Journal

702 posts

UPDATES ON A FREE VERSE LIFE

How To Critique a Poem

feedbak

Critiquing a poem isn’t rocket science. For starters, don’t use clichés, like “rocket science,” but know what a cliché is, because spotting them will come in handy.

Before we get started on how to critique a poem, though, let’s start with how NOT to critique one. This assumes, of course, that the poet (or fellow student) is offering up a first draft and genuinely seeks ways to improve it.

First, the “Not-ty” List:

  • Do not read the poem and respond with generalizations, positive or negative. Avoid, “Boy, does this need work,” or the equally unhelpful “I love this. Great job!” Negative generalizations without reasons or suggestions are worthless. Complete affirmation of early drafts is equally bad. Serious poets who market work may well wonder, after collecting multiple hosannas from critical readers, why dozens upon dozens of poetry editors reject their work during the submission process. Similarly, student poets may wonder why, if all her readers loved it, the poem turned in received less than an “A” from the instructor (setting aside, for now, the advisability of grading poems in the first place). Wonder no more!
  • Do not confuse revision critiques with editing critiques. Revision deals with diction, semantics, ideas, techniques, word choice. Editing digs into the nitty-gritty of spelling, grammar, and mechanics. Sure, these are important, but they have a place and that place comes after revision. That said, it is OK to mention quickly if editing problems lead to confusion issues (which ties into content). From there, move onto the marketplace of ideas for revision.
  • Do not be lazy. Give others’ work the same amount of attention and effort you’d like to see extended to yours. Annotate. Look up words. Jot down ideas. (See list below.)
  • Do not subscribe to the “all interpretations are equal” theory. They aren’t. Ideas are arguments that need backing with textual evidence. Therefore, if you want to push an interpretation you’re seeing, be sure it fits the whole poem, from title to final line. Going off on tangents or seeing symbolism in every word is not only unhelpful, it’s insensitive and, in some cases, just silly (only no one’s laughing).
  • Don’t rewrite the poem for the writer. There’s a fine line between suggestion and hijacking. Your criticisms should be tools to work with, not a project taken over and finished by a contractor.
  • Don’t feel insulted if the writer chooses not to act on your ideas. Often some of your ideas will be used, but seldom will they all be adopted. And if none are and you did your job, know that you have provided what was asked of you. Ultimate agency lies with the writer. That is as it should be.

 

Now, the “Do It Right” List:

  • Have a pencil and dictionary (or dictionary site) on hand.
  • Have a quiet atmosphere. Just as mushrooms prefer a dark, moist area, so do poems prefer a setting where everyone can focus and give their undivided. If there is a talking phase for feedback and the room is divided in groups, speak under your breath such that nearby groups would have to work hard to make out what you’re saying.
  • Be honest but empathetic. They make a great pair. It might help to remember that writers, no matter how thick their skin, are vulnerable in unique ways. A person wrote this piece and is taking down the walls in sharing it, so be kind (it will feel good, trust me).
  • If you can, ask the poet what type of advice she is looking for. Everything? Mostly the opening or closing? Word choice? Some poets will tell you it’s about what they want already. They simply want “fine tuning” tips. Others will say, in so many words, “Help!” Any advice welcome. There’s a difference! If you offer wholesale changes advice to a poet who needs only fine-tuning, you’ll be wasting a lot of time (and, perhaps, insulting the writer). On the other hand, if you offer a few tidbits to someone who needs big-time help, they’ll feel shortchanged. Welcome to the world of critiquing!
  • Ready to go? Read the poem a few times. Place a check mark near any words, lines, or stanzas you might want to comment on.
  • Look up words you don’t know. This is basic respect. It will also inform your response, especially if no definitions of the word seem to match up with the poet’s intent. Either say so or ask a question for clarification. (Depending on agreed upon ground rules, this could be in the form of writing or speaking or, as I like it, first writing in silence and then, once everyone has written something, speaking in turn.)
  • Start with what you like. Maybe you don’t like anything, but something in this poem has possibility. It is not a violation of your oath of honesty to show the writer where the greatest possibilities exist.
  • Be specific. This cannot be stressed enough. Direct the writer’s (and other critiquers’, if this is a group setting) attention to specific stanzas, lines, and words. You can annotate this with “S” for stanza and “L” for line. Thus, you might write, “In S2, L5, I like how you used the word…,” etc., which, in speaking terms, would be, “In Stanza two, Line five, I like how….”
  • Pretend the writer is a little kid who will always asks why after you speak. That is, anticipate this by offering your reasons. Every constructive criticism, positive or negative, is rooted in reason. To not explain yours is to leave a job half done. It’s sloppy.
  • Speak in the language of poetry. Embed your critique in terms new to you or well-known to you, e.g. “In S3, L1, I really like the metaphor (read it) because (explain why).” If this is a classroom, all the repetition of terms will be like dropping Spanish language learners into Madrid for a month. Immersion works!
  • Offer ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. That said, you should always ask the writer up front (or agree before beginning as a group) how she wants them. Some poets love specific ideas for changes, deletions, and additions. Others find such specificity invasive. They prefer that you just point out strengths and weaknesses without sharp examples of possible changes. They don’t want to be influenced by them, in other words. Others like the specific ideas because it leads them to their own specific ones, similar to but different from the reader’s.
  • Know that all critiques are food for thought. Writers may later sample them by returning to the written annotations, then either moving on the ideas or choosing not to. Again, agency remains with the writer. She owns the poem. That cannot be stressed enough.
  • It is OK to say what the poem means to you as a reader. This meaning may surprise the writer. It may also illuminate flaws to the writer, who will realize that her lack of clarity has lead readers astray. Alternately, as is only appropriate in the reader-writer agreement, alternate readings may delight the writer, who actually can learn something about herself and her writing from such responses. Remember, though, that all interpretations must be rooted in evidence from the complete poem. Without that, it is nothing but a chasing after the wind (Biblical for “a worthless enterprise”).
  • Compliment the writer for taking risks, even if it doesn’t quite work yet. Explain why and how the risk might work with changes or a different direction. Some writers, especially in school settings, play it overly safe and follow the example of professionals or exemplar texts too closely. Such vanilla mimicry does not invoke the Muse, it invokes the grade. Writing poems with a good grade in mind through safety and mimicry is an assault on everyone’s sensibilities. If you see it as a reader, offer ideas on how the writer can free herself, have fun, be creative, take risks!
  • That said, if the poet writer is genuinely trying ideas seen in professional writers’ works (or studied in class) but making it walk to the beat of her own drummer, encourage that and explain why it is working or why it is not quite there yet. This might be one of those poetry terms everyone is immersing in or it might be as simple as unusual word pairings that have been noted in other poems.
  • Remember to gently warn writers off the habit of unintentional plagiarism. This happens when students accidentally insert a key word or word, idea or ideas, seen in an exemplar. One way to say this is, “Although this allusion to Eden is cool, it’s too similar to what Frost did in ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay.’ See if you can write about lost innocence in a different way, one you think no one has thought of before. What does it look like to you, lost innocence? Using your own experience might be a starting point for revision.”
  • Share what’s important to you and should be to the writer. The title. The “turning point,” if it exists (or if it should exist). The all-important ending. The consistency and effectiveness of the poem’s theme throughout. What you care about is infectious. It will help the writer to care about it, too.
  • Use the language of ethos. Be understanding, helpful, respectful. “I see what you’re trying to do here and it could lead to good things. For me, however, it’s not working yet because ______________. I think it might work if you use more ___________ or try to _____________.  To think of ways to do this, you might ask yourself ____________.”
  • Words and terms that should be heard early and often: specific nouns, active verbs, imagery, the five senses, unusual word pairings, alliteration, similes/metaphors, sound devices (specify), rhetorical devices (specify), unity, theme, importance, allusions, clarify, elaborate, economy of words, clichés (as in “toxic effects of”), assonance, consonance, mixed metaphors, anaphora, etc. These words / terms will be the same in most settings, but in a classroom setting may be unique to the instructor / mentor and her points of emphasis.
  • Explain why any language specific to the writer must also be universal to readers. The balance is important, so point out where that balance is working and where it isn’t (adding reasons).
  • End with on a positive note. Then, always extend an invitation to the writer. “Do you have any questions for me (us)? Is there anything I (we) said that you don’t fully understand?
  • Know that poetry criticism as a reader will, in the long run, improve your poetry as a writer. Done correctly, the marketplace of ideas fills everyone’s shopping bags equally.
  • Thorough and effective critiques are inspiring. When writers see that their works have been afforded the time and effort necessary to good criticism, they will respond in kind, roll up their sleeves, and really get to work on Draft #2. It’s the fact that there are readers out there, people who care, that makes a difference. What, after all, is a poem without a reader? A tree falling in a forest with no humans to hear it! Audience is essential, and writers should always have it in mind as they write.

“Poems Hide”

barn

The single most common question posed to poets is this: “Where on earth do you get your ideas?”

One would be tempted to answer, “Poughkeepsie” or “Peru,” but it’s much simpler than that. A working poet who pays no mind to such myths as “block” gets his ideas from those rare bits known as “what’s around him” and “what’s happening every day.”

Naomi Shihab Nye tackled this precept in her poem “Valentine for Ernest Mann,” which opens with these two instructive stanzas:

You can’t order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, “I’ll take two”
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.
 
Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, “Here’s my address,
write me a poem,” deserves something in reply.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment 
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

 

In other words, the problem lies not in elusive ideas that would germinate into poetry if only we could find them, it lies in the way would-be poets approach their daily lives. If you’re open to the mundane and attuned to possibilities in the quotidian, you will find poems abundant as zucchini in August. You will never lack.

