National Poetry Month, weekend edition, five reflections on poems

Poems well composed haunt readers. Like the ache of an old injury during inclement weather. Good poems never quite disappear. They remain. Like a stubborn clump of April snow and ice on the corner of the street that refuses to melt. Here are five reflections on poems that continue to sparkle and shine throughout the year. At least in my mind.

1.

The May 2011 edition of Poetry magazine featured a Dana Gioia poem with a haunting opening line:

“So this is where the children come to die, . . .”

How can you not keep reading this poem? It is so good. So rich. Later in the poem the speaker says, “but there are poems we do not choose to write.” From the first line of the poem to the last line, “Special Treatments Ward” is an exceptional work.

2.

Poetry continues the Great Conversation. What is truth? How do we know it? Who are we and how should we live? Often reserved for philosophers, these questions are the result of friction from winds of poetry. What came first? Philosophy? Or Poetry? Since Theogony pre-dates many philosophical writings, I submit that poetry came first. Poetry is the wind that troubles the water.

3.

On a gray, stormy afternoon, I retreated to the public library in Racine. A book of translations of Han Shan needed to be renewed for the fourth or fifth time. And the children needed to get out of the apartment. Besides, the more you check out books of poetry the more funding the library gets based on your activity and/or interest in certain subjects. Or so I am led to believe by local librarians.

I was introduced to the Cold Mountain poems during one of the library’s writers groups. Since then I have read and studied several books of translations from Wang Wei, Ryokan, Basho and others.

During the last few years, I find my writings turning toward dialogues with these poets. Here is a poem from Han Shan, a Taoist/Buddhist hermit, as translated by Red Pine:

Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

A quick read reveals a surface feast of images and imagination — the woods, the cliffs, soft grass and Heaven and Earth. After reading and thinking about this poem for several months there are questions that come to mind. Is the An Lu-shan Rebellion referred to in the third line? Is there a reference to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara? Heaven means the emperor. Earth means the empire. Is the last line political? Or philosophical? What do I say to Han Shan? Why did you flee? What and/or who did you leave behind?

Elsewhere in the world, at that same time Han Shan wrote this poem, Beowulf was composed. Charles Martel expanded the Frankish Empire. Three hundred years later The Song of Roland would commemorate one of the battles.

On a stormy afternoon, twelve- to eighteen-foot waves batter the rocky Lake Michigan shoreline. The world through literature expands and contracts with each line of poetry read.

4.

I like how Dick Allen stated this suggestion:

“Think of books of poetry the way you think of music CDs. A CD may have 12–15 songs on it. A small book of poetry may have 30–50 poems in it. Just as good songs will be played over, so good poems will be read over and over.”

Like a single track on an album, I return to a poem by Anna Akhmatova. A Russian poem about an English play — Hamlet. The line that gets me every time I read it is:

“It was the sort of thing that princes always say.”

To me it is a catchy phrase that I want to play over and over again on the stereo. At full volume. Until it drives the neighbors in the apartment across the hall crazy.

5.

In Sam Hamill’s notes regarding his translation of a Tu Fu poem he wrote about the mingled joy and deep resignation expressed in the work.

“What is implied in the original, . . . is the notion that somehow, . . . he will not waste away sitting before the wine jug. . . . [Tu Fu] asks the question every poet asks under such circumstances: Why do we do it?”

Indeed. Why do we do it? Why read poems? In an old literary journal? Why read a poem more than 1000 years old? Or older? Why write poetry? Some may desire to write poetry in order to express themselves. I thought that was me. But not so much anymore. I write poetry in response to Wang Wei. Or Anna Akhmatova. Or Ghalib. Or Dana Gioia. My modern-day peasant efforts are to continue the Great Conversation. One line at a time.

