“Frame,” an apparently simple poem

These next few weeks I wish to present in these pages a few of the poems making up my new, second book of poems Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around

And use them to illustrate a few of the poetic qualities I’d like to suggest in these poems.

Here’s the very first poem in the book, “Frame,” in the first section (“Words, Words, Words”) of eight sections that the book comprises.

Frame
By way of epigraph

I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

By itself this poem may not look like much; but as an introduction to the book, it announces a couple of important themes and sets the tone for the whole.

It’s brief, obviously. So, as far as selection goes, there’s not too much I’ve put in the poem … or risked overloading it with. But the briefness, or tautness, I think, suggests more than initially meets the eye.

The quatrain announces that I’m framing the whole book, or approach to the book, in terms of the themes of art and mortality. Here is a group of found poems (77 in all) that well might have been lost to time and attention had they not been assembled and packaged here. Bits of language, I mean, that I’ve gathered up and put inside the frame of a book. Yes, they existed outside the book — in other books, articles, newspapers, fragments of speech that once hung in the air — but are here gathered up and framed, and so presented as a whole, for the first, and only, time.

And why do such a thing? Why beg, borrow, steal bits and pieces of discourse from such varied sources? 

… so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

The collection is not others’ now, not the original authors’, editors’, speakers’. Nor is it mine, the poet’s, exclusively. It belongs to you as well as me. It’s shared discourse or communication we’ve arranged between us through our efforts of writing and reading. 

And what good does this exercise do us? 

You may have to read more of the book to know. Or to tell me what you think of our mutual efforts. For my part, I think the communication even here, in this one stanza, is a communion too, something that unites us, for a moment, in “this brief space of time,”  not necessarily anything sacred or transcendent but the time we spend reading and writing, the time of our lives, which is not simply the empirical continuum, the line that ends in death for us all, of course, the flat line of our end, but is the time-space continuum in which our lives begin, endure, encompass so much, and end.

You think I’m stretching it here — the thin red line of this simple-looking quatrain? Maybe so, but I was trained in reading and writing literature and literary criticism. There’s a lot that can be seen in a short poem like this if the words chosen are well chosen and somehow point to common human ends and enterprises.

 

 

Selection and syntax

In my last entry, dated 8 October 2021, I made a few suggestions about the craft of poetry, citing “selection and syntax” as two of the principal tools that poets use to achieve their ends. 

Let me enlarge on that idea here, and refine it too.

Be selective

John Ashberry
John Ashberry, American poet, 1927–2017

Selection, first, means we are selective, yes? We may throw in everything but the kitchen sink in our first drafts. After all, we may well be compelled by a crazy buzz, an inspiration, and the heat of the moment is a chance we don’t want to let pass by. But what’s produced is a first draft. It’s molten. Let it cool. Then see when red hot turns to blue how many impurities remain.

They’re embarrassing, from the distance of time and reflection. They’re included in the heat of the moment, sure, but now look uncouth, not cool. They mock our vanity, our impetuousness.

Of course, I’m presuming the poet is capable of a certain critical distance. And this may not always be true. You see this foolish attachment to self in amateur poetry, the kind of stuff people throw up in Facebook and elsewhere on the web. There’s a sense of entitlement and stubborn pride here. I wrote it, therefore it stands as written. But we all know, if we’d acknowledge it, that modesty is in order; that we haven’t written a poetic masterpiece in the ten minutes we slapped and dashed out this morning’s poem. (Maybe Mozart could do this. The rest of us? Unlikely.)

Here’s a typical poem from an amateur site, a good start by a talented teenager (this is from 2014, and I don’t see anything very recent by this poet: has she revised the poem? has she stopped writing altogether, alas?):

Hand me another drink
Soupy slurred words slide from her lips and drip to the floor,
Mixing in with the pool of regurgitated gin and tonic.
Her mouth is bitter but her thoughts are true;
Only the drunk can tell the truth.
Her incoherent words fall to the floor followed closely by her slouched figure and salty tears.
She sleeps on the bathroom floor …

Okay, the first line is great: no words wasted here. “Soupy slurred,” though? And then “slide”? I get the attachment to sound for sound’s sake. Poets are suckers for sounds, after all. (Never weaned properly, as Donald Barthelme might say.) Sound fights against sense, but sense, even common sense or a sense of fun, I think, would suggest something more regularly rhythmic and compressed here, e.g.,

She slurred her words, I think.
They dripped on the floor 
and what’s more
mixed with her vomited
gin and tonic. It’s
disgraceful …

But I don’t presume to write, or rewrite the poem, merely suggest that poetry is usually not prose. It’s more rhythmic, it aims for beauty, even beauty in travesty, as here; and it uses formal devices to achieve these ends.

