Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji, by Adam Penna

Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji
Poems by Adam Penna
0979870712 / 978-0979870712

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Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji
 are two sequences of poems where, in the author’s words, he was attempting daily to “right” himself.

The poems of Little Songs take an unrhymed sonnet form that looks back to the religious work of Donne and Hopkins, and the autobiographical element in Dante’s New Life, to weave a spiritual meditation on the natural world and the sacred minutiae of everyday living. In each poem we are shown suburban streets, homes, and front-yards, and the trees and animals and human inhabitants that fill those spaces, all presented through the mind of the quietly-seeing poet. What we emerge with is a evocation of a world akin to Wallace Stevens’s vision of New Haven, alive with eternity.

The poems in Lyrics to Genji are filled with the same subjects, but approach them more playfully. Addressed to an invisible friend named Genji (a name which means “treasure”), the poet begs answers to the universal and mundane questions of his day (“Genji, do you have a brother?”, “Who could bear a full life, Genji?”), and ruminates over recurring dreams, childhood memories, questions of ethical responsibility as well as home repair, and the frequent, mischievous presence of Genji’s wife. Whereas Little Songs approaches something like direct prayer, Lyrics to Genji come closer to Zen meditations, or koans.

The overall vision of this unique collection is one of abiding mystery and gratitude for the natural and invisible worlds, and for a state of quiet contemplation that brings such awareness about. As the poet says to his friend: “I’m grateful, Genji./How do I know?/I sing.”

George Held, Book/Mark
LITTLE SONGS & LYRICS TO GENJI is arguably one of the better books by a Long Islander since Leaves of Grass appeared on July 4, 1855, but whereas Whitman is a rhapsodist of long free-verse lines, Penna is a psalmist of concise formality. While Whitman renovated poetry, Penna builds on the tradition of religious lapidaries like George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins. And whereas Whitman celebrates the self, Penna invites God to enter his soul.

This volume holds two books in one, and either would be a small treasure on its own. The first, “Little Songs,” hearkens back to Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Though Penna’s sonnet form has the requisite 14 lines of approximate iambic pentameter, it is unrhymed in the manner of Robert Lowell’s Notebooks. Moreover, Penna divides his sonnets into various stanza patterns, the usual 4, 4, 3, 3 as well as alternatives such as 3, 3, 4, 4 and 3, 4, 4, 3 and 5, 5, 4.

In spirit these songs inhabit their epigraph, from Wallace Stevens, the part that says, “Poetry is like prayer.” Addressed to a “you,” at times maybe Moira, the book’s dedicatee and the poet’s wife, at other times the poet himself, these poems concern God, prayer, and love and how they mesh with the rest of life, frequently symbolized by trees and birds and birdsong. Penna’s elemental meditations should encourage readers who despair over the narcissism and egotism of much other contemporary poetry.

LITTLE SONGS contains fifty pieces, divided into two parts of twenty-six and twenty-four poems respectively. The first part introduces the vocabulary and symbology of the whole, and the second part elaborates on those elements. Thus, Part II opens with “Songbirds,” which begins,

It is like you, because your heart is a bird,
to be frightened and dart over the ground,
when nothing hurts you, nothing lies in wait.

You flit, from tree to tree, because you think
love is a motion toward, but stillness loves
and stillness sets the heart back on its perch.

The title of this poem plays off one called “Birdsong” in Part I, in which the poet refers to “small languages of trees and birds.” “Songbirds” goes on to say that song is “the one thing that is pure and true,” the achievement of which is Penna’s aim in these “little songs.” Yet “songs aren’t . . . praise . , aren’t prayers … , aren’t love. . . . They don’t prepare a way for you to die. // They are a lie.” Still, he advises, “Keep on singing. Soon the truth [that song is a lie] will break your heart.”

Taking his own advice, Penna continues to sing eight more songs before LITTLE SONGS ends. Among the more memorable are the psalmic “This World Is Good,” the touching “A Gift of Words,” and the paradoxic “Crying for Joy,” the final poem. Like his advice to keep singing though song is a lie, “Crying for Joy” uses paradox to make its point, that the appearance of happiness, say in a bird’s song, can be superficial—”happy notes // without an aim”—but that “We make a pattern of [such] appearances./ We wear our hair as if we were a bird / crying for joy to make something of our tears.” What a great note on which to end LITTLE SONGS, the poet/maker confessing that beneath the birdsong that informs these poems lies a sadness that poetsong seeks to transform into something affirmative.

In LYRICS TO GENJI, Penna moves from the enclosure of the sonnet to a freer verse form, with shorter lines and longer poems addressed to Genji, a sort of muse, alter ego, and older friend, whose name (which means “two beginnings” in Japanese) occurs at least once in each piece. The poet alternately cajoles, teases, and queries Genji, whose appearance is like a grandfather’s. In particular, the poet asks Genji about God and gods: “what god listens to that clanging [of church bells] / and doesn’t feel annoyed?”

To illustrate the relationship between the poet and Genji, let me closely read poem 3 from this set of 77. Here is the entire poem:

Genji, I’m sorry for you.
I live in a house.
When the wind blows
through the house, I know.
But you have to go on guessing.
When you come in
the answer has just left.
When you go out again,
the answer lies in my book.
When, when, when, Genji?
I’m waiting for you to come.
My hands, this time,
knead earnest bread. It rises now
in a cool, dark place. It asks
like a hermit to be left alone.
Then, it does invisible work.

