The Limits of Language

Transplanted NYU poet, now in Beacon, to lead workshop

By Alison Rooney

Raised in a family of scientists and doctors — “Hungarian intellectuals, prominent ones; my branch is the forgotten branch” — Ruth Danon recalls her childhood as a “replication of 19th-century intellectual life.”

The poet, who moved to Beacon last year, grew up on the grounds of a mental hospital in Binghamton, where her mother worked as a psychiatrist. When Danon enrolled at Bard, she too planned to study psychology, despite “always feeling like a poet. I took a freshman psych class, and it was easy for me. Literature was hard. So, I did literature and languages.”

Ruth Danon, with Gizmo and Ella (Photo by A. Rooney)

Danon, the former director of the creative and expository writing program at New York University’s School of Professional Studies, will offer a free workshop on writing poetry at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, at the Howland Public Library. Visit beaconlibrary.org to register.

The poet also leads private workshops that mix improv and craft, one of which ended recently with a reading at Quinn’s on Main Street. The next series begins Sept. 25 (ruthdanon.com). “I ask people to be generous and kind to one another,” she says. “There’s no critique. People learn to do things well by doing more of what they do well.”

Danon is the author of three collections, the most recent of which, Word Has It, was published in March.

Approach
by Ruth Danon

Close on to the longest night of the year, moon
just past full. Nothing to declare, I walk through
customs, papers in one hand, luggage in the
other. Gatekeepers nod. Gatekeepers never know
what I carry, what I leave behind: revelation;
rival gangs of angels; oranges and lemons;
crimson amaranth: time before trouble

“As a poet, I’m not interested in telling people stuff, what happened last Tuesday, how to solve their problems,” Danon once told Isthmus Review. “I’m interested in uncertainty, not knowing, liminal spaces and the limits of language.”

Even for a teacher of writing, the words don’t always flow. She’s working on a memoir and is finding it tough going from poetry to prose. “With prose you need furniture in the room,” she says. “With poetry you leap from one thing to another.”

That Danon she finds herself living and working in Beacon is unplanned. While teaching at NYU and living in faculty housing, Danon and her husband, Gary Buckendorf, a painter, visited Beacon. The decided to buy an apartment with an eye toward retirement.

That came sooner than later, because after 23 years at NYU, Danon and nine other nontenured instructors were laid off when the school shifted the focus of the writing program away from adult education. The couple decided, “with all the changes in our lives, to make a big one, and come here.”

Aloft
by Ruth Danon

They say the fingers were much longer than the thumbs and
curved ever so slightly. This, they say, meant that these
creatures, early versions of us, used those curved fingers to
climb trees. But of course, after that, the journey was all
downwards and surely we know, don’t we, though we never speak
speak of it, that once we had beaks and claws. We had feathers
and plumes. Once we were birds, and came flying out of the
trees.

Danon still goes to the city to teach privately, often to people working in other creative fields. “My job is to set up the conditions in which someone writes,” she says. “I set up rules — a structure and a linguistic constraint — but never give them a topic.”

She particularly enjoys teaching basic composition to “people who have had a crummy education; seeing what language can give them,” she says. “I’ve taught undocumented students, who write movingly about the kind of things they face every day: gang violence, prejudice. Teaching composition to beginning writers is a form of social justice. The best teachers should teach the beginners, but it never works that way.”

Social justice is threaded throughout Word Has It. “It deals with the emotional climate leading up to this election — the foreboding, the knowing there is trouble ahead, the helplessness,” she says. “I didn’t want to make it explicit. The poet’s job is to lift a finger to the wind. Art is not propaganda. Whatever the time you’re living, what does it mean to carry that witnessing in your body, and how do you translate that into language, then allow others to enter it?”

Time Travel
by Ruth Danon

Someday in what we now
call the future 

I will write a poem or an
essay or a story 

that begins with the line
“That first winter 

it snowed often and I was
already edging  

my way into being old.” At
that time 

in the future I will no longer
pass beyond 

what’s called the dummy 
light to the other 

side of the street
to have delicate blonde 

streaks woven into
my dyed brown hair.  

I will let myself turn
silver and amazed. 

I will recall that I read
mysteries one after 

another late into the night
hoping that 

they would help me
understand  

betrayals  I didn’t
understand.  

That
winter of frequent 

snow it was unconscionably
cold 

and I was also
unconscionably cold, as if 

warmth would come at too
high a price. 

That winter when the snow
seemed unrelenting, 

clutched in the naked
arms of trees 

and I was edging into age, I
was tentative 

in the way of a young girl
learning   

to line her eyes with shadow
for the first time. 

That winter the snow clung
to the trees 

and tumbled into the river
that rushed past 

the place where I lived 

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