Almost six years ago my older brother Gerry died of glioblastoma, a cancerous tumor of the brain. Today I had lunch at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art with an old friend, Bob, though not as old as I am (he’s a mere 64), who recently was diagnosed with the same malady. As he says on social media, “I’ve now started a non-drug, electrical field treatment called Optune which offers the possibility of extending my life for several more years.” This treatment consists of an electronic device inserted in a pack hanging at his side, from which wires go up through the shaved and gauzed head into the brain, where they are used to “disrupt cancer cell division.”
Good luck with that, Bob. The Optune and the continuing chemotherapy.
Optune has been around since 2011, he told me, though few doctors even now apparently know about it. It was certainly not something offered to my brother in 2016 when his tumor was discovered and a craniotomy performed. (Gerry died within four months of the diagnosis.)
Northwest Arkansas, says my friend, is not somewhere where you want to get a brain tumor. (Or anywhere else, I would think.) According to him, his NWA doctor has been ignorant and feckless, and it’s only through the intervention of a neurosurgeon based in Little Rock that he came to know of the Optune treatment and the (limited) hope if offers him. (According to the Optune company, “Nearly half of people using Optune + chemotherapy were alive at 2 years compared with 31% of people on chemotherapy* alone,” while another source suggests that the malady is “Very rare (Fewer than 20,000 cases per year in US)” (data from Focus Medica cited on Bing search).
Not encouraging data, all in all, I would think, though Optune, as in opportunity, may temporarily help preserve unity of body and mind, or prevent separation, before the final decision is handed down by the fates. So where would you put brain cancer, friends, in the list of the top 100 maladies by which you might choose to die? Up there at the top? Down near the bottom, just above drowning and fire and torture in an Iranian or Russian prison?
Cumulative effects of exposure to chemicals and other carcinogens
High-dose exposure to ionizing radiation
My friend Bob told me his great grandfather died of a cranial malady not known or appreciated at the time, which may well have been glioblastoma. Not sure about any genetic factors in my own family.
Do chemicals and carcinogens include marijuana? My brother indulged lustily and often. But I may be off the mark here.
And as for ionizing radiation (say what?), see the Biology Dictionary, which suggests that occupational factors are just one source.
All definitions and etiologies, however, are technical and don’t help shield us from the effects of cancer. Nor reconcile us to them. For that we might need philosophy or poetry. Some way of continuing to be in the world without being overwhelmed by horror and hopelessness.
Any ideas? Any of us might be struck, at any time, by such dread disease, after all, or another form or putting our existence into sudden question.
Every summer I take a group of a dozen or so friends and acquaintances to Inspiration Point, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, the site of Opera in the Ozarks performances. This year the organization is staging three operas, Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which my group saw; Puccini’s La Rondine; and Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Admittedly, opera is not for everybody. It’s offputting to a lot of people, especially those who are trained or, rather, versed or immersed in pop culture. As one of my friends said last year, after attending his first opera, La Boheme at the OiO, “Why do they sing so high?” And I replied, “Because they can!”
Like you, no doubt, I’ve seen people mimic and mock opera by singing a few bars in silly falsetto. But this mockery misses the point, of opera if not people’s taste and training.
Opera is elaborate, an art that insists and thrives on elaboration — more notes, sure, and higher notes, more ups and downs, more subtlety, more innuendo. We are not hit over the head with the art, both music and text, as we often are in pop music, but treated, rather, to subtle, soaring, transcendent artistic form.
Art, or high art anyway, is a kind of sublimated heaven for those of us on Earth and not necessarily buoyed up by ancient creeds. Indeed, in Cosi Fan Tutte, the principals don’t mention Christianity. They are restrained by the social codes of the day, for sure, which include, in the background, religious faith. The male lovers are convinced their fiancees will not betray them. The fiancees swear off temptation — until they don’t. The villains, or realists, of the play, Don Alfonso and the servant girl Despina, represent the real world of appetite and longing, of flesh and blood. They tempt the four lovers to give in to temptation … until they finally do.
Ironically, of course, the realists sing in the same transcendent operatic forms as the idealists. Even the flesh and the appetites, Mozart may be suggesting, can and should be represented in the most endearing and enduring forms.
