At the doctor’s office

Young woman at front desk brisk, efficient, almost abrasive.

Waiting room maybe 15′ x 40′, 7-8 groups of fake leather chairs with stainless tubing.

6 or 7 masked patients, patiently waiting, widely spaced, half of them on their phones, the others also bored.

Rain, rain outside the window and the door, go away.

The wait, the usual interminable wait. 

The doctor, remember, wears no watch and is conscious of no time. He simply works, he says, non-stop till the work gets done.

The prospect of beer, later this afternoon, in the rain, just out of the rain, at Crisis Brewing, during this Covid crisis, with the brewery’s comforting outdoor propane heaters at all tables.

Beer with a buddy I rarely see, whom I have tempted or tugged off the mountain, where he lives in an old stone cottage the wind blows through.

Then I’m called and weighed, 188, good gods what have I been hogging these last months without exercise, with the pandemic raging all about and fatalism rooting down.

Mattha, she says, the nursing assistant who weighs me and then works me up, as they say. How was your Christmas? Hers was fine, a husband and four boys, she wouldn’t know what to do with girls. The same problem I have had all these years. She’s tall and thin, her hair long and straight and in a ponytail.

This patient room maybe 10′ x 10′ — examining table, two fake leather chairs, a sink, a rudimentary desk with stool, and on the walls two sentimental poems, in script, re Daddy’s girl and do you want to grow up some day, sonny, just like Daddy? Big print of cowboys whipping their horses through meadow and creek, and a calendar with a verse from Romans. 

Several years ago he saved me from death via prostate cancer, the good physician, sending me to a urologist, and from thence to surgery, while a distant friend of mine this summer, in a distant place, died with a PSA of over 600. 

In the X-ray room a hulking cold machine and a table where the technician arranges my right knee. Overhead, then turned to the side. You’re done, she says. Take two rights, and you’ll be in room 7 once again.

Where the doctor, the good physician, finally enters and probes with questions, briefly palpates the knee where I tell him the shooting pains originate. He’s had them, too, he says, two years ago. X-rays show no bone damage, but can’t reveal ligaments and muscles. Why not take it easy. If you’re hiking and it hurts, ice it afterwards. Use ibuprofen or Aleve. Don’t pivot on that foot but step away, turn in steps.

Meniscus tear
Medial meniscus tear.

The same good doctor I left, last time I visited, with a copy of my book of poems, but he doesn’t remember or it doesn’t impress, and he says nothing except soothing words and to the point and is sorry, he says, my friend died like that. No one really has to, in his view.

Medial meniscus tear, he says. Baby it. Ice it. Pop a few pills. May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust in him.

Digging Amos Oz

Amos oz675.jpg
Amos Oz, near the end of his life.

Amos Oz is one of the big names of world literature. An Israeli, he lived from 1939 to 2018, dying late 2018 of cancer. Starting out as the son of a right-wing immigrant couple in Israel, he ran off to a kibbutz at age 14 and became a socialist and then, throughout his life, a teacher, writer, and public intellectual. He published 40 books.

I’ve been reading just one of them, a collection of short stories from 2009 called Scenes from Village Life.  These are eerie and lightly ironic tales of ordinary individuals living out their days in dusty Israeli villages. The characters are ordinary, yes, but are described, in both their exterior and interior dimensions, in extraordinary and empathic detail.

Oz’s socialist bent may be seen in these attentions. He does not bring up only to dismiss a character because he or she is odd, or old, or crazy, or other. 

The first story “Heirs” ends with the stranger who has come to the door, pronouncing himself a relative, climbing into bed with the protagonist and his ancient mother:

And so the three of them lay, the woman whose house it was, her silent son and the stranger who kept stroking and kissing her while he murmured softly, “Everything is going to be all right, dear lady. It’s all going to be lovely. We’ll take care of everything.”

The third, and longest, story “Digging” is told from the point of view of a forty-something schoolteacher, Rachel, who puts up, and puts up with, her ancient father and an Arab boy, Adel, who lives in a shack on the property and does odd jobs in return for his shelter.

Here’s the cantankerous old father described in the first paragraph of the story: 

As the end of his life approached, Pesach Kedem, the former Member of the Knesset, lived with his daughter, Rachel, on the edge of the village of Tel Ilan in the Manasseh Hills. He was a tall, vituperative man with a hunched back. On account of kyphosis, his head was thrust forward almost at a right angle. At eighty-six years of age, he was gnarled and sinewy, his skin reminded you of the bark of an olive tree, and his tempestuous temperament made him seem to be boiling over with strongly held ideals and opinions. All day long he pottered around the house in his slippers, wearing an undershirt and a pair of khaki trousers that were too loose on him and were held up by braces. He invariably wore a shabby black beret that came halfway down his forehead, which made him look like a tank commander put out to grass. And he never stopped grumbling: he swore at a drawer that refused to open, cursed the newscaster who muddled Slovakia and Slovenia, railed at the westerly wind that whipped up suddenly and scattered his papers on the veranda table, and shouted at himself because when he bent down to pick them up, he bumped into the corner of the table as he stood up.

Isn’t this marvelous? Such patient, right-on details. Such an accumulation of effects that point toward the fragile whole of the dying man.

And yet the dying man, or the man near “the end of his life,” anyway, is not held up in sentimental tenderness. He’s a kook, an oddball, a curmudgeon. He makes his daughter’s life difficult and pesters the Arab boy. He calls his daughter by his late wife’s name, and even mother’s, and tells her the Arab kid, who’s a would-be writer and talks to the cats in Arabic, is digging under his room at night — to undermine him, you see, the way the Palestinians will undermine Israel and put it out of existence. 

