Good Old Boys

In this winter of our discontent — specifically, Monday, February 16, 2021 — our six-month-old furnace went out, and my wife and I were freezing in place. Jennifer exclaimed, “I am 74 years old, and the temperature in the house is 47!”

Better, a wiseguy friend suggested, than 80 years old and eight degrees in the house. (And certainly better than the long, unmitigated power and gas outage in Texas.)

But we called our HVAC installer, and they sent someone out the next day. This large fellow (let’s call him Charlie), who barely fit up the stairway to the attic where the furnace is located, fixed the problem quickly. A piece of ice or other debris had gotten lodged near the igniter, and he removed it.

After the job Charlie regaled me with a tale about a “good old boy,” he said, in Pea Ridge, a little town northeast of Fayetteville, who, along with lots of other folks in his neck of the woods, lost his natural gas supply entirely. The good old boy, Charlie said, called the company to relight his natural gas furnace. By the way, he said, his water heater was froze up. So did he have a gas stove? Yep. Was it working? Nope. Well, gas was not getting to Pea Ridge at all, so no gas appliance would work, including furnace. It would do no good for Charlie to come out until the gas supply was running again.

global weirding
A little pep and truth talk about global warming.

Pointing to the snow all around us, I told Charlie as he was about to leave that a climate scientist is calling global warming “global weirding,” and he assured me, “There ain’t no such thing as global warming.” So we bumped elbows on that one (he was wearing a mask, thank god, or thank his employer); and  not wanting to discuss politics, I let him go his merry way, this good ole boy, while I went mine, thankful for his HVAC expertise if not his political or meteorological acumen.

I had to laugh at this exchange, which made me realize there are good old boys and there are good old boys. So what was the difference between Charlie and the good old boy in Pea Ridge? I looked at the Urban Dictionary, a source of lively if not always entirely accurate definitions, and found this explanation:

good old boy
Would I infer correctly that Charlie is country but not that country? That he might have a  gun or two but not a big collection? That he carries only one knife at a time? That he knows how to read, whether or not he does, and doesn’t need his GF or wife to accompany him on the hunt?

The whole affair would be simply ludicrous if it weren’t for the political implications of Charlie’s assurance. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to know, anything that contradicts his current beliefs. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh (may he not rest in peace) have been filling him full of non-scientific balderdash, and he doesn’t want to admit he or any other human could be responsible, in even the tiniest way, for climate change because he drives a gas hog for work or pleasure, and damn well likes doing so, and won’t be without his boy toys or power fetishes; because he believes even today in Manifest Destiny, expanding every upward, outward, westward; because, well, just because.

Because, it could be, as the clinical psychiatrist Richard A. Friedman suggests in a powerful recent article in the New York Review of Books, conspiracy theories and anti-scientific thinking, like those preached by the Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, were

… not because they were suffering from group psychosis. It is not probable that tens of millions of Americans would be frankly delusional, in a clinical sense. The answer lies, rather, in something fundamental about human psychology and cognition: we are hardwired for plausibility, not truth. We rely on our intuition, which is often misleading, not on fact. And this cognitive trait is a particular liability in the age of digital media in which we are drowning in information—as well as misinformation and outright disinformation—because we are ineluctably drawn to data that confirms our worldview and repelled by data that contradicts it.

Moths to the flame, hey? Ineluctably drawn? A good reason to practice a bit of humility before we pronounce ferociously on any matter, especially one we know little of, have not read about, and about which we are just shooting off our mouths.

 

Revising a poem

One of the delights of writing poetry, believe it or not, is rewriting it. Sure, the initial impulse may yield something suggestive, but unless you are Mozart (most of us are not) we tend not to dash out an immortal work of art on the first draft.

I’ve had occasional luck in writing poems that needed little or no revision. But this is not the usual route at all. Instead, I’ll write something on the spur of the moment, or be spurred by a story I heard, an article I read, something going on around me or around the world. Then I’ll put the draft aside a day or two, and come back to it. Or, more likely, a week or two, a month or two, a year or more down the line.

What seemed so wonderful at the spark of creation now looks suspect. Redundancies. Cliches. Incoherencies. (What do I need to explain, in a short lyric, and what explains itself or needs no explanation? What evades or defies explanation or expectation?) Do I lack convincing imagery?

Poetry, as opposed to fiction, is almost all texture. You don’t have to concern yourself overly much with plot, or story, or character. Read my flapping lips, dear reader: poetry is the words on the page. It’s images, ideas, rhythms.

So here’s an example of how I’ve recently set up revising a poem, a decent beginning that I’ve had around quite awhile and which began as purely a technical description of a plant found in the calcareous fens southwest of the Twin Cities. (The poem derives from an interview I had conducted with Steve D. Eggers, with the US Army Corp of Engineers, St. Paul District, for an article about calcareous fens in a river watershed publication.)

sterile sedge
A growth form of the sterile sedge (photo by Steve D. Eggers).

To the Sterile Sedge, version 1
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb of fens, your tufty
stems erect and many slender leaves,
your four stalkless spikelets, your
egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your staminate-
only, seedless sterility: who see
you as we rush by on the highway?

Well, this may be fine and well as far as it goes, but I think you’ll agree with me that it doesn’t go far enough. It’s a technical description flavored by very specific sensory words, some of them rarely found in the layman’s vocabulary. So the words draw attention in and to themselves. They leave a pleasant hum in the brain, could be.

But so what? The poem, as is, is an extended address or apostrophe to the sterile sedge. I mean, it’s an invocation, as in “Oh you who are so-and-so or such-and-such, etc.” So we’re beginning to get acquainted with this unknown and obscure plant. 

