Journal

698 posts

UPDATES ON A FREE VERSE LIFE

The Ordinary–It Should Scare You to Death

cellar-stairs

Fringe. Niche. Eccentric.

These are words you might hear when people describe poets or poetry in general, at least in the States. Thing is, the joke’s on them (or at least in their mirrors). Why? Because everyone’s a poet, or at least was at one time.

As proof, my favorite 2 minute and 37 second video to share with students is Naomi Shihab Nye’s “One Boy Told Me.” Before reading a found poem wholly consisting of things her son said when he was 2- and 3-years-old, she shares what William Stafford once said when someone asked, “When did you become a poet?” He responded: “That’s not really the right question. The question is, when did you STOP being a poet? We’re all poets when we’re little. Some of us just try to keep up the habit.”

A little logic tells us, then, that the kid in all of us is the poet in all of us. It’s kind of like Halloween. You never quite get it out of your system. Now #2 behind Christmas in retail sales, October 31st has practically been taken over by adults who want to play dress up and “trick or treat” (without the door-to-door nonsense), too.

Whether you’re a student, a writer, or a party animal, then, you should take note: It’s the ordinary that should scare you to death.

What if I asked you to write something scary, for instance? Too often, when writers set out to scare readers, they fall victim to stock props of the genre as found on TV, in the movies, and yes, in literature. But there’s more to scaring people than vampires by night, zombies by day, and Fox News talking heads by any measure of time.

If you really want to write about fear, get in touch with your inner child (whether you’re age 50 or 12). As adults drugged on maturity, we often forget the powerful knack little kids have for seeing malevolence in the ordinary, and there’s no better Museum of the Extraordinarily Ordinary than a house’s basement.

Don’t believe me? Close your eyes a moment and conjure the basement of the house you grew up in. In my case, there was a rec room of no account on one side and then the unfinished side: concrete floor, washer/dryer, sump pump, oil tank, furnace, and that all important basement prop, “thing that goes bump in the night.” I can recall many a nightmare where various horrors came through the door separating these two sections.

But let’s move on to a good example of how basements tap can into our inner child mentality (and therefore our poetic imagination). It appears in the late poet Thomas Lux’s poem,  “Cellar Stairs,” a piece in which ice skates, ice picks, roofing nails, a fuse-box switch, and yes, even a freezer, do yeoman duty as witches, monsters, and boogeymen. As it’s only three 9-line stanzas, let’s take a look:

      Cellar Stairs
      by Thomas Lux

      It’s rickety down to the dark.
      Old skates, long-bladed, hang by leather laces
      on your left and want to slash your throat,
      but they can’t, they can’t, being only skates.
      On a shelf above, tools: shears,
      three-pronged weed hacker, ice pick,
      poison-rats and bugs-and on the landing,
      halfway down, a keg of roofing nails
      you don’t want to fall face first into,

      no, you don’t. To your right,
      a fuse box with its side-switch-a slot machine,
      on a good day, or the one the warden pulls,
      on a bad. Against the wall,
      on nearly every stair, one boot, no two
      together, no pair, as if the dead
      went off, short-legged or long, to where they go,
      which is down these steps,
      at the bottom of which is a swollen,

      humming, huge white freezer
      big enough for many bodies—
      of children, at least. And this
      is where you’re sent each night
      for the frozen bag of beans
      or peas or broccoli
      that lies beside the slab
      of meat you’ll eat for dinner,
      each countless childhood meal your last.

      “Cellar Stairs,” from New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin).

The minute you go for laughs or frights in the usual, well-trod places is the minute you should stop and reconsider the tack you’re on. Heck with masked, chainsaw-wielding psychopaths, people are killed every day by ladders, bathtubs, and stairs.

My advice, if it’s scares you’re after? Put down your remote and channel your childhood home and how much it resembles your present-day home. There are places in the former that scared you and places in the latter that should, and even though those places are populated with objects both hum and drum, your job — as a writer, as a poet, and as an aficionado of Halloween — is to make them thrum. Basements, attics, crawlspaces, closets, the one room people tend to avoid.

After that, scare yourself even more. Try reading some poetry. Or scare ME by writing a short poem about your cellar and sending it my way. I promise it will not be shared here or any other place, like behind the furnace.

See you later. I’m going to the cellar for a ball-peen hammer and some ideas I’ve been toying with.

 

The Secret Superpower You Don’t Know About

If you’re like me, you probably remember teachers who asked you to memorize a speech (“Four score and seven years ago…”), a Shakespeare soliloquy (“The quality of mercy is not strained…”), or a political document (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”).  And, if you’re like me, you probably hated the assignment. After all, as you pleaded, you were terrible at memorization. Suzy Straight-A might manage it (like everything else), but you? Never!