Of the sixteen lines here, twelve are end-stopped, a very high percentage in contemporary verse. Monosyllables predominate; from “for you” (line 1) through “guessing” (5), twenty-two consecutive onesyllable words occur, and five more follow. Besides “Genji,” only ten other two-syllable words (“answer” twice) occur, and in the last line, the keyword, “invisible,” gains emphasis by having four syllables. The “invisible work” here is the rising of the seeker-poet’s creative spirit, with which his hands “knead . . . bread” (13), with its pun on “need,” in the “cool, dark” (14) mind of the poet. And the result is the poem itself, which arises from the divine afflatus—”the wind [that] blows / through the [poet’s] house” (3-4).

But Penna teases Genji with the thought that the poet is superior to the muse, for after the muse departs the poet has “the answer” to the repeated question “when,” “in my book” (9), as the appearance of this poem 3 and the rest of the LYRICS, attests. In a sense, then, this poem is an “ars poetica,” a text on how Penna makes his poetic art. Through his deceptively simple clarity, he recalls the line of great monosyllabic poets like Donne and John Clare, Stephen Crane and Frost, and the recent American poet laureate Kay Ryan.

Finally, a word in praise of S4N Books, a small press in Brooklyn that specializes in spiritual books, for having the editorial acumen to select Adam Penna’s manuscript for publication. The press did a beautiful job of making these serious poems into a book, one that has given me great pleasure through several readings and that will stay on my shelf in easy reach.

George Held, a former Fulbright lecturer and six-time Pushcart nominee, is the author of 13 poetry collections. He is widely published in small press journals and his work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. He is a frequent contributor to Book/Mark.

Midwest Book Review
A poem can be a self-induced therapy. Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is in a way, two volumes of poetry, as Adam Penna presents two trains of thought on his works of poetry. The Little Songs half focuses on the spiritual side of the world, while Lyrics to Genji focuses on friendship and memories, among other subjects. Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji is a unique team of poetry, highly recommended.

From the Author
Originally posted here
Next month, S4N Books releases my first full-length collection of poems, Little Songs & Lyrics to Genji.  Actually, the book contains not one full-length collection, but two long sequences. The first, “Little Songs,” is a series of sonnet-like poems presented in the order in which they were written.  The second, “Lyrics to Genji,” addresses an imaginary friend named Genji. These, too, are presented in the order in which they were written, and try to explore the same material “Little Songs” do, but from another, more playful perspective.  ”Lyrics to Genji” is a response to a rejection letter I received after submitting some of the “Little Songs” to a magazine where I had always had luck publishing.  The editor of the magazine wrote me a handwritten note suggesting, for his tastes, my little songs were too sad.

When I began to write the little songs, the aim was merely to right myself each day.  These poems served as daily meditations, and so if they take a more spiritual or even devotional tone this is one of the reasons.  If you read the rest of the blog, you’ll see that, indeed, the poet’s attitude toward the spirit and the divine is a preoccupation of mine.  Further, I have suggested it ought to be a central concern for all poets and readers of poetry.  I can’t imagine an entirely secular poetry worth reading.  Every poet, and this ought to be especially true of American poets, I think, is a religious poet.  I mean religious, of course, in the widest possible sense of the word, and mean it to include those affiliated with a certain brand of religion and those who have found what suffices elsewhere.

It may be fair to say that this book, beginning with the little songs and ending with the lyrics, are the narrative of my spiritual attitudes as they developed over the course of more than a year.  My spirit has been and continues to be restless and curious.  And I find the more I search the more certain I am there is something to be found, and the more certain I am that almost all of my previous notions have been just as misguided as they have been earnest.  In fact, while it is safe to say that these poems accurately catalogue a desire for truth, they are also a chronicle of failures.  They  must be, because even the best poems must fail.  However close they come, that which a poem seeks to define always lies just beyond its power to say. It is because of this that Whitman calls for strong readers.  Strong readers are ones that read keeping in mind that these are only outlines.

I have written a lot about what the uses of poetry are.  It many ways the poems in this book are the proving ground for those ideas.  Maybe it is more accurate to say that the entries here are extensions of notions, which were first discovered in these sequences.  I have followed the line of thinking, which I first read in Emerson, that says a man might put his faith in the fact that his work will cohere because there is something coherent in being.  This, then, isn’t only a literary or poetic faith, but a faith I have found to be true of my actions in the world.  These things we do mean something, and it is the job of faith to find what they mean with a full heart, a broken heart, or a heart on the mend.  Who could or would avoid such a charge would avoid all of life.  Or all of life worth living.

I have said that a poet, because he is a poet, may not be a better person but, because he writes poetry, is a better person than he would otherwise be.  I understand that this argument is an especially romantic one, but I mean it with all humility.  I didn’t write these poems, neither have I ever put pen to paper, because I thought that what I had to say was worth much to anyone else.  The writing of these poems, and all poems, is as selfish an art as one might endeavor to perfect.  And yet I can’t help but think that, at its best, poetry makes it possible, if nothing else, for the self, the weary, the silly and self-seeking atom, to escape those traps and blind alleys and find, in the end, the paradise it wanted to find.  I have not come to that walled-garden yet, but already I smell the fragrance of joy.  Perhaps it is just beyond.  Perhaps it is all around.

About the Author
Adam Penna lives in East Moriches, New York, with his wife, and teaches at Suffolk County Community College. He is the author of The Love of a Sleeper (Finishing Line Press, 2008), and his poems have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Cider Press ReviewThe Basilica Review and Verse Daily. His blog is at