So my sister-in-law Pam gives me for Christmas a desk calendar called “A Daily Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue,” including “colorful curses useful in the 18th century — and useful now.”
Oh, what fun it is to sing a slaying song tonight!
A song, that is, that may slay decency and put to rest the common notions of decorum.
The “Vulgar Tongue” entry for January 1, New Year’s Day, is a good if curious beginning — not a curse or a swear word but more a humorous euphemism: “wrapt up in warm flannel,” which is said to mean “Drunk with spiritous liquors.” Sounds like an old English phrase or Irish, it could be. One doesn’t want to disturb the company, so chuckles as he explains his condition the previous evening, which may have been New Year’s Eve.
At my age, said to be 73, and in our state, which is not simply Arkansas but the state of the Covid pandemic, I did not go rousting last night, with or without my wife. We stayed home, had a good supper, and watched, each of us left to our own device(s), a movie. Jen opened a little Malbec and watched a movie on her iPad, while I wrapped myself in the flannel of my favorite box wine, Bota Box Nighthawk Black, Rich Red Wine blend, but not so rich a poor man can’t afford it (about $18 for three liters, the same as four 750 ml bottles), and a shot or two or three of Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey (about $18 for a 750 ml bottle).
In this condition I watched on the living room TV about half of a new movie called “The Professor and the Madman,” which was intriguing if a bit bloody. In fact, I quit at the midway point, well before midnight, when the plot seemed to be thickening or bloodying. You know me. I can’t stand too much blood. (Can I?) The movie involves the unlikely collaboration between the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a Scottish autodidact named James Murray (Mel Gibson), and the American MD William Chester Minor (Sean Penn) who in London delusively shoots and kills a man he believes is his enemy. He’s locked up and only gradually recovers his sanity through books, through which he contributes amply and crucially to the new dictionary.
But the point here is not a movie review, is it? But the introduction, in fact, of a phrase that’s new to me, and perhaps to you, in the ample bosom of our mother tongue. (Pardon the mixed metaphor! Argh!)
So if you too found yourself last night, or any time recently, wrapped in warm flannel, don’t just throw off the covers, please. Try the hair of the dog that bit you, would you? Another vulgar and improbable phrase fit for a king or beggar.
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.
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.
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.
The other night — actually three nights — I watched the Netflix documentary American Murder: The Family Next Door about the Colorado man, Chris Watts, who killed his pregnant wife and two baby daughters in the summer of 2019. It took me three nights not because the film was so long but because it was so painful.
Watts worked for Anadarko, the oil and gas exploration company, and the night his wife returned to him from an out-of-town conference he had sex with her and then confessed he no longer loved her. He was working out like a maniac, chiseling his body for the sake of his ego and his new GF and chiseling his wife in the bargain, as he adamantly denied he was interested in anybody else. He was making love to her that last night, he was fessing up that he did not love her, and then he strangled her in the bed.
He took the wife’s body to his truck and packed in the two girls, three and four years old also, who were crying and asking what was wrong with mommy. He drove to a worksite and laid the wife’s body on the ground, then strangled both girls, the younger, then the older, and threw the bodies into an oil storage tank.
You see what I mean? This is hideous and incomprehensible.
One of the lines that struck me in the film is one of the little girls skipping and singing, “I love school!”
But her father hadn’t learned much. He was a liar, in short. He was quieter than his wife, Shanann, who was passionate and frantically needed to be loved. She would text her girlfriends about Chris’s indifference and his lack of interest in her. She would hope to be lucky, that night, she would tell her friends, but Chris was not interested.
He was interested in working out, which he would do in lieu of talking to her or leveling with her or doing things with the family. He would bite his tongue till the blood roiled and keep his feelings to himself.
After the murders he told investigators, when he began to break, that his wife had strangled the girls, so he strangled her. That wasn’t true, of course.
He denied he had an extramarital love interest. And that wasn’t true.
Even his friends knew something was wrong. He was ordinarily such a calm, or should we say repressed, character, and here he was in the presence of investigators, in his house at first, acting weirdly nervous.
