Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, April 30, 2007

Uncle Poem

I've been blessed with an abundance of fine uncles and aunts. Especially if a person grows up near uncles and aunts, or if the aunts and uncles visit a lot, the person is likely to perceive these sisters and brothers of parents as parental supplements, sometimes as advocates, certainly as interesting--and, if fortune smiles--eccentric personages.

. . .One of my uncles, Fred, is perhaps the wryest, funniest person I've met in my life. His humor is deadpan, but it also contains more than a small dose of absurdism, partly perhaps because he was a bombardier in World War II, flying numerous missions in a "Flying Fortress," experiencing too much; a very little bit of war must certainly be too much. One of my aunts, Nevada (whose nickname is "Babe"; if your name is Nevada, you wouldn't think you'd need a nickname), is certainly one of the bravest people I've known. She simply won't back down from a fight. Arguably, she started the only bar-fight I've been in; she slapped a man in the bar. Yes, he had it coming, but the chaotic brawl that ensued probably did not need to happen. Another uncle was one of the most ferocious people I've ever met; another ucnle is one of the kindest. One uncle was named Edsel, was born in the 1920s, but was truly a child of the 1940s, with a rakish, thin moustache, a chain-smoking habit, and a liberal use of place-holding names for people, such as "Bub," "Pal," and "Doll." If you've seen the actor Jack Carson in the film Mildred Pierce, you will have seen a bit of my uncle Edsel. Who names their kid Edsel--after (it seems) one of the least successful automobiles in U.S. manufacturing history? Answer: Henry Ford; and my grandparents on my mother's side. Actually, Henry Ford named the car after his son, or so I've read. . . .

. . . I think most aunts and uncles seem to children to be kind because they're not the children's parents. They can afford to have a sense of humor; to be overly generous; and to leave if something complicated comes up. Also, they know at least one of your parents well (most likely), so they add some information, if not some accountability, to the picture. They help make the paents seem less mythic because they give the parents a concrete past. . . .

. . . .Many of my students, who are in their early 20s when they graduate, are now becoming aunts and uncles for the first time. It's interesting to see how excited and proud they are of this new status, which brings much potential satisfaction with very little (in most cases) responsibility. Certainly, "aunt" and "uncle" are official kinship-posiitons, but to some degree, they are also ceremonial posts. . . . .

. . . .Lore has it that the phrase "Say uncle," meaning "Give up" when a person who has another person in a headlock utters the phrase to the headlocked person, originated in Roman civilization, when uncles held quite a bit of filial power. Apparently the phrase was "Patrue, mi patruissimo"--uncle, my best uncle. Children wrestling would say it to another. I'm not sure if this linguistic history is accurate, but it sounds good. . . .

. . .I've found that poems about aunts and uncles are difficult to write. In fact, the following poem, "Return to Uncleton," really isn't about uncles, per se, certainly not about any uncle I know. I think the poem springs from what poet Richard Hugo called a "triggering town," in a book by the same name. The town imagined here has arisen out of images, emotions, and fictional scenarios that live in my head. Partly, the poem may be about feeling oppressed by family or by the past; partly it may concern being an outsider; and it may contain the residue of my having passed through countless, vaguely depressing small towns--vaguely depressing to me, I hasten to add, not necessarily to those who lived there. . . .

"Return to Uncleton" is one of those "construct-poems," which synthesize a lot of free-floating material and which do not, for example, spring from one strong memory or one self-contained observation. Most of all, I think I liked inventing a town called Uncleton. For some reason, I felt compelled to have someone--the persona in the poem?--sing an impromptu lyric at the end.

I should probably add that the Edsel was actually a good car. It certainly is interesting to look at, and I think it was one of the first widely manufactured (but alas, not widely purchased) cars to use automatic transmission.

Return to Uncleton

His uncle had named the town Uncleton,
served as mayor for fifty years.

Except to tidy up the dog’s grave,
he goes back only for the annual

Rust Festival. He owns snapshots
of the Rust Queens and their Oxidized Courts

from the last twenty years. The lake looks
different from before and smells.

His trousers slip off his buttocks,
and teenagers laugh, their goddamned

music thumping out of cars. He’s inherited
just a pinch of his uncle’s rage

but no property. The sun off the lake
makes him scowl. Where exactly is

the dog’s grave? He remembers how,
just a pup, the little bastard nipped him.

Uncleton, O Uncleton, I hate the way you
draw me back like English on a cue ball.

Copyright 2007

Thursday, April 26, 2007

St. Petersburg, Russia

When I had an appointment as a Fulbright lecturer at Uppsala University, Sweden, in 1994, I was determined to get over to Russia. The proximity was simply too tempting for an American of my ilk.

There it was, a few miles across the Baltic Sea; there it was, the Great Ogre that had dominated the political consciousness of my American generation. Russia. If you were of what's called the Boomer Generation, your politics might be simplistic or sophisticated, left, center, right, or out of the park (anarchist), but your politics would nevertheless have to register the great atomic equation of global politics: the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R.

