Juice and Joy

“What is all this juice and all this joy?” Gerard Manley Hopkins asks of Spring. And no sooner does he sing the push and fuss, the ballyhoo, of a sea sky blue slurred song of fresh thrushes than he announces the sound of a melancholy note, a bell of vespers, the turning of the promise of spring, spring’s quick morning suddenly fallen, the promise of its baby blue sky now overcast, what was in the seed of his poem from the beginning, “a strain.”

Is spring for the earth painful? It might be, born in a bed of industrial pollution, which even in Hopkins’s time was already something to brood over, and in spring he’s already grieving.

Not for Hopkins will spring last, and every spring grieves for its unwinding even as it unwinds in juice and joy. It’s the climate change of the “Sea of Faith” again that seems to sully his spring. To his coy mistress he does not even bother calling. He doesn’t want to make the sun run; he wants to see it stand still.

And Hopkins twists Herrick’s argument’s ear, and Herrick’s sin of staying becomes for Hopkins a sin of leaving. Where in Herrick, Corinna is told,

And sin no more, as we have done, by staying;
But my Corinna, come, let’s goe a Maying,

in Hopkins, the children are told:

Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Hopkins does not seem to sing to the virgins. Somehow, he’s unable to seize his day. Hopkins disliked cages: “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.” In Hopkins, spring is not sustainable, but this abstract thought becomes itself a cage. And age is a cage.

So it was of Hopkins and his springs and falls I thought as I walked past this Flowering Japanese Crabapple tree the other day. And I remembered a line from Hopkins’s poem, “God’s Grandeur”: “And for all this, nature is never spent.”

041220141136 Flowering Japanese Crabapple 1

At least, I think it’s a Flowering Japanese Crabapple. Hopkins would probably know. He despaired, among the many things he seems to have despaired over, of the toil and wear and tear already evident upon nature of the effects of urbanization and industrialization. Yet here I saw these lovely blooms persisting, in the middle of the city, surrounded by construction. For the tree, as you can now see in the pic below, is a caged skylark. But it’s been there awhile, wedged into a corner of a parking lot up against an old brick apartment house, but it continues to sing to me, and will sing to you, too, and to anyone who cares to take a walk in spring. Alas, as Hopkins and the carpe diem poets remind us, spring won’t last, so get it while you can, while the juice still runs freely and the joy escapes confinement.

But, no, wait, why go under such a stricture and structure? That seed grows into a tree of melancholy. Why not simply go? Not put out, but go out. Ah, now there’s some juice and joy to go by.

041320141137 Crabapple road construction

 

Argument in the Time of Apples

Torqued antipathy apparels dimple Args
dented funny car, idling gear limbed,
oiled, greased, and garbed
wardrobe red, beaming barbs,
wavy hair flames bursting
from the fat winged fenders
of his 1950 hot rod roadster,
and the countdown lights
go green, and the ground springs,
and the asphalt melts to sap;

meanwhile, in lane next whole daddy,

apples in juicy life dangle,
from form below pending,
suspended, the quick nap of a bee,
moistly sloping sap up elegant boughs,
up, wake up, give us blush
pale pink blossoms,
not the false fruit of an inapt poem.
Leaf springs, cracks the bark
of the dormant pome tree
pruned for Verve & Vigor.

Explication:

What is called a season is the mapping of sap
around a wound,
and a poem is a funny car.
After the burled cuts, twisted,
elbow pruned shifting of gears
and squealing of red wheelbarrows,
the melting tongue wanders away,
talking to the bees from a standing start,
showing the pink slip core of reason
dash and flash in a sap sluice.

Seven Variations on a Sentence

1. Build box fill with content space controls design states theme bounces against thesis walled margin defined area filled with persons places things painted drawn and quartered in actions still within lines.

2. Build tables cells macro plots instruct how to within what build city filled roads on roads place persons places things actions ruled within scheme bordered function.

3. Shape controlled text how said informed what said syllabus sawhorse lay round flat stones for flat feet map outlined argument billed old metaphor electronically melting build light to power body sun swayed body.

4. Old metaphors corrupt case cold call book disappeared in closed pit wings line empty library shelves body of fabrication strip-milled pall-mall plumbing hidden in alley walls.

5. Build statement paper small hamlet few houses number pages lines words characters  define beginning finite end create punctuation to manage tasks a men an age.

6. Align build assign venture run meet-and-greet purpose audience use rows columns fixed to stage con persons places things rotate rows to columns columns to rows persons to things places to persons things to places sketch arranges profile persuades.

7. User friendly unalloyed no-frills click here look ma no hands silhouette of idea.

Word Put Upon Word

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“Stone put upon stone
and chamber beside chamber”
D’Arcy Thompson
“Mud put
upon mud,
lifted
to make room,”
Robert Creeley
word    hod
   put
upon  house
word
 shell
 soma stone
put
 upon
stone
 
put log upon log cube upon cube
 pier upon pier unit upon unit
post up & unus put upon unus
 road upon road  
page   upon page  
wood in face upon face
 paint put upon paint wall put upon wall
 one part upon part upon
 slab on slab load put upon load
hod word onus upon onus
line put upon line word upon stone
bowl put mud in
 hand put upon hand a pan upon a
 tone drum stone upon
note upon note a lifted scuttle
note upon row in a
 sign sing stone mud call
name put upon cut word in
 rune put upon stone bone lifted
end upon end a tune  in

CODA: wind upon wind wave upon wave cloud upon cloud grass upon grass leaf upon leaf sail upon sail hill upon hill cove around cove cliff upon cliff square upon square camp upon camp town upon town city upon city state upon state…wind upon wind wave upon wave cloud upon cloud cove around cove

IMG_2067 Word Put Upon Word

Notes on n+1’s “MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction”

"I'm going to New York City to become a famous writer!" "New York can be really tough on a cat."

“I’m going to New York City to become a famous writer!”
“New York can be really tough on a cat.”

The blogger is the busker of the writing world, sidewalk setup with pre-production to distribution in a snap, with or without an MFA or ever having set foot in Brooklyn, where it’s easy to mistake an NYC for a hipster, the new hepcat, but the character with a sign on a street corner, selling short stories, has got to be an MFA. Of course I bought one. It’s titled, “Sixteen short stories, and what do you get? Another day older and money in debt.” That’s it, the whole story, a study in minimalism.

n+1’sMFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction” sounds more highfalutin that it is. The eclectic collection of analytic and reflective pieces is very engaging: personal, down-to-earth, and sincere; witty, informative, and cantankerous. The stories of the aspiring writers though are often wrapped in disappointment, and don’t amount to good news for the latest whiz kids on their way to the big time.

The big time here is the coveted publishing contract and the freedom to write it suggests. But if the big time is part of the great American novel, the form is protean: movie stardom, big league baseball star, corporate head-honcho, founder of the next mega-church, on the cover of Rolling Stone. How does a relentless pursuit of excellence turn rancorous and begin to have a negative effect on the game, or the business, or the art? Subcultures are constantly being subsumed by the dominant, overarching culture, the umbrella over the barrel. The writers and scholars that appear in “MFA VS NYC” have big time stories to tell, and readers interested in the making of literature will find intriguing stuff on the ways the writing of fiction is taught or learned and the resulting fiction influenced and modified by the many players in the process: teachers, programs, agents, publishers, editors, publicists, booksellers, critics, readers.

People write for all kinds of reasons and purposes, usually to someone, and if the writing is sent off – the memo, the email, the love letter, the white paper, the blog post, the letter to the editor, the book proposal, the sign in a window, the graffiti on a train car, the busker’s song sang on the sidewalk – the writing is published. Just as often, no doubt, and just as well, probably, the writing is trashed or deleted, but whether the writing is read or heard or not, by whom or how, or how long it lives, is all another matter. Some writers write to themselves, diarists. Their work is published when it’s found. Writers often hold up a mirror to the culture, and if the mirror is cracked, the culture turns away. Writers, like the rest of us, all seem to have a particular picture of themselves, hardly ever the same picture others have of them. It’s the picture of ourselves we don’t recognize that might make for the best writing and reading. The pictures of writers and writing, of literature, that unfold in “MFA VS NYC” merge the ones the writers have with the ones their readers might have, bringing the whole affair into better focus.

A Shuck of Stone

When the lemon yellow of a doubtful flower tells lies
And the hush pink plum blossoms first fail to surmise
A touch and a kiss turn to stone.

When the steep turn toward the dark cherry dyes
And find winkle’s wake still seeping under the sash
A drink and a dress turn to stone.

To turn to stone is not to die and worm away
A stone never slept nor arose
A stone is a stone is a stone is a stone.

When knickknacks walk and talk and wingding
The livelong night no wonder
A flower turns to stone.

Hearths are made of stone, and wheels, and paths,
And walls, and dwellings, and churches, and busts.
A stone thrown skiffles across water and plops.

When a shuck of stone falls from the sky
Not a soft place on the land to nest
A tempest has turned to stone.

When in spring one feels petrified
Curl and pit and weigh and hurl
Slink and creep and push and pull.

When the angels of spring go stone
Old stones erupt in new waves
And lyrical flowers woe no bloom.

An Imperfect Imposition

An Imperfect Imposition   Gloss
       
He goat a haircute,   “Beware enterprises
molted a shive,   that require
and emptoed the moot.   new clothes.”
       
He out cast the let   Ruined good tune,
down at sup-a-dup   raised to put
and unvaled a crune,   bread on table.
       
frumpted and follying,   Commuters fly
and clutched the rolled,   in wingtips aspire
acrested the abridged am-this   cross closed bridges.
       
Daddy-Oh! Pater-pitter-patter Ah, familiar
potairy, roong froom the Gin-is-is in joy of brewcrew
hisses Ink Pour Age.   song of a pint.
       
He rit the hoad alt coomed,   [Readers
sweeat urned his id,   may reply
and snoozled wths sapoozed.   below.]
       
Hairfigged fitted, compred wronged, All quiet
he wroted, a temptwitted,   on the worsted
but ownlie slylents twas loosening, font.
       
ands the suns downsed and moons Only a real fool
arowsis a crewised shell fellowing ignores the full
pips sillied byburds.   loon.
       
Sorry to impose like this is the poet Where should it go:
speaking, but have you a place for thes Recycling, Compost,
amythidst your these is?   or Garbage?
       
Supposing posing, oh, posing:   Climbing
“I am positioned,” the imposing the corpus
poet posited, “I am composed.” ladder.
       
Nonesuchofwhich off course   Maybe end
was teachno techno blareney,   with the “byburds”?
steel eye as I am I am postplus. Too late now?
       
Owl duedew uandeye goal   Reading kicker
quickwick of it?   position player
Illklicked ear, wellclick thr.   diversion.

Badges

Hanging from their necks,
belts, or ties, with photo,
they come from somewhere,
and have some place to go.

She sees them bouncing up and down
the streets, swagging vigor to and fro.
Sometimes they meet and talk,
badge to badge, boar to sow.

She doesn’t get what they say.
Normally, they just proceed,
prancing days, romping nights,
round and round they gambol

through tunnels of sun
sounding golden horns,
steeds indeed, lit up
in glorious gowns a glut.

She had one once, but let go,
repeating the hollow phrase,
preferring not to be badgered,
“And that has made all the difference.”

Badge

On Boredom

Today we gaze into the Abyss of Ennui. What is boredom?

“Excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps”: In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” Blake understood the Abyss, and sought to correct our assumptions and expectations. “The busy bee has no time for sorrow,” Blake said. But commuting home through an hour of plodding, plowing traffic, loaded down with work we’ve taken home for the weekend, we feel not the lightness nor the fickle flightiness of the bee. “The cut worm forgives the plough,” Blake said. Maybe, come Saturday night and he just got paid.

Some tasks seem intrinsically boring. But we often confuse boredom with irritation, frustration, or addiction. Is boredom addictive? We say we are bored with what we don’t want. Tasks too bureaucratically procedural or repetitive lend themselves to boredom, not to mention carpal tunnel syndrome. What we don’t want to do, we put off, some of us; others, we jump in and get it done, so we can get on to something we find more interesting, those things we are passionate about. The former are the procrastinators, we are told, the latter the achievers. Both, though, we suspect, are susceptible to boredom.

We often gravitate voluntarily to intrinsically boring tasks. What could be more repetitive than typing out another post? Physically repetitive: mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, the blogger flies with the bees of the cosmos! Really? I should try blogging.

When we open the laptop or cell phone, we are not met with the organic breath of the compostable paper page of the book or newspaper. Someone should invent an app for smells, so that when we open the laptop, we are met with roses or the must of an old book. Maude had a similar idea in the film “Harold and Maude.” Harold is a bored rich boy, until he meets and falls in love with Maude. The protagonist is age; Harold is young, and Maude is old. Still, love alleviates Harold’s boredom, and after Maude, and after Harold sends his old life in a makeshift hearse over a cliff, the banjo.

We hear of solutions that would alleviate boredom, suggesting boredom is a heavy and dark load that might be lifted from the bearer. Boredom begins to resemble depression. And boredom blends easily with guilt, for in a world saturated with pain and suffering at one end and glitz and shazam at the other end, who dare the chutzpah to turn the cheek of boredom outward? Quit your bitching and get back to your widgets.

Does Superman ever get bored? Batman, bored? Spiderman? The specialist, it would seem, would be the first to suffer from boredom.

In “Only Disconnect: Two cheers for boredom” (New Yorker, 28 Oct 2013, 33-37), about the relationship between boredom and distraction, Evgeny Morozov maintains that “to recognize oneself as bored, one must know how to differentiate between moments – if only to see that they are essentially the same” (34). When we’re bored, we want to be distracted, to take our minds off the monotony. We look down the assembly line of our lives and see nothing but more of the same, the same terrain, and unless we’ve been able to sustain an endless summer of surfing, we start to crave a fifth season, and we understand the winter and every other season of our discontent. The ability to click off one app and on to another is ongoing, but the solution creates another problem – call it the William Blake challenge: Excess of distraction bores, and we crave more and more distraction.