Her mouth is bitter but her thoughts are true,
She spews in order not to be blue …

You see how long and slouchy the penultimate line is (“Her incoherent words …”). Jump on it. Cut it in half. It’s a hissing, slouching snake, and must be wrangled into submission.

Selection, then, is being selective, choosy, fussy. Your first inspiration may be great. But the game is 90% perspiration, remember. The first draft is generally just a first draft, a rough approximation of what you can end up with.

Here’s another half-finished poem, from Facebook. I’m not going to comment on it, but leave it to you. What would you change here, and why? What would you leave out, and what put in?

What do I have left
empty words scattered across blind space
images of yet another dream, forgotten
I link these thoughts yet nothing remains
the death of a poem daily resounds,
heavily in my mind
we don’t know each other but we still share
all these hopes fragmented by distance
and the past echoes a call, a sound
asking for truths, for answers
while I am lost momentarily,
in delicious failed metaphors, limply hanging, in darkened gardens of night

Control your syntax

As for syntax, the second tool, its use in poetry may be harder to explain.

Syntax is the order of words in a sentence. Some people write short, simple sentences, others long and complex. Obviously, there’s no right way to write sentences in poetry. Realistic prose may demand short, Hemingwayesque sentences. Bu poetry is another beast.

Syntax in poetry is the ability to control the shape, form, and length of your sentences, whether they’re long, short, or in between. And the chief guide in this matter is your reading. Which writers do you read and admire? Which do you learn from?

If you read only Hemingway and admire him, you may end up as his epigone or imitator. If you read Faulkner, you’re traveling another road.

William Faulker
William Faulkner, great American prose stylist and Nobel Prize winner, 1897–1962.

When it comes to poets, some may write long and prolix sentences like Faulkner. I think of Walt Whitman, Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, and John Ashberry. But at their best, these poets show complete control of the long line, mastery, as in this stanza from Ashberry’s “The Painter”:

Imagine a painter crucified by his subject!
Too exhausted even to lift his brush,
He provoked some artists leaning from the buildings
To malicious mirth: “We haven’t a prayer
Now, of putting ourselves on canvas,
Or getting the sea to sit for a portrait!”

This is a poem of sestets, stanzas of six lines, plus a closing tercet. In the sestet quoted above, there are only two sentences. The first is the opening line. The second is the rest of the stanza (though you could say that second sentence contains another, the quoted material). 

This is a wonderful stanza, and it stands as written — without excess verbiage and in complete syntactical control.

In my own case, I tend to write long sentences — the result perhaps of reading Whitman, Faulkner, Melville, Moore, Ashberry. But I feel I can control the sentence, even such a long, tortuous sentence as begins this poem from my recent second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around:

Myopia: Word of the Day
For Jen again

You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is
myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek
myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.

This kind of syntax may require more trained attention than the average poem asks of us. May reflect my academic background as teacher and writer. May be a taste that must be acquired. But for me, let me say simply enough, it’s part of the voice I have developed through a lifetime of reading, writing, and feeling. That last sentence, incidentally, “Let that be a lesson,” is a tribute to the academy and a mockery of it too, a very short, didactic utterance in a long, even long-winded poem. (I certainly did not write the poem to teach anybody a lesson, especially my wife, but to learn what kind of lesson there might be in taking a word and idea from the dictionary and weaving it into a meditation of a married life.)

Questions? Comments? Agreements? Disagreements? I welcome ’em all. Thanks for reading.

A few sugggestions about the craft of poetry

I’ve been asked by a business friend on the East Coast to host a one-hour Zoom session later this month on the craft of poetry — this in the wake of publishing, just this week, my second book of poetry, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around.

Cover of the paperback edition of Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around (2021).

The title of the collection might seem to suggest there’s not much craft involved in writing poetry, or found poetry, anyway, which is what I’m doing here. But that suggestion is misleading.

In fact, finding poetry all around is very much a crafty case of keeping the senses alert and attuned to the possibilities of poetry. And then knowing what to do with these possibilities. If you aren’t alert to language, how can you be a poet? Language is your medium, the air you breathe, the soup in which you swim.

Your poetic senses or sense of poetry depends on language.