It's hard to think of something the Cold War didn't inform. It affected daily headlines, every level of politics, television, literature, culture High, culture Low, the economy, dinner-conversation, whether the U.S. decided to support or invade a nation, any nation, or not--and so on. To some degree, you can even trace the current war in Iraq back to Eisenhower's decision to depose an Iraqi leader, way back when, based on Cold War "logic." The Bay of Pigs, Oswald's connection to the Soviet Union, Kruschev's shoe, the six-foot-tall Russian fashion model (Veruschka--was that her name?), The Man From U.N.C.L.E, James Bond, Dr. Strangelove, strange words like the Kremlin and politburo: all of such stuff was the furniture, however tacky and badly arranged it might be, of my consciousness. I had to go to Russia.

Considering the experiences of the Swedish, French, and German armies, among other people, I can't say it was difficult to get there. But it was complicated. After all, Leningrad had been St. Petersburg again only for three years in 1994. Things were shaky in the former Soviet Union. The Swedes tended not to travel there; many colleagues at the university, for example, had never been to the Soviet Union, in spite of Sweden's neutral status. Also, St. Petersburg existed, after all, because of the Russian army's having defeated the Swedish army in 1703, if I have the year right. After the defeat, Peter the Great built a fort on the site, and a city followed the fort--rather like the way things happened in the U.S.

But through a Swedish travel agent, I was able to get a visa, get a flight on SAS, buy a certain minimum amount of rubles--and book a room in a new tourist hotel, chiefly to stay on the safe side. The travel agent, newspaper accounts, and other sources seemed to agree that Russian cities had become as dangerous as American ones!

It was a thrill to have these things called rubles in my pocket because they were always in the pockets of characters in spy novels. Also, it's fun just to say, "ruble."

At Arlanda airport in Stockholm, there was almost no one at the gate. In fact, at one point, there was (in addition to me) only several famous tennis players: Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John Lloyd. They were apparently headed to St. Pete for an exhibition. They were getting major $ to go there. I hadn't been invited. Celebrity athletes were apparently in greater demand than obscure American professors. Go figure.

In the St. Pete airport, some kind of Russian dignitary met the tennis players. She was a short, middle-aged woman with a lot of spunk. She walked up, and looked up, to Conn0rs and, counter-intuitively started scolding him for being early. He seemed amused, and I immediately had a good feeling for the country. The woman may well have been late, but she wasn't going to do something predictable like apologize. She was going to put it on him. I took a Mercedes taxi to the hotel on a big boulevard--Nevsky Prospekt.

Visiting St. Petersburg was like visiting a mansion that had been closed for many years. It was a city that desperately needed fixing in all sorts of ways, but its bones, if you will, were grand. If Paul Bunyan had designed Paris, St. Petersburg might have been the result. Massive avenues, huge buildings, wide canals, hard, cold wind like Chicago's. I can imagine designers bringing drawings to Peter the Great, who would shout, "Well, that's fine, but make it bigger!"

People were fixing things as best they could, with 19th century tools, like wooden wheel barrows. Older women, with great dignity, strode stalwartly to church. People sold things, anything, on the streets. Rolls of toilet paper, soap. I gave all my hotel-soap away to beggars, and dumped as many of the rubles I had had to buy back into the economy as I could (although of course people liked American dollars even more). At a restaurant, I paid with a credit card. A Russian couple were seated next to me. The man paid in rubles, and the waitress returned several times to work out the bill because--this is the sense I had--inflation was something they were tracking by the hour.

Of course, I got only the merest taste of the city, but I loved the taste. Not unlike Italians, Russians seem able to mix absurdity, comedy, and tragedy into almost every moment of life. They seem unfathomably resilient. . . . I loved hoofing it across the long bridge to the famous train station with its Bolshevik history, Finland Station, which seemed charmingly cramped and folksy. What a scene that must have been, however, when Lenin arrived. . . . At the grand museum, the Hermitage, which the Finns were helping to rebuild, a chip of stone had fallen off an outer wall, and I picked it up and kept it. . . . I visited a house that Dostoyevsky had lived in; it was now a museum; what a thrill. A literary nerd, I love visiting authors' former abodes. . . The tennis players stayed in the same hotel, and McEnroe later arrived, looking very perplexed and put-upon. I set a silly goal of getting the autographs of Connors, Borg, and McEnroe all on one page, and I managed to get it done. The first two were easy, but I think McEnroe signed only because he saw the first two signatures. I found the process amusing. . . . The best thing, though, was just to be in a real place, the streets of a city in Russia, that had been so heavily mythologized, so bizarrely filtered through the lenses of the American media's versions of the Cold War. As I customarily do when I travel, I often just walked around, buying hot drinks and cheap books, getting a whiff of the city, looking at the light (all cities seem to have their own quality of light), watching people work and talk. Reality can have enormous appeal. . . .

. . . A symphony I have not heard but now must hear is Shostakovich's "Leningrad" Sympony (number six?), from 1941. . . .

One poem that came out of my quick trip to Russia appears below. I've published it before, but without the stanza about the woman selling things on the street. The magazine editor didn't like it. I fully agreed with her at the time. Today I like the stanza again. Tomorrow I might agree with her again. That's the way it goes.

Here's to the ordinary Russians I encountered but didn't really meet. Here's to the big shaggy novelists, Fyodor and Leo. (This year I've been re-reading Crime and Punishment and War and Peace, the former with a student book-group, the latter on own--the third time through, I think). Here's to Sonya from C & P and Pierre from W & P. Here's to peace. Here's to Petrograd (1914-1924), Leningrad (1924-1991), and St. Petersburg. Here's to countless soldiers who died invading or defending Russia. Here's to Putin, who may be no bargain, but at least he's not Stalin. And here's hoping I get back to St. Pete, this time for more than three days.