Trouble is, your high drama was a bit of a lie. 

You see, as humans, we are hard-wired for memorization. It’s something we do naturally, if not by design then by happenstance. Why? Because memorized words are possessions, and if there’s one thing people like, it’s owning stuff (look around yourself or, for more dramatic purposes, think of Gollum speaking preciousssss nothings to a mere ring).

Still doubtful? The proof is in the pudding. You know hundreds of idioms like “the proof is in the pudding.” Chances are you know a few prayers by heart, too: “Our Father, who art in Heaven,” “Hail Mary, full of grace,” “Now I lay me down to sleep,” “It is our duty to praise and thank you, to glorify and sanctify Your name, “ etc.

And songs. There’s no telling how many lyrics you can pull out of nowhere once a song you love graces your ears.

Pretty impressive for someone incapable of memorization, no?

One of the most interesting English professors I took a course with at college had the misfortune of being a prisoner of war during WWII. He told us stories about the war and said he kept his sanity thanks to memorized poetry. Each day, throughout months of misery, he would recite poems in his mind over and over — words he had learned during his own schooldays — to keep himself together.

These poems became his company. His friends and his succor. His daily mantras. Without them, he said, he would almost surely have pleased his captors by going mad.

A memorized poem or three is a tool we all should have in our kits. They are great for your mental health in that they are like meditations: Calming touchstones. Sweet treats from inner voice to inner ear. Or, if you want to amaze your family or a few friends, there’s that, too.

To start, go short. Poems that rhyme and have a nice beat are easiest. Here are three that I memorized in minutes, meaning you can con them in less time still. The go-to guy for short rhymes that blend with the great outdoors and the great indoors we call gray matter is Robert Frost. Let’s start with an 8-liner that works especially well in winter (coming soon to a northern hemisphere near you):

 

Dust of Snow

by Robert Frost

 

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

 

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

 

Face it, in these pandemic days, saving a part of a day you had rued is vastly underestimated, crow or no. 

Here’s another rhyming 8-liner. It’s featured in S.E. Hinton’s young-adult classic The Outsiders. In that book (and movie), the protagonist Ponyboy Curtis lowers his defense shields in front of his pal Johnny by showing off some memorized poetry. The catalyst? Sunrise. And Johnny, who promises not to tell the gang back in Tulsa, thinks it’s plenty cool, too. (If you need better endorsement than Johnny, who coined the words, “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” there’s no helping you.)

 

Nothing Gold Can Stay

by Robert Frost

 

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf.

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day.

Nothing gold can stay.

 

With those two under your belt, you can look to the stars and belt out Frost’s ode to the heavens — in particular, the brightest star Sirius, which is part of Canis Major, loyal dog co-starring in the winter sky with his owner, the constellation Orion.

 

Canis Major

by Rober Frost

 

The great Overdog,

That heavenly beast

With a star in one eye,

Gives a leap in the east.

He dances upright

All the way to the west

And never once drops

On his forefeet to rest.

I’m a poor underdog,

But tonight I will bark

With the great Overdog

That romps through the dark.

 

On winter mornings, if I’m out before sunrise, I like to recite “Canis Major” and watch Frost’s words rise as white steam in the beam of my headlight. They rise to join Orion’s best friend for eternity — and how cool (or, depending on the month, cold) is that?

Your confidence high and your inner powers bolstered (I kid you not — having poems memorized for any moment is a superpower), I’ll leave you with the most beloved Frost poem, one you probably heard a lot as a child and had half-memorized once upon a time anyway.

Let’s revisit this sweet-16 liner (really 15, as the last two lines echo each other through the ages), practice, and become a foster parent to four poems, shall we? You’ll thank me later, guaranteed.

 

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

by Robert Frost

 

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

 

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

 

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

Will you sleep better after memorizing these poems? No doubt. And feel better. And feel more a part of the nature of things, like men who gathered round the fires long ago to hear bards unfold their long, memorized songs and sagas about heroes and heroines, monsters and dragons, et and cetera.

Speak, Memory, I say.

And why not? You’re already good at it. Very good.

 

Leaping Poetry, or When Poems Make Like Frogs

frog

The sedentary reader is often moved by his discoveries. Recently I learned about a style of writing Robert Bly referred to as “leaping poetry.” In 1975, he defined it as “a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

This sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who went there and back again, but Bly took his inspiration from the works of such French poets as Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Antonio Machado. Bly also cited ancient Chinese poets who spoke of “riding on dragons,” a term defining moments of “inspiration,” of leaps between planes of thought.

