I just read the story in Ha Aretz about the Israeli soldier who has been forbidden to read his poetry over the airwaves. The headline, Real Men Don’t Read Poetry, caught my eye…, and in one of the concluding paragraphs the sentiments of Nahal Brigade Commander Col. Yehuda Fuchs, is honed down to this poignant phrase: the poet would be liable to reveal “sensitive and personal” information…
That is, information which might be (mis)used by certain enemy-combatants.
Or information that might compromise on-going and highly secretive operations.
Or information that puts the agents of espionage at risk.
Or information that makes the powers-that-be look bad.
And ostensibly it’s the nature of this verse, coming from this particular military man, that will do all this. Poetry, as a genre, is no more an existential threat to the nation of Israel anymore than are the 150 Psalms in their original Hebrew. Whether the soldier writes in free verse or in form shouldn’t constitute a clear and present danger. Whether his images resonate like the echoes coming off a canyon wall… whether his similes skip like gazelles on the open plain… or whether his rhymes sneak up on the reader– like a parking meter–shouldn’t matter. None of these questions of poetic craft should make a intelligence-tactician so much as bat an eyelid.
According to the political leverage-seekers, a poem’s meat and potatoes is tantamount to the inadvertant details that the author may let slip when his or her guard is down. The poet, in this framework, is vulnerable, and perhaps easily manipulated, because the pursuit of emotional honesty or literary beauty has displaced concern for those who are out to get us. Paranoia, in other words, has become the default mindset, and must, when threatened, reassert itself as the dominant modus operandi.
From the protection of our basic freedoms, there is no escape. And from our need to keep the peace (through strength), we have no respite… Let the irony ooze from each official, but unpoetic, statement and down the chain of command. Let it ooze as if from the wounds of a hobbled war hero who has been deprived of the poetry that once inspired him/her to serve in the first place.
Poetry, you see, may resemble the triage that a society requires if it’s to see beyond the propaganda that keeps the trauma of warring nations going in a perpetual cycle. (Triage: the process of determining the priority of a patient’s treatment…) With this in mind, maybe a soldier who writes and reads a poem begins to contemplate an identity beyond a nation’s rhetorical rubric. And perhaps he reads that poem to others and eventually the language recovers an exuberant life from the dead euphemisms of military protocol. On the other side, I don’t know… Maybe there’s an Iranian or an Iraqi or a disillusioned member of Hezbollah who reads a little Rumi.
The Story of My Life i was ready to tell the story of my life but the ripple of tears and the agony of my heart wouldn't let me i began to stutter saying a word here and there and all along i felt as tender as a crystal ready to be shattered in this stormy sea we call life all the big ships come apart board by board how can i survive riding a lonely little boat with no oars and no arms my boat did finally break by the waves and i broke free as i tied myself to a single board though the panic is gone i am now offended why should i be so helpless rising with one wave and falling with the next i don't know if i am nonexistence while i exist but i know for sure when i am i am not but when i am not then i am now how can i be a skeptic about the resurrection and coming to life again since in this world i have many times like my own imagination died and been born again that is why after a long agonizing life as a hunter i finally let go and got hunted down and became free
“Once someone passes away they’re open to interpretation.”
So says Daphne Williams Fox, the grand-daughter of William Carlos Williams, as she responds to the new Herbert Leibowitz book on her famed ancestor. Leibowitz suggests that the Rutherford physician had an unconsummated affair with a Dadaist artist, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven — and with names like these their mere introduction to one another probably sucked all the oxygen from the room. And can you imagine what might have passed for flirtatious chatter between the two poets, The Mind’s Games?
If a man can say of his life or
any moment of his life, There is
nothing more to be desired! his state
becomes like that told in the famous
double sonnet — but without the
sonnet’s restrictions. Let him go look…
Looking, of course, is always an option, and Williams undoubtedly engaged in the activity a lot. His optic nerve never grew tired. A coastline? “Today small waves are rippling…” Tomatoes? “Green/ in one basket and, in/ the other shining reds.” Violets? “Once in a while/ we’d find a patch… big blue/ ones in/ the cemetery woods…” An old brownstone church? “Among a group/ of modern office buildings…” Look! Look! Look! And finally–Look!
But what happens when someone looks back? When the writer as observer or as imaginator becomes the one who is seen and known and, as Daphne admits, “open to interpretation”? My sense is that creative writing, as a discipline, has no clear-cut answer. Nor does the practice of crafting a simple declarative sentence that is true come with an operators‘ manuel. No safe place exists for us — not even the library, not even the local delicatessen. Those people behind the reference desk are always watching. Those slicing lunchmeat have built-in baloney-detectors. And so, the conundrum that fascinates Leibowitz in telling the tale of William Carlos Williams is also the issue that Leibowitz himself may encounter some day. (He can only hope!)
Something Urgent I Have To Say To You stipulates that a poet’s subject matter cannot help but raise a window shade on what really happened behind closed doors. If Williams succumbed to certain philandering urges, for example, poems like Chanson and excerpts of Classic Picture might help to decipher the code. Daisy Fried falls in line with this tact in her New York Times Review of the biography.
Still I have to wonder whether speculation, neither confirmed nor denied, about the Pulitzer Prize winning author’s trysts really have a place in appreciating the following:
This woman! how shall I describe her
who is wealthy in the riches
of her sex? No counterfeit, no mere
metal to be sure –
yet, a treasury, a sort of lien upon
all property we list and transfer.
This woman has no need to play the market
or to do anything more than watch…
Oh baby! Someone, please call the National Inquirer! Chanson, in just two measly stanzas, has revealed a little cleavage in the way we know what we don’t know about a person. Where is Heraldo Rivera when we need him to dig up a little dirt? And what about this?
A woman’s brains
which can be keen
like a poet’s
to what deceptions she can muster
to lead men
to their ruin.
But look more deeply
into her maneuvers,
and puzzle as we will about them
they may mean
Now that’s just plain bizarre — and well within the context of the 1955 Greenwich Village milieu, when a female might aspire to the mentality of poet through simile alone. Today, of course, we would have to capitulate to the obvious every Classic Picture: whether or not women still fuss with their hair, as Williams observed, at least one woman’s brains are inherently poetic — Mutatis Mutandis!