St. Petersburg, Russia

A stain on

linen is a flower


if we see it so.

So we saw it so.

A train at

Finland Station

was a hope


when we saw it

from the frozen bridge.

The old Russian

woman’s cough seemed as

deep as pneumonia. Still

she stood, posture bold,

selling bars of soap, rolls

of toilet paper,

on the sidewalk, Winter.

Famous tennis players—

Connors, Borg, McEnroe—

paced the lobby of

Hotel Nevsky Prospekt,

caged in opulence, waiting

for the Exhibition Match. They were merely the latest

invaders, would be gone by

the next evening on SAS

to London, and St. Petersburg’s

massive avenues continue, grandly, to yawn.

© 2007

Friday, April 20, 2007


Ursology, or the study of bears, is endlessly fascinating, even for ill-informed amateurs like me. I grew up in bear-country (although, in the Northern Hemisphere, what isn't bear country?!)--in the High Sierra of California. The first piece of writing I ever submitted for publication was a nonfiction account, handwritten and illustrated with a sketch, of a brief non-lethal bear-hunt to which I was invited by my father. Someone had spotted two relatively mature cubs (and their mother?) near our home, and if I recall correctly, my father took the opportunity to let his three or four hunting-dogs practice. The "cubs" probably already weighed well over 100 pounds at that stage. The bear on that tree was certainly a large animal, even as I take into account my having been a child, to whom much seems immense.

If I have the particular canine-era correct, the dogs were probably Jack, Shorty, and Jocko, although Jocko might have been replaced by Striker (this is sounding like a history of the Three Stooges). Of course, to someone 8 or 9--I don't have the exact year--the event seemed utterly chaotic but at the same time not unusual. A child thinks, "This is what my family does; therefore, this is not unusual."

Less than a mile from our home, up on a steep, rocky timbered hillside, the dogs "treed" the bears--lovely how a noun becomes a verb in this instance. Far above us loomed the dark grey diorite peak called the Sierra Buttes, 8,000 feet. They were Black bears--the name of the species common to the Sierra and to many regions of North America. It's a confusing name because Black bears are usually some shade of brown, often a dark brown. Sometimes the color is lighter, however, and one of the cubs in this instance was reddish brown--a "cinnamon" bear, my father called it. In my visual memory hangs the image of the cinnamon bear clinging to a pine tree, not far off the ground, but well out of the hounds' reach. I also see the dogs; they were completely transformed into hysterical, sloberring, leaping, howling beasts. They were trained dogs, however, so when they were called off, they reluctantly but professionally came away from the tree. I don't exactly remember the anticlimactic ending, but essentially we went home, and the bears ran off. I presume, too, that my father had a rifle (at least) and a pistol. He was not a foolish man, even if running the dogs after a young bear is arguably a foolish, even cruel, hobby; my father was of another era, his consciousness attuned substantially to a nineteenth-century way of life. He knew that a mama bear might well attack and that bears are almost incredibly quick and fast--among the very best athletes on the planet. Indeed, I don't remember hearing about or seeing the mama bear, so he may have just been treeing, brifely, the adolescent cubs.

I doubt whether the young bears enjoyed the event, but they were unharmed, and (I am straining here) perhaps the exercise did them good, and at least they learned more about how humans and dogs will misbehave, must be avoided.

At any rate, at my father's suggestion, I wrote up the account, sitting at the chrome-dinette table, with that meserizing pattern in the yellow top. I included the sketch, and sent off the manuscript to Full Cry, "America's Leading Tree-Hound Magazine." Full Cry. What a great name for a magazine, which still exists. Breeds of so-called "tree hounds" include Plot Hounds, Redbones, and Blue-ticks, all fairly sleek, quick, muscled dogs with great noses and big voices. Often such dogs do double-duty as hunters of raccoon and bear, as was the case with my father's dogs. Such hounds are, however, trained not to hunt ubiquitous deer, which they can run down and kill, as opposed to "treeing" and not killing, and indeed in many states, it is illegal to hunt deer using dogs.

I recall my father being able to distinguish one hound's "voice" from another's when the dogs, far away, had treed the object of the hunt. Believe it or not, it is this choral-music of the hounds for which owners of such hounds live. My father also distinguished between dogs that excelled at finding "the track" and dogs that excelled at staying on the track--literally for miles, and sometimes to the extent that the dogs would disappear, only to wander back days later, or indeed to be picked up by good Samaritans and returned, owing to the name and phone number on the brass plate attached to the collar.

Some hounds were good at picking up a "hot" or fresh scent, just left by the animal. Others were good at picking up a cold scent, left by an animal passing through some time ago; hence the term "cold nose": the arcane terminology of a sub-culture. . . .

