Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Amy Lowell; Taxi; Metro

Along with H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Richard Aldington, and Ezra Pound, Massachusetts native Amy Lowell was an important Imagist poet in the early decades of the 20th century. Here is a poem by her about a taxi-cab:

The Taxi

by Amy Lowell

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?


As one might expect from a working Imagist, the images are sharp, and they hold one's interest, but to my mind the most compelling feature of the poem is the speaker's relationship to the taxi. In one sense the taxi is personified ("you"), but in another it remains just a taxi. A variety of urban elements constitute barriers between the speaker and the taxi, and although we often have negative associations with taxi-cabs, one can also see how a cab might become a symbol of security. And so, suddenly, the speaker seems to be in the taxi at the end of the poem, and what has come before seems to have been speculation about how difficult life would be if he or she to leave the taxi. I enjoy how the last two lines induce us to reinterpret the lines we just read; the speaker seems to have been in the cab all along. It's a deceptively complex poem.

Here's a wee transportation-poem that's not especially complex, deceptively or otherwise:

For Metro Riders

Behind the smudged
window of a ticket-booth,
an angel evaluated your
sincerity. Now rhythms
of a city owned by noise sooth your
innermost ears. You must have
nodded off. You’re in
the right place on the right
line but after all must
still discover where you
are as you are, going.

Hans Ostrom

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Josephine Miles; Family

Here's a splendid poem by Josephine Miles. It's always reminded me of Stevie Smith's poem, "Not Waving But Drowning," but it's a bit less bleak. Miles (1911-1985) taught for a long time at U.C. Berkeley. Rheumatoid arthritis physically disabled her considerably. I heard/saw her read at U.C. Davis in the late 1970s, and an assistant had to carry her into and out of rooms. She gave a great reading. Her poems are droll and intelligent. The poem (from the Poetry Foundation website, so I think it's okay to post it), which my friend, and former classmate at U.C. Davis, likes very much:

Family

by Josephine Miles

When you swim in the surf off Seal Rocks, and your family
Sits in the sand
Eating potato salad, and the undertow
Comes which takes you out away down
To loss of breath loss of play and the power of play
Holler, say
Help, help, help. Hello, they will say,
Come back here for some potato salad.

It is then that a seventeen-year-old cub
Cruising in a helicopter from Antigua,
A jackstraw expert speaking only Swedish
And remote from this area as a camel, says
Look down there, there is somebody drowning.
And it is you. You say, yes, yes,
And he throws you a line.
This is what is called the brotherhood of man.

* * * * * *

Here's a different kind of poem about family:

Family Legends, Small and True

by Hans Ostrom

Thomas, my father’s uncle, fist-fought
my father’s grandfather—yes, it was quite
a tangle of relations, a knuckle-riot.
This happened during the first course
of the family’s Christmas banquet in
the tall white clapboard house on a hill
in a gold-mining town, California.

They fought beside a long table. They
did not take the fight outside. Each knocked
the other down. Dining resumed. This
happened in the Ago all families, yours and
mine, occupy—that vast astral soup of time.

One day Thomas merely left and was not;
and was not heard; and was not heard from
again, ever. No news of him since: that
is a species of immortality—everlasting,
immutable Disappearance. Thomas will
never amount; he will never amount to
anything except a fistfight and a dis-
appearance and these words, which Thomas,
after a fashion writes, letting me

hear from him now that the others are all
gone, and dessert and coffee, brandy and
cigars are served, and a piece of raw, cold
steak is applied to his bruised face, and
filial hatred glows like a kerosene lamp.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom








On Halloween, A Review of the "Holidays"

Since today is Halloween, I thought I'd briefly review some of the "holidays" (using the term loosely, in some cases). I'll start with my least favorite first and work toward the one I like the best; it happens to be the best one for poets, too, in my opinion. Here we go--and don't take offense; if you really like a holiday that I don't, more power to you, and may you write or read a great poem about it:

1. I don’t like the Fourth of July. I know: not liking the Fourth of July is un-American. This kind of thing could have gotten me hauled before a Congressional committee in the 1950s--maybe today, too--who knows? I have two main reasons. I don’t like the interminable noise of fireworks and how such noise terrorizes animals (and there's the problem with fires, too). And if I were inclined to celebrate “the birth” of the U.S., I would probably do it in a more cerebral (and, I admit, boring) way—by meditating on the Constitution and its origins, for example.

2. New Year’s Eve. I used to like this “holiday” a lot, but now I dislike forcing myself to stay awake until midnight, so this is strictly age- and life-style related. I also worry very much about all the drunk-drivers out there, although I do everything I can to stay off the roads. At the same time, there’s really not much pressure to celebrate, so it’s all good, I guess. The Times Square thing was always bizarre for West Coast people because it was tape-recorded.

3. Christmas. I’m ambivalent about this holiday. I rather like a light-oriented celebration in Winter, and the Swedes especially emphasize this part. I also appreciate the celebration of The Birth, just as I appreciate other religious holy days or periods of observance that occur during the same time of year. The shopping part is way out of control; it’s really turned into a kind of national madness. A relatively new Catholic, I tend to like the masses that occur throughout the year, and I like the meditative quiet that “surrounds,” so to speak, a mass. So I did not take immediately to the Christmas-masses, and I learned that many Catholics attend mass only at Christmas and Easter. At the same time, it is pretty cool to see all the children at the mass, and I’ve gotten used to the noise. One simply has to understand and accept that it’s a different kind of mass. I very much enjoy other people opening gifts, as long as they rather like the gift. I enjoy opening gifts, especially if they’re books, of course. Our family has a very eclectic, eccentric collection of tree-ornaments, so there is great quirky pleasure in hauling those out every year. I’m actually in favor of the plastic trees, not just for environmental reasons but because they’re so wonderfully tacky. I haven't been able to convince my family yet, though. My favorite songs are “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Mary’s Boy Child,” a Jamaican song. I think the best version is by none other than. . . Vanessa Williams.

4. Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving’s okay because family and friends get together. I don’t like the massive meal, and if one has to deal with air-travel at all, Thanksgiving is hopeless. I think it’s probably a good idea to give thanks. I don’t really get a sense that people think much about the alleged Puritan/Pilgrim origins of this holiday, but I could be wrong--and often am.

5. Halloween is good for kids, I think. They enjoy the costumes. I tend to think of “gothic” writers like Hawthorne and Poe. Trick-or-treating has become dicey because the parents and guardians essentially have to accompany the children like a security-team, and there’s a great deal of pressure to buy huge bags of candy. Many college students seem to like this "holiday."

6. Easter’s good for a Catholic, like me. When I was young, we had the infamous Easter-egg hunts, and my father, being competitive, hid many eggs that were never found. That’s kind of amusing, now that I think about it. Probably the eggs were eaten by raccoons that very night. A cautionary tip for cat "owners": lilies are poisonous to cats, many of whom (of which) like to chew on lilies.

7. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday. I like this holiday very much, not simply because of King but because interesting things happen on or near that day in schools and communities. It’s a holiday that’s handled well, in my opinion.

8. Arbor Day. Not really a holiday, I suppose, and I’ve never really celebrated it. I’ve planted lots of trees, but I’ve never planted one on Arbor Day. I need to do that. I think this Day should be turned into a bigger deal, but I don't want to see it commercialized with Arbor Day greeting cards (that would be environmentally ironic) or Arbor Day gifts.

Most trees are excellent, after all, so why not celebrate this Day? I think it’s an especially good holiday for poets, in spite of Joyce Kilmer’s infamous poem with its extraordinarily mixed metaphors. Joyce was a man, as you probably knew, and he died in World War I. Ezra Pound thought there were too many tree poems, and that was 60-70 years ago. I don’t think you can have too many tree-poems, although more of them should probably appear online as opposed to on paper, to “save” trees. My favorite tree is probably the oak. Cedars are very admirable, too, and sequoias are impressive. I planted a sequoia next to a Victorian house we once owned. If all the subsequent owners will leave it there, it will tower over the neighborhood one day, and no doubt many poems will be written about it, pax Ezra.

Tic Tacs


In the check-out line at a grocery-store the other day, I looked again at the items for sale near the cashier's post--magazines, gum, breath-mints, candy, batteries, and so on. I wondered what percentage of a grocery-store's or "super-market's" net income springs from sales of such items and how much money I've spent in my lifetime on such items.

