Poetry as a group venture

Writers are necessarily engaged in a solitary enterprise.  They work alone with words and try to make sense of a world, however complex or simple it may be. They try to reach out to others with the burden of explaining and clarifying.

A man asserted to the universe that he existed— in Stephen Crane’s words.

A man said to the universe: Sir I exist! However, replied ...

And if the universe doesn’t care, the post-Darwinian, postmodern universe — the man, or woman, whether poet, storyteller, historian, science writer — keeps on writing and trying to make sense.

One way of coming out of his solitariness is to meet with other writers, of course, who may be similarly alone and urgently trying to break out of their skins. So, writers meet in writers’ groups, fiction writers congregating and poets pausing mid-pentameter to sniff each other’s stuff.

A small group of poets has resumed gathering now in Fayetteville, nearly post-Covid, every couple of weeks in a local coffee and beer cafe, and trying to accomplish something human and humane.

We exchange poems and discuss a few ways to market the idea of poetry —in particular, a local poetry collective that can go out and perform in the community and resurrect the idea that poetry is not only entertaining but somehow necessary.

We may not be minstrels who go round and roust up the nobles and peasants alike in the interest of community. But shouldn’t we be able to attract a few people who are tired of streaming media and screaming TV ?And who may not even realize they are sick and tired of these entertainments?

According to dictionary.com, poetry is “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.”

Can’t contemporary poets excite a little pleasure in those for whom words are not simply grunts or commands?

Poetry can be beautiful, surely. It’s necessarily imaginative. It can even be elevated, though this is not necessarily so, not in the 21st century.

To excite anything like popular pleasure, poets must break out of their solitariness, the environment in which they work, and share their stuff with each other, bolstering and criticizing at the same time, urging their words to make more sense and engage with the public.

How do we reach others who may need the solace and the light that poetry can convey? How do we convince them that poetry is not an archaic enterprise, not necessarily or essentially academic or precious, but an integral and saving part of who we can be as humans?

If language is a gift, not simply a transactional commodity (do this, do that, when can I see you again?), then we are give and receive if we read and write and listen to poetry. A poet is a maker (from the Greek poiētḗs), and he makes things happen. He opens eyes. He taps into primal and insistent impulses. Yes, yes, yes, we all want to live before we die. We  want to know and feel what it is to live and to share this gift with you.

Poetry can and should be exciting. It may be entertaining. But it’s primary aim is not to compete with TV or the movies. It has something deeper and sometimes more subversive in mind.

 

Found poems

For some time now I’ve been fascinated with found poems. Found poems? What are they?

I don’t mean poems found while leafing through books or journals. I don’t mean reacquainting oneself with poems learned or loved in school.

I mean finding preexisting language that, despite its unpromising context and sometimes strictly practical uses, suggests and can readily be adapted into poetry.

I mean verbal artifacts found in books, magazines, journals, wine labels and reviews, advertisements, technical descriptions, correspondence (letters, emails, text messages), and throwaway lines from conversations.

Collage by my friend, the graphic artist Dan Thornhill, Little Rock, Arkansas.

As critics have pointed out, found poems are kinds of collages, bits and pieces of verbal debris, could be, plucked out of various contexts and put together by he/she who has eyes to see and can supply the mucilage of alert observation and interest.

Can’t remember when I first began writing found poems, maybe 20 years ago or more, but lately my attention has been fixed on these patches of language. Things I read in the newspaper, like readers’ comments, become all too easily a poem. Often I make such a pastiche out of one source, but it can come from several in the typical way that a graphic collage comes together.

Here’s one I just plucked the other day, for example, from the Washington Post, not an article but comments on the article supplied by readers.  The comments are so quick, keen, fresh, demotic, however educated many of these readers seem to be, that they practically compile themselves. All the observer has to do is a little choosing and editing.

Supreme Court Rejects Trump’s Bid to Shield Tax Returns
Reader comments, Washington Post article of 2/22/21

Yes, the Witch Hunters are closing in.
The Orange Blob’s lifelong crime show
comes to an end. Get your popcorn ready.
He would not last a week on Riker’s Island.
What will Spanky McBonespurs’ defense be now?
For a good laugh, tune into Carlson or Hannity
tonight. Bad day for Former Guy. Bet he wishes
he’d chosen Manaford and Stone for the court.
Lock him up and throw away the key. A good last
30 days: Biden president, Limbaugh dead, and
Vance is closing in on Trump’s tax records.