Here are some likely sources for poetry, especially found poetry: 

      • An odd remark by a friend or a passer-by
      • A line or two in a newspaper article
      • A passage in a book
      • An obituary
      • A dictionary entry
      • A song

Yes, it’s the job of the poet to be attentive, or attuned, to the music in the air. Not just melody but rhythm, stress, dissonance, oddity.

In the foreword to Lost & Found, I cite “selection and syntax” as principal tools a poet uses in turning everyday sources into poetry. He or she must know what is linguistically impressive, or odd, or resonant. Then has to know how to turn such oddities, whether long or short, into lines of verse.  (Verse means, at its root, a turning: the poet plows ground to the end of the line, then turns around and plows one more furrow, whether he’s writing iambic pentameter or free verse.)

But let me give a few real-world examples from the book:

      • “Frame”
      • “Poem in Form of To-do List”
      • “Orchidaceous”

“Frame” is the first poem in the book and a suitable gateway to the book as a whole. This short quatrain, founded on slant and repeated rhyme, might have taken root simply in the idea of losing and finding, as the title of the book proclaims. That and the notion of the frame, which I’ve meditated from time to time, because like many of you I’m interested in painting and decor, I mean hanging stuff on our walls that brightens or tones our day, gazing at it, admiring it, inviting friends to gaze and admire. 

Frame
By way of epigraph

I put a frame around it
so I can say I found it,
so I can say it’s yours and mine
for this brief space of time.

Wouldn’t it be supercool, I mean, if poets and writers, like painters, could hang their stuff on the wall and so impress or stop in their tracks the passerby or guest? I’m jealous of these confounded exhibitionists! Why can’t I do what they do with my craft?

“Frame” acts as an epigraph, or epigram, to all the poems of the book. I’m saying here that the material I’ve found, or cribbed, is art or poetry simply because I place it in the context of art, in this case, the framework or casework of a book. I separate a stray remark from the ephemeral world in which it is uttered and lost — you know, the kind of odd or funny remark we might laugh at one moment and forget the next. The poet wants to find the remark unforgettable, so arranges to put it in a frame where it won’t be forgotten. This kind of capture, like photography, freezes a moment and makes it available to the future.

But finding and freezing a remark is just half the battle: the poet also has to share what she’s captured with the world: “so I can say it’s yours and mine.” An authorial gesture becomes a communion, something she has in common with the audience she finds in writing the poems.

And, of course, that sharing, like all forms of human sharing, exists only “for this brief space of time.” You may consider this space to be the space of the poem, or the volume of poems, or the space of our lives. Life is indeed short, and if art is long it may not be forever but let’s enjoy it while we can. Indeed, it’s this poignant tension between the moment and the timeless that turns us to art as both producers and consumers.

The second poem I’ll cite here is another kind of animal. It doesn’t rely on rhyme, or even reason, to make its point, though the point may be much the same as that of “Frame.”

Poem in Form of To-do List

        • Finish Claudia’s website
        • Wash summer clothes
        • Practice Gregg shorthand
        • Organize your lives on hard drives
        • Buy 6-volt lantern for camping and tornadoes
        • Tell Jen you love her
        • Drive Mom to salon (if Mom were only here)
        • Snap pix of armadillos DOR (you’re not in Minnesota anymore)
        • Tell Diana how much you care
        • Study Djokovic’s lethal backhand
        • Tell Tom he’s a no good dirty bastard
        • Plan family reunion
        • Ask Jen what she meant by the child that died
        • Help in kitchen (only if she asks)
        • Meditate on where you’ve been and where the hell you’re going

This list poem may look like an everyday to-do list in some respects. In fact, I might have recorded some of these items in a practical, or transactional, list I was keeping a few summers back:

      • Claudia is a Mexican painter friend, whose website I created and kept for a number of years.
      • When summer approaches, you’d better get the summer clothes out of the attic and freshen them up, no?
      • Summer is the season of camping, and you don’t want to do all of it in the dark, do you? Get a light. And keep it in the closet, too, in the spring season of tornadoes. (My wife went through a tornado when she was a girl, or should I say a tornado went through her or her house, and she always keeps survivalist gear, including lights, in the closet.)

But a list of literal things to do tends to suggest things that are not literal, not practical or transactional — the things having to do with the brevity of light, life, leisure, summer:

      • Organize your lives, your various lives (as poet, spouse, parent, friend), on hard and durable drives, whether on your computer, or in the form of publications, or as impressions of the drive or life force you leave behind with friends and family.
      • Think of your dead mother and her faded beauty, her faded life.
      • The child that died? Maybe my wife, Jen, said something literal about a child that died. Maybe I was thinking of the times she had a miscarriage and abortion.