Of course, throughout my childhood I was friendly with the dogs and they with me, but nonetheless they were professionals, not pets. I was a small human, and I amused them. But they lived for the hunt. The rest of life was tedious if not unpleasant. . . . At any rate, my manuscript was, of course, rejected, but the process of writing and submitting fascinated me, almost as much as the quick, impromptu, bizarre hunt. . . . Of course, Faulkner's novella The Bear has special resonance for me. . . . Bears figure into all manner of folklore around the world, as we know. . . Technically, polar bears don't hibernate, I have learned, although they do go into repose, "bear" cubs in late Fall, and get active in Spring. . . . My brother figuratively stumbled upon a "bear tree" once--a massive hollow log in which a bear had hibernated, deciding not to use the classic cave. What he remembered above all else was the overwhelming, unapologetic, ursine, gamey stench that came from the hollow. . . . I conclude, then, with a poem about bears, waking:

Bears Waking

All over one hemisphere,
bears stir in hot stench
of imperial naps. They
don’t know from latitude
or axis, orbit or equinox.
They feel knowledge in blood
and brain, gland and tongue and paw.
They wake to thirst
that nearly blinds them.
Hunger tears
into guts like a wolverine. Their
noses lead them out to sunshine
or warm rain. Their noses devour air
for food-news. Waking
bears don’t think about
next winter or this summer.
They lope into hollows
of odor, groves of sound,
putting their bodies on rocks
and brush. Sunlight is;
and it is just fine with waking bears.

First published in The Acorn #41 [El Dorado Writers’ Guild], 2004

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

After Great Pain

After terrible and constantly televised events like those at Virginia Tech, one's response--or at least my response--is to clam up. A subsequent response is to comment, and yet any comment that comes to mind is most notable for its inadequacy.

Although numerous obvious differences exist between what occurred on the infamous September 11 and what occurred at Virginia Tech, I found myself thinking similar things about both occurrences. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say I have found myself feeling similar emotions.

Consequently, I reviewed a brief speech I was asked to give (I did not volunteer to give it) at a college-event held not long after "September 11." Because it includes references to poetry, I thought I'd post it on this blog.

Here it is:

Between Tuesday morning [September 11, 2001] and today, there have been moments when I've wanted to talk about what happened and moments when only silence seemed appropriate. Like you, I've experienced shock and a tumult of emotions. At a University, we are accustomed to putting our minds to things. This is a place of thinking. But extreme violence can paralyze thought and shake our confidence in the worth of our daily teaching and learning. Emily Dickinson wrote, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The nerves sit ceremonious like Tombs-the stiff heart questions." [from Dickinson's poem #341]

In recent days, I have also felt appreciation for family and friends, for colleagues and students, for life itself. My heart has gone out to strangers pictured on television. Good people and the good in people are more dear and seem more fragile to me than before.

As much as we may wish otherwise, the events of Tuesday will change our world forever in ways we cannot know or control. Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary General of the United Nations forty years ago, grappled in his time with such uncertainty and died in an airplane crash while on a mission of peace. He once observed that "acts of violence, whether on a small or large scale, contain a bitter paradox: the meaningfulness of death-and the meaninglessness of killing." [from Markings.] For us all, I wish for wisdom as we struggle with our responses to the killings, and as we strive to create meaning out of the deaths.

(from September 14, 2001)

Monday, April 16, 2007

Liberating Constrictions

One of William Wordsworth's best poems, in my opinion, is the sonnet "Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent's Narrow Room":

Nuns fret not at their convent's narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their Cells;
And students with their pensive citadels:
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his Loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth, the prison, unto which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, `twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such their needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

The main argument of the poem seems fairly straightforward. Acknowledging that to paraphrase is heresy (who said that? Cleanth Brooks?), we might roughly paraphrase it this way: "Often tight boundaries or constrictions satisfy, as opposed to stifling." The poem begins by listing examples before it tells us (beginning with "In truth, . . .") what precept the examples support; that strategy supplies tension. (Often Shakespeare's sonnets go the other way--from precept, premise, or question to specifics.) Nuns, hermits, and students seem to like tight quarters. Why? Because they are living lives of the mind or the soul. Women and men who spin or weave may find the work satsifying or even uplifting. That may be a tougher proposition to sell; on the other hand, I think we've all experienced a kind of content from focusing on a specific task or job that might look monotonous to an observer. We get lost in the work, in a good way. We might also get a repetitive-motion ailment, but that's another story.

Once Wordsworth gives us the precept, "In truth, the prison, unto which we doom/Ourselves, no prison is. . . .," he links it to his own love for a constricting form of verse, the sonnet.

That such a poem should come from a British Romantic is, superficially at least, an irony, for the Romantic poets were allegedly all about freedom, organic poetry form, overflowing emotions, intuition, and inspiration. It turns out, of course, that each Romantic--Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hunt, et alia--forged his own poetics and that none of these poetics was quite as dramatically different from 18th century poetics as one might imagine. . . .

. . ..Are all constrictions liberating? No, but Wordsworth doesn't have the space, in this "scanty plot of ground," to go into that. Because the sonnet to Wordsworth and others seems like a pastime, may we conclude, with Frost, that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net (assuming that's a bad thing to do)? We may conclude as much, but we don't need to do so. Writing free verse is no picnic, unless you believe that whatever you write is great, but if you believe that, then the problem really has nothing to do with formal verse vs. free verse. Verse/versus.