In fact, the Baroness, as Elsa Von Fretag-Loringhoven came to be known, has finally broken into publication. In 2005, bookstores finally felt brave enough to display Body Sweats; The Uncensored Writings of Elsa Von Fretag-Loringhoven in full view of their paying customers. The title poem of the collection reads like so:
Well, there you and I have it. And, as Billy Joel has sung, we have what we have on the basis of “our respective similarities.” It turns out the condition of Ol’ Grand-Dad’s marriage is not important for Daphne. She has this: “Be patient that I address you in a poem, there is no other/ fit medium…”
You Walk Upon Crimpled Notes You walk upon crimpled notes, a field planted in sections, tonight folded over with paperie-stalks, with silken tassels, buried deep down. But now by a wetlands snow-dimpled you drift among doodlings of plowed row upon row. All is afrost, even eye- lashes seem coated. Are you trespassing on Christmas Eve? Do you return from candlelit singing with wax-hardened fingers? Don’t answer the moon. It’s not full above the farm which makes your shadow doubtful to spot. Yet from a blade of lesser light spreads breath between flute-like reeds. You shiver because your car didn’t start and for reasons curious to others you’ve begged off a friendly offer. The layer of wool helps you. Think back to these steps when you’ve read a simple word and become frozen in place (though your marrow for seraphim- music aches). Each thing you adore has been slipped to you in fear of being found. Across this aisle of dirt & dark arrives again that first concealed love. The songs heard here will compare to who descends, his kisses to soft flakes falling without sound, his words of peace to this torn page of earth.
Second Nativity A wrinkle of snow has formed where the Palouse highway cuts through the blanketed tundra. No matter which pasture we face, searching for Bob’s (the man with camels in his barn), we fog up windows with anxious breathing. One hour until the Live Nativity and the old codger’s not answering his phone, had said he might visit an ex-wife in Tuscon. Pay my handler $20 an hour and Judy’s yours for the night. Sounds pretty risque, for sure. But double entendre? I don’t think so, although he told me he’d won his first one- hump creature in a poker game. My son, home from college, smirks a little when I repeat Bob’s story. A passenger while I drive, fretting the minutes, he doubts God’s real now that Western Civ is over. Our church advertising authentic animals reduced by one, I’m resigned: goats will suffice -- they’ll have to -- along with some deacons dressed in bath robes. Hell, the donkey’s name’s Augustine. What more do we need to make good on publicity, a tradition for generations?
I have an idea that may help moderate the number of unsolicited manuscripts now inundating every literary journal in the country. Rather than kicking in a $3 reading fee wouldn’t you enjoy tilling the soil, or milking a cow, or making sure that chickens had free range of a farm owned and operated by a consortium of MFA programs?
Deep down, I know you would treasure the dirt under your fingernails. It might even give you a healthy microbe to snack on while brooding on that narrative arc or that esoteric allusion…
Wendell Berry is still alive. Back in June of 2009, a blogger apparently pulled a “Twain” on the former professor at University of Kentucky and ‘exaggerated’ his death. It turns out (although Thomas Berry passed away) the man who bought some land in Henry County (Wendell) has survived and continues to thrive.
To gush about the author of Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front has been my pastime for years. Let’s join in mid-stanza:
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
The fact that, Berry writes in this prophetic way and that, he’s still not considered a postmodern poet should come as no surprise. He’s sort of taking the long view. Moreover, when it comes to a commitment to the local economy — as in growing locally, producing locally and buying locally — Berry might add to the list, loving locally. He’s been married to his wife, Tanya, since 1957, when he received his M.A. from U.of K. and then, after a stint at Stanford, over to Europe, traveling the academic circuit from Bucknell to Cincinnati, he returned, as he always had done to the land upon which his parents had raised him. Berry bought 125 fertile acres in 1965 and has never looked back. Moreover, his very settledness has launched his novellas, non-fiction and poetry into the mix of urbanization, globalization and of course fragmentation. Berry is a big-time activist against the death penalty and for the eco-efficiency of everything under the sun. And yet, he does all this and more without a Ferlinghetti flop at Coney Island or a beat-down of those “awful raccoons” in the style of Gary Snyder.
This, ultimately, is why I think we ought to turn our lights in the earthy poet’s direction. In his essays, among other places, Berry has conversations with other poets. He disagrees and he condescends. He patronizes and he pontificates. But as the sun’s going down on “The Specialization of Poetry,” for example, I’d like to have guide help me navigate the issues. What is it we’re getting at? Galway Kinnell says “I would like a poem to be free of narrative…” You see, I’d like to hear that in the context of a conversation — not simply an interviewer bowing to the New York City bard and assuming we all comprehend his meaning. And so, Berry to the rescue:
“That so accomplished a poet as Galway Kinnell now speaks of suppression of narrative as a goal is, it seems to me, a serious matter, especially as it is only the latest in a series of programs to renew or purify poetry by reducing its means. Why is it necessary for poets to believe, like salesmen, that the new inevitably must replace or destroy the old? Why cannot poetry renew itself and advance into new circumstances by adding the new to the old?”
Hey there! How we doing? A little more:
“Freedom from narrative is a diminishment — it is not even a freedom — unless it is included with the capacity of narrative among the live possibilities of poetry… Narrative poetry records, contemplates, hands down the actions of the past. Poetry has a responsibility to remember and to preserve and to reveal the truth about these actions. But it also has a complementary responsibility that is equally public: to help preserve and to clarify the possibility of responsible action.”
I apologize for the R-word used so often as a noun and as an adjective. Responsibility and Responsible often resemble two of the prudish twins to flirt with guests at the party. They get us all hot and bothered — and then lower the boom with a bucket of cold water. And Berry, to be sure, is a desperate sort of romantic in this regard. In The Peace of the Wild Things there are no illusions left to dash. What’s sought, therefore, is the solace of possibility and that is all:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I guess, when all is said and done and the last poetry slam has been slammed, what I value in poetry and all creative literature is the pow-wow, the parley, the give and the take. In fact, given the polarization of politics and the cults of personality, which often erupt and then harden just as quickly, it may be the proteges of Wendell Berry who break up the metamorphic rock with their metaphors down the end of that country lane.
What’s important to me in Poetry happens to correspond with what troubles me about the 1850 version of William Wordsworth’s The Prelude. It’s also wrapped up with Wendell Berry, Richard Wilbur and yes, even Carolyn Maisel.
First, regarding the edits for piety (or for posterity) in Wordsworth’s signature work, all I can say is that I’m disappointed in the maturing poet’s take on “imagination.” For instance, in 1805‘s Book VI, lines 524–537, we read about “visitings,” a plural image which is subsequently eliminated, and I wonder why. I also wonder about the shift from “flashes that have shewn us/ The invisible world” to “a flash that has revealed/ The invisible world.” These and other definitive changes lead me to conclude that Wordsworth eventually saw Nature as somehow prompting its own transcendence. Moreover, if this transcendence is absolute, in the sense of earth and its forms providing a sort of nexus to the sweet hereafter, then I really have issues.