I looked once more at the Tic Tacs in their transparent little box. I have purchased Tic Tacs a few times over the years, but I've decided I don't like them. They're candy, and they look kind of creepy, and I remembered that I'd written a little prose-poem about them:

Tic Tacs

by Hans Ostrom

This little glass box once held a tiny kingdom’s jewels but now imprisons maggots. Or are they petrified eggs of the world’s smallest dinosaur? A message glued to the box orders me to “collect points and get incredible stuff.” I will do so. I will remove the maggots and the eggs, and I will seal the points and incredible stuff in the demitasse casket, bury it in a little cemetery in Luxembourg or Rhode Island. On a headstone made of one small mosaic tile, I will etch the words, “Tic” and “Tac” and with bad breath mutter tiny prayers for the soul of incredible stuff.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

For the heck of it, I looked for "Tic Tac" on the internet, and of course there is a site: tictacusa.com. The tag-line of the site reads as follows:

"Tic Tac
Breath Mints Are Fresh Entertainment For Your Mouth."

To some degree, this line is more surrealistic than my prose-poem. One imagines sending away the very tiny stand-up comedians, jugglers, singers, and actors that had been providing entertainment, like micro-Lilliputians, on the precarious stage of one's tongue. And one imagines going to a microphone and introducing a new entertainment-act to one's mouth: "Put your teeth together for Tic Tac Breath Mints!"

In what sense do breath-mints entertain our mouths? Should they be called breath-mints, in fact, or mouth-mints, or something else (besides Tic Tacs)? What were the other names in the running when the company named this little candy? An auto-company once had the bright idea of inviting poets to submit names for a new car, and the company approached noted American poet Marianne Moore. She came up with "Tyrolean Turtle-Top." Certainly poetic, but probably not good for sales--except to poets, perhaps.

Good luck resisting that final purchase before you pass through the cashier's gate at the "super-market."

Guest Poet: Jared Leising on Beer, Ted Kooser, and Other Matters

Here is a fine poem by Jared Leising, a writer and professor in the Pacific Northwest and author of the chapbook, The Widows and Orphans of Winesburg, Ohio:



The Drink Ted Kooser Owes Us All


Twenty-four hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence? I think not.

- H.L. Mencken


I go to Safeway
to buy a six-pack.
Somebody’s taken
a bottle from the
last pack, so now it’s

a fiver, dammit.
Was it Kooser?—that
geezer (my mom finds
cute) who wrote about
the miracle of

a lone beer bottle
standing right side up
and empty along
the highway—each line
three syllables long,

each stanza three lines.
My students read this
without awe, as though
they’ve done this plenty
after polishing

off a bottle at
fifty, cruising down
Aurora, tossing
emptiness to wind.

by Jared Leising


Copyright 2007 Jared Leising

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Guest-Poems by Jones and Borsten

Here are two poems, one each by Michelle Jones and Sarah Borsten, writers living in the Pacific Northwest:



And Are We Yet Alive



by Michelle Jones


Why does this dirge happen?
Because my body hurts.
Because our ghosts are made
of silk curtains in the
window by the elm.

Must we because of this haunting
and that dirty sheet go wandering
down the steps with a crucifix
and hymn stuttering our softy voices.
And if you get there before I do,
Swing low, Swing low.


And must I wake each morning
broke back to your fist that
warns me of the blinking shut-eye,
and hear the sun buzzing at me
and camouflage my cheek with white,
the same way spilled wine stains
red on your sleeve.


And I erect like a statue with my legs
missing and your sour breath hovering
as your prompt me in the kitchen.
I am without foot, heavy in the chair
and remain with buckets of ammonia
instead of barrels of apples or bed sheets
clean from the washing.


You left me asleep with the quilt I made
and one cheek turned up so that
I could hear the dogs barking
and the bells calling me like a symphony.


The last few days, I told you that nothing hurt.



Copyright 2007 by Michelle Jones
* * * * * * * *

Yelling Fire

by Sarah Borsten

They tell me to yell fire
during personal emergencies--
the kind that would need more
than water to save me.
They tell me to yell fire
because strangers will
call nine-one-one
if they think they smell smoke
and not just cum.
It would be just like
my dreams of slogging
through thick mud,
no one around,
only this time
my lungs stretched past breath
my knees jolting terribly on cement
my thighs sore from holding myself together.
There would be a fire
but no one to put it out.

Copyright 2007 by Sarah Borsten

Monday, October 29, 2007

New From Copper Canyon

I just received a new catalogue from Copper Canyon Press, one of the venerable publishers of poetry-books in the U.S. It is located in Port Townsend, Washington.

What looks good to me in the catalogue:

W.S. Merwin, New and Selected Poems--new in paperback.

Jim Harrison, Saving Daylight.

Maram al-Massri, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor: Selected Poems.

June Jordan, Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan.

Alberto Rios, The Theater of Night.

Taha Muhammad Ali, So What: New & Selected Poems 1971-2005.

Ruth Stone, In the Dark. Stone's poetry is a favorite of a professor, poet, and scholar I knew at U.C. Davis, Sandra Gilbert.

Madline DeFrees, Spectral Waves. DeFrees writes poems of complex structure and startling imagery.

The catalogue also features a list of signed books from the press.

H.D. and the Mysteries

Hilda Doolittle (1886-1961), who preferred to publish as H.D., was a part of the Imagist movement in poetry in the early 20th century. Indeed, her poems are filled with arresting imagery, but I believe her poetry is also complex rhetorically. Her not-so-well-known war poem, "R.A.F.," is splendid. Here is another poem by her:

The Mysteries Remain

The mysteries remain,
I keep the same
cycle of seed-time
and of sun and rain;
Demeter in the grass,
I multiply,
renew and bless
Bacchus in the vine;
I hold the law,
I keep the mysteries true,
the first of these
to name the living, dead;
I am the wine and bread.
I keep the law,
I hold the mysteries true,
I am the vine,
the branches, you
and you.

by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

The images are plain but strong here. The voice captivates. It is clear and coherent, as if indeed one person were speaking to us, but it also represents a collective persona who can be Demeter (mother of Persephone and goddess of . . . agriculture, for lack of a better term), Bacchus, Adam (the naming), and any keeper of the law. The persona can also be us: "you and you." Is the persona The Life Force, God, Christ, the artistic impulse, or what or who? Yes--and no. H.D. wouldn't and didn't lie to us: "the mysteries remain."

It's hard not to like this poem.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

GLBT Poets

October is the month in which gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, past and present, are celebrated, remembered, and honored. In the spirit of the month, here's a list of some of my favorite poets who are or were G, L, B, or T. As with poets in general, some chose to write about sexuality, their own and others', and some didn't. Some were in the closet and some were out, and in some cases those categories hadn't been labeled that way. While I'm thinking about it, I'll also mention my favorite general modern-and contemporary-GLBT history: Out of the Past, the author of which I'll have to add later (and it's later, and the author is Neil Miller). I'm pretty sure it's in print in paperback. Highly readable. The poets:

W.H. Auden
Countee Cullen
Mark Doty
Allen Ginsberg
John Giorno
Thom Gunn
A.E. Housman
Audre Lorde
Frank O'Hara
Adrienne Rich
Walt Whitman
Oscar Wilde (better known for his plays; a novel; being incarcerated for being gay; and one-liners, but also a good poet)

Langston Hughes, one of my all-time favorite poets, was probably bisexual, but his main biographer, Arnold Rampersad, concludes that Hughes essentially became "asexual," and this topic was easily the most controversial one mentioned in the two-volume biography. One good way of starting an argument among Hughes-scholars is to raise the question of his sexuality. I have no doubt Langston is amused my this, from his perch up there with Duke Ellington, Carl Van Vechten, Arna Bontemps, other friends, and a great number of just plain folk, whom he liked the best.

Mood and Impression: Edith Sitwell

Earlier I wrote a blog-entry about British poet Edith Sitwell's unusual war-poem, "Still Falls The Rain." Here's a much different poem from her:

Gray Crystal Bells

BELLS of gray crystal
Break on each bough--
The swans' breath will mist all
The cold airs now.
Like tall pagodas
Two people go,
Trail their long codas
Of talk through the snow.
Lonely are these
And lonely and I . . . .
The clouds, gray Chinese geese
Sleek through the sky.