The world, the flesh, and the devil are joined with earthly authority, both religious and civic, in the beautiful alchemy of opera.
But what about the many millions who ignore or despise opera? Well, they don’t understand it, first of all, and have not been trained to do so. I don’t mean via classes in classical music or opera, but by their whole life experience and their emotional predilections. Let’s say a person loves folk music, which tends toward simple harmonies and perhaps sentiments, whether love or protest. Or loves heavy metal, gods forbid, which is wild and thrashing and emotional and designed, could be, to exorcize demons.
What can such people devoted to a particular musical genre make out of something so other, so ethereal, so ritualistic as opera? Maybe those trained in classical religious music, not hymns, say, but oratorios or other elaborate forms, can make the transition to opera more easily. Still, it’s not an easy jump for most people.
This year I took 15 people to the Opera in the Ozarks, which plays in a rude pavilion, with rustic air conditioning, and on the day of the opera the outside temp was about 100 degrees. All the group seemed to enjoy the show a lot — there were smiles and laughter, enthusiastic applause — except two sisters, in their thirties, who bolted early. I inquired why, and they said the pavilion was hot and the music was boring.
Ach, du lieber! Boring? What was boring about the music? That it was 230 years old? That it was nothing like the music you ordinarily listen to? That it was slow? repetitive? That the libretto was nothing like an action movie, for which we hanker?
Well, there you go. What can I say? You can’t make people love opera. Or force them to the theater — even with tit-for-tat inducements. Last year, two friends attended, a couple, and were, I’m afraid, bored. They fell asleep though they didn’t leave early. The wine beforehand, at the Mediterranean restaurant we patronized, was a bit of a soporific, but then the show? La Boheme? A bore?
(Another friend, a biology professor, sighed at the end of “Che Gelida Manina,” “Such sweetness!”)
But my couple friends would not be convinced. They pretended to offer me a deal. They would go to the opera, next year (this year), if I went with them first to a monster truck mashup (or whatever these foolish noisy shows are called). Well, hell, sure, I said. I’ll do that if you do this (the opera). But I’m afraid I heard no more from them about roaring trucks and banging metal.
I would be bored by quantum physics, I suppose, if forced to attend an advanced class or lecture for which I was not prepared. To the initiated, and/or patient, such an event might be very appealing. Certainly the field of quantum physics is full of fascinations. Can they be brought down to earth? Made comprehensible to the average man and woman? Can opera operate on a level and earthly field?
What do you think, friends? What is your experience?
Following another prompt in Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry, I’d like to explore a bit the connection between dream and poetry, as it applies to a couple of modern poets and myself, to the practice of conjuring it up from the depths.
I have a poet friend who calls me a mole poet. He sees me making subterranean tunnels with my words, evidently. And in truth I like the idea of a mole, a metaphorical mole at any rate, with its star-shaped snout in the loam. (What poem am I forgetting to remember that has that image of the mole’s star-shaped nose? Now my neighbors, some of my neighbors, in the excellent exurban development where I live, have moles if not poetry, which is to say they have literal and problematic moles in their yards that plow up their lawns from below, but what I’m talking about here is real moles in imaginary gardens, the way Marianne Moore in her much revised and many-versioned poem “Poetry” talks about toads, positing in an early version that real poets create “for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”)
And now, thanks in good measure to Zapruder’s prompt, I see what my poet-friend might be getting at. There is something in my lines that comes up from below, some subterranean or chthonic thing, some leak between down there and up here where we are said to be pleased to live. (Even Arkansas, where I have been pleased to live, in retirement, the last ten years or so, though it proclaims itself “the natural state,” is not necessarily the leaky state or known for the vatic fumes coming up from below. I have hiked all around this beautiful natural state and not seen yet one sybil squatting on her tripod amidst the fumes from the underworld and foretelling one damned thing, even something as natural as watch it, buddy, or you’ll break your leg on that rock!).
But hold on a minute, please. I’d like to quote Zapruder here, at least the first time he brings up (as from below) this idea of poetry as dream. He is talking here about how he came up with the idea of the book and how he meant to explain poetry to a reluctant and busy up-in-the-head audience:
… I knew the main idea would be that poetry does something different than all other forms of writing and speech, something essential, something we need.
