Notes on Types of Poetry

  1. You look at something you believe should be familiar but see something else, something unexpected. A moment of confusion, you are given a start, seeing something new or strange, out of place or off kilter, in place of what usually passes practically unnoticed. Some like that feeling; others do not. But the feeling, whatever it is, passes. You dismiss the experience as a kind of déjà vu as what you expected to see comes into focus and the other vision, the mirage, the mistake, disappears.

 

  1. That night, you dream of a chess game, even though you don’t play chess. The chess pieces are friends, neighbors, and relatives. The Queen is a woman who walks by your house daily but never says hi. The King is the friendly dog from across the street, always happy to see you. The Knights are kids riding bicycles. The Castles are bell towers full of birds over empty churches. The Pawns are corporate employees you once supervised, riding a desk all day in a building of sealed windows. In those days, you used to dream of getting up from your desk and throwing open a window, a breeze of fresh air blowing all the papers off the desks, creating a ruckus. You are called down to the Personnel Department and summarily fired.

 

  1. You learn a new word, eggcorn. Slips of both the tongue and ears. You make a list of words you frequently misspell, fold the list, and put it into your Moleskin pocket notebook. You save the Moleskin pages for poems that never come. A week later, the Moleskin still empty, you take out your list of frequently misspelled words and throw it away. You make a new list of words you often mishear or mispronounce. You think of getting a dog and naming her faux pas.

 

  1. The plumber arrives to fix the pipe that froze in last winter’s silver thaw. Something about him smells familiar. It’s a stale beer odor. It’s late afternoon, a hot summer day, and he must have been out at lunch drinking beer, perhaps in the lot of food carts located down by the creek at the bottom of the neighborhood. You look into the back of his van. An old blue and white striped mattress lines the floor. The sidewalls are cubbyholes full of tools and plumbing parts.

 

  1. The power has gone out again, another rolling summer blackout. You light a candle. The phone and Internet are also out. You think absurdly of walking down to the corner to use the pay phone – the pay phone was taken out years ago. The evening is dark and quiet and peaceful, and you decide this is your favorite kind of poetry, the kind that creates a still clearness, and the stars are like rocks on the floor of a shallow, smooth running stream that ebbs and flows with the salt water tides. Suddenly the power comes back on, the fan spins, the radio blaring, the streetlight flooding through the open front window. A door slams. A car starts up. The lights flicker indecisively. Blackouts are only rarely epical.

 

  1. A young woman knocks at the door, a canvasser. Lonely for someone to talk to, you invite her inside. You make tea. Her skin is like parchment, full of colorful tattoos, pictures and words. And she has piercings, one in her upper lip, another in her ear, and a tiny diamond on the side of her nose. Her eyebrows are painted black shellac. She comes quickly to the purpose of her mission: she is selling low cost cremation plans. If you buy now, pre-ordering, before you die, you save lots. She’s already been able to help several of your neighbors. Your block is a gold mine of old people.

 

  1. You’ve the kids for the day, to babysit, day care. You get out large, thick sheets of brightly painted paper. Everyone takes a pair of scissors and cuts alphabet letters out of the sheets. You string the letters together with clear fish line and hang them from the ceiling with thumb tacks, creating slow moving mobiles that say different things depending on the breeze coming through the open windows. Everyone lies on the floor with pillows and blankets, watching the letters turn this way and that, reading aloud new words that appear.

 

Old Towels

“A young ballplayer once driedRed Towel
his hands on me,” says a pale
grey towel, the one with the red
wine stain that would not wash out.

“I was once a pretty lime green,
like the tile through the chlorine
of the fresh swimming pool
where I used to lounge
on a lemony table of iced tea.”

“The hands that reach for us
have grown effete, too.
Their grab and rub and snap
lack a former vigor.”

The old towels hang whipped and frayed,
lopsided and wrinkled, once plush nap
now mashed bald and threadbare.
The old towels dangle on bent nails
in a dank garage, reduced to rags.