So what such a composition lacks in clarity or consecutiveness pales in comparison to the vigor and humor of the language. Here is where the people, the verbal people, exact and enact their revenge against the president’s dull-witted idiocy. 

Clarity and consecutiveness, at any rate, may be more the stuff of prose, especially expository prose, than poetry. The poet yearns for freshness and surprise — and keeping his eyes and ears open finds it everywhere.

Unity, however, is a more elusive quality that the found poem poet must look for. All the stuff in the poem must belong together, in one way or another, however surprising and apparently out of context it might at first appear to be. The poet uses what Hart Crane (1899–1932) might have called “the logic of metaphor.” It’s another, a different logic than the rational and organizational world insists on. An older, more archaic logic of emotional and visceral connection.

So I leave you with another found poem I found, or put together, just the other day, after being bombarded for a week or two with a newly found poem just about every day. I wondered how you could instruct, or encourage, other poets to try their hand at found poems. Or at least to explain how the game works and what it’s worth. Here goes:

How to Write a Found Poem

It’s like collage, those in the know
say, from French colle paste, glue
(<Greek kólla) + –age, as in mucilage,
I’d add, Middle English muscilage
<Middle French musillage <Late
Latin mūcilāgō a musty juice, akin
to mūcēre to be musty. See mucor 
if you must. But hold on, what’s 
the point here? Oh, yes, collage and 
mucilage! So what you need to do,
ephebe, to write a found poem is to
find it in the stuff of every day, 
the natural or not, who cares, speech 
of men and women as they work 
and play and carry on, for example, 
newspaper comments, want ads 
(personal or not), oral interviews, 
old letters, the blab of the pave 
perhaps, a story heard or overheard, 
and then fix your attention like good 
strong glue on the essence, the fresh 
phrase, you can throw out all the chaff,
you jackdaw, you chuff, just seize
the good stuff in your beak, don’t
hold back like that, what are you
thinking? there’s so much of it,
dear people, and all so good!

You might have caught some of the sources here, more varied than in the first poem above: the dictionary obviously and then the poets Wordworth (“the natural speech of men”), Whitman (“blab of the pave”), Wallace Stevens (“ephebe”), and W. C. Williams (“what are you thinking,” from “Tract”). Wherever and whatever your sources, pluck them boldly and let them shine in the new context you both perceive and create.

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.

Patriot: has it come down to this?

These days the words “patriot” and “patriotism” have been getting a rough ride. They’ve been coopted, as I’m sure you know, by right-wing conservatives, or, let’s be a little nicer here in our distinctions, radicals and even traitors.

It’s easy to grab a flag and wave it, or wave a word, or wave your dick, for that matter, if that’s all you have to wave. To make a big display out of something that you don’t begin to understand.

In the wake of the mob riot at the Capitol, on January 6, we might consider these titbits in the news:

  • The waving of many flags, and the indecorous wearing of flags, on the part of the mob as they assaulted the Capitol.
  • Ivanka Trump’s reference to these mobsters, her father’s own mob, as “American patriots” … and the reaction from Bob Sommer, a good friend of her criminally convicted and then pardoned father-in-law, who told her he was “horrified I attended your wedding.”
  • The same unconvincing honorific “patriot” applied to the mob by state legislators from Virginia and West Virginia.
  • Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, an enthusiastic defender of Trump for far too long, that is, sycophant and bootlicker, being cursed by an airport mob as he was getting out of D.C., one of the vulgarly hystericals being “Mindy Robinson, who describes herself as a conservative activist and host of ‘Red White and F You: Unapologetically Patriotic.’” 

Trump-behind-glass

Image 1 of 4

Trump addressing supporters from behind glass and flag, 6 Jan 2021.

You would think that if people knew anything about the English language that they profess to speak, they would know what “patriot” means and meant. While the definition of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, is “one who loves and supports his or her country,” that common and I would say superficial meaning has been amply qualified through the years. As Merriam-Webster also says, in a long disquisition on the word, “The word patriot signifies a person who loves his or her country and is ready to boldly support and defend it. That meaning has endured since the word’s arrival in English in the 16th century, but it has not marched through the years unchallenged.”