I would demonstrate this by writing about old poems, and also contemporary ones. I would discuss the mechanisms of poems: form, and rhyme, and metaphor, and symbols. I would reveal that what is strange about poetry—its dream logic, its interest in the slipperiness and material qualities of language, its associative daydreaming movement—is not some deliberate obfuscation, or an obstacle to communication, but essential to the very way poetry makes meaning.
Excellent and exciting prompts, no? Poetry “does something different than all other forms of writing and speech”! And if it’s so different, how can we expect to read it, or “appreciate” it, without knowing what that “something different” is and how it achieves poetry’s essential qualities that are essential to living in this upper world?
Poetry’s strange “dream logic,” which Zapruder does not define here, brings up for me a couple of immediate associations, perhaps daydreamy associations, from my study of poetry, the cases of two poets I have read and written about and enjoyed, Hart Crane (1899–1932) and John Berryman (1914–1972), both of them visionaries, you might say, and stylists, and both of them alcoholics and suicides. (Crane wrote the long poem The Bridge and jumped from the bridge of a ship sailing back from Mexico where he had been living to the United States. Berryman wrote The Dream Songs and jumped from a bridge over the Mississippi River connecting the east and west banks of the University of Minnesota, which I attended as an undergraduate.)
—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love …
In part I of Voyages (1924), he cites kids frolicking on the beach, but in II his vision moves outward, beyond the safety of the land, beyond the conventionally knowable. These are wonderful lines about the sea, how it winks, teasing and beckoning us toward eternity where, willy-nilly, we will go some day. It goes beyond all bounds we know (“rimless”), whether logical or perceptual, and catches up the mystical musings of Melville and Moby-Dick (the lovely image of “unfettered leewardings”). No, the sea is a queen, covered with precious cloth (samite = “a heavy silk fabric, sometimes interwoven with gold, worn in the Middle Ages,” dictionary.com) and pregnant with mysterious meaning (“undinal,” from undine, a female water spirit). She laughs, or laps, “the wrapt inflections of our love” (Crane was in love with a sailor and dedicated Voyages to him).
Crane called his dream logic “the logic of metaphor” (about which I wrote a Ph.D. dissertation how many eons ago), which he defended to dubious editors like Harriet Monroe when he submitted to Poetry magazine his lyric “At Melville’s Tomb.”
But enough for now. You see how wholly unlike Crane’s language is from everyday language. It’s precious, it’s dreamy, it’s as unlikely to occur in business speech as cocktail chitchat. (Well, more unlikely in business!) It’s love-poem language, and so much beyond the roses-are-red bromides of greeting cards and everyday consciousness that it’s not funny. Not funny, no, but could be stunning. Give in, it whispers. Go with the dream flow. Let yourself be swept away, fall in love, fall out of the world of conventional logical meaning and thought.
John Berryman, my 2nd exhibit of dream language here, began his poetic career as a conventional imitator of the Big Poets of his time, namely, W. B. Yeats and W. H. Auden, two Brits then at the apex of the mid-20th century poetry game. But he figured, all by his lonely, as all good poets eventually do, that his own voice was something else. He wrote a longish tribute poem called Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956) and then, starting in 1964 the Dream Songs, 18 line poems in 3 stanzas. Here’s the beginning of No. 8:
The weather was fine. They took away his teeth,
white & helpful; bothered his backhand;
halved his green hair.
They blew out his loves, his interests. ‘Underneath’
(they called in iron voices), ‘understand,
is nothing. So there.’
Such quick colloquial phrases! Such ironic juxtapositions! Is what’s happening here something that happens in the real world? Fine weather and then the teeth removed? Backhand? Is this tennis, or the back of a hand used to strike? Green hair of a young man? Surely, JB was no punk before his time! Like birthday candles, “loves” and “interests” are blown out at death, and death is “‘Underneath,'” as this poem too, in its insistent dreamy logic, takes us underneath the obvious, the everyday. We seem to sway, reluctantly, could be, in a mortuary environment. We’re made to look, however horrible or horribly funny, at the corpse. (More than Crane, Berryman was haunted by the idea of suicide from a young age; when JB was just 12, his father, like Hemingway’s father, shot himself, and hung like an albatross around the son’s neck —sorry about the mixed metaphor! — until the son too pulled the trigger or jumped.)