NOTES:
Edited, condensed and updated from three previous blog posts: National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part one, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part two, National Poetry Month, weekend edition, part three

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Advent by Patrick Kavanagh

Advent
by Patrick Kavanagh

We have tested and tasted too much, lover –
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning –
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won’t we be rich, my love and I, and please
God we shall not ask for reason’s payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God’s breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour –
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Advent by Mary Jo Salter

Advent
by Mary Jo Salter

Wind whistling, as it does
in winter, and I think
nothing of it until

it snaps a shutter off
her bedroom window, spins
it over the roof and down

to crash on the deck in back,
like something out of Oz.
We look up, stunned—then glad

to be safe and have a story,
characters in a fable
we only half-believe.

Look, in my surprise
I somehow split a wall,
the last one in the house

we’re making of gingerbread.
We’ll have to improvise:
prop the two halves forward

like an open double door
and with a tube of icing
cement them to the floor.

Five days until Christmas,
and the house cannot be closed.
When she peers into the cold

interior we’ve exposed,
she half-expects to find
three magi in the manger,

a mother and her child.
She half-expects to read
on tablets of gingerbread

a line or two of Scripture,
as she has every morning
inside a dated shutter

on her Advent calendar.
She takes it from the mantel
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap

under which a thumbnail picture
by Raphael or Giorgione,
Hans Memling or David

of apses, niches, archways,
cradles a smaller scene
of a mother and her child,

of the lidded jewel-box
of Mary’s downcast eyes.
Flee into Egypt, cries

the angel of the Lord
to Joseph in a dream,
for Herod will seek the young

child to destroy him. While
she works to tile the roof
with shingled peppermints,

I wash my sugared hands
and step out to the deck
to lug the shutter in,

a page torn from a book
still blank for the two of us,
a mother and her child.

Remembering that it happened once by Wendell Berry

“Remembering that it happened once”
by Wendell Berry

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

Hill Christmas by R. S. Thomas

“Hill Christmas”
by R. S. Thomas

They came over the snow to the bread’s
purer snow, fumbled it in their huge
hands, put their lips to it
like beasts, stared into the dark chalice
where the wine shone, felt it sharp
on their tongue, shivered as at a sin
remembered, and heard love cry
momentarily in their hearts’ manger.

They rose and went back to their poor
holdings, naked in the bleak light
of December. Their horizon contracted
to the one small, stone-riddled field
with its tree, where the weather was nailing
the appalled body that had asked to be born.

A Scandal in the Suburbs by X.J. Kennedy

A Scandal in the Suburbs
by X.J. Kennedy

We had to have him put away,
For what if he’d grown vicious?
To play faith healer, give away
Stale bread and stinking fishes!
His soapbox preaching set the tongues
Of all the neighbors going.
Odd stuff: how lilies never spin
And birds don’t bother sowing.
Why, bums were coming to the door—
His pockets had no bottom—
And then-the foot-wash from that whore!
We signed. They came and got him.

Let Evening Come by Jane Kenyon

“Let Evening Come”
By Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Ah, it is the season of Advent

It is the season of Advent. Many years ago, my sister-in-law presented my household with a beautiful, hand-sewn Advent calendar. She said that her daughter did most of the work.

Hanging the Advent calendar is an anticipated part of the season. The family gathers around the dining room table to read selected passages and sing a song. Kidlingers take turns each evening selecting an ornament behind a number and hanging it on the calendar’s tree.

Around the time the hand-sewn Advent calendar was received, I began a search for related, relevant Advent poetry to celebrate the season. This took awhile. But eventually I collected 12 poems and shared them on this blog.[1] It has become the most visited and shared post I have written. A series of Advent podcasts were produced as well,[2] [3] [4] [5] but the list of 12 Advent poems is a perennial favorite.

Slowly I gathered a few more poems for this annual tradition. This year I will share throughout the Advent season poems by Wendell Berry, Patrick Kavanagh, X.J. Kennedy, Jane Kenyon, Mary Jo Salter, and R. S. Thomas.