To beg the pardon of the nineteenth century poet, I commiserate with his dilemma. Wordsworth, getting further and further away from those nostalgic “spots of time,” searches for a tradition that might facilitate the dialogue that he has initiated. This figurative conversation, of course, involves some very literal persons from his life (his absent mother and father; his sister Dorothy; his friend, Samuel Coleridge; plus those predecessors who had drafted epic poems before him, Homer, Dante, Milton). My point is the communal and contingent nature of Wordsworth’s self-consciousness, which, post-Enlightenment, struggles all the more against absorption into the Christendom ethos. I’m not sure he succeeded, but in essence, the effort that I ascribe to him is what’s of primary importance to me in poetry. It must assume a dialogic framework, and it must be dialectically engaged with whatever traditions are most proximate and, in tone and temperament, never collapse into their hegemony.
Wendell Berry, in one of his essays, “Poetry and Place,” alludes to this position when he states “that language can be carried too high. It can be so exalted as to fail to touch and designate and mean in this world.” This, of course, ought not to inhibit the poet from handling lofty concepts, but it must remind her/him of both “a departure and return.” Here’s an example of Berry’s verse that I think does this:
To the unseeable animal
My daughter: “I hope there’s an animal
somewhere that nobody has ever seen.
And I hope nobody ever sees it.”
Being, whose flesh dissolves
at our glance, knower
of the secret sums and measures,
you are always here,
dwelling in the oldest sycamores,
visiting the faithful springs
when they are dark and the foxes
have crept to their edges.
I have come upon pools
in streams, places overgrown
with the woods’ shadow,
where I knew you had rested,
watching the little fish
hang still in the flow;
as I approached they seemed
particles of your clear mind
disappearing among the rocks.
I have waked deep in the woods
in the early morning, sure
that while I slept
your gaze passed over me.
That we do not know you
is your perfection
and our hope. The darkness
keeps us near you.
Again, what I’d like to emphasize in Berry is the possibility of otherness, which is permitted conversation with the self. Berry, it seems, has a knack for this kind of writing, which engenders a visceral reaction: goose bumps, dizziness, hair standing on end, rhythmic breathing… Moreover, if the very sounds of distinct Anglo-Saxon, or Germanic, words tap into some sort of mystical or magical condition of the soul, so be it. My sense is that poetry emanates, not from the “mind’s abyss,” as Wordsworth would have it in 1850, but from that primordial community of predecessors, who want to talk about existence in the world where we are constantly bumping into things and brushing shoulders with other conscious creatures.
In his book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist, arrives at this same conclusion. That is, given the left and right hemisphere dichotomy of the human brain, we have evolved (or devolved) to map out our experience (of things and creatures) with abstractions. Consequently, as we consider that each abstraction reduces that massive complexity and makes the arrogant attempt to manage it, there’s a lot that we miss. However, McGilchrist argues this:
In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates — except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry…
You may be curious, at this juncture, how “language (going) beyond itself in poetry” differs from the transcendence that I decried earlier. And to this curiosity I’d simply like to offer the following tidbits brought to my attention by Richard Wilbur and Carolyn Maisel, two of the poets that I’ve read recently. One tidbit, to be explored, is how the formal elements of rhyme, meter, assonance and consonance may help and not thwart in the effort to break out. And the other involves a blurring of content that is typically categorized as “confessional poetry.”
Randall Jarrell, interestingly, has said of Richard Wilbur: “He never goes too far; he never goes far enough.” My response is to shine the spotlight on the ways in which a sonnet, a sestina or a series of couplets might take us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go, places that aren’t necessarily linear, sequential, ego-driven or idealogical. What Jarrell meant as an quasi-insult — “Never goes far enough” — for poets like me may be a saving grace. That is, in Wilbur’s attachment to so-called new formalism, I find an admission of the deconstruction and the nihilism that swirls around us, but also a hint of being happily entangled in the world’s sensuality. Poems like Hamlen Brook provide opportunities in which he may lay his lips upon things that may not satisfy, but from which we dare not venture too far.
At the alder-darkened brink
Where the stream slows to a lucid jet
I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,
And see, before I can drink,
A startled inchling trout
Of spotting near-transparency,
Trawling a shadow solider than he.
He swerves now, darting out …
Likewise, in Piccola Commedia, the journey of the speaker corresponds to things we’ve seen and heard before. Is this predictable? Or is this a willingness to include us in the dialogue?
Laughter. A combine whined
On past, and dry grass bent
In the backwash; liquor went
Like an ice-pick into my mind.
Beneath her skirt I spied
Two sea-cows on a floe.
“Go talk to Mary Jo, son,
She’s reading a book inside.”…
I became interested in Wilbur initially because of his reputation as a Christian writer, or as writer who happened to worship with the Episcopalians. At any rate, my plan is to stay with him for other commitments related to the material content of his work and to the seriousness with which he takes upon himself the mantle of interpreter. Tradition, for the poet, does not automatically imply authoritative truth-claims posited for posterity. On the contrary, I see in the two examples cited above a willingness to stake out one’s memories as one’s own and to allow future generations their own. When Wilbur comes to the close of Hamlen Brook, he looks around at the scene of reflected trees and hillsides in the water and offers this question: “How shall I drink all this?” How indeed? There’s no way. And yet, for poetry, it’s important to try.
Finally, as the notion of sheer effort rings like a church bell in the public square, in a square that’s morphed into a parabola and which includes a variety of religious expressions as well as atheists and agnostics, I think about what Carol Maisel does in Light and Shadow:
Isn’t there some terrible shadow drama
of the spirit going on
even in simple objects
so that the domes of capitals
and churches seem constantly,
uneasily alive with shadows
of flying crows,
although the sky is empty.
We do not know how…
Yes. Yes, there is a “terrible shadow drama… going on.” Are you asking me, Ms. Maisel, or telling me? (I see no question mark.) Or, perhaps, you’re inviting me into what is most important in poetry: dialogue, the possibility of otherness and the impulse toward authenticity.
Okay, now that I’ve feasted and gained some fat for the winter, I’ve re-written and revised. Still working….