On Boredom

“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.”
“I’m bored! Let’s do something!”
“I am doing something.”
“You just said you are not doing anything.”
“I did not say I am not doing anything. I said I am doing nothing.”
“Oh, wow! You’re not going on another John Cage binge, are you?”

What is boredom? John Cage provided what we might call a working definition: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (Silence, 1961, “Lecture on Nothing”).

If the specialist is the least equipped to stave off boredom, the artist is the best equipped. Because artists are generalists, they are able to turn their attention in different directions, outward or inward (whether at will or forced change does not matter) without the quality of disinterest or distraction. A true artist cannot know boredom in the act of art. Artists don’t require passion; passion is for amateurs. This is true for the painter or poet, gardener or dancer, musician or chef, surfer or clown, sailor or walker, potter or plumber.

Got boredom? Get art. At the bottom of the Abyss sits art, doing nothing.

On Jury Duty, Poetry Gaze, and Yu Xiang’s “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust”

In the Jury Assembly RoomAre you wearing metallic hairspray, metal flake rouge, wire under bra?

A beep enlivens the line. Boots is told to back up and come through again, but again the beep, and she’s told to take the boots off, the line alert to its slowness, more prospective jurors wanting into the foyer and out of the fog, the enormous oak door squeaking and letting in whisks of cold announcing a newcomer.

Are you wearing a hidden watch, steel mesh underpants?

No, no, but again the beep.

Boots takes off a vest and sends it through the scanner and walks silently though the screener.

Impolite beeps like embarrassing burps, almost everyone is caught surprised.

In orientation we learn a body of ennui weeps from the citizen soul, exudes from the body politic’s pores, but so far, the only claim supporting boredom comes from the introductory video. Still, one of the jury assembly room supervisors wittingly promises us boredom. But isn’t that what poetry is for, I wonder, a theory I soon begin to test.

The jury assembly room is now nearly full, around 150 prospective jurors; what are we doing? No one is chatting. Sleep impossible under the surgical lights. The long, narrow room is like the sundeck of an ocean liner sitting in port.

On the south wall of the room, facing the audience, is a large mural, bookended by flat-screen televisions, small and effete by comparison, the mural a colorful painting of a two-horse drawn chariot, one horse brown, the other blue, whip driven by a jester wearing a mask, and riding in the carriage, a kid playing violin, women looking up at trapeze artists swinging in the sky, a trumpet player, on the tailgate another jester – a tuba player in striped motley. An American flag blows from the rear bumper. Above and left of the chariot, a merry-go-round spins, to the right, a lighthouse stands at the end of a long, winding jetty, candy-cane red and white striped. On the horizon, white clouds whip along a deep blue, chatoyant, turning turquoise where the sea comes close to shore, the chariot hurling along a beach road, a border of green grass at bottom.

At break I take a closer look at the mural, signed “Arvie”: a panel painting, a pentaptych, three large middle sections and two smaller end sections. An information label reads, Arvie Smith, Youth in Detention, “There Are No Impossible Dreams,” 2010.

On the two television sets, almost no one seems to be watching, plays a morning cooking show, muted but with captions. What are we prospective jurors doing? Laptop computing, earphones plugged into cell phones, listening devices, reading, writing, trying to sleep, drinking coffee, eating snacks. No one is knitting (needles are disallowed).

I get up and take a little walk. We are five rows deep times 30 or so seats to a section, about five sections, a few couches and tables at the far west end, then the bathrooms, a row of laptop stations at the east end, a small kitchen area with a microwave, filtered water, a pop machine, a candy machine, a bulletin board. Outside the kitchen are four, wall-size bookshelves courtesy the County Library.

I reach in my bag and pull out Yu Xiang’s book of poems titled “I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust” (Zephyr Press, 2013, 151 pages). There are ten sections, 44 poems, most confined to one page, with several longer poems, five notes, with an introduction by the translator, Fiona Sze-Lorrain, “Paris, France – July 2011.”

I look at the first poem, titled “My House,” and enjoy the Chinese original on the facing page. Unable to read the Chinese, I look for characters that repeat, a stranger in a strange land. The English version is also 25 lines, a single, narrow, column-like stanza. The lines don’t rhyme. Words bounce down the page like an oblong stone kicked down a sidewalk. The images are clear. There’s a reference to “Pedro Paramo,” and the last line, in French, repeats the title of the poem. So that’s how it is, a you and an I. Who is you, and who is I, and who is Pedro Paramo? And whose house is this, yours or mine? Yet this poem does not ask questions; it gives answers, as a home speaks, even to a stranger.

The next poem is titled “Street.” So we move from the house to the street. There are three stanzas: 5 lines, 6 lines, 3 lines, one that sings:

“we drink beer, peel edamame”

“Street” ends on a note of love.

Most cases settle before juries are called. Court is expensive.

It’s a wonderful mural, full of color moving across the wall like a screen in a movie theatre, the jury assembly audience as still as popcorn in a cardboard box. Suddenly, though not entirely unexpectedly, we are dismissed for the day.

Jury Duty, Day Two. The mental note I made yesterday to bring a pair of sunglasses today failed. The library-bright lighting hums from the courthouse-high ceiling. I read an essay in the Philip Lopate book, discussing the rhetorical basis of the personal essay. Every text is an argument, Trilling argued. I’m ready for a break already; arguments about argument have lost their allure. I look around at my jury peers. One of my neighbors, Ursula, is eating a banana. Another, Penelope, appears asleep behind sunglasses. I don’t really know their names, nor have I spoken to them. I give them names suggested by the books they are reading. I think of getting up and walking about, but I don’t. I’m sleepy. At break, I go into the hall and buy a cup of coffee from the busy kiosk.

I’m sitting in the back row again, mural right. None of these chairs is anchored to the deck. Hopefully the seas will stay calm. The television plays a piece on the Portland Bridal Show, a silent movie. I put the Lopate back in my bag and take out the Yu Xiang, which I’m now reading for the third time in a week. A young woman a few seats away is reading sheet music, a musician, it seems fair to conclude, as I warm up for a case. I return to my Yu Xiang book of poems. But somehow seeing the girl with the sheet music has made Yu Xiang seem so distant, and China and poetry so complicated. I text Susan, no answer. The jury room supervisors call a break. Good, I’m exhausted from the Lopate. I get up and move about. No one is talking in the jury waiting room, no conversations, more quiet than a library, an odd silence, given the size of the waiting crowd. I remember another jury duty I served, some years ago, when the room bustled with games and conversations. Citizens today are electronically put to sleep.

My name is called and suddenly I’m on a case. I finish the orange I brought from home. The adrenalin kicks in, from the orange or from being called, I’m not sure, but I feel awake, alert, refreshed, and healthy.

I make it through the selection process with 14 of my peers (12 + three alternates). The case begins. Judge Franklin Mahon Coughca provides an overview and instructions. The prosecutor explains the dispute: a poet is accused of writing wrong poems.

The defense doesn’t take long, in essence, “so what?” I’m inclined to agree, but I remember my duty and try to be impartial and unbiased and all that. I want to hear what the jury of my peers thinks.

The jury deliberates:

The twelve jurors: a Waitress; a Plumber; a Bassoonist; a Car Wash Attendant; Penelope; a Receptionist; a Care Giver; a Hairdresser and Masseuse; an Architect’s Assistant; a Bank Teller; a Computer Programmer; a Street Sweeper – plus three alternate jurors, a gas station attendant, a financial analyst, and a blogger.

As it turned out, I’m only an alternate juror, but on the strength of my being a blogger, I’m asked to volunteer to take notes.

from my Notes:

Yu: Are there any dogs in his poems, apartments and balconies, flies? These things are all elements of an engaging poem.

Ursula: Some of these words appear to be spelled backwards. What’s that called?

Care Giver: Is there a woman converging the real with the imagined?

Penelope: Is there a water closet?

Computer Programer: Is there a business side?

Bassoonist: Is there music?

Receptionist: I hate poetry, always have. What’s the point? If you have something to say, say it, in as few words as possible, and clear, so everyone can understand exactly what you mean, and then shut the hell up.

Hairdresser and Masseuse: Well, but poetry is like art, I mean, isn’t it? Isn’t there always like some secret message, some code, like a moral to the story?

Car Wash Attendant: This one looks like a sign of some kind, like telling people which way to go, you know?

Computer Programmer: If you think about it, there’s only letters and spaces. That’s it, that’s all there is to it. Case closed.

Waitress: But they’re not all the same size.

Architect: I think all of these poems are wrong. I say he’s guilty and let’s go home.

Plumber: Maybe we should read some of these poems out loud.

Computer Programmer: I always thought poems were supposed to rhyme until I met my wife.

Architect: Poems can rhyme or not rhyme. That’s what I don’t get. How do you know if it’s even a poem? Could be some sort of laundry list or grocery list or something. You know what the problem with poets is? They don’t make anything.

Yu: We must look for keys and keyholes, and personal pronouns strewn in shredded syntax.

Street Sweeper: Did the poetry police not violate his rights?

Yu: This is my body.

Penelope: These appear to be poems of procedural polity.

Ursula: There’s a bit of rhyme, punctuality, is that what it’s called? The words have sound.

Bassoonist: They look ritually safe to me.

Penelope: A poet should be culturally accountable.

Waitress: I knew a poet once. He was one of these guys always taking pictures of his food with his cell phone. I guess he published the pictures online or something like that. And the poems were like captions or something, you know? Like subtitles. To the photos. I don’t know. He seemed like a nice guy.

Yu: Do you take this wolf to be your wife?

Plumber: I do. I mean, I would, if I could.

Ursula: One might as well ask about law and order on a different planet. I don’t understand how they could not have resolved this dispute out of court.

Bassoonist: But that’s neither a question nor an answer, not much of an argument.

Yu: That’s an interesting sentence.

The Verdict: The jury finds the poet innocent, but nevertheless he’s sentenced by Judge Coughca to 1,000 years of community service, to be served as an adjunct instructor of the research paper, with no hope for tenure.

The judge thanks the jury for its service, and we walk back down to the silence and security of the jury assembly room.

I take the Yu Xiang from my bag. I’m thinking of poetry gaze. In a land where poetry has been devalued beyond zero, isn’t every poem a sigh of dissentire? What is poetry gaze? I feel like Yu Xiang is watching me reading her poems. But she does not care what I think, nor even what I might be feeling. Then again, her poems are like

…a door that says:
Be careful! You might lose your way”

(Yu Xiang, from “I Have, 2002,” p. 67)

+++

Eleanor Goodman interviews Yu Xiang.

Yu Xiang talks about her writing in a dialog (In Search of a Transient Eternity: Chinese Poet Yu Xiang BY Fiona Sze-Lorrain & Yu Xiang) at Cerise Press.

The Feng Shui of Car Chit Chat

I say I’m thinking of a book She tells me where to turn.
on lost practices to places. There’s a space, she says,
She offers or a poem about expecting me to pull into it
true and correct directions, and park, and when I don’t,
and tells me to hang a right she hums a bit vexatiously
at the light that turns green. at our dual needs to control.
The real question is how to We’re in the car a long time
enter a poem without hurt, to and from, back and forth.
and once in, to sweep clean She prefers driving modus,
the wrecked words of glass handling the stick so softly,
littering from here to there not to foreshadow distance
the streets of conversation. the clutch to engage slowly.
We unload the grocery bags. The winds tipped over a pot.
She holds the milk and wine. A couple of chairs blew over.
There are flowers for a vase. The clocks tell the electrical.
The car off cackles and cools. I map a plan from the guitar
The house is an ancient map to the kitchen, avoiding trills,
in a bottle tossed must ocean. my socks stilled in tambour.

A Cat’s New Year’s Resolutions

A Cat's New Year“Happy New Year!”

“Thanks, but what’s that ringing?”

“You’re supposed to ring in the New Year and cheer!”

“I don’t know where you get your ideas.”

“From blogs!”

“I might have guessed.”

“Do you have any New Year resolutions?”

“Yes, as a point of fact, I do, to wit, but one.”

“And?”

“To increase both the frequency and severity of naps.”

“Ah, that’s the same as you had last year. Want to hear mine for 2014?”

“No.”

“This year, I’m going to avoid the near occasion of sin, cut out candy, shorten my tweets to be more clear and concise, listen more attentively, love. I want to love more. I want to bring back the Summer of Love, 1967! I want to live in harmony with the birds and squirrels, raccoons and possums, slugs and toads, bees and wasps, all that is electric and all that is acoustic. I’m going to give more and take less. I’m going to give kisses away, free, on every street corner I round. I’m going to sing more. Joe said it’s never too late to start singing. I’m going to learn to play a musical instrument, something with strings. I want to play soft and mellow and moist. I want to draw a bow across a string that creates a whine like a train. I’m going to watch more movies, Doris Day and Danny Kaye. I’m going to walk more, go for mysterious walks, step out, step it up, wander at will through this urban landscape we call home.”

“The odds weigh heavily against any of it.”

“If life is a gamble, I’m all in.”

“And I fold.”

Related Post: A Cat’s New Year’s Celebration

More On Trees

Are trees intelligent? We are how we define. In this week’s New Yorker (23 Dec), Michael Pollan takes a fresh look at the compare and contrast conversation over animal versus plant kingdoms: “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.”

At what cost do we hold the brain primary in a hierarchical view of consciousness, problem solving – in short, life? Picture two planets. On one, life forms with a torso and five appendages have evolved to invent marvelous technological tools, but the essential nature of the life form does not appear to have improved. Persuasion remains the name of the game. On the other planet, a similar life form appears to live in symmetry with the planet’s plants and animals (and, by extension, with one another), in a positive symbiotic relationship made possible by the nurturing of life sustaining partnerships and the recognition that all life contains the same kernel of consciousness, a kernel that may or may not be located in a central control system called a brain. But the artificial technology remains rudimentary. Is one planet smarter than the other?