Edith Sitwell
It's almost as if Sitwell decided to infuse the poem with a gray chill. The poem strikes me as the lyric equivalent of an Impressionist painting. The opening image of icicles on boughs is terrific and makes me think of rare freezing rain, which devastates trees, in the Pacific Northwest.

Comparing people to pagodas may be a bit of a stretch, but I like the "codas" of talk: a nice way of describing what conversation sounds like outside in the cold. After "Lonely are these," we almost think there must be a typographical error in the next line: should it read "And lonely am I?" No--and this line seems better than that one would be: "And lonely and I . . ." Does the line refer, redundantly, to the two pagoda-people, or is the second "lonely" just floating freely in the speaker's head as he or she observes the two? The answer remains ambiguous, probably as Sitwell intended it to be, but the second "lonely" is followed nicely by "and I. . . ."--as if the speaker wants to turn from his or her own (painful?) thoughts and speak instead of the scene. Clouds are compared to gray Chinese geese: terrific. The image helps to book-end the poem, which early on gives us the image of swans' breath misting the cold air. The rhyme-scheme works well, even if pagodas seems to serve codas too obviously.

--A nice, mysterious, impressionistic, compact poem--as we look ahead to winter. Well done, Dame Edith!

A Poem By Abe Lincoln

Here's a poem by President Abraham Lincoln:

To Rosa—

You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.

Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now's as good as any day—
To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.

Apparently Lincoln wrote this poem in 1858, for the daughter of a hotel proprietor.

As a writer, Lincoln tended to cut to the chase. The Gettysburg Address is a model of concision. The thesis of this one is pretty clear: "Rosa, induce your boyfriend to marry you--soon." "Pluck the roses ere they rot" delivers a punch. We're accustomed to seeing roses fade in poetry, but "rot" is less familiarly poetic in a poems comparing roses to women. Lincoln's legendary gloominess is apparent, too: "You are hopeful, I am not--." --And this was before the death of children and the disastrous early years of his first term as president, when the Civil War looked hopeless for the North, the abolitionists believed him to be too soft on slavery, and his Cabinet was a pit of snakes. (Gore Vidal's Lincoln is one of my favorite historical novels.)

The poem appears in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy Brasly. It also appears online on U.S. government sites.

I wonder how soon (or even whether) Rosa got married after reading this poem. I wonder what kind of poetry George W. Bush writes--or reads.

Hardy on War

Here is a poem by Thomas Hardy about war. It is grim and ironic: precisely what one turns to Hardy's novels and poems expecting to find:

The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because--
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like--just as I--
Was out of work--had sold his traps--
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

A "nipperkin," by the way, is (according to the OED online):

"A small vessel used as a measure for alcoholic liquor, containing a half-pint or less."

Because they would have gotten the nipperkin wet, one might have guessed that the nipperkin was something like a napkin. "Nipperkin" can also refer to the ale or liquor in the vessel. So if you said, "May I have a nipperkin of bourbon?" and the bartender were to understand what you said, s/he would give you a certain amount of bourbon, not the nipperkin itself to take home.

As with many men and women who serve in the U.S. military, these two men enlisted because they didn't know what else to do and/or were out of work. The speaker speculates that the other man may have, like him, "sold his traps"--probably referring to fishing-traps or crab-traps. Then suddenly the two men are opposing each other on a battlefield in a war not of their making. As in Wilfred Owen's famous "Dulce et Decorum Est," there is no note of patriotism or even passion in the killing. It is accidental in the sense that two soldiers more or less wander into their respective armies and by chance oppose each other one day. If fate had gone another way, they might have had some beers together in a bar. There is more than a little of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage in his poem. It also brings to mind a film with Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin, Hell in the Pacific, wherein an American and a Japanese soldier are stranded, by accident, on the same small island.

I wonder how many of those serving in Iraq now have a similar perspective on their circumstance.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

"Wireless" Redux

I stumbled upon the following poem from the very early century just-past:

Wireless, by K.G. Martin [1904]

Wireless, meaningless, save that we know
that another man in a far away land
stands by the side of a gibbering spark,
punching his message into the dark.

Into the dark of a Summer's night,

and around the world and into the light

of our brilliant Winter day

speeds the vibrant, quivering ray.

And, caught in the web of sky-flung wires,
sinks to earth, chatters, expires;
but before it dies, skillful hands of man
have torn from its soul a Marconigram.


This poem fascinates in several ways. "Marconigram," a telegram named after the radio-inventor Marconi and apparently based on a telegraph-system he or those familiar with his work created, is a lovely portmanteau word. I think the last telegram I received was in about 1986. I had to drive down to a Greyhound bus-station (where there was a tiny Western Union office) to get it: cumbersome. I would much rather have driven down there for a Marconigram. (And now of course my mind drifts to the infamous "Candy-gram for Mongo" scene in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles.)

Also, I like the nice mixture of being impressed by the new technology and being underwhelmed by it. The new (in 1904) technology may be whiz-bang, but in the end, it results in . . . chatter. Chatter in, chatter out, regardless of what gizmo you're using.

Now, obviously, "wireless" refers neither to radio nor to telegrams, per se, but to telephonic gizmos that are equipped to bounce signals--billions a day, one supposes--off satellites and towers. I have no idea how this technology works, and I've written before here about my discomfort with cell-phones (mobile phones), which are far too small for my paws. Companies should have "Big and Tall" stores where one can buy phones to fit one's physical . . . um . . . style.

Here is a poem I wrote perhaps seven years ago, well before I stumbled upon the "Wireless" poem by K.G. Martin, for whom now I feel a kind of kinship. It's a bit uncanny that, without knowledge of the other or the other's poem, K.G. and I both chose three four-line stanzas. Of course, back then, he felt more pressure to use rhyme than I do, so I went with free verse. Neither of us is one hundred per cent enthusiastic about this new "wireless" technology. K.G., if you read this, call me, using your wireless phone. (What is Heaven's area code?) The poem (which for some unknown wireless reason the blog-program insists on putting in Italics--not my idea, but I can't fix it, and I even took the extraordinary step of looking at the Html code):

Truly, Madly, Cellularly

By portable telephones they trysted.
Their words raptured--caromed off
corporate satellites, descended bundled
in spongy static. Some sluiced through

optic fibers. Why not speak face to face?
Unmanageable: The lovers worried words
might disappear into Society so harried, sloppy,
huge. Words cleansed in space and digitized

might be exchanged like polished stones.
Sighs and whispers might be chastened.
The two did broadcast their love, but only to
the other; and were charged by the minute.


Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Friday, October 26, 2007

Jets; A. R. Ammons

What happened to "sonic booms"--the noise made by airplanes that go faster than the speed of sound? I haven't heard one in ages. Growing up in the Sierra Nevada, I heard them all the time. That's an exaggeration. But at least 5 a year, usually in the summer. We assumed they were caused by high-flying jet fighter-planes coming out of an Air Force base in Nevada, but I don't remember exactly what kind of planes they were. I do remember an extraordinarily startling boom. Every so often, if lightning struck very close, the ensuing thunder might match a sonic boom, but otherwise the latter was the loudest boom I'd ever heard. It seemed like it was all the windows could do to keep from breaking, and the house rattled. Then, if you went outside and looked up (and the sky was clear), you could see the beginning of the white jet-trail, high up, and at the head of that trail, an object that looked not much bigger than a needle.

After opening with this jet-digression, I'll now present a jet-poem by A.R. Ammons, who died in 2001, after a long, distinguished career as a poet and professor. He published at least a dozen books of poems, which concerned wide-ranging, eclectic subjects, were often written in a casual, unpretentious voice, but also often featured unexpected phrasing and great attention to detail. As far as I know, it's appropriate to post this poem because it already appears online, on the Modern American Poetry site. In any case, the copyright information appears below the poem:

Elegy for a Jet Pilot

by A.R. Ammons

The blast skims
over the string
of takeoff lights
and
relinquishing
place and time
lofts to
separation:
the plume, rose
sliver, grows
across the
high-lit evening
sky: by this
Mays Landing creek
shot pinecones,
skinned huckleberry
bush, laurel
swaths define
an unbelievably
particular stop.