If you read Bly poems that demonstrate “leaping poetry” nowadays, you might not even notice the leaping. Our modern sense of metaphoric leaps seems to fill the bill quite nicely, thank you, but here’s an example anyway. Can you guess which stanza makes like Mark Twain’s Calaveras County frog and leaps?

 

Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River by Robert Bly


I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

 II 
The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

 III
Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.

 

If you chose stanza #3, you are correct. The turn comes with the word “suddenly,” and although some imagery anticipates it in the first two stanzas, in stanza #3 Bly leaps to a more emotional, subjective lens to describe sights seen on this drive.

As I said, leaping is less exercise than you thought, so you need not worry about training so much as freeing your mind to the possibilities.

Here is another Bly poem that leaps. Like the last line of haiku, a leaping poem might first focus on a concrete image (in this case, some lovely description of a humble mushroom) and then finish on an imaginative metaphor, such as the trip our migratory souls prepare for near the end of life. By the end of the poem, you might wonder what “A” has to do with “B” but, skillfully done, leaping poetry makes the transition not only reasonable but seemingly obvious.

Leap well done, in other words!

 

The Mushroom by Robert Bly

This white mushroom comes up through the duffy
lith on a granite cliff, in a crack that ice has widened.
The most delicate light tan, it has the texture of a rubber
ball left in the sun too long. To the fingers it feels a
little like the tough heel of a foot.

One split has gone deep into it, dividing it into two
half-spheres, and through the cut one can peek inside,
where the flesh is white and gently naive.

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.
There must be travellers all around us supporting us whom
we do not recognize. This granite cliff also travels. Do we
know more about our wife’s journey or our dearest friends’
than the journey of this rock? Can we be sure which
traveller will arrive first, or when the wedding will be?
Everything is passing away except the day of this wedding.

Don’t Look Now, But Your Books Are Talking About You

Fallout from the ongoing pandemic has affected all aspects of life — many in negative ways, as might be expected, but some in positive ways, too (even if your name isn’t Jeff Bezos). One of the more pedestrian positives? Warming relations between you and your books.

First let’s look at England comma Jolly Olde. According to book sale monitor Nielsen BookScan, over 200 million print books were sold in England during 2020 — the first time that rampart had been scaled since 2012.

In the Somehow-Still-United States, news for 2020 book sales was equally good. NPD BookScan reported an 8.2% increase in sales from 2019, clocking in at 750.9 million sales — the largest annual American increase since 2010.

Book spines have joyfully photo-bombed us during this pandemic, too. Or maybe Zoom-bombed is a more accurate term. How many talking heads have appeared on our screens with books leering and mugging from over their shoulders? This is usually intentional, of course. Rather than broadcast with the expensive clothes hanger (read: Peloton) in the background, Zoomers set up shop before bookshelves with strategically-placed spines showing both outstanding posture and pedigree. That or they “set up” before strategically-placed illusions (known in the chicanery business as “credibility shelves”).

Not that anyone’s complained. During meetings, looking at book titles behind people gives us something to do while they yammer on. You see self-help books and say, “Hmn.” Or tomes on the Reformation in 16th-century Germany and say, “Interessant!” Or Donald Trump, Junior’s, book Triggered and say, “Seriously?” Or possibly Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, leading to “Yeah, right!” (that’s English for “Oui, droit!”)

You see, books speak clothbound volumes. Paperback volumes, too. About who we are (if we’ve read them) or who we wish we were (if we haven’t). Our relations with our books go deeper than we suspect. They say something about our personalities.

Though the following list is not definitive, here are 9 Ways Our Books Are a Rorschach of Who We Really Are.

1. We are ambitious. Are some of your books fat, like Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport (1040 pages), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1,088 pages), or Stephen King’s It (1,168 pages)?

2. We hide our old Monarch Notes (or modern SparkNotes) well. As evidence, I give you leatherbound classics on the shelves competing with your expensive red wine in the aging well category. Check tops of books for dust.

3. We are detail-oriented. Some people arrange their bookshelves by color (at first I thought this was a joke, but I looked it up and it’s a thing!). Others arrange books by topic. Or genre. Or year purchased. Or height (tall boys to the left, shorties tapering right). Or alphabetically by author’s last name (it’s the frustrated librarian in us). Or — wait for it — not at all!

4. We can be depressing. Do you lay your books on their backs or stomachs? Are you a horizontal couch sort vs. a stand-tall vertical one? Do you realize how difficult it is to pull a book from the bottom of a prostrate heap? Like the old tablecloth trick, that. Pull fast and hope nothing falls to the floor as breaking news (cue CNN).