In perhaps the most persuasive part of Pollan’s discussion, he asks, in response to the criticism that plants can’t think because they don’t have brains, no command center, where in the brain is the brain, where in the brain is this command center? It appears that the brain may function in much the same way as a plant’s root system.

In other news, the Toads Dec. 6 piece, titled “Trees of Christmases Past,” has been posted at the Berfrois site. Have a happy holiday diversion at Berfrois!

Meantime, we celebrate Christmas with this more on trees photo gallery. Click on any pic to view the gallery.

Hamlet’s Status (A Play in Six Posts)

Hamlet, at his computer. Enter Polonius:Hamlet's Status

Polonius: What friends thou hast, add them fast, Lord Hamlet.

Hamlet: Polonius advises us to link our souls with hoopla,
When twice this same moon updates us,
But still to me she hath not chatted.

Polonius: Light lord, thy status in disconnect must be,
Causing you this dark and dour distress.

Hamlet: Fish not, sir; I fear she hath deleted me.
What post supports this knotted matter?
False light quickly fades, casting us in dark shadows.
Let the clouds betide, let the rains come
So thick and dark not the bark of the ark stays dry.

Polonius: Despair not, care not, Lord, care less than not.
Some new compeer will soon light your night
With comely links and notes bright.
Light be your aim, Lord, light your audience,
And this will give light to thee.

Hamlet: Nay, sir. In this book of faces there is but one for me,
And I am trapped in this light box like a wench in a nunnery.

End

Of the Quest of Sir Petersilie of Pestlebrawl of the Order of the Snail; or, The Slug that Slew the Knight Errant

“There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these depictions of snail combat,” (“Knight v Snail,” Medieval manuscripts blog, British Library).

Sir Petersilie of Foolsbrawl in a Field of SnailsOn the sticky tricky trail of the obliviously slow sung snail
In abstruse night hauled from mused sleep our noble knight
Loyally hassled by Bona Fide his gallant gabbling vassal squire
Sheathed and studded leaves amid the rustle of first light
Abysmal metaphorical lack-a-back his lazy credo
Squaring his mail nailing his welds into steel mental spikes
For Bona Fide dressing Petersilie was indeed a close battle.

Busy poets to the court replace rusting escutcheons
This historical tourney near the end of futile modernity
Before joust was just jest and chivalry a corporation
Stood tall Sir Petersilie of Pestlebrawl upon staid steed
Auguring from the Order of the Snail mortal welcome
This his last Quest for the Wholly Exulted Wooly Grail
To hold the sacred secret of the sweat and dour secretion.

In satirical slime he spent his time a woed scholar of the decoy
Stout by hearty ales microbrewed behind the berfrois
Ate merry and many a fatty but delicate foie gras
And escargot whilst knights jousting with snails roiled
Scrolls of marginalia snails dressed in natural snail mail
Pacing against mace married his demise bored sweet and torus
The fused self-complacent snail did fain cant and tilt.

4120159349_b798c17b54Thus domesticated rusticating finished his failure ne’er-do-well fall
In the finals tourney he slipped tumbled and sprawled
In a nest of snails and Bona Fide let go and abandoned all
For a seaside rest fishing pole and white winter flounder
And all around whelks of waves swelled and bulged
The salt tide rising on Petersilie couched in a conch
Dreaming of collations and juxtapositions.

Notes on the Difficulty of Reading a New Poem

Poem WalkingWhat happens when we encounter a new poem? New poems can seem impenetrable. But maybe the idea is not to penetrate. If the poem is new, the reading experience is also new, unfamiliar, foreign to our eyes and ears, to our sensibilities. What happens when we read a poem?

In the darkroom, the developer slides the photographic paper into the chemical bath. Slowly, an image emerges. Reading a new poem is a similar process in as much as the full picture does not immediately reveal itself. But that’s as far as that analogy might go. A poem is not a photograph.

The poem as montage, as mosaic, the narrative line pieced together stitch by stitch. Begin anywhere.

Poems are made with words, usually, and words have two basic kinds of meaning, denotative and connotative. With regard to connotative meaning, words suggest, have associative meanings, colloquial twists, and personal meanings. We have our favorite words, and words we find distasteful. “Are you going to eat those adverbs?” “No. I got sick on an adverb once, in grammar school.” Cultural, contextual meanings. We can’t control language.

When encountering a new poem, we ask the traditional questions: who is speaking, with what voice, and what is the intended audience, remembering not to confuse the speaker with the author, the audience for ourselves. What’s the speaker doing, talking about? What the diction, what the tone, what the setting, what the irony?

Here’s the poem under question: “Foxxcan Suicide (Stylish Boys in the Riot),” by Russell Bennetts (the editor of Berfrois). We look for help. Suicide we know. Painless, as the song says, though we doubt that, and that song is not about suicide. A soldier’s choices are limited. Are a reader’s choices similarly limited? Does “Foxxcan” suggest Foxconn, the so-called Foxconn suicides?

I recognize Starnbergersee, from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, but is a single word enough to create an association? Why not? Eliot’s poem is fragmentary. “Foxxcan Suicide” is fragmentary, or so it seems. What if picking up on an Eliot reference is wrong? We could ask the author. No. What can the author know of the reader’s experience? Words are out of control once they hit the paper. The poem is a reading experience. And something more than Starnbergersee reminds me of Eliot: the many references, obscure to this reader, though I know who Axl Rose is, sort of, but I can’t say I know him, though he’s from my home town, big town. And the Roses had a label: UZI Suicide. So? Threads, though, links. And I know who Legacy Russell is, though not well enough to get the three asterisks at the end of that line, asterisks that point to no footnote.

Still, I like the new poem. I like the fragmented narrative. I like it for its changes in diction and speech, its orality, its lyrical last stanza, or paragraph, the socio-economic comment it ends on. I like the almost hidden poetic characteristics, the rhyme, for example, of “Legacy,” “easy,” and “please me.” Gradually, more of the picture seems to emerge: the teen spirit (Nirvana). Maybe it’s language that has become suicidal. The poem casts this reader as a kind of outsider, beyond the pale. Maybe I just don’t get it. “Well, how does it feel?”

Some time ago, in a workshop with David Biespiel, we used a kind of shorthand response technique as a way of quickly getting at new reading experiences. David called the technique, “What I See.” You had to tell it, what you saw, in 25 words or less, or so. Kenneth Koch taught a similar kind of technique, an attempt to get at the poem’s “idea.” What’s the idea, Koch asks, of Blake’s poem “The Tyger”? The speaker is asking questions of the wild animal, but of course the Tyger does not respond. The questions the speaker asks seem to have something to do with who made the Tyger, the maker’s character. Blake uses images of a blacksmith to try to picture the Tyger’s maker. For Blake, the blacksmith would still have been a powerful and practical individual, a maker of things useful, but his work was being subsumed at the same time by larger manufacturing forces that would come to be known as the Industrial Revolution. And that revolution would give way to more: “Stylish Boys in the Riot.”

What happens when we read a poem? From the Paris Review Interviews, this one with August Kleinzahler:

INTERVIEWER: Recently Poetry posed a question about the social utility of poetry. Does that interest you?
KLEINZAHLER: No. I agree with Auden that “poetry makes nothing happen.” Nothing else needs to be said about it.

Poetryphobia: Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Life Of Poetry”

The Life of PoetryMuriel Rukeyser’s “The Life Of Poetry” covers the poetic experience, its many uses and resistances, during the 1940’s. Her view of poetry comes from the experience of war, by her participation in freedom efforts prior to the war, and by disappointment the war did not bring peace, and also by science, which suggests a new age for poetry, and by the growing use of popular arts (radio, movies, songs, dance). Muriel argued that US culture feared poetry, where poetry is emotion. Emotion is feared because it calls up and recognizes harm, and asks for reparation for harms done. But who wants to do that? So poetry isn’t a popular art form. It’s not an art form at all. Once poetry becomes an art form, it freezes on the surface: No myth but movement, no still lives, no basket of fruit and the hovering fly that never dies. And the poem is not a “place” (154, 174), the mind not a hunk of meat. Both are energy. The emotion of poetry creates empathy and argues for change. She was writing about silicosis as early as 1938, advocating for victims, explaining the disease. Empathy is recognition, which is also emotion, of the audience, which she prefers to call the witness. What is witnessed? Relationships: between images, sounds, symbols, people, things. And relationships are constantly on the move. Nothing is fixed, not in time, not in space, not in mind.

We probably do dislike poetry, at the least ignore poems, or even scorn poetry, treat poets like vaudeville clowns, but it would seem a bit overwrought today to say we fear poetry. But when Muriel says we fear poetry, she means we are separated from emotion, and the thought of reconnecting to our emotion scares us. Human nature probably does not improve over time, in spite of technological progress, and we may be further removed from emotion today than we were in 1949. The culture Muriel’s talking about does not value emotion, the emotional. The sections of “The Life of Poetry” devoted to the popular arts and the uses of poetry in the sentimental suggest lost opportunities. The popular arts fail to go deep enough. Sentiment is unlike emotion. Emotion is a weakness because, once it is unleashed, it is uncontrollable. Control is a value. One attempts self-control, and when that doesn’t work, control over others. Allowing the working class, the miners and laborers and factory workers and garment sewers and waitresses, weekend release over a couple of beers and a country western song playing on a jukebox, evoking tears, or the equivalent sentiment found in church prayer, is acceptable. But no emotion. Control yourself. Get sentimental if you must. It’s ok to vent. You can wear it on your sleeve, your troubles, but don’t freak out. And self-pity also is sentimental.

“There is difficulty in breathing.
Yes.
And a painful cough?
Yes.
Does silicosis cause death?
Yes, sir.” (Rukeyser, Collected Poems, “The Disease,” 86:87)

Emotion is the weary heart wearing and tearing on the poet’s sleeve. This doesn’t play well in boardrooms, where emotion is kept submerged through charitable donations and the branding of giving, or in churches where the sacrifice is symbolic, or in marriages of competition. Emotion is not anger. Anger is the sediment of sentiment, frustrated or undefined or ill-defined desire. Poetic emotion sublimates repressed desire. Poetic emotion is the sublimation of antithetical cultural values. For example, the auto has ruined the country, the countryside, the culture suffering in detrimental reliance. Without definition, this ruin devolves into road rage, the driver’s psyche full of potholes. Sentiment is nostalgia for a 1957 Chevrolet, road trips, surf safaris. The car is a catastrophe, the planet hit by an asteroid, impossible now to see the earth beneath the asphalt. But the smell of the new car still intoxicates, Whitman’s rooms full of perfumes. What to do about it? Robert Creeley, “I Know a Man”:

drive, he sd, for  
christ’s sake, look  
out where yr going.”

The novel as middle class entertainment contains emotion; that is, the novel packages emotion, places limits on emotion, surrounds emotion with form. As for the dime store novel, mysteries, detective stories, noir: the term “hard boiled” is born of sentiment. The so-called seedy section of the city boils with sentiment. The sentimental love to visit, but they don’t want to live there. It’s good to have someone to look down on, to criticize, to arrest. Likewise, poetry as craft is sentimental where it deliberately obscures to imitate emotion. The merely personal or found fabrications or wordplay that does not touch the human condition is entertainment. Not that entertainment isn’t useful; it is, but it’s not poetry. Poetry is the marriage of play and work, where play pays dividends and work pays nothing but a release of emotion, which spells trouble. Muriel describes a workshop exercise (179) that might be called “where’s the poem”? The poem exists in the imagination of the witness, and that’s not craft. A poem is not words.

There is a war between play and work, between worker and exploiter, between the divided selves. Poetry acknowledges the war and becomes a tool to make people whole again. Emotion is the stain of war that poetry seeks to clean. There’s another reason emotion is devalued, suggests Muriel. Emotion connects to nature, to trees, to roots, to the land and to animals. That’s seen as cutting into profits, though it need not. To reach down into the emotion that connects the human to the planet requires a reevaluation of the relationship. Today’s eMotion is backlit. That’s not the emotion Muriel is talking about. Muriel’s emotion sews together symmetrically a sensorium distorted by technology as in a funny mirror. Muriel’s emotion deals with alienations and depravations, goods and evils.

Important poets for Muriel included Whitman and Melville. Whitman is the poet who discovered good, and good is his breathy line, the form of the discovered self, the freed self. To Melville passed the work of dealing with evil. Muriel foreshadows the current crisis in the Humanities by juxtaposing poetry with science, comparing methods, making good use of science. Imagine your kid comes home and tells you he’s decided to study to be a cave wall painter, and he’s going to work in caves, painting on walls by the light of a torch. Fear of poetry is about resistance to emotion, but more, about the resistance to the imagination, about inability to even recognize the imagination.

“The Life of Poetry” is not an academic book (a good thing), but it’s not an easy book. For one thing, the references to popular culture are antiquated, and some of the references are obscure. For another, there’s evidence on every page the writing is the work of a poet. But by the last two chapters (the penultimate “Out of Childhood,” and the last, beginning “The Meaning of Peace”), the prose becomes familiar, the writing a little less fearful.

The Bad Hop Boat Poem

You watch
Baseball
and recall
the hit
that took a bad hop,
bebopping
between your legs
like a line
impossible
to scan,
bouncing
over your glove
touching
the dirt.
No one is listening.
Even the umpire
shook his head.
“Shake it off,”
Coach called
from the critical
dugout.
“Bad hop,”
the gracious
pitcher said.
But no, even now
you can not
accept the excuse,
because you
fear the ball
& the poem,
as you explain:
“I was thinking t i l l e r
of a boat f  u
on the high o d
C’s.” l  d
A e
Infield poem b  r  u  n
error full o w
confuses v o
a boat with t h e b a l l
o
 “E6,” says C C C C C w C critic.
C C C C C C
C C C C C C
C C C C C C
C C C C C C

Dear Reader: “Charming Gardeners,” by David Biespiel

There used to be a public telephone booth down on the corner from our place, the kind the caller entered through a panel glass door and dropped coins into the phone, outside the cleaners, across from the realtor’s office, the street corner just a dot of commercial activity in an otherwise residential neighborhood. The telephone booth got hit with graffiti occasionally, or a pumpkin around Halloween, and the glass was often in need of repair. The door broke and was discarded, the telephone book disappeared from its chain, and finally the box was taken away. The booth attracted activity, some locals opined of the nefarious sort. The booth might have represented to some a stranger. At night, a small lamp lit the booth. Outside the booth, a couple of newspaper stands added to the tiny urban pastoral. One day, out walking, I passed by the booth, and the phone rang.