In any event, the poem points to an issue almost all poets face: what attitude to take toward form. Any poet who has tried to write a sonnet will have found the form to be, in at least one case, too constricting. The form makes you torture your syntax or say (write) something, anything, just to make that next rhyme or to finish the iambic pentamenter. Or the form will make you rush to "get it all said" in 14 lines. Frustated, you want to smash this little 14-line X 10 syllable cage and go off and write like Walt Whitman or D.H. Lawrence, at least with regard to form--long lines of free verse--if not subject-matter.

However, almost all poets have discovered that sometimes the constricting form can liberate. So focused are you on the form that surprising images, words, or phrases sneak in while you're not looking. Richard Hugo makes this argument in his book, The Triggering Town, wherein he describes a hellish form-poem assigned by his teacher at the University of Washington, poet Theodore Roethke. Roethke gave the assignment as a kind of test, and of course students went into it as they would into most tests: with dread. But once inside the seemingly impossible rules--so many many verbs and nouns, so many lines and stanzas, so many beats and repeated sounds, etc.--some students discovered subjects or language they would not have otherwise discovered.

And to write a sonnet, a villanelle, or a sestina that, upon honest inspection, is good enough at least to hold up, to appear in public, is a little piece of heaven. And Roethke's villanelle, "The Waking," is a little piece of heaven for the reader.

The Furness-fells, by the way, comprise a little range of hills--large by British standards, perhaps--in Cumbria. By Sierra Nevada or Rockies standards, maybe not so much. But that's all right. The best part of the bee-reference in the poem concerns the fox-gloves, not the soaring to heights. To watch a bee go deep, deep into the narrow bell of a fox-glove blossom is, in its own way, thrilling. Like Wordsworth, you can get the sense that the bee is on a great adventure, spelunking, in its own way--diving deep into a cavern of nectar. A gardener, I never tire of watching bees go into fox-glove blossoms, and of waiting, waiting, for them to come out. Sometimes I think they never will.

"In truth, the prison, unto which we doom/Ourselves, no prison is. . . ." Actually, I disagree with this thesis, in general, although I agree with it insofar as Wordsworth applies it to the nun's narrow room or the poet's use of the sonnet. I think that, in general, although the prisons to which we doom ourselves may only infrequently be as bad as literal prisons, they can still be awful. I tend to imprison myself in worry, for example, so much so that it's only just a stretch to say I have doomed myself to worry. . . .

. . . .Can one experience too much liberty? Of course. Perhaps the best example is an all-powerful, maniacal dictator, who can and may do whatever he wishes. Hell ensues, for others, for him.

--But so much, so many complications, come out of Wordsworth's seemingly simple sonnet, and thats' one reason I like it so much. It's a very productive poem.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Many people first encounter poetry in kindergarten or grade school, of course, but their first adolescent or early adult encounter with it may occur when they dip into an anthology, as opposed to a volume by one author. Opinions vary about anthologies, which can seem like cemetaries, full of familiar headstones (famous poems) underneath which lie famous dead writers. They can also seem like beasts--enormous, expensive creatures full of undigested verse. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, for example, is now huge, heavy, and expensive. In the U.S., at least, it is the most famous anthology, representing "the canon" of Anglo-American verse, and therefore it may also be the most infamous. Anthologies can also help to reform canons, however; they can be revolutionary, revisionary, path-breaking. James Weldon Johnson's anthologies of African American poetry worked that way. So have a variety of avante-garde anthologies, anthologies of anti-war poetry, and collections representing specific schools or movements in poetry, such as the Beats, the Black Arts Movement, or the Black Mountain School. Sometimes anthologies are accompanied by manifestos or statements, often full of fervor.

I still like to pick up an anthology I first encountered as an undergraduate. It's A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, third college edition, edited by Oscar Williams and published in hardback by Scribners in 1970 (but first in 1946). I still like the physical "feel" of the book. It's compact, with a nice cloth binding and black spine. I can't be sure, but I think it's the first place I encountered the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, A.E. Housman, Wilfred Owen, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Karl Shapiro, and Randall Jarrell, so when I pick it up, I feel as if I'm walking past a cafe where I first met old so-and-so. It has some great black-and-white photographs of the poets in the back, all looking very craggy and serious. Out of 40-some poets photographed, only Vassar Miller, Marianne Moore, James Dickey, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Dylan Thomas are smiling, although there are some mild grins, including T.S. Eliot's. There are many deliberate frowns, and many poets refuse to look at the camera. The anthology is, of course, dominated by the work of white men. The work of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Brooks, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes is included. Unless I'm mistaken, there are no Latino/Latina, American Indian, or Asian American poets represented, so the book is typical of that post-World War II-to-late-Sixties era. Of course, almost all of the poets represented are read now only in colleges, if at all, and there are several who aren't even read in colleges: John Drinkwater, Charles Causley, Gene Derwood, Anne Ridler, and Peter Viereck, for example (Viereck won the Pulitzer Prize, I believe).

It's nice having any anthology like this on a shelf nearby, just in case you're looking for one of the old chestnuts: "The Windhover," "God's Grandeur," "To An Athlete Dying Young," "Sailing to Byzantium," "Richard Cory" (once set to music by Simon and Garfunkel; it must be on the Internet somewhere--if you find it, let me know), the famous ones by Frost and Stevens and Williams, "Snake" (Lawrence), "Shine, Perishing Republic," our friend Prufrock, and so on. . . . .