Copyright © 1998 A. R. Ammons. from Selected Poems, by A.R. Ammons (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1987).

My own jet-poem concerns gardening underneath (so to speak) a jet. I live much closer to an Air Force base (and an Army base with aircraft) now than when I lived in California; there are frequently U.S. airplanes overhead. The poem appeared previously in a magazine, but at the moment, I can't remember which one. I'll have to do some digging, not the gardening kind. The poem:

Skeins

Unroll a skein of shadows,
clip segments and arrange these
in a garden, where daffodil blossoms
bow. A supersonic warplane
practices overhead, unrolling
paired white skeins of ice.
Between a garden and a warplane
lies a little distance—measured
in mere feet. Told a certain way,
all of history fits into that
space, and this may be one reason
you feel small while wondering
where you stored green twine
used to tie up vines. A
short segment of daylight remains.
The warplane may still be heard.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Blank Verse; Mistakes

"Blank verse" is a term that throws even some students of literature for a loop, at least early in their studies. Basically, it's just iambic pentameter. Of course, if you don't study poetry much or had a bad experience with English in high school, you hear or read "iambic pentameter" and probably want to run away, or at least cover your ears. It sounds so technical and weird, that term.

To review, as much for myself as anyone else: verse in English works by combining syllables and stresses--a "stress" referring to a syllable that's pronounced with greater force than is the syllable before or after it (for example). When most people say "banana," they stress the first "na" more than the "ba" and the second "na." So the first "na" is the stressed syllable of the three.

One iamb (what a weird word) is made of two syllables, and the second of these syllables is stressed. "Alone" is a good example. Almost no one pronounces that word A-lone. Instead they put the stress on "lone."

String five such two-syllable units (iambs) together, and you have yourself blank verse. Easy! What's "blank" about it, aside from the fact that your mind may go blank with all this talk of iambic pentameter? It doesn't rhyme. That's all. So you could write a hundred lines of blank verse and not have to rhyme, although you probably would rhyme by accident at some point.

Iambic pentameter is in some ways the spine of Anglo-North American poetry. You find it in such forms as sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas, for example (the first two forms rhyme, of course, and the third form repeats six end words in a different pattern).

Unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse) has its own noble heritage. Shakespeare composed his plays--for the most part--in this verse. Milton used it in Paradise Lost. Wordsworth used it. So did any number of other well known poets. Free verse, which may pay attention to rhythm and sound, certainly, but which doesn't use a regular meter (or pattern), is now the fall-back form of poetry. Open up any literary magazine, and you expect to find free verse. In second position, I think, is blank verse, still.

Blank verse is kind of fun to write (unless you have a life). For poets, it can be like working out is for athletes. Also, the regular old English we speak every day almost "wants" to be iambic pentameter, so you don't have to work that hard to get those alternating syllables going--unstressed/stressed. And there's something conversational about blank verse--one of many reasons, probably, that Shakespeare used it in plays.

Here's a small bit of blank verse on the topic of mistakes:

Mistakes

If each mistake I’ve ever made in this,
My life, were to become a snowflake, drifts
Would rise above the eaves. I’d open wide
The door and look into a blue-tinged bank
Of snow. I’d close the door and say, “I should
Have left last week when I first heard the news
A storm was coming in." I’d light a fire.
The room would fill with smoke, however, for
I’m sure I would have left the damper closed.

One convention of blank verse is to capitalize the first word of every line, even though it may not start a sentence, so that takes some getting used to. Another convention is to pad a line with extra words from time to time to get the quota of five iambs. In this little exercise-poem, I didn't really need to write "wide," but I did because I needed a stress there, and at least "wide" is plausible. Also, I probably could have written simply "in life" instead of "in this/My life," but I padded a bit to keep the meter going.

Note, too, that "My" and "life" receive almost the same stress. All iambs are not created equally. In every line of blank verse there's also a pause that seems to occur "naturally"; the official name for it is a "caesura." Sometimes punctuation causes it; sometimes it doesn't. Milton was great at deliberately moving the caesura into different places in different lines, partly to avoid monotony.

And so I've made more mistakes to add to the pile of . . . snow: discussing "iambic pentameter" and "blank verse," calling up bad memories of high school English for some people, and writing some blank verse for God and Milton and everyone else to see should they stumble down this blind alley (see previous post) of the internet.

Try writing some blank verse, maybe while you're watching TV. When you're done, you will have joined a long line of scribblers stretching back to Shakespeare (and even further). It's a big club. Everybody's welcome.

Alleys

It's not until I got to the third definition of "alley" on the OED online that I found the definition I associate with the word (the first and second definitions seem to refer to almost any kind of passage-way in a village, town, or city):

3. a. A passage between buildings; hence, a narrow street, a lane; usually only wide enough for foot-passengers. blind alley: one that is closed at the end, so as to be no thoroughfare; a cul de sac. the Alley, particularly applied to Change Alley, London, scene of the gambling in South Sea and other stocks. (In U.S. applied to what in London is called a Mews.)

The word--with wildly different spellings, including "alei"--goes back to the 1300s but seems to have begun to take on the meaning above during the Renaissance, and at about that time it also, I suppose, began to carry unsavory connotations associated with urban life. In my micro-town in the Sierra Nevada, there were one or two legitimate alleys, but they were more like short, narrow roads between venerable, easy-going buildings--and overhung with trees. So early on, when someone spoke of an "alley" in town, favorable associations arose in my mind. Soon I would learn, from lore, that alleys in larger towns and cities were not to be trusted.

Sometimes you still occasionally hear men praise another man by saying, "He's someone I wouldn't mind having with me if I was caught in a dark alley"--meaning, of course, that the guy would be good in a fight. However, men who say this often have not been in an alley fight (nor have I, although I was in a total of one bar-fight, and I devoutly hope the tally remains at one), nor do they share plans for going through a dark alley any time soon.

I rather like alleys, but they do cause problems (besides the legendary problem of fights) with parking, driving, placement of garbage cans, etc. I think the post-World War II suburbs and suburbs built after that era pretty much did away with alleys, among other things.

A wee poem about alleys, then:

Alleys

An alley never concerns itself. An
alley always concerns the social
geometry that shapes it—a pompous

boulevard’s way of saying
alleys will gladly be whatever cities
want ‘em to be. I’ve never met

an alley, though, that didn’t have something
to say about disappointment. An alley’s
often a lane with a rap-sheet, or

a refugee-camp for shadows. Once
I knew an alley that would get drunk
and boast that it used to be a highway.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Guest Poet: William Kupinse on Rejection

Rejection is a matter of fact for all working, publishing poets.


When I was an undergraduate, I remember thinking that all living, well known poets simply had to send whatever they wrote to a magazine or (in the case of a book-manuscript) to a publisher and the work would quickly get into print.



I was taking a class from Pulitizer-Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro at the time. He was just over 60 years old by then, had won the big prize and other prizes, had published numerous books, and had even edited arguably the most important literary magazine in the U.S., Poetry, in Chicago. He had signed a contract with the New Yorker magazine whereby he would send the prestigious magazine his new poems first before sending them elsewhere.


But one day he brought in a poem called "Humanties Building," and he said that the New Yorker would publish it only if he made certain changes, and he wanted our opinion of the poem. It was the only time he ever shared his work with us--published or not--and I think he did so because the building he described was the one in which the English Department was housed: Sproul Hall at U.C. Davis. After class, several of us students talked, and we all simply couldn't believe that the New Yorker wanted him to change the poem--or else not publish it. I remember one fellow saying that Shapiro shouldn't "give in," should refuse to make the changes. How naive we were!


Many years later, Karl's longtime publisher, Random House, simply dropped him, letting his books go out of print and expressing no interest in publishing any new books he might write. Another very well known poet was visiting the campus at the time, and I mentioned this news to him. Instead of expressing sympathy for Karl's situation, he said, "That doesn't compare with all the things that publishers have done to me!"

