Admittedly, “Things” is probably about the worst title for a poem ever– in the words of Chandler Bing, can you be any more generic? Poems are supposed to be concrete, vivid, visceral and sensory! …Right?
Well– if you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can’t judge a poem by its title. On the last day of The Read Room’s reading week for National Poetry Month I present “Things,” by Jorge Luis Borges and will let you draw your own conclusions.
by Jorge Luis BorgesMy cane, my pocket change, this ring of keys, The obedient lock, the belated notes The few days left to me will not find time To read, the deck of cards, the tabletop, A book, and crushed in its pages the withered Violet, monument to an afternoon Undoubtedly unforgettable, now forgotten, The mirror in the west where a red sunrise Blazes its illusion. How many things, Files, doorsills, atlases, wine glasses, nails, Serve us like slaves who never say a word, Blind and so mysteriously reserved. They will endure beyond our vanishing; And they will never know that we have gone.
Conclusions drawn? Good. Then I will tell you what I see here: a successful list poem. What is a list poem? A list poem is exactly what it sounds like: a poem driven by a list of related items. In this poem, these items are the “Things” in Borges’ immediate environment– and while “Things” is a colorless, textureless title, pocket change, ring of keys, deck of cards, atlases, wine glasses, etc. are all very concrete, familiar, and effective.
What Borges does with the list, of course– that is to say, where he takes it (because you can’t just blurt out “umbrella,” “shoes,” “guitar,” and “pencil” and call it poetry)– is more impressive. About halfway through the poem Borges speaks of a pressed violet from an “undoubtedly unforgettable” afternoon, “now forgotten”. This is our first hint of a common poetic theme he’s getting at: that nothing lasts forever.
Borges builds on this with unique observations (note: an observation of something from a perspective people don’t usually see/consider it also makes good poetry): that a sunset in one place is a sunrise in another, and that our things– much like the violet that outlasted the memory of where it was from– will outlast us; in turn forgetting us, as we have forgotten the memories that accompany the violet. Such a simple poem, but it achieves such a circular wholeness! And in so few lines!
Anyways, transience. Carpe diem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” “To the Stone-Cutters” (one of my all-time favorites)…it’s a theme you’ll see again and again in poetry and one I’ll admit I have written to the effect of, myself.
Here is the rest of today’s reading, grouped in common themes:
- “Things” by Jorge Luis Borges (List Poem: see above)
- “All-American Sestina” by Florence Cassen Mayers (Sestina)
- “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas (Villanelle)***
Poems that pack a punch:
- “A Work of Artifice” by Marge Piercy
- “Angel Bones” by John Updike
- “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché***
Poems for poets and writers:
- “Advice to My Students: How to Write a Poem” by Michael Blumenthal
- “Not Writing” by Jane Kenyon
- “Young Poets” by Nicanor Parra
- “Chocolates” by Louis Simpson
That’s it for the first week of NaPoMo…tomorrow week two and transcriptions begin! Wahoo! Stay tuned for more poetry and art 🙂