5. We can be one-trick ponies. I once saw a shelf that was all mysteries. Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Grafton, etc. Or pick a genre, any genre. Some bookshelves are just. all. that. Some readers know what they like, that’s all. They’re like me at the ice cream stand selling 100 flavors — I still order black raspberry chip on a waffle cone every time.

6. We can be kind to orphans. Library books have a place in every reader’s house, too. A temporary place. When I visit Dewey’s Decimals at my local library, I sometimes peek at the “Date Due” sticker in the back. If it’s an empty grid, I next look for the date the book was entered. Recently, in the 811’s, I found a copy of Adrian Blevin’s Live from the Homesick Jamboree that had been stamped into circulation on July 24, 2015. For over six years, no one had taken this little gem home! Like a foster parent at the ugly dog shelter, I had to check it out and read it front to back (and like the Ugly Duckling, it was pretty impressive). That’s for you, Adrian!

7. We can cry for help or seek the Holy Grail of Perfection. When you see titles like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, 12 Rules for Life, and How to Win Friends and Influence People, you know books are answering the call. Whether they’re answered or not is another thing (maybe saying something about the reader, maybe saying something about the writer).

8. At times, we can cut lines. Two words: “Credibility” and “Bookshelf.”

9. We can be messy. Maybe your system is like mine — no system. Maybe your books like where they may (or may not) land. Maybe you own a copy of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and leave it precariously atop a mish-mash of books. Maybe you refuse to hand over one of your darlings by saying “They all spark joy, and I’m not letting a single one go!” Maybe you dog-ear pages instead of using bookmarks, which horrifies some people. Maybe you annotate in the margins, which horrifies the remaining people. Maybe you even EAT and DRINK while reading, leaving crumbs for the ages in the book’s crevice (spelunking, anyone?) and red wine-stained pages for the ages that look a lot like Gorbachev’s forehead.

Whatever, any of the above can be a reflection of who you are, all through the medium of books. Whether they’re accurate or not will take some research. If someone who knows you well comes over, reread the 9 Ways. Then meet them in the reference section for further discussion.

 

 

Cheating Death (Sort Of…)

jack gilbert

The old axiom has it that writers can cheat death if their words live on. I’m not terribly impressed with the formula because my words don’t experience the five senses as well as I do. If they live on, a lot of good that does me, in other words. And yes, you might say words (and plots and characters and Muses) have a mind of their own, but that’s like arguing that a computer has a mind of its own, too. It sounds good, but it’s a pleasant and popular fallacy.

When I read Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems, it was on a train (I always remember books read on trains, especially) and, as you might expect, I felt like I knew the guy quite well. Immortality, right? Cheated death (asterisk, wink, fingers crossed), right? But poor Jack doesn’t know any better. He died in 2012 after 87 good years.

Anyway, back to the book. It was a loan from the Worcester Library and contained a sacrilege. When I reached page 350 (of 384) with supplies and water running low, I noticed a page cleanly ripped out of the book.

Who does such things? What kind of person? Going to the table of contents, I find the answer. The missing poem, starting on the now-ghost page of 351, is called “The Answer.” So someone found an answer, all right, but apparently couldn’t memorize it, so they stole it, and the devil take the rest of us, apparently. The rest of us who are left with “The Question.”

Of course, curiosity piqued, I had to look the missing poem up on the Internet. Why couldn’t the mad ripper have done the same? Is printer toner that expensive? Anyway, here’s what I (and all readers of this library’s book) was missing:

 

“The Answer” by Jack Gilbert

Is the clarity, the simplicity, an arriving
or an emptying out? If the heart persists
in waiting, does it begin to lessen?
If we are always good, does God lose track
of us? When I wake at night, there is
something important there. Like the humming
of giant turbines in the high-ceilinged stations
in the slums. There is a silence in me,
absolute and inconvenient. I am haunted
by the day I walked through the Greek village
where everyone was asleep and somebody began
playing Chopin, slowly, faintly, inside
the upper floor of a plain white stone house.

 

Now, where was I? Ah, yes. Immortal Jack. When people say, “You don’t know Jack,” they’re wrong. I got to know his eternal soul well. He likes one-stanza poems. A lot. Mostly on one page, though occasionally on two. None as far as three. So if long poems drive you to distraction because your attention span is shorter than a Dachshund, check out Jack.

Frequently, Jack discusses past loves — wives divorced (Linda Gregg… a poet, too) and wives died (Michiko). He also is a well-traveled guy. Like Virgil, his ghost gave me more than one tour of towns and villages in Greece and Italy and Japan and New England. Also big cities like San Francisco and New York City. Pittsburgh as well. Jack is a Pittsburgh boy, after all.