 

Consider a familiar autumnal sound: the scratch of a mouse above me in the attic. Ah. Winter approaches! I once started writing a poem about (you guessed it) mice in the attic, creatures that, when sighted outside, are actually cute and beyond harmless, but when they become a sound in your attic or walls are worse than ugly–a threat, even. From a humorous angle, it’s amazing how resourceful mice are. Buy a mouser or hire a pest management company and see who wins the game. Right. The whiskered wonders who can squeeze through paper-sized cracks, every time. The Lord works in mysterious (and often tiny) ways!

 

If you are a “blocked” writer and this all sounds too obvious to you, survey your own published poems (or, if you are unpublished, poems you are proud to have written) to see if Occam’s Razor does not apply. I looked at opening lines of poems in my book, The Indifferent World, and one after the other, they spoke to Nye’s Undeniable Truth: “Poems hide…What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them.” Some examples:

 

“Barnstorming the Universe” opens with a decrepit barn, one I just happened to see while running past a Maine field one summer morning. It sparked a fanciful poem predicated on the idea that a barn might lean not from time, but from a crash landing from outer space:

 

The big barn must have landed
overnight, the jolt of its descent
crippling one side so the whole
structure leans south.

 

“Crows” comes from the sound of my dark friends on the roof. I was hunting ideas one day when they hunted me, cause for joy:

 

From my cedar-walled study,
I hear them–the scratch
and claw of tar-colored talons
against asphalt–and consider
the tiny avalanches, schist
granules riding there roof’s slant.

 

“Momentary” had its inception in the sight of a small boat, the first to appear on the early morning mirror of a quiet lake:

 

Drone of an outboard,
then, out of the cove, trout-scale
glint of an aluminum boat
unzipping the water.

 

I even channeled some Naomi Shihab Nye by naming one piece “Hunting the Unwritten Poem,” which begins like so:

 

You see them in the mercury
light of water, the expanding
orbs of silver where trout
breathe. You hear
them in the sleepy kiss
of rainfall on pine
needles, smell them
as if they were snow
to the west.

 

You get the idea. First drafts as journal entries, almost. Your daily life, experienced via the five senses, via imagery, becoming the lifeblood of your poetry. Yes. Really. Start there. And excise the entry “block” from that Dictionary of Poetry Terms while you’re at it.

 

Poems hide not in Poughkeepsie or Peru, but in the not-so-rare air around you.

The Most Precious Gift: Declamation

roth

These days, gift-giving is too much about cursors and clicks to cart. Material goods bought with plastic shipped to porches by UPS.

You don’t need to be a poet, however, to give a better gift to someone you love: declamation. This came to mind while reading the May 2020 issue of The Atlantic. In a piece called “Being Friends with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor, the latter mentions Roth’s 74th birthday party.

Apparently Roth turned to the assembled guests and, casual as all get-out, asked if anyone cared to recite a poem from memory. As if that was still done. As if each guest had brought a poem gift-wrapped in their brain pan.

To kick things off, Roth recited a Mark Strand poem: “Keeping Things Whole.” According to Taylor, Roth “then looks at me as if to say, ‘Your serve.'” Luckily, Taylor was able to return volley. He recited Robert Frost’s lesser known poem “I Could Give All to Time.”

Roth was so impressed that he brought it up on the phone the next morning: “Those rhymes!” he said to Taylor. “It’s as if nature made them.”

And, at the time, I thought, how cool. Shouldn’t this happen more often? Not just between writers of poetry, but between readers of poetry, too?

Anyway, it was enough to set me to the task of memorizing both, starting with the easier—the Strand piece. So here’s to Philip and Benjamin.

Oh. And Mark and Robert, too!

 

Keeping Things Whole
Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

 

I Could Give All to Time
Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.

Allusions R Us

bukowski

I’ve noticed, reading published poetry, that it doesn’t hurt to use allusions, whether subtle or direct. If you have a keen literary interest in a famous writer, artist, philosopher, or historical figure, etc., allude away! Use quotes. Use interesting facts. Just use them Yoda-like, blending them into your poem’s purpose and its art until you have an allusion smoothie.

Here’s an example from a poet who is not known for his subtlety, Charles Bukowski. But then, I’ve always suspected Bukowski’s rebel act was just that and only partly true. He did, in fact, take his writing quite seriously. You can’t have that much of an output while constantly drinking and lazing around, after all!

Here Bukowski is alluding to the greatest American poet of all time, Walt Whitman. OK. Maybe not the greatest poet in everyone’s minds, but certainly the bearded poster boy for American poetry.

 

a song with no end
Charles Bukowski

when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”

I know what he
meant
I know what he
wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as
ours.

 

A twofer! Allusion and the universal preoccupation of poets everywhere, death! You might even make it a threefer if you deem it aphoristic, as in a wise man’s teaching, to boot.

Really. Charles Bukowski as prophet and sage. And all because of a stiff drink of Whitman-infused allusion.

