of Warren’s is “Trying to Tell You Something”. The poem discusses spirituality through the guise of an old oak tree trying to survive another winter.
All things lean at you, and some are
Trying to tell you something, though of some
The heart is too full for speech.
“All things lean at you” This opening line intrigues me immediately, and I take it at its word. “and some are Trying to tell you something,” adds to the sense of mystery. Now it has my attention. I am enveloped by the idea of this nebulous something that wants so desperately to put me on the path to Enlightenment, but just can’t, because “though of some The heart is too full for speech.”
The first three lines set the stage as the poem describes this massive tree, ‘ringed with iron’, rods and cables run through its core to keep it alive and upright through another season. The oak wants to tell us something, it has wisdom to impart, if we just know how to understand what it is saying. The description of the tree, a freezing winter night when “It is ten below zero, and the iron Of hoops and reinforcement rods is continuing to contract” and the “stars crackle” place you on that cold and lonely hilltop.
Those poem has stuck with me for years, partially because of the opening lines, mostly because of the imagery and the feelings the poem evokes, and lastly, the end of the poem, because as often the case, with great opening lines, come great closing lines. Each image builds on the one previous, until the end seems almost inevitable.
Trying to Tell You Something
Robert Penn Warren
All things lean at you, and some are
Trying to tell you something, though of some
The heart is too full for speech. On a hill, the oak,
Immense, older than Jamestown or God, splitting
With its own weight at the great inverted
Crotch, air-spread and ice-hung, ringed with iron
Like barrel-hoops, only heavier, massive rods
Running through and bolted, and higher, the cables,
Which in summer are hidden by green leaves—the oak,
It is trying to tell you something. It wants,
In its fullness of years, to describe to you
What happens on a December night when
It stands alone in a world of whiteness. The moon is full.
You can hear the stars crackle in their high brightness.
It is ten below zero, and the iron
Of hoops and reinforcement rods is continuing to contract.
There is the rhythm of a slow throb, like pain. The wind,
Northwest, is steady, and in the wind, the cables,
In a thin-honed and disinfectant purity, like
A dentist’s drill, sing. They sing
Of truth, and its beauty. The oak
Wants to declare this to you, so that you
Will not be unprepared when, some December night,
You stand on a hill, in a world of whiteness, and
Stare into the crackling absoluteness of the sky. The oak
Wants to tell you because, at that moment,
In your own head, the cables will sing
With a thin-honed and disinfectant purity,
And no one can predict the consequences
Previously published by Constance Brewer on Life on the Periphery
We are extremely pleased with the new issue of Gyroscope Review that we offer you today. The Crone Power Issue contains 50 poems by 50 women poets over the age of 50. Their voices and their poems offer a broad range of what a mature woman in today’s world looks like. How she defines herself. How she celebrates herself. How she wields her power. How she opens her heart.
We are delighted to create this space for a group of poets who are often underrepresented in publications. These women are not about to become invisible as they mature; rather, they are bursting with stories, wisdom, ideas, and love. Read them. Share their work. Start a conversation about what a privilege it is to live long enough to call oneself a crone.
Print copies are available for $8 on Amazon HERE.
Kindle versions are available for $2 on Amazon HERE.
Our free PDF version is available HERE.
The gift of good literature that someone else has already edited: that’s what I gave myself as the Gyroscope Review reading period for the Crone Power Issue drew to a close. I needed to read for pleasure now, relax a bit before I dove into formatting the fall issue. Since Margaret Atwood was everywhere these past few weeks in anticipation of her latest work of fiction (The Testaments), I abandoned poetry for a moment to read The Handmaid’s Tale and clear my head.
Perhaps this is not how most people clear their heads, with a work of dystopian fiction that feels altogether too possible in the age of Trump. I finished reading it on 9-11 right after I watched New Yorkers remember the fall of the World Trade Center towers on CBS This Morning.