The Prompt Pompeii citizens don’t die in lava flows. First they convene to discuss mudslides and what to do. Next they cower on street corners. And then ash! Then a turbid storm of suf- focating... what! Ash? Not really so much ash as anxiety, as aspen leaves showering down and laminating patio-tiles. It’s getting late, and I hear myself prompting them with latent lingua franca: You must be authentic, almost like you’re shooting to the twin city. Herculaneum -- that’s the hot spot for cocktails, and among pedestrians, too numinous to name, you’ll go, you must go against the stench of rancid meat. (Cue the plume.) And let me whisper forgotten lines of verse and contort in postures here as they must there be caught off guard by particulates of molten glass and by millennia milling around. Hell, who am I kidding? My kitchen windows encase me and I’ve trimmed these flowers to laud the drama. Cushioned chairs surround me as I lean toward their forms. You must bake bread and act naturally when you slice the loaf as I have just now when moisture escapes my nasal cavities. A strand of bloody mucus drains into the crust. What I hack up as phlegm becomes yours, your very words. Nothing’s yet decomposed, not even the yeast, when I say... you say, momento mori.
After National Public Radio’s Feature Stories Air
“the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies...” --William Wordsworth The bananas that now exist exist like shadows of their better-tasting selves. This is the feature story. We’ll never get that flavor back. Today’s flambés a farce. Plan- tains pale in comparison, being mass produced for potassium extract. Chiquita inspection stickers say, I [Heart-Shape] lunch- boxes, which make me nauseous. And finally, teenagers unrolling ultra-thin condoms along bent yellow shafts -- are you kidding me? Also in the news: Great Emu lives in dark patches where stars above Victoria do not shine. Aboriginal children hear the tales and wait for sacred eggs to hatch on land... their land which is pocked by rocks, set to each solstice. The BBC correspondent reports it all but rots inside her empirical self. That’s when Emu emits more dark and gawks at gaudy headlights infringing on her nesting sites. I’d make this out except for facts failing to stick to Wadda Wurrung words and the local affiliate’s transmission’s becoming faulty. Getting more and more spotty, something about verbal ticks, vestigial wings and a Stone Henge much older than... Meanwhile this broker who bundled underwater mort- gages, now can’t look himself in the mirror, once played Dracula and wore plastic fangs. Very fitting. Left saliva on blue collars, cast members recall to producer.
A few days ago, I posted a poem that I had been working on… I’m still working on it. And it has now morphed into two poems, which I offer as follows:
Paper Weight Pompeii citizens don’t die in lava flows. They die in mud, cowering near street corners that once convened little happen- stance conversations. I sometimes hear myself prompting them to speak, to emote one final line as if molten rock moved on cue, as if pedestrians sniff the toxic air in performance, as if their postures had been rehearsed and the ashen plumes so many tossed flowers lauding the drama. And then, I am encased, no longer looking at script, but bound to granite countertops, so smooth with bread losing moisture upon them. And upon them also my hand uses a knife to slice what will be stone, what other grad students will excavate and excise with more advanced tools. And they will sweep pumice fragments from creases in my forehead and from the crater that is my chicken pox scar. My eyes and nose cartilage decomposed, they will hold my relic-skull and ponder the weight of it and then, in seconds, lay claim to this shelter for vagrant thought, to its future use.
Looking Up Aboriginal Stone Henge It is thought the site was built by the Wadda Wurrung people - the traditional inhabitants of the area. All understanding of the rocks' significance was lost, however, when traditional language and practices were banned at the beginning of the 20th Century. --BBC Correspondent Great Emu lives. Lives in dark patches between Milky Way stars. Gawks wildly at Victoria’s shroud of asphalt. We are gaud going upon it, stranded in chrome and noisy light; and beneath’s a nest with eggs still warm. Are they real? Or stories? Children looking up now ask fidgeting with jots and tittles like other exiles. Emu then emits more dark and steps along stones set for each solstice. Lichens avoid eye con- tact until called upon to recite. Listen, Wadda Wurrung! Vestigial wings keep words tucked down under.
Thanks for reading. Send comments and feedback if you like. Writing may be a solitary process, but it’s also communal.
I’ve Observed these Seasons from a Certain Hemisphere, but am Leaving the Premises
“the right hemisphere towards cohesion… the left hemisphere towards competition…”
–Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary
Mount Vesuvius erupts. Pompeii citizens die encased
in mud-flows and ash. Herculaneum is the sister city
where decomposed bodies also leave cavities. Loaves
of bread harden in ovens next to bakers on August 24th.
King Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon. A few years
later and Jews, who’ve grown cozy in exile, may head
back to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. Messiah calls
the occupation Yehud. Vanity of vanities tops the charts.
Canned beer first goes on sale. With Prohibition over
and labor-costs cheap, the American Can Company coats
tin, pressurizes Gottfried Krueger’s creamy ale. To open
the heavy-gauge-steel top, consumers use church-keys.
The Civil War begins. Confederate batteries bombard
Fort Sumter’s five-foot thick walls for 34 hours. The
Pocahontas and Pawnee have already come and gone,
steaming supplies. Abner Doubleday’s first to return fire.
The Wadda Wurring people of aboriginal Australia push large basalt stones
into place, forming a vast oval near present-day Wurdi Youang, Victoria. As
they lift their heads toward the dark patches of night — everywhere Milky Way
stars are not — each child, woman and man spies the Great Emu, and knows it’s
the season to gather eggs (among other things). I’m telling you this not to be
smart, but because the Great Emu also bakes, builds, brews and bats left-handed.
Apparently, the sun may not set in the west after all. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe may have been a cross-dressing dude. Apparently, Y2K did happen and we are presently living in a pseudo-fully-computerized matrix in which The Matrix Trilogy was like a decoy to throw us off the trail, and apparently Keanu Reaves is really an android as we suspected from his acting… And apparently there is some debate about who wrote MacBeth, Hamlet, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing — not to mention assorted sonnets like Sonnet 29 (which I will quote below)…
You may be shocked to find out, of course, that William Shakespeare may have merely taken credit for these works of art, and that the true author is an aristocrat, a person of means and property: Edward de Vere.
Huh? What’s gives?
Well, Roland Emmerich has made a film. And the film, to be released on October 28, is called “Anonymous.” And in that First Folio Motion Picture, the whole, weird diabolical charade is coughed up once again. Did the famous bard truly put his pen to paper? Did each iambic foot come from his own creative genius? It’s not possible, or not probable, say the skeptics, inasmuch as Shakespeare had been the son of a glover and a money-lender (one of those bi-vocational guys). His mother, although not mentioned, was perhaps a hamster and smelled of elderberries. And the thrust of the argument is that only a well-to-do man-about-town could have crafted such intricate, in-depth narrative arcs. Only a wealthy Earl or Duke could have pulled off the magic… And do you smell what I smell?
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone be weep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoyed contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee; and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
I will be among the first in line when it comes to doubting the semblance of things and when it comes to piercing the clearest veneer that shines and and all but ruining the cherished fables and cultural myths we hold dear.
