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Is Poetry Dead or Just Playing Possum?

Ask any librarian or bookstore owner. The aisle (or Dewey Decimal number) less traveled by is poetry.

Why is that? You would think that readers would love to read all types of books alike — fiction, essays, history, drama, memoir, and poetry.

That’s how it starts, anyway. After all, little kids love poetry. They’re nurtured on Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes, children’s song lyrics, Dr. Seuss’s word play. But by the time they reach middle school, the love is all but gone. What happens? 

There’s no lack of theories. Some lay the blame at English teachers’ feet. As Billy Collins once wrote in “Introduction to Poetry”:

…all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

By this theory’s logic, teachers “ruin” poems, either by selecting inscrutable works or by making it work instead of fun to read. Thus we have teachers as keepers of the keys to meanings, while kids are left to play a dreary guessing game.

“Why don’t poets just say what they mean?” victims of this game might say. “Why aren’t kids intrigued by a poem’s unique slant on old truths?” an admirer of poetry might respond.

Matt Zapruder, poet and professor, has an idea. He thinks readers — including young people — need only one tool to fully understand poetry: a dictionary. Yes, online is fine. And no, not just to look up words they don’t know. Words they know, too. Especially common words with multiple meanings because, in poetry, words work in mysterious — dare I say “often very cool” — ways. Sometimes definition #8 works better than definition #1.

When a reader of poetry is intrigued like a detective who wants to solve a mystery or advocate for a particular meaning, it’s a new ball game. Poetry isn’t being “done to them.” They are “doing poetry.” The whole scenario is flipped. Both control and motivation is given to the reader.

Couple this with the appropriate selection of poems for each age group, and the situation shifts. Ditto adults. Every topic is fair game in poetry these days, and there’s a voice that will resonate with readers of every taste — if given the chance, of course. If readers who “left” poetry are willing to jump back in. And if they’re willing to mix it up and appreciate that reading poetry offers rewards both similar to and different from prose.

Next newsletter: How reading poetry is different from reading prose, and how it benefits the brain the way aerobic and anaerobic activities complement each other in exercising the body.

 

WHAT I’M READING

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is that rare book that handles both plot and characterization well. Diving into the publishing world, it tells the story of a writer/teacher who takes a student writer’s idea and runs with it. When it becomes a bestseller, he starts to get mysterious messages accusing him of plagiarism. It’s a quiet psychological thriller that Stephen King or Alfred Hitchcock would fancy. Book lovers will, too.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

Green, the heralded YA author of such books as Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, takes a different turn with these mini-essays based on a podcast he does with brother Henry. Fans of trivia — and, let’s be honest, knowledge — will savor his quick forays into such disparate and odd topics as Halley’s Comet, Lascaux Cave Paintings, Piggly Wiggly stores, The Yips,” “Auld Lang Syne,” etc.) or, because of his expository efforts, became somewhat the QWERTY Keyboard, and the film Penguins of Madagascar. Like those rare teachers we remember best from school — both fun and entertaining — the book satisfies in 3-5 page morsels. Tasty!

Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry by John Murillo

Fans of narrative poetry that not only embraces the present moment but the history of Black experience in America will appreciate Murillo’s conversational free verse that recounts various episodes from his life and others in his circle of friends and family. The highlight of the book is a strong set of sonnets (Petrarch and Shakespeare need not apply) in the center of the book, each 14-liner going to the heart of America’s social woes from different angles. Thought-provoking stuff!

 

Memorable Lines: They Want To Be a Poem

Sometimes the genesis of a poem is an innocent but memorable remark someone once said to the poet. Many of my poems come into the world this way. 

For instance, “The Morning After,” which appears in my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, sprung from something my mother once said the morning after a party at our house. She woke up, came out into the kitchen where my brother and I were eating cereal, saw all the liquor bottles still on the counter, and asked us to put them away.

But it’s the words she chose that struck my young mind and lingered to the present day. The words had to out somehow. They chose poetry as a way to do so.

Here’s the poem I wrote to recollect that moment. It originally appeared in South Florida Poetry Journal.