By the end of the story, in which nothing particular happens, as nothing particular happens in real life, even the daughter is beginning to suspect that someone’s digging beneath her bedroom. In her nightdress she goes outside and shines a flashlight under the house, but sees nothing. The story ends:

Nothing stirs the row of cypresses separating her yard from the cemetery. There is no hint of a breeze. Even the crickets and the dogs have momentarily fallen silent. The darkness is dense and oppressive, and the heat hangs heavily over everything. Rachel Franco stands there trembling, alone in the dark under the blurred stars.

Reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ “Snow Man,” but without the wintry coldness, of course, and the nihilism.

… the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

No, Amos Oz is a lyrical writer, empathic, seeking, digging to the end. 

 

 

Stuff your stockings with poetry

This holiday, why not stuff the stockings with poetry?

Poetry! Who would expect it? And who could forget it?

My book of poems, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979-1989, is personal, earnest, humorous, and accessible. 

Transitions coverIt’s not meant for 12-year-olds, no; but 24- and 36-, not to mention 48- and 60-year olds, among others, can appreciate these 50 chewy poems of love and lust, family and friends, gain and loss. 

And Transitions is affordable: just $13 for the paperback or $10 for the digital version at Amazon. (You can read the enthusiastic reviews there.)

Poetry can be more satisfying than the junk that often get stuffed into stockings: high-cal candy, ha-ha toys, dubious games and vulgarities. Transitions is frank but never gratuitously so. Take “Enfants Terrible,” in which the five-year-old speaker is entertaining a young lady in a mock-tea ceremony: 

When out the front door like a bat from hell shot
my four-year-old brother Bob, wearing only his BVDs
and a diabolical smile. Susie and I squinted into the sun
and saw Bobby squatting like a dog, dropping his drawers,
and, horror of horrors, before I could jump up and summon
Mom, depositing one lump, no, two, three, four lumps on the lawn.

Or another poem about childhood, “Variation on a Theme by Maxim Gorky,” the great Russian writer, which ends with a young boy sitting with an old alchemist:

And in the evening, when all else has failed,
sits with him, hour after fading hour, two
bumps on a courtyard log, two brown owls
blending into the late summer sky’s strange
transparency, into the earth of burdock,
wormwood, nettle. Sits with him unblinking,
little hand in his great blistered hand, watching
the moon rising above it all, jackdaws cawing
and wheeling, linnets, goldfinches, martins
sweeping into the inhuman night.

In these coming-of-age poems, childhood gives way naturally to adolescence. In “Physical,” for example, the fourteen-year-old boy, examined by a physician, imagines that the doctor is in league with the priest and has told him about the boy’s unclean habits:

Had I been suspect? How could
he know? Would it show?
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

Later in life, the poet learns of the loss of love, friendship, even life. In “Something for My Cousin,” for example, attending the funeral of a cousin who has committed suicide, he suffers doubts about the consolations of religion:

At the ceremony, her mom, grief- or dumbstruck,
choked up, didn’t argue with her daughter anymore
but sang, with the crowd, the pop psalm “On Eagle’s
Wings,” a modern liturgical manifestation of the need
to believe there’s something out there waiting for us,
after all. In my cousin’s case, it was to be cremation.

Yes, friends and family diminish, doubts surge. But as long as words are left, they can be signs that life and love abound. Here’s the entire “Poem on the Beautiful Hands of Jennifer”:

In the half-light of the marriage bed
you take from under the sheets and show me
your incredibly beautiful hands —
small, slim, tapering into flame —
and hold me then to the heat of your breast,
your heart which is choiring in this milky
light, and tell me with your erotically
articulate fingers how close we can be.
As I unfurl from doubt’s tight fist,
from the fetal dark, it dawns on me
how wholly unclenched and open you are —
your fingers which know so well how to sew
and cook and tease a balky piano into music
and stroke a lover ecstatically, a wand
of subtle light and heat that binds me gently
to you, this early hour of the morning,
in the half-light of the marriage bed.

So, stuff poetry into a stocking this year, won’t you? Or wrap the book under the tree. The light and heat these poems provide may comfort and amaze a long time.

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Give me five good reasons why I should read poetry

Sassy Boy
Sassy boy demands three good reasons!

In my youth, way back when in the misty nineteen fifties, there was a kid who lived down the block who scandalously sassed his single-parent mom. She would ask Jimmy to take out the garbage, or some such mundane and minor job, and Jimmy would respond, “Give me three good reasons why I should!” Mom would generally come up with one or two quick ones, off the top of the head, but stall, and Jimmy would sass, “Ha ha! I told you so!” And of course he refused to do anything at all.

I’m gonna try to top Jimmy here, and his mom too, and give you not three but five good reasons why you should read poetry. If I miss the mark, you can sass back, of course. (Leave a comment, any comment, below.)

Let me start by cribbing a simple article from the online magazine Odyssey, whose mission is “to affect positive social change by inviting people to share their perspectives, sharpen their opinions, and participate in meaningful conversations with others surrounding the topics they care about most.” Nothing wrong with that, is there?

In Odyssey, Madison Council suggests that poetry can do these things for you:

  • Make you think.
  • Make you feel.
  • Give you a different perspective on common life events.
  • Invite you to read a text over and over again.
  • Induce you to write your own poems.