Let me take a moment and say I don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I think maybe Oliver Stone had some interesting and worthwhile questions to raise about the whole investigation and the Warren Commission. Arlen Specter is probably the biggest ass ever to hold office in Pennsylvania or any state (and where was he when Anita Hill made her case against Justice Clarence Thomas?).
Let me also take a little time to affirm the X-Files and the notions of conspiracy and cover-up that surround Roswell and the U.F.O. that crashed. Plus, I did enjoy that episode about the monster dwelling in the drainage system of that suburban gated community — the one in which Fox Mulder pretends to live there with his wife, Scully, and then Mulder plants a pink flamingo on the lawn and dares the monster to come to papa. “Bring it on,” I think the F.B.I. agent blurts as he keeps the weedless front lawn under surveillance.
(Pardon these digressions… And yet?).
Are these digressions? You should be comforted, O blog-reader, that I practice a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding every text (sacred or not) under the sun.
Methinks, there is something rotten in Denmark…
Or among the gentry of English society, where, apparently Edward de Vere died a full ten years prior to the plays of William Shakespeare were written.
Could the fact that stuff like this gets any traction be related to the class struggles we are having now? Could it be that oligarchic regimes do actually believe in their superiority in all things (not simply liquid assets)?
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving,
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter –
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
W.H. Auden has some things to say. Still. Even now. The poet has turns of phrase and syntax that haunts both all the religious and secular sensibilities that we bifurcate and keep carefully separated to this day.
And yet, Auden is nothing like Joel Osteen, which is odd. Don’t you think?
Osteen preaches, without drawing a salary from his 30,000 seat stadium-congregation, and starts each message with a joke. Auden has at least that many readers.
Osteen does in-depth analysis of difficult biblical passages. The literary giant (again, not Osteen) returned to the Anglican Communion after experiencing the trauma of war in the early part of the twentieth century; he in turn wrote a little something called “The Quest,” which scholars have criticized as naive… Alright, so they don’t have EVERYTHING in common.
But you get my gist, eh?
In Osteen’s most recent book, Every Day A Friday, he draws out the nuances of Psalm 2:4. That’s where we read “God sits in the heavens and laughs.” Pastor Joel then has the intelligence to ask, “Can you envision that?Right now God is on the throne. He’s not mad. He’s not worried about the economy. He’s not upset with you and me. God is on the throne, full of joy.”
- Interesting — considering the fact that the context in which God is laughing includes “the nations.”
- Interesting — considering that verse three, just prior to verse four, says, “Let us burst their bonds asunder and car their cords from us.”
- Interesting — considering that verse five, just after verse four, says, “Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury…”
In other words, God is laughing as the nations conspire and plot in disingenuous ways (see verse one) and that means, huh?, that God is NOT “not upset,” as Joel Osteen suggests in his book.
Wow! I guess I’m getting a little disoriented.
Who’s naive now, you scholars who once picked on W.H. Auden?!!
The fact of the matter is — we don’t know what we’re missing.
Joel Osteen’s verbiage is about as close to poetry as the mold in a mayonnaise jar, the one buried at the bottom of a back-alley dumpster, is to pati de fogroi.
Moreover, compared to Auden’s series of twenty sonnets, Osteen’s principles for How to be Happier 7 Days A Week resemble the gum that might accumulate at the bottom of your shoes if you attend the Lakewood Church‘s megachurch venue.
If Osteen’s teaching is a beacon of light and truth, Auden’s is a flaring meteor that’s about ready to pummel your world and mine seven days a week:
I. The Door
Out of it steps our future, through this door
Enigmas, executioners and rules,
Her Majesty in a bad temper or
A red-nosed Fool who makes a fool of fools.
Great persons eye it in the twilight for
A past it might so carelessly let in,
A widow with a missionary grin,
The foaming inundation at a roar.
We pile our all against it when afraid,
And beat upon its panels when we die:
By happening to be open once, it made
Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.
II. The Preparations
All had been ordered weeks before the start
From the best firms at such work: instruments
To take the measure of all queer events,
And drugs to move the bowels or the heart.
A watch, of course, to watch impatience fly,
Lamps for the dark and shades against the sun;
Foreboding, too, insisted on a gun,
And coloured beads to soothe a savage eye.
In theory they were sound on Expectation,
Had there been situations to be in;
Unluckily they were their situation:
One should not give a poisoner medicine,
A conjurer fine apparatus, nor
A rifle to a melancholic bore.
III. The Crossroads
Two friends who met here and embraced are gone,
Each to his own mistake; one flashes on
To fame and ruin in a rowdy lie,
A village torpor holds the other one,
Some local wrong where it takes time to die:
This empty junction glitters in the sun.
So at all quays and crossroads: who can tell
These places of decision and farewell
To what dishonour all adventure leads,
What parting gift could give that friend protection,
So orientated his vocation needs
The Bad Lands and the sinister direction?
All landscapes and all weathers freeze with fear,
But none have ever thought, the legends say,
The time allowed made it impossible;
For even the most pessimistic set
The limit of their errors at a year.
What friends could there be left then to betray,
What joy take longer to atone for; yet
Who could complete without the extra day
The journey that should take no time at all?
IV. The Traveler
No window in his suburb lights that bedroom where
A little fever heard large afternoons at play:
His meadows multiply; that mill, though, is not there
Which went on grinding at the back of love all day.
Nor all his weeping ways through weary wastes have found
The castle where his Greater Hallows are interned;
For broken bridges halt him, and dark thickets round
Some ruin where an evil heritage was burned.
Could he forget a child’s ambition to be old
And institutions where it learned to wash and lie,
He’d tell the truth for which he thinks himself too young,
That everywhere on his horizon, all the sky,
Is now, as always, only waiting to be told
To be his father’s house and speak his mother tongue.
V. The City
In villages from which their childhoods came
Seeking Necessity, they had been taught
Necessity by nature is the same
No matter how or by whom it be sought.
The city, though, assumed no such belief,
But welcomed each as if he came alone,
The nature of Necessity like grief
Exactly corresponding to his own.
And offered them so many, every one
Found some temptation fit to govern him,
And settled down to master the whole craft
Of being nobody; sat in the sun
During the lunch-hour round the fountain rim,
And watched the country kids arrive, and laughed.
VI. The First Temptation
Ashamed to be the darling of his grief,
He joined a gang of rowdy stories where
His gift for magic quickly made him chief
Of all these boyish powers of the air;
Who turned his hungers into Roman food,
The town’s asymmetry into a park;
All hours took taxis; any solitude
Became his flattered duchess in the dark.
