Sandra Kleven: Embracing Icons

Artwork by Sandra Kleven
One may feel an inclination to adore
famous poets. To be impressed beyond ease of expression. To see the greatest of
poets as nearly holy, and the greatest poems as personal touchstones.

“You do not have to be good…” Mary Oliver  

“This is the way the world ends…” T. S. Eliot

“And the lily, how passionately it needs
some wild darling!” Jalaluddin Rumi

“Do not go gentle…” Dylan Thomas

“Whose woods these are…” Robert Frost

“I have seen the best minds…” Allen Ginsberg

“The whiskey on your breath…” Theodore Roethke

Six or eight words conjure up an entire
poem. These lines and those who made them are so ensconced in the literary liturgy
as to seem iconic. And the poets, a lively crew in life, seem rigid as statues—as
if we must only circle, genuflect, and quote.

Standoffishness exacts a price. In keeping
these luminaries at arm’s length, we miss entering, engaging, resurrecting. When
we dare to get closer, the quality of the contact changes and those we have
loved from afar enter our homes, hearts, and poetry.

As the editor of Cirque, I appreciate poems that draw on famous poets. In recent
issues, Jim Hanlen writes about the chickens of William Carlos Williams and
Suzi Gregg Fowler writes of “receiving” a poem from Alaska’s Poet Laureate,
Nora Dauenhauer. The poem concludes, “It is not a poetry race. It is a poetry

Tom Sexton, 1995 Alaska Poet Laureate, has
published a collection relating to Chinese poets, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets. John Morgan pays
homage to Kabir in his latest book, River
of Light: Fishing with Kabir.

American poets of the last fifty-plus
years were friends, rivals, and lovers. But most notably, they knew each other.
They helped and influenced each other. These generalities hold solidly as one
reads biography, letters, and collected prose. When we write in homage,
argument, or imitation of great poets, we gradually join the circle of friends. 

 “Immature poets imitate. Mature poets steal.”
T. S. Eliot

I first pulled poet-from-shelf with some
diffidence, certain caution, when I wrote a line that drew from Yeats, “The
Second Coming.” My line was “Who comes around uninvited to be born/ of what
careless father gone?” I pondered what I had done, feeling reluctant and
imitative. But I left the line in place.

Later, I wrote a quatrain on Plath:

Sylvia reads “Daddy” on YouTube.
At least I think it’s her.
It certainly sound like Sylvia would
precise, embittered and nice.

I felt like a trespasser, but grew bold. Theodore
Roethke entered my work.   

I blundered into Roethke’s world in part
because of his connection to my birthplace, Seattle.  He wrote that the great dead poets would help
a writer, adding that “The dead like having their pictures painted.” Roethke
died in 1963.  

So, I called on Roethke. In a poem, I
imagined myself, a child, walking a Puget Sound beach with him. My poem announced
that his terminology marked him as an outsider. “We don’t speak of stones or
the sea, in Western Washington. We use other words in place of these found out
in your poetry.”

Out of my imaginary association with
Roethke, I came to meet three of his former students. All three were persuaded
to submit work to Cirque.  

I’d become comfortable but pushed into
discomfort again when I confronted Sylvia Plath in a poem both harsh and

with Sylvia

Sylvia gassed herself to death in February
of 1963. I was reading her body of work when my brother committed suicide (2008).
Even before my personal tragedy, I had come to know of her baby boy in Plath
biographies and in her poem “Nick Jumps Over the Candlestick,” which ends:

are the one/ Solid the spaces lean on, envious./ You are the baby in the barn.

My brother’s suicide was still on my mind when,
six months later, word came that Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, had hanged
himself in Fairbanks, Alaska. I saw how a legacy of suicide can be left when a
family member dies this way. I blamed Sylvia for the death of her son and I put
my accusation into a poem. The poem mocked her style.

I was throwing stones at a monument. In
begins, “Sylvia, your son has done. Has done. Has done. A son undone.” I
thought it was a good poem. Stone Boat
in Wisconsin accepted it and nominated the poem for a Push Cart prize. I offer
this last not to brag but in support of a cause. I believe it is good to enter
these worlds. It is rich. It might be ennobling in a sense that is hard to

The path of adulation is not for me. But I
would enter the social circle of
friends, rivals, lovers, mentors. Worlds open, I promise you this, and your
work as a writer/poet changes through engagement, argument, critique, and acts
of love.

Poets congregate to rise on the same tide.
editor Sandra Kleven is a poet and essayist. Her writing has appeared in AQR,
Oklahoma Review, Topic, Praxilla, Stoneboat, f-zine and the UAP anthology, Cold
Flashes. Kleven is the author of four books, most recently, Defiance Street:
Poems and Other Writing (VP&D Publishing House). She holds an MSW degree as
well as an MFA in Creative Writing.
will teach a six-session 49 Writers course, Joining the Conversation: Engaging with Poets Past, on Thursdays, beginning
March 6, from 6 – 8 PM. Students will consider the lineage of poets and poems
and will shape new writing in ways that engage with the “great” poets
of history via: homage, argument, variation on theme, call-response (and more)
with the resulting work, clearly braided into the larger tradition.
Participants will help select the “famous” poets to be examined.
Through this process the poets of history will be transformed into literary
friends – or foes.


2 thoughts on “Sandra Kleven: Embracing Icons”

  1. There's something in this piece that echoes some thoughts I've had lately about writing the novel, and the conceits contained in it. I felt I had to justify those conceits. But then, I realized that it was my story and the story has its own truths. It is its own world and needs no justifying (except to be coherent etc.)
    Somehow this feels similar to what you talk about here with being comfortable and good enough to engage with the icons.
    We're the authors of our lives. We're the authors of our writings. How funny that it can take so long to realize that it's OK to fully control the wheel and fully participate.
    I hope that makes sense.
    Thank you.

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