She doesn’t provide a whole lot of evidence for these claims, but let me take up where she leaves off, okay? (It’s curious that her article is positioned in the Entertainment section of the mag. Poetry can be entertaining, for sure, but it’s far more than that.)

Thinking. How does poetry make us think, and how is this thinking different from other kinds? Ms. Madison doesn’t supply examples, so let me start with one and see what you think. She starts her article with a quote by Robert Frost, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words,” so let me offer a few lines of a sonnet by Frost called “Into My Own,” the very first poem in his first book A Boy’s Will (1913). It’s about a very willful boy indeed who dreams of running away from home. The poem ends this way:

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

On its face (and Frost had a sly and perhaps even malicious face according to some observers and biographers), the poem suggests that the willful boy is right and everybody else wrong. He has been somehow, vaguely, abused. So he runs away, and it’s they who lose, not he: they who must search for him, must wonder if they’re still loved. It’s he, finally, in that last couplet, which snaps shut like a Venus fly-trap on its prey, who is sure in a godlike way, he the wet-behind-the-ears teen runaway!

How many of us have felt this seething resentment against injustice, however unjust or ill-informed our feelings themselves were? But how many of us have put this feeling, this idea, into words so elegant and double-faced as this? We see that Frost, the adult, is looking back at his young self and justifying him, while also keeping the esthetic and psychological distance that maturation requires. The narrator, in short, knows more than his character. His craft accommodates more than one simplistic point-of-view.

Feeling. Okay, and why not feeling? “Since feeling is first,” as e.e. cummings famously proclaimed, let’s go there, right to the start of the poem:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers.

A modernist and romantic, cummings would not stress formal matters like syntax (word order, or rhyme scheme, stanza structure, capitalization, punctuation), especially when he is in love. If you don’t abandon yourself to feeling, give way, lose yourself, you will never wholly know the bliss of love, will never lose the rational self that keeps you separate and apart. You will gibber a language like this love song. A modernist poet, you will nevertheless invert  or pervert syntax: “wholly to be a fool / while Spring is in the world / my blood approves.”

Cummings was wildly popular in his day, perhaps, as poets.org says, because of “the simplicity of his language, his playful mode and his attention to subjects such as war and sex.” His writing sent shock waves of recognition through his readers and admirers: yes, that’s what poetry is, something wild, and immediate, and emotional, and joyous, and me!

Louise Glück
Louise Glück is the recipient of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature and was the Library of Congress’s poet laureate in 2003–2004.

Different perspective. Louise Glück, who just won the Nobel Prize in literature, has said, “I dislike poems that feel too complete, the seal too tight; I dislike being herded into certainty.” If you’re looking, thus, for something unexpected, something inquiring and exploratory, consider Glück. She knows that completion, our usual sense of completion, may be laced with falseness, often that of nostalgia. So, in “The Past”:

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine,
most intense when the wind blows through it
and the sound it makes equally strange,
like the sound of the wind in a movie —

Yes, sure, this is a nature poem, but nature is neither ennobling nor soothing nor pretty. Do you think a nature poet romps in nature, skips through the daffodils, counts clouds? Not Glück, whose poem ends thus:

Smell the air. That is the smell of the white pine.

It is my mother’s voice you hear
or is it only the sound the trees make
when the air passes through them

because what sound would it make,
passing through nothing?

Over and over again. Again, an idea from my boyhood. I attended a Catholic high school in suburban Minneapolis, staffed by the Christian Brothers. It was Brother Mark, my junior year, who made each and every one of us boys, however eager or reluctant, memorize poems and step before the class to recite them. These poems included Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, however unlikely such a theme for lads of seventeen:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

You probably want to read this sonnet over and over again because its full force and meaning escape you at first reading. Its full force and fury. No, Louise Glück offers no conventional consolations in her poetry, but neither does Shakespeare 400 years earlier. There’s no God in this sonnet, no afterlife, no priestly unctions. The only meaning is the meaning that we as humans make: love is the gift we offer one another, even as the bonds of love, the bones of the human body, break or dissolve. It’s a humanist consolation: love conquering all, perhaps, or perhaps not. In fact, let’s say not, for now, as quoting other sources, whether Renaissance or other, deflects us from this particular gem, which, yes, we must read again.

You too can be a poet! I don’t want to give you ideas that may not be happy ideas. I mean, encourage you to do something you don’t want to do or, frankly, have no talent for. But human beings are creative creatures. We all make things (the word poet comes from “Greek poētēs ‘maker, author, poet,’ variant of poiētēs, from poein, poiein ‘to make, create, compose'”). We all tell stories, we all get ideas. If we compose ourselves and our gifts enough to make these stories or ideas memorable, then we too are poets and make poetry, defined in dictionary.com as “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”

Wallace Stevens
Wallace Stevens (October 2, 1879 – August 2, 1955) was an American modernist poet. He was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, educated at Harvard and then New York Law School, and he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955. — Wikipedia

A more modern definition would shave some of the romantic emphasis cited here. Yes, poetry is rhythmical, as much as rap is rhythmical, but it doesn’t, these days, always contribute, nor should it, to pure pleasure, nor is it always “beautiful, imaginative, or elevated.” Read Shakespeare. Hear Louise Glück. Or Wallace Stevens, for that matter, another humanist or, some would say, nihilist. Writing from your own perspective, ephebe (a humorous Stevensian word, meaning beginner), can you do what he did in 1921 in “The Snow Man,” which ends with a reflection on

… the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

What do you think, finally? Are you convinced you should or might read or write poetry? Or you like to give me some sass back?

