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. 

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.

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.

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.


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

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

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!



Holiday cards

Now that the holidays are over, it may be time to sort through the holiday news, well wishes, and greetings we received through the mail.

Who sends and who gets Christmas cards anymore?

Ruby at Axis
One of the pages of my holiday calendar for 2020 showing our granddaughter Ruby after her first cross-dressing spectacle.

Not too awfully many, I suppose. I gave up mailing cards maybe 10 years ago and have resorted to email since then, at first composing a rambling letter with many photos and then gradually through the years dwindling down to a Powerpoint calendar format, as you see at left: one or two big pics for each month and a pithy comment to go with. 

This year my wife Jennifer and I received about a dozen such season’s greetings in the mail. As I count and sort ’em, they are

      • Two postcards with photos on one or both sides
      • One sheet printed one side with family photos and captions
      • Five typed letters of various length, with or without photos
      • One hand-written card with photo
Patrick and Candace
Patrick and Candace, two apple-cheeked young friends from Louisville and their woof-woofs.

I can see why I stopped writing long Xmas letters: who has time to write or even read ’em? And unless you’re an experienced writer, the details tend to be rolled out in humdrum fashion. Yes, these are the lives of friends and relatives you haven’t seen in a while, and you miss these people but you want to go deeper, into the interior, even the heart of darkness, and these tend to sweetness, blitheness, blither & light.

We are happy, of course, that your family is doing well:

      • You survived an attack of the dread Covid
      • You lost one job and picked up another
      • You summered in your home state
      • You visited friends with pets
      • Yes, you love dogs, dogs, dogs
      • You went to Paris and the Louvre, where they keep some wowser art
      • Your kids are surviving, working and marrying
      • You bought a guitar, flew half across the country to see friends, suffered from MS, MD, AD, ALS, or other acronymical disasters
      • The twins turned 17, is it possible, and you joined a book club

These titbits are not boring, they’re simply not in the context of a novel or coherent, compelling narrative, a transfixing fiction or poem. The details don’t seem to add up; they miss the point, which is what? 

As I know from my calendrical missives, that’s the trouble with trying to sum things up and wrap them in a tidy package with a bow.

Here’s us, sitting on the living room sofa. Here’s our dogs. Bow wow.

Matt and Hongjian
Matt and Hongjian and their new baby Aine Mai (Joy Plum Blossom), yes, and let’s not forget the hound.

Perhaps I was most affected by the one hand-written card from a young academic couple. It’s a card with a photo on the front showing the couple, a dog (woof), a Christmas tree, and a new baby in mom’s arms. The greeting is “Happy Holidays” and, verso, “From our family to yours, wishing you a joyful holiday season!”

Yes, love and joy come to you, with or without the accouterments of religion, or ideology, for it’s that time of year, isn’t it, when we should be able to lay aside our sadness and grief and anger, and recognize in each other our common humanity?

Why not? Don’t we get tired, after all, of shaming and blaming our political enemies and ducking disease and sticking our head in a hole? 

Enough already.

And I read in the five paragraphs, in a neat tiny hand, how our Chinese-American friend, a young woman I met here in Fayetteville and hiked with for a year or so, is now happily married; is stressed out by her teaching schedule at Purdue and her publishing a book that one reviewer called “eccentric” (thatta girl!); and had a baby girl just before Thanksgiving named Aine (Gaelic for joy) Mei (Mandarin for plum blossom). 

Now if a name like Aine Mei doesn’t presage joy and love and laughter in this daughter, a poetic and blissful life, I don’t know what will!

Yes, love and joy come to you, and to you good wassail too, dear friends and family, through the year. And keep on writing those cards, won’t you, full of feelings and events that may add up to a story after all, a story that may stir the world.

Patriot: has it come down to this?

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

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

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

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


Image 1 of 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump and Biden, Senex and Puer

On this momentous day, when Proud Boys and other Trump supporters menace the Capitol and the Congress inside debates the challenges to Biden’s electoral victory, I think of the Jungian concept of senex and puer.

James Hillman | NWA Friends of Jung
James Hillman, Jungian psychologist, 1926–2011.

According to James Hillman (1926–2011), a prominent Jungian, the senex or old man (as in the English word “senescent” and “senile”) is the figure of “tradition, stasis, structure & authority,” while the puer or boy (as in “puerile” or “puberty”) is an amalgam of insight, fantasy, rebellion, creativity. (See “James Hillman on the Archetypes of the Senex and the Puer.”)

You might think that these two archetypes of Jungian psychology are dualistic, opposite, irreconcilable — as Trump’s Proud Boys and us not-so- proud or sure-of-what-we-have-to-be-proud-of boys appear to be. There is plenty of conflict and mutual contempt to go around, the gods know. But Hillman sees these archetypes otherwise, in a way that might lend hope to our political as well as artistic landscapes, among others.

In his words, senex and puer are a “union of sames,” or “not so much a marriage of opposites as a confluence of Consciousness — a dance of attitudes & sensibilities.”

Just about any good story has this drama and conflict of old and new. Just about any good story — literary, corporate, political — goes through this battle of attitudes that ends in reconciliation, if not in terms of plot or character (all characters), then in the minds of the readers, those of us who may be not so proud as reflective and who see and acknowledge the need to sit tight and accommodate the voices of the people, uproarious and furious as they may be.

(Beat. Pause. Rest.)

 Trump mob
A Trump mob attempts to break into the Capitol, while Capitol police draw their guns.

Menace the Capitol is right! I see just now on TV, after starting to write this piece, that Trump’s mob has broken into the Capitol, and the cops and National Guard have been called out. This is taking the puerile side of the puer role too far. Odd and ironic, isn’t it? Trump, the old man, should be senex, authority, though his behavior is more often that of an infant throwing tantrums. The mob seems to have taken the cue from baby Trump. If it can’t get its way, it will scream and yell and holler till Daddy or Mommy provide what it wants.

It may be a long while before Trump’s fascist authority is put to rest, and if it’s not we’re in for a long dark night. I can only hope that idealistic calls for unification, whether Jung’s or Joe Biden’s, will be answered in the affirmative. That the people will acknowledge our authority and freedom. Isn’t there enough maturity, as well as juvenile resistance, in us all?