Like the ancient Chinese and Japanese, he’s heavily invested in nature. And women. Fixated on nipples, too — a word that makes frequent cameos in his work. And life and death, anticipating his immortality, as in the final poem in the book:

 

“Convalescing” by Jack Gilbert

I spend the days deciding
on a commemorative poem.
Not, luckily, an epitaph.
A quiet poem
to establish the fact of me.
As one of the incidental faces
in those stone processions.
Carefully done.
Not claiming that I was
at any of the great victories.
But that I volunteered.

 

Jack doesn’t think he has much of a sense of humor, but he’s being modest. The man who totally lacks a sense of humor is rare, indeed (though he sometimes gets elected to the highest public office in the land). Some of the poems have a bemused tone, the kind of thing you hear in any work where writers are trying to figure life out (a poetic pastime). He also writes about writing on more than one occasion. For those who try to write poetry, there’s this “insider” poem:

 

“Doing Poetry” by Jack Gilbert

Poem, you sonofabitch, it’s bad enough
that I embarrass myself working so hard
to get it right even a little,
and that little grudging and awkward.
But it’s afterwards I resent, when
the sweet sure should hold me like
a trout in the bright summer stream.
There should be at least briefly
access to your glamour and tenderness.
But there’s always this same old
dissatisfaction instead.

 

For true immortality, some might say, you need to reach the level of the Bard and such. And remember, some writers seem shoe-ins for immortality when the moods of Fate turn against them. Famous today, not so much tomorrow. T. S. Eliot is famous, but how much is he read anymore? Longfellow was a Victorian giant, but try to find him now.

On a local level, Jack Gilbert is now famous to me. With this many poems read in this fast a succession, you’re bound to find quirks and holes (e.g. if poems are supposed to be “cut to the bone,” then many of Jack’s dodged the butcher’s poetic blade). But overall, it was a man that began to take shape beside me as I read on the train and, later, on the patio under the spring-break sun. It was a life revisited in a world where very few remain.

Immortal? Cheating death? Of a sort. In a way. But it’s the best a writer can do, so let’s celebrate the lie and leave philosophical arguments for the academics.

When It Comes to Books, You’re Probably Too Fast and Too Far-Flung

Chances are you eat too fast. And buy food from very far away (which is next to Fiji, I believe). And financially feed the profits of some incredibly huge corporations, be they retail (Amazon, 24 billion in 2020, as an example), Big Food (Cargill, 115 billion, for another), or Big Pharma (Pfizer, 42 billion, and I could go on) .

Is it any wonder things like the Buy Local and the Slow Food movements came on the scene like Davids without their slingshots? In the case of slow food, the basic tenet is a throwback: People (especially families) should sit at the table together every day, break bread, eat their food slowly, and talk to each other. 

No televisions. No electronics on or within reach. Just speaking, listening, and slowly savoring (vs. inhaling) a home-cooked meal — a talent most of us lost somewhere along the line.

Then there’s the Buy Local Movement, which gave rise to farmers’ markets, which in turn gave hope to The Little Farmers That Could (and DID, but it took a village).

Turning these admirable trends to literature, you might ask yourself this as a reader: Why don’t more readers (or people who want to read more) subscribe to the Slow Reading Movement. Or how about the Read Local (as in someone you know, either well or virtually) trend?

Poetry offers unique answers to both questions because poetry is a unique animal. As Randall Jarrell once wrote: “Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure — i.e. that he is difficult, i.e. that he is neglected — they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true; some of the time the reverse is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.”

Think about it. Reading novels — which the majority of readers do — is often a race. You “inhale” your entertainment and turn pages in the name of that golden calf, Plot. Speed means page-turner means reader pleasure.

Chances are pretty good, too, that you financially feed the bottom line of the equivalent of large literary corporations (“Big Lit,” if you will — or even if you won’t): Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, Danielle Steele, et al.

If only more readers would diversify by mixing a little poetry into their reading regime. Poetry requires different reading skills than novels do. With different rewards, too. You need to slow down, first of all. Savor words and white space. Reread in the name of “How did the poet do that?”

Unlike a novel, which you might reread five or ten years from now if you truly loved it, you can no sooner finish a 100-page poetry collection then set to rereading it again, start to finish. You won’t just notice one or two new things on the second voyage, I assure you. It’s like being a driver the first time and a passenger the second — you see a lot more scenery coming back. 

Some things you may notice include sound devices that are music to your ears, metaphors that you first skimmed over, or multiple word meanings which, at first glance, you never considered. Or how about a rhythm equivalent to a favorite song’s. Or imagery that brings good old Kodak to mind. Or even unlikely word pairings — words you’ve never seen together that, after some thought, belong together.