 

 

 

 

Vision and revision

In the wake of publishing my first book of poems, Transitions: Early Poems, 1979-1989, I find myself with 20 years’ worth of middle period poems on my hands and the question of what to do with them. (Not to mention late poems, from the time I moved to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2011, and a considerable number of short stories.) Of course, I mean to publish these middle poems, but not now, not in the condition they are in. 

Writing is one thing. Re-writing is another.

Seeing is one thing, and we all hope our first visions are keen and perceptive. But re-seeing, re-vising is another animal altogether.

Revision requires a certain humility, of course — an acknowledgement that what we once wrote, perhaps dashed off, is not the cat’s pajamas, or the mouse’s, or the lion’s. Time helps provide critical distance, and so does immersion in the discipline of criticism.

If you’ve made a formal study of language, that helps. You might have been a grammarian at one time, if only in grade school. Or a linguist or lexicographer, amateur or more. Or a poetry reader or editor. But wherever your critical practice and theory come from, they are gifts that will be employed in improving even if not perfecting the things you’ve written.

Revisiting my middle-period poems convinces me that many were splashed out as responses to specific events or feelings. The death of my father, for example, in 2008, who survived my mother some twelve years and remarried. 

Some of these poems seem to me pretty pallid now, perhaps because they are too personal. I don’t mean personal in the sense of confessional poems, but personal meaning too restricted to one particular person’s point of view. Sure, we all experience love and loss. Our parents die. Other loved ones die. They drop like flies — make that drosophila — all around us. And there we are, left with our own sinking, leaden feelings. As we know, the modern world of today (as some of my freshmen English students would call it) does not allow much time for mourning. Buck up, buster. Get a hold of yourself. Put your shoulder to the wheel.

File:Polidoro da Caravaggio - Saturnus-thumb.jpg
The Roman god Saturn, patron of the saturnine and gloomy as well as the possibility of recovery and regeneration.

Nevertheless, we have put down the thoughts and feelings that may have put us down. We were in mourning. We brooded. We couldn’t get away from it. We were feeling positively saturnine. 

Now that we have recovered what we like to call a presence of mind, we are removed from the immediate emotional effects of the event. Things may seem clearer. The only challenge, as if it’s only a small challenge, is to give a broader, more universal view of what has happened to us in particular.

If I charge into the task of revising, without relaxing enough or getting away from the pressure of the text, the weight of the words already committed to the page, I find I may be only trifling. The problem is not the words per se, but how the words evoke the strongest response. 

Shall we step away?

It’s been more than twelve years since my father died. That certainly provides some distance. 

But what was it essentially about our relation that I seek to explore, deplore, celebrate?

Dad was a lawyer, the son of a streetcar conductor, an old Polish bastard (literally), miser, and tyrant who left the farm at the age of twelve and came to the city to find his way. He broke away from a stepfather who didn’t love him, who spurned him in fact and abused him in one way or another. Dad spoke of his dad as from “the old school,” a junk collector in his personal life and private yard who demanded his three sons obey, learn to collect junk and repress emotions in their turn, and never to question authority.

This authority extended to the Catholic church, which had labeled Grandpa a bastard in the first place and made him weep guiltily about his bastardy to the end of his life. He wasn’t, probably couldn’t have been, a very warm, loving father to his three sons.

In my dad’s case, it was three sons, again, and four daughters. He knew how to love the girls and express his love for them, but not the boys. I was the middle boy of three, and my older brother Gerry was a rebel from an early age and my younger brother Bob a black sheep. It wasn’t easy to please Dad, and the way I chose was to excel academically even while nursing rebellious, anti-social thoughts. (Is parricide one?)

Yes, Dad was a lawyer, a stickler for the letter of the law. If he did not lay down the law, he certainly transmitted it from the Sinai of his medieval brand of Polish Catholicism. Thou shalt not was writ large on the door to his person. 

And Priests in black gowns, were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars, my joys & desires.

So what could I do but become an English teacher and lay down the law of grammar & correctness? Which I did for a while, way back in the 1970s and then, intermittently, in the 1990s and 2000s, too.

When I flunked out of Academe (failed to get tenure), I began writing poetry as a reaction to this failure. I had not pleased the authorities at the college where I taught, and was on my own, and had to figure, wasn’t it about time, how finally to grow up?

Poetry was the principal way I learned to grow up, although when I wrote it, back in the 1980s, I could not have told you my aim. I knew only that I had a strong background in the formal disciplines of language and language arts; that I could apply them to the commercial writing which I took up as a means to make a living if not live; and that I had to get through this long, unsponsored period.

The poems of the 1980s were, willy nilly, coming-of-age poems. They recorded episodes of childhood and adolescence in an emotionally turbulent Catholic household. They enacted rites of passage: that is, the poems themselves were performances of the need to grow up and the growing up, at least in verse.

In “Physical,” for example,

“No signs of impurity,”
the family doctor said,
Doc Leiferman, scribbling
on his chart, when I was just

fourteen….

The kid in this poem gets a physical exam from the good (Catholic) doctor and suspects, with the doc’s initial utterance, that he’s told the priest about the kid’s masturbatory habits. It ends:

Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

With the middle poems, there is more urgency perhaps but less freshness. (You could only be fresh once, it could be. Your intellectual and artistic gifts diminish, it could be, as your body does. Which makes re-vision, the ability to see farther and more deeply, all the more imperative.) 