 

The Morning After

by Ken Craft

 

The kitchen ceiling is a soft cirrus of cigarette smoke,

and the white globe light Mom loves glows like a full

gaseous moon. Below, a table of highball glasses, cards,

coin kitties, napkin-bedded baskets, chips and Chex mix,

 

ashtrays of butts bent 90 degrees, some ringed with lipstick, 

some slipped off the edge. Sounds tinny and thin through 

the tube of time: radio jazz, Kennedy halves, quarters 

sliding like silver pucks across polished wood. In memory,

 

hours and minutes sprint by, stopping only for Sundays. Talk

and laughter grow louder as we grow little-kid groggier, falling

asleep in our beds up the hall, dreaming of family, friends, and

neighbors who never grow old and never feel pain and never die 

 

of lung cancer or cirrhosis of the liver or, God save us, natural 

causes. In memory, we eat Trix or Cocoa Puffs or Frosted Flakes 

as Mom comes out of her room in a housecoat Sunday morning. 

She’s squinting against a sunrise of empties and glasses half-filled 

 

with dead ice, the accordioned remains in ashtrays, the wounded 

bottles of liquor, brown and green and clear. She’s turning back

for the refuge of her room, saying: “Boys, could you put the bottles 

away for me, please? I can’t stand looking at them in the morning.”

 

Our Ambivalence Toward Reincarnation

 

It is said that love and death are the two great themes of literature and, to some, reincarnation appears to be a convenient escape hatch for the latter. For Buddhists and Hindus, however, reincarnation isn’t as rosy a concept as it might first look.

From an Eastern perspective, it has historically meant another slog through pain, illness, old age, and death – perhaps in different form – while working on your karma in a quest to end the cycle. This final escape goes by various names – moksha, enlightenment, nirvana – but, to Westerners, second (and third, and fourth) chances all sound rather heavenly, much like having St. Peter and the Pearly Gates in your rearview mirror.

You know: Self, 1. Death, 0.

My third collection of poems – Reincarnation & Other Stimulants: Life, Death, and In-Between Poems – delves into this east-west ambivalence. It  happened only because the poems gathered enough force and numbers to demand some organizing principle, and reincarnation came to the fore. The first poems were brought on by adversity — a sudden onslaught of bad news bedeviling me and people I knew and loved. On the Internet, I learned, we are not alone. Those who suffer chronic pain every day, for instance, may feel singled out (“Why me?”) but are decidedly not. 

In a 2019 study, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that, worldwide, 20.4% of people suffer from some form of physical pain on a daily basis — and this doesn’t even consider those suffering from the psychological pain of despair and depression. Scarier still for these individuals? No matter how bad things are, there’s always someone who is enduring even worse. 

The darkness of yin seeks out the lightness of yang, however. The questioning poems I was writing began to seek out answers for their own good. If the future of the body looks bleak and all too mortal, my writing seemed to be telling me, then perhaps it’s time to look through the lens of the spirit. 

When I stepped back, I realized that poems I was writing were pairing off — opposites circling each other, craving each other, sharing each other. Poems of youth and old age, disease and health, sadness and joy, self and no-self, vanity and modesty.

Despite the Buddhist themes, this is not a Buddhist book per se. Nor do I consider myself an expert on the matter. Rather I borrow freely from Christianity (memento mori) and Buddhism (reincarnation) alike. 

Loosely speaking, these poems are about me, people I’ve read about, characters I’ve made up. And it is not about people alone. You’ll find poems about the four seasons, old dogs, stranded cats, nesting birds, New England weather, and riprap (rock on!). There are even cameos starring Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Frank O’Hara, Hamlet, and Emily Dickinson — some of my favorite people.

My hope, through all these pasts, presents, and futures, is that there will be something both novel and familiar for every reader. My other? That, like me, readers will agree that lightness and humor have a place in most any subject matter — even the required do-overs and karma overhauls we call “reincarnation.”

 

 

The Ernest Hemingway of Contemporary Poets

bilgere

George Bilgere is the Ernest Hemingway of contemporary of poets. By that I don’t mean he shoots innocent lions in his free time or drinks like a marlin. I mean he makes writing look effortless. The complex simplicity of his work inspires in poets a most valuable sentiment: the good old “I can do that, too!” sentiment.

It’s great inspiration, this sentiment. And at least it gets you started. But then you realize it is not as simple as it seems. You start writing a poem, all psyched and sure you’re musing with the best of them, and then things go haywire. By line four. Before you even turn the bend of stanza one. How does he do it, you wonder?

Let’s sample some of his work and see for ourselves. The first, “Haywire,” gives us a distant, pre-industrial past through the eyes of a very old relative who happens to live in some back room of a childhood friend’s house. The distant past is served up as an agrarian utopia of sorts. Something that looks awfully good, especially if you lean sentimental.