The Wake of Li Po’s Little Boat

li-po

From across the ages and continents, Chinese poet Li Po is still inspiring. What a delightful surprise to find him on p. 26 of W.S. Merwin’s penultimate collection, Garden Time.

When reading poetry collections, you live for these moments. No collection is filled to the gunwales with wonders, but good ones hit you with a few along the way — about all you can ask from a full book of poetry.

Merwin’s homage to Li Po is one of those good poems. At least its smallness spoke to me in a big way. Sure, I’m a sucker for poems about time, the enduring and the fleeting, and this one touches all those buttons, but still… in only nine lines! Whew!

Take a look-see yourself. Whether a fan of Li Po’s or Merwin’s, you’ll enjoy, I’m sure:

 

“River” by W.S. Merwin

Li Po the little boat is gone
that carried you ten thousand li
downstream past the gibbons calling
all the way from both banks and they
too are gone and the forests they
were calling from and you are gone
and every sound you heard is gone
now there is only the river
that was always on its own way

 

Sometimes personification, the little stepchild of figurative language, can work in unexpected and subtle ways. This would be one of those times. Catch my drift?

Bird Is the Word

grackle

From The Best American Poetry 2017 comes one of those poems that has a line jumping off the page. OK, in honor of its topic, maybe flying off the page works better.

The poem, “Grackle” by Meg Kearney, originally appeared in The Massachusetts Review. Read it and see if you notice the same line I did.

Grackle
by Meg Kearney

What a grackle is doing perched on the rail
of her baby’s crib, noiselessly twitching its
tail, she doesn’t wonder. The way this baby
gleams he’s bound to catch a grackle’s
eye. Besides, birds have flit in and out
of these baby dreams forever. Sapsucker,
blue jay. Sparrow, kingfisher, titmouse.
She just likes to say grackle, a crack-your-
knuckles, hard-candy word. In the dream,
her baby’s black as a grackle, meaning
when she holds him to the light he shines
purple and blue, a glittery bronze. Silent
and nameless. Sometimes he is a she but
always the dream-baby is hers. That is
the miracle. Her nights of nursery rhymes
and sorrow. Of yellow quilts and song
birds. Enough to break a bow. Enough
to fell a cradle.

 

I call them “Price-of-Admission” lines. You know. The ones that are so good they alone make a good poem worth the price of admission. In this case, the line I am loving is “She just likes to say grackle, a crack-your- / knuckles, hard-candy word.”

Well, shoot. Now I like to say it, too. Not “grackle,” but “a crack-your-knuckles, hard-candy word.”

Poetry. It never ceases to amaze….

Who Gets to Determine a Poem’s Meaning?

deer

In a 2005 press release upon the death of one of their own former professors, Louise Rosenblatt, New York University published an obituary that included these words about Rosenblatt’s pioneering work on reading theory:

“While teaching literature to college students, [Rosenblatt] developed an approach that broke with the dominant academic model (the New Criticism), which elevated ‘the text,’ declaring it accessible only to those trained in unlocking its code. By contrast, Rosenblatt stressed that every act of reading involved a ‘transaction’ of reader and text in which both were essential. In her view, any text — Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a car owner’s manual, a poem — was lifeless without a reader who is active: active readers create multiple readings of the same text; no reading is uniquely ‘correct.’ At the same time, Rosenblatt argued against the purely personal and subjective approaches more popular in recent years. She noted that some readings were more defensible than others and worked for a community of readers who sought to refine their reading and test their responses against the text. Rosenblatt maintained that this approach — respectful of the individual’s response while dedicated to serious communication and debate–is essential to fostering citizens equipped for democratic life.”

The lead-off batter in my first book, a poem called “Trigger,” could be the poster child for Rosenblatt’s transactional theory. The 18-line work, first published in Gray’s Sporting Journal in the fall of 2014, is split into two stanzas, the first focused on the speaker, a hunter, and the second on the white-tail deer that is his quarry.

Before I comment on the poem and the assumptions that weigh it (and any poem) down, read it yourself to draw your own conclusions:

 

Trigger 

This is where I held
my breath—
a stand of red pine,
needles and snowdust
scribed about my boot,
cold crescent
resisting a swollen
finger itchy-numb
with November.

This is where a buck
held its breath—
mouth mid-meal
amid the mast,
a single line
of berry drool
spiking the fur
of his white and
wild-cherried chin.

Ken Craft, The Indifferent World (2016)

 

Seems rather straightforward, no? Most readers would interpret this to be about the moment before a hunter pulls the trigger on the deer he has in his sights. And that is a legitimate interpretation, perhaps even the most sensible one.

To get to that interpretation, however, one must make assumptions about the hunter by making said hunter think and act like hunters stereotypically do. What if, however, it is the speaker’s first hunting foray? What if the speaker is struck by the beauty of the animal? What if the speaker just witnessed a deer carcass eviscerated and cleaned by another hunter and has decided he or she has no stomach for it? In that case, the same poem might read differently. In short, it could work as a poem about the moment before a hunter decides not to pull the trigger.