Oscar Williams, a famous editor of anthologies, was a poet himself, and he included poems by himself, something I always found rather charming. One of them is "A Praying Mantis with a Penthouse." Oscar died in 1964, so either someone else helped with the 1970 edition, or Oscar worked from the Other Side.

I was the kind of student and of a generation that tended not to sell books back, so books like A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry became keepsakes, valued for their tactile quality and for the little scribbles in them, made by a version of oneself one can hardly remember.

I think most of my students sell almost all of their books back, and I don't begrudge them that. Times are hard, money is tight, and education is expensive. I do hope a few hang on to poetry-anthologies, however. They may or may not read the poetry later, but they may see the book on a shelf, pick it up, and be transported years or decades back. The anthology will look funny. It will have little scars. It will probably feel good there, resting in the hands. The choices the editor made will seem odd. A poem the student liked "back then" will not seem particularly good "now." But the book, the artifcat itself, will carry its own cryptic meaning, almost like a poem. . . . Thanks to Oscar (R.I.P.) for editing A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, warts and all, and thanks to my professor Elmo Daley, for inducing me to purchase the book.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Poetry Readings

I exhumed an old notebook/journal that listed poets whose readings I had attended in the 1970s, mostly at U.C. Davis:

Gary Snyder (multiple), Galway Kinnell, Karl Shapiro (I took several classes from him, but he gave only one reading when I was at Davis), Gwendolyn Brooks (she insisted that her husband read, too; he seemed reticent to do so); Stephen Spender; William Everson (multiple); William Stafford, Josephine Miles; Kenneth Rexroth; Kenneth Koch; Philip Levine; Richard Eberhart; Robert Bly; Donald Davie; Robert Duncan; Mark Strand. I also attended a "lecture" by Norman Mailer. What an evening that was.

In almost every poetry reading, the poetry comes alive to such a degree that you return to the printed version of it with a significantly different sense of what you are reading, and you recall once again that even poetry that isn't explicitly "spoken word" poetry is a vocal, aural art. I found this circumstance to be the case especially with Snyder, whose poetry I appreciated when I read it on the page but whose poetry seemed a bit flat and clumsy at times. When he read his poems, he brought out rhythms and nuances I had overlooked. Spender's reading was remarkable, in part because of Spender's wit and stateliness, but also because of his memories of Auden and Eliot. He joked that when Eliot was a young man, Eliot wrote middle-aged poems; when middle-aged, he wrote old-man poems; and when old he wrote posthumous poems. A person in the audience wanted to quarrel about the issue of Pound's having edited Eliot's The Waste Land considerably. The person asked, "If a man impregnates my wife, in what sense is the child mine?" [meaning, isn't The Waste Land really Pound's poem?] Spender said, "I can't really speak to your personal difficulties with your wife, but The Waste Land was Eliot's poem, and Pound simply made suggestions, the way an editor does." Spender also demystified The Waste Land by saying that it can be read as a series of satirical sketches about urban life. Such a statement cuts through so much cant and nonsense written about that poem. A couple years later, coincidentally, a poem of mine won a national contest sponsored by the University of Houston--and judged by Stephen Spender. The poem is "Spider Killing," and he wrote a very kind letter to me about the poem.

Bly, of course, is an over-the-top performer, complete with lyre and poncho--but he's a great reader, not only of his own poetry but of others'. He has a great rendition, if that's the word, of W. C. Williams' "This is just to say." Stafford and Levine were both great: unpretentious. Duncan was okay, but I never really "got" his poetry. Brooks was wonderful. Rexroth was full of himself, of course. He packed the house. He was smart and well read, but he also seemed intent upon reminding everyone that he was smart and well read: that classic Poundian, American insecurity: rather the opposite of Spender. Everson wore buckskins and a bear-tooth necklace, paced silently for minutes before he started, stared at people. In later readings he trembled because of Parkinson's. His rendition of "Canticle for the Water Birds" was one for the ages. After one reading, I met him at a friend's house, at a small reception. We got to talking about the movie, "The Rose," in which Bette Midler plays a version of Joplin. I said I that loved Joplin's music but that I thought, technically, Midler had the better voice, and Everson got furious and said that a kind of pure soul poured out of Joplin. I wasn't about to press the issue. I always thought Joplin was a very good blues singer but by no means a goddess of the blues. Oh, well: I was sorry to have ticked off the famous Beat poet. Shapiro always liked to tell of the time in 1969 (?) when, as Brother Antoninus, Everson literally defrocked himself at a reading in Davis. Right in the middle of the reading, he removed his lay-brother's robes, and had some difficulty with the microphone-cord to which it and he were attached. A wonderful spectacle, remembered wryly by Shapiro, who later wrote an homage-poem for Everson.