Finally, let me offer, immodestly and logically enough, my own example. From my second book of poetry, released October 2021, consider this poem:
Hot Thai Dinner chez Zeck
Kelly comes over and chews some shrooms,
holding them in his mouth as long as possible,
like a lover the first time he kisses a woman
he’s been wanting forever or a smack of caviar.
Holly eats the hot Thai take-out and fire pours
from her head, a petite bronze bodhisattva
exhaling Thai food who wants nothing to do
with Thai food. Kelly and I are laughing like
two baboons chewing the shrooms, what do
we want with food at a time like this? Jen’s
dish is way hot too, the way she was when
we just met, I could hardly get in the door
without whipping it out and we fell moaning
to the floor while upstairs her parents sat
grazing on Bonanza.
I make no particular claim for the worth of this poem or its value vis-à-vis others being written today. But the logic of the progression of lines and images suggests dream or associative logic more than everyday, conventional logic. Now, it may be true that shroom lovers or potheads or alcoholics, for that matter, associate like this more easily than most people most of the time. Most people most of the time don’t jump like this from one image or idea to the next.
There’s the simile in line 3, comparing the chewing of magic mushrooms to the kissing of a long-desired woman. (Oral pleasures, baby!) There’s the comparison in line 6 of the petite Holly to a bodhisattva, a figure of enlightenment or exception (she’s not chewing shrooms, apparently, but hot Thai food). There are the two baboons that Kelly and the poet become when chewing shrooms. And, finally, there’s the hot dish Jen eats, and the poet remembers how, way back when, when he and Jen were newly met and not yet wed, they fell at each other hungrily while the parents, upstairs in the logic room, are grazing on the convention moral logic of Bonanza on TV.
Well, I tend to free-associate like this every day, in speech as well as poetry; it’s my everyday logic, if not others’. A habit of mind that stands me apart at times, where well I should be, as the habit makes some people uncomfortable. It also makes for a lot of free-association joking, and I’m able to entertain people this way and coax them out of the stuffy environment of work and duty.
Logic and duty, then, on one hand. Poetry and jokes and dreams, on the other. Zivili! as we used to toast each other in Serbia, where I taught one year way back when. Long and happy life!
Got a message from a friend who was having trouble with the poems in my 2nd volume, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around. He appeared to question why he had to consult the dictionary and look up words. Like most people who don’t read much poetry and are not practiced at reading it, he would probably not consider consulting a dictionary to be a lot of fun.
In a recent book, Why Poetry, however, Matthew Zapruder suggests that the dictionary is exactly what you should consult when you read poetry. If you don’t know a word, look it up, he says, for what you need in poetry first of all is the literal sense of the word. When you understand the individual words, the poem will make more sense, at first a literal sense, then perhaps something more. Only then will you be able to connect the denotations of words with connotations or connections.
The more of the surface of the poem you understand, and perhaps discuss with others, the more of the depths of the poem and the interconnectedness of the parts of a poem you will understand. And not just understand but feel and be affected by.
Let’s look at a few unusual words from a sample poem in Lost & Found, and see how this poem may model how poetry makes more sense when you understand the individual words and how they work together.
Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer Thinking of Frank O’Hara
Sure, socks, tees, and bikini briefs cohabit
in this fine and private place, grave of a sere
and obscure drawer. And when scraps of poetry
also, stray spraints or scats, pack of street mutts,
anoesis of barks, sniffs, scratches, are found here
one day, after I am gone, stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.
The title, first, makes use of the operative verb hoard. Is this a pirate’s treasure we’re talking about? Whoa, now! Before we jump to metaphoric conclusions, let’s define hoard in its most familiar, literal sense. To hoard is to stow or hide something away, yes? To store something up and save it from consumption, maybe against a rainy day, maybe against our fears that sooner or later we’ll have nothing at all left in our hands.