A list or catalog poem is not difficult, but depends as you see here on both the literal and the figurative. It’s an exercise in association. One thing, on the surface, suggests another, which may be lurking just below the surface or in chthonic depths.

Again, as with the “Frame” poem, this to-do poem dredges up stuff that ordinarily would be kept in mind briefly, then forgotten. Poetry, like other arts, seems to have as motive power the idea of saving, shaping, and preserving. The distraction and detritus of our mental life are transformed into something more durable, more formally impressive, more suggestive, more sharable.

Finally, in this blog, let me offer one of my dictionary poems for your consideration.

Myopia: Word of the Day
For Jen again

You say you can’t see anything beyond
the tip of your nose, my love, yet if this is
myopia it may owe, after all, to the Greek
myōpía, “nearsightedness,” i.e. (id est),
to use a Latinism, something contagious
and coming down to you, honestly enough,
through the obscure centuries, deriving
from mýein “to close the eyes or mouth”
(close kin to the Latin mūtus “inarticulate,
dumb, silent” or, as we’d say in English,
“mute,” which, true enough, sweetheart,
you have seldom been). Consider too mystikós,
“connected with the mysteries,” or “mystic,”
an enchanted Greek isle perhaps? Let’s not
forget also -ōpía, a combining form of ṓps
(stem ōp-), meaning “eye, face, countenance,”
and the gods know yours are beautiful: opa!
Yet what doth it profit a man, or woman,
to gain the entire world if he/she closes
the eyes, or mouth, and trips over the obvious,
a metaphorical sense, “inability or unwillingness
to act prudently,” developed in English only
at the hyperopic end of the 19th century.
So look, look, look, my true love, and see.
Here we are then, you and me, together
this blazing instant. Let that be a lesson.

Background here: my wife had cataract surgery recently, which didn’t go too well. Her vision seemed impaired, not improved, for some time after the operation.

Transitions, first book poetry
Cover of paperback version of Transitions: Early Poems, 1979–1989.

But dictionary poems? How ghastly! you might think. Who wants to rummage in a dictionary to write a poem or read it? Sorry, friends. I was an academic for maybe 15 years, teaching college English (writing and literature). I was in academe, that is, though never truly, fully of it. (But that’s another story, suggested in my first volume, Transitions.)

The dictionary, as I say somewhere in the endnotes to Lost & Found, can be considered “the history of our travels as a human race, our longings, mergings, conquests, accommodations to other tribes and peoples.” Take just about any word in the dictionary, read its definition, consult the etymology: where it came from, how it’s used now, where it might be going. Isn’t this about the most thrilling and “diverse” journey you can imagine? Every time we use an English word, we invoke our nameless, faceless ancestors, from whatever tribe, and the tribes they fought and fucked. We catch ourselves up in the history of the races, our races, however obscure, and our race to catch up, using such words, with the modern worlds of both commerce and art.

Well, this consideration may or may not be helpful to you if you’re a poet. It’s not a how-to guide, for sure. Not 10 Easy Steps to Transform Vague Emotions into Finished Poetry. No, it’s a few  suggestions, that’s all, about some of the resources we might use to transform raw materials. Or to understand how poets work with these materials.

      • Memory
      • Free association
      • Sound association (rhyme, off rhyme, repetition)
      • Transactive discourses (lists, thank you and welcome notes)
      • Dictionaries

That’s all I know, for now anyway. Any questions or suggestions? I’d be delighted to take them up and consider them in these pages.

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.

 

Her small, neat hand

My wife at age 18, just before I met her, née Jennifer Saltzman.

“Sprechen Sie deutsch?” I asked the young Fräulein in our first German class, University of Minnesota, January 1966, Ms. Jennifer Saltzman. She was neat and trim, cut a lovely figure, and sported dark bangs  that framed her face and earned her in high school the name Cleo. 

The next autumn, the beginning of our sophomore year, Jen walked with me to an independent bookstore on the West Bank of the university (the west side of the Mississippi Rover, which divides the campus). I bought a Funk & Wagnalls German dictionary (pardon my French), and she signed the inside cover with my name and the address of the Sigma Chi fraternity house where I was living.

The Cassell’s German-English dictionary Jen signed for me, autumn 1966.
Jen’s inscription in my German-English dictionary, autumn 1966.