Note, for instance, the word “resisting” in L7 of the first stanza. A trigger does not resist without an accomplice, namely the person holding a finger to it. Note also the anthropomorphic portrayal of the buck. It “held its breath–/mouth mid-meal/amid the mast.”

Would a buck, even alerted to danger (and it seems too preoccupied with dinner for that), really hold its breath?

I propose, then, that the poem works either way, as a frozen moment in time before action or inaction. But as the writer, Rosenblatt would argue, I do not get the last say, given that all poems are subject to a fair negotiation between their readers and the poet. The key is this: Reader interpretations must be backed by evidence in the poem. All parts of the poem, not just cherry-picked parts.

Bottom line: Even if the poet has a specific meaning in mind (and yes, that meaning could be trigger pulled, trigger not pull, or poem’s purpose cryptic as an artistic statement), it becomes, once it’s read, as much a reflection on the reader’s cultural background, prejudices, and artistic tastes as it does a reflection of the poet. Louise Rosenblatt, I think, would be cheered by that.

Either way, readers can agree, at least, on one point — the poem ends, but the deer does not. Yet. That will come in seconds.

Or years.

_______________________________________________________________

Ken Craft’s new collection of poetry, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants is available on the BOOKS page of this web site.

 

 

Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems: Both Great and Outdoors

In “The Whisper,” one of the last poems he wrote before death finally caught up with him, Jim Harrison wrote: “But birds/lead us outside where we belong./Around here all the gods live in trees.

If you don’t get outside as much as you should (and, chances are, you don’t), you can at least get the vicarious thrill (and I would say a convincing argument) by reading the 900-plus paged Jim Harrison Complete Poems.

Though Harrison loved food, drink, and women, his first and most enduring love was the great outdoors. His poetry shows it. Among his gods, he shows greatest devotion to birds, fish, and dogs. And a keen eye for weather, land, and water. Harrison names things with a guide’s eye, and though any lifetime collection of poetry will be uneven, the reader can’t help but appreciate the voice, strong and friendly, that acts like Virgil guiding us through the book. Better yet, the voice only gets stronger as it wends its casual way to the end, too.

Many of the poems are built on memory. A good example is this tale of Harrison’s grandfather:

 

What He Said When I Was Eleven

 

August, a dense heat wave at the cabin

mixed with torrents of rain,

the two-tracks become miniature rivers.

 

In the Russian Orthodox Church

one does not talk to God, one sings.

This empty and sun-blasted land

 

has a voice rising in shimmers.

I did not sing in Moscow

but St. Basil’s in Leningrad raised

 

a quiet tune. But now seven worlds

away I hang the cazas-moscas

from the ceiling and catch seven flies

 

in the first hour, buzzing madly

against the stickiness. I’ve never seen

the scissor-tailed flycatcher, a favorite

 

bird of my youth, the worn Audubon

card pinned to the wall. When I miss

flies three times with the swatter

 

they go free for good. Fair is fair.

There is too much nature pressing against

the window as if it were a green night;

 

and the river swirling in glazed turbulence

is less friendly than ever before.

Forty years ago she called, Come home, come home,

 

It’s suppertime. I was fishing a fishless

cattle pond with a new three-dollar pole,

dreaming the dark blue ocean of pictures.

 

In the barn I threw down hay

while my Swede grandpa finished milking,

squirting the barn cat’s mouth with an udder.

 

I kissed the wet nose of my favorite cow,

drank a dipper of fresh warm milk

and carried two pails to the house,

 

scraping the manure off my feet

in the pump shed. She poured the milk

in the cream separator and I began cranking.

 

At supper the oilcloth was decorated

with worn pink roses. We ate cold herring,

also bluegills we had caught at daylight.

 

The fly-strip above the table idled in

the window’s breeze, a new fly in its death buzz.

Grandpa said, “We are all flies.”

 

That’s what he said forty years ago.

 

As he ages, Harrison grows more philosophical and tangos frankly with the more apparent subject of death. It only adds greater depth to his wisdom, nature being the perfect metaphor for the birth-death-birth cycle that so fascinated him.

 

Midnight Blues Planet

 

We’re marine organisms at the bottom of the ocean

of air. Everywhere esteemed nullities rule our days.

How ineluctably we travel from our preembryonic

state to so much dead meat on the ocean’s hard floor.

There is this song of ice in our hearts. Here we struggle

mightily to keep our breathing holes opened

from the lid of suffocation. We have misunderstood the stars.

Clocks make our lives a slow-motion frenzy. We can’t get

off the screen back into the world where we could live.

Every so often we hear the current of night music

from the gods who swim and fly as we once did.

 

Though he wrote novels, novellas, and essays, Harrison considered himself first and foremost a poet, making this lifetime collection that much more important to his legacy. Some compare him to Charles Bukowski (who had less of a connection with the natural world) and Ernest Hemingway (who lacked Harrison’s humor and gentle empathy), but neither comparison is fair. Harrison is Harrison, a one-eyed sage of the flower and fauna, river and ruin. Here is an example of his dark humor:

 

 

Poet Warning

He went to sea

in a thimble of poetry

without sail or oars

or anchor. What chance

do I have, he thought?