 

“Haywire” by George Bilgere

When I was a kid,
there was always someone old
living with my friends,
a small, gray person
from another century
who stayed in a back room
with a Bible and a bed with silver rails.

They were from a time before the time
the world just plain went haywire,

and even though nothing
made sense to them anymore,
they’d gotten used to it,
and walked around smiling vaguely
at the aliens ruining the galaxy
on the color console television,

or the British invasion
growing from the sides of our heads
in little transistorized boxes.

In the front room, by the light of tv,
we were just starting to get stoned,
and the girls were helping us
help them out of their jeans,

while in the back room
someone very tired
closed her eyes and watched
a wheat field where a boy
whose name she can’t remember
is walking down a dusty road.

No sound
but the sound of crickets.
No satellites,
Or even headlights in the distance yet.

 

The next poem out-Billies Billy Collins. We see the poet in some European setting–some Masterpiece Theatre set from the BBC–doing what he shouldn’t be doing: a whole lot of nothing. Can anything win our hearts faster? We are all complicit. Hark:

 

“Once Again I Fail to Read an Important Novel” by George Bilgere

Instead, we sit together beside the fountain,
the important novel and I.

We are having coffee together
in that quiet first hour of the morning,
respecting each other’s silences
in the shadow of an important old building
in this small but significant European city.

All the characters can relax.
I’m giving them the day off.
For once they can forget about their problems—
desire, betrayal, the fatal denouement—
and just sit peacefully beside me.

In the afternoon,
at lunch near the cathedral,
and in the evening, after my lonely,
historical walk along the promenade,

the men and women, the children
and even the dogs
in the important, complicated novel
have nothing to fear from me.

We will sit quietly at the table
with a glass of cool red wine
and listen to the pigeons
questioning each other in the ancient corridors.

 

Our final sample shows that Bilgere, a playful and casual poet, can also play the poignant card when he needs to. I like that in a poet. It’s fine to be good at something, but it’s finer to prove that your portfolio is diversified. I can think of no better example than the following poem:

 

“The White Museum” by George Bilgere

My aunt was an organ donor
and so, the day she died,
her organs were harvested
for medical science.
I suppose there must be people
who list, under “Occupation,”
“Organ Harvester,” people for whom
it is always harvest season,
each death bringing its bounty.
They spend their days
loading wagonloads of kidneys,
whole cornucopias of corneas,
burlap sacks groaning with hearts and lungs
and the pale green sprouts of gall bladders,
and even, from time to time,
the weighty cauliflower of a brain.

And perhaps today,
as I sit in this café, watching the snow
and thinking about my aunt,
a young medical student somewhere
is moving through the white museum
of her brain, making his way slowly
from one great room to the next.
Here is the gallery of her girlhood,
with that great canvas depicting her father
holding her on his lap in the backyard
of their bungalow in St. Louis.
And here is a sketch of her
the summer after her mother died,
walking down a street in Berlin
when the broken city was itself
a museum. And here
is a small, vivid oil of the two of us
sitting in a café in London
arguing over the work of Constable
or Turner, or Francis Bacon
after a visit to the Tate.

I want you to know, as you sit there
with your microscope and your slides,
there’s no need to be reverent before these images.
That’s the last thing she would have wanted.
But do be respectful. Speak quietly.
No flash photography. Tell your friends
you saw something beautiful.

 

If you haven’t sampled this Ohio poet’s work, give him a go. Not only will it be an enjoyable read, it will inspire you to write. Because, after all, writing is easy. You can do it, too*!

(*Results may vary.)

What Color Is Your Book Cover?

A poetry friend asked an interesting question last week. She said, “What color is your new book’s cover? Is it blue like the first two?” (Leave it to a poet to rhyme.)

What’s intriguing is that colors of book covers never occurred to me. Or did it, only subconsciously? The first two are indeed blue, but the new collection, Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, is green. Color never entered the decision equation when choosing the first books’ cover, but it did in this most recent. The fir tree branches are evergreen. The connection for me was in the title: reincarnation. So I chose the simple metaphor of trees that are green when all else is dead in winter: evergreen branches.

Of course, I know there’s a science built around colors. For example, I read that chronic pain sufferers, when shown the color red, will feel more pain than when shown the color blue, even though the pain is the same. But I guess the pain isn’t really the same, is it, because impressions count as much as logical facts. Science be damned — you feel what you feel.