Nice? Nice!

And what of “reading local”? For decades we paid no mind to the farmer in town beyond maybe mooing at his cows (irresistible!) as we drove by those big, doleful-eyed cuties along the fence. Now, despite realizing we can’t get EVERYthing we need from this farmer, we sure can savor the limited (and still growing) specialties his farm has to offer.

Read Local means taking a flyer on the writers you know or have heard of but Archie in Oshkosh has not. The up-and-comers who are where the large literary “corporations” stood themselves once upon a time. (Yes, Virginia, there once was an unknown writer named Stephen “Who?” King.)

Without the spirit of a Slow Reader Movement and a Read Local Movement, literary grassroots turn brown and die from lack of attention. Farming is work, and without support from the locals, small farmers go under and are forced to stop production.

Writing is work, too. Few realize it, but months and often years of writing and revision go into any finished product — the book you can hold in your hand. Like farming, writing is a business we don’t consider a business. And like farming, to reach the next level, it needs leaps of faith on the part of the locals. 

A poem that falls in the wilderness, after all, is heard by no one. Even if no one has an imagination like Emily Dickinson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you — Nobody — too?)

The silver lining to this advice? Diversifying your reading, like mixing up your buying and exercising habits, will make you a better person. An eclectic person! (That’s Greek for “fascinating.”)

As Robert Frost would say: 

Whose readers these are I think I know.
Their house is in my village though;
They may not see me writing here
For the sake of their reading, you know.

OK, so I left out the snow. And I’m only pretty sure Frost would write that. On a slow day. In a good mood. While thinking about “books less traveled by.”

 

 

 

 

 

Contrasts: Making Juxtaposition Work for You

phaethon

In Maine we are going through another hot and humid stretch. In town, people will complain of the heat. But on Saturday, the high is forecast to be 68. In town, there are bound to be people who will complain of this coolness in August. 

Contrasts. They’re everywhere and, as a catalyst, they generate interest and irony.

In writing and poetry, contrasts always make stronger points than they ever could were only one side of the odd couple being described. I found a perfect example of this in the collected poems of Charles Simic:

 

My Weariness of Epic Proportions

I like it when
Achilles
Gets killed
And even his buddy Patroclus–
And that hothead Hector–
And the whole Greek and Trojan
Jeunesse dorée
Is more or less
Expertly slaughtered
So there’s finally
Peace and quiet
(The gods having momentarily
Shut up)
One can hear
A bird sing
And a daughter ask her mother
Whether she can go to the well
And of course she can
By that lovely little path
That winds through
The olive orchard

 

Nota bene: jeunesse dorée (literally: “gilded youth”) is French for “wealthy, stylish, sophisticated young people”

Here Simic gives us an effective juxtaposition between Greek gods and heroes and the everyday lives of ordinary people like you and me. Enough already with Homer and his hotheaded heroes slashing and slaying, conquering and crowing! A little girl wants to go to the well. When her mother grants permission (how sweet of the girl to ask first!), the daughter chooses a path that winds through an olive orchard. Can you inhale the lovely, warm smell of olives right now? Can you hear the leaves moving softly to the wind?

And pardon my hubris, but isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that what matters in life–the little things? If you want such simplicity to loom large, park it next to something epic. Epically tiresome. See if your weariness doesn’t get more bang for its buck.

Of course a modern reader of this poem cannot help but compare Greek and Trojan heroes to headline-hogging politicians. Don’t they incite your weariness to epic proportions? Don’t you take refuge by turning off news sources and focusing on the simple, everyday things and people you love? And, if not, what are you waiting for?

What a contrast the songs of the morning mockingbird make with presidents and Congressmen, for instance. As Wordsworth once said: “Come, hear the woodland linnet… There’s more of wisdom in it.”

Moral of the story: As a writer and a poet, look to contrasts early and often. Singly, they may be strong, but side-by-side, they are much, much stronger.

Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers

hugo

Rules. More rules. Sometimes rules are good, if they’re “of thumb,” I mean. Unlike compulsory ones, rules of thumb can be treated like Pied Pipers or given the Roman emperor thumb.

Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing features essays both memoir-ish and poetry advice-ish, making it catnip for poets at all levels.

Which brings us to “Hugo’s Rules of Thumb for Poetry Writing” (my term for them). Here are a few selected ones from his book. See what you think:

  • Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
  • Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is.
  • Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  • Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.
  • Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.
  • End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.
  • Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.
  • Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” (I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.
  • Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
  • No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
  • Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
  • Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
  • Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence. 
  • The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.