Here, for example, is the untampered beginning of a poem written shortly after my father’s death:

The rain that’s swept all the winter’s
snow away, the fog in which we’re currently
enveloped, Pop — this is the talk
I always talk with you, never, apparently,
about anything important, the things that are
so hard to wrap ourselves around, the sort
of love between a father and a son that
is never concluded satisfactorily.

Well, okay, here’s an idea. But it’s awfully discursive, don’t you think, and prolix too? Looks more like an essay, could be, a wordy, windy essay.

So what to do?

As a first resort, and not recommended for the most part, I started tampering with the text. One example, from the beginning again: 

The rain that’s swept all the snow away, 
the fog in which we’re wrapped up, Pop — 
these are the topics I always talked with you 
on the phone. Here it was springtime
in Minnesota. There you were down
in the Ozarks battling tornadoes.
There was never anything earth-shaking
to talk about, including earthquakes,
which we don’t have here in these parts,
nope, except the things
we could not talk about like the love
between a father and a son.

Better perhaps, a bit more info in a shorter space. (Some of it was sprawled out in the later parts of the poem.) But still, something lacking. Why should you, the reader, care about my relation with my father? 

Sharon Olds
Sharon Olds, who writes “intensely personal, emotionally scathing poetry.” Photo by David Bartolomi.

Then I thought why not look at Sharon Olds again. She’s rightly famous for her book of poems called The Father, about the life and death of her dead. And she’s a personal poet, “whom the poet Billy Collins has called … a poet of sex and the psyche, adding that ‘Sharon Olds is infamous for her subject matter alone…but her closer readers know her as a poet of constant linguistic surprise.’” Which is not a bad deal, is it? Surprise. Constant surprise. Something always new, even in the old old relations we might think there’s nothing fresh left to say.

Judgment and self-pity seem from this perspective not very new or fresh. And yet they’re the way we tend to think and write, it could be, especially when we think life has dealt us a crappy hand. We sit there with our crappy cards and cry for ourselves. We hold a pity party. But who will attend?

Olds presents her father, living and dead, directly in front of us. In “The Glass,” for example, we get her usual physical assault:

I think of it with wonder now,
The glass of mucus that stood on the table
In front of my father all weekend. The tumor
is growing fast in his throat these days,
and as it grows it sends out pus,
like the sun sending out flares, those pouring
tongues.

So you thought poetry was all lovey-dovey romance and romping in the flowers?

Not necessarily.

Romantic avoidance of that which is hard to say, impossible to speak?

We should hope not.

Avoid avoidance. See again. As with fresh, new eyes.

So let’s have at it once again, shall we? Thank you, Sharon Olds. We are not you, Sharon Olds. But your example is tonic.

 

Notation in music and in verse

Craig Wright
Prof. Craig Wright of Yale teaches a music appreciation course that is available free online.

Professor Craig Wright and Yale University offer a free online classical music appreciation course. In the 3rd lecture, Wright makes a simple but profound comparison between Western classical music and other music, say Eastern music and pop music in the West.

Our classical music is notated, he says. The focus is on the composer, who is the star. He’s like the architect, while the players are, say, carpenters or masons or window installers. When you go to hear pop music, on the other hand, whether rock or jazz, you will rarely see a music stand and printed music. You go to see the band or the ensemble, who are the stars. You talk and laugh and dance while the music plays.

Pop music, which must have come first in any culture or country, is heart and body, rhythm and dance. Classical music replaces heart and body with eye and mind, Wright says. It’s more analytical, rational, demanding of both player and listener. Which is why you need to know something technical about it in order to understand and appreciate.

In the same way, written poetry is a notated system. Most of us in the West may know poetry primarily through song, whether Bob Dylan’s or David Lee Roth’s. (Gods help us, but there is a difference.) And we don’t have to read music to get the rhythms of the song or the idea of the lyrics. Or course, we also know poetry, or did in my day, by reading and singings songs in our early education, whether these were patriotic hymns or folk music. And by memorizing poems, if that quaint idea is still around. (In Catholic high school, junior year, our Christian Brother English teacher had each of the boys in turn come to the front of the room and recite a poem we had memorized, whether Tennyson’s “Break, break, break, / On thy cold gray rocks, O Sea” or Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill”: “Now when I was young and easy under the apple boughs.”

An awful lot of poetry currently being written shows no particular knowledge of meter, rhythm, rhyme, and the other formal niceties of traditional poetry. In itself that’s okay. Most of us don’t write formalist poetry anymore. But all of us who write should know something about those traditions, if only to skirt them successfully, to pay homage as necessary and move on. (Of course, even if we don’t use a formal rhyme scheme, we can use off rhymes or slant rhymes, internal rhymes rather than end-of-line rhymes; and there’s an awful lot of shaping of poetry, still, in tercets, quatrains, and other stanzaic groupings.)

This matter of form and formal notation in poetry comes down ultimately to the question: How can we write poetry unless we read it, poetry of the past and poetry of our time too? So that the poetry we write today becomes part of the great flow of poetry over time, not merely a private or solipsistic exercise? “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,” as Yeats asked, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

It’s difficult in a culture as oral as ours (as narcissistically addicted to sucking and suffering), as “postliterate” as ours (as the Trump reign has been called) to take the time and effort to read and think, gods know. To retire to a “fine and private place,” which is at the same time not (yet) the grave, and there, in the mind, to be content with what we can produce on our own and how we can locate it in the tradition.