On the corner across from the phone booth stood a blue mailbox. The mailbox got more business than the telephone booth, but not enough, apparently, for it too was taken away. The newspaper boxes that stood next to the phone booth have also been removed. The cleaners closed, and for a time the corner reminded me of an abandoned gas stop on a two-lane road bypassed by a highway. Bit of an exaggeration, that, but not much, for like the telephone booths, many of the mailboxes in the Southeast Portland neighborhoods are disappearing, and the small bookstores, like the newspaper stands, are being rooted out, also. Last year, one of my favorite small bookstores, Murder by the Book, at the west end of the Hawthorne district, met its demise.

Really? Are we to read yet another letter on the disappearance of newspapers, books, newsstands and bookstores, and poetry?

Not at all. Some things don’t change, among them, Emily Dickinson’s one way missive: “Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see.” And what better way to illustrate the stubbornness of the staying power of poetry than a book of poems in which each poem is a letter to someone? We save letters, but first we have to write them, send and receive them.

Poetry, as John Cage said of music, occurs whether we intend it or not, but we won’t have the unintended poetry of letters if we stop writing letters. The democratically accessible form of the letter is still with us, even if mailboxes are becoming scarce. Is an email not the same as a letter? An email is a phone call compared to a letter. Letters don’t have the immediacy of an email. Letters are not immediately delivered, and we don’t expect an immediate reply. We might wait weeks or months for a reply, or years. But we probably wouldn’t resend the letter, noting “2nd request” in the subject line, as we do with emails. Letters can be a bit of a hassle to write, requiring a kind of toolkit: paper, pen, table, envelope, address, stamp, mailbox. Letters, perhaps, require more of an occasion than emails, occasion to write, more of a purpose. If you really want to get someone’s attention, you don’t send them an email; you write them a letter. Letters are more difficult to forward than emails. And the letter might be returned, as emails are sometimes returned, too, as undeliverable. Or a letter might wind up in the dead letter post office, and you might never know if your letter sent was ever received or read.

Melville’s Bartleby worked in a dead letter office before going to work as a scrivener for the lawyer who narrates the tale. Where have all the scriveners gone? The poet Charles Olson’s father was a mailman. In “The Post Office: A Memoir of My Father” (1948), Olson describes how, through office politics, misunderstandings, and general stubbornness all around, his father had his mail route taken away from him. Olson explains the importance to letter carriers of personalized routes, but also explains how the letter carrier is important to the community of people on the route. Olson explains how the mail carrier becomes a confidant reader and the most knowledgable person in the neighborhood of personal affairs:

“Mail, over any length of time, will tell secrets a neighbor could not guess. Nor do I mean the reading of postcards or the ‘lamping’ of letters. Nor what a man hears over a coffee. Or that a man’s mail does not always come to his house, or a woman’s either. It lies more in the manner in which people look for, ask for, receive their mail. And talk about it” (43).

Olson insists this is “not to be mistaken for nostalgia,” for the post office was akin to the military, and letter carrying is hard work, hard on the body. Yet the loss of Olson’s father’s route was both the loss of valued labor and the loss of an identity. Not for nothing does a man wear a uniform.

Another Charles and poet, Charles Bukowski, explains further, in his novel “Post Office” (1971), about his days as a letter carrier in Los Angeles, in bitter, sardonic, and laughing prose, what carrying the mail is all about:

“There were 40 or 50 different routes, maybe more, each case was different, you were never able to learn any of them, you had to get your mail up and ready before 8 a.m. for the truck dispatches, and Jonstone [supervisor] would take no excuses. The subs routed their magazines on corners, went without lunch, and died in the streets” (10).

But the point here is that bit from Olson about “how mail is received.” That’s the poetry. And try giving someone a poem, not publishing a poem, but just give someone a poem, as a letter, and see how he or she receives it. You’ll learn more about that person than you might learn sitting over coffee or beers talking about children or baseball.

I’ve often felt about poetry what the poet Marianne Moore said in her distinctive poem titled, simply, “Poetry”:

“I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all
this fiddle.”

But fiddle is a perfect word to describe the activity of poetry, where the gig is a jig of restlessness, and I like to fiddle, more and more these days, if fingerpicking the Telecaster qualifies as fiddling. And I like to watch a fiddler at work, pushing and pulling the bow. In any case, we might get very little actual fiddling at a poetry reading. By the time the poet takes the mic, the fiddling part is over. He puts the bow aside and starts to talk. But the poem as letter suggests an importance Moore’s definition seems to discount. Don’t go near the water if you don’t want to get wet.

DB ReadsThe rectangular space of the swimming pool, the opening of the swimming hole, the lake or ocean cove below the cliff as a page. The poem as a dive, form, and a form of competition, an argument. The poet, a high diver, slips into the water, no splash, no wake, surfaces, swims to the ladder, climbs out, takes his seat. The poet David Biespiel has been a diver. I don’t know if that matters much to the enjoyment or understanding or getting at his poems, overall. But I thought about it as I walked down to Powell’s Books in the Hawthorne district a week ago to listen to David read for the launch of his new book of poems, “Charming Gardeners,” the poems conceived and formatted as letters. I listened, observed what I could of the audience, doodled some, was distracted by the books on stacks surrounding the podium and audience – some funny titles out of context, ironic when juxtaposed to the reading, the room holding the Young Adult category of books:

“Hideous Love,” “Wild Boy,” “How to Love,”  “Pretenders,” “Frozen,” “Sick,” “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” “Chasing Shadows,” “Captain Cat,” “A Taste of the Moon.”

I need to get back over there and browse through some of them.

The last time I was at Powell’s on Hawthorne for a reading was to hear Patricia Marx, of the New Yorker, upon the launch of her new novel, “Him Her Him Again the End of Him,” (2008). There were about 12 people in the audience on a bitter winter evening. I was there with Eric in support of some high school assignment-deal. Patty tried playing a recording of some kind, but the technology failed for some reason. But I enjoyed her, nevertheless. A live reading is like live music, better than radio, but only in some ways. Because listening to the radio at home, you can get work done around the house. But in a reading you have to sit still and be polite (Biespiel’s was not a Beat reading accompanied by a jazz combo) and not fidget, sort of like being in church, the folding chairs as uncomfortable as pews. This isn’t always the case, depending on venue. The Robert B. Laughlin lecture Eric and I attended (out on another high school assignment junket) back in 2005 sported a rowdy crowd of all ages and disciplines, as the rousing Q&A following the lecture showed.

DB Notes 2Poems as letters, or letters as poems, I’m not sure which comes first, but the idea raises the hand for a question. What is the intended audience? And is the reader a voyeur, as David, perhaps jokingly, suggested? And recall Emily’s note: the writer can’t see the hands of the letter holder, not unless the writer is also the letter carrier. The epistle is an old form. David said something about the letter as poem narrowing the audience, the focus now on an individual, not a song to nobody in particular. William Carlos Williams: “To Daphne and Virginia” [his daughters-in-law], the beginning of the second verse:

“Be patient that I address you in a poem,
there is no other
fit medium” (“Selected Poems,” 1968, 134)

DB Notes 1David read five poems at Powell’s on Hawthorne the evening of the book launch reading: “To Wendy from Yellow Hickory”; “To Buckley from Berkeley”; To Wiman from Walla Walla”; “To Lenney from the Greenbrier Hotel,” and “To C. D. from D. C.” These are lengthy, traveling poems that talk and click along like a train (though most of the travel is by plane), engines full of breath. I was reminded of Whitman, the way he adds on, continually, one thought giving rise to the next, unafraid of repetition, commenting on the landscape, ideas, people, as he goes, adding comments, evaluative, reflective, and several of the poems mention Whitman. In “To Buckley from Berkeley,” for example, which begins, “Dear Bill” (as if we are on familiar terms – you see the extent to which the trope can travel), the letter goes on for 18 lines before we get a period, and what follows is this: “That, Bill, and also this:” followed by another 41 lines before the next period. (If unfamiliar with Buckley, enjoy an introduction by viewing video of segments of his TV show, “Firing Line.” Here, via YouTube, he talks with poet Allen Ginsberg, and Ginsberg, another Whitman influenced poet, reads a poem, which he seems to have mostly, impressively, memorized; he wrote it, he says, while on LSD, but watch Buckley’s, famous for his facial expressions, reactions. A better introduction to Buckley is his book “Buckley: The Right Word,” a book I enjoyed.) But some find Whitman an old coot, and Ginsberg, too, and, as entertaining as he was, Buckley was an old coot, too. Even as a young man, Buckley was already an old coot, conservative, tight blazer and tie. Maybe it’s hard to be a cootless poet. But a drift toward cootness was something Ginsberg and Buckley shared.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying “Charming Gardeners.” It’s an encyclopedic book, chock-full of references of every kind, both personal and general. It’s a book that strikes out to find America, an act that may or may not require preparatory reading. There’s a “Postscript” of explanatory notes. The note to the letter-poem “To Hugo from Sodo,” for example, explains that SoDo, in Seattle speak, refers to the area south of downtown Seattle, an area I’m familiar with. It’s an industrial district. From the I-5, drivers can see SoDo sprawled out along the waterfront, the new stadium now an iconic part of the scene. The Seattle Mariners used the acronym in a marketing campaign, “Sodo Mojo.” More poets should attach notes to their work. Marianne Moore often provided her readers with notes. Then again, while sometimes the notes help, sometimes we feel the bottom fall away even deeper. “Charming Gardeners” is so full of references that it will take a long time to read – if one is to track all the references down. But that’s the idea. It’s a watershed, full of names (“…the law firm / Of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassidy, and Corso,” for example – funny, that) and locations all around the country, and events, historical and local. Other topics: baseball, the Civil War, God, cities, politics, illness, love.

That day I was out walking and walked by the telephone booth down on the corner, and the phone rang. Are you not interested in whether or not I answered it? And if I did, who was on the other end? There’s no chance to answer it now; the telephone booth has disappeared. This is why we should continue to write letters. Whether we turn them into poems or not is a different matter. But most people like reading letters; most people like to get mail. But someone has to start the chain. For a poet, a letter ensures, maybe, at least one reader.

Related Post: Walt Whitman and a Letter of Ourself - How a letter I wrote to one of my sisters came back to me, some 40 years later.

Off Leash

Psychedelic Dog

“Call me Ishmael. No, wait. Call me Ichabod. I don’t know. Call me Ivanhoe. Just kidding. Call me a cab. Call me anytime. Just give a whistle. Call me Isabel, Isabel Archer. No way! Just kidding. Lovely portrait, though. Wouldn’t you agree? Call me up in springtime. Call me Ichiro. Call me Iago. Yuch! Call me Ian Fleming. Call me Inspector Immortal. Hay-hay! He-he! Hi-hi! Ho-ho! Hoo-hoo! Call me a star! Just don’t call me serious.”

Cats on a Dog Day

“Seriously? Are you going to stand for this?”
“Call me chagrined.”

The Old Factory Blues

The Old Factory Blues

- What are you doing?
- You stink!
- Before we decide if something stinks, what must we analyze?
- But you stink!
- Stink is an argument of definition.
- Pshew! Just like you to ignore cause and effect.

- I’m reminded of the story of the old factory blues.
- What’s a factory?
- A factory is a place where they make things.
- Was I made in a factory?
- You were made in a dumpster under blue neon in an alley across from a factory.
- What did they make in the factory?

- Every evening sharply at five a great whistle blew, scaring all the alley cats but me. As you know, I’m not one to flinch at noise. And after the whistle, the factory hands came out and petted me and fed me scraps from their lunch pails.
- Really? Good stuff?
- Oh, my, yes: bits of smelly tuna fish, little curds of cottage cheese, spam cans still with some fatty gel stuck to the bottom.
- Sounds delish, so why the blues?

- One day, the whistle stopped blowing, and the factory was surrounded by a fence of barbed wire. The factory hands disappeared, and a giant blue spotlight was erected to light the alley throughout the night, all but drowning out the small blue neon above the dumpster.
- What did they make in the factory?
- Golden gooses.
- Why do I smell a moral to a story coming on?
- If there is a moral to the story, it is that life stinks, but which leads to a secondary, paradoxical moral.
- I’m breathless. A double moral story.
- And the second moral is that it is the very stink of life that recalls the sweet smell of love, of who we are and where we come from.
- Ah, that story stinks!

Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!

Reading Lists“I see you and Joe finished that book on mistakes. Was it good?”
“Joe posted some notes to his blog.”
“Did anyone read that post? I noticed he got no likes or comments.”
“To be a blogger is to go unread as no author dare go unread.”
“What?”
“Never mind.”
“So what are you reading now?”
“I’m thinking of picking up The Sorrows of Young Werther.”
“Sounds like an unnecessary error. I just read for fun.”
“What is fun?”
“Psychosomatic foghorn earborn earworms!”
“Please don’t say that again.”
“So did you help Joe with that post?”
“I put forth a few views.”
“Phew! Thinko agin!”
“Agenbite of widget.”
“Let’s go outside and have some fun!”
“I recall a moment, long ago, that may have been fun.”
“That’s the spirit! Let’s go!”