NOTES:
[1] Advent Poems (or the 12 days of Christmas poetry)
[2] Poems and readings for the First Sunday of Advent
[3] Poems and readings for the Second Sunday of Advent
[4] Poems and readings for the Third Sunday of Advent
[5] Poems and readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Language is communal

If “language is communal” with the primary obligation of telling the truth, than poetry — the highest form of literature — is essential for addressing the fragmentation of communities and people.

Thirteen years ago, my wife and I hosted friends at our cottage on the outskirts of Asheville. A simple meal of salad, chicken and pasta, and red wine provided the vehicle for conversation and stories.

The husband told a story about being pulled over by local police near Old Fort. The officer asked for the husband’s driver’s license and registration. The requested items were provided through a narrow slit of a rolled down window.

“I still have to roll the window down,” he smiled. This attested to his mountain frugality and blue collar virtue.

The officer returned the license and registration and asked if he knew why he had been pulled over and if he had firearms.

“No. And yes,” he replied. The officer asked where the firearms were located. He told the officer that the guns and ammo were stored separately in the trunk. He was then asked to get out of the vehicle and show the officer the guns. Which he did.

The trunk was opened to reveal a chainsaw, climbing equipment, tools and containers for guns and ammo. The officer admired the make and model of one pistol. Asked what he did for a living. And requested to handle the pistol. The husband complied. The officer inspected the pistol. To the husband’s surprise, the officer commented that he would tell his wife about this. She might buy it for him as a birthday gift.

“Well,” said the officer. “Have a safe drive home. And repair that busted tail light within the month.”

I admired the husband’s story. His stories were like climbing a mountain road that rose and fell and wove between cove and valley and eventually arrived were it intended.

That night, as the dishes were cleared from the dining table and a second glass of wine poured, his wife shared that she and her mother planned to attend my reading at Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café on Thursday night. She confessed that she was looking forward to the scheduled night of poetry and music. But she wanted to know why I chose to read and write poetry.

“Why not stories?” she asked.

That question haunted me.

Poetry’s form and function is different from prose. It is more ancient. Where a novel’s exposition provides a landscape of hundreds of pages to expand the narrative plot of character, conflict, and theme, a poem compresses an idea, thought or theme into a few lyrical lines. This is an overly reductive and non-academic comparison of the two forms. But consider the etymology of the word “poetry.”

The English word for poetry comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “to make” or “to craft.” The German word for poetry comes from a Latin word meaning “to dictate.” The Romans often borrowed Greek ideas and themes and aped or improved them. Between the two etymologies I gather the impression that poets are conduits for The Muses — the source of inspiration and creativity. Poets dictate the message of The Muses. Poets craft the message of truth. The ancient Greeks invoked The Muses at the beginning of poems, hymns and epics.

At the time of the diner with friends, I held a casual understanding that poetry in the German language encompasses a compression or density of thought and theme. And that poetry in English embraces beauty and harmony–or graceful elegance. Then, as much as I could afford, I studied Persian, Chinese, Japanese and Korean poetry. And I learned there is much I did not know about continent of poetry.

“Why not stories?” she asked. Stories are important. Poetry is essential. Community is vital. Words must nurture a fractured community in order to bring it together and make it stronger. That August Asheville evening, more than a decade ago, was one of the last nights our two families enjoyed supper and stories together.

People leave. Find a better job. A greener pasture. Or at least a different job with a different view. Change is the only constant. The transience of American culture enables people to move every few years. Words, idioms and phrases fall in and out of fashion. How then are we to nurture a strong community? Maybe it requires each of us to dwell deeply and stand by language. Stand by words.

Typewriter poetry and blogging — updated

Some days all you need

A poem for a friend composed on a manual typewriter

At least eight years ago, an old beat up manual typewriter provided a platform to compose poetry and other writings.1 It was an effort to return to an intentional practice of crafting poetry and prose without distraction of disruptive media.

For years and years, a notebook, journal or sketchbook was never far from reach. But one night after a long night of poetry and music at Beanstreets followed by an even longer time of coffee and conversation at Old Europe, a friend convinced me to try blogging.