It would be worthwhile for all of us to read M-W’s longer, historical discussion of the word, including its use in both Europe and America to distinguish between “good patriots” and “false patriots,” in other words, those who are unlike us, whatever we are like or whatever we like.

The more education you have, could be, the more you want to mull and gnaw and digest what abstract words like patriotism really mean. In this case, don’t you want to know what exactly does it mean to love your country and support it?

In my years in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, which coincided with our misadventure in Vietnam, I was reading modernist poets including Ezra Pound, whose take on the old Roman poet Horace’s idea of patriotism would light a torch in me. While Horace proclaimed, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” that is, it’s sweet and right to die for one’s country, Pound, in the wake of the disastrous folly of WW I, wrote in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly”:

Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor … 
 
walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy …
 
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

And of course there’s the famous poem by Wilfred Owen, a British poet and soldier who died in WW I, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which ends:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
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.

When I was studying in Texas, and getting tear-gassed marching on the state capitol (which we never reached, state workers hanging out the windows and shouting to the police, “Kill ’em! Kill ’em!”), common redneck bumper stickers included “America, love it or leave it” and “My country right or wrong.”

No, I think if we love our country we reprove it, and improve it, when it’s wrong, as it has been on many occasions. It was wrong, under LBJ, to get involved in the Vietnam War. It was wrong, under George W. Bush, to invade Iraq. And it was wrong, during much of these past four years under Trump, to suppress voting rights and civil rights, deny climate change, and rile up an ignorant populace.

These Trump years remind me of the fable of the belly and the members that Shakespeare uses in Coriolanus, one of his history plays. A mob of plebians is complaining how the patrician rulers get all the food and do none of the work, but then the patrician Menenius Agrippa explains to them:

The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?

Whatever you think about the patrician bias of such advice, the point is clear on many levels that riotous behavior reduces rather than affirms or augments the state. A mob of fools, or asses, or toes, as Menenius suggests, does not assure the health of the whole; rather, blessings come from above and flow throughout the body. Or, I would say, blessings come from the whole and are distributed to the parts.

If it is time, from time to time, for Liberty to be leading the people, let’s make sure that Liberty is a wise guide, not a wise guy, a dummkopf, an ass like Trump — a figure with moral and intellectual bel-esprit. Loving our country, finally, being true patriots, requires care and calm and vigilance as well as the gift of discernment.

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?

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.)

Politics

William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in his later years.

The poet William Butler Yeats wrote “Politics” in 1938, on the eve of WW II. It’s a short poem and a provocation, seems to me, in times like these.

“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” — Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Yeats wrote this ditty in May 1938 and died the following January. So, yes, the world was on the verge of WW II and Yeats was on the verge of dying. A no longer young man’s thoughts turn to spring, or the springtime of Eros, as signified by the girl he sees on the street.

But is Hitler going to slow down for a girl? Is Donald Trump?

Well, let me rephrase that. Hitler had Eva Braun and his world of hate. Trump has his hatred if minorities and immigrants — and as many women as he can molest and get away with.

We understand why old folks regret their dying, their passing into eternity. In “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Yeats wrote, “An aged man is but a paltry thing” unless he invests in soul or sails to Byzantium:

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Without exaggerating the state of the planet at this time, and gods know it’s bad enough, with floods and hurricanes in one place, fires in another, man the consuming and exploiting animal dominating nature, as if he would gladly wipe it out entirely, I would suggest not sex or politics as the answer to our problem but poetry.

Poetry is the most speculative of the arts. It can range hither and thither, up into the celestial regions, down into hell, searching for the answers to the eternal questions: who are we and what in the devil are we doing on this planet?

Politics is the art of the city (polis), of living together in cities and communities and trying to make a go of it. Sex is, well, you know what sex is, the conjunction of bodies and sometimes minds with them, in celestial and/or diabolical alignment.

So while we decide here in the USA on Trump vs. Biden, this autumn of the Year of Our Lord (if any) 2020, let’s not forget the offices of poetry: why are we here? to what end? and how do we explain this miracle of being?

(But of course poetry is an aspect of Byzantium. The poem that Yeats created praising and parsing politics and Eros is an aspect of the “artifice of eternity.”)