The experiences of these two "war horses" of American poetry helped me put my own stacks of rejection-slips from magazines and publishers in perspective, but what really helps to put rejection in perspective is poet William Kupinse's poem on the subject. Bill has kindly allowed me to post the poem on the blog:



REJECTION LETTER

By William Kupinse

It comes by stealth amid the circulars and bills,
the print of the S.A.S.E. uncanny
as catching yourself in a shop window mirror.
But instead of “who’s that . . . Hey, it’s…not so bad,”
this glimpse of self’s a backhand cheekward slap.
“Thank you, but we will not be publishing your . . .”
Or, more honestly, “We wish we could reply
to each submission individually. . .”
Something in the photocopy process makes even kind attempts
sound patronizing: “As James Fields wrote to a young
Walt Whitman, we’re sorry, Walter, but . . .”

I’ve been tearing open, reading, and resealing
through the magic of obsessive imagination
just such a letter, as I recline in Dana’s
automobile, a vehicle whose faint pungency
is liberated by a springtime afternoon
as we head north to Seattle. By the paper-mills of Fife
I confess: the letter has me blue. She nods,
recounts her psychology abstract shot down—
no expenses-paid trip to Bologna for her.
I nod; it is sometimes a kindness
to recommend your failure to a friend,
when it’s half-buried in forgetting’s murk.
We need a word for such an act;
like Schadenfreude, but more upbeat.
It could not be a German word;
it would need to come from India, or Sweden.

I lean back, farther still, into myself,
and think of all the world’s psychologists typing abstracts
and all of time’s poets licking envelopes,
and everyone trying to better everyone else,
and I think of nature red in tooth and claw,
and of chimpanzees besting other chimpanzees,
and of chimpanzees typing furiously
while glancing at the heroic couplets of other chimpanzees,
and I think of Darwin getting a leg up on Wallace and Lamarck,
and I think of every grade school boy wanting
to be an astronaut or fireman or president.

And I think of the man the country calls president
and what weird family systems therapy it would take
to sort him and America out, and how he
could never best a soul in any unrigged contest,
yet he gets to use this remarkable stationery
that always gleans a personal response.


Copyright 2007 by William Kupinse

A Few Favorite Books of Poetry

Here's some recommended reading, ten books of contemporary (meaning later 20th century or even after 2000) poetry, listed in no particular order, that one might consider buying or borrowing. And in the case of poetry-books, I almost always recommend plunging into the book randomly, rummaging about until you find a poem you like, and going from there. I'm listing the publishers from memory, so in some cases I may be wrong.

1. Gary Snyder, The Back Country--New Directions. Turtle Island won the Pulitzer, but I've always preferred this earlier book.

2. Randall Jarrell, either The Complete Poems or Selected Poems. Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.

3. Wendy Bishop, My Last Door (just published--2007, from Anhinga Press in Florida, really a splendid collection by the late Wendy Bishop.)

4. Richard Hugo, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (they are letter-poems, not merely letters); or his collected poems, titled Making Certain It Goes On. W. W. Norton.

5. Rita Dove, Selected Poems. Vintage.

6. Langston Hughes, either The Collected Poems (edited by Rampersad and Roessel) or Selected Poems. Vintage.

7. Natasha Tretheway, Native Guard. This one won the most recent Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and the paperback came out in April, from Mariner Books. A wonderful combination of personal and historical poems.

8. Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. (Dual Language Edition). Penguin--I think.

9. Kevin Clark, In The Evening of No Warning, Western Michigan Univ. Press. (Clark is a contemporary master of narrative poetry.)

10. William Stafford, Selected Poems [I think the full title is The Darkness is Deep All Around Us], Harper? Stafford consistently wrote very good poetry, and then every so often there's a perfect poem with astonishing, orginal insight combined with superb phrasing--but in an unpretentious voice.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fresh

Fresh Poem For Anyone

by Hans Ostrom

Here's a fresh poem for you. It snaps
crisply like a cold carrot just pulled
out of hard ground. It shocks like the time
the politician simply told the truth. It
loves like a woman sailing on a voyage
of her beauty. It's awkward and generous--
a large barn of a poem. It's a knock-kneed,
unsophisticated singer a crowd stayed
late to hear. It's a scar left by a dog's tooth,
the stench of a rattlesnake-den, a
satisfaction long denied, a time after
weeping, the thing you've known for sure
all along, and the words you were hoping
to hear. It explodes right here
into the poem you need to write, to read,
and to remember. Take it. It's fresh
and it's yours and it's free. It belongs to
you now. Start writing it, keep going, and hold on.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

A Stoic Poem By Emily Bronte

Although the 19th century British writer Emily Bronte is best known, obviously, for having written Wuthering Heights, she also wrote poetry, as did her sisters Anne and Charlotte. Here is one of Emily Bronte's poems:

The Old Stoic

RICHES I hold in light esteem;
And Love I laugh to scorn;
And lust of fame was but a dream
That vanished with the morn:

And if I pray, the only prayer
That moves my lips for me
Is, " Leave the heart that now I bear,
And give me liberty !"

Yes, as my swift days near their goal,
'Tis all that I implore;
In life and death, a chainless soul,
With courage to endure.


"To endure calmly" might be one brief, adequate way to summarize stoicism in general, although Stoic philosophy as elaborated upon by (first) the Greeks (Zeno) and then Romans such as Epictitus and Seneca, had a lot of parts to it. These fellows seemed to believe in a supreme being, but a rather indifferent one, and, like Buddhists, believed that such emotions as fear and dread were the result of false perception or false attachment. Nonetheless, Stoicism still seems to come down to the individual's having the ability to "gut it out," whereas I guess the Epicurean outlook was to fill the gut and otherwise enjoy life as you were gutting it out.

But what a wonderfully concise and musical way Bronte has of expressing a Stoic's outlook.

It's possible that following poem may reveal a hint of Stoicism. It concerns a heat stroke. I hadn't heard the term until after I had suffered what it describes.

Heat Stroke


One day in July,
Sierra Nevada
(sun unblocked, high, blazing)
--I was splitting and
stacking tamarack rounds
for somebody
in town. Heat
came up
through my body to my head.
I
went blind, was seventeen,
had learned by then to be
more embarrassed
than frightened
by affliction. I saw
just well enough
to stagger down to the general store,
stumbled
into an old man, who laughed. I found
a bench,
waited for
eyesight to clear.
Somebody got water. I went
back to the wood pile
eventually.
This has been
a pattern of sorts in my
life—
work hard until I go blind or fall over,
recover, go back to
work.
Tamarack sap smells sweet, and a person’s brain
can get too hot--
how odd.

from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, Hans Ostrom

Actually, "tamarack" is a misnomer. It's what most local people called the softwood conifer whose appropriate name is Lodgepole Pine. I think the real tamarack tree lives back East. Nonetheless, that was the local name, and that's what I thought I was splitting.

1954 and I

I love what the OED online has to say about "autobiography," so I will cut and paste the whole main entry:


"The writing of one's own history; the story of one's life written by himself.

1797 Monthly Review 2nd Ser. XXIV. 375 It is not very usual in English to employ hybrid words partly Saxon and partly Greek: yet autobiography would have seemed pedantic. 1809 SOUTHEY in Q. Rev. I. 283 This very amusing and unique specimen of autobiography. 1828 CARLYLE Misc. (1857) I. 154 What would we give for such an Autobiography of Shakspeare. 1859 B. POWELL Ord. Nat. 252 Geology (as Sir C. Lyell has so happily expressed it) is ‘the autobiography of the earth.’"

The complaint from 1797 about the word's combining Greek and Saxon roots is lovely. (I have a colleague who loathes words that combine Greek and Latin words.) I almost never agree with Carlyle, but I agree with him on this sentiment: oh, for an autobiography by Shakespeare. And calling geology the autobiography of the earth: inspired. Thank you, Sir C. Lyell. And finally: how surprising that the word seems to have entered English as late as the late 18th century. I wonder when the term "celebrity autobiography" was first deployed.

Here's a (non-celebrity) autobiographical poem:


1954: The Situation


On January 29, 1:06 a.m. I was made available for appointments
with the world.
Meetings occurred between me, air, light, milk, mother, father,
brothers, snow, odors, trees, fabric, belly aches, noise. Like
other newborns, I did not know who or where I was. Did I
know
that I was? Like some other newborns, I had the makings
of brown hair, blues eyes, and one hammer-toe.

Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Permanent Committee on Investigaions. Korean Peninsula. Eli
Lilly designs LSD for the CIA.