But, if he wished for anything less grand,
The nights came padding after him like wild
Beasts that meant harm, and all the doors cried Thief;
And when Truth had met him and put out her hand,
He clung in panic to his tall belief
And shrank away like an ill-treated child.
VII. The Second Temptation
His library annoyed him with its look
Of calm belief in being really there;
He threw away a rival’s boring book,
And clattered panting up the spiral stair.
Swaying upon the parapet he cried:
“O Uncreated Nothing, set me free,
Now let Thy perfect be identified,
Unending passion of the Night, with Thee.”
And his long-suffering flesh, that all the time
Had felt the simple cravings of the stone
And hoped to be rewarded for her climb,
Took it to be a promise when he spoke
That now at last she would be left alone,
And plunged into the college quad, and broke.
VIII. The Third Temptation
He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say,
Re-opened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey,
And came reluctantly to his conclusion:
“All the arm-chair philosophies are false;
To love another adds to the confusion;
The song of mercy is the Devil’s Waltz.”
All that he put his hand to prospered so
That soon he was the very King of creatures,
Yet, in an autumn nightmare trembled, for,
Approaching down a ruined corridor,
Strode someone with his own distorted features
Who wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe.
IX. The Tower
This is an architecture for the old;
Thus heaven was attacked by the afraid,
So once, unconsciously, a virgin made
Her maidenhead conspicuous to a god.
Here on dark nights while worlds of triumph sleep
Lost Love in abstract speculation burns,
And exiled Will to politics returns
In epic verse that makes its traitors weep.
Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:
Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.
X. The Presumptuous
They noticed that virginity was needed
To trap the unicorn in every case,
But not that, of those virgins who succeeded,
A high percentage had an ugly face.
The hero was as daring as they thought him,
But his pecular boyhood missed them all;
The angel of a broken leg had taught him
The right precautions to avoid a fall.
So in presumption they set forth alone
On what, for them, was not compulsory,
And stuck half-way to settle in some cave
With desert lions to domesticity,
Or turned aside to be absurdly brave,
And met the ogre and were turned to stone.
XI. The Average
His peasant parents killed themselves with toil
To let their darling leave a stingy soil
For any of those fine professions which
Encourage shallow breathing, and grow rich.
The pressure of their fond ambition made
Their shy and country-loving child afraid
No sensible career was good enough,
Only a hero could deserve such love.
So here he was without maps or supplies,
A hundred miles from any decent town;
The desert glared into his blood-shot eyes,
The silence roared displeasure:
He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran.
Incredulous, he stared at the amused
Official writing down his name among
Those whose request to suffer was refused.
The pen ceased scratching: though he came too late
To join the martyrs, there was still a place
Among the tempters for a caustic tongue
To test the resolution of the young
With tales of the small failings of the great,
And shame the eager with ironic praise.
Though mirrors might be hateful for a while,
Women and books would teach his middle age
The fencing wit of an informal style,
To keep the silences at bay and cage
His pacing manias in a worldly smile.
XIII. The Useful
The over-logical fell for the witch
Whose argument converted him to stone,
Thieves rapidly absorbed the over-rich,
The over-popular went mad alone,
And kisses brutalised the over-male.
As agents their importance quickly ceased;
Yet, in proportion as they seemed to fail,
Their instrumental value was increased
For one predestined to attain their wish.
By standing stones the blind can feel their way,
Wild dogs compel the cowardly to fight,
Beggars assist the slow to travel light,
And even madmen manage to convey
Unwelcome truths in lonely gibberish.
XIV. The Way
Fresh addenda are published every day
To the encyclopedia of the Way,
Linguistic notes and scientific explanations,
And texts for schools with modernised spelling and illustrations.
Now everyone knows the hero must choose the old horse,
Abstain from liquor and sexual intercourse,
And look out for a stranded fish to be kind to:
Now everyone thinks he could find, had he a mind to,
The way through the waste to the chapel in the rock
For a vision of the Triple Rainbow or the Astral Clock,
Forgetting his information comes mostly from married men
Who liked fishing and a flutter on the horses now and then.
And how reliable can any truth be that is got
By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?
XV. The Lucky
Suppose he’d listened to the erudite committee,
He would have only found where not to look;
Suppose his terrier when he whistled had obeyed,
It would not have unearthed the buried city;
Suppose he had dismissed the careless maid,
The cryptogram would not have fluttered from the book.
“It was not I,” he cried as, healthy and astounded,
He stepped across a predecessor’s skull;
“A nonsense jingle simply came into my head
And left the intellectual Sphinx dumbfounded;
I won the Queen because my hair was red;
The terrible adventure is a little dull.”
Hence Failure’s torment: “Was I doomed in any case,
Or would I not have failed had I believed in Grace?”
XVI. The Hero
He parried every question that they hurled:
“What did the Emperor tell you?” “Not to push.”
“What is the greatest wonder of the world?”
“The bare man Nothing in the Beggar’s Bush.”
Some muttered: “He is cagey for effect.
A hero owes a duty to his fame.
He looks too like a grocer for respect.”
Soon they slipped back into his Christian name.
The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine:
For he was always glad to mow the grass,
Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of coloured glass.
Others had found it prudent to withdraw
Before official pressure was applied,
Embittered robbers outlawed by the Law,
Lepers in terror of the terrified.
But no one else accused these of a crime;
They did not look ill: old friends, overcome,
Stared as they rolled away from talk and time
Like marbles out into the blank and dumb.
The crowd clung all the closer to convention,
Sunshine and horses, for the sane know why
The even numbers should ignore the odd:
The Nameless is what no free people mention;
Successful men know better than to try
To see the face of their Absconded God.
XVIII. The Adventurers
Spinning upon their central thirst like tops,
They went the Negative Way towards the Dry;
By empty caves beneath an empty sky
They emptied out their memories like slops,
Which made a foul marsh as they dried to death,
Where monsters bred who forced them to forget
The lovelies their consent avoided; yet,
Still praising the Absurd with their last breath,
They seeded out into their miracles:
The images of each grotesque temptation
Became some painter’s happiest inspiration,
And barren wives and burning virgins came
To drink the pure cold water of their wells,
And wish for beaux and children in their name.
XIX. The Waters
Poet, oracle, and wit
Like unsuccessful anglers by
The ponds of apperception sit,
Baiting with the wrong request
The vectors of their interest,
At nightfall tell the angler’s lie.
With time in tempest everywhere,
To rafts of frail assumption cling
The saintly and the insincere;
Enraged phenomena bear down
In overwhelming waves to drown
Both sufferer and suffering.
The waters long to hear our question put
Which would release their longed-for answer, but.