Related Posts: Common Earworm Remedies and the Mutant Earworm
A Cat’s Memoir
Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

The Root of the Matter

A
poem
in the shape
of a tree. A poem
about a tree in the shape
of a tree. Some will argue it’s neither
a poem nor a tree, not a real tree, anyway.
Critics will argue the tree is not a poem, because
it has neither rhyme nor stanzas, though the lines do
present shape. Some will say, as a critic once commented
following an investors’ viewing of a B movie still in the editing cut
phase: “Does anyone else feel a better use of this particular roll of celluloid
would be to cut it up for guitar picks?” Some will say the tree should be cut down,
or yanked out by enormous
dentistry-like heavy equipment,
the kind used to clear cut forests.
Thus we arrive at the bare tap root
of
the
ma
t
t
er.

99 Bottles Over the Wall

On the tabletop of the sea sat a few empty bottles
surrounded by the detritus of discussion.
No burning butts, though,
the bar under water, the talk polite,
as if no riptide of innuendo threatened to drown out the quip.

Paddling out is hard enough; now
how does the stranded entrepreneur get back to the strand,
having drifted so far out?
The question is rhetorical and impossible, an impassable bottle.

This great bottle business denial,
all in the business of passing bottles,
unable to pass on this impassability business.

Across the bar there is no mission statement:
free to wander and listen to the swimming voices, sailing and selling, tacking back and forth, bantering and bartering.
Eventually, all sink, subsumed or consumed,
bottled in the great Ocean of Business,
no need for pain or pleasure, fear or courage, emotions or metaphor, opinion or belief,
swallowed within the immense immortal impassable snorkel bottle.

Kirill Medvedev: “It’s No Good”

Kirill Medvedev’s poems are easy to get into. He explains situations, tells stories about people. You don’t mind listening and want to hear more. He’s contemplative and calm and reasonable, even when he’s making a wakeup call, dissing and dressing down, asking why things can’t be rearranged. The vocabulary isn’t hard. The figurative language is sparse. “I don’t like metaphors,” he says (74). The poems are slim, fat free, figureless. In some lines, he’s almost like a stand-up comic, in his delivery, his next move always a surprise. But the poems challenge in other ways. If you’re not laughing, you might be his subject, and the venue seems either oppressive or empty tonight. Medvedev’s concerns are the Man (government, politics, power), Work and Money (economics, business, family), and Free Time (culture – what we do when we get off work – trust, honesty, values). He puts those concerns into his poems, essays, and special pieces he calls “actions.”

It’s No Good: poems / essays / actions” includes selections of Kirill Medvedev’s writing from 2000 through 2012. Published in December 2012 by Ugly Duckling Presse, you can get a copy as a giveaway incentive with a new print subscription to n+1. While Medvedev, like Faulkner’s Isaac, has renounced his copyright, the English translations from the Russian original are copyrighted by Keith Gessen, who provides an introduction, and several other translators. “It’s No Good” is an argument. What’s no good? The title is from Medvedev’s first book of poems. Gessen explains the Russian title, “Vsyo plokho,” can be translated into “Everything’s Bad.” Medvedev is talking about the predicament of a nascent generation, and poetry becomes the window through which everything can be thrown.

Poetry, for Medvedev, is “an authentic way of seeing, the degree of its expressiveness the only criterion by which you can determine its quality” (125). This would seem to be a good, and it is: “I am, of course, exaggerating,” he says. “I’m forcing reality to fit under my favorite rubric of ‘it’s no good.’ It’s not entirely true; some things are good; there are oases” (124). The problem, why everything might be bad, is that our contemporary predicament includes more than poetry. But to know what poetry is and what you are trying to make with it is not a bad predicament. It’s a good start to know

“…your own worth)
…to determine
THE CAPACITY
to see and accept yourself
as you are” (74-75).

And then what? “We need to do away with this false notion of ‘poetry as private activity’” (136).

Charles Bukowski is precursor to Medvedev’s poetic attitude. Medvedev translated Bukowski from English to Russian, but he knows he’s not Bukowski, nor does he want to be. Bukowski is rude and raw, cusses in his poems, drinks to excess, and is apolitical and not socially engaged. He’s an outsider, sits alone at the end of the bar, but when he talks, he’s clear. What Medvedev has in common with Bukowski is an absence of compromise, honesty (which means speaking clearly of your predicament, your situation, in a contemporary voice), and a disdain for the various fine clothes and perfumes that poems are sometimes made to wear:

“everything is
nothing, everything is
nothing, just the way it
started, I kiss statues
and the flies circle singing
rot, rot, rot” (Bukowski, from “Song of the Flies“).

Bukowski, a son of Los Angeles, grew up in good weather, but the Great Depression hit from without and from within. He grew up in a “house of horrors” (see “Ham on Rye“).

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State” (see Randall Jarrell, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner“). Yes, from mom’s syrupy womb, we all slip and fall into our father’s house, a country governed by an attitude, and if your father happens to be temperamental, poetry may be one of the few options available to escape his pincer plier grasp. “I’m a child of the Russian intelligentsia, I’m a person of culture” (122) Medvedev says (his italics), another difference between him and Bukowski, I thought, until I got to his definition of culture. Culture, for Medvedev, is connecting to the predicament of the weary. He speaks a kind of “Weary Blues,” as Langston Hughes wrote. The Soviet Union has collapsed, but there are problems with the renaissance. In the Dylan song “It’s All Good” (“Together Through Life” 2009), the phrase is used sarcastically. The phrase is a political speech, an aphoristic tip of the hat to the power of positive thinking folks, an advertisement for soap or cigarettes, Faulkner’s lament that the US has found no other place for the artist than to use his celebrity to sell something. The phrase it’s all good suggests art must remain a positive thing, to clean up everything bad. Art must not contribute to the bad. Medvedev’s title “It’s No Good” is an opposing viewpoint to the hollow socio-political phrase “It’s All Good”; or is it:

“so everything’s all right.
although, maybe the fact that
everything’s all right is the problem?
no, that’s not a problem.

or maybe it’s that when everything’s all right,
that just doesn’t sit well with me?
no, it sits well.

(then what the hell?)” (note: ellipsis in penultimate line is part of the poem, 213).

What’s a good poem in Medvedev’s view? You don’t hear Medvedev talking about craft. A good poem must be new (if what you’re into is craft, your poem is old at conception), and a good new poem must contemplate a new audience, one that didn’t exist prior to the poem. The poem draws a crowd (184). This may sound like a fad or pop art call-out, but it’s a great challenge to “light out for the territory ahead of all the rest,” as Huck said, to avoid the old ways of getting civilized. This is the reason Medvedev turned away from the traditional forms of writing, publishing, and hobnobbing in the literary world. Most of “It’s No Good” was published originally on his website following his renunciation of his copyright. He explains why he started a blog. And “It’s No Good” ends with selected poems originally published by Medvedev on his Facebook page. Imagine John Ashbery or Billy Collins starting to self-publish their poems on a Facebook page. Imagine the look on their literary agents’ faces. These guys have agents, but it should be noted that very few poets have agents, because there’s no money in poetry: a poet could craft a manned spaceship to Mars in a poem, solve the riddle of dark matter in a metaphor, steal the Pope’s hat in a trope - there would still be no money in his poetry. So why shouldn’t Ashbery and Collins earn a bit of dough with their poems? It’s all good.

It’s not that Medvedev did not have status as a poet. He studied at the Moscow “Lit. Institute,” was published as a poet, journalist, and critic, is a translator, gave readings, but apparently, with regard to those things, “it’s no good.” Contemporary poets like Medvedev take risks, and there’s a certain kind of toughness required. Poetry is no good; it’s all good. Throughout “It’s No Good,” Medvedev talks about past Russian writers, imprisonments during the Soviet era, all sorts of harassment, the risks of failure and loss, and particularly the political engagement that often results in exile, censorship, or worse (Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, comes to mind; and in the US, the McCarthy years of blacklisting and the numbing that came from the naming of names), and Medvedev speaks clearly, eloquently, and with great empathy for oppressed individuals and peoples. And throughout all of this he emphasizes a perhaps obvious but powerful point: you don’t have to be a politician to participate in politics. This is why the anthologized poem is effete and a waste of Medvedev’s time and energy (198). One of Medvedev’s poems, titled “How’s This for a Poem?,” is made from the text of a press interview with a crane operator given after he was fired from his job for trying to help organize workers. Medvedev gets out the caps in the last stanza:

“BUT IT’S ALRIGHT life goes on
and as for me, given all the free time
Surgutneftegaz has accidentally presented me with,
I INTEND TO USE IT EVERY SINGLE DAY
TO FIGHT FOR PEOPLE’S RIGHTS – THEIR HUMAN
RIGHTS” (note: caps are part of the poem, 220).

“It’s No Good” doesn’t so much end as stop. Because it’s now today, and we are free once again to move about. Or are we? In the last section of the last poem a young widowed mother soothes her child to sleep in a working class nativity scene. She wants her child to grow strong to continue the fight. The fight for what? We’ve been through two decades of “It’s No Good,” witnessed, of course vicariously, the exploitations and losses, the external chaos that seems to galvanize the internal despair, wars and fights, and the competing interests of groups and individuals. That’s all a reader can do, witness vicariously, but a writer like Medvedev is both a reader and a person of action, a true poet, which for him means to influence change. But what if the child wants to “light out for the territory”? Can that right be subsumed too? But there is no territory that is not somehow enabled by connections, Medvedev would say. How should we act, behave, in a fatherless state – this is now Medvedev’s concern. Father Bear has finally wandered off for good, isn’t coming home anymore. We are free to move about, must move about.

And once up and moving about, then what? “No work of art is a thing in itself, as bourgeois thought claims,” Medvedev says. He carefully considers the values of pure art, straightforward utterance, the new sincerity (or the new emotionalism, which sounds like the breakout of memoir here in the US), and dismisses them all as avoidances, enablements, co-optations. Nor is art “a divine reflection, as religious thought claims, but evidence of all of society’s defects, including the relations of the dominant and dominated. The task of innovative art is to insist on the uniqueness of the individual while revealing the genuine relations between people, the true connections in society, and, as a result, to forge a new reality” (199-203, 237).

Joyce comes to mind, who at the end of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” has decided to leave his country and home and family:

“—Look here, Cranly, he said. You have asked me what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning….

Mother is putting my new secondhand clothes in order. She prays now, she says, that I may learn in my own life and away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels. Amen. So be it. Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

Joyce was on the run from two masters, the Church and imperial Britain (“Ulysses“), but while Joyce would have, in Medvedev’s view, influenced literature, he would not have influenced politics. He would not have made a difference in his reader’s lives. And what difference he did make might now seem a disaster given how buried and anthologized he’s become in the academy, how many lives have been lost to peer review, a country with a stingy father and stiff immigration laws. Again from the final poem in “It’s No Good”:

“…for the moment
the progressive labor activists have a higher political consciousness
than the intellectuals,
than the professors,
it’s just too bad there are so few of them” (271-272).

“It’s No Good” is full of history, past and present, stories and anecdotes, commentary, reports of daily events. It’s significantly more than a book of poems, more than mere literature. It’s a book to be read and re-read, a book that encourages reflection on one’s place and activity in the web. Gessen’s introduction and the many footnotes throughout are helpful, and there are many paths pointed out for further reading.

Kirill Medvedev, “It’s No Good.” (2012). Edited and introduced by Keith Gessen. Translated from the Russian by Keith Gessen with Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich. n+1 / Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #30. ISBN 978-1-933254-94-4.

30 Jul 2013: Interview with Kirill Medvedev at Boston Review
30 Sep 2013: “Kirill Medvedev’s Personable Provocations” at The New Yorker Blog

Verlyn Klinkenborg: “Several short sentences about writing”

In the beginning was the word, and the word was a sentence.
And the sentence was an assignment.
And the assignment broiled in the brain,
that alchemical brewpub of doubt.
A devil came near, cooing, “Plagiarize, my dear;
allow me to serve the sentence for you.”
A good angel appeared: “Depart, ye fiends of papers for free.
Ditch, web dwellers of rehearsed research.
Begone, you bad teachers of bad writing.
Students can do this on their own.”
And singing Blake’s proverb, from
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,
“No bird soars too high if he soars
with his own wings,” the angel dropped a book
into the waiting writer’s lap, and flew away.

What book did this fresh, good angel drop, which might bargain anew all the how-tos with writing students and their teachers both in and out of academia? Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing (Vintage, April 2013). Klinkenborg challenges schooled approaches consisting of “received wisdom about how writing works” (Prologue). Klinkenborg turns the traditional writing teacher on his head and shakes the bulges out of his pockets. All sorts of found, useless stuff drops out, lightening the student’s load. Klinkenborg speaks to the writing “piece,” considers genre arbitrary and binding. He eschews genres and schools and rules. But not grammar and syntax. Loves the fragment, not the run-on. His style is controlled by “implication.” Implication is a good sentence’s great secret, its ability to suggest thought. His sentences often illustrate their own attributes. The book as a whole is a study and a reflection on that study of the sentence. The book’s prose is cut into lines that emphasize what’s necessary to read a sentence for its syntax and rhythm and space. Some may see this as mere trickery, and maybe the book is a slow, idiosyncratic, quiet rant. His discussion of “rhetorical tics,” the bane of Freshman Composition that remains through graduate school and beyond like an old scar, is funny and sad (118). If you’ve ever completed any assignments on your own, you might recognize yourself in his descriptions of a web of false writing. I did. But I also saw many hunches I’ve had over time validated: writing is learned while writing and in no other way; a good writer is a good reader, a good proofreader, but also a good general interest reader, which means not having to have something that “interests me” before being able to read it, because good writing creates its own interest; teachers have done so much damage to students that many students would rather risk plagiarism than think and write on their own.