Rather late in the game, I walked: May of 1955.
I was neither reluctant nor satisfied. Lore says
I walked for a beer held by my Aunt Nevada;


more is the pity.
I wouldn’t have walked just for beer or
just for Aunt Nevada,
but the beer and smiling
Nevada (nicknamed "Babe") together
were too much to resist, says the lore.
Questions persist: If your name
is Nevada, why do you need a nickname,
and if you do need a nickname, why must
it be Babe?

Emmett Till. Allan Freed coins “Rock `n Roll.”
Sun Records signs Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins,
Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Emmett Till.

Also, I gathered (I gather) that walking
was expected of me. Okay, fine.

Distant Early Warning. The French withdraw
from Viet Nam. Good idea.

Many years later I took up dancing.
Also, I costumed myself in pajamas,
six-gun holsters, a variety of hats.

I was a humorless, earnest dancer
and had general problems with specific gravity.
Brother Sven was always quicker on the draw.
I learned to fall down dead.

Dick Nixon. Little Richard. The deaths of Henri
Matisse and Charles Ives. Emmett Till.

I took up reading and shadow-boxing.
I’ve since abandoned shadow-boxing
except in the most figurative sense.

"Friday Night Fights" on black-and-white TV.

At six I sat on slate steps, warm in
Sierra Nevada sun. My father had built them.
Mother was inside the house or sun-bathing
on the vast porch beneath a vast Sierra sky.
I thought,
“I am six, and I will remember this.”
I remember this because I willed myself
to remember this then: Memory for its own sake.

The invention of TV Dinners, advertised on TV.

Also I remember the magpie that would not
leave the woods. It let me come close and stare.
A rational bird, it was not afraid of me.
A discerning boy, I appreciated the gesture.
It seemed to want to be more than a magpie
or at least not wild. Having not been entirely
committed to walking, I understood the magpie’s
reluctance to fly, migrate, act frightened, etc.:

That is to say, “What’s the point—in what ways
will flying, migration, and fear materially
change the situation?”

It is much later now.
I have completed another sentence.


Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Bring in `Da Noise?

There is an excellent chance that tolerance of noise may be age-related: youth tend to be more noise-tolerant than the aging and the aged; that may be the situation. There is an excellent chance that this situation, if in fact it is the case, is ironic, for with age comes a diminishing capacity to hear, so one might think that the older one got, the more tolerant s/he would be of noise.

Of course, folks from my generation think back reflexively to all those loud concerts we blithely attended, decibels smashing into ear-drums. Huh?

I'm a wee bit surprised that, based strictly on the profit-motive, more developers don't build and "market" more houses and condominiums based on the noise-factor. There is a cornucopia of new and venerable noise-reducing and noise-eliminating products in the building trades. Of course, they add cost, but I believe a significant percentage of potential buyers would be willing to pay the extra cost for the extra silence. Quiet Estates. Come Home. . . To Silence-Ridge Properties! Wouldn't You Like to Live in Shhhhh! Towers?!

A small, quiet poem about noise, then:

I Beg Your Pardon?

It’s so noisy here, what
with automobiles, airplanes,
motors, guns, missiles, TVs,
ear-pods, crowds, amplifiCAtion, snarling
gasoline-drunk tools. The
blasting, roaring, whirring, whi-
ning, humming, droning, rum-
bling are incessant. How

funny if God were to turn out to be
slightly hard of hearing, willing
but unable to catch the melodies
of most prayers because of
these furious sounds we manufacture
all the time. How odd if God
would love to care, if it just
weren’t for the blare, the volume,
of our self-debilitating decibelity.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

More Pressing Poetic Questions Posed to Presidential Aspirants

Here are some more questions that I wish moderators (many of whom seem immoderate) would ask the presidential aspirants as the aspirants stand on stage in full makeup under lights and behind podiums (or is it podia?):

1. An aphorism attributed to the famous Irish poet William Butler Yeats goes as follows: "Of our arguments with others, we make rhetoric; of our arguments with ourselves, we make poetry."


Politics is largely about arguments with others, and of course many of these arguments are staged or gratuitous; they are as much theater as rhetoric: that's the way politics works. What is one important argument you have had or continue to have with yourself? Of course, you might begin you answer with a quip, but after that, please describe a serious argument you have had or continue to have with yourself.

2. In the poem "Harlem" and in other works, American poet Langston Hughes wrote of "the dream deferred," referring perhaps to the aspirations of many African Americans, many working-poor families, and other groups. In your opinion, for whom is the American dream, so to speak, still deferred, why, and what have you done about it in your career as a politician?

3. American leader and orator Malcom X once observed, rather poetically, that "We [African Americans] didn't land on Plymouth Rock; it landed on us." What is your reaction to this observation?

4. What is your favorite poem about war, and why is it your favorite poem about war?

5. What is your favorite poem about peace, and why is it your favorite poem about peace?

6. In "Sunday Papers," the new poet laureate Charles Simic writes, "The butchery of the innocent/Never stops. That's about all/We can ever be sure of, love,/Even more sure than the roast/You are bringing out of the oven." To what extent has the United States been involved in the butchery of the innocent?

7. In "Fire and Ice," Robert Frost speculates about whether the world will end in fire or ice. What is your view? Will the world end in fire or in ice?

8. In the poem, "Motto," Langston Hughes writes, "I play it cool/And dig all jive./That's the reason/I stay alive./My motto,/As I live and learn,/is/Dig and Be Dug/In Return." What is your motto--0r at least one motto, by which you live as you learn?

9. In the widely anthologized poem, "This Be The Verse," British poet Philip Larkin writes, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." [The moderator may have to say "eff" or be willing to be "bleeped".] In what ways did your mum and/or your dad "eff you up," and how have you dealt with this circumstance? By the way, on his Actor's Studio show, James Lipton likes to ask guests what their favorite curse-word is. What is your favorite curse-word? Do you tend to use the f-word in private conversation, or not?

10. In the poem "God's Grandeur," poet and priest Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, "Glory be to God for dappled things. . . ." Assuming for the sake of argument that you believe in God, what would you praise God for creating? Please don't say "the United States"; everyone will see that one coming. Instead, try to think of some particular thing or set of things, as Hopkins does. The more specific, the better. Thank you!

11. Poet Adrienne Rich writes about "The Phenomenology of Anger," a title of one of her poems. Will you please identify one feature of American society that has made you espeically angry in your adult life. Why has this feature made you so angry?

Jack and Jill: What Really Happened?

For some reason, "Jack and Jill" seems to be the main nursery-rhyme to have stuck in my memory since childhood. It's from the Mother Goose collection, of course. According to mothergoose.com . . . ,

The first collection of stories to bear the name "Mother Goose" was produced by Charles Perrault in 1697. His book of ten fairy tales was entitled Tales from the Past with Morals, and under the frontispiece picture of an old woman telling stories to children and a cat appeared a subtitle for the book: Contes de ma mère l'oye, or "Tales from My Mother Goose."

The name "Mother Goose" and the tales and rhymes seem to have sprung from France, although no one is sure about this. Apparently in the 800s, Queen Bertrada--mother of Charlemagne--was known as Bertrada Greatfoot and/or Queen Goosefoot. Really. And she was married to Pepin the Short, Chuck's dad. "Honey, do you want to meet Queen Goosefoot and Pepin the Short for coffee this weekend? They're in town for a few days."

But the connection between the big-footed queen and the Mother Goose collections is tenuous.

I do love the fact that in Perrault's book, the old woman is telling tales to children and a cat. Even back then, apparently, people knew cats liked a good story. The part with the pail of water must have terrified the cat.

To the matter of Jack and Jill, then:

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

To people who read or write poetry, this is great stuff because of the meter (a mix of trochaic and iambic), the alliteration, the internal rhyming, and the half-rhyme (very modern!): water and after. Like all children, I just loved saying this rhyme, back in the day, and that was one part of Mother Goose's genius: it got children immersed in the play of language.

However, the plot of the nursery rhyme confused me then and confuses me now. Who sent Jack and Jill up the hill for water? Were they friends or brother and sister or cousins or what? Why was the water on a hill? Shouldn't it have been in a creek or a well or a pond? Who goes up a hill for water? As a child, I wondered whether Jack a) figuratively broke his crown and literally suffered major skull-trauma or b) literally broke a crown he was wearing. If b, where did he get the crown, why was he wearing it (for fun, for looks, or was he a prince?), why would the crown break when he fell (wouldn't it just fly off?), and why did he wear it on the water-run? If a, did he recover? This worried me, no end.