 

 

Should you join a writers’ group?

In the wake of the publication of my first book (Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989), I’ve been looking at and even joining a few online writers’ group. Everybody has a story to tell, and so many want to be a writer, the only thing stopping them being fear, doubt, and experience.

Not inexperience in telling stories, which we all do easily among friends and family. But shaping the stories, or poems, or dramas — or any idea for public transmission — into publishable form.

Most of the questions posed in writers’ groups are naive and childish, seems to me. Seeing them, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Let me show you a few examples here and see what you think.

Cruikshank, The Juggernaut
George Cruikshank (1792–1878) was an English satirical illustrator, beginning in the 1820s. He satirized politicians, royalty, and the hoi polloi. Why not extend his target from royalty to would-be royal writers. Gin-soaks in his day, those drunk on the dream of fame in ours.

In a Facebook group, a would-be author asks, “What is a good title for a memoir about surviving a double lung transplant?” To date she’s gotten more than 700 suggestions, all manner of “help” from would-be helpers, including

  • A Different Kind of Windfall
  • Wind-Owe to My Soul
  • Wind-Oh to My Soul
  • How to Breathe
  • Out of Breath
  • Breathing Gratitude
  • Thank God I Survived Twice: The Story of Two Lung Transplants
  • Within the Rib Cage
  • Branching Passages of Air
  • Double Your Pleasure
  • Heavy Breathing

Most of these suggestions are going nowhere fast. They’re embarrassing or off the point, if the point can be divined. I commented, simply, “Write the book, Snoopy, and forget the title. It will come to you, easily, after the heavy lifting.”

Writers Helping Writers, the name of this group, suggests that writing is a lonely craft, which it certainly is. Do writers need other writers? Certainly. They need people with experience and judgment to help them through the long, lonely task — the heavy lifting — of writing, revising, and finishing a book. What the experience and critical capabilities of the people in this Facebook group are, however, only the gods know.

Writing is lonely. You’ll have craft if you put the necessary blood, sweat, and tears into the task. To paraphrase the title character in Henry James’s The American, I would exhort all young writers, “Read. Read all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” (James’ character, the ambassador of the title, Lambert Strether, tells the young man he’s talking to, “Live. Live all you can,” which is also great advice and necessary for the writer.) Live all you can and read the best stuff you can find, wherever your interests lie. For how can you write if you do not live, or have not read, or written enough to punch your way out of the kraft bag (craft bag) you have put yourself in?

No, you don’t have to enroll in a formal course of study, the way I did way back when (majoring in English in college and then earning a Ph.D. in American lit and teaching literature and writing for years). You don’t have to get into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or any other formal school, though joining a local writers’ group may be helpful if the members are competent writers and compassionate, knowledgeable critics too. (Face-to-face writers’ groups don’t always work out, as I can testify from experience. Sometimes there are petty personal disagreements. Sometimes you simply can’t get much interest or attention in your project. There may be too many members, or too few. But at their best, writers’ groups offer live support and immediate clarification if not gratification.)

Reading the best stuff will help you form your judgment and inform your craft. Your writing will become a stronger mix of direct day-to-day experience, stories and ideas you’ve heard from friends and family, and the most intriguing craftsmanship. There is a divide between high and low culture, of course. I’m not suggesting you must stick strictly to the high road, but if your idea of craft is informed only or largely by pop music or genre fiction, you’re on pretty shaky ground as to influence.

In another online writers’ group, on LinkedIn, a member passes on advice for struggling writers, as in “How To Overcome Writers Block: 12 Simple Ideas That Helps with Creative Blockage.” Not a bad read, actually, if you’re on the ball and don’t take everything here literally. (Shouldn’t writers, of all people, learn to distrust the literal, the concrete, the superficial, that which pretends to be anchored in the “real,” whatever that is?) If you think, for example, that writer’s block is caused by “emotional distress,” you may not have sorted through or dealt otherwise with your emotions. Indeed, you might say we write precisely to sort through our emotions, to banish or lay down distress in the dust, to master that which has threatened to master us.

What about the suggestion here to “Take a shower”? Excuse me, I think I’ll pour myself a bourbon. Or “Meditate/Yoga”? Up to you, my fine feathered friend.

But here’s a good one, an excellent idea: “Read other people’s writings.” Of course. Other professional writers’ good writing, celebrated and justly acclaimed writing. It’s a mistake not to!

Poem genesis

So how does a poem get started? And how does it get polished and revised if not perfected?

There’s a lot to be said for raw energy. I know poets who put out daily (one of them calls his output, which he puts out on his iPhone, his “daily drivel”; another pours out slam poetry, which slams against the brain, I would say, the way pop music does).

In my case, there’s an impulse, an idea or image or story. It’s raw stuff, yes, what Henry James called, in the case of fiction, the “germ” of the story. But whether I have a narrative or not, I generally start with a germ. Here’s the latest example I can offer. The other day, pruning a Chinese golden raintree in my garden, I noticed how many spindly, flailing arms the tree had. And wondered, not logically but magically, but metaphorically, what would people be like if they had that many arms to wave or employ in god knows what endeavors?

Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210)
Li Bai Strolling, by Liang Kai (1140–1210).