The Way We Don’t Age Now: Unhappiness and Hunger in the Land of Plenty

Hunger is a condition of life: no hunger, no life. The spider spins her web, hungry for the busy bee dancing by hungry for blues. The cactus patiently awaits the coming of a distant, dithering cloud. The salmon swims against the current, hungry to finish its ritual. A homeless man wanders into a soup kitchen, hungry for food, and stays for the writers’ workshop, hungry to tell his story (Frazier). When we are hungry for something, are we happy or unhappy? Yet when our every hunger is satisfied, we are dead. Do we grow less hungry with age?

Sometimes, we are hungry to forget. Senility may satisfy that hunger, but the hunger to interfere with memory can occur at any age – consider the days spent on our many varieties of smack, dementias of the soul. Our culture inconsistently values certain kinds of hunger while frowning on other kinds of hunger: healthy hungers might include hunger for money, attention, or success in a chosen field; unhealthy hungers might include greed, fame, or the trappings of success. The poet is hungry for a new word, the salesman for an easy client, the surfer for an empty wave, the injured for revenge, the soldier for peace; we can be hungry for anything. Maslow suggested a hierarchy of hungers, but that seems too easy, for hungers can strike with surprise, while we often don’t recognize the source of our hunger, and self-actualization can lead to complacency, smugness in one’s work, for example.

One thing we don’t seem to be too hungry for is old age.  Maybe that’s because, as Atul Gawande has said, “We are, in a way, freaks living well beyond our appointed time. So when we study aging what we are trying to understand is not so much a natural process as an unnatural one.” One consequence of the newness of aging longer, Gawande suggests, is that “we give virtually no thought to how we will live out our later years alone.” And not only are we unprepared to stop our fall, “most of us in medicine,” Gawande says, “don’t know how to think about decline.” A geriatrician could help, if we could find and afford one, but doctors don’t like working with old people, so there’s a woeful shortage of geriatricians, while what we need when moving into old age isn’t medicine and a rest home but a purpose for living, a hunger.

But we value youth; wrinkles are a bummer. A recent article in Forbes (Barlow) indicated men in increasing numbers are undergoing cosmetic surgery because business prefers good looks, in spite of studies that show beauty used as a gauge for skill lacks credibility. We value youth, good looks, and money; where does this leave old folks? “You wonder too much for a Sandman,” Logan 5’s partner, Francis, tells him. “When you question, it slows you down” (Logan’s Run). No one is hungry in Logan’s plastic city, a truncated Shangri-La. But that’s not quite right, for the Runners are hungry, hungry for Sanctuary, though they are not quite sure where or what that is, and no one finds out, since no one lives past the age of 30. Life has become a limited Internet access contract. “Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents – seeing that – have no desire to become adults” (Bly viii).

Why are Americans not happier? At the Becker-Posner blog, Becker, the Nobel Prize winning economist, confesses, “I admit I do not know why average degree of happiness has not risen in recent decades in the US as incomes rose.” But happiness, in the economist’s world, seems to having something to do with having something to do: “…perhaps utility has in fact not improved over time, or perhaps more likely happiness statistics are deviating from unmeasured increases in utility.” Posner, the Federal Judge, trying to explain why, while income has risen in recent decades in the US, happiness has fallen, reminds us that “Adam Smith argued in The Wealth of Nations that people fooled themselves in thinking they would be happier with more money. Maybe so; but as long as people do have this strong preference, economics can explain a great deal of human behavior.” Yet one thing may be certain, as evidenced by the results of psychoanalysis: explanations alone don’t make us happy.