Hundreds of thousands

of moons have drowned out here

and there are no gravestones.

 

And here one of love for his wife on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. As is true with many of his works, he approaches subjects tangentially before hitting on this topic – the sort of thing a teacher of poetry would warn you against. Note, too, how he mines some of the same material as “What He Said When I Was Eleven,” only this time, being decades later, with a more mature approach.

 

Our Anniversary

 

I want to go back to the wretched old farm

on a cold November morning eating herring

on the oil tablecloth at daylight, the hard butter

in slivers and chunks on rye bread, gold-colored

homemade butter. Fill the woodbox, Jimmy.

Clots of cream in the coffee, hiss and crackle

of woodstove. Outside it’s been the hardest freeze

yet but the heels still break through into the earth.

A winter farm is dead and you want to head for the woods.

In the barn the smell of manure and still-green hay

hit the nose with the milk in the metal pails.

Grandpa is on the last of seven cows,

tugging their dicklike udders a squirt in the mouth

for the barn cat. My girlfriend loves another

and at twelve it’s as if all the trees have died.

Sixty years later seven hummingbirds at the feeder,

miniature cows in their stanchions sipping liquid sugar.

We are fifty years together. There are still trees.

 

 

Harrison is what is known as an “approachable” poet in that his style and topic matter is earthly. He is not one to tackle style or form. Rather, free verse is the lingua franca of his land. Don’t be fooled, however. His allusions have deep roots. Harrison read the best and used their names and experiences to leaven his own poetry. In these collected works, you will meet the likes of Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Frederico García Lorca, Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Virgil, W.C. Williams, René Char, Ikkyū, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Su Tung P’o, and, famously (thanks to his collection Letters to Yesenin), Sergei Yesenin.

Whether you read this hefty book cover-to-cover or use it as a side-dipper while reading others, you will feel, at the end, like you are saying farewell to a good friend and, in doing so, saying hello to your own approaching end. Thinking about his boyhood days, Harrison finishes the poem “Seven in the Woods” with these words: “It is the burden of life to be many ages/without seeing the end of time.” And in “The Present,” he meditates on birds yet again before ending on this note of a lifetime: “The cost of flight is landing.”

Alas, Jim Harrison has landed, but reading his collected work in the genre he considered most important, we can only give thanks for what he learned during his long, migratory flight.

Tempted to Give Up? You’re Not Alone

 

It’s on everybody’s lips: These are dark days, especially between the pandemic and politics. I’m of two minds, torn between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. One preaches activism, the other isolation. One says get more involved. The other says quit while you’re behind. Trouble is, I can’t tell which is advocating which.

By way of explanation, here’s a little context: Thirty years ago, my wife and I rented a cottage on a lake with our young children. A pine cabin, it stood on concrete blocks and was equipped with electricity and running water thanks to a pump drawing water from the lake.

When vacationing there, we did not bother with a television or newspapers. For two weeks, we simply read books, played cards and board games, had conversations, swam in the water, dozed on the sun-drenched dock, and listened to the occasional Red Sox game on AM radio.

In effect, there was no “out there.” The world as we knew it was put on hold. Instead, it simply consisted of lake, woods, and a cabin seemingly ignorant of time. No politics. No crime. No national or international news. This isolation was a balm for the soul – and what’s good for the soul is good for the body.

If stress is so bad for us, it can be argued that turning in and logging off is a great strategy for healing and staying healthy. Thoreau, I’m sure, would approve. Yet for all his walks in the woods and stays in a cabin by Walden, Thoreau was also an activist fighting hard for the abolitionist cause and a man who spent time in jail for civil disobedience.

That’s why, as soon as I get comfortable with the warm blanket of escapism, I wonder about being a better Citizen of the World. Or, even more difficult, about my own country. If the Republic we all grew up pledging allegiance to is in trouble, don’t we owe it to the Founding Fathers to get involved? To speak up? To do something about saving it before all hell breaks loose and we fall into “soft fascism” á la Hungary – and all because of one man’s untreated psychological problems and a cable “news” channel that is doing Russia’s dirty work by spreading misinformation and division (thank you, Comrade Carlson)?

It’s questions like this that invite cloud cover over memories of those halcyon days at the lake. On one side I get an earful: Wouldn’t it look selfish and foolish to make like an ostrich and bury your head in the sand just because you just can’t deal with it anymore?

Then, in the other ear, another: If Covid wars, culture wars, and history repeating itself to the refrain of the 1930’s are only shortening your life, don’t you owe it to yourself to pull back from it all and breathe, Zen-like?

I don’t have any answers. I hear both figures on both shoulders, but sometimes it’s unclear who has the halo and who has the pitchfork, who advocates for the light and who for the dark. Nothing is obvious, and on any given day, my thoughts lean gray as dawn and dusk.

