Ken Craft

26 posts

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.

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

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!