What I was really doing was moving from weeks of reading the words of older women poets to gulping down the words of just one formidable woman writer. Atwood’s book, written in the mid-Eighties, still feels like a warning, like a call to pay attention and speak up before that option is ripped away.
With that realization fresh on my mind, I thought about how it is that women get their words out there at all, how our experiences vary from insanely lucky to horribly disadvantaged. How women sometimes suppress or oppress one another. How women might lift each other up.
It’s that last thing that I really hope for, of course; that last thing is the driving force behind having a Crone Power Issue of Gyroscope Review. Older women, in particular, have so much to offer whether through the art they (we) make, the support offered, or the wisdom shared. With all the divisiveness going on in the world, there is ample opportunity to heal divides and wield our words with certainty, clarity, and power.
Since our Crone Power Issue won’t be out until October 1, I thought I’d share a small and completely subjective list of work by women poets that has gotten my attention this year. Some of this work is old, some is new, all of it contains skill with words and images that will surgically alter your heart. You’ll recognize some names here, and others will likely be new to you. And I hope our upcoming Crone Power Issue will find a place on bookshelves beside these also-wise women.
Happy reading. And may this list nudge you to seek out more women’s voices.
Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems II: Poems Selected and New 1976-1986. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Francesca Bell, Bright Stain. Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2019.
Alexis Rhone Fancher, The Dead Kid Poems. Bellingham: KYSO Flash Press, 2019.
Kari Gunter-Seymour, Serving. Parma, OH: Crisis Chronicles Press, 2018.
Kristin Laurel, Questions About the Ride. Charlotte: Main Street Rag, 2019.
Mary Oliver, Red Bird. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.
Emily Skaja, Brute. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2019.
Elizabeth S. Wolf, Did You Know? Studio City: Rattle Foundation Press, 2019.
1. Thanks for agreeing to let us interview you for Gyroscope Review. We’re pleased that you are one of our contributing poets. Will you please begin by telling us where you’re from, what you write, and why poetry?
I was born and raised in Colorado—which is pretty rare these days give the state’s recent population boom—and currently live in Denver.
I write poetry mostly, but I venture into screen writing and long form narratives that blend verse and prose. I am drawn to poetry because it challenges me to be precise with my words and really look at language as a medium in itself. I read a great article recently that said poetry has the ability to use the page to create silence for a reader, which prose can’t do (or at least not as effectively). That insight made a lot of sense to me, which is why I often inject verse into my prose-like narrative works. Plus, poems can go beyond the confines of a sentence. I love to ramble, so poetry allows me to express the meandering rhythm of my thoughts and emotions without trying to fit them into a proper sentence.
2. Who, or what, are your poetical influences?
I am fascinated with myths, folklore, and symbolism—I think they are an interesting way to look into how humans grapple with the unknown as well as serve as collective archetypes in our minds.
The Beat poets sparked my initial passion for poetry. They showed me a whole new way of looking at poetry and writing that I had not experienced before which lead me to explore the medium further and discover the many ways poetry can presents itself. Also, reading Prometheus Unbound by Percy Shelley in college solidified my decision to dedicate my life to writing.
3. How do you decide what ‘form’ a poem should take?
That is the million-dollar question… I honestly just play around with each poem to see which rhythm best gets the message across. Sometimes if I want a certain symbolism in a piece or allusion I will play with different meters—like if want the number six to be present symbolically in a longer poem I will try and see if it will work in iambic heptameter or trochaic heptameter. For “Fermentation” I used the spaces as a way to affect the rhythm of the lines. I personally do not like one or two-word lines so I used a space where I could have used a line break, but didn’t feel it was necessary for a word or two to sit alone. The spaces also ended up adding a visual element to the poem that mimic bubbles of CO2 rising through fermenting liquid, making the form choice work on multiple levels.