But only the last two lines, which pose a question, make the poem a sentence and begin to make sense of it. Here you are, humble, sterile, drab, unnoticed plant. Who in the world would ever see or notice you … besides a botanist?

So the question is posed but not answered. 

The next version of the poem attempts to provide an answer, adding six lines to the original nine.

To the Sterile Sedge, version 2
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb of fens, your tufty
stems erect and many slender leaves,
your four stalkless spikelets, your
egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your staminate-
only, seedless sterility: who see
you as we rush by on the highway?

We have our own reasons, I suppose,
perhaps illicit liaisons, perhaps work,
licensed or not, on new developments,
the usual human things which threaten
your species and prolong ours, for which
we implore your forgiveness and sing this song.

Okay, so we’re beginning to supply an answer. 

The question is how satisfactory is the answer? How close does it strike to the hearts and minds of most readers?

Looking back at this draft now, I imagine it’s a hit or miss answer. If you’ve ever had an extramarital love affair or extralegal business transaction, these items may appeal to you. But I fear they’re not universal enough in themselves, nor described in particular, convincing detail.

I could go on supplying detail, which might heighten the interest of the poem, but I fear moralizing too much or insisting on a view that’s too personal, despite the use of the first person plural (“we”).

After the poem lay about for years, gathering dust or, better, must, becoming more suggestive if not quite finished, like an aging wine, I had another go at it and came up with this:

To the Sterile Sedge, version 3
With thanks to Steve Eggers

Perennial herb, your tufty stems and many
slender leaves, your four stalkless spikelets,
your egg-shaped perigynium spreading
or bent backward at maturity, beaked
and double-toothed and dark brown,
your humble nutlet, your seedless
staminate-only sterility: all these
in fact are of little note to us as we
rush past on the highway overhead
or walking the field trample underfoot
everything in our way, until, suddenly
we stumble and, surprised by joy, fall
on our knees and humbly at this late
date implore your forgiveness
and beg your longevity.

This third version is most satisfactory to me, though gods know if it will be the final.

What do you think?

I’m sure there is room for improvement — in diction, rhythm, specificity, universality, concern for the reader. But whether I’ll trot out 80 drafts or more, the way Robert Bly and Donald Hall used to do with each other’s poems, I doubt it.

There comes a point in poetry, as in life, where good enough might be left alone and, yes, where the perfect is the enemy of the good and even the publishable.

At any rate, I hope I have suggested a few ways for you to step back from a poem and play the friendly and helpful self-critic too.

Poetry: art & nature

I’ve been reading a volume of poetry by a now deceased teacher of mine, Tom Whitbread, may he rest in peace, a very good teacher at the University of Texas at Austin and good friend. When I moved from Texas to Detroit for my first college teaching job, in the 1970s, Tom would drive up during his long summers off, to see me and the family, putzing across the country in his VW Beetle. It must have been the last time he did this that he left us with a volume of his poems and inscribed it, “For Greg, Jen, & Gabriel Zeck — with love & best wishes always! — Tom, Detroit, June ’79.”

Tom Whitbread and Greg Zeck
Tom and Greg in Austin, Texas, 2007

In truth, I haven’t looked at the volume in years. But Tom died in 2016, of complications of prostate cancer (preventable, these days, but that’s another story). And, lately, since I myself am in my seventies, lots of friends have been dropping by the wayside, dropping like flies or flash lightning. Whatever your metaphor, these friends are dead, kaput, irretrievable except now in memory. So I take up cultural relics of the departed — photos, letters, literature — and sift through them and remember.

There’s a short preface to Tom’s book by Richard Wilbur, a famous formalist poet whom Tom knew, in which Wilbur praises the “supple openness” of Tom’s language, “as of an amiable and intelligent man talking.”

Tom was not a formalist like Wilbur, though there is the occasional sonnet or other formal rhyme scheme. His poems do sound like talking, the kind of thoughtful, passionate, inspired talk he employed in the classroom. He would recite the poetry of modernists like Wallace Stevens, pausing to stare at us impressively after certain lines like these (from “The Idea of Order at Key West”):

She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43431/the-idea-of-order-at-key-west

So art, artifice, artificer. (Compare lux, luxury, and Lucifer.) Poets and fiction writers, among other wordmongers, are artificers. However implanted in or surrounded by nature they may be, they make their own worlds. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s character Stephen Daedalus bids goodby to Ireland, the “Old father, old artificer,” and begins to become in exile an artist in his own right.

My friend Tom was not Wallace Stevens or James Joyce, herculean figures of early 20th century modernism. But he wrote his own life, in his modest and exuberant way, and created in his work a monument to that life, which even now, after his death, we can look upon and remember, re-member, put together again, the “fragments shored against … ruin,” as T. S. Eliot had it.

Here’s one of Fred’s poems, “Why I Eat at Caruso’s,” that sounds completely like him. Who else? It takes up his role as bourgeois gourmand and bon vivant, and his resistance as artist to this role, and makes a wonderfully comic monument of a moment:

Snarling at the fake pale artists’ horses

In the Pearl ad, and beyond it at the fake

Repetitively hobbled locomotive

Of Original Pabst, and further at the fake

Gaslight and bottle of Move up to Schlitz,

On a shelf-top at Caruso’s, above wine,

Not far from a dim pastoral, with sheep

On this side, a castle on that side of the Rhine,

Its rump nestled against a very large

Bottle of Heineken’s, stands a wild boar,

Stuffed, tufted, hideous, real, frightening, and fine.

Lucille, No. 10, Summer 1976, p. 28

Nature, yes, as represented in pop (kitsch) culture. And nature incorporated and transcended in art.