Joanne Kyger Paired Readings Micro Essay

My selection for this week’s paired reading is Joanne Kyger’s poems “The Art of Living Slowly” and “Summer Sorting”; which appear back to back within her collection On Time. While I have noticed the connection of Kyger’s work to Niedecker and Olson (among many others), I think what is interesting is how often her poems stray from the more strict adherence to the latter two poets Objectivist mandate. In fact, when I was reading some of the more current (as in G.W. Bush era) affair oriented pieces I saw very little connection back to the readings we’d done so far. All of this is to say, that I’ve really enjoyed all of our readings, and the selection of paired poems for this essay were decided by how they reminded me of Niedecker – while still being very much in their own voice (that of Kyger).

“The Art of Living Slowly” is an interesting title to me given the background Kyger has with Buddhism and Zen studies. In the title the set up seems to be that this will be a meditative piece about balance and, well, living slowly – such as with intention. Instead of a subtle poem that eases the reader into such a meditation – slowly – this piece throws the reader into a rather vain and extremely public drama.

  • How I wish I had had
  • my hair cut before being photographed
  • at the local Figure Drawing Show

  • on the front page of the Local Costal News

The juxtaposition of the title to this opening created a sense of anger or perhaps betrayal in me; but, that also became the energy for moving me into the next half of the poem wherein the title rings more explicitly true. Hung on the word, idea of “air”, the reader takes a breath and then realizes that the poet is not so interested in this minutia and is in fact somewhat offended by the idea that they have been put out there, for the public to see. Instead the true interest is in the age of things. “How old is air” the poet asks. The resulting answer brings circles back upon the opening. Instead of looking at the vanity of the individual, Kyger now looks at the vanity of nations – of human existence itself – “holding the sorrowful remnants of little nations” … “whose names we don’t even know anymore”. Ultimately the realization made by the poet is that:

15        the ground is always changing, always changing

From here we know that this was never about the individual (explicitly) nor the group/nations (explicitly) but about the broader meaning of what it is to live, and to be exposed, and to be private. In interviews within There You Are a recurring theme is change, likely due to how frequently Kyger moved in her youth, the struggles within her family, and then her constant shifting of place and in some cases partnership throughout her life.

“Summer Sorting” tackles the theme of living slowly through “simplicity” and continues the dichotomy of individual v nation:

5          One hears the nation needs “energy” “growth”

6               what about “repose”

7                                                   it takes about five minutes

8                                 for graciousness to set in

11            Assume the world’s wealth is in pebbles and leaves

12                              freely laying there

The pace of this poem is very similar in “The Art of Living Slowly”, beginning with the title which bears little resemblance to the first stanza, the set-up, which is instead about judgement and in particular, what is failure. In the previous poem we are treated to the idea of nations failing, being won over by other nations, and yet for all of it, even the names do not remain: “whose names we don’t even know anymore”. Within “Summer Sorting” these nations are seeking what is next without taking time to consider, what is now? The individual too, because once more we realize the trick being played is not tied to the size of the subject. Kyger almost threatens the reader into accepting the slow and the simple: “Unless, of course, you like overabundance” – which surely we do not.

“Summer Sorting” tackles the sorting of thought right out of the gate; which is in a way different from “The Art of Living Slowly” which is more sly about getting to the matter at hand.

  • It’s amazing how articulate you can be
  • Without any idea what you are saying

This reminded me of the first interview in There You Are, with Paul Watsky, where Kyger mentions how journaling is often full of negative thoughts, ideas and attitudes. “[H]ow articulate you can be” when your mind is free to sort through the day or week or year in a journal, and hash out what impacted you in a memorable way – usually meaning negatively. As the cliché goes, you don’t learn anything by winning, you learn through failure.

Ultimately in the end, both poems shift back to the earth and no longer are the individual or the nation-state of any importance at all. Kyger elegantly ties these constructs off by reminding the reader of the history of dirt, and how unimportant our personal realities are in comparison.