Recent studies on happiness agree that money does not buy happiness: “…a half century of escalating consumption has not brought Americans increased satisfaction” (Kolbert). As we buy and throw away, and buy and throw away again, the problem seems to be that we do not know what will make us happy. In the absence of hunger, the only thing left to do seems to be to take a nap. But we awake, hopefully, from our naps. In Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Mirror,” old age is the face of a “terrible fish” that rises daily from a dark lake of sleep and gradually molts with the face of one’s memory. Yet in Logan’s Run, when the young people discover the first old person they’ve ever seen, they are fascinated by the wrinkles in his face, marvel that he not only knew his parents but also was raised by them, wonder what the words “beloved wife husband” on the tombstones mean. “That must be the look of being old,” Jessica says, touching the “cracks” in the old man’s face. Meanwhile, Francis, Logan’s ex-partner, catches up with the Runners, and says in anger to Jessica, “He was a Sandman; he was happy.” The Sandman does not hunger to question, and Logan’s answer that there is no Sanctuary, no opposing viewpoint, “does not program” on the inside.

Perhaps one source of our current unhappiness is similar to that of the Cumaean Sibyl’s, whose immortality, like a new washing machine sold without a warranty, did not come with eternal youth. She aged and aged, increasingly unhappy, until nothing was left but her voice, and after a thousand years of withering life, her last wish was to die. If we could live without pain or stress, all of our needs provided for, as in Logan’s Run, able to buy a new face or even a complete body any time we tired of the old, the only catch though that we could not live beyond a certain age, what age would we select? The source of our unhappiness may be our unwillingness to grow old, the inability of our youth obsessed culture to value the wrinkles of old age as beautiful, desirable. In a culture so hungry for youth, people die earlier and earlier. We need to develop a hunger for old age.

Works Cited

Barlow, Tom. “Loving that Face in the Mirror.” Forbes 27 October 2011.
Becker, Gary. “Happiness and Wellbeing.” Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.
Bly, Robert. The Sibling Society. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Frazier, Ian. “Hungry Minds.” The New Yorker 26 May 2008.
Gawande, Atul. The Way We Age Now.”  The New Yorker 30 April 2007.
Kolbert, Elizabeth. “Everybody Have Fun.” The New Yorker 22 March 2010.
Logan’s Run. Dir. Michael Anderson. 1976. Film.
Plath, Sylvia. “The Mirror.” Performed by Natalie Clark, Radio Theatre Group, August 2011.
Posner, Richard. “Why Aren’t Americans Happier?Becker-Posner Blog 10 January 2010.

also note: “Pastures of Plenty,” a song by Woody Guthrie; “Land of Plenty,” a film (2004) by Wim Wenders; and the song “The Land of Plenty,” by Leonard Cohen (2001).

How to Live Happily to 106: Happy Bloomsday, Mr. Leopold Bloom

Articles celebrating victims of extreme old age usually ask about diet, so let’s get that out of the way first:

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The time is morning, the scene the house, the organ the kidney, the art economics, the symbol the nymph, the title Calypso, the technique mature narrative (Gilbert, 1930). The day was June 16, the year 1904, the place Dublin, the book James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Speaking of mature narrative, Jonah Lehrer, over at the Frontal Cortex, has put up a post titled “Old Writers” in which he dispels the myth that writers do their best work when very young, that older writers can’t match the quality or creativity of their younger work, as if writer’s ink were a kind of dark blue testosterone that fades and weakens in potency with age. Lehrer concludes his post with “…different circumstances call for different kinds of creativity…The most successful artists aren’t slaves to their chronological age. Instead, they succeed by speaking to the age in which they live.”

Works want readers, listeners, viewers, and they always want new readers, new listeners, new viewers, and when they don’t get them, they feel old and weak, remaindered and marked down, bagged for the garage sale: Books Penyeach.

Pomes Penyeach was first published in 1927, when James Joyce was 45 years old. Joyce’s works are remarkable for their consistent creative originality that insists on new forms to communicate the events that parallel the writer’s age and the age of the writer. And they have not weakened over time, but have grown stronger with age. Perhaps it was those nutty gizzards. Almost certainly it must have been the burgundy, as Bloom suggests (although Joyce preferred white wines). In any case, the example of Joyce’s works expresses Lehrer’s definition of the successful artist, that the work has nothing to do with the age of the artist, but everything to do with the age at which the work is experienced.