How and/or why did Jill tumble after? Did she stumble over Jack's body? Or was she shocked by Jack's tumble and did she then lose her footing? And did the pail of water spill? What is the moral of "Jack and Jill"? Don't go uphill for water? Leave the crown home? Boys are clumsier than girls? Don't send young children up a hill for water? Install indoor plumbing? These and other questions have been with me since childhood. You're right: I need a life.

Nonetheless, why hasn't there been more investigative reporting on the Jack and Jill story?! There's so much we don't know! In the meantime, I have sought to play a riff on the old n-rhyme:

Nursery Rhyme

Yet and Still
Went up a hill
To fetch
A connotation.

Yet met Fret,
A mongrel pet
Owned by
Procrastination.

Still fell ill
From sipping Nil,
Disgorging
Agitation.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Science Poetry, As Opposed to Science Fiction

I'm not quite sure how I ended up writing the following poem or what led me "into" it. Ultimately the poem turned into a little science-fiction scene. "Science poetry" isn't an expression parallel to "science fiction." I think to most people, "science poetry" would mean poetry that somehow concerns the topic of science, not poetry that speculates about other worlds or creates imaginary futures (and so on).

I think I added the title, which obviously alludes to Coleridge's famous "Kubla Khan," after the poem was pretty much done, or as done as it was going to be. Sometimes I write the title, or a title, first, but more often than not, the title comes late if not last.

I believe this is the only thing I've published in a science-fiction magazine. It was published in Hadrosaur Tales, which prints mostly science-fiction stories but also takes some "science poetry," so to speak. Anyway, I think I was playing around with the idea that one day, nobody will go outside; already a great number of American teenagers don't outside, except to get in a car or a bus to go to school--or so they tell me. Maybe--who knows?--"outside" is over-rated. I still like it quite a bit, but that's just me. The poem:

Suburban Xanadu


In this present
mood, mist filters
through massive
oaks, settles on
gravestones. Birds
are not far off.
It’s all computer-
generated, of course.
We haven’t been
outside our assigned
dome for thirty years.
We suffer from VTS—
Virtual Trauma Syndrome,
in which even
thoughts of visiting
a forest or an un-domed
sector give us terrors,
savage this present mood.


Poe; Cats and Echoes in the Coliseum




I don't recall ever having read "The Coliseum" by Edgar Allan Poe before, even though I've been reading Poe since high school. Somehow I missed that one. As in some of his other poems, Poe starts at too high a pitch and has nowhere to go, rhetorically, so the poem seems overwrought and gravitates toward self-parody.


The poem is of interest, however, because it's in blank verse, whereas Poe in most of his other poetry prefers to rhyme. In a couple of places, he seems to rhyme almost accidentally here (Gesthemane/Chaldee). Also, as far as I know, Poet didn't ever visit Rome--or Italy. As a youth, he did live and go to school in England, but I don't think he visited Italy then, and I'm pretty sure he didn't visit Italy as an adult, but I could be wrong. His not having actually visited the Coliseum may explain why, a few lines into the poem, he turns literal thirst into figurative thirst, so that the speaker is thirsting for lore, not for water (after having traveled a ways to see the Coliseum).


I remember being hot and thirsty when I visited the Coliseum. It is an impressive structure, considering when it was built, that's for sure. Many cats live there, so that speaks well of it, too. However, cats are everywhere in Rome, so I don't know how discerning Italian cats are. I suppose Poe would have preferred black cats. Anyway, here's the unusual poem:

The Coliseum



Type of the antique Rome! Rich reliquary
Of lofty contemplation left to Time
By buried centuries of pomp and power!
At length- at length- after so many days
Of weary pilgrimage and burning thirst,
(Thirst for the springs of lore that in thee lie,)
I kneel, an altered and an humble man,
Amid thy shadows, and so drink within
My very soul thy grandeur, gloom, and glory!
Vastness! and Age! and Memories of Eld!
Silence! and Desolation! and dim Night!
I feel ye now- I feel ye in your strength-
O spells more sure than e'er Judaean king
Taught in the gardens of Gethsemane!
O charms more potent than the rapt Chaldee
Ever drew down from out the quiet stars!

Here, where a hero fell, a column falls!
Here, where the mimic eagle glared in gold,
A midnight vigil holds the swarthy bat!
Here, where the dames of Rome their gilded hair
Waved to the wind, now wave the reed and thistle!
Here, where on golden throne the monarch lolled,
Glides, spectre-like, unto his marble home,
Lit by the wan light of the horned moon,
The swift and silent lizard of the stones!

But stay! these walls- these ivy-clad arcades-
These moldering plinths- these sad and blackened shafts-
These vague entablatures- this crumbling frieze-
These shattered cornices- this wreck- this ruin-
These stones- alas! these grey stones- are they all-
All of the famed, and the colossal left
By the corrosive Hours to Fate and me?

"Not all"- the Echoes answer me- "not all!
Prophetic sounds and loud, arise forever
From us, and from all Ruin, unto the wise,
As melody from Memnon to the Sun.
We rule the hearts of mightiest men- we rule
With a despotic sway all giant minds.
We are not impotent- we pallid stones.
Not all our power is gone- not all our fame-
Not all the magic of our high renown-
Not all the wonder that encircles us-
Not all the mysteries that in us lie-
Not all the memories that hang upon
And cling around about us as a garment,
Clothing us in a robe of more than glory."


I do like how the Echoes insist that they and the Coliseum still matter; that's rather charming.


Fishing for Poetry

James Henry Leigh Hunt, known now and in his lifetime as simply Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), was among the lesser British Romantic poets. His most important achievement occurred in journalism, especially with The Examiner, which he edited, but also with other journals. He changed the reviewing of drama from a kind of inside-job to a more objective assessment of plays, and for calling the Prince Regent "a fat Adonis of fifty," he was thrown in jail for a while. British defamation laws then were and now are more strict than American ones with regard to the press and public figures.

In politics, Hunt tended to support such left-leaning issues as enfranchising common citizens and other kinds of reform, things that don't seem so left-leaning now to most people. He produced a lot of poetry, much of it so-so; he published one novel, a piece of historical fiction called Sir Ralph Esher; and he was known as being a tad silly and as being cheerful but improvident. He and Lord Byron were friends for a while, but Byron got tired of Hunt, especially after Hunt visited him in Italy, large family in tow; the Lord got annoyed with the kids. Hunt also helped John Keats get published early on. His most famous poems, perhaps his only famous poems now, are "Jenny Kissed Me" and "Abou ben Adhem." Both are widely available on the web and elsewhere. The following poem by Hunt intrigues me:

To a Fish

You strange, astonished-looking, angle-faced,
Dreary-mouthed, gaping wretches of the sea,
Gulping salt-water everlastingly,
Cold-blooded, though with red your blood be graced,
And mute, though dwellers in the roaring waste;
And you, all shapes beside, that fishy be,—
Some round, some flat, some long, all devilry,
Legless, unloving, infamously chaste:—

O scaly, slippery, wet, swift, staring wights,
What is't ye do? What life lead? eh, dull goggles?
How do ye vary your vile days and nights?
How pass your Sundays? Are ye still but joggles
In ceaseless wash? Still nought but gapes, and bites,
And drinks, and stares, diversified with boggles?


The poem is actually part one of a three-part poem called "The Fish, The Man, and the Spirit." In part two, the fish answers the man (in English, not bubbles--this is called poetic license), and in part three the fish turns into a man who turns into a spirit, who observes the extent to which humans are rather a lot like fish. Part one, "To a Fish," interests me in part because, refreshingly, it doesn't like the fish much. I'm surprised the speaker doesn't go even further and ask the fish, "Hey, why don't you get a job?!"

I guess fish were "infamously chaste" back then--because they make little or no contact when reproducing? I reckon there's some logic to the view.

The poem does get a bit silly, with the joggles and boggles and the "How pass your Sundays?" But it's still amusing--and unexpected.

It's difficult to say what fish-poem is the best fish-poem, but I might have to go with Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." I include the poem in courses often, and students tend to like it.