So now I’m left with this — two blue books, one green book. Since it’s come up (thank you, friend!), I’m saying to myself now: Earth colors! Blue, green. This from a man who loves nature and writes not a few nature poems (including in this book).

Now I wonder what marketers would say about all this. I admit to “judging books by their covers,” but I didn’t realize color might be part of the judgement — subliminally if in no other way — when I reach for a book to purchase it (or eyeball it online before clicking “CART”)!

The question remains, then, for authors and readers alike: Do we favor certain colored book covers over others? Maybe it’s time for a little excavation of your bookshelf. You might find you’re part of Team Red or Team Yellow or Team Blue. For the moment, I’m squarely in the Team Green camp, holding in my hands a beautiful new cover designed by my evergreen daughter.

Reveal Party: It’s a Book!


This reveal party will include no explosives, no unexpected brush fires, and no confetti, pink or blue. No, just this: It’s a book!

A third book, actually. A collection of poems that I hope will look up to its older books, now aged 5 and 3. A collection that I hope will find some readers like they did, too. Readers who might not only enjoy some of the poetry, but relate to it as well.

So without the noise and the fire extinguishers, let’s celebrate the July 13th birthday of Reincarnation & Other Stimulants by passing the cake. Have seconds, if you want. Life is sweet and frosting was invented to be enjoyed!

Funeral for a Poem

Sea-Joy-by-Jacqueline-Bouvier-690x490

Sometimes you meet poems in the strangest ways. I still remember how I met C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “Ithaka.” It was in reading about Jaqueline Kennedy-Onasiss’s funeral. The poem was read at the service by her longtime companion, Maurice Tempelsman.

Some don’t know that Mrs. Kennedy was a great champion of poetry and even wrote her own (read “Sea Joy” in the photo above). Her daughter, Caroline, would grow up to be an admirer of the genre as well, helping to put together a collection that is now out of print but garners high marks on book review sites.

I’ve since explored a lot of Cavafy’s work, but nothing seems to strike me the way this poem does. Using Homer’s Odyssey, the extended metaphor works perfectly. We are all headed toward our own separate Ithakas, and none of us is terribly intent on arriving at our home port. This poem captures the essence of that. “If not the journey, what?” it seems to say.

Here it is, to cheer up your Wednesday. The translation is by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard from “C. P. Cavafy/Collected Poems,” (Princeton University Press, 1992):

 

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka

hope the voyage is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

angry Poseidon — don’t be afraid of them:

you’ll never find things like that on your way

as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,

as long as a rare excitement

stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,

wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them

unless you bring them along inside your soul,

unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.

May there be many a summer morning when,

with what pleasure, what joy,

you come into harbors seen for the first time;

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations

to buy fine things,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

sensual perfume of every kind —

as many sensual perfumes as you can,

and may you visit many Egyptian cities

to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you are destined for.

But do not hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so you are old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her, you would not have set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.

Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,

you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

 

***

Lost Sherpa of Happiness   contains poems about my journey (Ithaca-free, so far).

Billy Collins & Poisonous Poetry Prescriptions

billy collins

A virtual friend (all my friends are electronically ghostly) sent along this Writer’s Almanac interview of that pop poetry institution known as Billy Collins.

I like Billy Collins’ work, for the most part. Sometimes he rests on his laurels and the overheated aroma of the plant’s leaves fetters his free verse, but for the most part his dry and whimsical humor carries the day.

I also like all that Collins has done to bring poetry to a public with severe poetry allergies. He started the Poetry 180 website, for instance, supposedly designed for high schools but equally good for middle schools. He also embraced video, which, medical journals assure us, make school children decidedly less allergic to poetry. In my classroom, I print copies of the poems, show the videos, and open discussion. The visual element seems to invigorate young minds.

All that said, one part of the interview drives me crazy (Exit 76 off the Jersey Turnpike). This would be the part where the interviewer asks about previous Collins remarks about poets who include cicadas in their poems. Apparently, Collins cannot abide them (poets, their buzzy poems, and, I assume, the melodious insect). Says he: “Don’t get me started on cicadas. When I see one, I stop reading the poem. Next!”

Et tu, Brute? I don’t know where this fashion for poetry proscriptions started–this idea that certain words or concepts are verboten and sure to poison a poem, this idea that anyone with an opinion (they’re going around) can pick a word, any word, and say it cannot be used by anyone, anywhere, at any time.

No, no, a thousand times no. Both Billy and Collins should know better.

You only need follow this to its logical conclusion, after all. At the end of the interview, Collins is asked, “What’s the deal with mice, Mr. Collins? They enjoy coming around your poems.