XX. The Garden
Within these gates all opening begins:
White shouts and flickers through its green and red,
Where children play at seven earnest sins
And dogs believe their tall conditions dead.
Here adolescence into number breaks
The perfect circle time can draw on stone,
And flesh forgives division as it makes
Another’s moment of consent its own.
All journeys die here: wish and weight are lifted:
Where often round some old maid’s desolation
Roses have flung their glory like a cloak,
The gaunt and great, the famed for conversation
Blushed in the stare of evening as they spoke
And felt their centre of volition shifted.
Why should we care? We? We… in the west?
Is it because Laurel Rasplica Rodd and Mary Catherine Henkenius have put into this translation project many hours, days, months and years? No.
Should we take note primarily because we’re interested in quoting a few verses over cocktails? No.
Does reciting a translated poem from the east actually increase blood flow to the brain, in those places where we need speedier connections? Is it sort of like listening to classical music? No (and no).
No, I believe we do care and care more than we like to admit… So, let’s give it up. We applaud and stand in awe of our sports heroes and our legislative back-room-deals. Why not care about these artistic creations simply because autumn is brief and soon you’ll be moaning about the snow, sleet and rain.
the rain-glossed leaves of
Mount Kastori are so
brilliant that their hues
reflect even from the sleeves
of all the passerby
for whose pleasure is
this freshly woven pattern
of brocade hidden–
autumn mists slowly rise to
cover Mount Saho’s bright slopes
these fallen autumn
leaves I’ve come to hold so dear–
oh chill winds that blow
down from the mountains do not
sweep them from my yearning gaze
when the wind blows
falling leaves embroider the
limpid waters where
even the leaves still clinging
are reflected in the depths
they will not ripen–
these second-growth stalks in
harvested fields for
it is the close of autumn
when all the world is weary
is autumn leaving
with the belling voices of
the deer now growing
fainter on Mount Ogura
as the twilight approaches
That is, the oral presentation or performance of a written work, which probably began its life in the imagination of the author as a sound or a string of random words heard aloud — probably a worthwhile enterprise… There are good things in store when it comes to venues that feature these extroverted modes of expression. And when David Orr’s shout-out in Gotham is then coupled with this blog-sphere post, entitled, “Is Poetry Poorly Appreciated As Previously Thought?”, we might surmise that we’ve made the long-awaited, proverbial turn.
We might learn the names of rock-star-poets and believe in a paradigm shift of epic proportions.
Not so fast. Del Marbrook, in the post above, calls into question any popularity that pushes for more accessible works of art. He argues, I think, convincingly that poets may have good reason to worry about “dogma” creeping into these literary launch points; and by dogma he cites certain Facebook diatribes on how some poetry is “crap” because it keeps the reader/listener in the dark and savors ambiguity.
Of course, the other way we may approach this stalemate is to broach the subject of why the poet wants to write in verse to begin with. I mean, a good novel might spell a reprieve from living in the trailer park. Ask J.K. Rowling. Even a decent novel might get you a gig at the Community College, and from there, who knows if somebody with Hollywood contacts is listening and wants to talk screen play. The next thing you know, you’re parleying that prose into all kinds of deposable income, which helps to fuel an economic uptick… So, why does the writer even waste his time with the contemplation of enjambment, line breaks and the whole iambic pentameter fixation?
My answer is that we do it for a variety of reasons, but that the most elegant among them is that we don’t want to impose a narrative arc where there is no narrative arc. And we’d like to position ourselves at the cusp of first-hand experience and the self’s attempt to blurt out the as-yet unfinished meaning of each isolated and successive episode that life has to offer. If that sounds like a mouthful, I meant it to be.
And I wholeheartedly affirm both/and. Both David Orr and Del Marbrook… I can do this primary because accessibility is not inherently bad, or of the devil, any more than ambiguity or, heaven forbid, massive confusion are.
You–the reader of these very words–may assume this is all a matter of personality. Different strokes and all… I prefer not to disagree with you, except to say, Do you actually know what you think and feel and why? Are you tracing back to its lair the monster beneath your bed?
The problem is that we treat events and people as problem, which require solutions. Fixing things has never been the poet’s modus operandi. Paying attention has been and will always be. Again, I have no problem with giant crowds, kicking back a few drinks and enjoying Billy Collins in Manhattan — but then I’d like that same audience to have the discipline or the wherewithal to go themselves into the dark closets. Go there and prepare for that solitary wrestling match with angels or demons.
Willed In Autumn
The room is red, like ourselves
On the inside. We enter
And my heart ticks out its tune
Of soon, soon. I kneel
On the bed and wait. The silence
Behind me is you, shallow breaths
That rustle nothing. This will last.
I grip the sheets, telling time
To get lost. I close my eyes
So the red is darkener now, deep,
A willed distance that backs away
The faster we approach.
I dream a little plot of land and six
Kid goats. Every night it rains.
Every morning sun breaks through
And the earth is firm again under our feet.
I am writing this so it will stay true.
Go for a while into your life,
But meet me come dusk
At a bar where music sweeps out
From a jukebox choked with ragged bills.
We’ll wander back barefoot at night,
Carrying our shoes to save them
From the rain. We’ll laugh
To remember all the things
That slaughtered us a lifetime ago,
And at the silly goats, greedy for anything
Soft enough to crack between their teeth.
What’s to become of all the convenience stores? You know, all the little consumer-venues at busy intersections, selling six-packs of Bud for $4.99, compact cases of chewing tobacco, plus all the beef-jerky you might ever need for the road… All the Qwik-Marts, all the Gas-n-Go‘s… all the WaWa‘s with the barricaded booths for employees who speak through vents in the Plexiglas… What’s going to happen when the zombies take over?
I don’t want to alarm anyone with 30 days to go before Halloween, but let me invite you to ponder what may be even more frightening than the possibility of a pandemic or the detonation of a dirty, nuclear bomb or any other catastrophe of which a Hollywood blockbuster may conceive. And that is, of course, the aftermath of such an occurrence.
Visually speaking, you see, the landscape will be laden with boxy, nondescript buildings with lots of computerized cash registers that no longer work — not to mention rack upon rack of foul-smelling cartons of expired milk. It’s going to be ugly. Much of the remaining population will grieve the loss of life and the degradation to the environment in which surviving generations must make a new “go” of it. But, if you ask me, one thing we might do for them while we have the imagination is to jettison the whole category of “quick and easy” architecture. Once this category is dumped we might then replace it with a renewal of concern for aesthetics, community and spirituality. The essential criteria here would involve beauty. We’d want whatever remains (after the plague or after the radioactive flash) to be almost bucolic and somewhat quaint.