If we hoard something in a drawer, we’re saving or keeping it against use or consumption. In this case it’s both underwear (“socks, tees, and bikini briefs”) and a poem, this poem, that are being hoarded. A strange combo to hoard in a drawer, to be sure.
Then comes a series of unusual, and maybe unfamiliar, words: sere, a rather archaic word for dry; spraints, which means otter feces, and scats, animal feces in general; and anoesis, “a state of mind consisting of pure sensation or emotion without cognitive content” (dictionary.com), which with the modifying phrase “of barks, sniffs, scratches,” suggests some kind of doggy mentation at a pretty basic animal level.
So, the situation is a bit strange, or strained, or not exactly realistic or literal. We have underwear in a drawer and also scraps of poetry, maybe unfinished or unpolished poems. And these unlike objects coexist and somehow belong in, or have been filed in, the same place (by the poet). The phrase fine and private place is an allusion to a 17th century seduction poem, familiar to students of poetry if not the general public, by Andrew Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress,” where the poet says as he nears the climax of his seductive pitch:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Marvell is in a hurry to get it on with his mistress, and she’s still resisting. He admonishes her to do it, do it now, before they’re both dead and can feel nothing at all.
The poet of “Poem I’ve Been Hoarding in a Drawer” is not pleading with a lady, but making something of an erotic connection between the hidden contents of a drawer — intimate garments like underwear, that is, and intimate feelings contained in poems. For isn’t that one of the things that poems do best? Talk honestly about things most of us keep to ourselves, perhaps forever, never uttering, never getting off our chests and out of our hearts? True, this particular poet, in this particular poem, has hid poems away: perhaps he doubts the wisdom of presenting them to the world. He’d be opening himself to the cold gaze of the world of duty, service, subservience, convention, it could be.
But in the end, at the end of the poem, he seems to be resigned to the eventual discovery of these poems, these feelings,
stuff I hid away, a dusty
cluster of what might have been, and perhaps was,
back in the day: okay, okay, okay.
Whatever intimates he might have worn, or intimate feelings he might have had, pinned to his sleeve, worn on his face, or tucked out of sight, they are all gone now, you see, except, for this poem (and others like it).
Now I may seem to be making something more ingenious out of the poem than it ever consciously was. I swear that when I wrote it, I did not start or proceed from a rational outline or moral thesis. The poem simply came to me, pretty quickly, and I relied, as often happens, at least as much on sound as on sense. The origins were not much more than anoesis, believe me: scratching, sniffing, barking.
Poets are suckers for sounds. (They have not been weaned perhaps from these oral pleasures and onto the hard, dry facts of the working world.) In the mouths of poets, words are musical and magical things, even dream things, as Zapruder also suggests. But in the end words also must make sense.
In the minds of readers, especially those who do a little homework, as with the dictionary, sound and sense can merge to make a wondrous and affecting experience. Given a bit of time and effort, poetry will make more sense than the brevity of a piece like “Hoarding” might suggest. But poetry will never appeal to readers the way a page-turning novel does. They are completely different creatures, and if poetry requires time, study, patience it can repay us a thousand times for our efforts.
It’s as tough today to write a convincing poem about political issues as it was during the Depression. A poem that is not strident, dogmatic, and beside the point — if we concede that the point of poetry today, as in the past, is to explore the new, not turn over the old and obvious.
(The dictionary definition of poetry is worth citing here: “the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.” Even if we know that in the wake of war, catastrophe, and civil unrest, elevated thoughts are not as easy to produce as an elevator ride up to haberdashery, say. And beauty itself comes often in camouflage.)
In today’s arts climate, in fact, the new PC orthodoxies are already old, tired, obnoxious, and obvious.
They harken back to the revolutionary foment of the Depression, when either you were with us or against us (a dedicated leftist, even commie).
Wallace Stevens, 1879–1955, was one poet dedicated to verse, however perverse and even, in some of his verse, he acknowledged, ironically, “otiose prettiness.” He was a poet, the maker of new things that would last and stay; a reformer, he thought, in poetry and politics, but not a young revolutionary. He would not “take the point of view of a poet just out of school” (see The Whole Harmonium: The Life of Wallace Stevens by Paul Mariani).
