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Some context: I returned to the States a little over a year ago after spending two years teaching ESL in South Korea and traveling as much as possible. I have since worked as a chiropractic assistant and health blogger, enjoyed a two-week career as a reporter for a fake newspaper, become a teacher of little people at a progressive preschool, and started a Master’s program in Secondary English Education. For one of my classes, I have been participating in a project called Walk My World in which teachers and students from all over have been tweeting pictures of their lives under the hashtag #walkmyworld. (Confession: I knew little of tweets prior to this course. I associated them with the youths… whom I will soon be teaching. Gotta get with it.) A recent turn in the project has focused on poetry, specifically the poetry of Robert Hass. We have been encouraged to participate in any way we see fit. My brain connects dots. Some are there, some are not.

Blackbird and Mockingbird

The first reading of Robert Hass’s Letter to a Poet had me thinking of Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, that tough little poem by Wallace Stevens. The first lines of the former depict the image of a mockingbird in a tree. Hass uses the indefinite article and writes in the present tense:

A mocking bird leans
From the walnut, bellies
Rifling white, accomplishes

The last lines of Stevens’s poem also depict a bird among the eaves, but he uses the definite article and writes in past tense:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Upon a first reading, the only thing these works share is the image of a bird. So why couldn’t I shake Stevens?

Each poem is comprised of short imagistic stanzas, 3 – 6 lines in length, each features a symbolic bird, a specific time of year (autumn winds, January sun), and a first-person narrator, although perspective varies in Blackbird.

Stevens’s Blackbird is one of those esoteric Yeatsian poems whose disjointed narrative intimidates college students; each stanza may be handled separately and doesn’t logically connect to the next. My experience with Stevens has always been one of reaching—brushing leaves of meaning with fingertips—but never fully grasping. I have been both baffled and intrigued. Poet David Bottoms describes a similar experience with Yeats in his essay, “Thirst and the Writer’s Sense of Consequence.”

A few puzzling images have dug in like hooks—a fly with long legs moving over silent water, the sleepy soldiers of some Emperor, a creature with the body of a lion and the head of a man. Of course, I understood little or nothing of Yeats’s meanings. However, I sensed deeply the anticipation, the desire to discover, that prompted me to dig into those mysterious poems and plow, as best as I could, through their strange sounds and imagery.

Hass maintains the kind of vivid, concrete images Stevens is known for, but Letter to a Poet is a more simplistic narrative. Its story unfolds in the urgency of present tense, and more importantly, contains a named man.

John, I am dull,
From thinking of your pain

Stevens may have used a definite article to describe his bird, but the only specific persons in Blackbird are those thin-faced men of Haddam and a pronoun riding over Connecticut.

After doing some light digging, I found that Hass indeed had a deep relationship with Stevens’s work. In his 1985 essay, “Wallace Stevens in the World,” he wrote,

I knew a few poems, and almost as soon as I began to acquire an attitude toward Stevens, various things intervened to qualify my first hypnotic attraction to him…
I was inclined to take Stevens’s side [in arguments]. Jiri had gone to school in Boston. He could be scathing on the subject of what he called Harvard aestheticism, a new category to me, and enraged by the idea of a whole generation of English professors and graduate students fawning over the novels of Virginia Woolf and Henry James and the poems of T. S. Eliot as a cover for indulging their fantasies of belonging to a social class that answered to their aesthetic refinement.

Hass was enamored with his work, but he was also aware that Stevens belonged to an elite group, attending Harvard at a time when only a miniscule portion of the population had the privilege of attending university at all.

Hass’s poem contains echoes of Stevens. Still, there are as many stark differences in the poems as in the poets. In an LA times article, Hass was called “the West Coast cross between William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.” Funny, the poems themselves represent a regional divide: blind California vs. Connecticut, that tiny, ivy-covered state in New England.

Hass admits to brooding over Stevens’s poetry for much of his adult life. It’s no wonder that Letter to a Poet seems steeped in Stevens-esque imagism.

My consciousness of Stevens’s poem [The Emperor of Ice-Cream] fell away as I worked, but its starting point is an instance of how polemical my relation to him felt to me in those years. He felt to me like he needed to be resisted, as if he were a luxury, like ice cream, that was not to be indulged in.

What makes one poem more accessible than the other? Hass writes with urgency, gifts us with a linear narrative, and addresses a man by name, John, and in the second person! He engages us further by posing a question:

What can I say, my friend?

Hass withholds no complexity of flavor, and he allows us to indulge at once.

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Missing Asia Already?

Arriving in Hong Kong was like waking up after a long slumber. The final days in Korea were antsy, anticipatory. I was itching to GET OUT, stretch my legs, travel. The delicious view from my window seat as we began our descent elicited the same girlish awe-excitement as the first snowfall of winter. The city itself is a feat of modern architecture and a testament to man’s ingenuity, and it is something beautiful. To fly over its skyline at dusk is a fine, fine thing.

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I have placed myself on a grassy bank so that the sun is to my back and a long shadow stretches to the flat ground below. If I turn my head slightly to the left my cheek is warm and I can just see the Eiffel tower in the distance and remember that I am in a great city of the world surrounded by a great building that houses great masterpieces of antiquity and beyond. But inside, I gravitated toward the windows instead of the canvases and knew that what I could see outside was on this day worthy of greater appreciation. I have just eaten a fresh baguette stuffed with red tomatoes and fat slices of mozzarella and drunk a cold orange juice and have been reading Hemingway’s posthumous work A Moveable Feast in which he describes Paris in the 20s and reflects on his writing process. The sounds of birds singing and rustling inside shrubbery, couples speaking in myriad tongues, Indian souvenir dealers tinkling small Eiffel towers on a ring do not disturb my concentration. Down below on the flat ground a man is running his hand along the curve of his lover’s hip and french children are dirtying the knees of their trousers on the grassy bank. Even the sad are happy and airplanes are dragging patterns across the blue, blue sky. 

Tonight, dinner is a pot of small roasted potatoes purchased at a street market near Sacre Couer, a wedge of brie, the tastiest pear you’ve ever eaten (not pictured, quickly consumed), and the last of a bottle of beaujolais (because drinking wine on a park bench in the evening is perfectly acceptable in Paris). Whilst happily watching someone else’s children spin cartwheels and play variations of the touch-and-go games you played as a child, a question arises: At what point does one stop appearing like a respectably-aimless youth and start appearing like a creepily-unattached adult (i.e. pedophile)? You’re fairly certain that your dirty Converse All-Stars qualify you as the former but pull down your sunglasses to conceal your ever-expanding crow’s feet should anyone venture close enough to check.

As the sun retreats, your hands stiffen, too cold now to turn the pages of the book you’ve been reading intermittently for weeks. You’re vaguely aware that you should appreciate this moment, this scene, the rarity of being content in your own company, and – for once – not looking forward to someplace else.

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International Fashion Show Day

Can you guess which one is America?

Walk home from school early. Stop at bank to transfer money. Chat with smiling Hye-won about exchange rates. See you next time! Purchase weekly vegetables (to which dirt still clings!) from an ancient woman for under three dollars. Wash off summer sweat with cool water. Dance to Nina Simone. Cook rice with flaxseed. Cut vegetables. Fold towels in the way Kristina taught me years ago. Make a list of things-to-do-before-leaving-Korea. Contemplate evening when there is time to visit a neighbor, read a book. 

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Japan is better.

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