Collins’ response seems reasonable enough: “Too much attachment to cartoons plus living in a porous 1860s farmhouse for many years.”

To which I can only say, “Don’t get me started on mice. When I see them, I stop reading the poem. Next!”

Surely, Billy, you of all people see the irony.

OK, then. Off to write my Ode to Cicadas. Thanks for the otherwise wonderful interview!

Best regards,

A (Slightly) Lesser-Known Poet

 

Don’t Look Back

eurydice

Stories like this are our lot in life. Don’t look back, whether it be religion or mythology. The Buddhists would approve, I suppose, though I’m not sure looking forward would be any better in their eyes.

Still, there’s something about the story of Eurydice and Orpheus that gets to the heart of the matter. Death. Second chances. The type deal even Lazarus could love. But can you trust yourself to trust others? Even the God of the Underworld?

As Karl Marx didn’t say, music is the opiate of the masses, and certainly Orpheus put some religion in people, from Hades to his seasonal bride Persephone to a host of lesser gods and nymphs. As the Bard would have it (at least, on the Twelfth Night of things): “If music be the food of love, play on!”

Anyway, to be a poet with chops, you compose your version of a subject many before have trodden. Penned your ars poetica already? How about a Greek myth? How about one that wraps death in love like bacon ’round baby hot dogs? Eurydice will do, as well as any.

Looking at Ocean Vuong’s entry, “Eurydice,” you might make a game of the allusions he offers. Sound is there (check) as is a “hole / in the garden” (check). But we have “the rib’s / hollowed hum,” too, bringing matters Adamic to mind.

There’s also the matter of “where you stand” here. In the myth, to heighten drama, Orpheus is right at the portal of hell and earth, his love just approaching the threshold, when he gives in to his oh-so-human weakness for curiosity and doubt. Cue the Greek Chorus singing “You. Idiot.”

What’s most unusual about the OV version, though, is the ending. Orpheus calls for the girl, but she is still “beside him. Frosted grass / snapping beneath her hooves.”

Really? Are we horsing around here? Or is it cloven hooves, as in Jack Scratch the Devil? The allusions begin to swirl like cotton candy around a paper cone, sometimes pink and sometimes blue but always remarkably like insulation.

I don’t know. Sometimes giving up or remaining on the outside of meaning looking in is the peace we forge. Between writer and reader, a house divided will never stand, they say, but how long can you go through life trusting “they”?

Give a listen:

 

Eurydice
by Ocean Vuong

It’s more like the sound
a doe makes
when the arrowhead
replaces the day
with an answer to the rib’s
hollowed hum. We saw it coming
but kept walking through the hole
in the garden. Because the leaves
were bright green & the fire
only a pink brushstroke
in the distance. It’s not
about the light—but how dark
it makes you depending
on where you stand.
Depending on where you stand
his name can appear like moonlight
shredded in a dead dog’s fur.
His name changed when touched
by gravity. Gravity breaking
our kneecaps just to show us
the sky. We kept saying Yes—
even with all those birds.
Who would believe us
now? My voice cracking
like bones inside the radio.
Silly me. I thought love was real
& the body imaginary.
But here we are—standing
in the cold field, him calling
for the girl. The girl
beside him. Frosted grass
snapping beneath her hooves.

Fernando Pessoa & Literary Children

index

After lazily wending my way through Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, I found a like-minded soul and poet: a quiet man, a homebody, a literary enthusiast.

Most interesting to me is this passage about children and their “literary” way of thinking (as opposed to those conformists like that one in the mirror — a.k.a. “adults”). For me, this brought to mind the video of Naomi Shihab Nye quoting William Stafford about how we are all poets as children and just have to readopt the facility if we want to write poetry as adults.

Here’s the quote from Pessoa:

“Children are particularly literary, for they say what they feel and not what someone has taught them to feel. Once I heard a child, who wished to say that he was on the verge of tears, say not ‘I feel like crying,’ which is what an adult, i.e. an idiot, would say, but rather, ‘I feel like tears.’ And this phrase — so literary it would seem affected in a well-known poet, if he could ever invent it — decisively refers to the warm presence of tears about to burst from eyelids that feel the liquid bitterness. ‘I feel like tears!’ That small child aptly defined his spiral.

“To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined loves and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming — like worms when a rock is lifted — under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky.”

This is the gospel according to St. Fernando (thanks be to the writing gods)….