As per today’s young wet-behind-the-ears firebrands, certain words may be allowed. Other words not. Certain attitudes are admirable; others detestable. Certain races and sexual preferences, which have long been “privileged,” must yield to new privileges for minorities and LGBTQ+ (whatever plus is: is it back there in the dark somewhere with Bed, Bath & Beyond?).
If you’re looking to submit literary work to a little magazine and read what the editors are looking for, chances are very high you’ll find among their desiderata the word “diversity” and its half-demented cousins.
My 2nd book of poetry, just released, Lost & Found: Poems Found All Around, contains a poem, in fact, “What We’re Looking For,” based entirely on such editorial shibboleths. Harken if you plan on submitting to our magazine, the editors counsel:
We seek mysteries and marginalized voices, a sense of shared wonder, inclusive art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to make visible the marginalized, the overlooked, and those whose voices have been silenced, including LGBTQ+, neurodivergent writers, women and women writers.
Heavens help us all. If we could write no better than this clod of an editor, how could we get into any magazine? (I know! Let’s found our own magazine … and welcome those who look, act, think, and smell like us! Neurodivergent writers, whatever that means! If we can’t find an acronym, we’ll use jargon! Don’t let English get in the way!)
I would hope, that among us older, more experienced, more reflective literary artists, diversity could signal an artist who has the most words, the supplest syntax, the most exploratory mind. What does it matter if he or she is white, black, red, yellow, straight or queer?
Use your experience in life, yes, and in letters — and let it rip. Don’t be shy. Don’t hold back. Don’t whine about who might go tut-tut-tut. Too many editors and critics are truculent little whiners. Let them whine. Go your way and make it a journey.
In my 70+ years’ experience in reading, writing, teaching, living, and, yes, like you, suffering, I’ve become who I am today — a human being with a lot to say … and a way of saying it. A voice, in short, that does not rely on acronyms, jargon, and petty-minded formulae.
So, please, sir editor or madame, when I grace your journal with a submission, don’t throw me an 18-year-old reader as your first line of defense, someone who’s read little if anything of the literature of the last 100 years. And may be armed primarily with the prejudices of hisr youthful generation. (There’s a pronoun suggestion for you: hisr. His or her. I’m afraid “hers” is already taken and “their” is, believe it or not, plural.)
If you’re looking for mystery, Ms. or Mr. Editor, look at the words of the writer. The words should be true to the writer’s experience in his or her world and in craft. If she has been silenced or, perhaps more accurately, participated in silence, she needs to develop a voice of her own so she’ll have something to say and a way of saying it.
Her voice can’t merely cry weh ist mir! or how persecuted I am!
Get a life, young lady, young gentleman. A life in writing. Learn to write, that is. Dare to stumble, fall. Get up and stumble again. And when you get up, for gods’ sakes revise!
Writing is a lonely craft. You’re on your own. Get on with it.
If you’re on social media, you may have noticed poetry groups. They are a kind of epiphenomenon, a wart or wonder on the face of language enterprises generally.
Pardon my cynicism. But it’s in the service of a decent cause, I think: skepticism that good poetry can be produced by people who write but don’t read poetry.
Why do so many people write poetry? Is it a good thing that they do?
We might cheer the general idea that poetry should be more popular or more prevalent in our culture. Songs are popular, are heart and soul of pop culture. And it may not matter much that most song lyrics are bad.
Politics is a matter of general concern, though most of us aren’t particularly articulate about our political views. Yes, we complain. But do we know how to bring the country together? (A politically motivated view of poetry is expressed by minorities, like the lesbian writer Julie S Enszer, in an opinion piece called “Are Too Many People Writing Poetry?” Her view is that the more we have of minority opinions, the better. But minority opinions from untrained voices do not necessarily make good art. And such opinions, these days, overload the literary journals.)
Whether motivated by song or politics, poetry should be written by people who have read it and even studied it.
Otherwise, the idea of poetry is cheapened.
Why so many poets or poetasters? We all want to express ourselves.
The problem is knowing how to do so.
We all want to distinguish ourselves from the animals, some of whom have articulate voices or a bit of same. Crows and parrots can imitate language. Bulls and bears can roar and grunt.