Miles was almost completely disabled, by rheumatoid arthritis, I think, so an assistant literally carried her around, laying her in a chair for the reception after the reading. But she was bright, witty, and quick in conversation, so much so that you were almost shocked to see that her body was disabled. She seemed to have great reserves of mental toughness, with no bitterness or sarcasm. Mailer was promoting his book on Marilyn Monroe. He pontificated, told dirty jokes, dropped names. One crude joke was about a woman's worn-out c--t, about which her husband complains, only to have her reply, "My boyfriend likes it because he's well endowed enough to get past the worn-out part." Mailer as middle-school boy, in other words. The lecture went on and on, and then some 20 of us adjourned to another room on campus, where he kept talking to/at us. He struck me as a terribly insecure man--the kind of physically small man who feels he must act tough: I'd seen the type in the small mountain town I was raised in. It was very easy to see through his bluster and arrogance to a certain vulnerability. How strange that his very best book ended up being the nonfiction, The Executioner's Song. Bizarrely, I read it and Styron's Sophie's Choice in the same week in Germany when I was teaching there. .. .I wrote Styron a fan letter, and he wrote back on a card, dated Christmas Day 1980: very kind of him. Enough of the aimless recollections.....

Image or Sound?

A colleague invited me to guest-teach in her class the other day. The course is our department's introduction to the English major, so it focuses chiefly on essential elements like the close reading of literature, writing essays about literature, and getting familiar with the terminology of literary criticism. Our major has an emphasis in creative writing, however, so the course also touches on some aspects of writing "literature," not just reading it. So that day I was there to talk about writing poetry. I told the students that one big question all poets implicitly or explicitly take a stand on is whether poetry is essentially an art of image or an art of sound. I also told them (at least I hope I did) that this was, of course a false dichotomy. The language of poetry, even when it is read silently, makes sounds in the reader's mind; the language of poetry, even though it is almost always black letters on a white page, also creates images that are viewed in the mind of the reader. My friend, the poet and teacher Kevin Clark, is squarely in the image camp. Of course, he takes great care with how his poems sound, but he is an Image First poet. I suspect Dylan Thomas was a Sound First poet, judging by the lush, overwhelming (in a good way) sounds of his grand poems. Hopkins? Sound First. William Carlos Williams? Well, Image First, of course--ah, but we can't be completely sure; his poems are so carefully constructed in terms of the sound of the words, the shape of syntax. Robert Bly and Company stress "the deep image," an image or cluster of surrealistic images that seem to strike deep into the Jungian subconscious mind.

In any event, I had the students read Dickinson's poem about a snake, the "Narrow Fellow" in the grass. I told them to set aside their preconceived notions about Dickinson, resist the urge to hunt for symbols, and refuse to be distracted by her poetic eccentricities, such as the dashes and the capitalizations. This is an observational poem, I told them. This poem springs directly from a person who enjoyed going out in the fields and woods and looking at things and creatures. The poem captures her careful observation of snakes. It does so in a wonderful way; the images and metaphors are superb. She nails the ending of the poem Great stuff. But also basic stuff. By basic I don't mean simple or simplistic. I mean grounded--literally grounded: a creature crawling on the dirt. She observed, and she gave us the images. The snake is not from the Garden of Eden or from Freud 101. It's from a field or a marsh near Amherst.

I then asked the students to brainstorm a list of creatures they had seen. Their impulse was to list creatures they thought were "poetic," I think: elephants, toucans. I was surprised. I said, "Actually, I was looking for the ordinary stuff we see and really look at, especially as kids--you know, bugs, spiders." Eventually we got around to things like squirrels and foxes, at least.

"Poetry" brings so much baggage with it. To a much greater extent than short stories and novels, it is a literary form that requires demystification. It is somehow supposed to be grandiose, profound, difficult, cryptic, mysterious. I'm all for poems that may exhibit one or more of these qualities, but first of all, I think, a poem has to be grounded--and often grounded in what might seem at first to be mundane reality. You take a walk, you see a snake. A poet's job, of course, is to re-see the mundane for himself or herself and, if the poem works out okay, to re-see and re-present the mundane thing for the reader, in a way that's both fresh and believable. I mean, you can do all sorts of fancy, outlandish things with a snake that would be, in a way, fresh, but they might not be believable. And you can do all sorts of believable things with a snake in your poem, but they might not be fresh. They might be factual and dull, although the factual isn't necessarily dull and the dull isn't necessarily factual.

On that particular day, anyway, I was in the Image First camp. If you're a poet, I was suggesting, start by looking carefully--at anything. The thing looked at does not have to be Poetic. Then write precisely and freshly about what you see, about the seeing, and maybe about what the seeing means or meant--but don't get Profound. In this particular approach to poetry, a poet is like a still-life painter. Of course, the main thing a painter does is play with paint ("play" in the sense of improvise, work with), and the main thing a poet does is play with his or her medium, words. Beyond that, a poet and a painter work at seeing, at looking. Really looking. Then, when the snake goes through the grass, the grass parts as if it were hair being combed. According to Emily Dickinson, who saw.


To begin by belaboring the obvious: life never turns out the way we thought it would. Occasionaly one hears a person say something like "As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a musician," and if that person is a musician, we may briefly be tempted to think that his or her particular life turned out the way he or she thought it would, and we're mightily impressed, perhaps envious. But of course the precise nature of being-a-musician no doubt was not what the person imagined, and being-a-musician is only one part of that whole life. So even in rare cases where plans and dreams turn out just the way they were supposed to, they really didn't, on closer inspection. How could they?

One of my favorite Henry James stories (I am not a huge James fan, no offense to those who are) is "The Beast in the Jungle." (If you haven't read it and think you might one day read it, know that I'm about to expose the basic twist of the story.) The main character spends his life waiting for the big thing that he feels will happen in his life to happen, and ultimately the big thing turns out to be the revelation that he has wasted his life waiting for this big thing to happen. Oops. I hate when that sort of thing happens; it's so ironic.