4. What is your writing process like?
I write almost all of my rough drafts long-hand with a fountain pen. I find that if I try to start from scratch on a computer, I worry too much about perfection and end up trying to edit while I am trying produce content. But with a fountain pen I find I can just keep writing and not worry about how it looks because that is not its final form. When I go to transcribe the hand-written stuff onto the computer it acts as a first revision because I am forced to go through each word carefully to type it up. Also, I always carry a notebook in my left-back-pocket and a pen in my right-back-pocket because I never know when I am going to be struck with inspiration or learn a new word.
5. Do you belong to any writer’s groups—face-to-face or online? If so, are they part of your process?
Lately, I have started going to a writer’s meetup in Denver for writers in their 20’s and 30’s. It has helped me meet some local writers and bounce ideas off them, as well as set aside some time to just get out and write.
6. What do you look for in the poetry you like to read? Any favorite poets?
I love language, so I am attracted to poetry that pushes language to its limits. I also look for poetry that has some philosophical, political, or social element. For classic poetry I admire Percy Shelley — especially the way he weaves philosophy and politics into long form poems. For Modern poetry, I really like the Irish poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin—I really enjoy the way she uses myth to talk about modern issues in Ireland. Reading Eleni Sikelianos’ The California Poem in college opened up my eyes to explore using the page in my poetry. She uses long lines on a landscape format page for this book-length poem, and I loved the way it added the tone, rhythm, and structure of the poem.
7. What is the most important role for poets today?
Poetry is such a unique form of writing that captures something that prose often doesn’t or cannot due to its limitations as a medium or writing. So, poets today need to find that avenue for expression and push it to its limits to tell the world what was once thought inexpressible through language to be expressed—taking advantage of language’s flaws.
8. Which poets have you had the opportunity to hear read? Alternatively, what is the most recent book you’ve read?
I was lucky enough to hear Gary Snyder read at Naropa University in Boulder a few years ago. It was an honor to hear one of the surviving Beat poets read, as well as him talk about the challenges of writing traditional Japanese forms in English.
The most recent book I finished—I have a tendency to start a pile of books and jump back and forth between them—is Brothers Karamozov.
9. Any future plans for your work that you’d like to talk about?
I am always working on various short poems tweaking them here and there as I find time. I also write for film and helped write the director, Joe Gietl, write the screenplay for a short film called A Void, which is currently in production right now. I am also working on a speculative piece that is structurally based on the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus. It will blend poetry and prose to tell a story about how we can take comfort in the unknown and mysterious—i.e., not everything needs an answer.
10. Tell us about the Irish Sport of Hurling. We noticed it in your bio.
Hurling is an Irish sport dating back to before recorded history that uses a stick called a ‘hurley’ or ‘hurl’ (camán in Irish) and a ball called a sliotar (pronounced sli-ter). The object of the game is the either hit the ball through a pair of uprights over a bar for one point or into the goal for three points. You are allowed to catch the ball and carry it for four steps before you must pass the ball or attempt to score. You can run with the sliotar balance on the end of your hurley for as long as you want. The easiest way to wrap your head around how the game is played is to look up a video on YouTube. Also, the women’s version of the game is called Camogie.
What I admire most about the game is that there is no professional level—all of the highest playing teams compete for the love of the sport instead of a paycheck. After the All-Ireland finals—which is the country’s equivalent to the Super Bowl—the players go back to their day-jobs on Monday. It truly is a unique cultural sport. There are fossilized hurleys that have been dug up from bogs that date back thousands of years; so, it is pretty much as Irish of an activity as anything.
11. What other interests do you have beyond literature?
I love sailing, which gets me odd looks considering I am from a land-locked state, but there is a pretty decent sailing community in Colorado—even though our lakes and reservoirs are tiny. I also enjoy gardening with my wife; we have a large assortment of succulents, cactus, bonsai, and orchids that are strewn throughout our home.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. (And thank you for being firmly on the side of pie, rather than cake.)
Please let our readers know where they can find more information about you or your work:
As part of my love for fountain pens I dabble in calligraphy and post some on my Instagram @kendall_mallon —along with other fun stuff I am doing.