I showed this dictionary the other day to our son Gabriel Zeck and Heidi Sheggeby Zeck when they came over for dinner. (Jen and I have been married now over 50 years.) Jen has always had a very pretty hand. About the time she accompanied me to the book store, I had graduated from the formal Sie to the informal du and was requesting favors like “Gib’ mir doch dein kleine Tatze!” (Give me your pretty little paw, pretty please!).

The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1794–1832. He wrote poetry, dramas, novels, autobiography, and scientific papers.

I must confess I copped this last phrase from my German studies. It’s one version of what the great writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was supposed to have said, to his wife, on his deathbed — a nice, homely, sentimental epitaph. In the more sublime version, Goethe says, “Mehr Licht!” (More light!).

Take one, or both. The choice is yours. The option is certain Goethean or Shakespearean, as great artists know how to fly low and high, play to the groundlings and the box seats. Marriage, too, though another topic, can be sublime and boring, quotidian and divine; but that is a topic for another time.

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.

Good Old Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Revising a poem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the question is posed but not answered. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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

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

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

Landscape as ethical condition

In a Paris Review interview, Italian poet Antonella Anedda makes a poignant case for why we should honor the land around us. All too often, she says, the land is but an afterthought, something to take and use and scar, and then so what?

Geology has made me aware of the insignificance of human presence, of the absence of an intelligent design. The landscape of La Maddalena and Sardinia is harsh and barren and windswept. The vegetation is sparse, but also, often enough, scarred by arson, for humans have wounded the landscape as well. Since the early eighteenth century, when Sardinia was ruled by the House of Savoy, systematic deforestation was the policy.

… when the landscape is wounded by greed and speculation … has been scarred . . . the landscape that surrounds us … reminds us that we are not the masters of the natural world. It is an ethical condition. What is happening to the landscape in Sardinia and elsewhere is deeply worrying. Landscape has a relation, a spatial relation, to rhythm in poetry.

Maddalena
La Maddalena is the main island in an archipelago of the same name, off the northern coast of Sardinia.

Anedda’s formulation strikes me as true, exact, right on. Who can stand in the middle of a landscape like the granite of La Maddalena, or the limestone of the Ozarks where I live, or the Rocky Mountains, or a fragile desert, for that matter, and not feel awe? Not feel that we are transient compared with the rhythms of “rocks, and stones, and trees” (William Wordsworth, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”) that roll us around and our loved ones who inexplicably and inevitably fall and die.

The Lake District
The Lake District of northwest England through which William Wordsworth walked and mused (long before modern tourists).

And an awe bound up, as Anedda suggests, with the silence and solitude of the land, the terrestrial rhythms that permeate nature and take us back to archaic times. Even the dullest of us has to feel that we’re trespassing when we step into the vastness and silence of nature; feel that we’re displacing the land, or the land (soon enough) will be displacing us and our petty individual lives. 

Like Wordsworth, a later English poet, Charlotte Mew (1869-1928), recounts an abandonment to nature, in a poem called “Moorland Night”:

My face is against the grass — the moorland grass is wet —
My eyes are shut against the grass, against my lips there are the little        blades,
Over my head the curlews call, And now there is the night wind in my        hair;
My heart is against the grass and the sweet earth,– it has gone still, at      last;
It does not want to beat any more,
And why should it beat?
This is the end of the journey.
The Thing is found.

We’ve all had an inkling of that final thing, I would think, and if not had best get around to it before we find ourselves (that is, lose ourselves entirely) in a landscape of ruin.

Here and now in the States, at the start of the more environmentally conscious Biden administration, we hear the same wearisome and unconvincing argument about jobs, jobs, jobs. Why should we switch from gas-guzzling cars to electric? Oil extraction and exploitation give us jobs, money, livelihood if not life. So what if we scar the land and ruin it, in effect, with our depredations? More money to spend on more unnecessary things, the junk we see in the ads or the store aisles.

Of course, it’s American poets like Gary Snyder that come to mind most readily when we think of landscape, as in the lovely and particular discovery that is the subject of “Above Pate Valley,” a poem in which the narrator has certainly got his derriere off the couch and out into nature, which is not untouched, not an idyl anymore:

We finished clearing the last
Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side
Two thousand feet above the creek …

Look at this poem and feel the rhythms of the hike that Snyder is taking, and taking us along on, up through the mountains “Beyond the white pine groves, / Granite shoulders, to a small / Green meadow .” Yes, this is the poetic rhythm that corresponds, as Anedda would have it, to the landscape it describes or enacts. A rhythm that jolts us into the discovery, in Snyder’s case, of a high-up and faraway place where he finds the remains of past human exploitation.