The wife doesn’t come across in the film as a very sympathetic figure — too needy and wheedling. But that’s no reason to kill her, as witnesses say. Why not simply leave her and the girls? Go with the GF and create a new life?
There was something darkly, demoniacally compelling, though.
“Every time I think about it, I’m just like, did I know I was going to do that before I got on top of her?” he told investigators. “It just felt like there was already something in my mind that was implanted that I was gonna do it and when I woke up that morning it was gonna happen and I had no control over it.”
This despite his apparent, or overt, Christianity. Chris Watts and his wife both hailed from North Carolina, part of the Bible Belt, and Watts’ father could not believe his son had committed murder. “In my heart,” he told ABC News, “I know he didn’t kill those girls.” After all, he “knows the Bible inside and out.”
Just finished watching Netflix’s 4-part documentary on the Challenger disaster of 28 January 1986, Challenger: The Final Flight. This tragedy, or rather disaster, occurred almost 35 years ago, and my memory of the event was fuzzy to say the least. I say disaster, advisedly, as in a fateful event brought on by bad luck and bad stars, not tragedy, which in the classic sense means the fatal flaw of a great man and his subsequent fall. The disaster of the Challenger owes not to the faults of any man but of the system in which all NASA men and women and their contractors were involved.
Obviously, the work of assembling a rocket and launching astronauts into space is an enormously complex and difficult undertaking. The science and technology of the enterprise are mind-boggling. Much simpler, but perhaps more mind-boggling, however, are the management systems that sanctioned the launch of the Challenger vehicle and the loss of the seven human lives that exploded with the vehicle 74 seconds after launch.
If you work in a sizable company or corporation, or an institution like academe, you’re no doubt aware of how quickly the systems can go askew. You’ve sat through meetings, long and draining meetings in which one or the other party asserts his will to power and insists, explicitly or not, on his predominance in the hierarchy. You go along with him or, so the feeling might be, lose your job or your standing in the group.
This is what happened with the Challenger. The engineers for Morton Thiokol, which designed and manufactured the O-rings used in the joints of the solid-fuel rockets, all testified to the unreliability of these crucial parts in cold weather. But in the face of an ambitious launch schedule NASA browbeat Thiokol: what should they do, wait till April for a warm day? The Thiokol GM, deciding to put on his manager hat not his engineer hat, reversed the company’s decision and signed a document okaying the launch for the next day, when the temps were to drop well below freezing. (One of the witnesses in the film calls this a “save your ass” document which NASA required in order to deny or deflect blame.)
The problem of complex systems that I’m addressing here is not so much technical as psychological. It’s in the nature of human beings to go along and get along, to submit to the superior force or bullying power of those in charge, to be social or socioeconomic not conscientious animals. The Thiokol GM was doing this vis-a-vis the NASA manager. The Thiokol engineers were doing this, willy-nilly, vis-a-vis their GM. They may well have regretted not having the guts to challenge him more forcibly or at least, as one of them argued, to record on the document their dissenting opinions.
To this day, the Thiokol GM defends his decision, even if no one else does (on the Netflix film). It’s hard to watch, this stubborn old man justifying the decision that resulted in those seven deaths and the billions of dollars wasted. But he’s defending both himself and the system, of which he remains, insistently, a part. The hell with the billions of dollars, in fact. Challenger: The Final Flight makes amply clear the pain and grief of the survivors of the astronauts, the shock to the nation, and the difficulty of bringing out the truth in the Rogers commission which investigated the disaster.
I’m not arguing here for individual rights or narcissistic prerogative. But for doing the right thing for the sake of those who have the right stuff. For individual courage in the face of collective cowardice.
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.
It’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.
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
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!
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.”
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?
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.
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
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?
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
So you thought poetry was all lovey-dovey romance and romping in the flowers?
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.
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.
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.
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
Thank God I Survived Twice: The Story of Two Lung Transplants
Within the Rib Cage
Branching Passages of Air
Double Your Pleasure
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!