But it’s only human beings that have articulate speech.
Some more, some less.
If speech is to become poetry, the speaker must know something about craft. Like other crafts, and arts, poetry has evolved through the centuries. So those who write poetry in the early 21st century should not sound like they’re speaking from the 18th or 19th or even 20th century.
But tons of would-be poets today sound just like that. They mistake rhyme as the crucial element of poetry, not an accessory or even accident. They are guilty of what Chaucer calls “drasty [nasty] rhyming.” By god, friends, if we have to go this pilgrims’ road together, let’s have some decent rhyming at the very least. And, what’s better, some attention to what really constitutes poetry in the 21st century.
Heightened speech, I would say. Rhythmic speech. And access to articulate ideas from all sources, written and spoken.
Poetry is a tough business, as I’ve said before. Not for sissies. Not for whiners. Or for those who expect instant praise or give up easily.
So today read a poem. Go to Poetry Foundation, for example, and dig around a bit. Why not? it will spare you from the drasty rhyming found in poetry groups on Facebook and other muddied sources.
I wrote the other day about starting a poem, called “Side View,” about the male gaze. And today I would like to suggest how I’ve made progress on the poem and how my example might be of use to you.
The first thing I realized, on looking at the draft this morning, was the question of selection. Most of what I had put in was pretty decent, but I had left out an essential bit of narrative that would clarify where I was going with my idea. It was not enough to mention, in quick passing, in the first stanza that the setting was a “group bike ride.” More of the social setting was required, so this new first stanza:
Twelve, thirteen of us pedal country roads
through the short late summer evening.
We bike for beer and show up après ride
at the Natural State Brewing Company.
In fact, we enjoy each other’s company.
The idea here is to give more of a social, and sociable, context. Before we get to the male gaze, that is, we must set the stage. The bike ride is not an intimate occasion between speaker and girl. They are at first just nameless parts of a group. The ride is pleasant, and then some. There’s a hint of shortening days, shortening pleasures, for such rides as these can’t last much longer than the fair weather of summer.
Now is the time, once the stage is set, I realized, to acknowledge the free-floating eros in the air, but it’s one that the speaker is not particularly participating in:
There’s romance in riding and in flirting
too, chattering, hoisting bumpers up,
though tonight I abstain, the leader, desiring
to lose a few pounds, could be, and pounding
down desires definitely. I look at the dozen
others over there, specifically the girl
I’ve often gazed at, old man that I am,
with more than a little lust in my heart,
not that I can do anything about it now,
her figure the hourglass they talk about
when they talk about figures, minute
after minute, hour after hour, full breasts,
tight derrière, the lovely hills and declivities
my fingers would so love to ride.
This stanza is still rough, it strikes me now, though I went through four or five iterations of it this morning. That’s nothing. The idea is to keep on working, playing with the text till you get it right, as right and tight as you can make it (even in a world where bodies can’t be made so tight, or kept so tight, over time).
Selection is one criterion, as I say, and syntax another. Here, in the second stanza, I have chosen, or been chosen by (it’s habit now), parallel word structure, so that riding, flirting, chattering, hoisting, desiring, pounding run together and give each other a propulsive bump. Yes, these are the rhythms of life, that constant onward push of what we’re doing, or wanting to do; desiring, or accomplishing; and this forward movement drives us here, in the poem, from the start of one line to the end, and then the start again.
As critics have pointed out, making verse is a matter of moving from one side of a line to another. It’s like plowing: you move along the row and make a furrow, from one side to the other; then you turn, you reverse direction, and begin again.
This kind of consciousness of making poetry stresses movement — out and back, verse and reverse, a continuous movement and counter-movement, a dance, could be, in the dark, for when we begin we may have no very clear idea of where we’re going, unless we’re trying out a regular meter or verse form like a sonnet. May have no idea of fences, or wires, or signposts, or boundaries. We just start plowing, and see where the movement leads us.
I might note here, as you no doubt have already, that this subject matter is a delicate one these days. We males anyway (old males, old white males) do not usually talk about it in mixed audiences, not in the #metoo age. Yet not to talk about it, frankly, even ferociously, puts us on the defensive, which all in all is not a good position to start from — and leaves us vulnerable to all sorts of criticisms both inside and out.
