Annie Finch made her visit to the MWWC book discussion group on the fourth day of National Poetry Month, and on the “second day of life,” as she put it, of her new book, Spells: New and Selected Poems. With a pristine copy from which to read at this, their first outing together, Finch began with the spell, “A Blessing on the Poets.” When she finished reading, she paused and then told the audience, “It’s the poet in you that feels the poetry. Any time you feel moved by a poem you are being a poet. You’re increasing the power of poetry in the world. And that is a kind of magic to me. Poetry had its origin in magic, and that’s one of the reasons I call my book ‘Spells.’ The original poets were not just entertainers, not just word spinners. They were spinners of reality.”
Finch’s poetry is rather unique today in that it conforms to traditional poetic forms and celebrates meter. She comes to her work with a deep consciousness of the poetry and poets of earlier times. “They had access to truth that others in the community didn’t have. Going back to my own roots, to the ancient Celtic bards, there was no one allowed to criticize the king except for a poet.” Meter, rhyme and repetition, Finch says, bring us back to a time of spells, when the poem and poet enjoyed a position of influence. “As a poet, my job is to make language as powerful as possible, to adjust reality to make it more in line with our hearts.” Within the lines of the second poem Finch read, “Earth Day,” we heard the counsel, “All we need is to live with the memory of a future we want to imagine.”
In the formulation of her spells, Finch is careful to avoid getting into or dwelling on the negative. In poems that speak to the precarious existence of bee colonies, prairie grasses and other of the earth’s fragile inhabitants, she fashions spells to strengthen and protect her subjects, rather than devoting energy to indicting the negative forces that imperil them. In the case of threatened apiaric colonies, she explains, “I want to inhabit the spirit of the bee and to use the tools of the poetry and the repetition to move it forward into a very powerful place. That’s the kind of spell that I want to do with my poems.” The beneficiaries of her spells receive her passion for their triumph, not her anger or despair at their demise.
Finch finds that her poems and incantations happen to her, in a way. “Rather than have the attitude, ‘I can get a poem out of that,’” she says, “I want the poem to be walking around getting me.” “When my daughter Althea was in my womb, I was in a nature preserve with many species of butterflies. From this came the poem, ‘Butterfly Lullaby,’” which Finch then sang for us. Finch also draws much inspiration from the work of other women poets, and has two poems dedicated to Emily Dickinson in this collection. She read “Tribute for Emily Dickinson” twice, allowing the lines to unfurl and her voice to hang on the air. At the request of a guest (whose dog happens to be named for Dickinson!) Finch later gave us the other poem as well.
Next came Finch’s reading of a piece in the poetic form known as a “carol,” which was traditionally sung by people dancing in celebration, and was at one point outlawed by the Church. It was written for poet Carolyn Kaiser, in gratitude for Kaiser’s helpful response to Finch’s first book. “Carolyn said I was writing in form because I was mad, and it was a way for me to ‘contain the madness.’” Kaiser encouraged her to see the spells as poems and include them in her books.
After the reading, Finch engaged the group in conversation.
One member commented that when listening to poetry, often a particular phrase or two will stand out to her. From the reading she had just heard she cited the lines, “Now I am the one with eyes,” and “Did I have a face? And did it lie in shadow?” Finch was pleased and explained, “I think some poems have a mental glacier under the tip, and some have an emotional glacier under the tip.” “Now I am the one with eyes” has as its mental underpinnings in Finch’s study of feminist theory and women’s poetry. “Did I have a face? And did it lie in shadow?” from “A Dusk Song,” stems from the more emotional issues of seeing and being seen, and knowing how to exist in relationships. In creating the poem, she says, feelings must be transformed to thoughts, to ideas, and “little nuggets happen at the intersection between the feeling and the thought… and when they connect there is a spark.”
On the subject of giving poetry readings, Finch said that she loves reading her work. She agreed with poet Stanley Kunitz’s reflection that, for an author, enjoyment of reading is grounded in his/her own appreciation of the work. It was such a pleasure to see the joy Finch took in re-meeting and greeting her poems as she flipped through her new collection (it having been long “a long gestation,” she said), even affectionately cooing to one, “Hi, sweetie!”
Finch wants the reader to be able to have the same experience of the work as she does, and she finds that reading the poem aloud allows one to make it one’s own, as if one is playing a piece of music on the piano. Finch promises that it is not difficult to learn how to read her poems aloud; it simply takes developing the habit of checking in at the end of a line. “With free verse, you’re supposed to ignore the line breaks. With meter, you have to acknowledge the line break is there. The only knack to it is knowing when to end.”
To demonstrate, Finch invited a volunteer from the audience to read one of her poems to the group. The woman who came forward flipped through Spells to make her selection at random, and before beginning she grinned and shared she’d never done such a thing before! She did a lovely job and enjoyed the experience.
Bridget Healy, daughter-in-law of the founder of the Maine Women Writers Collection, asked Finch, “Is a poem a mini-drama?” “In a way it is,” Finch replied, “especially with lyric poetry. And if you’re reading it alone, it can be a dramatic performance for yourself.”
Another member of the group commented, “I write fiction and essays, and am woefully ignorant when it comes to poetry. I find your poetry very accessible…I find poems in the New Yorker so obscure, they infuriate me.” Finch’s fascinating response included both an historical context for the current trend toward the complex in poetry, and her own evolution from free verse to meter.
“My feeling is that poets like to have challenges; they like difficulty…Poets are partly puzzle-solvers…and partly what you want to do is to make something clear and beautiful out of conflict and paradox and difficulty… And my feeling is that, in every culture all over the world throughout human history, the difficulty and the challenge has been provided through form. Meter, rhyme.” To illustrate, Finch shared that an eight-line poem in Celtic form in Spells took her months to write. “It strikes me that poetry began to get so obscure at exactly the same time that poets stopped writing in meter. I feel that the difficulty of understanding it is a replacement for the difficulty of meter. I know that’s true because, when I started writing in meter, my poetry became much less difficult, much more accessible.”
Finch outlined her theory on why meter was abandoned, explaining that iambic pentameter had become so prevalent, so restrictive, so dominant, and the goal of poets such as Ezra Pound became to “break the pentameter!” In the process, Finch laments, they ended up breaking all the meters. Poets then turned to obscurity to make poems, to fill the vacuum. “People are in a bind right now and I think they are satisfying their difficulty jones by writing obscure language.”
From her own personal experience, she is certain that, “If it weren’t for form, I don’t think I would have survived. I physically need it, as a poet…Some poets need it. Not all poets, but some poets physically need it. It’s how we’re built…If you don’t have meter, you don’t have part of your pulse.”
To learn about opportunities to hear Finch read from Spells, and to explore Finch’s poetry, prose and collaborations, visit her website: anniefinch.com.