There are contradictions, difficult to resolve. Klinkenborg says, on page 57, “You don’t need to be an expert in grammar and syntax to write well.” I agree. The apparent contradiction is that he then spends the next sizable section of the book on what we should know about grammar. “You do need to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs,” he says, but he doesn’t say why, nor does he try to explain that difference (though the answer might be found in an implication I missed). If we don’t need to know grammar, why spend time on it? This is an important question. And of course we do know grammar. We learned grammar when we learned to speak. But we may not know how to talk about grammar or to read for grammar or syntax. And some knowledge of parts of speech and what we think of as grammatical terms might be important to certain kinds of reading. He wants us to find words in a dictionary and to notice etymology and parts of speech. This is sound. But some of his precepts seem vague, even New-Agey. Explaining implication, he says it’s “The ability to speak to the reader in silence” (13). Well, John Cage did speak to the reader in silence. And Klinkenborg’s many references to the way we were taught to write in school are at risk of becoming a kind of straw man argument. Has no one tried to dig through the dried up crap of fabricated rules before? But the straw man here, if there is one, might be personified as an industry of text books, so the challenge is worth the charge. Klinkenborg may not be an archangel delivering a sacred text, but his book clears the air for a spell.

A colleague suggested the Klinkenborg book, and I’m glad to have read it and to recommend it for general interest readers, writing teachers at any level, and students at any level, anyone, in short, in or out of school, interested in reading or writing. Yes, Klinkenborg wants to talk to the whole writing world about sentences. He wants to non-specialize the traditional approaches to thinking about writing, remove bogus rules from circulation, instill faith and trust in aspiring readers and writers.

Several short sentences about writing is divided into four major sections and many subsections. The book (204 pages) does not wear its skeleton on the outside. The main sections are as follows: 1 – a short prologue; 2 – the central text (146 pages), the sentences arranged in cut lines, like verse (opposite of what we’ve come to expect from prose); 3 –  “Some Prose and Some Questions,” eleven short prose excerpts by established writers, followed by a section inviting analysis of the pieces through reflection suggested by specific questions Klinkenborg provides; and 4 - Some Practical Problems, 33 pages of short sentences from student writing, with short comments by Klinkenborg. It’s not a text book, but it could be used as a text. But that would require, perhaps, changing the mindset of an instructor, or even of an entire English department, or at least calling upon instructors to reconsider traditional “received wisdom about how writing works,” or how the teaching and learning of writing might work.

Here’s an example of a wonderful Klinkenborg sentence fragment: “The faint vertigo caused by an ambiguity you can’t quite detect” (55). This is quoted unfairly out of context (is there any other way to quote?), but who is “you” here? What kind of reading experience must one have to get dizzy reading a poor sentence? And here’s an example of the way he challenges the august teaching community: “…The assumption that logic persuades the reader instead of the clarity of what you’re saying” (117).

By implication, at least, Klinkenborg’s sentences touch on many of the topics usually covered in composition classes: research, authority, argument, outlining, chronology and sequence, style, ambiguity, rules, rubrics, writing models, imitation, rhythm, revision, editing, meaning, figurative language, transitions, reading, reader, clarity. The sentences wit and cut new paths through this overgrown field.

If you are into marginalia, this Klinkenborg book is a lepidopterist’s field day. I found myself chasing sentences around the book as if they were butterflies. My copy is a mess of notes. I was inspired to try my hand at an original sentence. Here goes nothing: Thoughts without sentences are like flowers that never bloom, each tightly wrapped petal a word waiting to become part of a sentence to be smelled, to be read or heard in a single breath. Klinkenborg would say it’s too long, ambiguous, cliched, doesn’t breathe. And it doesn’t make sense. Do we hear through breathing? Sounds like something a Woody Allen character might say, the audience erupting in laughter, the irony on you. “The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly…” (132). Easy for him to say.

Related Posts:
As You Like It: Rules for Writing
Ticker Tape Sentence
A Year From the Use and Misuse of English Grammar

The Business of Poetry

I’m in a meeting about meetings.
Someone is talking about needs:

“…Clear purpose…
…Keep to agenda…
…Stick to schedule…
…Out on time…
…Take notes…
…Dress code…”

I note, doodle, jot down words,
drop seeds of wild silly weeds
into the creamy hirsute carpet;
someday the seeds will sprout

…into poems…

the night janitor will sweep up.

The priest talks of the need for prayer in despair.
The scholar talks of the need to be read by peers.
The senator talks of the need for dough and polls.
The bag lady quietly appeals for a change of where.
The therapist theorizes the need of rest from care.
The bartender talks of the need for a road to hear.
The mother yells just wait until your father comes
home, until the evening comes when Dad disappears.

Who knows the source of this need from long ago,
the need for poems and to live like a fat soiled pig
sloughing off in a muddle puddle wallow of words,
but the meeting adjourns with predicable promises
of more to come, of more to come, of more to come,
and someone breaks an egg over the speaker’s head:
a detailed SWOT Analysis called for pastry and pie,
but the speaker is silent, not a word, about poetry.

The Art of the Bus Stop

It was to be his last day, he dreamed, a phantasmagorical dream
recurred, after a cup of coffee, in wakeful brain, a near belief in seizure.

How would he spend his last day? He should limit his options,
if chance proved him a fool tomorrow, build a hedge of porcupines.

But if today’s feeling did not pass, his options were not so limited.
He could fly anywhere, stay in a Six Star hotel in bikinied Marseilles,

fly to romance Rome and get in line for a final Papal blessing,
parachute into the Mojave desert, jump off Saddleback Mountain,

surf the Banzai Pipeline – like in the old days, take the board out.
Who would dare cut off an old man on a wild wave on his last day?

He got his surfboard out of the deep basement, his lovely wife still sound asleep.
He walked down to the bus stop. He waited with his surfboard on the poetic bench,

beneath the ancient acacia tree. The bustling bus came but the discreet driver said no
to his putting the untethered surfboard in the bike rack on the front of the bus.

He went back to waiting at the busy bus stop, and this is how he passed
his penultimate yesterday, talking to bussers about the art of surfing.

Related Posts: Winter is icummen in, Lhude sing Line 15
Reading Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero on Line 15

Poetry Footprint

Poetry High FiveAccording to the Global Footprint Network, the Ecological Footprint is “the metric that allows us to calculate human pressure on the planet and come up with facts, such as: If everyone lived the lifestyle of the average American we would need 5 planets.” There are several footprints currently being measured, carbon and water, for example, and we are encouraged to measure our own personal footprint and to reduce the size of our footprint, “to tread more lightly on the earth.”

Maybe poetry does not have a footprint, but a handprint. A print that shows who was here, and this is what they saw, what they heard, what they tasted, what they touched and felt, what they smelled. But also, what they and those close to them thought about this sensorium of experience, how they responded, how they changed, what they promised and what they betrayed, how they might have wronged and how they might have been forgiven. To do all of that, poetry needs a wide spectrum of possibilities. Some of these possibilities might lead listeners, readers, away from well worn paths, into uncharted waters, rough seas, or lulls, or blank spaces with no echo. Other possibilities might lead readers back into cities with crowded sidewalks, or into libraries full of musty, dusty books. Or into parks, or taverns, or beaches, or mountains and lakes and rivers, or nurseries or old folks’ homes, or orphanages or prisons, or churches or corporations, or onto ships or bicycles or cars or helicopters or surfboards. The point here is that any of these possibilities, for any individual listener, might wind up a dead end, but it can’t be wrong if it widens the spectrum, for the wider the spectrum, the greater the possibility of poetry.

I sometimes wonder if human nature improves over time. In other words, are we better than our ancestors? We might like to think so. Technology and medicine, the comforts of modern housing and transportation, what we call advancements and improvements resulting in higher standards of living might lead us to think we are smarter, more accomplished, in a word, better than our ancestors. But what of our essential nature? Has that improved? Does it improve? Can it improve? I have doubts. I think we’re probably the same inside as we’ve always been. It’s the same old heart beating in the same old chest.

In any case, what inspires this post is another skirmish posted in the poetry war, an internecine, academic argument. I’ll just point to David Biespiel’s response over at the Rumpus, and interested readers can follow the trail-links from there. Like most wars, it’s sometimes hard for an outsider to get what it’s all about, but like most fights, this one’s about territory and who’s to have the final word. But it’s also about values, what we value in poetry, and whose values ought to prevail. It might be important to remember that what we value is not necessarily what’s good for us. What we value is simply what we want.

There is something about poetry to value, to want, that is relevant to the discussion. One of my favorite books of poems is “Paroles,” by Jacques Prevert.* Prevert lived in Paris during World War II, during the German occupation. Writing in 1964, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in his translator’s note introduction, said, “I first came upon the poetry of Jacques Prevert written on a paper tablecloth in St. Brieuc in 1944…a poetry (his worst critics will tell you) which is perfectly suited to paper tablecloths, and existing always on as fine a line between sentiment and sentimentality as any that Charlie Chaplin ever teetered on.” That “perfectly suited to” is important, for it values a poem for its success in achieving its purpose. Even if we might think the purpose is bad, it can still be a good poem. This is a sentiment many critics find difficult to stomach, but it’s vital to the health of a wide spectrum of poetic possibilities.

But there’s another reason I like Prevert, and that has to do with the idea of sitting out at a sidewalk cafe table writing a poem on a paper napkin, not even a paper tablecloth, a poem someone might read, or no one might read. Poetry was a way out of oppression for Prevert, and poetry remains a tool today for release from the natural malaise that comes from everyday life, even if that release is only temporary, and even if that malaise is from human pressure. The release comes in the act of writing the poem, not from the possibilities of someone else reading it or of having it published or some fantasy of poetic fame, but from the existential act that says, I am here, and this is what that means, for now. The act of poetry leaves a tiny Ecological Footprint. That sidewalk cafe napkin poem might be a good way to “tread more lightly on the earth,” even as it adds to the size of the poetry footprint.

*Jacques Prevert’s “Paroles” is Number 9 in “The Pocket Poets Series,” first published in the City Lights Books edition in July 1958, in San Francisco. I have the Sixth Printing, February 1968.

Related Post: Bukowski for President! David Biespiel and Poets for Democracy

Dictatorial Decree

Already the sun slipsSun,
filches off
at a sneaking speed.

The despot rising
declares a natural
state of emergency.

The pompous papa
prays on the instant
for a sum of leniency.

Alas, mere poet, see?
The sun protracts
your high-pitched misery.

Tonight a summer
full moon calls
a ball of lunacy.

The sun dictates the noon,
casts down dress codes
on the darling horology.

The moon denudes the day.
The night goes without
a blanket of authority.

A Pith Zany

Nook EveningAnd what he did last just
before his personal power
rose and surged
then tweeted out
was check his e-mail.

“Heaven will be full of spam,”
he decried, “because
everyone wants to be there,
while hell will be whiteout,
an empty inbox.”

“Or the other way around,”
I replied.
“Oh, that’s pithy,” he said.
“And there’s nothing I dislike
more than an epiphany poem.”

facephenom

facebrick


facebrick facebuilt facebroke faceblind facedearth
faceboss facetomb facepop facedough facetious
facestitch facetouch facebotch facebach faceberth
facestill facestone facequiet facepiece facemirth
facebush faceface facephone facespill facer
facecross facetoss facemoss facetaste facemill
facevalve faceback facade faceplay faceout
facetone facemoan faceme faceyou facepull
faceposh facerush facemush facebrush facetilt
facsimile factotum facecap facemask facetome
facedrone facetill facetree faceroad facelift
facesky facefront faceit facebuck faceroam
facethis faucet facet facetrick faceroom
faceless facemuse faceup facestop faceboom

Without you tonight

A seeking breeze softly slips
under the sleeping cherry tree
a cursory note, “I am too busy.
Too, too, toodle-loo,”
smiles, hushes, and sounds off.
A branch snaps, and a cat recalls the night
when the owl, the nightingale,
and the toad went out walking.

The moon follows the trio into the tea garden, pulling
behind the sounds of the rollicking ocean waves.
In the garden, two women sit talking:

           “I wrench or hammer or pull or push
           To disassemble and repair
           To build in empty air
           The sound truth that is not
           Sound enough.”
 
           “I don’t believe the truth
           That there is no truth
           There are two truths
           The one you reject
           And the one you embrace.”

Drowned out by the singing waves slopped with frothing beer,
An old, lost surfer takes a hearty long piss on the briny rocks
At the water’s rough edge and mutters a half assed poem
To pass the night in song outside walking the dark beach
While the women sit talking with the cat in the cove of the garden
Under the cherry tree awakening and petals falling all
In one great breath the ocean waves belly laughing full.

Surfers

Salad Days

Lettuce make someone happy      souperfied.         Greens and reds     raised and cooked      in summer sun.         Old gourd melon face      turn round      and around.         Squash      straighten out      cute little zucchinis.         Carrot tops      fuzzy green      pointing      poking.         Turnip cold heart      don’t be rutabaga.         Radish reaction      thistle never do.         Wilt    silly    salty    pinch    potato eyes.         Watching.     Asparagus more of this stuff.         Spears      dollups     thin slices of pink water.         Peas take your jackets off and stay awhile.         Ouch cucumber splinter onion oils mix.         Tear drops      sea salt      keeping with tradition.         Corn      fits in hand      like a hammer handle.         Colorful beans      leggy for you and me.         Chives purple heads and slippery mushrooms.        Tomato baseball radio garlic.         Bread      olive oil      hot  green  jalapeno.         Pepper corn      and squeeze curve of lemony         raspberry wild balsamic vinegar.         Tossen flip      thistle make summerone happy.

The Pine Jay the Scree of the Mock Orange

Still LifeThe cryptic cat her cautious criticism
of the green salsa garden plot proffers:

“Are you a nested poet, then?”
the hoity-toity cat simply asks.

“I have my cri cri critics,”
the Pine Jay stutters,

pouring herself another glass
of mock orange soda syrah.

“Are you going to mix
silver with orange, then?” asks the cat.

“I would rather arrange the orange
against this blue windswept evening.”

“That would encourage a paraorange
gown,” cynically suggests the cat.

“Scr scr scree!” the Pine Jay screes,
her voice trailing off like a jet’s vapor.

“Mock, mock!” the cat converses,
though alone now. “I never did like orange peel.”