“Up to you!” as my comical younger brother Bob used to say, when he was alive to say it, about any life dilemma. Our relation to the land is certainly a dilemma, a tragical dilemma, and an ethical condition that demand a response from all of us.

Spatchcocked

Never look a gift turkey in the mouth, they say. 

(As if a slaughtered turkey had a mouth, these days.)

spatchcocked
Nine-pound turkey spatchcocked and dry-rubbed by my wife.

This particular gift turkey, at any rate, received from a friend the other day, was spatchcocked by my wife, in my absence, and then rubbed with dry spices.

I first heard the word “spatchcock” from a cook friend of mine a few years ago. What an odd word … for such an odd bird as this (left)!

According to Merriam-Webster, a spatchcock (noun) is “a fowl split and grilled usually immediately after being killed and dressed.”

In our particular recent case, my wife Jen cut out the bird’s backbone, flattened it as if it were a punchdrunk palooka, rubbed it up with salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary, thyme, sage, cayenne pepper, and smoked paprika. We let the bird sit a bit and then smoked it in a 270° electric smoker for about two hours.

And, as our dear friend Martha Stewart, points out about spatchcocking a small bird,

This technique—splitting, then flattening a chicken—yields a perfect roasted chicken in half an hour—that’s 15 minutes faster than a whole roasted bird. It also exposes more skin, which crisps up nicely at higher  temperatures. The basic method is easy; customize it with your favorite ingredients.

But this blog entry is not a recipe, sorry: rather, a meditation on an odd and powerful word. (Though words and references tend to get mixed up like a jambalaya. Perhaps this writing may suggest a recipe or directive, of sorts, for writers.)

The dictionary, or various dictionaries, are at a loss to explain the etymology of the word except to say that an oft-cited source, the dispatching (killing) of a cock, is probably false.

They cite another mysterious culinary word that this one may derive from: “spitchcock,” that is, chopping, dressing, and cooking an eel.

But what sour seas spitchcock comes from, who knows?

As a Washington Post article has it,

You could sit around the office for days and try to guess where the term spatchcock originated but that could get dicey. Or you can turn to Alan Davidson’s “The Oxford Companion to Food” (Oxford University Press, 1999). :”Spatchcock is a culinary term, met in cookery books of the 18th and 19th centuries and revived toward the end of the 20th century, which is said to be of Irish origin….”

And, no, few if any of us have time or learning enough to sit around for days and guess the origin of spatchcock or spitchcock or even cock o’ the walk. 

Yet what a powerfully propulsive word is “spatchcock.” What a blow it delivers for a savory and muscular Anglo-Saxon. What a world of metaphorical meanings too it might unleash.

Merriam-Webster, again, gives this definition of the metaphorical drift of the word:

2: to introduce by or as if by interpolation or insertion
// task of attempting to spatchcock the new evidence into an existing framework — Times Literary Supplement
// all the random majesty of the place appeared spatchcocked, rectified, and jumbled.” — John Cheever

Dictionary.com adds what may be a crucial qualifier: “to insert or interpolate, especially in a forced or incongruous manner.”

And a commentator at Languagehat.com observes,

… the idea of hurriedly killing, stuffing and cooking a bird has enormous metaphorical value. As a verb, spatchcock is a term that should be picked up and used by every editor who has ever had to read a manuscript that has been prepared in such a manner.

This metaphorical sense is cited in Joyce’s Ulysses (again, cited in Languagehat): “The only time I’d ever encountered the word was in Joyce’s Ulysses, chapter 9: ‘Why is the underplot of King Lear in which Edmund figures lifted out of Sidney’s Arcadia and spatchcocked on to a Celtic legend older than history?'” 

But that’s Joyce, you say? Who might, if anyone, have read 18th and 19th century Irish cookeries. And to whom we wish all modern benedictions, blessings, and restings in peace. 

Spatchcock. Space flight. Destiny. The shuddering and interpolated verbal world. May we all while away our time so pleasantly, whirling away in thought, word, and deed, before we rest in peace.

My friend’s dog, Mackenzie, aka Spatchcock (for obvious reasons; photo by Steve Petrini).

P.S. The same cook friend I reference above has an English setter, Mackenzie, who suggests another metaphorical extension of the word spatchcock. See here, Spatchcock! Do behave!