Photo courtesy of @mxmulder

Sample journal page of poetry

The immediate response to blogging was infections.2 Connecting with people all over the country, sharing writing samples or books read and being part of an active digital community was exciting. And the feedback on written work was quick — sometimes within a couple days or hours. The practice of writing allowed me to hone the craft of creative writing and exposed me to other writers across the country. One of those bloggers actually showed up at a poetry gig I did. She was on a cross-country trip to visit friends and wanted to visit in real life.

Over time, I noticed that my practice of writing notes, daily sketches and other activities had all but disappeared. Relying on keyboards, display screens, hard drives and servers presented became a crutch. My writing drafts and sketches appeared deceptively crisp and final in neatly formatted text documents and web blog interface windows.

So, I pulled the plug. Returned to handwriting and typing as practice.3 Some friends and fellow poets saw a few samples of typewritten work and suggested I post it on my blog. It was a novelty. A curiosity. So, I did.

One of the first photographs of a poem I composed on a typewriter was written for a friend. It was posted about this time of year — in 2011.4 A few days later I followed up with another poem5 that was later read at poetry event where I and other poets were dubbed “the next generation” of Asheville poets.6

I do not claim to be the first person to post an image of a poem typed on a manual typewriter. But I noticed a trend in that direction about a year after posting those images of typed poem sketches.7 Not sure exactly if I started the trend. Probably not. Maybe other like-minded individuals who sought to return an organic practice of handwriting and typing as a mode of composing their visions and ideas.

After relocating to the southern boarder of the Great White North,8 I continued using the manual typewriter as a mode of composing new work — both poetry and prose. Some of this was due to the original intent of the practice — crafting content without distraction of disruptive media. Some of the use of the manual typewriter was due to a period of time that I was without a functional laptop and no internet access. A local writers group saw a lot of typed first drafts from that manual typewriter. One of those typed drafts was later published as a short story.9

Most recent first drafts have all been handwritten if not typed on one — of now two — of the manual typewriters. Blogging. Well, that has atrophied. Maybe I’ll post some photos of typewritten drafts this year as a way to keep the blog active. But, to celebrate an eight year anniversary of analog writing — I’ll keep most of it offline and on paper.10

Keep your stick on the ice and remember to use the lowercase L key when typing the numeral one.

NOTES:
[1] In truth, I composed poems on an electric typewriter prior to that. Did it for decades. Did not own a personal computer until… well, that is another story.
[2] That was when there were a mere couple million web blogs in the world. Now, there are some platforms, like Tumblr, boasting 100 million blogs. The blogosphere has become quite congested.
[3] Examples of some the 30 poems in 30 days journal posts with photos: here, here and here.
[4] April 1, 2011, blog post.
[5] Poem: “Never Look A Doughnut Dealer in the Eyes”
[6] “Rhyme and reason” by Alli Marshall, Mountain Xpress, April 6, 2011. Accessed April 2, 2018. “https://mountainx.com/arts/art-news/040611rhyme-and-reason/”
[7] Examples include Typewriter Poetry (though it seems the web site has not been active since March 19, 2015), Remington Typewriter Poetry (this site too has become inactive with the last entry posted June 2016), and the most popular is Tyler Knott (though his web page has an archive going back to 2003 (which is odd because he uses Tumblr as a platform and Tumblr was launched in early 2007… maybe he migrated his content from some other source to Tumblr… but I digress) the posted images do not begin until 2012 (unless I am mistaken).
[8] A reference to Bob and Doug McKenzie, fictional brothers who hosted the show Great White North (a reference to Canada, aye). For sample episode view Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pPRaD6TKLc
[9] Left of the Lake published “Mortal Coil” in 2015. https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2015/08/31/publication-of-mortal-coil/
[10] Original post published on April 21, 2015 https://coffeehousejunkie.net/2015/04/21/typewriter-poetry-and-blogging/