Hugo provides examples and elaboration on some of these rules, but I just wanted to give you a flavor. Interesting, no? And in some cases, almost mathematical in their specificity.

Taking these to my poetry manuscript, you might find some good possibilities and some not-so-good ones. Not using the same subject two sentence in a row? What about anaphora? Maximum sentence length, seventeen words? How will you ever channel Allen Ginsberg? And make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it? In the immortal words of four Beatles I once knew, that’s a hard day’s night.

I do like the idea of posting a poem-in-progress where others can read it, though. On the refrigerator at work, for instance. That ought to get a lot of reads, between the “Who’s hummus is this? It’s been here for two months!” and the “Who took my Noosa black raspberry yogurt?”

Still, The Triggering Town is an intriguing and at times humorous read. Hugo taught at the University of Montana (of all places!). And, sure as his rules seem to be, he is admirably self-deprecating. In Chapter the First, “Writing off the Subject,” he writes:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until your realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go.

Is there a better caveat than that? And so, all thumbs in, one thumb in, or none. As you like it. An advice take-it-or-leave-it guy can do little better than that….

Why Poetry? Better Still: Why Not?

While the sale of poetry books continues to languish and the number of readers who love reading (asterisk: only not poetry books) continues to skyrocket, there’s still a healthy cottage industry in writing not poetry but ABOUT poetry. Specifically its death. Or long-term prognosis. Or philosophical place in the world (hint: look low).

Among that burgeoning genre, we can add Daniel Halpern’s New York Times column, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” wherein he puts poor poetry in the defendant’s box and grills it much like sourdough bread and cheese (mmm, can we add a slice of pickle?).

The column includes poets attempting to answer “Why poetry?” also known as the mystery of life. “Now pinch hitting for poetry, which ironically cannot speak for itself, number 12, Louise Glück!” Cheer from the crowd. All nineteen of it.

Louise finds consolation in this philosophy: No one buys poetry books much, but at least, when they do, they tend to keep them much longer than, say, a Scott Turow best seller. Feeling better, everyone?

Richard Ford, who is not a poet but somehow crashes the gates here, probably because he responded to Halpern’s query, which 32 otherwise occupied poets did not, overthinks things and claims “Why poetry?” is a bad question. To prove it, he comes up with a much better (just ask him) one: “What is the nature of experience, and especially the experience of using language, that calls poetic utterance into existence? What is there about experience that’s unutterable?”

Huh? Think I’ll write a poem rather than figure that one out.

In a rather lazy gesture, Halpern then gives us an Emily Dickinson response (and I’m almost sure this isn’t cut and paste from an e-mail). You know. The famous one about knowing it’s poetry when you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. To which I would ask the Amherst eccentric: How does anyone know what THAT feels like? And wouldn’t it make you feel more like Frankenstein’s monster than a reader in a state of poetic euphoria (and I don’t mean New Jersey)?

The most prosaic response comes from our Hartford insurance salesman by day, poet by night (uniform in the actuarial tables file cabinet), Wallace Stevens: “…to help people live their lives.”

Only I ask you: Have you ever read a Wallace Stevens poem and felt like it helped you to live your life? I mean, now that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” I can get on with my day, knowing exactly what to do if I find the night help or a co-worker has stolen Christmas candy from my desk drawer again?

Which brings us to this question: “Why columns about why poetry?”

Oh, yeah. Because they sell and some people even read them. Unlike poetry.

When Poems Start Speaking Another Language

The greatest mystery in life is death. Yet another coup for irony, no? And also for literature, which has been preoccupied with this central mystery ever since Adam & Eve brought the (tree) house down by biting an apple, thus opening the door for that narrow fellow not-in-the-grass.

As for me, I’m not above getting on the mystery train myself. Or of using light humor to treat such heavy topics. The poem “Death of a Conversation” (included in this post), found in the first section of my new book Reincarnation & Other Stimulants, attracted the attention of translator Ralph Polumbo. Taken by the comic exchange between two neighbors – one a man trying to get to his car for a grocery trip, the other an ex-Jesuit hazarding answers to the great beyond – Polumbo decided to translate the poem (also include in this post) for a Spanish audience .

The lapsed Jesuit, Peter, has a thing for irony, too. His theory on the other side points to the contrast between the light people with near-death experiences claim to see and the dark that has been debated by others in both ways metaphorical and literal. Whether Peter has lost his way is left for the reader to decide. As for the poem’s speaker, he is simply in a situation familiar to  all of us, trying to disengage himself from small talk so he can return to the task at hand.