So I just plow ahead, trying out ideas, images, sounds, figuring what I might keep and what I must throw out in the next draft. And trying not to think too hard of audience or the exact words I need.
The right words will find the right audience, finally.
Here I wonder if the play on “pounds” and “pounding / down desires” works. Too cute? Are the words too much alike or too close together? Have I not waited long enough to put them together? Have I lacked syntactic patience?
But I like the image of the hourglass figure, as the revised poem begins with the image of fading light. It’s not just the old man who is fading, inexorably, but the young woman too, but everyone, all bikers, all readers who are along for the ride, who participate in this flirtation of failing light.
This draft concludes with a third stanza:
Off to the side, I sit apart, away from the beer
and platitudes, not drinking, seeing not merely
the plenitude of the figure of a girl I do not know,
but the dark hair flowing to the shoulders, olive
skin, aquiline nose, full lips, outline it could be
of the essential and vanishing, and as for desire
isn’t it also nice not to be drinking beer
or thinking only pleasure.
There are the sound echoes again: beer, desire, pleasure. And then platitudes, plenitude. We may grouse at English for being pretty uninflected and so not encouraging the kind of common, fertile rhymes and repetitions found in other languages. But once we get our motors going, we should find that sounds arise, like bees in a hive, and the humming proceeds without much of a conscious push. (Don’t strive at first for the bon mot or right word. Just let the sounds come. Hum along. Be less than conscious and more than a little cool.)
And, as I said in the last blog regarding the first draft, the process of sublimation is doing its work. The body, fully apparent here, is doing its business of yielding to the spirit. The body, like the daylight, is fading. The mind is playing the arpeggios of fading light.
But what words? In what order? And how do we get there?
It was also Eliot who wrote an early poem called “La Figlia Che Piange,” or “The Weeping Girl” (Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917). I remembered this poem vaguely as I wrote my poetic craft talk, and looked it up. It’s a posed poem, you might call it, in which the poet, acting like a theatrical director, poses a young couple, the young man leaving or abandoning the young woman, who is crying. The third and last stanza goes like this:
She turned away, but with the autumn weather
Compelled my imagination many days,
Many days and many hours:
Her hair over her arms and her arms full of flowers.
And I wonder how they should have been together!
I should have lost a gesture and a pose.
Sometimes these cogitations still amaze
The troubled midnight and the noon’s repose.
Now, as I muse a new poem of my own, this sad, ironic little poem seems to want to inform my “cogitations.”
As I wrote elsewhere, I know a pretty young woman whom I saw, after a recent group bike ride, in a new light, a side or even sidereal light. I was off to the side, that is, looking at her and appreciating for perhaps the first time not her lovely figure but her more sublime parts, specifically the features of her head, and I noted her long dark hair, her aquiline nose, her full lips, and thought I might get off to the side more often, less involved with the body as a whole, the body as desire, and more appreciative of such fine if evanescent features.
I could pose the girl, or her features, or try to pose them, à la Eliot. But his early modernist irony and cool are not what I’m after here.
As a writer, you might well not know what you’re after till you go after it.
So the effort begins, however roughly.
Off to the side, away from the beer glasses
and chatter, after the group bike ride, I see her
in a new light: not merely her lovely figure,
you see, full in the right places, tight in the others,
which too often I have looked on with desire,
an old man looking at a young woman
whom he does not know: dark hair flowing
to the shoulders, olive colored skin,
eagle’s nose, full lips, and I’d conclude …
Well, a rough beginning, as I say, with some attention even as I go to form:. It’s the choice of the words, I say, what’s put in, what’s left out, however fortuitously: the sound echoes (beer, chatter, figure, desire); the syntactical parallelism, which makes the flow of thought and feeling easier to trace; the insistence on specific details at the end….
For now, this start is good enough, though no doubt I will look at it soon with some distaste, even revulsion. Good of kind, but not good enough. A start, but a rough and bumpy start. Yet desire is being transformed, as in so much art, however slowly, from the sensual and corporeal to something poignant, something of the spirit. Call this process sublimation if you will, though the results to date, for sure, are surely not sublime.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.