Nothing happened with this germ until this morning, when I connected the idea of the Chinese tree with the Chinese poet Li Bai, about whom I’ve been reading a bit. Not that I know much about Li Bai, except he was one of the most famous Chinese poets, from the Tang Dynasty in the 8th century CE, and was translated by Ezra Pound, among others, and I had studied Pound a bit in graduate school at UT-Austin and used one of his translations of Li Bai (or Li Po) in my wedding ceremony, “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” which ends plaintively like this:

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

So, knowing I could do worse than invoking Li Bai, I wrote this (which reflects quite a few little changes and is not, I’m sure, yet finished):

The Tree

The Chinese raintree at the garden pond
flings out its weepy arms as if it were
a woman, say the river merchant’s wife,
imploring the return of her long gone man.
Seventy summers and winters having come
and gone, I might like to do the same, grow
how many sets of arms, my hair down to
the ground, flailing and beseeching the return
of the things I’ve lost or never had. Where
was I? Ah, yes. Until that day, if and when
it comes, I could do worse than remember
the days when I was young and held her
in my arms, the days I would read Li Bai
and think of coming out to meet her
as far as Chō-fū-Sa.

There’s something missing here, I fear. What, for example, are “the things I’ve lost or never had”? Enigmatic, yes? What do you think? We’ve all had them.

At any rate, you can see here something of the process of generating the idea for a poem and then a pretty good if not complete draft of the poem itself. The lessons, if any, for poets in general, or readers for that matter? One, be alert to the clues that life flings your way, whether in the flailing branches of a tree, or your reading, or your memory of events from long ago. Two, be aware as you struggle with writing or reading a poem that the big majority of them come out not full blown or grown, the way the genius Mozart might have produced his musical works or freaks, but half born, sometimes even apparently stillborn; that the form you see, that is, is the result of lots of formal work, playing with the sound and shape and layout of words, to give the impression that the poem emerged full blown from the poet’s brain, like Aphrodite from Zeus’s head.

Transitions

Transitions: Early Poems
Cover of the paperback version of Transitions ($12.95 through Amazon).

In my efforts to promote a first book of poetry just published, I drafted a press release and sent it off to a couple of arts groups. Without blowing my own horn or strumming my own lute too much, I have to say that this analytic exercise was illuminating for me.

The collection is called Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989, and is available at Amazon in both paperback and epub formats. With a name like Transitions, long the working title for poems I wrote in the 1980s, it shouldn’t be surprising that the poems deal with passages or rites of passage in one’s life. But readers and reviewers have readily discerned the theme of growing up or awakening in these poems.

To quote myself (sorry) in the press release:

As several readers have pointed out … the collection is a coming of age series. The struggles to find a voice are enacted against the background of conforming institutions — church, family, marriage, and academe. “I failed to get tenure at the college where I was teaching,” Zeck says, “and began through the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, a struggle to find out just who I was, unmoored from institutional supports or detaching from them. There were the night sweats, and the day sweats, as John Berryman might have said, and the constant if unconscious need to make something of myself and to make it on my own.”

There’s nothing particularly novel about such a theme. We all struggle, in one way or another, to come of age, to mature, to grow into our own skin. What makes my struggle different, could be, is the confluence of these particular pressures: the church, family, marriage, and academe coming together to produce a collection of particular utterances about the struggle, which results in or enacts a voice and an identity, finally, of my own.

The poems testify to the Catholic puritanism of my upbringing, a streak that runs through my dad’s Polish-American family like a toxic vein. He himself was very reticent about sex, and his father guiltily mourned his bastardy to the end of his life. This kind of childhood was not Blake’s Garden, where the happy childhood is succeeded by “Thou shalt not writ over the door.” The childhood itself was marked by fears and doubts of ever being worthy, of ever escaping the all-seeing eye.

One poem, “Something for My Cousin,” testifies to the complacencies of faith purveyed by the church. At the funeral of a first cousin who died by her own hand,

… the goateed priest, half through the mass,
capered to the lectern. Ours, he said, comfortably,
not to question why this dread thing happened
but to know the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Capon! Mumbling of resurrection and eternal life,
he got on with the job, hoisted the chalice, wiped
his dribbling chops, handed out communion, leading
the faithful up faith’s candy-coated mountain.

In “Suburban Sacraments,” an elegy for a youthful friend,

Machinegun-style, our alcoholic pastor spat out the Latin
of the Mass: “Introibo ad altare Dei.” And, hands folded,
Mark and I fired back: “Ad Dei qui laetificat juventutem
meam.” It was not the ideal preparation for life the cataclysm.

But the church and family were not all dregs and disappointments. Humor leavens this bitter loaf, often in things sexual. In “Physical,” the examining Catholic family doctor intones, writing on his chart, “No signs of impurity,” and the kid wonders how the doctor has not seen or suspected his masturbatory habits.

Had I been suspect? How could
he know? Would it show?
Crossing myself, I crossed
the good physician’s threshold,

sped out into the suburban dusk,
and made bold to think several
impure thoughts about his twin
blonde pubescent daughters.

And in “Transitional,” part of “Onan Suite,” the longest poem in the collection, the narrator wonders about the futility of the sacrament of penance. He confesses his lusts, his impurities, and is forgiven, but knows he will once more be “beating off” when he sees the girls in the neighborhood:

I could go on and
on counting the ways,
telling the beads
of my onanistic rosary,

a sly and unrepentant
teenage Catholic boy
who could never quite
make it across.

It’s not only the content, of course, but the form of the poem that gets it across, that makes a bridge, or a transition, for the poet and, he would hope, his readers. In my case, the Latin of the mass and sacraments instilled in me a love of language, a love of form, that became transmuted into a secular but still, in a way, hieratic voice, if only the voice of the fallen priest or angel — and then professor — and then one who had to come up with his own words entirely to profess and convince, without institutional support of any kind.