The following poem includes ten fish, but they're dead. It's an odd little poem, I must admit. I wrote it quite a while ago, but I think the idea was to "answer" hum-drum questions with references to creatures, and in the last line, I think I was going for a wee echo of Basho's poetry. The poem first appeared in Poetry Northwest.

From Another Part of the Forest

How are you today?
Ten dead fish float in the lake.

May I help you?
Five cattle lie in the shade.

Won’t you please sit down?
A bobcat rakes a deer’s back.

Do you love me?
A butterfly folds up its wings.

What are you waiting for?
Seven geese waddle toward a pond.

Are you sure?
A frog jumps from a log into mud.

Copyright 1986, 2007 Hans Ostrom

Does Being Alone Equal Solitude?

Lord Byron wrote a poem that presents an unconventional view of solitude; the poem is conveniently called "Solitude":

Solitude

To sit on rocks, to muse o'er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest's shady scene,
Where things that own not man's dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne'er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o'er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, 'tis but to hold
Converse with Nature's charms, and view her stores unrolled.

But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world's tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!

I like the simple organization of the poem. Stanza one explains what solitude isn't. One may read the poem as an implicit disagreement with Wordsworth, one of Byron's contemporaries. Wordsworth did, in fact, celebrate the kind of solitude in which one is alone "in nature." Indeed, Wordsworth believed that such solitude brought out the best in him and others. Wordsworth would probably not take issue with the idea of "conversing" with nature--not literally talking to a tree, maybe, but allowing one's consciousness, for lack of a better term, to be influenced subtly by nature. Ironically, Byron, very much an urban, cosmopolitan creature, thinks of genuine solitude as a condition of being alone in a crowd, which seems to be a paradox and brings to mind one of Yogi Berra's dry comments: "Ah, nobody likes to go to that restaurant anymore; it's too crowded!"

So stanza two presents the second "thesis": real solitude occurs when you are in the midst of a crowd.

Certainly it's easy to grasp Byron's implied rhetorical question: Is there a greater feeling of "aloneness" than that of feeling all alone amongst a crowd of strangers? And the crowd, according to Byron, is composed of "the flattered, followed, sought and sued." That phrase might well apply to Hollywood these days.

Perhaps Byron has highlighted what is chiefly a semantic distinction. Perhaps his "solitude" is someone else's "loneliness," and it is true that you (or you and another person) can feel a sense of belonging--of not being lonely or isolated--when you are "in nature." --Maybe not literally in nature, but, say, staying in an isolated cabin in the hills. Here's a poem that contemplates that circumstance:

Cabin in Snow

Outside a cabin in snow,
we are, and hear our, breathing here.
And wind in pines shucks

itself through sound like snakes
slipping through their summer skins.
And it is easy out here. And out

here it is easy to admire
an image-aided concept
of cabins in snow. And

it is easy inside a cabin
now to believe in an Idea
of Winter, for notions of snow

furnish our true cabin,
consciousness—which, fragile amidst
oblivion’s drifts, stays sturdy against howling.

--Hans Ostrom

In other words, I think one's mind can feel quite occupied and connected when one is alone, and I certainly agree with Byron that it's possible to feel isolated and lonely in a crowd, especially a crowd that seems to be a "shock of men." What a great phrase. We might bring it up to date by writing "shock of humans" or "shock of people" (and thereby ruin the rhyme--oops), but a crowd can "shock" one even if it isn't doing something shocking, even if it isn't a mob. And sometimes, I think, a person can be quite comfortable walking in a crowded city, but maybe the person turns a corner and for some reason sees the crowd differently and is shocked by a sense of the sheer mass of people.

The converse of Byron's thesis can be true as well, of course; a hermit who has chosen to be contentedly alone might wake up one morning and feel terribly lonely, and a person in a crowd may feel quite connected to others in the crowd.

"Minions of splendour shrinking from distress." That's an intriguing line from Byron's two-part poem. If I were to associate something with the line, it might be the scene of manic shoppers at a mall in December. They do seem to be in servitude to brights lights, much noise, and lots of stuff to buy--hyper-consumerism; and maybe they are shopping so as to shrink from distress. Who knows? Such a scene can be distressing, however. In spite of custom and relentless advertising, I wouldn't be completely shocked if, one year, almost everyone stayed home and thought, "How about if we don't go out and buy a bunch of stuff this year. Let's stay home!" Such a massive, collective sigh of relief one would hear! "You mean I don't have to shopping?"

D.H. Lawrence and Thinking Too Much

Here's a poem by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930):

Conceit

It is conceit that kills us
and makes us cowards instead of gods.

Under the great Command: Know thy self, and that
thou art mortal! we have become fatally self-conscious, fatally self-
important, fatally entangled in the cocoon coils of
our conceit.

Now we have to admit we
can't know ourselves, we can only know about ourselves.
And I am not interested to know about myself any
more, I only entangle myself in the knowing.

Now let me be myself,
now let me be myself, and flicker forth,
now let me be myself, in the being, one of the gods.

D. H. Lawrence

Lawrence was an extraordinary writer, truly as accomplished in poetry as he was in novels and short fiction. His most famous poem might well be "Snake," and his novels include Sons and Lovers and Lady Chatterly's Lover and Women in Love. "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" is an oft-anthologized story. He was "counter-Modernist" insofar as he believed that 20th century humans thought themselves to death and that they should be more spontaneous, earthy, and instinctive. He found middle-class British bourgeois, "Victorian" values especially stifling. A professor of mine once pointed out the irony that Lawrence, who celebrated the body and earthly life and opposed "over-thinking" things, wrote poems and novels that were actually full of ideas--even if they were anti-idea ideas.

Obviously, "Conceit" is written in opposition, so to speak, to psychology and to the classical adage, "know thyself." The poem implicitly advises, "Be thyself" or, even more simply, "Be. Live." Nowadays, of course, our culture seems obsessed with our knowing ourselves; this is the age of self-help books and programs, of thinking about oneself almost constantly. I guess Lawrence saw it coming, back there in the teens and the 1920s; he died in 1930.

I love Lawrence's poetry. His free-verse has a hint of Whitman's about it, though much less oratorical, and with regard to style, he and Robinson Jeffers are certainly first cousins. His novels, once scandalous (Lady Chatterly's Lover was banned for a time in the U.S., partly because of the f-word), now seem a bit old-fashioned, mannered--partly, I think, because we look at them from the other side of the sexual revolution and the influence of feminist criticism. To me, his poetry remains fresh, but even with "Conceit," I will certainly acknowledge that Lawrence may seem naive. Is it possible now simply to be oneself in the manner he desires? And what if "oneself" is a self-absorbed self? Good for him or her, I suppose, bad for the ones who have to deal with that person. Nonetheless, the poem does seem refreshingly to suggest "get on with it": you may not be perfect, but you're all you've got!

(Incidentally, there's an interesting "bio-pic" about Lawrence, a film made some 20 years ago called Priest of Love. It is not well known and may not have made it to DVD. I believe it may be Ava Gardner's last film. There is a better known film that dramatizes Women in Love, with Glenda Jackson, Oliver Reed, and Alan Bates. The nude wrestling in front of the fireplace is an especially famous scene from the novel/film. I think there was also a film made of the short story, "The Fox.")

I'm not sure whether Lawrence would have liked the following poem. I'm going to go with the odds and guess "No." To some extent, the poem may concern "just" being oneself, although there is a bit of a paradox in being oneself because if you change yourself, are you still yourself? Naturally (pun intended), Lawrence would accuse me of over-thinking, but then I like to read books and write poetry, and these activities can call for (but need not necessarily include) thinking. Put more broadly, maybe some people are being themselves when they think, even if they're over-thinking or not thinking very well. The poem:

You and You

You must be you for you to be.
I know to be the only you
is difficult. You must repeat
the same old strengths and flaws, ensure
quirks and habits stay organized,
a regiment of personhood.
You cannot disappear from you.
When you’re asleep, you’re sleeping you;
you’re altered consciousness is al-
tered you, but you-never-the-less.
It could be worse. I know you can
supply examples of just how.
But still—how strange to have just one
attempt at consciousness in all
of Time, to have to spend it on
one incarnationality—
the only I you’ll ever be.

from The Coast Starlight: Collected Poems 1976-2006, by Hans Ostrom.