Americans, of course, are among those humans most obsessed with plans and executing plans, dreams and making dreams "come true." The ambition-syndrome and the idea that one can be self-made are injected into our psyches early. That's not necessarily an utterly bad thing. Hope is a good thing. Also, if one is completely without ambition, one is likely to create an awful lot of work for other people. Nonetheless, "idleness" seems to make Americans nervous, even though our greatest secular holiday is Super Bowl Day, when a vast percentage of the population sits or lies down for several hours, looking at a screen, drinking a brain-numbing beverage, and shoveling food in the pie-hole. Of course, in the minds of those who are watching the Super Bowl, they are being active, not idle. They are watching the Super Bowl! . . .

And idleness is supposed to be the devil's workshop. More likely candidates for the devil's workshop, I think, are dictatorships, political parties, Hollywood, cutely decorated bed-and-breakfasts, the industry known as lobbying, the industry known as "fashion," racism, the military-industrial complex which that known radical, President Dwight Eisenhower, feared, and the Home Shopping Network--to name just a few.

Circuitously, that is to say, idly, I have sauntered to my point, assuming I had one: praise for Robert Bridges' little poem, "The Idle Life I Lead." Bridges is best known now not for anything he wrote but for having championed the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Bridges is known among students of prosody for having written in syllabics, even though syllabics (counting syllables in a line, regardless of stresses) seem to work better with Latin poetry than with stress-heavy English. In any event, here is the poem, which is written not in syllabics but in iambic meter:

The Idle Life I Lead

The idle life I lead
Is like a pleasant sleep,
Wherein I rest and heed
The dreams that by me sweep.

And still of all my dreams
In turn so swiftly past,
Each in its fancy seems
A nobler than the last.

And every eve I say,
Noting my step in bliss,
That I have known no day
In all my life like this.

I love this poem because it celebrates idelness without making a big deal about celebrating idleness. It doesn't imply "Look how unorthodox I am by celebrating idleness!" There is a Zen-like quality to the poem, more palpable and genuine than it would have been if Bridges had set out to write a Zen poem. I suppose that if someone sets out to write a Zen poem, he or she has made the fatal first mistake (setting out), and will thereby have pre-rendered the poem un-Zen-like. I also see--or perhaps I am merely reading this into the poem--a certain lovely humility in Bridges' verses here. The speaker of this poem is not in charge of his fate, has not ambitiously chosen not to be ambitious. Instead he seems simply to take note of the fact that he knows no day in all his life like any day that has come before. That is the way this thing called experience, given to us by who knows what or whom, is actually experienced. Each day comes to us, including the last day. At some fundamental level, the most ambitious, accomplished, famous, driven, powerful, and influential of humans are idle. (Of course, I wish that people like Adolf Hitler and Joseph McCarthy had been even more idle.) I love the way Bridges' poem illuminates "idleness" in a new way. Idleness is not laziness. Idleness is being. If you're like me, just-being makes you anxious. You feel as if you should be doing something. Bridges' poem seems to suggest that ideless is doing something. I promise, however, that if someone asks me to take out the garbage (for instance), I won't try to get out of doing so by saying, "I can't because I'm doing something--I'm busy here in a state of idleness, and if you don't believe me, read this poem." Robert Bridges was born in 1844 and died in 1930.


Mark Halliday read his poetry on campus here the other evening, and it was a great reading. Halliday is known as the "ultra-talk" poet because many of his poems are discursive and conversational--rhetorically rich monologues. The label can be misleading, however, because his poems are exceptionally well crafted and, without being preciously self-conscious, are often self-reflective, and they are extremely subtle in the ways they move and the ways they end. The poems are often relentless in their pursuit of the implications flowing from the premise with which they begin or from which they (apparently) sprang. Many of the poems are sardonic, satiric, and downright funny: qualities one thirsts for in poetry from any era. His poetry is not altogether dissimilar to that of Kenneth Koch. (I wish I had asked him directly about that comparison; maybe he doesn't like Koch's poetry.)

Halliday's books include Little Star, Selfwolf, and Jab, and he has also published a book on the work of Wallace Stevens. Halliday teaches at the University of Ohio.

During his reading, as he was introducing a poem that was, to some extent, a miniature novel, he said there were 11 reasons why he couldn't be a novelist and, by implication, why had to be a poet. He didn't specify what the 11 reasons were, but I hope to hear them some day. I am sympathetic to his difficulty with fiction. I've written and published stories, published one novel, and written other novels--but I find fiction-writing almost immeasurably harder than writing poetry. Writing novels is "labor" in a way that writing poetry does not seem to be, even as writing and revising poetry are no vacation. I tend to get distracted from plot, characterization, and scenes by . . . . well, by almost anything. One word can throw me off the track. In the forest of writing-fiction, poets often behave like bad hunting-dogs; when they're supposed to be moving forward on the track of that plot, they wander off to look at a bird, sniff something arcane, bark at the moon, lie down, scratch themselves, or hunt an animal in which the hunter has no interest. Unfortunately, and fortunately, poets are interested in everything. To them the demotic is rare.

Please find and read Mark Halliday's poetry.