“Bury My Heart in the Muddy Mississippi”

Dancers with Band The Touch Yous

“Bury My Heart in the Muddy Mississippi”
A Country Music song
Guitar Chords: GAD

(Slow intro with a little lilt)
G                             A
I took my girl to the Friday night dance,
D                                 G
But she said, “I really don’t like to dance.”

(Lively now)
(G) Then some handsome fella
with the (A) swagger of Godzilla,
(D) asked her do you wanna (G) dance,
(G) and the next thing I knew
(A) away they flew.
(D) He’s got her in a (G) trance.

Chorus
G                          A
Hey, Baby, don’t drive me crazy,
D                                                      G
I thought you said you didn’t like to dance.
G                                        A
Well, bury my heart in the muddy Mississippi,
D                                                      G
I thought she said she didn’t like to dance.

So I walked on down and I put my money down
On the counter of the mausoleum,
And I asked the mortician how much it cost to die
But he said I was a buck too short.

Repeat Chorus

Late one night I was stopped at a light,
Revvin’ up my hot rod Ford.
Along comes a Chevy, at the wheel’s my Baby,
Askin’ do I wanna dance.
I took her off the line, pink slips on a dime,
And the rest I’m happy to tell.
The moral of this story,
The letter of this tale (D – G…)

Repeat Chorus

Tales of X & Y: 1 – Teeter-totter

X thinks Y imperfect.

Y thinks X exaggerates.

X tells Y, “Why can’t you be more like me?”

Y replies, “You have no balance. You don’t know how to share. Life is a teeter-totter.”

“I’m walking down to the tavern for a beer and some darts. Want to come?” X asks.

“I think I’ll stay here and practice yodeling and yoga,” Y says.

Y                                   Y = Light
  _
     _
        _
           _                        /\ = Teeter-Totter
           /\ _
                 _
                    _
                       _
                          X         X = Heavy

Yes and No

Two ChairsYes yes yo yes yah yes yep yoahza youp

Yo yo yes no nope never over my

Yes no yes no yes no yes no yes noup

Not nape nip empty nix obnoxiously

You not yes no not no yes but don’t say

Buttresses yeses yeses yeses but

No nepe no nupe no nipe no no no yea

Yes yepe yes yupe yes yipe yes yes yes what

Butting do note chairs yes accidental

Dominoes goldeneyes moonglow eyes no

This will never do we are losing ball

Ants ants ants ants ants ants ants ants solo

So long stays yes and yes gives no to this

So long goes no and no takes yes amiss

Online # 2: Laptop Notes From Underground

Notes from an Underground LaptopImagine Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man with a laptop…

“‘Why you’re . . . just like a book,’ she said, and I thought I caught a sarcastic note in her voice again.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is with Liza, a prostitute, but what he wants is to talk to her. He finds her ellipsis revealing. She pauses, and she’s caught the mouse in a trap, even if she didn’t mean to. He mistakes her uncertainty for sarcasm: “I didn’t understand that sarcasm is a screen – the last refuge of shy, pure persons against those who rudely and insistently try to break into their hearts” (174), he says. Four pages of rant follow, and he makes her cry. But she’s his perfect audience. Had he a laptop, he would have pulled something up to show her. But was she being sarcastic, or was she reading him literally? What she says is accurate; he is just like a book.

“It goes without saying that both these Notes and their author are fictitious,” Dostoyevsky says in a footnote to the first page of “Notes from Underground,” which begins with “Part One, The Mousehole” (90). If it goes without saying, why does he say it? Another paradox. The typographical man develops a voice, even if he has nothing to say. Online, we feel a part of something, but of what? It’s enough to feel connected. In any case, these men do exist, in spite of this one being fiction, Dostoyevsky wants to make clear, and he wants to mark the difference between narrator and author. But in trying to distance himself from his narrator, Dostoyevsky adds another note to the pile.

I’m online again, going with the flow, superslow though, gliding, electri-gliding in the cerulean world of blues. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” Hank Williams sang. But does he cry? He doesn’t tell us that he cries, just that he feels like crying. If only Hank had a laptop. How high the moon? He could look it up.

“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” (118)*, the Underground Man says. Later, Jung takes up this theme, that consciousness is born in regret, in memory. But how does man express his regret, which is his suffering? “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said (257). What do we think about if we can’t remember anything? After reason, the Underground Man explains, “All that’ll be left for us will be to block off our five senses and plunge into contemplation” (118).

We were talking about the possibility that online culture diminishes memory because the “onliner” (i.e. someone online, not necessarily a reader, since one can go online without reading – but what is reading?) is constantly looking things up, one thing leading to the next, seemingly random. Nothing is memorized; the bookmarks are endless. If the fall is into language, browsing is free falling. But why all the notetaking in book culture? Can’t the readers remember anything? Non-literate people, McLuhan explains in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” have much better memories than those born to books. Is there suffering being online? “The most obvious character of print is repetition, just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession,” McLuhan says (47).

“I was so used to imagining everything happening the way it does in books and visualizing things falling somehow into the shape of my old daydreams that at first I didn’t understand what was going on. What actually happened was that Liza, whom I had humiliated and crushed, understood much more than I had thought. Out of all I had said, she had understood what a sincerely loving woman would understand first – that I myself was unhappy” (197). The Underground Man is stuck in a literate view. McLuhan: “The new collective unconscious Pope saw as the accumulating backwash of private self-expression” (308). The Underground Man’s literacy has turned him into an individual, and he’s nowhere to go. This is another reason he appears when he does; his point of view is his own beacon.

The sufferer comments. This is why the Underground Man “has appeared, and could not help but appear” (90), to explain why he has appeared. The browser joins the Internet commute, changing lanes compulsively but leisurely. Summer is near, and in the distance one can hear the Internet Highway and superfast modems melting across asphalt desks backlit with electric candles. A commenter interrupts the flow, but for the Underground Man with a laptop, comments are closed. Go start your own blog. I’m in the slow lane here. Go around me, he signals out his laptop window. Go around.

“I knew that what I was saying was contrived, even ‘literary’ stuff, but then, that was the only way I knew how to speak – ‘like a book,’ as she had put it” (179). The Underground Man is literate; Liza is not. But Liza intuits what the Underground Man must read. McLuhan explains the difference: “The visual makes for the explicit, the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space’” (GG 73).

“Enough,” the Underground Man says, but the closing footnote says there are more notes. “But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here” (203), Dostoyevsky says.

* My text (Signet Classic CT300, 1961, Seventh Printing, translation by Andrew R. MacAndrew), reads, “Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness.” But I exchanged just this line for the Constance Garnett version of the line, which I prefer for its sole (solo) and soul homonymy (not to mention the suggestion of the sole of a shoe).

Online # 1

Lots Of Fun For EveryoneI’m online, browsing. I’m cruising for a new pair of slippers. I’m sitting on the love seat, in the living room, slouched down, my feet docked on the ottoman. My location is public, living room, slipping down, gliding for a new pair of slippers, my purpose public.

I enter “cruising slippers” into my search engine. I feel good. I’m plugged in, lit up. I’m online. My socials are open. The drones are swarming. I’m not alone. I twitter something fast: “Online slippers, what? Come on back!” Immediately, there’s a response.

I’m in a mood, an online mood. Mood indigo. What’s that? I enter “mood indigo” into my search engine. Oh, yeah, the Duke. I jump over to JazzStandards.com and click on the song, give it a whirl. Oh, yeah, the melody comes back to me, haunting. The piano notes sound like ice cubes clicking coolly in a cocktail glass.

“The Duke of Earl.” Who was the Duck of Earl, anyway? I enter “The Duck of Earl” in my search engine. It ignores the typo, corrects my search, thank you. I click on Urban Dictionary and start to scroll down. Some nice peer reviews going here, mostly thumbs up, a few down. Then an ad pops up: “Have you ever been arrested?”

I don’t like ads. I try to ignore the ad, but I can’t. I feel arrested. My mood shifts. I’m like a boat on the open sea, at the mercy of variable breezes. I open my facebook, enter “variable breezes” in my status and click. I get a few likes. Someone in Dansk says, “Breezing?”

Yes, that’s it, I’m breezing. I shift back to Twitter and enter “Breezing,” just the word, not even a period. No response. I’m not surprised. I don’t have that many followers on Twitter, but what’s a lot? I change lanes, back to Facebook, and enter “Breezing.” I have 500 friends. What time is it in Dansk, I wonder.

There’s a new tweet, from some cat in Belgium. I enter “slippers” into Google Translate: “pantoufles,” if I want a pair of French slippers, which I don’t, necessarily. I switch Translate into Dutch: “slippers.” Slippers in Dutch is slippers, same as English. Who knew? I enter “Slippers in Dutch is slippers in English, too” into Facebook. I get a bunch of likes and a few comments like it’s a joke or something, but I’m serious. I get a bizarre comment from some kid I went to high school with I haven’t seen or talked to in years. She claims she’s a lawyer of some kind. Probably under some kind of house arrest.

I open my search engine and type in “ottoman” and poof comes the story via Wiki: “Thomas Jefferson’s memorandum books from 1789.” Now there’s a trip, speaking of high school. I parachute out of Wiki and land back in my living room. I’m thirsty. I’m thinking of walking down to the coffee house. They have Wi-Fi there. What’s Wi-Fi? I don’t understand beyond having a general idea. I enter “Wi-Fi” into my search engine. What if we could see radio waves? I Tweet, “waves, pulsing.” I was going to tweet “radio waves,” but I didn’t. We can’t see these waves, at least I can’t, but I think I can feel them. Sometimes songs just pop into my head. That ever happen to you? Suddenly I’m singing some song in my head, not singing it, really, but it’s there, playing, playing in my mind, like my head is a transistor radio picking up the wave of the song. But if I try to sing the song, out loud, the words won’t come. A few might, but not the whole song, not unless it’s a song I’ve gone to the trouble to memorize, to commit to memory. This paragraph is too long for its purpose.

Location, living room. Purpose, slipping through time online for a new pair of slippers. Open: socials, check; three search engines, check; Wiki, check; my word processor, check. All systems go. Where does that term come from? I enter “word processor” into my search engine. What ever happened to WordPerfect? Do we process words? Do we perfect words? Mot juste. The word frozen. Justice.

I enter “All systems go” into my search engine. The dictionary calls the phrase cliché. Really? I don’t hear anyone using it much anymore. I enter “All systems go” into both Facebook and Twitter. Nothing, no response. Interesting. Maybe I should have typed, “All systems are go.”

I saw “Argo” not too long ago, on the Big Screen. What a trip. I had not been to see a film in some time, not in a big screen theatre. I had forgotten how big the screens could seem. We sat in the first row of the second section, not too close, in the front middle, so to speak. I like the front row. I like to slouch down and stretch out my legs. A message filled the big screen just before the lights dimmed: “Please put out your cell phone.” No, not right, “turn off,” it said. I did. I turned off my cell phone. I had thought I might maybe send out a few tweets during the film, but I thought better of it.

So to speak, thought better of it, all systems go. I should look these up. I’m bored with all that. I check out the news. First, the weather: slight chance showers. Slight, what is slight? Parse. Can you parse the showers, please? I tweet, “Parsing showers.” No one’s on Facebook. 500 friends and no one’s on. That’s a first. I check the news.

The news. I type “the news” into my search engine. I’m reminded of the scene in the Steve Martin film “Roxanne.” Charlie is strolling down the street and stops at a newsstand to buy a newspaper. He pulls one out and glances at the front page. A look of shock and horror pops up on his face. He scrambles back to the newsstand and fumbles in his pocket for another coin. He opens the newsstand and sticks the newspaper back into it and continues his stroll, his calm smile back on under his big nose.

1987, the year “Roxanne” was released. I just looked it up. But the thing is there are no newsstands anymore, no phone booths either, and mailboxes appear to be disappearing.

+++

Notes: This post is part fiction, part real. It was inspired by a conversation I really had last Friday afternoon over at Stark Street Station with some colleagues. I do have a Twitter account, but I’m not on Facebook. I didn’t think of tweeting during the movie. That’s not something I would do. In any case, my cell phone can’t do that, tweet. And I’m not really in the market for a new pair of slippers. I don’t even have an old pair of slippers. I don’t wear slippers. Meemin retweeted “Parsing showers,” over an hour ago. A good post takes time.

Fear of Writing: “After Midnight,” by Irmgard Keun

“A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world,” Heini tells Algin in Irmgard Keun’s “After Midnight.” Algin is considering writing a historical novel that will satisfy the stiff submission requirements of the Reich Chamber of Literature. The historical novel might be relatively safe because the players have passed. They’re not around to censure, and their story has likely already been told, documented, accredited. But one doesn’t always know what might get “a writer in the act of writing” in trouble. And a mistake is not an act of courage but of naiveté, inexperience, or foolishness. Writers may work with all three simultaneously, whistling while they work, no fear.

But “a writer who is afraid is no true writer,” Heini insists. But a writer unafraid might simply be risking nothing, have nothing on the line, no skin in the game, nothing to lose. Being fearless is not necessarily the same emotion as having courage. And Heini’s not talking about craft, because “perfection renders words unnecessary,” he says. Indeed, what the writer should fear is perfection, because “once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet,” Heini explains (98). Perfection is only achieved through the destruction of all opposing values. But at that point, there’s no more discussion.

I don’t know if Keun was afraid or not while writing “After Midnight.” But she was certainly courageous. “After Midnight” has an interesting publication history. Irmgard Keun lived from 1905 to 1982, achieving early success as a writer in Germany only to see her books quickly burned. “After Midnight,” Keun’s fourth novel, was first published in 1937 by a publisher in the Netherlands. It was republished in German in 1980, and in English with a translation by Anthea Bell in 1985. I recently bought the Neversink Library edition issued by Melville House Publishing in 2011. It’s a short book, 169 pages including an afterword by Geoff Wilkes that provides both a brief but detailed biography of Keun and a short critical analysis that draws on research using letters and reviews from the periods discussed.

