On The One Hand… And On The Other… And In Between

formalism versus free verse

There’s No Question that I Love Rocks!

Displaycase2A few years ago I retrieved a rock collection that I had accumulated in my youth.   It included geodes, multi-faceted quartz, fool’s gold, jade, amber, pumicecopper ore and more…   One specimen of rock, however, had no tag that might denote its properties.   I then looked at the gray-hardened mass for a while, and tried to remember if I had found it in some basin, or bought it at auction…

Then it came to me!

I recalled at age 12, chewing a stick of Wrigley’s Gum.   It was late and I was tired of putting my geological formations under the magnifying glass.   And so, I simply spit out and pasted what would eventually, after 30 years, become an addition to my assorted non-animate items.  Mystery solved.   My saliva-formation is now part and parcel of eons of pressured sediment-striations.  Awesome.

In spite of this confusion, however, if there’s one thing that I can declare without equivocation, it’s that I love rocks.   Rocks are like the canvas upon which we live our quivering, gelatinous and mucus-membraned lives.  Rocks are solid.   Rocks are the kid-gumcool(ed) core of magma that once had been on the move…  And with the exception of their use in landscaping and dam-construction by the Army Corp of Engineers, rocks defy commodification.  They just are.

I enjoy pondering stony objects (and their mythic associations) when the impermanence of my life and the lives of others seems overwhelming.  Grave-monuments and memorial plaques are popular for this very reason.  Wood will rot.  Ink will fade.  Paint will mellow with age.  But a tombstone, etched with a name and a range of time, may mark the ephemeral existence of a person for centuries and perhaps millennia.   On the other hand, isn’t it beautiful that most stones carry on as if we were never here… and as if we never really mattered as much as we thought?

Here’s a David Wagoner poem, What the Stones Say, that may never be etched or carved for posterity:

It isn’t written in stone,
We say, meaning we’ll change
Our minds, maybe, if others
Would just change theirs a little
On that slippery, unyielding ground
On the other side of the table.

Our fathers, long before us,
Before they thought up how
To make words permanent,
Before the alphabet,
Chiseled our pictographs
And dabbled in graffiti.

And archeologists tell us,
In chronological order,
These shapes were in their minds,
These shapes went down on stone:
First, solar discs, the sun
Hard at the heart of being.

Then labyrinths, the strange
Pathways to the gods.
Next, forms of rigid order,
Geometrical designs.
Then people facing one way
On their knees, praying together.

Weapons of war and the hunt–
Knives, crude spears, and arrows–
Came next, then houses and plots,
Ceremonies of cults
Sketches of massacres,
And men mating with beasts.

And here’s some shit that I wrote, which will probably never be published in a respectable literary journal:

Oregon Coprolite Conversation

My archaeologist-friend drove us
to Paisley’s most arid cave.

He boasted spear tips from Clovis
and sampled diets depraved

of grains.  It was all ancient shit,
the scientific case for whatever

analysis has a grin on it,
And don’t you feel clever?

Imagine a find of other stones
14,000 and forty years hence.

Could they tell you how prone
I am in writing crap so dense?

What’s me would be destroyed,
and you might ponder that void,

and befriend your own species!
Renounce, I say, the brutish facts

with special focus on feces!
Aren’t there better tracts,

and with reasons for angst?
My friend’s not pushed

or dissuaded, but broods against
a stool (once smushed):

the decay no other minds
or wants to know...

He’ll be taunted by their hinds,
until the day we have to go...

when so much more is desired
and in much more we’re mired.


Liable to Reveal “Sensitive and Personal” Information

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.

soldier poetAnd 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.

soldier poet2

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
while i exist
but i know for sure
when i am
i am not
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

Ghazal 1419


William Carlos Williams and The Baroness and What Happens When Someone Looks Back

“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 InquirerChanson, 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
are condemned,
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:






Unceasing —




Unceasing —





Unceasing —



Flee —





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…”