How beautiful and vast and bright and empty
inside the quick-stop’s inextinguishable glow.
Night has just begun to have its say.
The being in the checkered frock is free
to read the tabloids with a face like a broken window
and dream of being known and extraordinary
and towel the handprints off a jar of murdered jerky
and feel like a moviegoer in the very last row.
Night has just begun to have its say,
the pickled eggs seem older than all creation this Monday
or Tuesday or Wednesday, and years from now
how beautiful and vast and bright and empty
it may feel to be alive and mildly happy,
to walk between the aisles of a brand-new Stop-N-Go.
And when the century has its final say
may the tiny motels of our voices pray
that all the neon sings and wonders so
beautiful and vast and bright and empty
won’t even have begun to have their say.
Yes, this is admittedly disturbing. But the earth’s ecosystems have always been very resilient. And I have every confidence that what might be one age’s graffiti might be another’s sacred artifact or retro-kitsch. The point is, when we uncover the seedier locales of the first century they always appear more wholesome with the years of erosion, corrosion and sediment piled against it.
I’m thinking now about the Life After People series and how its viewers evidently find the human population of zero extremely fascinating. I don’t. What’s more fascinating to me is that human consciousness will survive with a vague sort of memory. It would be sad for future enclaves of people, however, to remember our ethic of convenience and try to emulate it again. And again. And again.
I would, therefore, argue that architects owe us something when it comes to those generic places where we spend most of our lives. What they owe is ironic, isn’t it? They must create and leave behind a milieu that speaks of specific mountains and specific rivers and specific kinds of grass and maybe a little dew on each blade of grass to boot.
Mark Wallace, in his poem, “Prediction,” makes some wondrous turns:
In the future, we’ll plan the future better.
In the future, you can just become your TV.
In the future, your sexual partners will meet all the qualities on your checklist.
And this anxiety you’re feeling now? In the future you won’t feel it.
In the future, technology will always work, and there won’t even be weekend downtime for systems repair.
In the future, Friday night parties will never be boring.
In the future there will be less deadlines and they’ll be easier to meet.
In the future, all pollution will contain its own self-cleaning element.
In the future, if your house burns down, you’ll have another house by the time you get home.
In the future, your insurance policy will actually pay.
In the future, your friends won’t talk so constantly about everything they think they should already have.
In the future, no good deed will go unrewarded.
In the future people will like you just for who you are.
In the future, everyone will have their own sky marshal.
In the future, fires and floods made worse by ecologically damaging overpopulation will lead to photo-ops for everyone.
In the future, that eleventh-rate doctor you married who’s seeing a nurse in Oceanside behind your back will stay home more often and cut the grass.
In the future, people will fart less.
In the future, corporations will pay you for gas. …
Richard Wilbur has my back as I tell you that the season of garden parties is officially over. Done. Finis. Some may linger and hope for more tuxedo talk on the veranda. But for all intents and purposes, the poet (recently called “our greatest living formal poet”) has left the proverbial building… Should we follow him?
As we left the garden-party
By the far gate,
There were many loitering on
Who had come late
And few arriving still,
Though the lawn lay
Like a fast-draining shoal
Of ochre day.
Curt shadows in the grass
Hatched every blade,
And now on pedestals
of mounting shade
Stood all our friends — iconic,
Now, in mien,
Half-lost in dignities
Till now unseen.
There were hostess’ hands
Held out to greet
The scholar’s limp, his wife’s
Quick pecking feet,
And there was wit’s cocked head,
And there the sleek
And gaze-enameled look
Of beauty’s cheek.
We saw now, loitering there
Knee-deep in night,
How even the wheeling children
Moved in a rite
Or masque, or long charade
Where we, like these,
Had blundered into grand
Filling our selves as sculpture
Fills the stone.
We had not played so surely,
Had we known.
Now, it’s unclear to me how the New York Times article on the “Grand Old Man” jives with what Wilbur is saying in the poem above. In that piece, published in January of this year, David Orr claims that the publication of Anterooms reveals the New Formalist guru to be unmoved by decades of fragmented free-verse. Whereas others indulge in self-lyric-rants, juxtaposing more images than MTV in its Soundgarden heyday — Wilbur continues to blend and to streamline. Moreover, says Orr, “It’s a matter of remaining poised in the face of a vast and freezing indifference.” And yet, what’s there to remain so poised about?
“We had not played so surely,/Had we known.” That line in and of itself sounds like an aging writer who wishes he had cut loose on occasion. In fact, all of his acquaintances may do well to jettison their yuppie sensibilities. It would behoove them to review “A Dubious Night,” published on the heels of World War Two and the bloating of suburbia:
A bell diphthonging in an atmosphere
Of shying night air summons some to prayer
Down in the town, two deep lone miles from here,
Yet wallows faint or sudden everywhere,
In every ear, as if the twist wind wrung
Some ten years’ tangled echoes from the air.
What kyries it says are mauled among
The queer elisions of the mist and murk,
Of lights and shapes; the senses were unstrung,
Except that one star’s synecdochic smirk
Burns steadily to me, that’s nothing odd
And firm as ever is the masterwork.
I weary of the confidence of God.
Alrighty then… Richard Wilbur has something about which to gush. Weariness, among other things, slips through the (above) tercets and gives us a glimpse of the inner self. “The confidence of God” hangs out there like a stray nose hair. Do we dare snip it with a pair of tweezers? Are you kidding? Not on your life! And not on my life!
Wilber, I believe, has left the garden-party. He arrived early, enjoyed some appetizers and left before Dana Gioia could spill his aperitif on the tablecloth. He’s always been leaving, (Wilber, that is) and therein’s the difference.
Back in the 1980’s Gioia’s “Notes on the New Formalism“ developed the thesis that “Formal verse, like free verse, is neither intrinsically bad nor good.” Amen… And yet, when he describes the Hebrew Psalms as being created by “the people of the Book,” who concerned themselves “with limiting the improvisatory freedom of the bard for the fixed message of the text” — Gioia over-reaches. Unlike the readings brought to bear by doctrinaire theologians, the Rabbis interpreted the Psalms, the Prophets and the Torah with abandon. That is, on-the-fly. By the-seat-of-their-pants. And that makes a difference when we consider the present experiences of “exodus” and “exile” that poets endure.
Yes, Gioia’s right when he decries the dull tone of various “so-much-depends-upon-“ imitations. But when it comes to structure and the panicked embrace of form — we do well to see it like scaffolding. What’s built has no blueprint except that one which we temporarily secure amid hurricane force winds. William Faulkner hit the nail on the head when he compared writing a modern or postmodern novel to the crafting of a chicken coop. Sometimes any old board will do.