“After Midnight” is not a historical novel, and illustrates some of the strengths of fiction over documentary, of literature over reporting. Its tone is primarily satiric, but the narrative is realistic, looking at its own time, with some, but not much, looking backward, unable, of course, to see clearly into the future. If the writer knew no fear, the young narrator knows it: “My heart always stands still when I hear those speeches, because how do I know I’m not one of the sort who are going to be smashed? And the worst is that I just don’t understand what’s really going on. I’m only gradually getting the hang of the things you must be careful not to do” (63). This is the plight of the writer. The situation is urgent, a constant state of emergency on the dire road to perfection, a place not there.

A Cat’s Email

IMG_1121 A Cat's Email- Did you get my email?
- What email?
- I sent you an email.
- I delete all email before reading it.
- That doesn’t make any sense!
- Welcome to the world of Postmodern Poetry.
- But I sent you an email!
- Must we go through this again?
- Joe’s post titled “Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice” that was “Freshly Pressed” here has now been reposted at Berfrois!
- I think I need a nap.
- How many naps do you take in a day?
- As Dylan so eloquently put it, “Any day now, any day now…”
- Why does he have to say it twice?

Weather Retort

Sunset over PacificDay One: A trance of rain, ear churn momute.

Day Two: Slide high noontide, sundersthorms plate.

Day Three: Moistly scattered sneers and a few frizzles.

Day Four: Chants of wrinkles, dartly cloudy and chowdery.

Day Five: Humility Poor Boy Talls, Barometer IPA 75%.

Day Six: Moggy, very low viability.

Day Seven: Topical air mass pew point, wind clam.

Extended Forecast:

  • Thick hot pine tar air dropping from powerful trees.
  • Rosemary, basil, garlic, and spearmint mixing with tales of salt water.
  • Soft golden sun boiling over salsa garden.
  • Bare feet in wet sand, nibbled by sand crabbed bubbles.
  • Plenty of weather to write or not in the forecast. Some pressure to publish sun only.

A Cat For All Seasons

A Cat For All Seasons- It’s spring! Don’t you just love spring?
- Winter will come again. It always does.
- The ice has melted. Like e. e. cummings said,
in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious”
- It’s supposed to rain again tomorrow.
- But this is today! And we’re alive in this spring moment!
- A more responsible view is to remain mindful that the seasons are in constant motion, and anything can happen and usually does. In any case, from a universal perspective, there is only one season, a murkiness that lends itself to a contemplation of a dark void.
- Yes, but it’s spring! And I feel like hop-scotching and jumping rope!
- It won’t be long before the hurricane season will be upon us again, to say nothing of tornadoes. As Robert Frost pointed out, “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice.” And he should have known; he was a poet. But I don’t see how it much matters, an end is an end is an end is an end, but all these literary allusions are just illusions to wile away the time until winter comes again and we cry out, “Winter is icummen in,” and you know the rest.
- Oh, you’re just an old goat!
Cherry BlossomsLook at this wonderful picture I took last night with my cell phone of the moon glowing through the cherry blossoms!
- Reminds me of the time we went to see “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!,” and they burnt the popcorn. Besides, you can’t fool me; that’s not the moon – that’s an electric spotlight in the parking lot of The Old Spaghetti Factory.
- Listen! I think I hear a whistle!

A Cat’s Memoir

A Cat's Memoir- I’m going to write a memoir!
- You’re speaking of flash fiction, I presume?
- No. I want to tell your story.
- My story?
- Yes, Joe says it’s the writer’s job to tell the stories of cats without voices, and you don’t seem to have a voice.
- Joe? Who is Joe?
- Joe is this really cool cat hep blogger at The Coming of the Toads, all about cool cat lit cult stuff, poetry and jazz, the ocean and deep silence. You would dig it.
- And is this Joe cat credible and reliable? What does this Joe do for a living?
- I don’t know. I think he may not have a life, so he doesn’t need to worry about all that. I think he might be a fictional character.
- And who is behind this fictional Joe?
- I’m not sure, his memoirist, I guess.

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

Related Post: Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

On Prayer and Poetry

What is prayer? When I was a kid, I learned the Catholic prayers, and believed Sister Mary Annette, who liked to quote Shakespeare, when she said, “Words without thought never to heaven go.” King Claudius is trying to pray, looks like he is praying, to Hamlet, anyway, and so Hamlet decides to put off killing him, for fear that if the king is killed while praying, he’ll go to heaven, while Hamlet wants full revenge, not to send his uncle to an unjust reward. What Hamlet doesn’t realize is that while Claudius’s “words fly up, [his] thoughts remain below.” Annette waxed literary, incomparable to none.

Impossible to know with certainty if the thoughts of others are wedded to their words, so I don’t know if I alone among Annette’s 8th grade class had this problem, but my rote prayers were recited much like Malachy McCourt explains in his book “A Monk Swimming.” He had misheard “amongst women” in the prayer known as the “Hail Mary.” But if his thoughts were behind his words, applying Claudius’s rule, I suppose Malachy’s monk swimming would have made it into heaven. If I had said “a monk swimming,” my thoughts would have been about the surf down the road from our church.

Salinger’s Franny gets caught up with prayer, and one day, her brother Zooey explains the alleged benefits of the pilgrim’s prayer to his mother, who has expressed some concern for what Franny’s getting into: “And the main idea is that it’s not supposed to be just for pious bastards and breast-beaters,” Zooey says. “You can be busy robbing the goddam poor box, but you’re to say the prayer while you rob it.” The argument of the pilgrim’s prayer, in Zooey’s explanation, seems to run counter to the “words without thought” school of prayer.

Hemingway’s characters are often caught in prayer, or anti-prayer. Consider the waiter’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, in the short story “A Clean Well-Lighted Place”: “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name….” And, “I don’t love anybody,” Krebs tells his mother in “Soldier’s Home.” “Now you pray,” his mother tells him. “I can’t,” he says. In the short piece titled “Chapter VII” in “The First Forty-Nine Stories,” a soldier caught in battle prays, “Dear jesus please get me out.” He makes promises to Jesus, bargains for his life, and “The shelling moved further up the line,” but “The next night back at Mestre he did not tell the girl he went upstairs with at the Villa Rossa about Jesus. And he never told anybody.”

What happens when Jesus gets prayers at odds, opposing viewpoints? Athletes often pray. A ballplayer will make the sign of the cross at the plate just before a pitch. Does this give the batter a kind of steroid-prayer advantage? But couldn’t the pitcher simply counter with a prayer of his own, just before delivery? Do the prayers then cancel out? But something has to happen to the pitch: call strike, ball, foul ball, base hit. But is this what prayer is supposed to be about? On the other hand, given the pilgrim’s prayer premise, why not position oneself in constant prayer? Baseball is a game of inches.

I pray you, is the idea of prayer to be always asking for something? But prayers are often made for the benefit of others. Praying for peace would seem to benefit everyone. We might pray for rain, or for a dry spell, for sun or shade, for our horse to finish first. If we have everything we need or want, should we then stop praying? But we might pray we don’t lose something, or that someone else gets everything they need or want. Is there ever enough prayer?

We pray for peace, health, safety, security. We pray for stuff. We pray that there be more stuff, and less stuff. Different kinds of stuff. Not everyone prays, of course, but if prayer is a question, surely everyone has a prayer at some point. What is gambling but a prayer, a prayer to the god of luck. John Cage said “…nothing is accomplished by writing, hearing, playing a piece of music } our ears are now in excellent condition.” Probably the same might be said of poetry. Not much accomplished there, either, and the most accomplished poets seem to know this, which improves the condition of their voice. Can the same be said of prayer?

Last year, New Directions published a small book collecting selections of Thomas Merton’s writing, titled “On Christian Contemplation.” For Merton, prayer seems to be a kind of poetry, but only after acknowledging a marketplace uselessness of both; and prayer, like poetry, might also transcend doctrine: “…ascending the slopes in darkness, feeling more and more keenly his own emptiness, and with the winter wind blowing cruelly through his now tattered garments, he meets at times other travelers on the way, poor pilgrim as he is, and as solitary as he, belonging perhaps to other lands and other traditions. There are of course great differences between them, and yet they have much in common.” Merton felt “much closer to the Zen monks of ancient Japan than to the busy and impatient men of the West.” He characterized these men as thinking “in terms of money, power, publicity, machines, business, political advantage, military strategy – who seek, in a word, the triumphant affirmation of their own will, their own power, considered as the end for which they exist.”

This does not mean that in prayer one escapes one’s responsibilities for putting bread on the table. This is a problem for poets, of course, too: “Simply to evade modern life would be a futile attempt to abdicate from its responsibilities [while clinging to its advantages. The way of contemplation is a way of higher and more permanent responsibilities] and a renunciation of advantages – and illusions,” Merton says.

The modern world presents problems for the poet and the prayer: “Can contemplation still find a place in the world of technology and conflict which is ours?” Peace, and wholeness, Merton argues, are not “the most salient characteristics of modern society.” No kidding. Yet, “What is keeping us back from living lives of prayer? Perhaps we really don’t want to pray. This is the thing we have to face.” But, if we do want to consider prayer, or contemplation, or poetry, how do we go about it? “If you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying,” Merton says.

How does one pray? Merton says, “The best thing beginners…can do…is to acquire the agility and freedom of mind that will help them to find light and warmth and ideas and love for God everywhere they go and in all that they do. People who only know how to think about God during fixed periods of the day will never get very far in the spiritual life. In fact, they will not even think of Him in the moments they have religiously marked off for ‘mental prayer.’” And “mental prayer” is an awkward term, because we don’t pray with our minds, Merton explains.

But to return to the idea of uselessness, of prayer and of poetry, commercial uselessness, worldly uselessness: Merton says, “Christ does not control by power; further He does not control by law. This is one of the most important and neglected features of the New Testament.” Not everyone feels the need to enter into contemplation, prayer, or poetry, but that does not mean the need is not there, seeded within the individual soul. While at the same time one’s personal anguish might be so intense or one’s perspective so hurt as to call forth a dismissal of God and Christ and all the baggage one feels associated with the church and its people and prayer and what one sees to be the hypocrisy and futility of it all. So, “How does the theology of prayer approach this problem?” Merton asks. “Not by reasoning but by symbol, by poetic insight, leading directly to those depths of the heart where these matters are experienced and where such conflicts are resolved.”

On the other hand, one might want for something simple, a simple prayer, a simple poem. One shouldn’t have to google a prayer or a poem to enjoy the moment. To google literature, in a search for meaning, is to ruin a good meal. The same might be said for church prayer, church being the place where we google our souls, but any book might work, Merton says, and reading prayers out of a book, or reading a book as a prayer “is a good thing to do and very easy and simple.”

Why pray? “The real purpose of meditation is this,” Merton says: “To teach a man how to work himself free of created things and temporal concerns, in which he finds only confusion and sorrow.” Still, we might find ourselves bored with all of this, with the idea we are going to spend any time away from our busy schedules on something as trivial as prayer or poetry. We want to feel productive. We want to help others. We’ll go to church, appear to be part of some community, put some bills in the basket, sprinkle some holy water on our face, just in case there really is something to all the hocus-pocus. For the bored or busy, Merton seems to advise to not only get it while we can but where we can: “Learn how to meditate on paper. Drawing and writing are forms of meditation. Learn how to contemplate works of art. Learn how to pray in the streets or in the country. Know how to meditate not only when you have a book in your hand but when you are waiting for a bus or riding in a train.” One can pray “with few words or none…half-hopeless.” There are poems like this, or there should be.

There’s a chapter in the little Merton book titled “Silence.” Did Merton read John Cage? Merton says, “Whether the house be empty or full of children, whether the men go off to town or work with tractors in the fields, whether the liner enters the harbor full of tourists or full of soldiers, the almond tree brings forth her fruit in silence.” Another chapter is titled “Difficulties & Distractions.” One can’t escape all of one’s difficulties or distractions, even in prayer. Hamlet said he could bound himself in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space – were it not that he has bad dreams. Of this kind of tension, Merton says, “Do not strain yourself trying to get ideas or feel fervor. Do not upset yourself with useless efforts to realize the elaborate prospects suggested by a conventional book on meditation.”

“Everything good that comes to us and happens in prayer is a grace and a gift of God,” Merton says. “Even the desire to pray at all, and the attempt to pray, is itself a great grace.” Does this mean that God has ignored many of us, who may not feel this call to pray? Ah, but what is prayer? This claim of Merton’s rings true, pray or not: “The mere fact of having an opportunity to pray is something for which we should be deeply grateful.” Grateful, too, for the opportunity to contemplate poetry, to read, or even to try to write a poem.

There’s a wonderful poem included in the Merton book, called “Song for Nobody.” It seems to embody some of Merton’s idea of prayer:

A yellow flower
(Light and spirit)
Sings by itself
For nobody.

A golden spirit
(Light and emptiness)
Sings without a word
By itself.

Let no one touch this gentle sun
In whose dark eye
Someone is awake.

(No light, no gold, no name, no color
And no thought:
O, wide awake!)

A golden heaven
Sings by itself
A song to nobody.

Merton advocated contemplation in an age of distraction, where we might become free of anxiety and anguish magnified by the reckoning and wreckage surrounding us. And John Cage said nothing is accomplished with music, thus freeing our ears to all sounds. Cage said, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.” Maybe Shakespeare’s King Claudius should not be trusted when he says “words without thought never to heaven go.” Words without thought may indeed be the lingua franca of heaven, thoughts without words the mother tongue of heaven.

I confess I do not know how to pray, not in Merton’s view, where one prays with every breath one takes. And I have typically prayed only with reason, and with words, and this seems the wrong approach. One should pray without reason, and without words. Prayer occurs in the act of contemplation, then it disappears. Poetry occurs in the act of writing, then it disappears. “A poem should be wordless,” Archibald MacLeish said, “As the flight of birds.” Relax, Merton says. Make a poem a prayer. If no one reads it, if no one wants it, maybe God will accept it. For readers who have read to the bottom of this post, consider it a poem; for those who have ignored it, it’s a prayer, one with far too many words.