Here is the poem, which originally appeared in The Westchester Review, followed by Polumbo’s translation:

 

 

Death of a Conversation

by Ken Craft

 

Peter catches me between front door and car,

pretends to weed around marigolds. “Oh hey.”

That casual greeting his specialty. Daily conversations

mostly desultory before he breaks into his pet topic:

 

suicide. I know, a bad sign, but idle talk of killing himself

is Pete’s sole joy in life. At least he’s not overly repetitive.

He’s too much the lapsed Jesuit for that.

“That blinding light they talk about at the end,” he says.

“All bullshit. Black as coal dropped down a well at midnight,

if you want the truth. You recall anything –

a blessed thing — before you were born?

 

I want to say yes, I do, in fact. Make up stuff

about bullets bubbling the surf off Normandy,

the stench of canvas and sleeping soldiers in tents

under Shiloh’s heat, the wet patch of earth stuck to

Squanto’s umber knees as he finally stands

in his Pilgrim field of corn seed and fish corpse.

 

“It’s what makes death so easy,” he says. “It’s why

every fool manages it so professionally. It’s not

like we meet some snowy-bearded Maker

after unmaking ourselves — an angry God

directing us to Hell for jay-walking violations.

 

Mercifully, he never talks ways or means. Never razors

or hoses from exhaust pipes to windows of opportunity.

And certainly never the taste of metal, the last bullet

train to nighttime Tokyo.

 

“In fact it’ll be peaceful like the Garden of Eden

before the damn fruit and the sweet-talking serpent. Trust me.”

I want to trust him. I do. But I have to buy a quart of 2% milk.

A dozen pastured, cage-free eggs. Unbleached flour.

 

“Deer been at your hydrangeas again,” I note, pointing.

He glances at his patch of Eden, and I take the opportunity

to tell him I have to go. We all do, eventually.

 

 

Muerte de una Conversación

by Ken Craft, Ralph Polumbo (Translator)

 

Pedro me detiene entre la puerta de entrada y el automóvil,

simula estar quitando las malezas de alrededor de las caléndulas. -¡Oye!

Ese saludo informal es su especialidad. Las conversaciones diarias,

generalmente inconsistentes, antes de irrumpir en su tema favorito:

 

suicidio. Lo sé, un mal señal, pero cháchara de suicidarse

es la única alegría en su vida. Al menos él no es demasiado repetitivo.  

Él es demasiado reflexivo el ex Jesuita para eso.

-Esa luz cegadora de la que hablan al final –dice.

Son todas mentiras. Negro como el carbón cayó en un pozo a la medianoche,

si quieres saber la verdad. ¿Tú evocas algo –

alguna bendición- antes de nacer?

 

Quiero decir que sí, de hecho, lo recuerdo. Inventar algo acerca

de las balas burbujeando las olas en la costa de Normandía,

el hedor de lonas y los soldados dormidos en tiendas de campaña

bajo el calor de Shiloh, el húmedo parche de tierra pegado

a las rodillas marrones de Squanto, mientras él finalmente se para

en su campo Peregrino de semillas de maíz y cadáver de pez.

 

-Es lo que hace que la muerte sea tan fácil, -él dice. -Es por eso que cada

tonto lo maneja tan profesionalmente. No es que

nos encontremos con un Creador de barba

nevada después de deshacernos –un Dios enfadado

que nos dirige al infierno por cruzar la calle imprudentemente.

 

Afortunadamente, él nunca habla de formas o medios. Nunca de navajas 

o mangueras de tubos de escape a las ventanas de oportunidades.

Y ciertamente nunca del sabor del metal,

del último tren a Tokio nocturno.

 

-De hecho será tranquilo como el Jardín del Edén

antes de la fruta maldita  y de la serpiente que habla dulcemente. Confía en mí.

Yo quiero confiar en él. Yo sí. Pero debo comprar un cuarto de galón de leche al dos por ciento.

Una docena de huevos de pastura, libres de jaulas. Harina sin blanquear.

 

-El venado estuvo en tus hortensias nuevamente, – lo noto, señalando.

Él echa un vistazo a su porción de Edén, y aprovecho la oportunidad

para decirle que debo irme. Todos lo hacemos, eventualmente.

 

 

Translating is no easy business. Tough enough in prose, it is considered even more challenging in poetry, where questions of literal vs. figurative language arise, not to mention the minefields presented by idioms, slang, and sound devices.

Still, when you wake to find one of your poems speaking another language overnight, it’s a bit of a shock. Just like that, poems smarter than their author. Bilingual, even!

As for me, I’m OK with it. Flattered, even. After all, I’m still trying to conjugate the verbs to lie and to lay.