Here’s a Maggie Smith poem that speaks, in its own poetic way, to our assumptions about right and wrong being as easy as light and dark. In a way, it reminds me of the light and dark plying my ears!

How Dark the Beginning

All we ever talk of is light—

let there be light, there was light then,

good light—but what I consider

dawn is darker than all that.

So many hours between the day

receding and what we recognize

as morning, the sun cresting

like a wave that won’t break

over us—as if light were protective,

as if no hearts were flayed,

no bodies broken on a day

like today. In any film,

the sunrise tells us everything

will be all right. Danger wouldn’t

dare show up now, dragging

its shadow across the screen.

We talk so much of light, please

let me speak on behalf

of the good dark. Let us

talk more of how dark

the beginning of a day is.

 

One of my favorite phrases from the Bible is “Through a glass darkly.” These days, I see a lot of things “through a glass darkly” because so much is sinister in a déjà vu kind of way.

Is it selfish to brighten my own life? Might I then be accused of contributing to the dark forces by failing to assist the various causes for good?

Smith’s poem seems to speak to things that have crawled out of dark sewers and into the light of day. They are the new normal, and they are decidedly encouraged by each other and by their newfound freedom to operate with impunity in fresh air and sunlight. They see each other and are emboldened by each other.

That may be far from Smith’s intent, but the reader-writer compact tells us that there’s a gray area between light and dark, not only come dawn and dusk, but come our daily deliberations over how much or little to be agents of change — and at what cost.

 

A Word to the Wise: Jim Harrison Goes Aphoristic

I am wending my way through the late Jim Harrison’s Complete Poems – almost 900 pages of them. A prolific writer, Harrison wrote before his death, “This book is the portion of my life that means the most to me. I’ve written a goodly number of novels and novellas but they sometimes strike me as extra, burly flesh on the true bones of my life, though a few of them approach some of the conditions of poetry.”

Here are a few of the aphoristic stanzas from one of the books, Braided Creek, included in this collection:

All those years

I had in my pocket.

I spent them,

nickel-and-dime.

 

All I want to be

is a thousand blackbirds

bursting from a tree,

seeding the sky.

 

On every topographic map,

the fingerprints of God.

 

The biomass of ants,

their total weight on earth,

exceeds our own.

They welcome us to their world

of small homes, hard work, big women.

 

When Time picks apples,

it eats them with the yellow teeth

of bees.

 

I might have been a welder,

kneeling at a fountain of sparks

in my mask of stars

 

Midday silence is different

from nighttime silence.

I can’t tell you how.

 

Between the four pads

of a dog’s foot,

the fragrance of grass.

 

What if everyone you loved

were still alive? That’s the province

of the young, who don’t know it.

 

I’m sixty-two and can drop dead

at any moment. Thinking this in August

I kissed the river’s cold moving lips.

 

A welcome mat of moonlight

on the floor. Wipe your feet

before getting into bed.

 

I was born a baby.

What has been

added?

 

Treasure what you find

already in your pocket, friend.

Parlez-Vous English?

Thanks to Netflix, I’ve learned that I don’t understand English as well as I thought. I’ve seen more than one British-based show, but the one that’s taking it out of me is the darker-than-dark After Life, starring Ricky Gervais. I admit as much here: At times I’m completely lost and only picking up 40% of what’s being said. Maybe it’s English I speak well and British that gives me fits. Cornwallis’s revenge? I can hear him now: “Tea party that, mate!”

You Carry Your Breath Everywhere, So Why Ignore It?

Recently I’ve been making like George Harrison (one of two departed Beatles) by getting into a book about Indian spiritualism. As a break from reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ponderous Brothers Karamazov, I picked up Jay Shetty’s Think Like a Monk

Turns out, monk-like thoughts suit me well. Unlike most self-help books, this one didn’t come across as so much reheated claptrap. Shetty, a British-born Indian, disappointed his parents by passing on becoming a lawyer or doctor and instead flying to India to join an ashram. There he learned a lot about hardship and spiritualism thanks to one of the oldest civilizations in the world. 

Unfortunately, health concerns eventually forced him back to England, where he decided to parlay all he’d learned about himself from various holy men by writing a book. The spin? He shows how a few practices and a more Eastern mindset can be put to good effect in the hustle of modern Western life. Reading it, you realize just how much room for improvement there is when it comes to your spiritual side. First and foremost is dealing with the ego.

Sound easy? Listen again.

 

Into the Fray on Valentine’s Day

February 14th has never been my favorite day. I mean, really. A day to prove your love to someone? Shouldn’t that be every day? And to make matters worse, there’s the flower shortage to confound last-minute shoppers (the ones carrying Y chromosomes, typically). Be prepared to say it with chocolates, gentlemen. Or a backrub. Or a Covid-free restaurant (I’m almost sure one’s out there). 

Into clever word-play, maybe? Try saying it with flour!