The large question here is how do any of us make it across, wherever it is we end up going? What kind of transitions can we make, if we’re left largely on our own, the mysteries and terrors of institutions like church and state and family pushing us away not embracing us?

Poems themselves, or other art objects, may become “transitional objects,” in the terms of W. D. Winnicott. They stand for mother and family, of comfort, of home, and at the same time are the means of moving away into one’s own sphere of being and accomplishing. They are home and not home, mother and not mother, finally altogether, if the bearer of these objects is lucky, an other.

I pushed through a difficult boyhood, did well in Catholic school and then at the university (I was too afraid not to), where I earned a B.A. in English and German and a Ph.D. in American literature. Such an education naturally immersed me in language, especially poetry, which proved as rich as, no, richer than, the Latin of the mass and the sacraments. But when I began to teach college, in Detroit, in the 1970s, academe became for me, a reiteration of the authority of church, family, marriage.

No, I didn’t get tenure at Wayne State University, where I taught from 1972 to 1979 (tenure: meaning the ability or capacity to hold on, as for dear life). I was too young, too immature. I didn’t write enough, or enough of the right kind of thing, using the right “methodology” (the totem of the English Department, which yearned for the power and responsibility not to mention salary of the sciences). I didn’t make connections, or pretend friendships, with those in the department who had the power to confer tenure. I did, however, get immersed in the alchemy of language, anxiety, identity, so that when I would try out an academic paper on my colleagues I’d hear back I didn’t know what I was talking about … but sure could write. By the time I was ejected from Wayne, and then after a Fulbright year teaching in Serbia, trying to make a living through freelance business writing, I was ready to remember and record the occasions, and gifts, that led to my being me, including, if I may conclude thus, this love poem to my wife and apologia for the poetic vocation too.

Poem on the Beautiful Hands of Jennifer

In the half-light of the marriage bed
you take from under the sheets and show me
your incredibly beautiful hands —
small, slim, tapering into flame —
and hold me then to the heat of your breast,
your heart which is choiring in this milky
light, and tell me with your erotically
articulate fingers how close we can be.
As I unfurl from doubt’s tight fist,
from the fetal dark, it dawns on me
how wholly unclenched and open you are —
your fingers which know so well how to sew
and cook and tease a balky piano into music
and stroke a lover ecstatically, a wand
of subtle light and heat that binds me gently
to you, this early hour of the morning,
in the half-light of the marriage bed.

History & Nostalgia

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald, the oracle of the Jazz Age and our age too.

There’s a wonderful Sarah Churchwell essay in the New York Review of Books called “The Oracle of Our Unease” about F. Scott Fitzgerald, local boy made good from St. Paul, Minnesota (where my wife and I lived 16 years). The essay explores a facet of Fitzgerald’s work on the so-called “Jazz Age” (a sobriquet he took credit for) that is not much remarked on, the connection between the horrors of WW I, just completed, and the ebullience and drunkenness of the ’20s.

The essay ends in a summary warning at this political and cultural junction:

Fitzgerald became America’s poet laureate of nostalgia because he understood its perils as well as its allure: nostalgia wants to falsify the past, whereas history tries to clarify it. Gatsby, the emblematic American, is destroyed by nostalgia, his dreams of reclaiming paradise shattered by the “hard malice” of Tom Buchanan’s plutocratic power. Gatsby’s incurable faith in the false promise of renewal—“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”—is America’s. Like Gatsby, we want to recover some idea of ourselves that we’ve lost, to return to the past and find there, intact, our own innocence. Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” is our own—and ensures we keep willfully forgetting that his great aspirations ended dead in the water.

We’ve all read The Great Gatsby, haven’t we? And I hope we continue to read it in high schools and colleges through the nation. Now, almost 100 years after its publication, it sounds the same alarm about plutocracy and democracy. Do we fight, in wars, in elections, merely to keep the rich in place, atop the pile, piling on, adding to their advantage? Or do we demand a little room to breathe for fellow citizens (like George Floyd) and ourselves?

The air may be rare up there, where even the toilets are gold plated, but down here on the ground, in the trenches, “the mud of Gallipoli,” as T. S. Eliot put it, remembering a friend’s death in WW I, we need to sweat and bleed in the common way to make any progress at all.

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen, British poet and soldier. He died at age 25 one week before the signing of the Armistice.

Or course, conservatives constantly prattle about “the city on the hill,” “American exceptionalism,” “Make America Great Again,” and, most facile of all, “patriotism” — the patriotism of the great dead white men and of course the live ones, most of whom didn’t and wouldn’t go to war themselves (can anyone say “bone spurs”?) but would be glad to send the deplorables and the inexorables to the mud for the sake of the country, sure, and the munitions manufacturers.

They haven’t read (what’s reading?) or haven’t heeded the warning of Wilfred Owen’s poem (what’s poetry?) about the Great War, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends in exhortation of those who have not been to war:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Patriotic bullshit. Toxic nostalgia. It’s not sweet, nor is it just, to die for the country. Don’t let ’em tell you that it is. Don’t let ’em wave their flag in your face. Read your history, fight your own fights, and the hell with filial or final piety.

(For an analysis of a more recent misadventure in patriotism and American arms, see Frederic Wehrey’s “This Soldier’s Witness to the Iraq War Lie,” also in the Review of Books.)