Or you can do what I do. Take a page out of Hallmark’s book (and bottom line) by creating your own card. My wife has saved them since time immemorial (also known as “1982”). Not sure what will become of them when the prefix “im-” invades our “permanence,” but that’s OK. I won’t much care by then.

Two Thoughts on Christmas Past & One on New Year’s Future

 

For me, Christmas creates both anticipation and dread. There’s the undertow of nostalgia, for one. That tug toward childhood — a time when warm meals magically appeared at the table, dirty clothes found their way to your dresser drawers smelling clean and neatly folded, and bills were names of men vs. “pay up” statements arriving in the mailbox with startling regularity.

But the demands of Christmas can get to you, too. All that gift buying, food purchasing, entertaining, overeating, and now, Covid-dodging during a time of family and friends.

Traditionally, I’ve been a Christmas Eve guy because, for me, it focuses more on anticipation than reward. Christmas Day? That tends to play out like that old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”

Somehow, Christmas hype can’t keep pace with Christmas reality. And so, come Boxing Day, you’re ready to pack Christmas away and call it a season. 

Why? Because, come the 26th, both tree and decorations look stale and cheesy. You want to box and banish it to its Basement Captivity (Babylon being busy), go all Kondo (a shout-out to Japan) and glory in a house with clean, sparse lines (and to Scandinavia) again.

I’ll admit, also, to a fondness for resolutions, hopeless or not. January 1st is not a drinking holiday for me because, long ago, I saw the futility in it (drinking is a little like Christmas Day in a bottle… more promise than delivery). 

The Roman God Janus, who looks both forward and back, symbolizes New Year’s nicely. Resolutions, fertilized by regret, come from the past but are premised on the future. Thus, each New Year’s Eve, I typically try myself, find myself guilty, and sentence myself to some constructive service or other. 

This new year it’s being more religious about keeping a writer’s journal. And, if Covid ever relents, fulfilling my retirement pledge to volunteer somewhere. 

One needs distraction from oneself, after all, especially if one is trying to better oneself at “being human” (the impossibility of perfection being its appeal).

Meanwhile, the writing thing. It’s essentially Christmas Eve as an avocation, no? You write, revise, and anticipate. Sure, you get a lot of rejections, but there are those acceptances that sneak through the door, too, surprising you. 

Then there’s the reward of seeing your writing published. And finding a few people who actually respond by obtaining, reading, and appreciating it. 

The ‘22 fine print, then, looks like this: 100 rejections (a barometer of discipline in marketing your work) and 20 acceptances. Because 20% acceptance ratios are a good thing for non-famous writers who can’t coast on the reputation of their names. That doesn’t work when the reading public still knows you as “Who?”

How about YOU, fellow “Who’s?” What’s your 20%-is-better-than-nothing pledge to improve in ‘22?

 

Merry Divide-mas!


Arundel, Maine. Christmas Eve morning. My daughter is waiting in line outside The Lobster Co. Fishmarket for the shrimp and scallops we ordered for dinner. Two people behind her strike up a conversation – an older woman and an older man. But first the woman says, “Are you local?” When the man assures her that he is, the woman says, “Good. We can talk.” And talk they did, according to my daughter. For the 20 minutes it took to reach the register.

When she returned to the car with this story, she wondered what would have happened if the woman had directed the question at her (a visitor from Minnesota). Heck, I wondered about myself. What exactly was this woman’s definition of “local”? I moved here from out of state three years ago. Would I pass muster as “local goods”? Somehow, I fear not.

 

Judge This Book by Its Cover


In The New York Times Books section, I read a short piece on new books scheduled for release in January. One that looked interesting was Barbara F. Walters’ How Civil Wars Start: And How to Stop Them. Looking at the book’s cover, I’m amazed at how small the subtitle’s font is. Heck, to my mind, How to Stop Them is the important part! Why is it barely discernible beneath the burning, provocatively red How Civil Wars Start?

It’s depressing to think that more readers might be interested in how our country will get ripped apart than in how we might prevent it by going after politicians and media outlets promoting it.

Love and Other Poems: Alex Dimitrov

Reading this collection brought up the uncomfortable question (for a poet reading another poet): When is poetry self-indulgent? On the one hand, this collection contains the 10-page list poem, “Love,” included in Tracy K. Smith’s Best Poetry for 2021 anthology (and deservedly so). On the other, this collection contains more than a few solipsistic lines that had me scratching my head. For my full Goodreads review, jump down this rabbit hole.

Eternal Abe


If you look at Abraham Lincoln quotes, you might wonder how so many of his thoughts seem like they were written at 10 o’clock this morning. There’s a reason for that, of course. For the past five years, there have been a lot of Jefferson Davis-types working hard at turning Americans against each other.

Here’s a great quote showing why we wish Honest Abe walked among us today. Nothing is as simple as it looks at first glance, especially if it’s a beloved abstraction like liberty:

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, and all professing to love liberty.”